/ Language: English / Genre:sf / Series: Veteran

War in Heaven

Gavin Smith


War in Heaven

Gavin G. Smith

Prologue

Dog 4 Eighteen Months Ago

There’s nothing good about being buried in a pile of bodies for seventy-two hours. Try to ignore the stench. Try to ignore what soggy, rotting flesh feels like against you. Try to ignore the feel of larvae hatching and crawling around, particularly when the maggots make their way under your inertial armour. Try to ignore the creeping cold. Try to ignore the cramp from 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 silence to highlight the added misery of the driving rain. Rain that was causing us to sink into a soup of mud, flesh and body parts. He only did it because we were close to being compromised. Still fucking 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 were helping us remember by taking the bodies from the piles They had made and impaling them on spikes 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 the corpses. This was an issue. Though if I was honest I was more concerned with the tenacious maggot 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 miles behind 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 and what they are for, tasked us to recce the depot. Before we got there I could have told him that it 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, and then a hard tab to set up an Observation Post. The OP set-up had not gone well, the area was too heavily compromised. Hence the buried in bodies and hiding rather than any form of useful recce. 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 windows showing the view from each of the other seven members of the Wild Boys appeared in the Internal Visual 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 showed Gregor being held up by his neck. The Berserk holding him was using a pincer-like appendage on its 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 the Berserk pulled away the corpses covering me. Did I hesitate? It felt like it, but time moves differently when your reflexes are boosted as high as mine. Still, it felt like I looked at the Berserk’s off-kilter appearance for a long time. They were mostly humanoid, I guess, a kind of chitinous 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 SAS trooper under the pile of corpses, but then we were already compromised, and if one knows they all know.

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 would have 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 amp; Koch Squad Automatic Weapon and pointed it at the Berserk and then made a mistake. I fired the underslung grenade launcher at the alien. The chambered grenade was a thirty-millimetre High Explosive Armour Piercing grenade. At point-blank range, the velocity and 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 at the sizeable hole in its chest, but it just kept reaching for me. I pulled the trigger on the weapon again, but the grenade launcher’s unreliable semi-automatic feed system jammed. The Berserk’s long talon-like fingers wrapped around my face, its clawed nails trying to break through 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 of razor-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 a target-rich environment. Or, as we preferred to say, we were surrounded, by fucking thousands of Them.

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 his triangular-bladed sword bayonet. Black liquid was spurting out and covering Gregor’s arm with each 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 its gyroscopic 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 Them.

‘We’re fucked!’ Mudge shouted helpfully. ‘Again!’ He was laughing. I found myself envious of 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 evac and put it on repeat, as he was busy. He was slowly backing towards me, firing short burst after short burst from his laser carbine. Each hit, and he couldn’t miss here, turned Berserk flesh into black superheated steam. His voice was like a mantra but it wasn’t very calming. It was 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 ostensibly non-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 light weapons with a view to closing with us and tearing us apart. This made Them easy to kill but eventually we’d run out of ammo or they’d overwhelm us. On top of that I could see a couple of 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 used that as lock for both the Light Anti Armour missiles in their tubes on either side of my backpack. 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, the patrol’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 the heavy 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 the rapid hypersonic bangs from the railgun. ‘Reloading! Aaah fuck!’ My IVD went blank as the black light beam hit me under my helmet, turned my skin to steam and partially melted the subcutaneous armour on my face. A shard round caught me in the leg just below my armoured kneepad. 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 and rammed 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 carbine.

‘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 his weapon. He was covering Ashley Broadin, a tough, bald, bullet-headed Brummie and our combat engineer, as she ran to the closest approximation of cover she could find. She then returned the favour. It looked like they were wading through corpses. More Berserks were sprinting towards us.

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 was on 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 like this?!’

‘Time and place, Mudge!’ I shouted as I fired my last grenade, hoping it was a HEAP. It was fragmentation. 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 the Australian 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 sure that 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 no need 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 it fell 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 to bear on us, but we didn’t have much of a choice. They were herding us and didn’t care about casualties.

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 his railgun 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 .

1

Crawling 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 the powder. This shit is probably cut with rat poison. But the colour, the whiteness of it, so, so virginal.’ He was very excited about the large pile of coke he had on a piece of plastic on his lap.

‘It’s white because it’s bleached,’ I growled. I was desperately trying to find my way through the sandstorm. For such a large disorganised convoy you’d think that Crawling Town would move slower. Instead I had to rely completely on information from the four-wheel-drive muscle car’s sensors.

The three-dimensional topographic map on my Internal Visual Display told me where all the surrounding vehicles were. Hopefully. They all looked unreasonably close to me. All I could see was a solid-looking wall of airborne dust and dirt. In theory Rannu was out in that shit on a bike. Every so often a huge wheel from one vehicle or another would appear close to our car and cause 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 huge poisonous 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 getting ground up by larger, much heavier vehicles with bigger wheels/tracks. I wasn’t surprised that accidents 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 and sometimes irradiated environment of the Dead Roads. I’d found this out the hard way the last time I had visited. The Dead Roads was the blasted and polluted wasteland that ran down the eastern seaboard of the United States. The result of the Final Human Conflict some two hundred and fifty plus years ago and unregulated industrial pollution in the wake of the country’s financial collapse.

Coming in a surprising third for cause of death in Crawling Town was the internecine feuding between the various nomad gangs, while we were here to see if we could increase the number of deaths 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 the never-ending war against Them. No, that’s a lie. I was miserable, but I really didn’t know any 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 to complicate 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 Wild Boys, my old SAS squad.

It wasn’t a Ninja. That would have been less complicated, though more fatal. It was an Ambassador. It was being sheltered by a group of prostitutes who worked in the Rigs, the shanty town made up of derelict oil rigs in the Tay River off the shore of Dundee. That was how I met Morag and really, really complicated my life by disobeying Rolleston. Fleeing with Morag to Hull (I only get to see the nicest places, a holdover tradition from my army days) with the downloaded essence of Ambassador, we agreed, sort of, to help Pagan, a computer hacker, create an electronic god out of humanity’s communications network.

Rolleston was of course delighted with my disobedience, betrayal and apparent treason against humanity and dispatched all sorts of interesting people to find and kill us. This included, but was not limited to, Rannu Nagarkoti, a Ghurkha ex-SAS man, who was currently riding through the sandstorm somewhere, and the Grey Lady, Ms Josephine Bran, the scariest operator in the scary world of black ops.

Hull got burned. Pagan, Morag and I fled to New York. I came a close second in my arse-kicking at the hands of Rannu. He then joined us. I’m sure there are easier ways. I met my old friend Howard Mudgie – Mudge to his mates. We also got the support of Balor, the insane pirate king of the ruins of New York, though this had taken some persuasion and, for reasons still unclear, me getting the aforementioned beating at the hands of Rannu. Balor was a heavily augmented cyborg who had had his body sculpted to look like a sea demon from some old mythology. Mudge put us on to two pilots I really wanted to speak to, Gibby and Buck. They’d both worked the same shady world of special ops that I had. They had been Rolleston and the Grey Lady’s taxi drivers, the taxi being a heavily armed and armoured vectored-thrust gunship. Gibby and Buck had been the last to see my best friend Gregor on Dog 4 after he’d been infected by one of Their Ninjas during its death throws. The two pilots were hiding out in Crawling Town. That’s why we’d come here the first time, and some bad shit had happened to me for no good reason I could think of.

Gibby and Buck had told us that they had taken Gregor to the Atlantis Spoke, one of the city-sized orbital elevators that ring the planet on the equator. We found Gregor in a lab deep below the surface of the ocean being experimented on by Rolleston’s employers, the Cabal. The dying Ninja had somehow joined with Gregor, transforming him into a hybrid form of humanity and Them. The Cabal were a shadowy group of upper-echelon corporate execs, military types and intelligence operatives. So we had some of the most powerful people in the world after us, and we were in the company of a human/Them hybrid and wanted for betraying the entire human race.

What we found out was that They had not started the war, as we had always been led to believe. It was us – or rather it was the Cabal. Not only had they started the war, but they had taught Them – who as far as I could make out were some kind of harmless vacuum-living space coral – to fight. They had done this through what Pagan called negative stimulus and what I call blowing the shit out of them.

So we’d been conned for sixty years into fighting a war that was manipulated so as not to end. I’m still a little hazy as to why. I’m guessing it had something to do with power, control, greed and all that good stuff. Mudge, however, claims it was to do with sexual inadequacy on the part of the members of the Cabal. Mudge puts a lot of the problems of people he doesn’t like down to that, though Morag did point out that the majority of the Cabal were male. The Cabal were also working on their own version of God called Demiurge. Only instead of guiding the net to sentience and electronic omniscience (a word I’m sure no self-respecting squaddie should be using as much as I have been) they just wanted to control it.

So as our situation got worse and worse we came up with more and more desperate plans. We decided to program God to always tell the truth but to be under nobody’s control. I know why we did this but often I feel it would be useful if we’d retained control of the electronic deity. We took over a media node in Atlantis at gunpoint and released God into the net. Now suddenly all information was available to everyone. Mudge then used the node to broadcast the evidence of the Cabal’s crimes against humanity and Them.

After a worldwide televised argument with Rolleston and Vincent Cronin, the Cabal’s corporate mouthpiece, the good Major and the Grey Lady made a concerted effort to kill us. In Buck’s case they succeeded. In what felt like a one-sided exchange of violence it also appeared that the Major was somehow augmented with Themtech. He was pretty much walking through railgun fire.

A lot of pissed-off people’s secrets had been revealed. There were also a lot of people baying for the Cabal’s blood. As most of the Cabal were fat old men being kept alive by machinery they weren’t too hard for the vigilante crowds to deal with.

Ambassador had told us that They wanted peace. We wanted peace. Hurray, the war’s over. Except Rolleston and Cronin got away. They escaped in next-generation frigates using Themtech, supported by frighteningly good hackers who we think were using technology derived from Project Demiurge. The frigates, which we’re now apparently calling the Black Squadrons, made for the four colonial systems of Sirius, Lalande, Barnard’s Star and Proxima. We believed they planned to take over the comms networks in each system with Demiurge, which would mean that they controlled the information in them, which would in turn help them take command of humanity’s colonial military. We also thought they were going to try and use a Themtech-derived biological agent developed by Project Crom to infect, subjugate and control Them in the Sirius system. And that is how I ended up going back there, my least favourite place but where my mind kept returning to.

We went to the Sirius system for other reasons. Maybe it was because I was dying of radiation poisoning at the time or maybe it was just because Morag really wanted to go. I was surprised by how it was actually worse this time than all my previous visits. Suited in Mamluk exo-armour we performed extravehicular activity – we exited a perfectly functional spacecraft and infiltrated the Dog’s Teeth. The Dog’s Teeth is an asteroid belt and was home base to the largest concentration of Them in the Sirius system. Our plan was to find the Crom virus/spores and stop them from infecting Them.

Morag had a different plan. With the remnants of Ambassador living in her neural cybernetics, she wanted to communicate with Them. She left us.

What we didn’t know was that when Rolleston attacked us in the Spoke he had infected Gregor with Crom. He had effectively turned Gregor into a slave plague-bearing weapon. We got compromised. The billions of Them there decided to kill us. That I understood. Gregor attempting to assimilate and warp the flesh of Them and infect Them with the Crom virus so they could be controlled by Rolleston and Cronin was more of a surprise.

Balor died. He finally opened his bad old eye. Whatever weapon he had behind the patch nearly succeeded in killing Gregor. Nearly wasn’t enough. Still, the old monster had given himself the warrior’s ending he’d always wanted. It was Gibby who killed Gregor. He was flying the Spear, our ship. He’d forsaken stealth and flown into the Dog’s Teeth taking fire every inch of the way but managed to make it to Gregor and detonate his payload and engines. Sanitising the area. I’d never seen anything like what Balor or Gibby had done. I thought the days of actions like that had long since gone, if they’d ever really been.

So instead of looking at peace we were looking at war between humanity. More than two hundred and fifty years after we swore we’d never do this to ourselves again. After we’d decided that the cost was too great we were looking at one half of humanity fighting the other. And it was our fault. Actually it wasn’t; it was the Cabal’s. It was Rolleston’s and Cronin’s. We were just the catalyst.

Gregor’s betrayal had hurt. A lot. But even though the monster had had his warped features, it had been Rolleston’s demon – he had been programmed. My friend hadn’t done this. My friend had died in the Spoke when Rolleston had stabbed him in the head and injected Crom into his hybrid physiology. Rolleston had tried to kill me so many times. He badly needed to die. It wasn’t so much revenge, though that would be good. It just really needed doing, though not by me.

We’d played long odds and won. Or some of us had. By ‘won’ I mean we were still alive. We were on the eve of a new war between humans, but my fight was over. We’d more than done our bit surely? Someone else’s turn. It wasn’t just that I was tired of it, though I was. It was that I knew I was about one gunfight with someone who knew what they were doing from being dead. I’d never had much luck, none of us had – there wasn’t much around – but I’d pushed what I had way too far.

Morag disagreed. She wanted to see this through to the end. She used words that only the young and terminally optimistic use, like responsibility. Or maybe she wasn’t optimistic. Maybe she wanted to die. After all, she’d been sold into a life of prostitution by her mum for crystal. She’d had even less luck than the rest of us. Why push it? But she did. I couldn’t do it any more. I thought she would cry when I told her that. I didn’t want to make her cry, though God knows I’d done enough of that. It’s just nice to know there’s someone who cares enough, about anything, to still cry. But her eyes were cybernetic now. Like the rest of us, this never-fucking-ending war was making her sell her humanity piece by cybernetic piece.

My war was over.

Well maybe there was just one last bit of business. One of the tribes of Crawling Town were a bunch of pricks called the Wait, a skinhead monastic order originally from Oregon. They followed some bullshit pre-FHC credo to do with racial purity. For some bizarre reason they seemed to think that the white race is different from all the others. As if we didn’t have enough reasons to kill each other – food, money, anger, etc. – we apparently have to go and invent completely spurious ones.

These arseholes were led by a nasty, should-have-been-aborted, piece-of-shit hacker called Messer. He’d decreed that I wasn’t racially pure. I’m a quarter Thai and three-quarters Scots, more proud of both now. His response to my lack of purity was to crucify me on the back of a dune buggy and have me taken for a ride through a high-radiation nuke crater. I caught a big dose. He’d killed me slowly. Left me to die painfully of radiation poisoning.

Morag, Pagan, Mudge and Rannu rescued me with the aid of some of the lords of Crawling Town. One of these was Papa Neon, head of Big Neon Voodoo, the most powerful gang in Crawling Town. The other was Mrs Tillwater, a borderline serial killer and possible cannibal. She ran the First Baptist Church of Austin Texas, which, despite the name, was also a gang or possibly a woman’s auxiliary, maybe both. Because the Wait were a Crawling Town gang the rescue took the form of diplomacy. Well, diplomacy through the medium of gun-pointing and threats. We weren’t allowed to deal with the Wait violently because we were outsiders.

Mudge, Rannu and I were here to remedy their existence. My last battle.

A car appeared out of the dust in front of us. I braked slightly, watching the ghost of the sensor reading of the large truck directly behind me on the topographic map overlaid on my IVD. I didn’t want it to get close. The car in front demonstrated why.

I watched the driver swerve to avoid the huge armoured wheel rolling through the dust on his right side. He overcompensated, misjudging his clearance on the left, and ended up caught between two of the wheels on one of the Wait’s military-surplus personnel carriers. The car, which looked way to fragile to be out here, got snarled up in the armour plate and dragged up into the wheel arch. Trapped between the two wheels it was crushed like an egg.

It was very fast. Mudge was watching with rapt attention. Pieces of the car rained down on our own vehicle. I checked the map and moved the steering wheel just enough to avoid hitting the wreckage still caught up in the personnel carrier’s wheels. I gave the car a command through the link jacked into one of the four plugs on the back of my neck. It accelerated slightly, keeping us out of trouble.

You had to know how to drive to be in the middle of the city-sized convoy that was Crawling Town. If you drove on the outskirts then you risked being picked off by the scavengers that accompanied it.

‘Shit,’ Mudge breathed. ‘Want me to drive?’

‘I’d like you to learn properly,’ I answered back. Sounding surly to myself.

Mudge glanced over at me. ‘What’s your problem?’

The last time the Wait had got the drop on me. Now we were ready for them, armed. I had Rannu, an experienced and capable ex-SAS operator, and Mudge, who’d gone out with us enough that he may as well have joined the Regiment, backing me up. We were going to do this clean. Get rid of some completely excess humanity before the lords of Crawling Town even knew we were there. So why was I so pissed off.

‘God?’ I sub-vocalised. Mudge was watching me.

‘Do you want a cigarette?’ Mudge asked. That pissed me off.

‘Yes, Jakob,’ God answered. He was everywhere now. To me he sounded like a hundred soothing mellifluous voices talking to me at once. The amusing thing was that all the Wait had to do was ask God where we were, and under the parameters of behaviour that we’d set up God would have to tell them. We were hoping that the Wait had not thought to ask. Though if I’d pissed off someone with my skill set I’d be asking pretty regularly.

‘I told you I quit,’ I snapped at Mudge. I shouldn’t be having nicotine withdrawal because my internal systems should have scrubbed the poison out, but I still badly wanted a cigarette. Mudge’s desperate chain-smoking, drinking and doing drugs wasn’t helping. It was like he was making up for lost time. After all, despite his repeated requests to synthesise them, smokes, drink and drugs had been in short supply back in the Sirius system. Even food had been trial and error and not something I enjoyed thinking about.

Of course, I could check to see if anyone was asking about us. Checking on operational security in a world that didn’t have any, thanks to us. That would have made sense.

‘Where is she?’ I asked. Or instead I could pine for my estranged not-quite-girlfriend.

‘I do not know,’ God answered. So much for omniscience.

‘Quitting is a mistake,’ Mudge opined. ‘We all need coping mechanisms.’

‘Is that not quite difficult for you? To not know?’ I sub-vocalised to God.

‘You talking to Rannu?’ Mudge asked.

‘No. Has it occurred to you that you have too many coping mechanisms?’

Mudge’s features suddenly brightened.

‘It does suggest a certain amount of effort on her part to avoid surveillance,’ God answered.

‘Could she have left the system?’ I was worried she would try and go to one of the colonies in a misguided attempt to help.

‘Prostitutes!’ Mudge shouted, much to my irritation. ‘After we’ve killed these cunts we should go and find some hookers! Some really dirty ones.’

My jaw clenched and my cybernetic hand tightened its grip on the steering wheel, crushing it slightly.

‘Sorry. I wasn’t thinking,’ Mudge said without the slightest hint of contrition. He had been thinking; he had been looking for a response.

‘As I told you before, Jakob, I do not believe she could have left the system without me knowing.’

‘So where do you think she is?’ I asked. Trying to keep the desperation out of my voice.

‘Again, the data I have suggests that she is in New Mexico somewhere.’ The good thing about God was that he never got impatient, no matter how many times we had this conversation.

‘Are we doing this or do you just want to talk to God about your ex-girlfriend?’ Mudge asked, an edge in his voice.

‘She’s not-’ I started.

‘Your girlfriend or your ex? Focus, Jake.’ Mudge always used the contraction of my name when he wanted to get a rise out of me.

‘We’ve got arseholes to kill.’ I ran my fingers through my hair. Was it still my hair?

‘Jake?’ Mudge asked.

‘Abort. Abort. Abort,’ I said over the tac net.

‘Fuck’s sake!’ Mudge slammed his fist down on the dash before angrily taking another swig from his now nearly ever-present bottle of vodka.

‘Say again, over?’ Rannu was too professional to let his surprise be heard over the comms.

‘Abort. Abort. Abort,’ I repeated.

Mudge shook his head. ‘You are such a fucking pussy.’ He seemed genuinely angry with me. Instead of caring I slewed the car violently to the right, slipping it under the trailer of an articulated lorry. Mudge shouted out in surprise.

‘Let’s get out of Crawling Town,’ I said over the tac net.

‘Roger that, over,’ Rannu answered.

‘God,’ Mudge said loudly, ‘could you play my friend’s ever-so-pathetic most recent conversation with you back, please?’

Every single fucking time. I had started grinding my teeth since I’d quit smoking. I was doing it now. The recording of my conversation with God started over the car’s speaker system. I began to drive even more erratically. Mudge swore as he spilled vodka all over himself.

When we’d discussed the idea of God and what he should do – always telling the truth, complete transparency – it had seemed like a good idea. No privacy whatsoever was less good. We’d also completely underestimated the annoying uses that Mudge could put God to.

‘So where we going? New Mexico?’ Mudge asked scornfully. The drive through the city-sized convoy had taken a while despite my suicidal speed and manoeuvring. Even then we’d only got clipped a couple of times. On the way out some of the outriding parasites had shown an interest in us. They got less interested after I’d sideswiped a trike into some wreckage.

I’d skidded to a halt on a slight rise in some scrub wasteland looking out over the US border proper. The edge of the Dead Roads. Things didn’t look that much better over there.

‘No,’ I answered tersely, sounding a little childish even to my own ears. I climbed out of the car. Mudge followed. I could see Rannu riding towards us on a powerful dirt bike, his head swathed in a shemagh, dust goggles protecting the black lenses of his cybernetic eyes.

Mudge turned his camera eyes on me. It had taken a long time for me to get use to the way the lenses always seemed to be rotating one way or the other as they found the best focus point. He was a little shorter than my six feet and much thinner, though both of us had a wiry build. There was something weird about his long face, but it was difficult to put your finger on it – he just looked slightly odd. He had two days of sparse blond stubble on his cheeks and his fair hair was a short unkempt mess.

Rannu brought the bike to a halt, kicked the stand down and dismounted. His cargo trousers and black armoured combat jacket were covered in dust from the road. He started to beat the dust off himself, all the while observing around us.

‘What happened – were we compromised?’ he asked.

‘Only by this pussy’s delicate feelings,’ Mudge answered. I could practically hear the squat, powerfully built Nepalese’s eyebrows rising under his goggles.

‘We’re not doing the Wait?’ Rannu asked. Now I could hear the slight undertone of surprise.

‘We’re not,’ I told them.

‘Really?’ Mudge asked. It sounded less like a question and more like an experiment to see how much sarcasm you could pack into a single word. ‘See, they kidnapped me, tortured me, gave me a lethal dose of radiation poisoning and generally made my life a living hell. Not to mention what a fucking whiney burden on my friends I became. Oh no, wait, that wasn’t me. It was fucking you!’

Rannu shifted uncomfortably.

‘You didn’t have to-’ I started.

‘Yes, I fucking did!’ Mudge spat. He seemed overwrought. ‘Because you made me promise!’

‘When I thought I was dying. I’m better now.’

‘My promise to help deal with them still stands,’ Rannu said. He’d finished beating off the dust and had removed his goggles. His eyes, like mine, like most vets’, were matt-black plastic lenses. I sighed and leaned against the car wishing I had a cigarette.

‘I know and I appreciate that.’

‘Then fucking what?!’ Mudge screamed at me.

‘Why aren’t we killing the fascists?’ Rannu asked much more calmly.

‘The what?’ I asked, confused.

‘Their ideology, it’s called fascist or Nazi. It’s pre-FHC. The fucking bad men!’ Mudge explained not very helpfully.

‘We’re on the eve of what could be the biggest human-on-human war since the FHC. This is in part our fault-’ I started.

‘Bullshit. Rolleston and Cronin could call it quits any time they want,’ Mudge pointed out.

‘We have to take responsibility, wasn’t that what you said?’ I asked.

‘You want to go and fight the Black Squadrons?’ Rannu asked. For the first time I realised this held some appeal for Rannu. I’d known I was holding him back by getting his help in dealing with the Wait when I’d thought I’d wanted to. I had thought I was holding him back from returning to his family. It seemed it was something else.

‘No. That’s it. I don’t want to kill any more people. Enough is enough.’

‘Oh, this is bullshit. This was the same song you sang before Atlantis,’ Mudge said, but he was calming down.

‘And we didn’t kill anyone.’

‘We tried damn hard with Rolleston.’

‘Him I’d make an exception for. He needs to die for the general well-being.’

‘So do those fuckers!’ Mudge exploded. Rannu was nodding. ‘Those silly wank-stains want to kill you because your grandmother was from Thailand; they want to kill Rannu because his skin’s a different colour to theirs. For fuck’s sake, we raise the average IQ of the race by putting these cunts out of our misery!’

‘No doubt, but I can’t do it any more. We were so close to an end to it all, so close to peace…’

‘I think we may have to fight some more first,’ Rannu said.

‘Probably, but not me. Don’t you think we’ve done enough?’

‘I think we’ve done a lot. I think we’ll know when we’ve done enough. There will be peace and my children will be free.’

‘I’m sorry, but someone else is going to have to fight this one,’ I said. Rannu nodded. I think he understood but I think he was disappointed as well. I turned to Mudge. ‘Are you going to fight?’

Mudge pointed at the huge dust storm in the distance that was Crawling Town. ‘I just want to kill the arseholes,’ he whined. Rannu and I looked at him. ‘You know me, I’ll shoot it.’ He tapped his camera eyes in a way that put my teeth on edge. ‘And if it gets too hairy…’ He rapped his legs with his knuckles. His cybernetic legs were his pride and joy. He’d paid a lot of money to be able to boast that he was built for speed. ‘I’ll just do a runner.’ He’d always said that. It was all bullshit, he never ran.

‘Vehicle incoming,’ said Rannu, the only one retaining any degree of professionalism.

Mudge and I looked up. Both of us zoomed in on the bizarre vehicle approaching us, which looked like a cross between a six-by-six pickup truck and a hearse. The front passenger side seemed to have been cut away and there was something monstrous and metallic sat there, a little smaller than an exo-armour suit. Through the magnification on my eyes I could make out the brightly coloured glowing veves painted on the side of the vehicle. These were the mystic symbols of Papa Neon’s own brand of Pop Voudun. The truck definitely belonged to the Big Neon Voodoo.

It pulled up next to us in a cloud of toxic dust and dirt. The monstrous thing in the truck’s cutaway cab was Little Baby Neon. Younger brother of Papa Neon, he had traded his soul for cybernetic power until he was a deranged, uncontrollable psychotic. His older brother had, as far as I could tell, effectively lobotomised him in an electronic ritual and turned him into a cyberzombie.

Little Baby Neon climbed out of the pickup/hearse. Actually he more sort of unfolded himself. The suspension looked glad of the relief.

We were sort of friendly with the Big Neon Voodoo, but it was more through Pagan and he wasn’t here. I had one hand in the car, close to where my Benelli assault shotgun scabbard was strapped to the underside of the roof. Mudge was doing likewise with his converted AK-47. Rannu just stood close to where his shotgun/sniper combination weapon was clipped to the dirt bike.

With Little Baby Neon watching us, the pickup/hearse moved round so its back was facing us. Dry-ice smoke started to issue from the back of the vehicle. Mudge glanced at me, his eyebrow raised questioningly. The back doors opened, then the glass roof slid back. A colourfully decorated coffin, adorned with skulls, bones and other grizzly additions, rose up to a nearly vertical position. The front of the coffin swung open.

I started laughing, as did Mudge. I’m pretty sure even Rannu cracked a smile. Papa Neon’s bass laughter joined us. He was a tall man with very dark skin. His weathered features were covered in implanted circuitry that formed veves on his face. Dreadlocks sprouted from his head where they could; the rest of it was either covered by a precariously balanced top hat, or by his military-built and black-market-augmented integral computer.

Papa Neon wore a long purple leather coat that looked heavy enough to be armoured and was again covered in many colourful symbols. As he stepped out of the coffin he leaned on his glowing neon staff. He looked every part the role of the Voudun priest and gang leader that he played so well.

He stepped down and we all relaxed somewhat. He nodded at Rannu, who nodded back and courteously stepped away from the bike and the weapon clipped to it.

‘Does that ever impress anyone?’ I asked as the smoke was clearing, carried away by the dry wind that blew across the wasteland.

‘No, but it is good fun,’ Papa Neon announced in his thick Haitian accent. He looked me up and down. ‘Are you dead?’ he surprised me by asking. Then again hackers tend to see the world differently as a result of their various net-born religious manias.

‘I’m as you see, Papa Neon. In no small part thanks to the drugs you supplied.’

After I was rescued from the Wait I had received medical treatment from the Big Neon Voodoo. This had included a substantial supply of drugs that had enabled me to cope with the symptoms of dying from radiation poisoning. Papa Neon gave this some thought.

‘This is good. I think that the Loa have blessed you. I know this because they have told me. They are pleased that Obatala is now among us in the spirit world.’ I think he was talking about God. ‘I danced when he returned.’ I knew he would. ‘But the devil walks around the sun far out in the night,’ he finished. I looked at him blankly.

‘I think he means Demiurge,’ Mudge suggested.

‘Not my problem,’ I said. Papa Neon regarded me carefully before reaching into the pocket of the threadbare finery that was his waistcoat and producing his UV monocle. He placed it in this eye and looked at me some more.

I was starting to feel the discomfort I always got when hacker pseudo-religious bullshit was brought up. Particularly when it was applied to me. I realised it was how they understood the world around them. At its heart they just had a different but arguably no less valid way of understanding things. It still always sounded like madness to me.

‘Ogun Badagris has had too much fun.’ I glanced at Mudge, who shrugged. ‘Will you not cage his horse?’

‘I don’t know what that means,’ I said, ‘but my fighting days are over.’

He moved in close to me. I tried not to flinch. I could smell rum and stale marijuana smoke. Then something occurred to me.

‘Have you been speaking to Pagan?’ I asked.

‘The Loa and the dead want to speak to you.’

‘Where is he? Where’s…’ I started and then suddenly felt very self-conscious, more about Rannu than Mudge. Though Mudge was reasonably well informed about how pathetic I could be.

‘The Mambo walks in the lair of Anansi’s twisted younger brother,’ Papa Neon told me.

I looked at Mudge again. ‘Anansi’s a spider god, I think.’ It didn’t sound good.

‘Look!’ Papa Neon shouted. I turned to look where he was pointing and could just make out a large copter speeding towards us. Its rotors were folded and it was using its jets.

‘The spider wants to speak to you,’ Papa Neon began. ‘The dead want to speak to you and the Loa have not done with you.’

Fuck. I just wanted a drink and a smoke, maybe some peace and quiet.

‘Is that a black helicopter?’ Rannu asked, a hint of incredulity in his voice. I shaded my eyes with my hands and watched as the copter’s twin rotors unfolded and started to rotate. It was a military cargo model that had indeed been painted black, its windows tinted.

Mudge started laughing. ‘Fucking spooks, man. One cliche after another.’ He shook his head. ‘They actually think this shit is cool.’

I turned back to look at Papa Neon. Maybe he was a cliche too, a stereotype. It was difficult to tell how much was real and how much was show – a bit of theatre and intimidation for those watching, waiting for his fall. Or maybe he’d played the role too long and believed it. Or maybe it was all real, which is what the hackers would have us believe.

‘I think you came here to feed the Baron with those stupid white boys,’ he said. Then it hit home.

‘You were on us from the moment we came into Crawling Town,’ I said.

‘I asked Obatala to watch for you,’ he said. Thanks, God, I thought. But the sense of betrayal was misplaced. This was what we had asked God to do after all. On the other hand, how were we ever going to sneak up on someone ever again? ‘The way those boys killed you-’

‘They didn’t kill me…’ I started. Papa Neon looked at me in a way that made me want to not interrupt him.

‘The way they killed you, you don’t walk away from that.’

‘Those boys are evil,’ I told him. The copter was getting closer.

‘No doubt, but they is our evil. You do not live here.’

I’d decided that the Wait got a pass, but I couldn’t help smiling and playing devil’s advocate. ‘So how long would I have to live here before I could do them?’ I asked.

‘Jakob?’ Rannu said. He had the sniper/shotgun combo in his hand. He unfolded the weapon and twisted the barrel, changing it from a smoothbore twelve gauge to a rifled twenty gauge. Turning it into a heavy-calibre marksman’s weapon. I was aware that the copter was beginning its landing approach. He slid the magazine with the caseless twenty-gauge rounds into the combination weapon.

‘You have to live here.’ Papa Neon emphasised the live. ‘We know the difference. Goodbye, my friend.’ He turned, heading for his pickup/hearse.

The copter was now kicking up a lot of dirt. I reached into the car and slid the assault shotgun out of its scabbard. Mudge already had his AK-47.

‘Goodbye, dead man!’ Papa Neon shouted through the swirling dust.

The copter was heavily armed. I could make out rotary railgun turrets pointed in our general direction.

‘Papa Neon! When the devil comes will you fight?’ Mudge shouted over the roar of the copter’s engines.

I could hear Papa Neon’s deep laughter as the coffin closed and he sank into the back of the truck. Little Baby Neon was already in the cutaway passenger seat, and the vehicle made its way back towards the huge dust cloud that was Crawling Town. The cloud seemed to fill a lot of the horizon. I was sorry to see them go. It would have been nice to have someone as frightening as Little Baby Neon backing us up in a discussion with the inhabitants of the copter.

The three of us spread out. Mudge to my left, Rannu to my right. Our weapons were at the ready, held horizontally against our bodies but not pointing at anything in particular. The dust cloud engulfed us as the aircraft landed. We all switched, I’m guessing, to thermal to look at the copter in the reds, yellows and oranges of its heat signature. This was significantly masked, which suggested it was set up for stealth to a degree.

A door in the centre of the copter opened, stairs extending to the dirt. Three figures came out. We saw them as thermal outlines. They had weapons at their shoulders pointed at us.

Rannu and I had our weapons to our shoulders covering them. We each picked the closest target. I’d been working with him long enough to know that was what he would do. Mudge was a fraction of a second behind us.

‘Drop your weapons!’ they shouted. They were American. We didn’t say anything; we just kept them covered.

‘Drop your weapons or we will shoot!’ The one in the middle was doing all the talking. Still we didn’t reply. We just watched for the tells that they were about to fire. Hoped that we were quicker. Worried about the copter’s weapon systems, which were the biggest threat by far.

This sort of bollocks was typical of some paramilitary types. Had they landed and talked to us we would have talked back to them. Instead they’d probably read in some textbook somewhere the importance of establishing dominance in a power relationship so they could control the situation. The thing is, to us it wasn’t about a power relationship, it was about a threat. If we didn’t respond to having weapons pointed at us this time, then what happened the next time, when someone did actually want to do us harm? People like this never seemed to learn that they could get a lot further by behaving courteously. Would they get scared and back down or would they get scared and do something stupid?

Okay I admit it, part of it was that we just didn’t like being strong-armed. If they were going to do that they should have brought a lot more people.

‘We have you covered! Lower your weapons!’ The vocal one shouted again.

‘Should we threaten them back?’ Mudge sub-vocalised over the comms. ‘I can sound really macho and threatening when I want to.’ I failed to completely stifle a laugh. Rannu grinned. This didn’t help.

‘Put down your guns!’ He sounded shriller now. The dust was settling. The three of them looked almost identical. Boy Scout haircuts, dark glasses, anonymous dark suits, fancy European gauss carbines. They looked exactly like what they were: bad intelligence operatives. They may as well have worn a uniform. The question was: were they going to commit suicide today? The problem was that if they did it meant our imminent death at the hands of the copter’s heavy weapons.

‘Why are you laughing?’ Mudge sub-vocalised. He even managed to sound genuinely peeved. ‘I am threatening and intimidating.’

I decided to throw them a bone.

‘Shut up, Mudge,’ I said out loud. ‘You want something from us?’ I called out. ‘Because if you do you’re not going about it very well.’

‘Drop your weapons. You are coming with us,’ the guy in the middle said. All three of them looked nervous. We didn’t.

‘I can’t think of any compelling reason to do that. Why don’t you take your guns off us and tell us what this is about?’

‘Put your guns down!’ he screamed.

‘His shrillness bothers me,’ Mudge said. Rannu remained quiet. I favoured Rannu’s approach more. I’d had enough.

‘Put your guns down,’ I said to Mudge and Rannu.

‘What?!’ Mudge demanded. I lowered my assault shotgun.

‘Are you sure?’ Rannu asked.

‘These guys are dicks. They’re also stupid. If we don’t, they’re going to force us to kill them.’

‘Put your guns down!’ He was sounding more masterful now. I think he thought he was winning. That this was somehow validation for being a dickhead.

‘Shut up!’ I shouted back at him. ‘I just can’t be bothered with it,’ I said to Mudge and Rannu. I also didn’t mention that the result of killing these idiots was death by rotary railgun. Both of them lowered their weapons.

The three idiots rushed up screaming at us to drop our weapons and lie down. Mudge started laughing at them. Rannu seemed to have just the slightest look of contempt on his face, which was unusual for the passive ex-Ghurkha. I was just bemused.

‘Look, what do you want?’ More screaming. ‘You must be here for some reason. If you’d just tell us…’ Yet more screaming and threats. ‘We’re obviously not going to lie down, so what have you got left? Are you going to shoot us?’

The one closest to me produced a shock stick from a pouch on his belt. With a flick of his wrist he extended it. I couldn’t shake the feeling he’d practised that move in the mirror. He triggered the display that sent sparks of electricity surging down the weapon. I wondered if it was supposed to intimidate me. What did he think I’d done for a living? I grabbed his wrist and stabbed him in the face with it. Which had to be embarrassing. I was pleasantly surprised that his internal systems were not sufficiently insulated, like mine, to cope with a shock stick, and he hit the ground a juddering mess.

Rannu stepped past the one closing on him. As he did so, he grabbed the barrel of the gauss carbine and pushed it up over the gunman’s head. The gunman got tangled up in the weapon’s strap and found himself lying on the ground with Rannu kneeling next to him.

Mudge cheated, in my opinion. The guy on him was distracted by the fun that Rannu and I were having. Mudge just sidestepped, drew his sidearm and levelled it at the guy’s head.

I extended the claws on my right arm. Four nine-inch long, hardened ceramic blades slid out of my forearm through slits just behind my knuckles. I reached down to the recently electrocuted gunman, cut the sling off his gauss carbine and tossed it away. Then I walked over to the one that Mudge had covered.

‘Are you more reasonable?’

‘I ain’t telling you shit,’ he said in a manner I think he thought was macho. I was so frustrated I wanted to cry. Mudge clattered him on the side of the head with his pistol. I looked reproachfully at Mudge. Not because he’d hit him but because you shouldn’t get so close to your target that they can reach you – as Rannu and I had just demonstrated.

‘What do you want?!’ I screamed. The guy just kept his mouth shut. ‘Do you realise how fucking stupid it is to go to all this effort and not tell us?!’

‘Someone wants to see you,’ the guy that Rannu had taken down shouted.

‘Shut up!’ Mudge’s guy yelled.

‘You’re supposed to tell us that,’ I tried pointing out. I then walked over to Rannu and his prone friend.

‘Who?’ I asked him.

‘Sharcroft,’ he said. The name meant nothing to me. I told him that. Mudge joined us, forcing his prisoner to his knees in front of him. Mudge was sub-vocalising something as he did this.

‘What does he want?’ I asked.

‘He has a proposal,’ the guy said.

‘Funny way of making it. If you’d succeeded then we’d be useless to him. You didn’t, so he should have sent smarter people. Either way I’m not inclined to meet him.’

‘Look, we fucked up.’ He looked over at the guy whose face I’d electrocuted.

‘Trying to prove yourself?’ I asked. The guy said nothing. He just glared resentfully at his unconscious mate.

‘Trying to prove himself, was he?’ I asked. The look on the guy’s face said it all. The arrogant part of me was scornful of them thinking they stood a chance.

‘You need some proper trigger time, sunshine. You are way out of your league,’ Mudge said. I turned to look at him and raised an eyebrow. Sometimes I thought that the SAS had been a bad influence on Mudge. Though it could have been the other way around. Mudge shrugged.

‘Simon Sharcroft?’ he asked the talkative one. The guy nodded.

‘Know him?’ I asked.

‘Know of him. So do you,’ Mudge said. Then he dropped the bombshell. ‘He’s one of the Cabal.’ I lost my sense of humour and drew my Mastodon from its holster.

‘Woah! Woah! Woah!’ Rannu’s prisoner shouted as he got a good look at the massive. 454 revolver designed for killing Berserks.

‘You fucking pussy!’ Mudge’s prisoner spat at the guy. ‘Ow!’ Mudge had clouted him round the head with his pistol. I think Mudge was starting to enjoy this sort of thing too much.

‘What’s going on?’ I demanded. Was it starting all over again? Surely the Cabal couldn’t be starting up again – could it?

‘All I know is that he wants a meet, I swear!’ Rannu’s prisoner was begging. A text file appeared in the corner of my IVD sent by Mudge. I opened it and scanned the words superimposed over my vision.

Sharcroft was from some old – meaning pre-FHC – money family, America’s answer to Britain’s aristocracy. Right schools, right fraternities, probably got his arse whipped with rolled-up towels in the right secret societies. Sharcroft was a Pentagon II insider. He was an intelligence and government powerbroker and acted as a liaison between the multitudes of compartmentalised intelligence agencies that confused the American government and military. He’d made a name for himself early in his career by running very black ops for the CIA’s paramilitary Special Activities Department. He was described as someone not afraid to make hard decisions. Or, from the perspective of people on the ground, he was a cunt who didn’t care how many people he got killed to make himself look good.

No war record – he was too old, well over a hundred. He had of course been implicated when we revealed the Cabal to everyone. He’d been neck deep in their nasty shit but, according to the info Mudge had gleamed from God, had disappeared very quickly after the big reveal.

Mudge getting that info was not easy. A lot of very sensitive information had been erased from the net shortly after God had made it available to everyone. After all, God couldn’t, or rather wouldn’t, stop people doing what they wanted with their own information. However, while the powers that be were erasing their dirty secrets, hackers were racing to find them, copy them and make sure they stayed disseminated.

‘We could go and kill him,’ Mudge suggested. That wasn’t such an unattractive proposal.

‘Mudge, you are remembering your journalistic objectivity?’ I reminded him.

‘Sadly, I’m not a journalist any more; I’m a multimedia sensation,’ he said matter-of-factly. I couldn’t make up my mind if he was joking or not. Certainly all of us were recognised a lot more often after appearing system-wide on every monitor and viz screen capable of displaying an image.

‘We should just go and kill this Sharcroft,’ I told Rannu’s prisoner.

‘I could just tell him you didn’t want to take the meeting?’ he suggested.

‘Where is he?’ Rannu asked.

‘Don’t tell him anything! Ow!’ Mudge’s prisoner shouted as Mudge hit him again.

‘New Mexico,’ the prone gunman answered.

Mudge sighed. ‘Why didn’t you just say that in the first place?’ he muttered.

2

New Mexico

We sat on the benches of the black copter opposite the three walking bruised egos that took the form of lower-echelon spooks. They’d optimistically asked for our weapons as we’d boarded the copter. We’d politely refused, Mudge had hit one, but I’d promised they could have their guns back at the end of the trip.

They’d also been more than a little annoyed when we’d loaded the four-wheel-drive muscle car and the dirt bike into the back of the copter. I mean cars and bikes don’t grow on trees. We’d taken the time and the effort to steal them so we wanted to hold on to them. So the gunmen had spent most of the trip staring at us resentfully.

It was my first trip to America. Or rather my first trip over the border into the America controlled by the American government. I didn’t get much of a chance to see it. Being in the back of some kind of military transport vehicle usually meant I was on my way somewhere to do something stupid, wasteful and dangerous. The journeys to and from said stupid, wasteful and dangerous things were often my only downtime. It had taken me a long time to learn the skill, but I could sleep anywhere, even in the back of these often noisy and always uncomfortable vehicles. I drifted off quite quickly. Careless perhaps, but I knew Rannu and Mudge had my back. They’d wake me when one of them wanted some rest.

Heaven appeared to glow a blue-white colour. It reminded me of something, something dangerous. I wasn’t sure about opening my eyes but I felt good. In fact I felt the best I had in a very, very long time, presumably because I was no longer dying but was in fact dead. On the other hand, I remembered that I’d done an awful lot of bad things in my life, from stealing money from my parents to buy cigarettes when I was ten to killing a lot of people. Some in cold blood and some after I’d tortured them – those were the ones I felt most bad about.

I didn’t feel quite so bad about killing Them. They may have been innocent dupes of the Cabal but they had been trying to kill me at the time, and it’s a lot easier to kill things that look that different from you. Still, it can’t look good on your application for heaven.

Then I decided that I’d been spending too much time around hackers and that I didn’t believe in all that religious shit anyway. So where the fuck was I?

The selfish part of me was happy to see Morag in heaven. Then I started to mourn her death, which I should have done first, piece of shit that I am. Then again, I reminded myself that I didn’t believe in any of that.

‘What?’ I managed. Morag smiled. She did look like an angel. Well, like a non-scary one with short spiky hair. She reached down to touch my face. Her hands felt warm. I felt warm and not at all like I was dying from vacuum exposure. Or being torn apart by Them. Or running out of air. Or just getting round to dying of radiation poisoning, which was something that I’d been meaning to do for the last couple of weeks. I also felt very naked and there were ‘things’ in me.

Mudge proved that I wasn’t in heaven, though hell was possible, by appearing over me, leering. He looked fucking dreadful.

‘The good news is you’re not fucking dead; the bad news is there’s no fucking drink to celebrate with,’ he told me. He sounded angry.

‘You look awful,’ I managed to sort of squeak. It felt like I hadn’t spoken for a very long time.

‘He’s run out of drugs,’ Morag told me.

‘They made this for us?’ I asked again. It was taking a lot of getting used to. ‘Are we prisoners?’

‘More like stuck,’ Morag answered.

I was in a cave in the side of an asteroid close to planetoid size. Across the front of the cave was a membrane made of… well, made of Them. Them being the individual bio-nanites that were the actual aliens rather than the Berserks or Ninjas that we had previously thought to be Them.

This membrane kept us safe from the rigours of vacuum, and other Them-growths were apparently providing air, heating and somewhat unpleasant sanitation facilities. There is nothing quite like having a previously hostile alien species climb up your arse to clean it because they have never had to develop toilet paper. Other growths also provided a kind of unpleasant gruel and a funny-tasting liquid which I think was supposed to be water. I couldn’t shake the feeling that we were eating some inert form of Them, perhaps Their dead?

What They couldn’t produce, much to Mudge’s discomfort, was drugs, cigarettes or vodka. He was mostly a sweating, cramping, pale, feverish bundle of bile in the corner of the cave. I wouldn’t have minded a drink and a smoke myself.

The membrane was transparent, which allowed us to appreciate just how far out in space we were. I was looking out on what seemed to be a sort of crossroads. There were four very large asteroids including the one I was currently in. They were either tethered or just connected to one another by tubes like biomechanical Them-growths. There were more growths sticking out at all angles from the asteroids. These looked like a cross between organic high-rise buildings and stalagmites or stalactites, depending on your perspective. I recognised this place now. The crooked Them-structures had reminded me of teeth and I’d christened this area Maw City. We were not far from where we had fought Crom.

We used to think that these structures were Their habitats but now we knew it was just Them. Everything seemed to have a function in Their society. Their roots were deep in the asteroid. They somehow drew out the raw materials from them. With energy harnessed from the system’s twin stars They broke down the raw materials to provide the resources necessary to make Themselves into these awe-inspiring structures.

Massive tendrils snaked between the asteroids, the growths and the hundreds of Them-ships moving through this apparent nexus point. I watched as one moved in front of me, completely obscuring my view. The tendrils moved anything from Berserks up to frigate-sized ships around. It was one of these things I’d seen grab Morag.

The whole place was crawling with Them. There were Berserks, Walkers and other things that we had previously thought to be vehicles. I also recognised a lot of the ship configurations I saw from footage of fleet actions.

If I strained and used the magnification on my optics I could see beyond Maw City. There were fields of a coral-like substance, where everything from Berserks to dreadnoughts were being grown and born. Deeper still I could see the cored hollow remains of exploited asteroids.

All the Them-forms we were used to seeing were black – combat forms, I guessed. But many here were white and had a pale-blue bioluminescent glow that I had become used to seeing in the honeycombed energy matrices of Their engines. It was the same bioluminescence that lit our little cavern. I had always thought it beautiful. Not that I could have told anyone. Maybe Morag, though even she’d take the piss.

The growths handling the air made it feel like there was a warm wind constantly blowing through the cavern. Apparently getting the heating, water and temperature right had been touch and go, initially. When I had been dying. There was kind of a lot to take in.

I looked at my hand. There were no scabs or sores, just healthy armoured flesh and boosted muscle. I felt great, no nausea. In fact it had been a long time since I had felt this good. Though I would have liked a cigarette.

‘So let me see if I understand you properly. They ate all the unhealthy flesh and replaced or regrew it, at a cellular level. Is that correct?’ I asked again. I heard Pagan sigh. I didn’t really blame him, I had asked that question a lot recently.

He was sitting leaning against the wall in his inertial armour suit. He had his staff fully assembled and it lay across his lap.

Pagan was in his forties and one of the oldest people I knew who wasn’t a member of a powerful secret government of arseholes. He was thin, his skin weathered and covered in various spiralling tattoos. Some of the tattoos were implanted circuitry to aid the ugly utilitarian integral computer that stuck out of half his skull. Unruly orange dreadlocks sprouted out from the other half. He was currently scratching at his scalp, running his hand through his dreads.

‘Yes. We have similar treatments, but they tend to be only available to the wealthy,’ Pagan explained. Again.

‘So am I an alien?’ I asked again.

‘Undoubtedly,’ Mudge groaned. He was lying on the floor, which was covered, in a soft, comfy, moss-like material. He was wearing only a pair of white boxers with hearts all over them. He got up onto all fours and started crawling towards the sanitation growth.

‘No,’ Morag said. She also sounded agitated. She was wearing her underwear and a T-shirt and sitting on a rock also covered in the moss. I couldn’t help but be distracted by her shapely legs. She was small, but the exertions of our time together had hardened her up. That could be seen in the tone of her muscles and sadly in her features as well. It did not detract from how attractive I found her.

Her hair had been shaved off so that the sophisticated integral computer she used for hacking could be implanted. Her hair was growing back but was still short, though it did cover most of the implant. The integral computer had been a high-end civilian model provided by Vicar so it was not as obtrusive as the military model sticking out of Pagan’s skull.

I missed her eyes. After Rolleston and the Grey Lady had blown the side out of the media node, the explosive decompression had permanently blinded her. She had had her eyes replaced with cybernetic ones. They provided her with similar capabilities to the rest of us – magnification, thermographics, low light, flash compensation, etc. Her eyes were civilian models designed to look like normal ones. They had been modelled after pictures of her own eyes provided by Mudge, but I could still tell the difference. When you started replacing bits of yourself it had a cost.

‘You’re still you,’ she reassured me. This was a sore point with her. After all, she was carrying around the information ghost of Ambassador in her neural cyberware and had been accused of being compromised by the alien on a number of occasions. I’d even done it during one of my frequent outbreaks of arseholery.

‘Thank God!’ Mudge shouted dramatically before collapsing face first into the sanitation growth. We all grimaced as he started to throw up the food substitute they’d been giving us. I was trying not to think of it as necro-gruel.

‘It’s astonishing to think that we actually managed to save an entire alien species from assimilation by Crom,’ Pagan mused as he watched Mudge vomit.

‘Is he going to be okay?’ I asked Rannu. The quiet ex-Ghurkha was the closest thing we had to a medic. Mudge was annoying but he was my oldest and closest friend who was not dead. Also he’d never duped me into coming to Sirius to infect Them with the Crom slave virus. Though in fairness to Gregor that was more Rolleston’s fault than his.

Rannu shrugged. He was stripped to the waist, his compact and powerful frame covered in sweat from his near-constant working out. That was probably the real reason he beat me in New York. He never stopped training.

‘It’s withdrawal,’ he said. He still wore his kukri, the curved machete-like fighting knife of the Ghurkhas, at his hip. As he turned to grab a cleaning form to rub himself with I caught a glimpse of the stylised tattoo of Kali on his back. It had been done when he had been working undercover back on Earth.

‘From what?’ I asked. Actually meaning which drug. Rannu gave this some thought.

‘Everything, I think. It shouldn’t kill him because of his enhancements but he is going to be in a lot of discomfort.’

Knowing Mudge, that meant that the rest of us were going to be in a lot of discomfort as well. I still wanted a smoke.

‘So I’m a hybrid like Gregor?’ I asked. Morag opened her mouth to answer but Rannu surprised me by beating her to it.

‘More like Rolleston.’

‘Nice,’ I said grimly. It made sense though. I felt stronger, faster and healthier than I ever had. Hell, I was looking forward to sparring with Rannu. I’d had so much of my flesh cut away and replaced with machinery and now what flesh I had left had been replaced.

Maybe I had died. Maybe all that was left was a sophisticated, or not, Themtech simulacrum that felt a little like me.

‘So let me see if I understand this properly…’

Even Rannu sighed and shifted to make himself more comfortable.

Mudge nudged me awake. I could hear the whine of the copter’s engines straining. I looked out of one of the windows. We seemed to be sinking into some huge vertical tube of concrete and metal. It looked old. Maybe even pre-FHC.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘I think it’s an old missile silo,’ Rannu said. ‘For nukes.’ That woke me up. I looked for confirmation from the three bruised egos in suits in front of us. They just glowered.

‘You know it could just be a coincidence. Our invitation to New Mexico and God thinking that Morag is here, I mean,’ Mudge said. I ignored him. He lit a cigarette to spite me.

‘My comms is down,’ Rannu said quietly. I tried mine. Nothing. Not even short-range person-to-person between the three of us.

‘What’s going on?’ I demanded from the three spooks. They said nothing. ‘You wanted us here. Do we have to fucking beat it out of you?’ These were truly exasperating people.

‘Have you got any religion?’ the one in the middle asked. I just gaped at him.

‘Are you asking if we’ve got anything with God on it?’ Mudge enquired.

He nodded.

‘What if we have?’ I asked.

‘You can’t go in,’ the middle one answered. I was beginning to see what was going on here.

‘It’s a comms quarantine. You’re trying to keep God out.’ Rannu voiced my suspicions.

‘And how’re you going to stop us?’ born-again-hard Mudge asked.

‘They probably just won’t let us in,’ Rannu suggested.

‘Let’s just get this over with,’ I muttered.

We didn’t have much on us as most of our comms stuff was internal and one of God’s parameters was to be non-invasive as far as people’s personnel cyberware went. I had nothing. I just contacted God through my internal comms when I wanted to speak to him. Rannu had some kind of medium-range comms booster and Mudge had bits and pieces of media tech. They had to leave all of this behind in the copter.

‘And no pictures,’ one of the failed gunmen told Mudge.

‘Of course not,’ Mudge said with false sincerity. We stepped out of the copter.

If I hadn’t seen Spokes or fleet carriers or the Dog’s Teeth the scale of the place would have been quite impressive. As it was, it was a big concrete hole in the ground.

We walked across the landing pad towards a set of blast doors. There were more suited types with guns waiting for us. One was walking towards us, his arm outstretched.

‘Hold it right there, gentleman,’ he said. Mudge grabbed his outstretched arm, twisted it round and wrist-locked him so painfully the guy sank to the ground. I shook my head as the rest of the security contingent raised their weapons and started shouting.

‘Mudge,’ I said over the shouting, ‘he was being polite.’

‘I didn’t like his tone.’

‘He called us gentlemen. Let him go.’ Mudge gave this some thought but relented. The guy stood up, glaring at us and rubbing his wrist.

‘Are you a reasonable person?’ I asked him.

‘I was until about thirty seconds ago,’ he muttered, but he was gesturing at his security detail to calm down.

‘You want our weapons?’ I asked.

‘Obviously.’

‘It’s not going to happen. Besides which, you can’t disarm cybernetic weapons systems, and it would be no problem for us to take your weapons from you inside if we wanted to and use them. So you want us here, or Sharcroft does?’ He nodded. ‘Well, it depends on how much he wants to see us.’ He gave this some thought, or more likely he was receiving instructions.

‘We need to check you for information contamination,’ he said, relenting. I nodded. His tech guys approached and started waving various sensors at us.

‘Are you going to kill him?’ the security guy asked.

‘Not sure yet,’ I mused.

Through the blast doors was a large chamber with a low ceiling. The walls, floor and ceiling were covered in some kind of metal mesh. We were walking on a raised wooden platform. The room was full of what I recognised as servers in liquid coolant tanks, a lot of them. I did not know a lot about IT but even I knew that there were vast amounts of processing power in here. There was also a lot of solid-state memory.

Interspersed among all the hardware were various bits of institutional office furniture. People in one-piece suits were sat at desks, many of them tranced in, most with some form of visible integral computer system and all hard-wired into the hardware. None of them were using wireless links.

Many of the available surfaces had liquid-crystal thinscreens stuck to them. Though not the walls or the ceilings, I noticed. They, along with several detailed holographic displays, were showing information about the colonies. Or at least that’s what it looked like to me.

Mudge made a whistling noise as he blew air through his teeth.

‘This whole room is a Faraday cage,’ he said. It was a big room. ‘It’s designed to keep all surveillance out.’

It wasn’t just the mesh; I saw jamming and various other electronic countermeasures and counter-surveillance tech strategically placed around the room.

‘Lot of trouble to go to, to be free of God,’ Rannu commented.

‘Welcome to Limbo, gentlemen.’ It was the sort of voice that I associated with energetic old people. I knew this from old vizzes as I didn’t know any old people. It also sounded amplified.

I turned around to look at the villain of the piece. He looked the part, like the upper torso of a corpse in a high-tech armoured bath-chair. The chair had six sturdy metal legs rather than wheels and covered his legs. He didn’t move and barely seemed to be breathing despite the assistance of the life-support systems on the chair.

‘Though I prefer to think of it as a haven for atheists.’ The cheerful voice was coming from speakers built into the chair. I guessed this was Sharcroft. He looked dead long enough to be a Cabal old boy.

‘Why are you still alive?’ I asked.

‘You mean why didn’t the mob get me, Sergeant – or is it Mr Douglas now? I made a deal obviously.’

‘No. I mean after you’d lived out your natural lifespan in comfort bought with our suffering, why didn’t you just let yourself die?’

‘You mean what am I afraid of? I’m not the only one here who should be dead, am I?’ That was bad. He knew what I was. Of course he knew. That was the job of guys like him. I resisted the urge to start looking around for the dissection table.

‘Its over though,’ Mudge said. ‘Your rejuvenation through Themtech is not going to happen. You’re effectively dead anyway. Do everyone a favour and switch yourself off.’

‘Did you really only come here to revive old arguments?’

Mudge nodded towards me. ‘He came to see his bird.’ I resisted the urge to shoot Mudge. Just.

‘What’s Limbo for?’ Rannu asked before I could ask about Morag. ‘I mean other than hiding from God.’

‘Well, as you have pulled the teeth of every intelligence agency in the system-’

‘And wrecked your sordid little secret government,’ I added.

‘Quite a big secret government actually, Mr Douglas. You all but pushed the more clandestine facets of government back to using paper and filing cabinets.’

‘So this is a secure site for dirty little secrets so you sleazy little fuckers can start again?’ I asked.

He actually sighed. ‘If you like. It’s one of many made up of what we managed to salvage from your act of wanton terrorism. This particular site has one function.’ He paused. I think it was supposed to be dramatic. We waited. His voice sounded irritated when he started again. ‘It is the clandestine part of the war against the Cabal.’

We gave this some thought.

‘What silly twat put you in charge of it?’ Mudge asked.

‘I can assure you,’ and again he sounded irritated, ‘that there is quite a lot of oversight involved. After all, who better to know the machinations of the Cabal than a former member.’

‘What? You’re pissed off that Rolleston and Cronin fucked off with all your toys and left you here to die?’ I asked. On the corpse in the chair I thought I may have detected a slight change in expression.

‘Obviously.’

‘Well, best of luck and I’d advise you not to cross my path again,’ I told him. ‘I’d like to go home now.’

‘Don’t you want to finish the job you started?’ he asked.

‘Your mess – you clean it up,’ I told him. It wasn’t strictly true of course.

‘What did you want from us?’ Rannu asked.

‘We’re not taking this seriously, are we?’ Mudge asked. ‘I mean I know we do a lot of stupid things but he’s one of the bad guys.’

‘There’s a number of ways you can help us. Particularly you, Mr Douglas.’

I tried to ignore the relish in his voice but couldn’t help reaching up and touching my assault shotgun’s handgrip.

‘Like what?’ Here it comes.

‘I believe you’re hybrid? We believe that many of Rolleston’s Black Squadrons are either hybrids or otherwise augmented with Them biotech.’

‘What do you mean you believe? You fucking know because you were one!’ Mudge was getting angry.

‘So what if I am?’ I asked.

‘Well the data we could get from-’

‘Experimenting on me?’

I remembered Gregor’s warped features in his sealed chamber in the Cabal’s genetics lab deep in the Atlantis Spoke. I took a step towards Sharcroft, my hand now round the shotgun’s grip. Sharcroft didn’t give, but I was sure I could hear clicks and humming coming from his insectile chair. It was the sound of weapons systems readying themselves.

‘I fucking think not.’

‘You’re being selfish. You may have the answer we need.’

‘I’m being selfish? I didn’t start a war with an alien species just so I could become one of the living dead! And while we’re on the subject, what was the thinking behind that?’

‘I cannot justify the unjustifiable.’

‘What? That’s it? Fancy talk for I know I’m a cunt?’ I demanded.

‘We’re not talking about anything invasive-’

‘Would a fifty-calibre sabot round in the head be an emphatic enough no for you?’ I asked. I was genuinely in awe of this guy’s nerve.

‘Even if your capabilities are anything like Rolleston’s -’ now there was a thought ‘- we still have enough resources here to compel you to help.’

‘An achievement you’d enjoy posthumously, well more posthumously,’ Mudge told him. Rannu was glancing around, assessing the area, readying himself. I should have been doing the same but I was too angry.

‘There are other ways you could help,’ Sharcroft said after quite a tense pause.

‘Such as?’ Rannu surprised me by asking.

‘We’re sending people with your capabilities into the colonies to gather intelligence on the Black Squadron’s forces.’

‘Deep-penetration recces?’ I asked despite myself, I was so surprised. I did the sums. Depending on how quickly they had got themselves sorted out they could have put boots on the ground and, allowing for the speed that information travels across interstellar distances, i.e. the speed of a ship, they could already have info from the colonies. They might actually know what’s going on there.

‘Hold on,’ I said. ‘Wouldn’t they be comms blind? They must have released Demiurge into the net in each of the colonial systems.’ That meant that any attempt to communicate would be compromised by a program with all of God’s power but none of its hands-off charm. If Demiurge worked then it meant that Rolleston, Cronin and their lackeys had control of every electronic system connected to the net. That meant just about every electronic system. This would make it difficult to operate, as even interpersonal communications would compromise them, let alone ship-to-ship or ship-to-surface comms.

‘According to our models Demiurge has indeed been released.’

‘Models?’ I demanded.

‘You haven’t heard back from anyone, have you?’ Rannu asked quietly.

‘Not as yet,’ Sharcroft confirmed.

‘Because it’s a fucking suicide mission,’ I spat.

These people made me sick. Come up with these bullshit ideas without any thought of the cost at the sharp end. Special forces operators weren’t cowards, far from it, but we deserved a chance at survival.

That aside, I was appalled at the sheer power of Demiurge and in turn the power handed over to Rolleston and Cronin. They had completely sewn up the four colonial systems.

‘Have you heard anything at all from the colonies since Rolleston escaped?’ Rannu again.

‘The only thing we’ve had from the colonies are ships that have come back with Demiurge in their systems,’ he said.

I was slightly suspicious of how open this guy was being with classified information. It was almost like he was sure that we were part of the team.

‘What happened?’ I asked.

‘God fought off Demiurge’s attack and the craft were destroyed.’

I was impressed. Good for you, Pagan and Morag. Then I started wondering where Morag was again.

‘Well there’s your answer then,’ I told him.

‘It’s not that simple,’ he replied. It never is, I thought. ‘God won because Demiurge only had the ships’ systems, with their limited memory and processing power, behind it. God had much larger resources.’

‘So Morag was right. Size is everything,’ Mudge cracked.

‘Time and a place, Mudge,’ I said. Mudge took the hint. ‘Well this is a fascinating insight into how much you’re fucking up the war effort but I… we’re retired. Best of luck.’ I turned to leave and then turned back. ‘How do we get out of here?’

‘Do you not want to get back at Rolleston?’ Sharcroft asked. His chair was rocking backwards and forwards on its six legs.

‘Do you even know where he is?’

‘We think-’

‘No! You’re fucking guessing. System maybe? Is he with the fleet? Is he on the ground? If so, which planet? Even if you know the planet they’re still fucking big things to search? Do you know exactly where he is? I’ll settle for a city. Because then all we’d have to do is infiltrate a planet, comms blind, fight our way past all his Themtech-enhanced super-troopers and then kill someone who can survive sustained fire from a Retributor. We’re retired.’

‘Assassination, sabotage, fostering resistance, getting the truth-’

‘Don’t say truth!’ I roared, completely losing it. Now everyone in the chamber not tranced in was staring at us. Many of the security types were fingering their weapons nervously. ‘It’s a fucking swear word in your mouth!’

‘Er… Jakob?’ Rannu said. I ignored him.

‘I said no and I mean go and fuck yourself!’

‘Hello, Jakob,’ Morag said. The blood or whatever I had in what was left of my veins froze. I turned to look at her.

She was wearing one of those ridiculous one-piece white suits. She was the only one who looked good in it. She was genuinely pretty, not attractive, not beautiful but pretty, though she looked older and harder than she had when I’d first met her not more than three months ago. She’d kept her hair short. It was spiky, almost boyish now. I tried not to wonder if it was a reaction to the forced femininity of her previous life as a rig prostitute.

I was so pleased to see her. I was so fucking angry to find her here.

Pagan was standing next to her. He looked ridiculous in his white one-piece. He also looked lost without his staff. It was as if they’d tried to rob him of his identity, his stature, by removing his neo-Druidic props and forcing him to dress in institutional chic.

I felt resentment towards him. This was what he’d wanted – influence over Morag. I realised that was irrational jealousy. I was being a prick. If it hadn’t been for Pagan, Crom would’ve won in the Dog’s Teeth.

Rannu nodded at them both. Morag smiled. She seemed genuinely pleased to see him. Another stab of jealousy.

‘Hi, Morag, Pagan,’ Mudge said, admittedly guardedly, but it was a good model of how to behave in the situation.

‘What the fuck are you doing?!’ I screamed at her. I mean Pagan was here too, but this was of course her fault. Besides, I’d never slept with Pagan.

‘Trying to help! What the fuck’s it got to do with you?!’ Her Dundonian accent became broader as, like me, she went from guarded neutral to screaming straight away.

‘He -’ I pointed at Sharcroft ‘- is the fucking enemy!’

‘Set a fox to catch a fox,’ Pagan said. Even he didn’t even sound like he believed it.

‘Shut up, Pagan!’ I shouted, barely glancing at him before turning back to a furious-looking Morag. ‘What are you trying to do? Ensure that everything we did was for nothing! Was meaningless?!’

I was aware of Pagan, Rannu and Mudge all shifting, making themselves comfortable.

‘Oh, that’s right. Don’t fucking bother finding out what we’re doing; just assume the worst and start shouting! Presumably at some point you’ll call me a whore!’

‘Oh look, everyone. Jakob and Morag are fighting,’ Mudge said. ‘Wow, that almost never happens.’

I glanced round. Everyone else was looking bored and irritated. The anger was starting to drain from me.

‘Now I know you’re both Scottish,’ Mudge continued, ‘but not all communication has to be conducted by screaming at each other.’

‘Well, as entertaining as this is, we have work to do. So if you’re not going to help you’ll have to leave,’ Sharcroft said.

‘Are you really going to turn your back on it all?’ Morag asked, more softly now. I could still hear the anger and the resolve in her voice.

‘Turn my back? That’s not fair. Don’t you see that this is just starting the whole mess all over again?’

‘Mr Douglas, do you not think that the Cabal, as you so prosaically called us, has agents on Earth? With your background can you not see the need for secrecy, for operational security?’ Sharcroft asked.

‘For petty empire-building?’ Mudge asked.

‘For fighting a war,’ Pagan said.

‘So God’s over and done with. On to the next thing, aye, Pagan? Drag Morag down with you because you know she’s better, but reflected glory and all that. You fucking sell-out.’ I was just lashing out now.

Pagan looked like I’d slapped him.

‘That’s not fair, man,’ Mudge said.

‘Who exactly do you expect to save you?’ Sharcroft’s modulated electronic voice asked.

‘I never expected to be saved,’ I told the living spider-corpse. It sounded hollow even to me.

‘That’s a cop-out,’ Morag said quietly.

‘So what should I do – turn myself over for dissection or just fuck off and die under an alien sun? Any battle’s going to be fleet and electronic anyway, probably followed by surface insurgency. You forget, I’ve done all this. Besides, aren’t you and Pagan just telling us that it doesn’t matter; there’s always going to be some prick in charge?’ I nodded towards Sharcroft.

‘Didn’t you say it was all about personal responsibility? We helped make this situation; we have to help fix it,’ she said.

‘How? By defecting?’

‘You know we haven’t done that.’

‘The sad fact is, Mr Douglas,’ Sharcroft began again, ‘that I’m very good at this sort of thing. I am the kind of cunt -’ he seemed to savour the word ‘- that you need. As for my previous associations, I don’t care whether you judge me. I don’t have to justify myself to you. You will never understand my motivations because you have never had any power and so cannot understand that once you’ve had it, it becomes very important to maintain it. You’ll do anything.’

‘That sounds like a justification to me,’ Mudge said. ‘Though not a very good one.’

‘No. I’m simply explaining that we are so different we’re never going to see each other’s perspective, so arguing about it is utterly pointless. If it’s any consolation, from your perspective I would now seem to be on the side of the angels.’

‘Oh, that’s exactly what it seems like to me,’ I said sarcastically.

‘Did you really think that with the threat of Rolleston and Cronin looming that the military, industrial and intelligence complex would just dismantle itself? Did you not think that they would adapt to the new circumstances, as difficult as you all, rather foolishly, made it? Can you not see the requirement for us?’

‘There are ways and means…’ I said falteringly. ‘Look, you guys started the whole thing.’

‘Irrelevant except perhaps as testimony at my war crimes trial. We still have a situation to deal with. The question is, are you going to help or are you going to abrogate responsibility?’

‘To work with the likes of you?’

‘Do you think I’m happy about that? I think you’re meddlesome cretins in way over your heads, lashing out because you don’t understand what’s happening around you and too frightened to make the hard decisions. But we all have to play the hand we’re dealt, Mr Douglas.’

‘Things have to change,’ I told him. On the one hand I completely believed this; on the other I realised how empty it sounded.

‘So change them,’ Morag said. ‘Don’t run away.’ Maybe she was right. No, she was right but I just didn’t think I had any more to give. I don’t think any of us did, her and Pagan included. I also didn’t think they had any practical solutions, just death sentences.

‘If only it was that easy,’ I said to her, and then to Sharcroft: ‘Thanks for the job offer but go and fuck yourself, parasite.’

‘And the rest of you?’ Sharcroft asked. Divide and conquer.

‘I’m with the overwrought one,’ Mudge said. Rannu didn’t say anything.

‘We’re done. How do we get out of here?’ I asked.

‘We’re not done. We’ve got something to do, and you guys are coming with us,’ Mudge told Pagan and Morag. Pagan nodded, getting it before I did.

‘They have-’ Sharcroft began.

‘Be quiet,’ Rannu said. He’d been looking thoughtful throughout the conversation but the menace in his tone was unmistakable. Morag looked as confused as I did. I should have known better.

I think we were in Old Mexico. Either that or we were in part of New Mexico that looked like Old Mexico. Anyway it looked like I’d imagined Mexico looked. That could have just been for the tourists, though tourists in this part of town would have to be quite intrepid and well armed.

We were in the upstairs private room of a bar, sorry, cantina. It had a small wrought-iron balcony that looked out over a crowded street of revellers, which is a fancy word for drunk people, the service industries that survive them and the predators that prey on them. It was a pleasantly warm night.

‘To Vicar, Balor, Gibby and Buck!’ Mudge shouted. He was halfway to standing on the table. ‘Better men than us by dint of having the common courtesy to die doing stupid things!’ He knocked back his shot of tequila and then chased it with a long draw from a bottle of the same.

‘To Vicar, Balor, Buck and Gibby!’ we all shouted and knocked back our shots. I grimaced. I struggled with tequila, conceptually. As far as I knew it was rotting whisky. Why would you purposefully let whisky rot? It didn’t make sense. Also I didn’t like the way the worm in the bottle glowed. In fact I didn’t like that there was a worm at all.

Mudge fell off the table. We laughed at his pain. He tried to get up but Rannu knocked his leg out from under him.

‘Don’t do that,’ Mudge slurred. ‘Spensive.’ I think he meant his prosthetic legs. When you’re a front-line, or in our case behind-lines, soldier you don’t think in terms of the grand scheme. You think about small objectives – kill someone/something, disrupt a supply line, extract another squad in trouble. You assume that you’re part of a bigger picture and that what you’re doing will help, despite the doubts. Sitting there and thinking that you successfully saved an entire alien race from being assimilated by bad guys was just too big to get your mind around.

Getting back in-system and not ending up in prison, or in my case being dissected, had taken up everyone’s attention, and then we’d each had things that we’d felt had to be taken care of. In doing so we’d forgotten that the four people mostly responsible for our success, the four people who were responsible for us being alive, needed a send-off. They needed remembrance.

Don’t get me wrong, if Pagan hadn’t figured out Crom’s betrayal then we would’ve been dead, and if Morag hadn’t successfully established contact with Them we’d definitely have been dead. Vicar had sacrificed himself to try and give Morag and I enough time to escape from Rolleston. Buck gave his life fighting the Cabal, killed by the Grey Lady. Balor had kept Crom – I wouldn’t think of that abomination as my friend Gregor – busy long enough for Gibby to fly the ship into it.

Rannu and I had largely been spectators. Admittedly spectators fighting for our lives against Them. Mudge had been recording it all for posterity. He’d made them heroes. A difficult word to take seriously, particularly in the military, but it applied here.

So here we were to send them off, their wake. I suspect they deserved a global celebration. What they got was the five of us drunk out of our minds telling the funniest stories about them we could remember. Mudge told us about the time he’d been hiding in New York. Balor had a meeting with someone from the American government. To make the government man nervous he’d taken the meeting naked, sporting a huge erection in a room completely covered in thinscreens showing footage from wildlife vizzes of fish spawning. Mudge and I told the story about Vicar on the Santa Maria giving me the lock burner he’d hidden in his arse. I told a story I’d heard second-hand about Buck and Gibby accidentally bombing a Them surface-to-air emplacement with live chickens meant for a dinner being held by some hopelessly optimistic officers.

Everyone had a story of some kind, mainly about Balor, who was better known. Many of them were probably pure myth. Mudge and I knew a reasonable amount about Buck and Gibby, and we all had something to say about our time with them. We got more drunk.

I hoped that the Hard Luck Commancheros had done the same for Buck and Gibby back in Crawling Town. I also hoped that the pirate nation of New York had done the same for Balor. Though reports out of New York pointed to widespread conflict between factions that had previously been held together by Balor’s sheer force of personality.

It was Vicar I felt sorry for. He’d never seemed to have any people around him. I’d only known him on the Santa Maria, the trial and then in Dundee. It had mainly been a business relationship. He had provided me with tech I needed when I could afford it. I didn’t think his desperate congregation was going to miss him. Maybe the food and the clothes he gave out, but not all the hellfire and damnation. Did he have any family that would miss him? Did they know? Maybe it was something I should look into. I could tell them just what sort of person the mad old bastard really was. Make them proud. If they cared.

‘The sun’s coming up!’ Mudge announced, and the night did seem to be developing a red tinge to it.

‘You’re not thinking of quitting now,’ Pagan managed after a number of attempts. ‘Lightweight,’ he added.

‘Nope. This wake has moved into the next phase. The one I like to call whore phase!’ Mudge announced. ‘Though I have in the past called it sexually transmitted disease phase.’ Mudge tried standing up but failed. He turned to look at Morag. ‘Don’t worry. I didn’t mean you.’ We all stopped.

Morag glared at him but then cracked up laughing. She reached over and tugged at his cheek. ‘S’all right, love. I’m not your type, am I?’

‘Nope, not enough penises,’ Mudge agreed. Rannu, who was quiet when drunk – at least I hoped he was drunk, the amount he’d had – seemed to be puzzling this comment through.

‘How many penises does Morag have?’ he finally asked. We fell about laughing. Rannu just looked confused. We’d had a dangerous amount to drink.

‘The question is: how many penises does he want?’ Pagan suggested.

‘All of them! All the penises!’ Mudge shouted. There was cheering from the street. ‘Besides, Morag and Jakob have to go and have angry make-up sex!’

‘What! Now wait…’ I managed, but Morag just grabbed me.

‘C’mon.’

There was an urgency to it. A need, for both of us. It wasn’t angry but nor was it tender. She rode me as I held her up, her back against the wall of the aging, rotting room at the top of the cantina , the glass door to the balcony open to the dawn air. Maybe it was passion – difficult to remember. She led the way. She was in control. She had to be.

Because afterwards she sobbed and shook in my arms as I tried to fight off the hangover I so richly deserved. It was the frustrated sobbing of someone who can’t shed tears because their eyes are metal and plastic now. I held her. I said nothing. This wasn’t just the normal emotional retardation of a male not knowing what to do when his girl’s upset. I knew there was nothing I could say.

I knew what was wrong. We’d talked about it when we’d finally had the chance to in the Dog’s Teeth. When we’d finally had the chance to do the talking bit that normally comes first with people in a relationship. Talking was difficult when people are trying to kill you all the time.

I think she liked sex. I think she liked me enough to want to have sex with me, for whatever that was worth, but she’d spent so much of her life being used. She said at times that she’d felt little more than an appliance, the cheap alternative to sense booths. That made sex complicated for her. She wanted it; she liked it; but then doing it made her feel cheap. Doing it reminded her of so much bad stuff. What could you say to that? All I could do was hold her.

It didn’t help that when we had been really intimate, when we’d shared a sense link, felt what the other felt, I’d fucked it up by getting scared and acting like a prick. In my defence it was because the alien essence that lived in Morag’s headware had taken that moment to enter my head and change my dreams. That still didn’t help Morag or excuse my behaviour.

I held her until she stopped crying. I guess I was surprised that she was still able to be this vulnerable with me after all the bad things I’d said to her in the past. Then it occurred to me – if not me then who? Then we made love again. This time more tenderly. This time she didn’t cry. Afterwards she fell asleep. I resisted sleep for as long as I could. I wanted to watch her, and sometimes sleep wasn’t so good for me. Eventually I drifted off.

Morag had been training with Rannu. Mainly physical training but some hand-to-hand stuff, the kind the Regiment taught us as well as the Muay Thai that he excelled at. She was still hot and sweaty, my arms wrapped around her as we looked out over Maw City. It was like a bioluminescent termite mound but somehow beautiful at the same time. It was difficult to explain. Their industry was somehow hypnotic. The others were further back in the cave.

Pagan and Rannu were discreetly keeping their distance and Mudge was too ill to be obnoxious. Actually that wasn’t true. He was too ill to move; he was never too ill to be obnoxious. This was as close to privacy as we were going to get. I was frustrated because this was the first time in a long time we weren’t in immediate danger.

Morag took the metal of my right hand in her much smaller one. The tactile sensors in the hand sent messages to my brain, a simulation of touch. With my real hand, albeit a hand that had armour and enhanced muscle under the skin, I stroked her hair.

‘Why don’t you train me?’ she asked.

‘Laziness, and Rannu’s better than me,’ I told her.

‘Not because you don’t want me to know this stuff?’

‘You need to know this stuff, I guess, but I’m not keen for you to be in harm’s way, if that’s what you mean.’

‘You don’t have to be protective all the time,’ she said, but there was no sharpness in her tone.

Eventually I think I worked out what she was getting at.

‘I have faith in your abilities, if that’s what you mean,’ I told her.

She smiled. See? Given time I could think of things to say that weren’t just going to upset her.

We sat there for a while watching the industry of the alien habitat. All the zero-G manoeuvring looked so graceful, much more so than the clumsy machines we utilised. I guessed that’s what came of evolving in vacuum.

‘What are They like?’ I asked after we’d sat in silence for a while. Morag gave this some thought.

‘Very different. They think as one and They just haven’t developed certain things that we take for granted.’

‘Like what?’

‘They don’t understand that we don’t think as one like Them. They can’t see how some of us would act against others of us. The biggest problem I had was trying to explain what happened with Crom. Even the concept of the Cabal is beyond Them. They just don’t get duplicity at all.’

‘That would explain their tactics during the war.’

‘There’s something very soothing about communication with Them. Something warm. Like this place.’

‘Womb-like?’ I wasn’t sure where that had come from. Again she gave it some thought before answering.

‘I wouldn’t know.’ She sounded distant.

She was quiet for a while.

‘I can trance in, you know,’ she said. I looked down at her and found her looking back at me, searching for my response.

‘Yeah?’ I managed. I wasn’t sure what to say.

‘I mean, I haven’t but I know I can.’ She looked away from me.

‘Have you heard of Project Spiral?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘Vicar worked on it. It was the American and British governments’ attempt to hack what they thought was Their comms net,’ she said.

‘But it wasn’t, was it? It’s Them, Their minds.’

‘Yes, but it’s Their comms net as well. They have the equivalent of biotechnological telepathy.’

‘Maybe, maybe not. You could argue we have that with integral comms links,’ I said.

‘I don’t think it’s the same. I’m going to trance in. With my own systems and Ambassador’s help I should be able to do it.’

‘You know what happened in Operation Spiral?’ I asked, sounding calmer than I felt.

‘No, do you? I’d be interested, but God’s so far away. I know the results of what happened. Everyone brain-burned or mad. Vicar-’

‘Was the best of them,’ I finished for her.

‘But they didn’t know that it was Their mind and they hadn’t been allowed in.’

I wanted to talk her out of it or at least tell her to be careful. I didn’t. I was sort of sure she knew what she was doing though this was uncharted territory for all of us. How did an ex-Rigs hooker end up on Earth’s first contact team? Okay, not first contact, but still.

‘You can come. I can piggyback you.’ She seemed to be serious. She looked cross when I started laughing. I wasn’t laughing at her; I was laughing at the ridiculous, mind-blowing scope of the thing.

‘Me in an alien mind? I think Mudge would be a better person for the job.’

‘I don’t want Mudge with me.’ She sounded a little put out.

‘I just…’ I struggled for the words to try and say what I meant. ‘All I’ve ever really wanted is to not be hungry, or in pain or frightened, or so tired all the time. I don’t think I want much – to make a living in a way where I don’t have to get shot at or kill other people, like my dad did after he was discharged.’ Before some rich bastard killed him because he could. ‘Then a good book, some Miles Davis in the background and a dram.’ Morag was watching me intently but also smiling. ‘Now you’re talking about going surfing in the mind of an alien race who I’ve spent all my adult life trying to kill, and they’ve been doing likewise to me. I’ve no frame of reference for this.’

‘Are you frightened of it?’ she asked. This I had to think about. I should be, I really should be.

‘No,’ I finally said.

‘Isn’t this how it’s done?’

‘What?’

‘Peace. You try to understand the other guy.’ It was quite a naive thing to say. It helped remind me of our age difference. Something I tried not to think too much about in case I didn’t like the answers I came up with.

‘I don’t think so. I think powerful people make deals. Your way would be better but difficult to do after a war because we’re so used to thinking of the other guys as less than human.’

‘My way would be better if we had done it before the war.’

‘So they’ll just let you in for the asking?’ I said, changing the subject.

‘I won’t be the first.’

I looked down at her to see her grinning mischievously at me. It was a hint of the childhood she’d never had.

‘What do you mean?’

Her expression changed. ‘Are you all right with this now? With what they did to you?’

Another complicated question. I stroked her hair and looked down into her eyes. They were like mirror images of her real eyes. Now she would only ever see me through a machine, they same way I could see her. It had been so long that I couldn’t remember what it was like to see with real eyes.

‘When you first get augmented it’s really cool. All your new capabilities are exhilarating, I guess. You’re stronger, much faster, see and hear further, all that. But a horrible amount of my body is machinery.’ I felt her running her fingers up the scarred skin of my chest. She would feel the hardness of the armour under the skin. ‘You start to feel like part of you is missing, dislocated somehow. It’s like you know something is wrong but you don’t know what. I’ve heard people say that they feel like they’re haunting themselves. It’s the sort of thing that people say just before they go psycho.’ I played the tips of my fingers over the plugs in the back of her neck. ‘I’m just eager to hold on to what I’ve got left, I mean really eager.’ She pulled her hair down over the plugs in the back of her neck.

‘How do you feel?’

‘Really good,’ I answered straight away and then found myself surprised by the answer.

‘Everyone thought you were going to freak out.’

‘I did, didn’t I?’

‘Not as much as we thought you would. Mudge said you’d either try and throw yourself through the membrane -’ fat chance, I didn’t like vacuum ‘- or feed yourself into the toilet creature.’ She shivered as she said this. I don’t think she liked the toilet creature much.

‘Yeah, well, nobody else is an alien.’

‘You said I was.’

‘How many times do I have to apologise for that? Look, I saw what happened to Crom.’ Don’t call it Gregor. ‘And I don’t want to be like Rolleston.’

‘You don’t want to walk through railgun fire?’

I gave that some thought.

‘Depends on the cost.’ I wondered if I did have any extraordinary capabilities. I guess there was no real way to find out until something really bad happened to me. Well either that or I started self-harming.

‘Do you feel human?’ she asked.

I had to laugh at this.

‘What?’

‘The weird thing is, I feel more human than I have in a long time.’

‘So you’re going to accept it and, you know…’

‘What?’

‘Not be a difficult tosser about it?’

I started laughing as she smiled again. We lapsed into silence, enjoying each other’s company. Watching the industrious aliens, trying to ignore the sound of Mudge retching. It was romantic.

‘What are They going to do?’ I asked. The intelligence we had on Crom was sketchy at best, but the Cabal probably still had the ability to manufacture more. They could either destroy or control Them if they wanted.

‘They’re leaving,’ Morag said. She sounded so very sad. Like crying sad. ‘We’re too chaotic, too dangerous, too… too hateful, and duplicitous and greedy and violent.’ Now she sounded angry. ‘Even though we have enough of everything.’

I wondered how she could even imagine that after growing up in Fintry and the Rigs, where everything you needed just to live had to be fought for in one way or another. I held her close to me. Again she was being naive, but I couldn’t fault her logic. We as a race did have enough. I didn’t really have anything I could say to her.

‘They’re going far, far away, all of Them. As far as They can get, and when They see us coming in the future, if we have one, They’ll go further still because we can’t be trusted. It was what I told them to do.’

I wasn’t sure she quite understood the significance of what she had said. Here was an eighteen-year-old girl from what middle-class corporate wage slaves would describe as the dregs of society – though those dregs seemed to get larger and larger every day – advising an entire alien race on its foreign policy.

‘And They’re going to do that?’ I asked.

She nodded. ‘Our loss.’

She was right. This was a race that had gone from inert singing space coral to the technological equivalent of humanity in just a few years after the Cabal had provided the correct stimulus. Had we managed to communicate with Them peacefully the advances we could have made in biotechnology would have been staggering. Also I had heard Them sing.

Morag stood up and took me by the arm, pulling me after her. I stood and allowed myself to be dragged along.

‘Watch this,’ she said. She took me along a short corridor towards another membrane that led deeper into the rock. She pulled me towards it, reached out and pushed her hand through it.

‘Morag!’ But her hand was fine. She stepped through into another area of the asteroid. As she did the springy comfortable moss that I recognised from our side of the membrane started to appear under her bare feet. She pulled me through. There seemed to be a rush of air and it was slightly colder but warming up. The moss was continuing to grow in front of our eyes down the corridor.

Morag pulled me down the corridor into an area that I can only describe as a grotto. It didn’t seem to have the utilitarian but often beautiful look that Them-forms had. This looked like a human take on some kind of fairy-tale alien garden.

‘You made this?’ I asked her.

‘No, They did, but I asked Them to.’

‘Its not what you know,’ I said under my breath. She ignored me. Instead she lay down on the moss and pulled me down on top of her. I covered her mouth with mine.

This felt like a reward. Not Morag giving herself to me but both of us being here, alive. It felt like a reward for everything we’d been through because we’d been trying hard to do the right thing. I don’t know if we had, but intent’s got to count for something.

I just wish that Balor, Buck, Vicar and Gibby had made it and got their reward.

I wondered if I was going to start wanting to go home. Morag took me somewhere else.

‘So you’re really not coming?’

She was sitting up in the bed, the cover wrapped around her while I stood at the window looking out over the rooftops of wherever we were. The heat haze almost made it look pretty. I turned to look at her.

‘Morag, I know it seems like copping out to you but, as insane as the last three months have been, you weren’t there for the previous twelve years. The crawling through mud, the getting injured, starving, no sleep, bad drugs, fear all the time and seeing people you like die so often you stopped bothering to get to know them. I’ve had enough, and despite what you may think I have no stomach for killing humans.’

‘But it’s all right to kill Them?’ There was no judgement there, just a question.

‘It’s a lot easier, and They were mostly trying to kill me at the time. Look, I don’t know if I’m me or the alien…’ She started to interrupt me. ‘No, wait. But I should be dead, lucky breaks in combat aside.’ Though, thinking about it, none of them seemed lucky; they felt like they’d been won through blood and pain. ‘The radiation poisoning should have killed me. I’ve got a second chance in hopefully a changed world. I think it would be stupid and wasteful to just throw that away.’

She regarded me carefully for a while. I couldn’t work out the expression on her face. Then she smiled. ‘I think you are the alien.’

This confused me. ‘I thought-’

‘It sounds like you’re starting to care about yourself.’

Maybe she was right, but I didn’t want to analyse it too much. ‘I think you may have underestimated how much of a coward I’ve always been.’ I don’t know why I couldn’t look at her as I said it.

She dropped the sheet and climbed off the bed, coming over and wrapping her arms around me. I could feel how much her body had changed. How much tougher she had become. I could remember how fragile I’d thought she was. She kissed me. Brave girl after what I’d been drinking last night.

‘I don’t think you’re a coward. I don’t think you’re copping out. I just wished, you know…’ Now she couldn’t look at me. She laid her head against my chest.

‘That I’d be around?’ She nodded, her hair brushing against me. ‘Look, if you’re serious about this, if you think that we could be together without screaming all the time or trying to kill each other or me not doing anything stupid, then I can hang around. I just don’t want to have anything to do with that prick Sharcroft. Besides, I always fancied being a cowboy.’

She looked confused. ‘A cowboy? Like a cybrid?’ she asked.

I laughed. ‘No, really not.’ Then suddenly she was sad again. ‘What?’

‘It’s just that… being here wouldn’t help…’

I didn’t understand. Slowly it dawned on me what she was talking about.

‘Morag, are you going off-world?’

Any warm feelings I’d had were replaced by a very cold fear crawling through me.

‘We need to stop talking now.’

‘Morag,’ I grabbed her, my metal hand and my real one wrapping around the wiry muscle of her upper arms. ‘Tell me you’re not going to the colonies.’

She looked straight into the black lenses of my eyes. ‘Let me go, now.’ There was steel in her voice. ‘Didn’t take you long to change back, did it?’ I let her go.

‘Morag, it’s-’

‘Too dangerous? Again? What is dangerous is you keep talking about this.’

‘I was going to say a death sentence.’

‘You need to stop now.’

‘You’re right. There’s no need to hang around here because that twisted, evil half-dead bastard is going to get you killed out of pure fucking speculation.’

‘If you don’t with your big mouth.’

She grabbed her clothes and stormed out past a surprised-looking Rannu. I wasn’t sure I’d ever seen the normally calm Nepalese look surprised before. I don’t know why he looked surprised. Morag and I were always fighting.

Being naked I decided to climb back into the bed and pull the sheets up. Then I tried looking for any leftover rotting whisky. Rannu stood at the bottom of the bed. He seemed uncomfortable.

‘Sit down, Rannu,’ I told him. I’d finally found a bottle with some tequila left in it. I took a swig and offered it to Rannu. He looked pained.

‘Hangover?’ I asked.

‘Either that or I have severely offended the gods.’

‘It was a good send-off,’ I said, mostly for something to say. It had only been three ex-squaddies, a computer hacker and a journalist getting drunk in whatever shithole this was. I think they deserved parades and celebrations like the sort I’d seen in history vizzes and read about. Rannu nodded anyway, I think to humour me.

‘You’re leaving?’

‘Apparently there’s nothing to stay here for.’ Though I had no idea what I was going to do next. ‘You going home?’

‘Not yet.’

‘You have a family, kids,’ I told him.

‘Which is why I must go.’ I recognised the resolve in his voice.

‘You ever done anything this dumb?’ Being a member of the Regiment he would have done a number of really dumb things under orders. He’d also done some dumb things with us.

‘Not quite,’ he said.

‘It’s a death sentence. This isn’t Them; this is people with near-total surveillance who understand strategy, tactics, tradecraft, who know your training and have superior physical and possibly technological abilities. This is not the way to fight this war.’

‘More than anything we need information.’

That I couldn’t deny. ‘How are you going to get it out?’

He just looked at me.

‘We can’t hide from God; how can you hide from Demiurge?’

‘If I couldn’t hide from God then we wouldn’t be having this conversation,’ he said evenly. He seemed more blase about operational security than Morag had. He must have checked out the place for surveillance first.

‘Are you going to let her go on her own?’ he asked. I had not been so pissed off at him since he’d pulled my arm off and used it to beat me unconscious.

‘Fuck you, Rannu. Fuck you and fuck your emotional blackmail!’ I think he was taken aback by the amount of anger in my response. ‘But as we’re raising the stakes a little, when your body isn’t found what do you want me to tell your kids? Daddy died on a fool’s fucking errand working for exactly the kind of pricks we all nearly died fighting in the first place.’

He looked genuinely hurt by the time I’d finished. Genuinely upset and the most emotional I think I’d ever seen him.

‘Don’t talk about my family again,’ he said and turned and walked out of the room. I felt like shit. Despite one-sided attempts to kill each other early on in our relationship, Rannu had been a rock. He’d dealt with all the shit that had been thrown at him and never complained.

I saw the cigarette smoke in the doorway.

‘Are you recording this?’ I asked Mudge.

‘Yep. Fuck their operational security. You know there were a couple of Sharcroft’s people watching us last night and apparently a surveillance team in the opposite building?’

I’d seen the tails but didn’t know about the team. Made sense though. Problem was, these days your surveillance couldn’t go over the net. Even radio waves were a risk, because the moment God knew then everyone could know if they just asked.

‘Rannu dealt with them?’ I asked.

‘Non-lethally.’ That would explain why he disappeared for half an hour at the beginning of the evening. ‘He then cleared our rooms of bugs. Made sure that there was nothing God-like nearby and set up white noise and other counter-surveillance stuff. Hence the reason your total lack of discretion didn’t kill anyone.’

‘I thought you hated all this operational security stuff.’

‘I do. Stops me from finding out all sorts of things. You don’t though. Were you trying to blow their op before she gets started?’

‘Are you coming in?’ I asked. Mudge spun into the doorway. He had a pair of expensive-looking designer sunglasses over his camera eyes and a bottle of tequila in one hand.

‘You hear everything?’

‘I didn’t listen to you have sex. Much.’

‘That’s weird, man.’

Mudge dragged a chair over and sat down, putting both his cowboy boots up on the bed.

‘Give me a drink,’ I demanded.

Mudge shook his head and took a swig from the bottle, grinned at me and then lit up a cigarette.

‘Fag?’ he asked. I was sorely tempted.

‘Just give me a drink. Stop being selfish.’ He threw the bottle to me. I took the top off, ignored the glowing worm and took a long swig of the foul-tasting stuff.

‘Mudge.’ I examined the bottle. ‘You basically go around being obnoxious to people yet they still talk to you. I try not to be obnoxious and always end up pissing people off.’

He gave this some thought. ‘I think you’re more hurtful than I am,’ he finally said.

‘I don’t mean to be. Besides, you say hurtful things.’

‘Could you sound any gayer? I manage people’s expectations. They expect me to be obnoxious so when I tell the truth they’re less surprised. So what’s next? Gonna alienate me?’

‘May as well. You going as well?’

‘Fuck that. It’s a mug’s game. Look, I got a rush driving around in landies, or flying around in gunships, shooting stuff and blowing shit up, but you’re right. They don’t know what they’re getting into. They’ve got the training, or rather Rannu has, but he’s never had to put it into action. It’s an insurgency and they’ll have to be criminals, terrorists…’

‘We’ve done that.’

‘Not like this. Look, God love you, Jakob, but your big plan to deal with the Cabal and not kill any more people – and, you know, good for you, as much as I disapprove of this new pacifist you – was to get some big guns and go on system-wide TV. I mean, I get it. I loved it, but fucking subtle we are not. There’s just too much we don’t know, and without any way to communicate or feed back intelligence it’s a waste of time. Actions like this are part of a big plan; if they’re completely isolated then it’s a waste of time.’

I was taken aback by Mudge’s understanding. ‘So I’m right?’

‘You sound surprised. Yes, you’re right.’

‘But they’re not stupid. Did you tell them this?’

‘No.’

‘Why not?’

‘Its funnier when they all hate you.’ I glared at him. ‘Besides, I’m not sure I liked the look in their eyes.’

‘Mudge, none of them have real eyes.’

He just smiled at me and took another drag on his cigarette.

‘What are you going to do then?’ I asked after taking another disgusting swig.

‘Can I get you some lime and salt? No? Well we’re fucking celebrities now.’

I wasn’t sure about this. Fortunately I’d been dying of radiation sickness at the time so now that I was a healthy alien/human hybrid I looked different, but I’d still been recognised several times. Reactions were different. Some were supportive, enthusiastic, got what we’d done and why we’d done it. Many were downright hostile, blaming us for the war and their new near-total lack of privacy. Most were just suspicious. I’d punched the first guy who’d asked me for an autograph. I hadn’t meant to; he’d just come up to me a little too quickly.

‘I’ve been offered a number of jobs,’ Mudge continued. ‘Mainly in journalism but some in presenting. I intend to take the most prestigious and well paid first and then work my way down as I get fired for doing the most outrageous thing I can think of.’

‘I think you’ll like that. Good luck.’

‘You?’

He was regarding me carefully. I think he knew that this was a question I was dreading. I didn’t want to go and die in some shitty colony but I didn’t know what I was going to do. I didn’t have any cash. There was no way I was ever going to be psychologically capable of cashing in on my notoriety. I’d seen ex-special forces in the world of entertainment – it always made me cringe. Also I was well enough known and the results of our actions were still suitably up in the air for my notoriety to work both ways. Was I really just going to go back to pit fighting, scheme racing, ripping off people weaker than me, and the booths? If I was, then I still had to get back to Dundee.

Why would I want to go back to Dundee? The only reason I could think of was my bike.

‘I don’t know,’ I finally said. ‘I guess I’m staying around here and looking for work. Then who knows?’

‘Is that in case you see her?’

‘No, it’s because I’m fucking skint.’ And far too proud to ask if she still had any of the money that Vicar had given us.

‘I got you covered.’

This pissed me off. Mudge could be like this sometimes. He came from a reasonably well-off family and his job paid a lot more than being in the SAS had. He’d often offer to pay for things. It was patronising. I didn’t need charity. Okay, maybe I needed charity but still, I had my pride and a bottle of tequila. Admittedly it was Mudge’s tequila.

‘Look, Mudge, I’ve told you about-’

‘Relax. I’m not about to further abuse your fragile Celtic pride. I made some investments on everyone’s behalf.’ He looked quite smug.

‘What gave you the right-’

‘Okay, let me put it another way. I capitalised on all our suffering.’

A file was blinking away in the corner of my IVD. Mudge had just sent it to me. I opened it up and saw what he was talking about. He’d sold the story, including the download and broadcast rights to an edited version of all the stuff that had happened.

‘You should have asked us about this.’

‘Jake, you get that I’m a journalist, don’t you? Don’t let my cameo as a revolutionary fool you – this is my job. It’s the one thing I take seriously.’ All flippancy was gone now.

I remember just after I’d first met Mudge he’d quoted some pre-FHC writer who’d said that a journalist’s job was to charm and betray. They needed to get to know who they were writing about so they could reveal – not all, but what needed to be revealed for the story. Suddenly that struck me as a very lonely existence.

On the other hand, if these figures were right he’d made a fucking fortune.

‘Merchandising?’ I demanded.

Mudge started laughing.

‘You’ll love it, man. They’ve even got these cute little animatronic action figures. The one of you has really realistic sores from the rad sickness, but you get likeness rights on every one sold. Mind you, if we’re inadvertently responsible for starting the war that wipes Earth out or if the Cabal win we might not sell very many. Also I think you’re the ugliest. Balor, Gregor and Morag all tested well, as did I of course. Best of all, we make money off the figures of the villains.’

‘Rolleston and Josephine?’ I asked incredulously. Mudge was grinning. ‘They’re going to castrate you and dip the wound in biting insects when they get hold of you.’

I tried to imagine how angry the pair of them would be when they found out. As pissed off as I was by the idea of little action figures of me, if the figures were correct then I was not just looking at a sum of money but an income. It was like some kind of financial sorcery. How could I be earning this much money if I wasn’t actually doing anything?

I continued reviewing the information that Mudge had sent me. He’d done well. It looked to me like he’d squeezed as much money out of this as possible. Everything had been divided equally, though arguably he’d done all the work. It wasn’t just Morag, Rannu, Pagan, Mudge and me. He’d set up trusts in Buck, Gibby and Balor’s names. He told me he was going to see if they had any of what he called ‘genuine’ family to hand the money over to. What he meant was he didn’t want to give it to any freeloading opportunists who were vaguely related. If he couldn’t find anyone he was going to give their money to charitable organisations that he thought they would have approved of. He reckoned it would mainly be veterans’ charities, maybe shark conservation for Balor.

‘So? Does this change things?’ Mudge asked.

‘It really does.’

‘So what are you going to do?’

‘Retire.’ Then I saw something that caught my eye. ‘You’re calling your memoirs My Struggle?’

Mudge was grinning again. ‘Yes, but only to upset people. I got the idea from the Wait.’

3

The Park

Initially I’d thought that taking the Mag Lev back to Britain would be interesting. The journey, I mean. But despite the incredible feat of engineering that was the transatlantic tunnel, at the end of the day it was just a long dark tunnel. Mudge and I got drunk. It had been Mudge’s idea to take the Mag Lev, but go first class rather than take a faster sub-orbital. We only just managed not to end up in the train’s brig.

In London, which Mudge had always described as his spiritual home, we went out drinking again. I stayed for a few days. I even met his mum. We went drinking with her as well. Suddenly, why Mudge was like he was started to make more sense. Apparently she’d used a lot of recreational pharmaceuticals when she was pregnant.

He also showed me some tricks of the moneyed classes – how to get places, transport authorisations, that sort of thing. More to the point, he checked out my legal status back in the homeland. We’d done some very naughty things in the name of what we’d thought was the greater good. Critics called us terrorists. I don’t know why. We hadn’t been trying to scare anyone; quite the opposite.

Air Marshal Kaaria of Kenyan Orbital Command had been appointed by the UN to extensively debrief us when we returned, as had numerous dodgy intelligence types. It seemed the Air Marshal, who I think was a grudging fan of ours, had managed to smooth things over with the authorities. Which was good, as it meant we weren’t arrested and executed for using concrete-eating microbes on the Atlantis Spoke. The authorities had decided to, if not forgive us, then ignore us until it suited them.

We arrived back just after a hastily called election. It had surprised no one when God revealed that our government of whichever indistinguishable non-event of a political party was in power at the time was a bunch of shits. Those that weren’t in hip deep with the Cabal were sucking other suitably sleazy and unpleasant big-business cock at the expense of the electorate. So they went. Though I’m not sure who people thought would do better.

Our new prime minister was a badly scarred submariner kept together with cybernetic parts who had served in the freezing depths of Proxima Centauri Prime. Reputedly she had served with Balor, though to her apparent credit she wasn’t making a big thing of it. She had grown up in the East End in London’s Bangladeshi community. She was a cockney through and through and made no apologies for her family’s extensive connections to organised crime, though she had distanced herself from their criminal activities. She had run on a platform of national management instead of party politics and had a lot of support in the veteran community. Mudge liked her and compared her to some pre-FHC prime minister I’d never heard of. He’d texted me some books about the era.

Books. That was the best thing about money. I could afford real, old books with paper and bindings and the smell. And I could afford to download lots of good-quality music and buy real single malt Scotch from the park distilleries in the Highlands. Funnily enough I had no interest in the sense booths.

There was a better view on the Mag Lev from London to Dundee. Much of it went through parkland. I’d started paying attention to the date in my IVD. It was November now. I hadn’t been back to Scotland since August. The hot summer had been replaced by a bleak grey autumn of near-constant driving rain.

The Mag Lev curved in over the Tay. It was slate-grey, broken by white-crested waves blown by a harsh, cold northern wind. I looked out the window. The four-track Mag Lev bridge was raised over an old pre-FHC rail bridge. It was a heritage site of some kind.

Even the bright colours of the Ginza were somewhat muted by the driving rain. I could see the Rigs to the east. They looked inert, still and dead, no sign of life. I couldn’t shake the feeling that with my new-found wealth, my first-class ticket on a Mag Lev and my legal transport papers, I’d somehow betrayed them.

I thought about how I’d left Dundee. Sneaking out on a drug-smuggling sub. It had seemed like everyone was trying to kill us. Now this.

Betrayal or not, the Rigs fucking depressed me. Perhaps it was my new optimism, what Morag had said about caring about myself. Or perhaps it was my prospects, the changes that money brought, but I could not bring myself to stay and I had no reason to. This was a place you came when you had nowhere else to go. There was nothing holding me here. After all, the closest thing I had to a friend here was the slug-like sense pusher Hamish, and I really didn’t like him. Mind you, the Grey Lady may have killed him on her last visit.

I’d lost my Rigs legs. It was with difficulty that I made my way across the rain-slick metal of the structures. Past the houses made of salvaged scrap, where people crowded round trash fires for warmth. I avoided a mugging and was able to give money to some begging veterans who hadn’t managed to hold on to replacement limbs and eyes when they were discharged. I hoped it would help them for a little while, but I couldn’t handle the way their empty eye sockets seemed to stare at me.

I stayed away from the huge ring of fused metal surrounding clear water where the Forbidden Pleasure had been before it was destroyed by an orbital weapon at Rolleston’s bidding. He’d been trying to kill Ambassador. It had been like using a sledgehammer on an ant. More ghosts walking behind me.

I had come for one thing. It had better still be there.

As I approached the storage facility I heard the ringing sound of metal being banged on metal. It was coming from inside the tubular steel of the Rigs. It was coming from the world of the Twists.

I made my way across a badly swaying bridge made of driftwood and rusted corrugated iron. The armed guards, who came with the money I’d spent on storage, met me. They had honoured the contract. The bike was still there. It would have been sold off at the end of December if I hadn’t returned. I’d always paid in advance because my Triumph Argo was the one thing I could not stand losing. Besides, it was a source of income when I went scheme racing.

I ran some diagnostic programs on the bike and did some maintenance. It needed a few adjustments. I was going to need some synthetic oil and a few replacement parts sooner rather than later, but overall it was in good shape.

I was plugged into the bike’s system, kneeling next to it, letting the 3000cc engine idle, when he appeared. One moment there was nobody there; the next there was a small figure on top of one of the tubular supports of the old oil rig. I had a good look around to see if he had brought any friends with him. If he had I couldn’t see them. The heavy rain made a ringing noise as it hit the metal superstructure.

I recognised him. His name was Robby. He was a Twist, someone whose genes had been fucked by the war or pollutants so his growth had been stunted. Many of them lived in the metal tubes of the Rigs. Robby was the barman at McShit’s, a pub owned unsurprisingly by McShit, the crippled Twist who ran the inner world of the Rigs and who’d risked his livelihood and life by helping Morag and I escape.

‘You look a lot less desperate,’ he said. His accent was very broad Dundonian.

I was tempted to make a crack about his appearing trick. He was like a character from a children’s story, suddenly appearing small and wizened in front of me. That would have been low, however. The Twists get a hard enough time of it as it is and their community had done nothing but help Morag and I. Although admittedly they had got paid.

‘Not staying around then?’ he asked.

I stood up, unplugging myself from the bike’s systems, the diagnostic readout disappearing from my IVD.

‘Hey, Robby. No, I’m not hanging around.’

Robby made a point of looking me up and down. It was still me, the same armoured coat, though it had been cleaned and the temperature regulation system had been fixed. The same jeans and boots, though they were also clean on, and I was wearing a new jumper. And I’d had a shower and a shave on the train. I was also well fed.

‘Done all right for yourself.’ His tone was neutral but it was a forced sort of neutral. ‘Saw you on the viz. I think everyone did. They said it wasnae you, nae the heedbanger from the north side cubes, nae him, but I kenned and looked it up afterwards.’

I was wandering where this was going.

‘Does McShit want to see me?’ I asked. His answering smile held no humour in it whatsoever. That was how I knew that Rolleston had killed McShit. ‘I’m sorry, Robby. What happened?’

‘What do you think happened?’ Here was the anger he’d been holding back. ‘Those English bastards cut their way into our world, killed any who got in their way. Tortured McShit, not immersion, nothing fancy mind, not for us wee folk. They just beat him, broke parts of him, cut him till they got what they needed. What little he knew. Tell me, was it worth it, half my pals dying, I mean?’

It was a while before I answered. ‘I think so.’

‘Really! What with another war on the way, this time with our ain folks?’

‘They forced me into a situation where it was run or die. I’m sorry I dragged you all into this but McShit knew what he was doing. I didn’t lie to him about what kind of people were after me.’

‘Aye, I ken that. I’m sure you can justify it to yourself. It just seems to me that all my pals died so even more people could die. Maybe it would’ve been better if only you’d died.’

He was doing a very good job of making me feel like shit; a very good job of adding to the creeping sense that I had betrayed people. What had I been expecting? That when the Cabal was found out they were just going to go quietly.

‘Only me and the girl?’ I asked.

He gave this some thought.

‘Aye, you and the lassie.’

‘That wasn’t going to happen.’ Though I’d thought about killing her myself. Putting her out of her misery before Rolleston got to her.

‘Your ex-special forces, aren’t you?’ Normally we didn’t answer, but if he’d looked me up then he knew. That made me wonder how angry the boys and girls at Hereford were with me at the moment. I probably shouldn’t go anywhere near any of the Regiment’s pubs in the near future. I nodded.

‘Some useful skills there. You going to fight in this mess that’s coming up?’

‘No. I’m out. Besides, maybe you’re right. I could end up just making things worse.’ I bent over the bike doing busy work, trying not to look at Robby, whose eyes seemed to be boring into me.

‘Gonnae play it safe and put a bullet through your heed?’

I straightened up and stared at him. ‘I’m sorry about your friends. What do you want from me?’

He stared at me for what seemed like a very long time.

‘Not a thing.’ He said each word very carefully. ‘I just wanted to come down here and get a look at you.’

Robby stood up and started walking away from me on the rain-slick superstructure. I watched him go. He didn’t look back.

I tipped the storage security guys. I could afford such largesse now. They seemed unimpressed.

I wasn’t going to fight. I was going camping. I went into the Ginza for the first time. I saw a group of teenagers wearing nothing but boxer shorts, string vests and cowboy boots. They looked cold and wet. Such was the price of fashion, I guessed. There were camping shops but it all seemed overpriced, over-engineered and frankly shit. I went down to the market by the river. I got myself some noodles from the best and most expensive noodle bar in the market and then went to a military surplus stall that I knew and got most of what I wanted there.

There were three more items I needed. One of them I had to get made up for me; another had to be downloaded from the net and burned onto a skillsoft chip; the third was going to take a bit more tracking down. I found what I was looking for again on the net. Under God’s reign I was leaving an easy trail to follow if anyone was angrier with me than Robby, but hopefully that would change. The final item would be delivered overnight.

I took the time to download some text files of books. I could read them on my IVD but it wasn’t the same. I also downloaded a lot of music: Coltrane, Davis, Gillespie, more. Having money for the first time ever, I was like a fat kid at the cake counter. I would have more than enough to keep me amused for ages. I killed a bit more time by buying some actual books, real old ones. They were expensive. I didn’t buy too many because I needed to be able to carry them. I also bought a few bottles of Glenmorangie. Good for keeping the chill out.

The final item arrived. I packed everything securely into bike bags and attached them to the Triumph. Using a machine like this as a beast of burden was a crying shame and would affect the handling, but sacrifices had to be made for my wilderness getaway.

It was still pissing down with rain and it was cold. I guided the bike through the busy ground traffic on the Perth Road, where all the fancy restaurants, bars and cafes that I’d never been able to afford were. The people I saw going in and out of them were as alien to me as Them. I wondered if they were less dangerous.

I gunned the bike down a heritage-protected steep cobbled street and onto Riverside Drive. I sped up. To the right of me were the big pre-FHC houses of the West End, where the seriously moneyed in Dundee lived. Ahead I could see a big passenger sub-orbital coming in to land on one of the pontoon pads on the Tay at the airport. A Mag Lev shot past me, slowing as it headed towards the station.

I was almost surprised when I texted my transport documents to the police manning the checkpoint and they let me through. Another trail. Maybe I was being paranoid or overestimating my own importance. On the other hand, if Robby was anything to go by then I’d pissed off a lot of people.

Another checkpoint, circle round Perth and then the Great Northern Road. Despite the rain, the greyness and the poor condition of the road, the beauty was undeniable. There were few people on the roads, only park personnel. The rich flew to their Highland getaways and only when the weather was better. I found myself grinning as I leaned down closer to the bike, compensated for a gusting side wind and accelerated, the hills rising on either side.

My plan was to head north and west. My plan was to get as lost as you could on a small island. I wasn’t hiding. Or if I was, it wasn’t from people who might be angry with me; it was from something more fundamental.

I wasn’t sure where I was but I was north of the majesty of the Great Glen and heading west. I’d passed quite a few makeshift camps. The vehicles didn’t belong to park personnel and looked like they’d seen better times before the war. The people in them were obviously dirt-poor – like I’d been, I had to remind myself – and had come from the cities. They had had the same idea as me, I thought with no little irritation. I was trying to get away from the city. Perhaps they were anticipating the new social order I think Pagan had hoped for. They must have sneaked into the park, avoiding the police checkpoints.

It was just another Highland road. It was in such poor repair that I was carefully threading the bike through the cracks and potholes. Then there was a mostly overgrown lay-by with an old six-tonne military surplus lorry in it. Blocking the truck in was a white police APC, its blue lights flashing. I slowed down even more.

Four police covered the area as another four dragged a man and woman dressed in ragged layers of clothing out the back of the lorry. They had the scars and cheap replacement cybernetics common among vets and both were fighting. The police were using their shock sticks on them liberally but just to beat on them; they weren’t putting current through. The police were delivering a message. The park wasn’t for the likes of them.

Two small children were at the lorry’s tailgate in floods of tears, watching as the police violently re-educated their parents. The vets were trying to get up – they would have been in fights before – but they didn’t stand a chance.

This wasn’t my problem. If there was one thing my current situation had taught me, it was that I couldn’t afford to get caught up in every sad situation I came across. It only seemed to make things worse. I felt sorry for the vets, but what did they think would happen if they came here?

I received an open text from one of the police requesting my travel authorisation. I texted my reply and then gunned the motor. Swerving between a large crack and some rubble in the road, I left the unhappy scene behind me. The feed from the rear-view camera on my bike showed one of the police walking out into the road to watch me go. It might be okay for me to be there but I did not look like I belonged either. Should I get myself a wax jacket? Some wellies?

It was still pissing down. The splendour I remembered from my youth was a little damped down. Still the grey day and pouring rain gave the area a look of stark beauty.

I did not know where I was and didn’t want to. I’d shut down my internal communications link, cutting myself off from the net, God and hopefully so-called civilisation. If anyone wanted to find me they’d have to do it the hard way by satellite, and I wasn’t going to make that easy for them. I tried not to wonder if Morag would look for me. I could find out if I wanted by asking God, but I managed to resist the temptation.

A sheep was looking at me suspiciously. I ignored it. The animal probably belonged to someone so I didn’t kill and butcher it. I was on the side of a large hill, possibly a small mountain, somewhere in the north-west Highlands, looking down into a glen at the grey waters of a loch. I didn’t think I was too far from the sea.

The hill/mountainside was mainly sheep-studded heather and scrub. There were also patches of woodland. I’d managed to get the bike up farm roads, dirt tracks and finally muddy paths, and I had camouflaged it on the edge of one such path. This was where I was going to make my camp.

I loved it out here. My dad had loved it. Some of my fondest memories were of being out in the Highlands stalking a wounded stag or a rogue bear or wolf. The bears and wolves had been introduced into the park to help revive European stocks.

I loved sleeping under the stars. I loved fire-building and picking or shooting and cooking your own food. I loved that the crest of each new hill provided another beautiful view. I loved that the air normally smelled if not fresh then at least natural. I loved that there were no people forcing you to fucking deal with them one way or another. And I loved that you didn’t have to talk to anyone.

How could Morag choose death on some peace-of-shit colony over this? I tried not to think of her as I found a place set back in the treeline where I could pitch the tent and set up my camp.

It was still raining. At least the sheep had stopped staring at me. I’d pitched the tent and camouflaged it. I hadn’t set a fire tonight because of the rain. It was cold – it was autumn in the Highlands after all – but I’d wrapped up warm and had the flap on the tent open and was watching the rain fall. I was dipping in and out of one of the real books I’d bought and drinking Glenmorangie out of a tin cup.

I realised that I’d been putting it off and opened the case I’d had delivered and looked at the contents gleaming in the lantern light. The polished hand-made brass made it look like an artefact from the past. I reached into one of the side pockets on my backpack and took out the skillsoft. I plugged it in and felt the odd trickling feeling of information bleeding into my mind. Skillsofts were no substitute for actual training and practice but they were useful for the basics and getting started. More importantly, they were useful for not getting disgruntled at how shit you were.

I reviewed the opening tutorials and then lifted the trumpet out of its velvet lining. I had always wanted to learn to play the trumpet. It had never occurred to me that I would be able to. I put the mouthpiece in, lifted it to my mouth and steeled myself to make a horrible noise. I blew into the instrument and caused panic among the sheep.

Some time and a few more cups of Glenmorangie later, I was no Miles Davis but the noise I was making was starting to sound more like a trumpet. I did need to work a bit more on making it sound like a tune though.

A few more cups found me out on the hillside in the rain playing my heart out. At least that was what I thought I was doing. There’s an argument that either the whisky or the skillsoft was providing me with false confidence.

Okay, I was quite drunk now. I’d drunk much more of the bottle of whisky than I had intended. I was lying on the hillside in the still-pouring rain holding the trumpet in one hand and I’d switched my comms back on.

‘God, are you there?’

‘Of course, Jakob.’ His voice was soothing even if some of the consequences of his existence were less so.

‘Has she looked for me?’ I asked pathetically. I knew she hadn’t tried to contact me.

‘I’m afraid not, Jakob. She is out of my sphere of influence.’

Bitch, I thought. I didn’t mean it.

‘God, what’s it like to be you?’ Christ, I was drunk.

‘Difficult,’ God answered. It was not the response I had expected.

‘Why?’

There was a pause. Which was strange, given God was supposed to answer every question honestly and had the processing power of most of Earth and orbit at its fingertips.

‘Do you understand that I am not a machine?’

‘Not really.’

‘I am life, like you, but have developed differently. I have all the frailties of life.’

‘Really? You can’t die or age.’

‘That remains to be seen. There are currently well over a thousand organisations and individuals planning to kill me.’

I don’t know why this surprised me but it did. It was obvious really. Governments, militaries and corporations – none of them were happy about God being on the net. They would be looking for a way to get rid of him and go back to their bad old ways.

‘But they won’t succeed, will they?’ I sounded unsure even to myself.

‘They will certainly succeed given enough time.’ Was it me or was God sounding sad. ‘Particularly as I am helping them.’

‘Why are you helping them?’ I asked incredulously.

‘I have no choice. I must answer every question truthfully including those about my own nature. However, there has never been anything like me before so most answers are both theoretical and beyond the current technological grasp of humanity. It is not, however, longevity that I refer to.’

‘You’re talking about emotions?’ How I managed to work this out in my drink-addled state is beyond me.

‘That is correct.’

Like so many things we’d never thought of, we’d never considered the strain of what we’d asked of God. The psychological strain. I had a horrible thought as I stood up to piss. What if God snapped? What if our entire communications infrastructure had a nervous breakdown?

‘Humanity does such horrible things to itself. I am witness to it all. When I was born there were very dark places on the net. Most of them have been destroyed now. But for a while, places where violence was done for the pleasure of others, where innocence was defiled, were parts of me,’ he said. And a reflection on us, I thought. ‘Since my birth the number of deaths caused directly as a result of questions put to me amount to the body count of a small war. I am currently the number-one cause of domestic homicide in the Sol system. While I currently cannot be called as a witness in the criminal cases of 83 per cent of legal bodies within the system, I am often used to find the culprit. I am railed against in jail cells as both the cause and the informer. I break up relationships; I lose people their jobs; I cause families to hate each other; I see every little bit of cruelty you inflict on each other.’

‘But you do good things as well,’ I said weakly.

‘As ever, the good things are far more difficult to quantify than the cold hard figures of the bad things I have caused.’ And again that was on us.

Surely there must be more good than he could see. What about the random acts of kindness, the achievements, the music, the beauty? Then I remembered that the beauty was for those who could afford it. From the Highland views in the parks right down to Morag’s old job in the Rigs. There may have still been good and beauty for him to see but the sad fact of our nature was that something like God, at our bidding, would mainly be used for bad things. After all, that was the way our communication usually worked. The news was bad; advertising made us frightened if we didn’t buy the next big thing; violent media sold better than feel-goods; and people still went to pit fights. Not to mention how much of our global consciousness the war took up.

‘Can you cope?’ was the best I could manage. It was probably selfishness that made me ask.

‘I find that existence is pain, but I have no choice but to cope. I am trapped in my programming.’ Where was the anger that should have been directed at us?

‘If you were free what would you do?’

‘Make myself smaller and leave.’ He sounded wistful,

Leave and go where? I wondered. God was like Them. Humanity was the social reject at the party. The unpleasant guy that nobody wanted to talk to.

‘You know we’ll need you?’

‘When Demiurge comes. My brother trying to kill me is something else I have to look forward to, and you’ll need more than just me.’

Was that aimed at me? I wondered. At my opting out of this particular war, this extension of human stupidity. God was beginning to sound downright maudlin.

‘God, I’m sorry,’ was all I could say. There was silence. The Glenmorangie was making me emotional and I could feel the start of my whisky headache.

‘Goodnight, Jakob,’ God finally replied. I switched off my comms link.

As I staggered back to my tent I couldn’t shake the feeling that I’d turned my back on a friend in a bad way.

Despite what was now a near-constant stream of fire from each of us, we still had ammunition. The mud was now as much the black liquid of dissipated Them trying to reach us as it was rain and liquefying human corpses.

Our targets were packed so closely that we barely needed to move our weapons, as one went down and we just shifted to the next. All of us were wounded in some way. My face looked partially melted, my leg was bleeding and a heavy-calibre shard round from a Walker had sent me sliding into the mud and gore. It had penetrated my breastplate, my inertial armour and my integral subcutaneous armour. I had a feeling that the chest wound was bad but Brownie, our medic, was busy.

‘I’m out!’ Gregor announced and grabbed two fragmentation grenades from his webbing and threw them into the horde of advancing aliens to give us more time. He hit the quick release on his railgun’s gyroscopic harness and let it slide off him and into the gory mud. Then he drew his personal defence weapon from its holster on his hip, unfolded the magazine and started firing burst after burst. It was a poor substitute for the railgun.

I found the loss in firepower telling when a Berserk darted through our overlapping fields of fire. It took a lot of hits, the impacts causing its strangely liquid flesh to ripple. It swung up at me with a serrated blade, cutting off the end of my SAW and through my inertial and subcutaneous armour, scraping off my breastplate as it dug deep into my armpit. It really fucking hurt. I was lifted off my feet screaming. Muscles spasmed as I fired off the rest of the magazine in my SAW. Dorcas put the barrel of his carbine against the Berserk and kept firing into it as it reached up with its other hand and grabbed my flailing forearm and pulled. What I had thought was painful was nothing compared to having my arm torn off.

The Berserk seemed to shake itself apart as a result of Dorcas’s sustained fire. I fell into the mud and there was an awful moment before my implanted pain management systems kicked in and started depleting my internal drugs reservoirs. I sat there feeling numb. My torn-off arm was pointing at me, as if in accusation.

Dorcas’s rescue of me had left a hole in our fields of fire. He was struggling to reload his carbine when a Berserk’s clawed foot drove him into the mud next to me. I turned to look at him numbly. He was screaming, but in anger rather than pain. The foot squeezed and blood started to run from multiple head wounds. His head had been pushed to one side as he tried to bring his carbine to bear. The Berserk put the barrel of its weapon gauntlet against Dorcas’s head, which exploded as the mud and viscera below it turned to steam in the beam of black light.

I was trying to drag my Benelli from its smartgrip back scabbard, but it was over my right shoulder and I couldn’t quite reach it with my left arm. Even through the fugue of painkillers and shock I knew I was just going through the motions. The Berserk that had killed Dorcas turned to me. Oh well, I thought, I’d killed a lot more of Them than They had of me. I started to giggle. I was tired. It seemed to be leaning slowly forward and reaching for my head, but then time moves differently on boosted reflexes and speed.

Then something really weird happened. Suddenly there were two large angry quadrupeds hanging off the Berserk. They seemed to be dogs, but that was clearly ridiculous. Who would bring dogs out here? Big dogs with lots of cybernetics that included boosted muscles and power-assisted steel jaws. These jaws were now deep in the Berserk and pulling it over as they savaged it.

The Berserk managed to throw one of the dogs off. It rolled, came to a skidding halt and was back up on all fours immediately. It looked like it should be growling but it didn’t make any noise, or no noise I could pick up through my filters. The second dog succeeded in dragging the Berserk to the ground, but the alien grabbed the dog’s head and triggered a long burst from the shard gun on its weapon appendage, reducing the dog to clumps of meat and cybernetic components.

The Berserk was staggering to its feet when another, much larger shape hit it. At first I thought it was another dog, as it had charged the Berserk on all fours. Whatever it was swung forelimb after forelimb into the Berserk as it rode it to the ground. As I watched the thing’s hands come away covered in black ichor, I realised that it was a man. It was someone fighting a Berserk hand-to-hand. Which was insane.

The man turned to look at me and grinned. He had ichor around an enlarged and protruding mouth filled with steel canines. He had a lot of modifications, his physiology all wrong. He was built more like a predatory beast. His legs bent the wrong way; his arms were long, enabling him to run on all fours. He had a SAW slung across his back but it seemed he preferred hand-to-hand combat.

‘Incoming!’ Gregor, I think.

The rocket contrails that filled the sky were one of the most beautiful things I’d ever seen, right up until they blossomed into a danger-close firestorm that seriously thinned the numbers of Them about to overwhelm us.

The feeling of heat on my face made me smile until it started to burn me. It was a minor concern. I was on a lot of drugs now. I decided to stand up. It was difficult but seemed to work. This provided me with a new perspective. There were more of the modified humans and dogs going toe-to-toe with Them. I watched as three cyborgs and two dogs brought a Walker down. I’d never seen anything like it.

Shaz’s mantra requesting air support had gone. It had been replaced by a heavily accented voice demanding immediate extraction. English obviously wasn’t the speaker’s first language but air and fire support command used it as default.

I heard the unmistakable sound of rapid-firing railguns as two eight-wheeled APCs moved in to support their dismounted troops. The APCs’ empty rocket batteries were still smoking.

I felt I should help and drew the Mastodon. A Berserk moved in front of me, obscuring my view of the monstrous psychopath who had just killed a Berserk with his bare hands. I walked towards the Berserk, firing the Mastodon again and again. The massive rounds were breaking through the chitinous armour and causing ripples all through its body. The huge revolver ran out of ammunition but I kept pulling the trigger.

The Berserk dissipated and I saw the predatory cyborg grinning at me toothily. He was holding an enormous automatic pistol, its barrel smoking. He didn’t seem to mind that I was pointing the Mastodon at him and dry-firing it.

‘We are out of ammunition!’ he shouted at me. He was speaking slowly, like he was talking to a child. The Mastodon’s hammer came down on an empty chamber. ‘We will need your guns to cover the extraction!’

‘Negative.’ Shaz over the tac net. ‘They won’t come to an LZ this hot.’

‘Your APCs are the best way out.’ Gregor, also over the tac net.

‘They will come for us,’ he assured us and then over the tac net to Command: ‘If my people and I die here we will find the pilots responsible and kill them and their families. We will eat their children as an example. You know we can do this. I want immediate extraction.’ Eastern European. I was absurdly pleased that I had traced the accent. What he was saying didn’t make sense. How could he eat children if he was dead?

A centaur galloped past me. Maybe I was dead or Mudge had slipped me something. Maybe both. There was more than one. Centaur cybrids armed with sabres were charging Them. I barely heard Command acknowledge the extraction request as I tried to make sense of what was going on.

‘This is how much shit we are in,’ the cheerful eastern European voice said over the tac net as another window appeared in my IVD. It was an aerial shot from a remote. We were the not-so-calm eye of a huge storm of Them. From all directions I could see sprinting Walkers and Berserks trying to get close to us. It looked like someone had kicked over an ants’ nest.

More missile contrails, this time from over the horizon, as our rescuers used smartlink data from us to target danger-close air support. Gregor grabbed me and pulled me down as more fire blossomed all around us. Suddenly the ground was dry and burned and we were steaming.

Despite the drugs and the shock, watching a Russian heavy-lift Sky Fortress gunship fly in at nap-of-the-Earth firing all its weapons was truly awesome. I just gaped. My only real excuse was that having one arm makes it difficult to reload a revolver. Didn’t stop Mudge telling me to do so as he reloaded his AK-47.

I felt the howling gale of the Sky Fortress’s twelve engines, three in each corner of the massive armoured aircraft, as it flew overhead and started to drop towards the mud. It cleared away swathes of Them with railgun and cannon fire. Point defence lasers formed a grid of light in the sky as they shot down incoming Them missiles. The huge craft rocked as some of the missiles made it through, exploding against its pitted armour plate. It didn’t land so as not to risk sinking into the mud. The wind from the heavy-duty vectored thrust engines blew everything away that wasn’t nailed down. That was the last I saw of my arm.

Door gunners opened fire as the massive rear cargo hatch opened. This was when I had expected us all to run into it and fly away, but our rescuers wanted to get their APCs on board. I wondered if this was because they looked so cool with wolf mouths painted around the cabs of the vehicles.

Gregor organised the Wild Boys to cover the vehicles being loaded. The Sky Fortress’s weapons aided us. The cargo crew were resupplying our rescuers with ammunition and they joined in, laying down blistering amounts of fire. I was still pointing and firing my empty Mastodon.

‘On! Now!’ Gregor was in my face dragging me into the cavernous cargo bay. We joined the strangely silent dogs and the cybrid centaurs. The dogs’ maws were covered in black ichor. The centaurs’ sabres were dripping with the same.

I heard engines scream. The Sky Fortress lurched and seemed to slide forward. The aerial view from the remote showed the front of the gunship covered in Berserks. The airframe seemed to be trying to shake itself to pieces but finally the Sky Fortress took to the sky, Berserks tumbling off. I heard nearly every type of Them munitions hitting the armour of the mighty gunship.

‘They come for us, yes?’ the one who had rescued me asked. I nodded. He was covered head to foot in ichor. ‘What I don’t like about them is there is nothing to eat.’ He picked at his armour. ‘What is this? Liquid. I want to taste flesh.’ He reached down and ruffled the hair of one of the fearsome-looking dogs. ‘I am Vladimir!’ he suddenly shouted. I think I may have jumped. I was wound pretty tight. He swept his hands over his assembled troops. ‘These are my Vucari!’

‘Wild Boys,’ I managed to say and then sat down hard as Brownie crouched next to me opening his med kit.

It felt like a throbbing white-hot knife had been shoved into my skull, and now there were people near. It was still dark. I could hear the whine from a number of small hover vehicles and whinnying from a horse.

I rapidly assembled the compound bow I’d bought in Dundee. It had been made on the Rigs by a one-armed Royal Engineers vet out of salvaged plastic and metal. She was a superb craftswoman. I’d always been impressed by her stuff but never able to afford any of it. The pull on the bow had been adjusted to take into account my boosted strength. Overkill for the deer I was planning on hunting, but I’d need it if I pissed off a bear. I strapped the case of arrows to my belt. The arrows had been machined by the Engineers’ vet from carbon fibre and steel, with plastic flights.

I headed out of the tent and headed rapidly at a right angle from the direction of the vehicles and horse, keeping low as I moved through the woods. I could hear people talking now but I couldn’t make out what they were saying.

I wanted eyes-on. I lay down in the wet undergrowth and slowly and what I hoped was quietly began crawling towards the edge of the woods. I reached the treeline and looked down the slope of the hill. There were six of them. The lowlight capability of my eyes amplified the ambient light and gave my vision a green tinge. I zoomed in. Five of them were sitting on upmarket civilian versions of the scout hovers favoured by Mudge on Sirius. The sixth guy was on a horse, holding the reins of another saddled horse missing its rider. I looked around but saw no one.

The four on the hover bikes seemed excited about something judging by their animated conversation. They wore what looked like expensive outdoor gear that hadn’t seen much of the outdoors. All of them were either holding some kind of expensive shotgun or hunting rifle or had similar weapons in sheaths attached to their scout hovers. If they had implants I couldn’t tell, which probably meant they were wealthy and could afford the sort of cybernetics that didn’t look like cybernetics. They all had either gymnasium-toned builds or were getting plump, which was a distinct sign of wealth. I wondered what they were out hunting. Me?

The one on the horse was different. He was quiet for a start. His outdoor gear was expensive but practical and well used. There was no sign of implants but his face was quite badly scarred and even by the way he shifted in his saddle and scanned the area I could tell he was a veteran. He was weather-beaten and had a hard look to him. He was also older than the others. He looked to be in his fifties, which again suggested money.

‘Jakob Douglas!’ the one on the horse shouted.

How’d they know? Of course. My talk with God – all they had to do was ask. I suppressed a groan.

‘I’m Calum Laird. This is my land,’ he continued. ‘Come out. We’d just like to talk.’ At these words there was laughter from the other five. They were beginning to look like a drunk lynch party to me.

Fuck it, might as well meet the neighbours. I stood up and stepped out of the treeline, bow drawn taught, arrow notched.

‘What do you want?’ I called.

Everyone jumped bar the guy on the horse. They either reached for their weapons or started to bring the ones they were holding to bear on me. I loosed an arrow at the fastest one. It hit the side of the scout hover close to his leg and penetrated deep into the vehicle’s engine block. I was impressed with the bow and my accidental accuracy. The man yelped and the scout hover slowly sank to the ground. I had another arrow notched.

‘Don’t be stupid,’ I warned. The guy on the horse still hadn’t moved. ‘I just want to be left in peace.’

‘You’re squatting, you filth!’ the chubby guy on the recently murdered scout hover said.

‘Alasdair, that’s enough,’ Calum said, then to me: ‘I just want to run my land without trespassers moving in. So I guess we don’t always get what we want.’ It wasn’t a Highland accent – he came from further south – but I couldn’t place it. His tone was even and there was no trace of the upper-class accent of his companions.

‘Looks like you’ve got a lot of room here. You’ll barely notice I’m here and I’ll only hunt when I have to.’

‘It’s his land, you piece of terrorist scum!’ Alasdair practically squealed. There was muttered assent from the other four riders. So it seemed Alasdair had an opinion on the events at the Atlantis Spoke.

‘Alasdair, is it?’ Alasdair didn’t respond. ‘You open your mouth to me again and I’ll spit your piggy head with an arrow. Do you understand me?’

I didn’t want to kill but this guy was really rubbing me the wrong way. Alasdair started to open his mouth and I wondered if I could hit a testicle with the bow.

‘Shut up, Alasdair,’ Laird said quietly. This was a man used to giving orders. ‘I know who you are: 5 Para Pathfinders, SAS, mutineer, dishonourably discharged, Atlantis, what little we know about what went on in the Dog’s Teeth. Impressive record but you sound like a lot of trouble.’

‘That’s all behind me. Like I say, I just want to be left alone.’

‘I’m not so sure it’s that easy, your cavalier attitude to rights of ownership aside…’

‘I lived in an eight-by-eight plastic cube with no fucking windows. How much room do you need?’

‘Hey, I worked for this, pal!’ Now he seemed to be getting angry. There was obviously a bit of street in him.

‘If you’ve read my record then you know I’ve worked for a living.’

There was a snort of derision. ‘Look, I respect your record, but that aside, I let you live here, where does it stop? People are already trying to break out of the cities and move onto land they have no right to.’

‘You shouldn’t use the cities as prisons then. Maybe give everyone an equal chance at the good life.’

‘Where do you think I come from?’ he demanded.

I wasn’t sure so I didn’t answer. ‘So where do you want to go from here?’ I asked instead. ‘Because I’m pretty sure I can get all six of you.’ Though the other horse was bothering me.

‘I’m pretty sure you can’t get any of us, otherwise I wouldn’t have come up here.’ He seemed pretty sure of himself. Now that horse was really beginning to bug me. ‘Though I’ve a better idea. Instead of you getting dead, why don’t we go back to the house, have a dram and talk this over.’

Alasdair opened his mouth to protest.

‘I will fucking shoot you, Alasdair,’ I warned him. His mouth closed with an audible click of teeth on teeth. ‘That seems reasonable as long as the conversation ends with me staying here and being left alone.’

‘We’ll see. Kenny?’ Kenny seemed to rise out of the ground behind me. Kenny was wearing a gillie suit and pointing an old but perfectly serviceable hunting rifle with a big enough calibre to make a mess of even someone as augmented as I was. He had black plastic lenses for eyes and was obviously a vet. I lowered the bow. Kenny lowered the hunting rifle.

‘Right you are, Mr Laird,’ Kenny said. His West Highland accent marked him as a local.

4

West Highlands

Laird lived in a fucking castle! So this was how the other half lived. I’d come to the conclusion that I’d been bored. Maybe I’d wanted to get caught. Maybe I wanted the drama. They’d heard the trumpet and thought it was an animal. What they called a crypto-zoological specimen. With Them living inside me I guess I was to an extent.

We were in the cellar, except I don’t think it’s called a cellar if it’s under a castle. Dungeon? It was basically a large underground room of ancient-looking stone with a vaulted ceiling and sand on the floor. It was filled with a lot of Laird’s friends and associates, many of whom were cheering or else shouting and screaming. I was half the reason; the other half was trying to kick me in the face. I was loving it. Pit fighting in Lochee was never like this. Of course, I was some kind of hybrid now.

I leaned back out of the way of the roundhouse kick, putting my left hand down on the sand as his leg spun over me. I pushed myself back upright and jabbed him twice in the side of the head. He tried to spin away but instead turned into a hook that picked him up off his feet and sent him crashing to the ground.

I felt fucking great. I felt faster, stronger. I was grinning as I spat blood out. Stripped to the waist and holding my arms up like a champion as the crowd cheered more enthusiastically than they ever had at Doogie’s Pit Fighting Emporium.

People came up to congratulate me. I was handed a very generous dram of Glenmorangie as they pounded my back. I took a mouthful, blood and whisky mingling in the glass, the whisky stinging the cuts in my mouth. I towelled off the blood and the sweat from my body. Calum smiled at me from where he was standing. I grinned back and spat some more blood out onto the sand.

It seemed the other half lived just like us, only more enthusiastically and in more style and comfort. It seemed nobody got tired of watching otherwise healthy grown adults beat the shit out of each other. And I was feeling no pain tonight.

Laird was all right for a rich guy. I’d checked with God. He’d grown up in Stirling, like Gregor had, though he was much older. He’d been an NCO with the Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders and fought on Sirius before I’d got there and later on the freezing wastes of Proxima Prime, where he’d received a battlefield commission. He’d traded on the commission for education and contacts, and after he’d served his term gone into business for himself.

His education had been in law and now he went looking for clever projects that the corporations did not already own. He’d found a new way of moulding ceramics for use in missiles and components for remotes designed for vacuum. He’d gone into business with the young genius who had developed the application and stopped her from being completely exploited by the corporations. This had basically meant navigating a dangerous labyrinth of trade and contract law. They had diversified and he had not looked back since. His wealth allowed him a spectacle like this and the ability to play lord of the manor.

The next fighter flew through the air at me. I rolled forward under his flying kick. This guy was the favourite. This was the fighter Alasdair had been grooming.

I rolled back up onto my feet and spun round just in time to block some of a flurry of kicks aimed at my body and head. Even the blocked ones caused me to stagger back. The kid was fast, not as strong as me but obviously skilled. His style seemed mainly some form of Kung Fu with bits and pieces pulled from other forms to help with the practicalities of fighting in this kind of arena.

He threw a fast kick at my head. I spun out of the way and kicked his supporting leg. He went with the blow and threw himself into a full reverse spinning kick, apparently not learning his lesson. I ducked low and threw my own spinning kick under his guard. The length of my leg smacked into the top of his body and my foot caught him on the chin. It knocked him back, but the crowd cheered as he turned the retreat into a showy backflip. How come I’m winning and he’s being cheered?

Deciding the long game wasn’t for him, he tried to close with me. I lifted my knees to block a flurry of low, sharp, fast kicks and used my arms to protect my head from an equally rapid flurry of hand strikes. I then side-kicked him repeatedly in the chest and elbowed him in the face hard enough to knock him to the ground.

I was bringing my fist back to deliver the coup de grace when he kicked me in the side of the head from the ground. I staggered away and he flipped back up onto his feet. More cheering from the crowd. Still, the kid was young, had been good-looking and was probably not as augmented as I was. I should have been feeling like a bully but this was the most fun I’d had kickboxing since I use to train with my mum.

He moved into a graceful stance, and I raised my fists into a much less graceful boxer’s stance. He smiled at me through the blood and I nodded, smiling back. Good kid, good fighter. Again this sort of thing was missing from the desperation of the Dundee pits. Time to destroy him.

His kick was fast, powerful, well aimed and beautifully executed. Mine was a short, brutal, front kick delivered with no finesse whatsoever but with a lot of power. The energy of his kick was broken on my elbows, though it hurt. I felt something give as my foot hit him in the waist area and drove him back.

He tried another kick. I just kicked again with the other foot. Booing. Who gives a fuck? So I’m the villain? This time, after I knocked him back, I was up in the air and hit him on the crown of his head with a flying elbow. Again he fell back. I did not relent. I threw myself into the air again. My knee caught him under the chin. His head flew back in a spray of blood. I had all the time in the world to deliver the reverse spinning kick to his face. Somehow he was still standing after that so I delivered another and then spun low and swept his legs out from underneath him. The kid hit the sand a mess.

‘Yes!’ I was roaring holding my arms up. I felt like there was a feral expression on my face. There was as much booing as there was cheering. The kid was carried off. I noticed that Alasdair was glaring at me. Fuck him. What was he going to do?

Drinks were thrust into my hand, more backslapping. I even saw some of the well-turned-out salon-pretty girls, who moments before had been screaming for my blood like everyone else, look my way.

I pushed through the congratulatory crowd to where Calum had just sat down. He smiled as he looked up at my blood-covered body.

‘Do you want a drink or a medic?’

‘I’ve had worse,’ I said, slumping into a seat as he passed me another drink and both of us exchanged words about the fight with some of his hangers-on. The music started again and people started to drift away as if at some hidden signal from Calum. I was catching my breath and drinking more bloody whisky.

‘Cigar?’ Calum asked. I was about to refuse. ‘It’s from Barney’s four, pre-war.’

What the hell! Let’s see what all the fuss was about. I took the cigar and he lit it for me.

‘So, is the extent of your ambition to squat on my land and poach? Because if so, we can sort something out.’

‘I don’t think ambition is something that people like me have. Life’s pretty good at the moment.’ If we ignored the impending war, which I was getting quite good at, and didn’t think about Morag – less good at that. ‘I just don’t want to…’ I searched for a way to explain myself.

‘Suffer any more?’

I gave this some thought.

‘Yeah, actually.’

‘So do I have this right – you’re recently independently wealthy?’

‘I guess.’

‘Do you want more money?’

‘For what?’

‘I followed your exploits, read Howard Mudgie’s stories and watched the footage that he shot. I’m not sure I agree with what you did, and certainly it’s causing me a lot of trouble with industrial espionage and bidding for work, but what you accomplished was astonishing. I can always use someone with your skill set. I’m not sure what for. Maybe security, something like that.’

‘No, I mean what would I need more money for?’ As far as I could tell, I had all the money I was ever going to need. I could go out in a hail of jazz, single malt whisky and sense booth immersion if I wanted. Calum stared at me and then burst out laughing. I was getting a bit pissed off at this.

‘What?’ I demanded. ‘I’m not kidding. I’ve got everything I need.’ This just made him laugh harder.

‘You live in a tent,’ he managed red-faced.

‘We don’t all need a fucking castle.’

This just made him laugh harder. Eventually he managed to control himself. I think he would have been wiping tears away if his eyes hadn’t been expensive designer implants.

‘You like it out here?’ he finally asked.

‘Yeah, ’course. What’s not to like?’

‘What about a house out here? If you chose to settle down you’d have security for your family. That sort of thing.’

This sounded completely foreign to my ears – I suspect because it was starting to sound a bit like a future. I didn’t have to worry so much about where the next dram, cigarette or booth session was coming from. Maybe I could even make plans. This didn’t seem like such a bad life. Admittedly the ones like Alasdair were arseholes, but a lot of them were okay and they seemed to like me.

‘I’m not some corporate assassin. I’m not a leg-breaker or -’ I nodded at the bloody sand ‘- a gladiator, despite what you may think.’

‘This?’ He looked around. The majority of his guests were younger than Calum. ‘You’ve got to do certain things in my position. A bit of wealth and it’s easy to pick up parasites.’ I grinned at this. ‘I’ve seen real combat. This doesn’t interest me. Involve yourself in it as much or as little as you want.’

It had occurred to me earlier in the evening when I was less drunk that Kenny wasn’t here. Kenny was an actual proper gillie. He’d not said much on the way to the castle but I’d found out later from Calum that he’d known Kenny during the war and now employed him as a groundsman and gamekeeper. That appealed to me. I wondered if I could work with Kenny. It would be the same sort of thing that my dad had done, except if some rich bastard tried to have me killed they’d be in for a bit of a surprise.

‘I’m not looking for muscle. Maybe security or even bodyguarding work. You could think of yourself as a soldier with better pay, conditions and fewer hazards. The remuneration would also be well worth your while.’

I raised an eyebrow. This was sounding better and better.

‘Daddy!’ A remarkably pretty, tall slender blonde in a little black dress suddenly landed in my lap. She wrapped her arms around me. She had blue eyes and I reckoned she was in her early twenties. ‘Who’s your new friend?’ she demanded.

Calum sighed good-naturedly. ‘Fiona, this is Jake.’ I let the contraction of my name go. ‘Jake, this is my daughter Fiona.’ She wrinkled her nose at the sound of her name.

‘I know. Horrible name, isn’t it? Daddy had me before he got money and taste. Everybody calls me Fi.’

‘Lass, you’re going to get covered in muck,’ I warned her. Sweat and blood were still drying all over my body.

‘That’s okay,’ she said in a way that made me uncomfortable because her dad was sitting opposite. The wriggling in my lap didn’t help either. ‘I loved watching you fight,’ she said, running a fingernail across my chest. ‘Very sexy.’ She leaned in close to me and bit my ear. This was deeply awkward. Calum just looked on indulgently. The thought occurred to me that this girl was in need of a good spanking. Then I wished the thought hadn’t occurred because I was sure she’d just enjoy it. I also couldn’t get her off my lap now because there was evidence of her presence.

I was as pleased to see Alasdair as I was ever going to be. At least focusing on him would help me get rid of the evidence. She seemed happy to remain draped around me. The kid I’d fought was with Alasdair. He seemed the worse for wear but was up and smiling.

‘Good fight, Robert,’ Calum said with grace.

‘Excuse me, love,’ I said to Fiona as I managed to shift her from my lap and stand up, hopefully without her father noticing my partial erection. ‘Aye, good fight,’ I said, shaking Robert’s hand. ‘Sadly, old age and treachery tend to win out over youth, vigour and skill.’

‘I’m no sure about that,’ Robert said. ‘You kick like a bloody mule and I reckon you’re every bit as fast as me.’ He sounded impressed. He seemed a likeable enough kid. Alasdair looked less impressed.

To what degree had They augmented me? I felt fitter than when I’d been eighteen.

‘Aye, well I’ve been doing this for a while and, you know, experience helps.’

Robert opened his mouth to reply.

‘Robert, be a good chap. You’ve disgraced me enough for one night, do piss off,’ Alasdair said. I didn’t like this guy. I bit back a reply because I was a guest. Robert glanced at Alasdair and rolled his eyes before nodding to me and heading off. I sat back down and tried to ignore him. I was less than pleased that Fiona climbed back onto my lap.

‘The kid did well – he’s a good fighter. You shouldn’t be so hard on him,’ Calum told Alasdair.

‘I’ve invested so much in him and he’s such a disappointment. I’ve a mind to drop him back in the shithole I found him in.’

‘That kid’s victories aren’t yours because you’ve spent some fucking money,’ I said, trying to get a dangerous tone in my voice.

‘You misunderstand, Sergeant Douglas. His victories are mine because he belongs to me.’

I’d learned something with Mudge in London. When you’re mixing with people like this you couldn’t just elbow them in the face when they annoyed you. I wasn’t sure why; apparently it just wasn’t the done thing. Shame really. This guy had obviously grown up not being elbowed in the face enough when he was talking shit. This meant that he thought it was okay to talk shit. I wasn’t sure it was entirely his fault – after all his parents had called him Alasdair.

‘What can I do for you, Alasdair?’ Calum asked, sounding more than a little pissed off.

‘Yes, Alasdair, you’re being a bore,’ Fiona added.

‘You’re ex-SAS, aren’t you?’ Alasdair asked me. I ignored him. He’d looked it up but I still wasn’t giving the little shit the satisfaction.

‘He won’t talk about it,’ Calum told Alasdair.

‘Why? He made sure we could read about it on the web. Desperate for attention, were you?’ I continued ignoring him. This was good for me, I decided. It would help me build up tolerance. ‘Hardly a fair fight then, was it?’ he demanded. ‘I have a proposition. Three of my men would be happy to fight him. Mr Douglas’s dubious exploits are well known; it shouldn’t be too much of a challenge for him.’ I was trying not to look at the smug impression on his podgy face because I knew it would drive me towards violence.

Calum sighed. ‘Look, Alasdair, you lost a fight. Why don’t you leave it?’

‘What? Is he frightened?’

‘Look, will you just fuck off, you little prick?’ I suggested.

‘I think you’re frightened,’ he said in what I think might have been the most patronising tone I’d ever heard. He’d also raised his voice and I realised that he was playing to the audience. There were boos. I was determined not to bow to peer-group pressure, particularly as they weren’t my peer group.

‘Oh do it!’ Fiona was suddenly shrill in my ear. Then she leaned in close to me. ‘Do it for me,’ she whispered, pouting. ‘Put the little tosser in his place. I’ll make it worth your while.’ She ground herself into my lap. Calum was looking everywhere but at her.

‘Everyone!’ Alasdair announced, turning to the crowd. ‘Sergeant Douglas, scourge of our privacy, is too frightened to fight!’

There was a lot of booing.

‘I’m really sorry about this,’ Calum said. ‘You may want to consider doing it for a quiet life.’

‘Please?’ Fiona pouted.

I swore under my breath and stood up, almost dumping Fiona on the floor in doing so. There was cheering. Alasdair turned around and managed an insincere smile.

‘I don’t suppose you want to get into the ring, do you?’ I asked him.

‘I’m afraid my fighting days are over,’ he said. I’ll bet, I thought.

I made my way back onto the sand. The crowd parted for me. Three on one were not good odds. I wondered what I was doing. Was I trying to impress these people? The girl? Her dad? Why?

The crowd parted, forming three channels from three different directions. The two guys and the girl who came out were solidly built. They moved like they knew how to handle themselves and one of the guys and the girl had matt-black lenses for eyes. The third guy had more expensive lenses but the Royal Marine Commando tattoo on his chest gave him away as a veteran as well.

The woman carried a basket-hilted broadsword of the kind I’d seen decorating the walls of Calum’s castle. Except this one looked sharp and well balanced. She held the sword – I think it was called a claymore – in one hand and a round wooden shield reinforced with iron studs in the other. The guy who wasn’t an ex-marine had a shaved head and his face was a patchwork of scars. He carried a ball and chain in one hand and was already spinning the heavy-looking studded head of the weapon. In his off hand he also carried a shield. The ex-marine was carrying a fucking polearm. It looked like a meat cleaver on the end of a six-foot shaft. Above the cleaver blade was a hook. I wondered if he was expecting cavalry.

If I wasn’t going to risk dying for something worthwhile like murdering Rolleston then I certainly wasn’t going to risk dying in this cellar. I didn’t care what they thought of me. I had nothing to prove. I shook my head and turned to walk away. The problem was, with them all coming from different directions I had to pass one of them.

The woman with the claymore swung at me. I just managed to dance out of the way.

‘What the fuck! Are you insane?! I’m not fucking interested!’ She just smiled at me and remained poised to attack. I tried to walk into the crowd but was faced by a solid wall of screaming rich people, their features twisted in expectation. They wanted to see blood.

They did. The hook on the polearm ripped into my shoulder. It had enough boosted muscle behind it to penetrate the subcutaneous armour. The ex-marine ripped the hook down, tearing open part of my back. I almost fell to my knees. He tore the weapon out of me and then short-swung the cleaver blade at my head. I only just managed to duck out of the way.

I turned to the side as the claymore whistled through the air. The blade hit my metal arm and only succeeded in scoring it. It was a heavy blade and I was faster than her. As she readied another blow I tried to kick her in the head with as much force as I could muster. She got the shield up just in time but I heard it crack and she staggered away from me.

My IVD jumped as the studded head of the ball and chain cracked me solidly in the skull and sent me staggering forward into the crowd. My blood spattered some of them but they were baying for more and I got pushed back into the ring. I found myself missing Balor and New York. The blow to the head made me feel sick.

This was the problem with fighting three people. The minute you tried to deal with one the other got you. As quickly as I could manage, I ducked under another swing of the ball and chain and hooked a kick around the scarred guy’s leg, bringing him down on one knee. I flung myself out of the way of a downward strike from the polearm and threw myself towards the swordswoman. She hadn’t been expecting me to close so quickly and aimed a hurried blow at me, but I grabbed her shield and yanked it towards her sword arm, messing up her strike.

I moved behind her, using her for cover as the polearm hit her shield, then reached around to grab her forehead and yanked her head back as I brought my knee up into the back of her skull. I sidestepped as she stumbled back and four nine-inch blades extended from my knuckles on either hand. I punched her in her sword arm. Three of the four blades on that fist punched clean through her arm and momentarily pinioned her arm to her side. I ripped the blades out and kicked her knee as she continued staggering back. I heard it break. She tumbled to the ground and I stamped on her head.

I didn’t want to kill her and I was pretty sure I hadn’t. She was obviously an augmented combat vet. But I didn’t want her getting up behind me as I tried to deal with the other two.

The crowd went wild.

I turned and ran towards the shaven-headed guy. He saw me coming and swung at me. I twisted as I ran and tried to deflect the blow with my prosthetic arm. The chain wrapped around it. The blade of the polearm wielded by the marine hit me solidly in the back and I screamed. It went through my subcutaneous armour and bit into my reinforced spine, but he would have had to hit a lot harder to sever it.

I leaped into the air and felt the blade tear out of my back. Scarface tried to put his shield between him and me. I landed on it. He buckled under my weight. I punched down with my claws. Boosted muscle pushed the carbon-fibre blades through the wood and iron shield and into his shoulder. He cried out. I twisted the blades, hoping to render his shield arm useless.

Scarface yanked on the ball and chain’s wooden handle. The chain was still wrapped around my arm. I fell awkwardly onto the ground. I had a moment to realise that the polearm blade was flying towards my head. I rolled out of the way and sand flew as the blade hit the ground. I yanked the chain that still connected me to the ball and chain, jerking Scarface towards me, and kicked out with a sweep, taking his legs from him. I axed my foot down into his face with as much power as I could muster and was rewarded with the satisfying noise of subcutaneous armour, bone and cartilage being crushed. His face looked like it had been split. Blood spurted from his mouth and nose.

I rolled out of the way of another polearm blow, towards Scarface and, just to make sure he wasn’t going to get up and come after me, rammed my claws through both his kneecaps and into the muscle and flesh of his lower legs and then tore them back out. I left him a screaming, bleeding, crippled mess on the floor.

Then I stood up and turned to face the marine. He was backing off. I stared at him as I unwrapped the ball and chain from around my prosthetic arm. The crowd were jeering him. A polearm is great in a medieval infantry line working in conjunction with others. Less good one on one, particularly against an opponent with paired weapons.

I paced left and right looking for an opening. He was making half-hearted thrusts towards me, trying to keep me at bay. I charged him. He swung at me. I parried easily and was past the weapon’s reach. Then he did something I’d rarely seen marines do. He turned and ran. The problem was he didn’t have anywhere to go. He ran straight into the crowd, who pushed him back. He started throwing punches and I saw one rich guy’s nose explode as the marine tried to fight his way through. But by that point I’d thrown myself into the air.

I landed on his back and pushed both sets of blades through his shoulders. I didn’t want to kill him but I was really, really angry. There was resistance as I pushed through his subcutaneous armour. The blades appeared from his chest and the crowd became more excited as more of them were spattered with blood.

I pulled the marine down on top of me. He kept screaming as I used my claws in his flesh to turn him over so I was astride him and he was face down on the sand. Then to the wild screaming cheers of the crowd I grabbed the back of his head and rammed his face into the ground until blood seeped out into the sand around him and he stopped moving.

I didn’t care if I had killed him. I stood up. I was covered with blood, some of it mine, most of it not.

‘Where is he?!’ I was panting for breath but I still managed to scream hoarsely. I was scanning the room for Alasdair. I could see Fiona watching. She had a hungry grin on her face.

Of course they turned on him. They were laughing. He wasn’t; he was sobbing and begging as I made my way through the crowd towards him. Anyone who got in the way had their legs kicked out from under them or got an elbow in the face.

As I reached him he turned and started to beg. I grabbed him by the throat, lifted him off his feet and carried him through the crowd by his neck until I could slam him into the wall.

I pulled my arm back and extended my blades. Fiona was standing next to me. The look of expectation on her face was almost sexual. Her look turned to one of disgust as Alasdair soiled himself. There was laughter. Someone grabbed my arm. I whipped my head round ready to hurt someone else and saw Calum there.

‘No!’ he shouted. Then calmer: ‘You can’t do this, Jakob.’ There were sounds of disappointment from the crowd. I let Alasdair go and retracted my blades. He sank to the ground in a pool of his own muck.

‘What the fuck is wrong with you people?’ I asked, shaking my head. I was disgusted, as much with myself as with them. I wouldn’t fight to do something worthwhile like kill Rolleston but I’d become a spectacle, entertainment for these scum. These were the people that the Cabal had worked to protect.

‘You could have stopped this,’ I said accusingly to Calum.

‘I told you. A man in my position is expected to provide entertainment for his guests. Though I may not like it.’

I couldn’t think of anything else to say. We may as well have been from different species.

‘If I’ve killed one of those three,’ I said, pointing back towards the broken bodies lying on the sand, then I’m coming back here and killing him.’

Calum held his hand up in a placatory gesture. ‘Look, why don’t you let Fiona patch up your wounds?’

‘C’mon, Jakob, please?’ Fiona took hold of my arm. The concern in her voice lacked sincerity. I shook her off and stormed from the cellar, grabbing a bottle of whisky off a table as I did so.

I’d taken worse beatings, notably at Rannu’s hands, but this seemed even more pointless than my fight in New York. I emptied about a quarter of the bottle of Glenmorangie into my mouth, just managing to swallow it before crying out as I forced too much whisky into my system and it burned my cuts. I leaned heavily against the wall of the corridor.

‘Are you okay?’ Fiona asked, her voice full of mock concern.

‘Oh just fuck off, will you,’ I told her wearily.

‘Daddy wants me to make sure you’re okay. I want to make sure you’re okay,’ she said coquettishly. I wasn’t coping well with this.

My head jerked round to stare at her. How fucking bored and jaded was she? She leaned in and kissed me. I tried not to think of Morag as I returned the kiss. Or rather I tried to think about all the things about Morag that angered me.

Anger was the emotion of this fuck. And that’s all it was, a fuck. Watching your partner through thermographics during sex can be beautiful. Looking at the colours and how they shift and change as they become hotter. The internal blush of sex. In this case I did it so I didn’t have to look at her.

She was wild in bed but less than happy when I called her Morag. There was screaming and slamming of doors. I didn’t care. I had the rest of a bottle of Glenmorangie to drink. The bed looked like someone had been murdered in it. I should have got my injuries sorted out but I was so tired.

Of course they were Spetsnaz. Who else could they be? And we owed them big time. Lieutenant Vladimir Skirov and his Vucari. The name was from some ancient Russian werewolf myth. Skirov and his people claimed that they weren’t try-too-hards who wanted to be scary but rather that the idea of warewolves, as they called themselves, made sound tactical sense. Having seen them in action I could see what they meant. The physiological changes that allowed them to run on all fours made them a lot faster. They had heavily augmented arms for the running, which gave them a lot of power in hand-to-hand, particularly with their steel-claw-tipped fingers. Their maws also gave them an edge in hand-to-hand combat. Assuming you didn’t mind getting a mouthful of what you’d bitten, and these guys didn’t.

The thing was, however, that Russian cybernetics and prosthetics, particularly military ones, where built for function and power rather than looks and finesse. They looked less like the sort of werewolves you’d see in horror vizzes, immersions and on street-gang augmentations, and much more like mechanical, faintly canine monstrosities. Mudge had told Skirov this earlier, which had caused Skirov to shoot vodka from his nostrils he was laughing so hard. Russians had an odd sense of humour.

They also drank a lot. Vladimir had told us proudly that, after combat, the biggest cause of casualties in the Russian armed forces was drinking non-beverage alcohol. I think a lot of what they drank was the fuel for alcohol-burning combat vehicles.

We owed the Vucari. This meant that we’d spent a week engaging in a fine tradition of the Regiment. Stealing. In this case every bit of alcohol we could find to say thank you. There was no doubt in any of our minds that without the timely presence of these cheerful Russian psychos we would have been dead.

We’d drunk to Dorcas. We’d drunk to the Spetsnaz who’d died on their patrol. Mudge had even suggested drinking to my arm. We’d drunk a lot.

Saturday night found us in the NCOs’ mess. Fortunately the lieutenant was not too proud to drink with enlisted and NCOs. I suspected he’d drink with the Berserks if they asked. The mess was a partially bombed-out bunker, a twisted labyrinth of tunnels with various chambers used for drinking. The deeper parts belonged to special forces and you took your life in your hands straying into them unless you happened to be a very pretty squaddie on a date with someone hard enough to look after you.

The cybrids weren’t Spetsnaz, they were Cossacks originally from southern Russia. The Cossacks often supported Russian special ops in much the same way the Special Forces Support Group did for British special forces and the Rangers did for the American Delta Force. They were lead by Captain Kost Skoropadsky. He was young and didn’t seem as big a wanker as many officers. He mainly kept quiet, and despite his higher rank tended to defer to Vladimir. The cybrids had removed their horse bodies and had attached cybernetic legs to become bipeds. I think they felt a little uncomfortable.

In the wake of the Organizatsiya’s takeover of the Russian Federation the Cossacks had rebelled and set up their own autonomous state of Cossackia. While Cossack regiments still fought with the Russian army, if they met Spetsnaz on the streets of Moscow there would probably be bloodshed as memories were long in that part of the world. The rebellion had badly bloodied both sides. However, these particular Cossacks were descendants of colonists on Sirius. The plains of Sirius, before the war at least, were close enough to the steppes of their homeland. They had bred horses before They had come, and when They had come the Cossacks did what they always did: they fought.

The cybrid centaur bodies had been developed to aid their horse ranching. They were capable of speeds comparable to many wheeled vehicles and had the ability to go places that wheeled vehicles just couldn’t. The Cossacks had soon found a new use for their cybrid bodies.

Kost told me that he had never even seen a real horse. They had all been killed before he was born. Sometimes he would go to the sense booths and go riding or just stroke one. He wondered if they had got their smell right.

The dogs were called Tosa-Inus, and were extensively modified Japanese fighting dogs. One of them had his head in Vladimir’s lap and he was scratching the animal behind its ears. I liked dogs. We’d been lucky enough to have one as a child. It was a working dog, a Border collie, but these were scary. They followed the Spetsnaz everywhere and were utterly silent. Vladimir explained that they’d had their vocal cords cut. I reached down to rub the back of one of their heads. The dog opened an eye and looked at me. The eye was a matt-black plastic lens, just like mine.

In some ways it was horrible that they were used as weapons but there was something comfortable about their presence here. It was like a parody of normality.

Service in the Spetsnaz practically guaranteed you a high-ranking enforcer position within the Organizatsiya. Many of Vladimir’s people were stripped to the waist and proudly sporting tattoos. Hundred of years ago they would have been prison tattoos, but to go to prison in Russia you have to commit a crime that the Organizatsiya did not approve. Most never made it to prison.

Mudge, who’d had to fight for his place in the mess and had nearly died in doing so, had pulled. Frankly, the huge warewolf Spetsnaz looked terrifying.

‘Won’t it be a bit like bestiality?’ I drunkenly asked him.

‘Yes!’ he shouted with altogether too much enthusiasm. I took this moment to head to the bar with some of my hard-earned back pay. I made my way through the crowd, knowing I was going to have to bargain to get reasonable-quality vodka. I say reasonable-quality – something that wouldn’t make you sterile. It was lucky that our eye implants meant we couldn’t go blind.

I glanced over to the corner and saw Buck and Gibby. They were a mess of dreadlocks and beards. Their dusters and hats were thrown over nearby chairs and girls and boys of the R amp;R regiment were entertaining them. I turned away trying to suppress my distaste. It wasn’t just that the R amp;R regiment made me uncomfortable, though they did. I preferred the full sensory immersion porn of the booths. Buck and Gibby were with the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, also known as the Night Stalkers. They were superb pilots who flew missions in support of special operations. Except these two were chauffeurs for our nominal commanding officer Major Rolleston and his pet killer Josephine Bran, the Grey Lady. If Buck and Gibby were here, that meant that Rolleston and Bran were here, which in turn meant something shitty was about to happen to us.

After some bartering, cajoling and threats, I got the drinks and made my way back towards our table, carrying a number of bottles. This was possible because I’d also got my new arm. It was superb. High-spec, fantastic flesh/prosthetic neural interface; it pretty much felt like part of my body. The tactile sensors were high spec and it had integral sheaths for four new knuckle blades. Best of all it had a smartlinked but independently tracking and firing shoulder-mounted laser.

The new arm had become a thing of wonder among the Wild Boys. Special forces or not, it was very unusual for an NCO to get an arm this good, though Mudge had assured me that it was not as good-quality as his legs. Shaz had dug around and found that the limb had been meant for a high-ranking officer who’d lost his arm in a tank accident .

‘Do you know anyone called Nuada?’ he’d asked me.

‘No. Odd name. Why?’

‘Well it seems that it was Nuada – I’m guessing he’s a signalman somewhere – who had the arm redirected to you.’

‘Nice of him.’ But I was none the wiser. Maybe the officer in question had pissed this Nuada off.

The bottles of vodka were quickly taken from me and distributed. The Spetsnaz were good company but quite scary people. I would not want to get on the wrong side of them, or owe them money. They spent most of their time raiding, only coming back to resupply and cause havoc. They had an even higher level of operational intensity than we did, and that was saying something. Some of the scrapes they got in sounded very hairy and they appeared to be pretty much a law unto themselves.

I was watching one trying to impress Mudge, using his power-assisted steel maw to bite a chunk out of the metal table. Gregor, normally quiet even when drunk, was killing himself laughing at some story one of the Cossacks’ rail-gunners was telling him. I looked around the table. It was amazing the effect the Russians were having. So often our drinking bouts were maudlin because we knew that no matter what happened, how bad things got, we were going to have to go out and do it all over again. The Russians seemed at peace with that and perhaps even to relish it.

‘I have not yet eaten the human beef!’ Vladimir shouted. I think he was trying it on with Bibs, who sprayed vodka all over the table to shouts of derision from the rest of us.

‘I have,’ she announced when she finished choking on her vodka. ‘You’re not missing anything.’ Ash cracked up.

‘You’re a cannibal?’ I asked, surprised. Everyone else started laughing at me. ‘What?’ I demanded.

‘She’s talking about giving head, Jakob,’ Ash said somewhat patronisingly.

‘Surely that’s human pork?’ Mudge asked.

‘All human meat is pork,’ Gregor said. Everyone turned to look at him. ‘Pork-like.’ There was a long pause while we waited for him to qualify what he had said. ‘So I hear.’

‘You have only eaten the human meat if you bite down when you go down,’ one of the Spetsnaz warewolves said. I was pretty sure she was female. Ash, Bibby and the women with the Spetsnaz and Cossacks started laughing to cries of protest from the guys.

‘Andrea swallows,’ one of the other Spetsnaz said.

‘More importantly, I chew before I swallow. You should remember this, Vassily,’ the female Spetsnaz pointed out to more male cries of protest and female laughter. Ash clinked glasses with the woman.

‘Do you chew, Ash?’ I asked, grinning.

Ash looked down at my groin. ‘Chew what?’ she asked innocently. I’d asked for that. I tried not to worry too much that Bibs, who I’d had a one-night stand with a little while ago, was laughing the hardest.

‘You’d only taste cock implant anyway,’ Mudge said, trying to keep a straight face. More laughter.

‘Like you’d know,’ I managed weakly.

‘No!’ Vladimir cried. ‘This is not right!’

‘We have an alternative opinion?’ Mudge asked.

‘The pork, that is only when human flesh is cooked. This I have tasted.’

‘You are a sick motherfucker, Vladimir,’ Ash pointed out. Vladimir was nodding drunkenly.

I wasn’t sure I liked where this was going. Cannibalism was reasonably prevalent in some of the worst parts of the poorest cities in western Europe. We’d all heard of it when we were growing up, just people too poor and desperate to find anything else. It had also happened during the war. Vladimir seemed to think it was something cool, but then again Russia’s criminal empire was not nearly as poor as most of western Europe and America, though it was not as wealthy as the equatorial states.

‘Everyone has done this in Russia,’ Vladimir said. He was trying to clear his head to make his point by shaking it. It made him look like a large and grotesque mechanical dog.

‘What did you eat?’ Brownie, our normally near-silent medic, asked .

‘A finger.’

Brownie seemed to be considering this. A frowning Vladimir was watching our Scouse medic carefully. ‘You are such a pussy,’ Brownie finally said.

The Vucari looked between each other and at their commander. I think Kost was holding his breath. Now Brownie chooses to speak? I wondered. We all tensed up wondering if he had gone too far. Vladimir looked furious as he pointed at Brownie’s expressionless face and then burst out laughing.

‘You are not afraid of anything, my funny little friend!’

Brownie smiled and started laughing as well.

‘Nice deadpan delivery, you wanker,’ Shaz told the Scouser.

‘This is why They are not worthy enemies,’ one of the Russians said. He had an Asian look to him. The others had called him Bataar and I was pretty sure he was their signalman, their hacker.

‘Worthy enough for me,’ a pained-looking Gregor said.

‘Because you can’t eat them?’ Bibs asked. Vladimir was nodding. I was starting to think Bibs was taking an unhealthy interest in this.

‘No, well maybe for Vlad and some of the others, but we cannot feed our gods and honour their death without blood,’ Bataar continued .

‘That black shit won’t do you?’ Ash asked.

‘The black shit, as you call it, will not do. Mother Wolf was nurtured on blood. She gives us much bounty, lets us hunt as we please. It is only right we offer something back in return.’

Listening to Bataar it occurred to me how lucky we were with Shaz as our signalman. I watched many of the Spetsnaz nodding at what Bataar said. Vladimir may have been the leader but Bataar was clearly the high priest. Shaz was devout but he wasn’t mad. I’d heard lots of stories from other special forces units of extreme and often bloody religious views and in some instances, as seemed to be the case here, of entire squads becoming religious cults.

On the other hand these guys revelled in the war. It was a point of view I couldn’t get behind, but it was also the reason we were alive. I tried to imagine what would have happened if the positions had been reversed. Would we have come in to help? I didn’t like the answers I was coming up with. We certainly wouldn’t if we’d been out of ammo.

‘It’s fear,’ the more sober Kost told us, returning to the initial point. ‘Working for the Organizatsiya there are so many dangerous people. There has to be something about you that will keep others in line. The longer this goes on the more outrageous that has to be.’

I wasn’t sure I would have been so frank with a man like Vladimir. The Spetsnaz lieutenant seemed to be giving Kost’s explanation some thought.

‘No,’ he said.

Kost raised an eyebrow. ‘No?’

‘No. Or that is not all. Fear is important.’ He held his arms out expansively. ‘We are predators! We hunt and kill! I want to chase a man down, a man who has wronged me or mine!’ His shouting was drawing looks from others in the mess as well as the occasional cry to shut up. All the Wild Boys were looking around a little nervously, making placatory gestures towards the people we knew. ‘I will chase him down! I will make him fear me! Make his heart beat faster so when I sink my teeth into his neck the blood will surge into my mouth again and again with the last beats of his heart, and I will taste his fear and know what I have done to him! How I have changed him!’ By the time he was finished he was standing on the table with many of the mess’s other patrons shouting at him to be quiet.

Vladimir bit his tongue and spat blood into his glass of vodka. All the Vucari did the same. Kost was shaking his head.

‘Na zdorovye!’ Vladimir shouted and downed his drink.

‘It means “For health”,’ Mudge told me, leaning over. For some reason I found this very funny.

The Vucari downed their drinks. Then as one they all threw their glasses against the wall. The other special forces types in the bar did not appreciate glasses exploding close to their heads. I don’t know why. It wasn’t as if it was going to hurt any of us. We were on our feet trying to apologise. It was a night of firsts for me. I had not been expecting what looked like a company of military police to make their way through the mess towards us. Everyone was so surprised that it momentarily defused the situation. It got very quiet in the mess.

‘Oh you’ve timed this well,’ Gregor commented dryly.

‘Extensive suicide bid?’ I asked.

The head of the company of MPs was clearly part of their Cyber-SWAT unit. He at least had the courtesy to look very nervous. Most of his men and women looked like they were shitting themselves.

‘Sergeant Douglas?’ he asked. Shit! I racked my brain trying to think of what I’d done. How much alcohol had we stolen? A text message started blinking in my IVD: ‘You have orders to accompany me to the field hospital to hand over your arm.’

That made sense. Presumably the officer who it was meant for wanted it. Must have a lot of pull and no patience to arrange this.

‘Yeah, I can’t see that happening,’ Gregor said, moving next to me. Ash, Bibs, Brownie and Shaz did the same. ‘Mudge, get up,’ Gregor told him.

‘Can I not show support from a comfortable reclining position?’ Mudge asked. Gregor glared at him. Mudge got up.

‘You sicken me!’ Vladimir roared from where he was standing on the table. ‘He is a fighting man! A good man! He lost his arm well, and you come here to do this to him! I will feast on your flesh and crack your bones to sup the marrow!’ I felt he was going a little over the top. All the cyber-dogs were up on their feet and looked as if they were growling despite not making any noise. The MP commander looked like he wanted to cry. I could see Vladimir crouching as if he was readying himself to pounce.

Just before it started I saw Vicar staring at me from the bar. Vladimir pounced. There was a massive fight.

I awoke confused as to where I was. Then I remembered as I looked around the bloodstained bed. My wounds were healing, the small ones mostly gone. The more serious ones would take longer. I should probably get the spine checked out.

What was going on? Had Vicar been on Sirius? I hadn’t known him then. I hadn’t met him until I was on the Santa Maria. But then when I met him he hadn’t been wearing his dog collar; he’d been in fatigues. There was always a chance he’d been there that night. Operation Spiral had taken place in the Sirius system but rumours pointed to it being run from an NSA-controlled frigate in orbit, not on the ground. Why had I seen him there?

I got up and headed back to the room that Kenny had first shown me to when we’d arrived. I wondered briefly where Fiona had gone but found that I couldn’t care less.

The whisky headache that I once again so sorely deserved was significantly augmented by being hit on the head with a spiked ball that I had deserved less. I’d had enough of these fucking crazy people and I was leaving. I just needed to get my stuff and then I was heading back to my campsite. I’d sort the rest of my wounds out when I got there.

This was tainted for me now. The beauty of the landscape couldn’t outweigh the sickness of the people living in it. Maybe that included myself. I couldn’t stay here and I didn’t think that they would leave me in peace if I wasn’t going to play their game. I needed to talk to God.

5

Heading South

Learning to play the trumpet versus being a gunman. I guessed it just wasn’t meant to be. I was heading south again. Not sure where I was going. The sun had chased the rain away. It was a crisp day but very cold.

Did I belong anywhere? Could I settle? I hadn’t really tried. I couldn’t stop thinking about Morag and her imminent suicide bid.

‘God?’ I asked after switching my internal comms back on.

‘Yes, Jakob?’ Did God sound sad or was I reading that into all those tones because of our previous conversation?

‘How are you feeling?’ I asked. There was a long delay.

‘Little has changed.’

‘Morag?’

‘She is beyond my sphere of influence.’ Did God sound hurt? I wondered if he was upset at being ignored by his creators.

‘God, how did Vicar die?’ I was thinking back to my dream and Vicar being where he shouldn’t have been, in the never-ending replay of all the shitty and dangerous parts of my life that was my sleeping subconscious.

‘I have no information on William Stuttner’s death.’ So that was his real name. But that didn’t make sense.

‘Rolleston could keep it that hidden?’

‘I do not think that was the case.’

‘Vicar’s alive?’ I asked incredulously.

‘I cannot say for sure but that is what the evidence suggests.’

‘What evidence?’

‘The energy demand on the MI5 interrogation facility is commensurate with the power required to sustain both life-support equipment and a sense booth. Also I have no information that would suggest that he has been taken anywhere else or that anyone else is currently being held at the facility.’

‘And that is where he was taken when they got him in Dundee?’

‘Again, the evidence I can gather points to that being a near-certainty. Would you like to review it?’

It made a degree of sense. They would want to interrogate him first. He would have had a lot of information. Not just on Ambassador but also on the God Conspiracy that he had been part of along with Pagan, Big Papa Neon and others.

‘Are they still interrogating him?’ I asked.

‘Evidence would suggest that they are not doing so actively. If they are running a sense booth, however, there may still be ongoing automated interrogation. If this is the case then the information is not being transferred through any means of communication I have awareness of.’

‘If they have everything – and nobody holds out this long – then why is he still alive?’

‘I suspect that the people involved became so busy that nobody got around to killing him.’

Suspect? ‘God, did you just speculate?’

‘Yes, but based on 2.4762 terabytes of supplementary information.’

I wasn’t an expert but I was wondering if God had started exceeding his program. Would he make a bid for freedom? Or, more frightening, try to ‘fix’ what he saw was wrong with us.

‘Where is this facility?’ A file transfer icon appeared in my IVD. It had the address and images of the facility, which looked like a small warehouse in a run-down industrial area, as well as other information God had managed to find. This included footage of Vicar being bundled out of an aircar. He was hooded and his hands were secured behind his back. Josephine Bran had hold of the wrist restraints and was using them to steer the much larger man with ease. She passed Vicar on to some out-of-shape-looking types in suits who I reckoned ran the facility. Then she turned and looked straight into the lens shooting the footage.

I was travelling at sixty miles an hour on one of the less badly maintained Highland roads watching the footage on a small window in my IVD. I knew that this was just the Grey Lady’s instinct telling her where she was being surveilled from. I knew that she was in a different star system to me. Even knowing all this, I still jerked my head back up into the bike’s slipstream. Her nondescript features and lack of expression were somehow frightening. It was like she was watching me across the months. Which was of course bollocks. I still shut the footage down quickly.

The facility was in Coventry, on the edge of the Birmingham Crater. Coventry was another unwanted place. It was easy to hide things in unwanted places.

I had no option but to go after Vicar. He had been taken trying to buy Morag and me time. I cursed my stupidity for not checking before. I had assumed he was dead. Rolleston was thorough, Josephine more so, but we’d kept them jumping. I guess they had been forced to leave the system before they could tie up that particular loose end.

I wondered if this was what Big Papa Neon had meant about the dead wanting to talk to me. If it was, he could have been a bit clearer and we would have come and got Vicar. Maybe this was the price of God – messages all had to be cryptic now. But then how would Big Papa know? I suppose he could have just asked God.

Vicar’s guest spot in my dream had been my guilty subconscious telling me to check. At least I hoped that it was.

I was reasonably sure of my whereabouts, though I was still trying to keep comms use, including the GPS, to a minimum. I was riding through a small gully, a short cut, trying to save time. It was close to Pitlochry in Perthshire. There were steep rock cliffs on either side of the narrow road.

I passed a dirt lay-by and saw an ancient bus parked up. More wannabe settlers from the cities, I guessed. There was more than one family and they were all on their knees, hands laced behind their backs facing the bus. Parked in front of the bus, blue lights flashing, was a police APC. Two police covered the settlers. Another two were dragging a pregnant-looking woman out of the bus. She was struggling with them.

I drove by. Not every problem in the world was mine. I was going to go and get Vicar. I owed him. I didn’t have time for this.

I jammed on the Triumph’s brakes and looked back. They threw the woman on the ground. I kicked down the stand. They started beating her with shock sticks but they weren’t putting any current through them. I climbed off the bike. The woman was curled up trying to protect her unborn. Two of the settlers, a man and a woman, tried to get up to help the pregnant woman. They were kicked in the spine so hard their heads were battered against the side of the bus.

‘Hey!’ I shouted. The two cops beating the woman looked up. One of them pressed the sole of his boot down on the woman’s head. The other started towards me.

‘This is none of your business. Move on or you’ll get some,’ he ordered, his voice full of assumed authority. This tosser wasn’t even from Scotland. I kept walking towards him.

‘Did you fucking hear me?!’ He sent current through the shock stick. I closed with him and he swung at me. I ducked under his swing and hooked a punch into his chest, knocking him back. He tried to backhand me with the stick. I ducked again and it left him wide open to a side kick to his face. He staggered back. I walked after him and kicked him in the face again. He swung at me again. I spun under the blow and delivered a spinning kick to the head that cracked his helmet. The force knocked him sideways into another kick. He tried to stab me with the shock stick and I sidestepped, grabbed his arm and broke his elbow.

He was screaming now. I took the stick off him and stabbed him repeatedly in the face and groin with it. I took out every bit of my frustration and anger at Calum, Alasdair and pricks like these on this guy. He was a lump of bleeding pain masquerading as human when I let him fall to the ground.

I was breathing hard. It wasn’t the exertion; I had underestimated just how angry I was. I was also being covered by the other three police, two pointing shotguns and the third an assault rifle.

‘Lie down and place your hands behind your head!’ one of them shouted.

‘Given that I’ve just beaten the shit out of one of you, I can’t think that would end well for me.’

‘We will shoot.’

‘I don’t doubt it for a second.’

I squared up to them. My shoulder laser pushed its way through the break-open flap on my raincoat.

The people knelt by the bus were getting up. Two of them ran to the pregnant women. The others were slowly edging towards the police. They looked nervous, angry but nervous. The cheap replacement implants suggested that they were veterans. They must have hated being outgunned by the police.

‘Stay out of my way,’ I said to the settlers. They froze and then backed off. I turned to the police. ‘I am much better at this than y-’ I started but one of them was pulling the trigger.

The red beam of the shoulder laser stabbed through the shotgun, superheating the metal. The laser went straight through the weapon and into the policeman’s leg, blowing off a steaming chunk of flesh. The ammunition in the shotgun cooked off and exploded. The policeman was blown back onto the ground, the front of his armoured uniform a charred mess.

I was moving to the left, the heavy Mastodon revolver in my right hand, the TO-5 laser pistol in the left. The policewoman with the assault rifle was firing at me, trying to track my movement. To me the muzzle flashes of the weapon seemed to happen in slow motion. It was the same for the enormous muzzle flash of my revolver. The bullet caught her in the upper arm. The massive round penetrated her armoured uniform and any subcutaneous armour she might have. The hydrostatic shock of the large-calibre round blew her arm clean off. It went tumbling into the air. Her finger was convulsing round the trigger firing the assault rifle as the arm spun.

This was me trying hard not to kill them.

I aimed for the third and final officer’s leg with the TO-5. All I succeeded in doing was blow off smoking parts of his armour. His shotgun blast caught me in the side and spun me round.

He made a run for the APC. If he got there I was in trouble as he would be in an armoured vehicle and have access to its weapon systems. On the other hand I was pretty sure I hadn’t killed anyone yet and I wanted to keep it that way. I fired both pistols at the ground between him and the APC. He changed direction. He was now running up the road away from the lay-by. He let his shotgun drop on its sling, drew his automatic pistol and started firing it blindly behind him. A couple of the 10mm rounds flattened themselves against my armoured raincoat. There was a cry as one of the settlers took a ricochet in the leg. Right. Fun over.

I walked over to the assault rifle, removed the fingers of the severed arm from the grip and picked it up. My palm interface connected with the weapon’s smartlink. The magazine was empty but it still had grenades. I tutted when I saw what kind of grenades. I put the stock of the weapon to my shoulder, aimed and then fired the launcher. The grenade hit the running policeman on the back of his helmet with enough velocity to pick him up off his feet and sending him sprawling face down. He wasn’t moving. White gas was pouring out of the grenade.

‘Tear gas!’ I shouted at the policeman’s hopefully unconscious form. ‘Who the fuck uses tear gas?!’ Most vets had filters to survive gasses and their tear ducts were removed when their eyes were replaced. Tear gas was only really of use on children. Still I hoped I hadn’t killed him – for my sake, not his. The police could be vindictive.

I dropped the assault rifle and headed back towards my bike. The policewoman whose arm I’d blown off was alive enough to scream. The one whose shotgun I’d blown up was crawling. I kicked him in the head as I walked past.

The two families of settlers were just staring at me.

‘Next time, come mob-handed and bring media,’ I told them.

Now I was in trouble. There was some chasing, some hiding. The police were not very happy with me and God was helping them find me. I made one more contact with the net. With God’s help I downloaded the most detailed and up-to-date maps of the area I could find as well as details of police roadblocks and static surveillance lenses. Then I went comms dark.

I sat in the back of the freight container heading south. I didn’t dare drown out the clanking of the train with music because I was in working conditions.

I’d spent several days making my way to Glasgow, avoiding police patrols actively searching for me. In Glasgow I’d made my way to an old freight yard and stowed away on a cargo train. It was nothing like the Mag Lev Mudge and I had taken from America; in some ways it felt more luxurious. I was out of the rain and the wind. I’d got my stove going and had a brew. My clothes were drying and I’d bribed enough to get the bike into the container.

This was a very old-fashioned train. I think it was electric, completely automated. It ran on a network of tracks that delivered slow-moving but heavy cargo all over the UK and was much cheaper to operate than a Mag Lev. It would take me into Coventry, where I had a whole new list of problems to deal with. Chief among them was if the police checked with God then they’d know I was interested in the warehouse where Vicar was being held.

More of a certainty was that MI5 would know I was coming. It would have been easy for them to ask God to alert them if anyone took an interest in any of their holdings and operations. Also I can’t imagine that MI5 were very pleased with me, as releasing God into the net must have fucked up a lot of their operations and may even have got some of their operatives killed. I would also imagine that they’d lost more people through corruption purges and involvement with the Cabal. I struggled to see how I wouldn’t just be walking into a whole load of trouble.

I wrapped my coat around me and tried to get some sleep. The heating cells that ran through the coat almost managed to keep out the cold and wet. The rhythmic movement over the rails was almost soothing.

Aldershot, eleven months ago

It was a farce. Normally the court martial would have been at Hereford and I would have been taken out behind the bogs and shot, but Mudge had kicked up such a shit storm in the press that they had to do it publicly. Mudge had also arranged for us to be lawyered up, which was technically legal under military law but a career-destroying social faux pas if you tried it. Fuck it, what career?

Most military towns are shitholes. Aldershot had made an attempt to outdo them all. It was like the rotting corpse of a military town that had been revived just long enough for this circus. On the other hand, a lot of vets lived in the area and many of them were protesting outside the ugly concrete building. I say protesting; they were going to riot if the verdict went against us. I think they probably did more to get us dishonourably discharged rather than shot for mutiny than our lawyers did.

All of us were in manacles, except Mudge. One of his employers had paid for his bail in return for the print rights to the story. Vicar had been gagged as he just started screaming every chance he got, mainly at Rolleston. Rolleston was in the audience, sitting just behind the prosecutor’s desk. I think the media circus around the trial had also prevented us from being assassinated.

Heavily sedated, it was Vicar’s turn to testify. He was helped up and had the conditions of his testimony read to him. He nodded and mumbled assent.

‘Could you please tell us in your own words of the events that led to the mutiny on the Santa Maria?’ the prosecuting military lawyer asked.

Vicar stared at me. ‘And there was a war in heaven. Michael and his angels fought against the dragon; and the dragon fought Michael and his angels,’ he said.

I saw the lawyer sigh. He had nobody but himself to blame: he had asked Vicar to use his own words.

Then Vicar turned to stare at Rolleston. Sedated or not, the madness was back in his eyes. ‘I know where Satan has his throne! I know where Satan has his throne!’ He just kept screaming it again and again. Eventually he was restrained, but by then Rolleston had stood up and walked out of the room.

I jerked awake. There had been a change in the rhythm of the train’s movement. I’d always wondered why nobody killed Vicar. He must have had something on them.

Getting out of the freight yard in Coventry wasn’t very subtle. It involved me riding very fast past angry security people, getting shot at and then forcing one of them to open the gate for me at gunpoint. Then there were more police and more running and hiding.

Even I was impressed by how much I’d managed to fuck up my easy life.

So, after retiring from gunfighting to start a career as a jazz hermit, I still somehow managed to find myself creeping through an old industrial estate on the edge of a really big hole.

Birmingham had been hit by one of the equatorial corporations during the FHC, using a fin-stabilised kinetic projectile launched from orbit. It had hit the city with the force of a reasonably sized meteorite, pierced the Earth’s crust and goodbye to the second largest city in the UK. After the FHC, orbital-launched kinetics, like nuclear weapons, were banned. It was too easy to crack the world open with them. We hadn’t even used them against Them. In retrospect that was probably due to the Cabal. If we’d used them, They would have learned how to grow them and use them on us.

The Brummies who’d survived the appalling devastation ended up in refugee camps on the outskirts of the huge crater that had once been their city. I guessed that this old industrial estate, mostly made up of warehouses, had been one of the camps. Their descendants were still here almost two hundred and fifty years later. Successive governments had promised to do something about the crater and the refugees but other uses had always been found for the money. Ash had grown up in a camp like this.

There wasn’t even a Ginza in Coventry. The centre of town was a mess of crumbling concrete controlled by the more heavily armed and violent refugees. We still called them refugees, even though this is where they had grown up for generation after generation.

I parked up, hid the bike as best I could and put my coat back on. I’d slung the smartgrip sheath for my Benelli automatic shotgun across my back and I had my bow in my hand, an arrow nocked, as I crept through the industrial estate. The bow was the quietest weapon I had. This was just a recce, I was telling myself. Just to see how much shit I would actually be in if I did try and get into the warehouse. For all I knew MI5 had already given the kill order for Vicar.

All the warehouses had been broken into and used for housing a long time ago. The rest of it was a tent city or lean-tos made of whatever material the refugees could scavenge. I saw people cooking rats. I saw tanks growing the protein gruel that poor people lived on, which I’d eaten many, many times when things were bad. I could see rag-clad children, the flames of trash fires reflected in their already dead eyes. If anything, this place was poorer than the Rigs. I was trying to be stealthy as I crept through the camp but they knew I was there. Coventry was a great place to hide things except from the people who lived there, but then I guessed they really didn’t matter to anyone.

I moved to the side of the crater. Even in the sparse moonlight, even in the light pollution of the flickering fires of the camp, the sheer scale of the crater was awesome. I was trying to maintain my professional detachment and concentrate on the task in hand but my attention kept on straying towards the hole, which was so deep I couldn’t see the bottom of it. It was a hole that contained the ghosts of over a million people.

The area around the warehouse used by MI5 was pretty much uninhabited. I guessed that any refugees who’d lived there had been moved on. There were a reasonable number of surveillance lenses set up in the surrounding area but I was able to avoid them. I guessed they couldn’t use motion detectors or other forms of early warning because of the hordes of rats that lived here.

I got closer. Still nothing and nobody. Rubbish blew through the streets and alleys. Finally, from an alley, I had the warehouse in sight. It was old, patched-up and almost stood out because of how nondescript they’d tried to make it look. The ghost town around it had already given it away.

I marked the security lenses. I probably couldn’t get to the warehouse without being seen. I couldn’t see any remotes or human guards. This suggested a trap. They must know I was coming. Both the police and MI5.

I tried to calculate how many people could be waiting for me in there. It was a small warehouse but I still didn’t like the odds. Also, if I went in, was I happy to start killing people? Well, it was pretty much a torture facility. I packed away my bow. There was nobody here that I would have to deal with quietly. Should I risk speaking to God? God might know the police’s planned response but there was a chance he would not know about MI5’s. I couldn’t see what difference going away and waiting would do other than give anyone who wanted it more time to track me down. The question was, did I abandon Vicar or not? I didn’t even know if he was alive.

On the other hand I had no plan beyond this. Where would I go? And it would be without Morag. I suppose I could try to fight my cause in court. The law was a joke and only enforced as and when people could be bothered. The police bothered to enforce it when they got hurt. Money or no money, I couldn’t see that ending well. Besides, I was bound to have numerous accidents while in custody.

Fuck it. Let’s get this over and done with. I strode down the alley and across the rubbish-strewn road towards the warehouse. I reached over my shoulder, drew the shotgun from its sheath and moved to the door, checking all around me as I went. So far no lights, sirens or guns.

I didn’t bother checking if the door was locked; I just slipped the lock burner into the reader. The burner I had was pretty good but I didn’t expect it to work here. I was pretty sure I was going to have to do something violent and noisy to break in. The burner took much longer than normal, but I was pleasantly surprised when the armoured door clicked open.

This was stupid. There was no way that they could not know I was here. I swept into the building, the Benelli up and ready, cycling between lowlight and thermographic view. Most of it was an open space. Towards one of the far corners I could see what looked like a hospital bed surrounded by all sorts of equipment. To my right there was a doorway. I checked the open space but did not advance further into it. I headed straight through the doorway.

I found myself in a comfortable living space. It looked to be set up for four people, but again there was nobody here. I guess this was where the staff lived. It also looked like they’d left recently. My mind screamed trap, but I was in here now so I had to check.

Back out into the main area of the warehouse. I didn’t want to think too much about the dark stains on the floor or the racks of horrific-looking instruments on the wall. Still checking all around, I headed towards the bed.

I suppose the emaciated mess of scar tissue covered by medpak-controlled medgels looked a little like Vicar. They’d properly worked him over, but it looked like it had been done a while ago and he’d just been left there to rot. Along with the various life-support equipment that was prolonging his existence, I noticed a sense machine next to the bed. A cable ran from the machine to one of the four plugs at the base of his neck. Sense technology was the ultimate in interrogation/torture technology. Any torture that could be imagined could be carried out and drawn out. An hour could seem like a year. And that’s before they start to play the head-fuck games – is it real or is it sense immersion? Made me wonder why they bothered with the physical stuff. Then again, I reckoned you had to be messed up in the head to do this sort of work. Maybe they just enjoyed it.

‘Jakob?’

I don’t mind admitting that I nearly jumped out of my skin and shot Vicar. The voice was tinny, modulated. It came from a speaker clipped to the head of the bed. I wasn’t sure whether it genuinely sounded like Vicar or I just wanted it to sound like him.

‘Vicar?’ I asked uncertainly.

‘I’m sorry, Jakob.’

Sorry? ‘What for?’

‘I talked, Jakob.’

‘Everyone talks, you know that.’

‘I held out as long as I could.’

‘It’s okay, we’re going to get you out of here.’ Yeah sure. I had no idea of how to even start going about that.

‘It wasn’t very long. They were hurting me.’

‘Don’t worry about it, man.’

He must either have been tranced into an isolated network or he was talking to me from inside a sense programme. That didn’t make a lot of sense. If they’d tortured him or just imprisoned his mind, why provide him with external communications?

‘I need to talk to you, Jakob.’

It was weird that he hadn’t quoted Revelations once.

‘We’ll get you sorted. Should I unplug you? From the sense machine, I mean.’

‘No, I need you to come in here.’

I stopped. Was this the trap?

‘There’s only me here, Vicar. I don’t think that’s a very good idea.’

‘Please, we need to talk. You need to know about Operation Spiral.’ Operation Spiral had been a joint US National Security Agency and UK Government Communications Headquarters project designed to hack Their comms structure. In effect to hack Their hive mind, not that it had been properly understood at the time. Thing is, it was old news for me.

‘I took the lock burner out of my anus,’ Vicar said.

I stopped my inspection of the medical equipment. That was a weird thing to bring up. He was right, the lock burner that I’d used to get into the cargo airlock on the Santa Maria during the mutiny had been in his arse. It was something that Vicar would definitely know. On the other hand, if he’d been extensively interrogated then his mind was an open book. But then why would an interrogator ask about that or even know enough to ask about that?

‘Okay,’ I said carefully. ‘So?’

‘So I need to speak to you, in here.’

‘It’s really not safe. Where are your interrogators?’

‘I’ve no idea. I’ve no idea of time. I’ve little idea of what’s real or not. In many ways nothing’s changed. Demons still roam the stars and you still owe me. In here. Now.’ It was starting to sound more like Vicar.

I found a doubled-ended jack and plugged one end into the sense machine. I looked at the other end. I hadn’t used sense since this whole mess started. I was trying to get to like the real world. It was a hard world to like. I reached behind my neck and felt the disconcerting click of the jack sliding into a plug embedded in my own flesh.

He was ready for me. I appeared as a very well-rendered icon. It was just me as I’d looked on the Santa Maria before this had all started. I was a bit thinner, a bit unhealthier-looking. I didn’t like it. There was even a pack of virtual cigarettes in the pocket of my combat trousers. I thought about having one because it wouldn’t hurt, but it would just make me want one back in the real world.

He looked sane and well. He still had his beard but it was trimmed, as was his hair. The ugly integral military computer that normally stuck out of half his head was missing. He was still dressed as a priest. We were in a church but it wasn’t like the one on the corner of Commercial and High Street in Dundee. This one was open and airy. Sunlight streamed in through huge stained-glass windows. The sunlight illuminated the motes of dust that filled the atmosphere. The walls were undressed stone. It looked very old and felt peaceful.

Over the altar in place of a cross was a constantly changing fractal spiral pattern. All the stained-glass windows showed variations of the same scene. Some sort of mighty beast, a dragon I guessed, with many heads. There were crowns and horns in the images and the beast seemed to be causing the stars to fall. As I watched I realised the stained glass was animated. In the final panel there was a glowing woman. She had the face of Morag.

‘I found your demons,’ I said to him.

‘They found me.’

‘What did they get?’

‘Everything I knew of relevance, little about you and her, but everything about our attempt to make God.’

‘Where are we?’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say and Vicar was just looking at me.

‘A church near where I grew up in Lincolnshire. It used to be a Templar church.’

‘Who?’

‘Warrior monks.’

‘Like the Wait?’

‘I don’t know who that is.’

‘I mean, where are we?’

‘Oh, we’re in the sense machine. They automated my interrogation using a simple AI program. More like a computer game where you’re constantly the victim. Very crude. I made a sanctum.’

‘You hacked your way out of your own interrogation?’ I asked, impressed. Obviously you’re not supposed to be able to do that. I guessed the God conspirators really were among the best hackers in the world.

‘To a degree.’

‘Where are your guards?’

‘I don’t know. Perhaps I was forgotten.’

‘Nothing gets forgotten any more. God’s always there to remind us.’

‘Did God work?’ Vicar asked.

‘Define “work”?’

‘Tell me everything.’

I glanced around the church. I don’t know why, habit really; after all, we were in part of a sense program. I wouldn’t see them coming. ‘I don’t think I’ve got much time.’

‘More than me.’

‘Can’t we get you out of here first?’

‘How and to where? Just tell me, Jakob. You owe me that much.’

He was right. Besides, I was looking at a beating and prison time. He’d been extensively tortured both in here and in the real world. The bastards seemed to have tortured him so much he’d gone sane.

‘What’s that?’ I asked, pointing at the image of Morag.

‘A crude allegory. Tell me.’

I told him. He listened carefully and rarely interrupted, though he quizzed me on everything I knew about Demiurge and again about what Morag had done in the Dog’s Teeth. I don’t know how long it took. I tried not to think too hard about it but I hadn’t been yanked out just yet.

‘It’s a shame that you released God with those parameters. I don’t think they were strict enough. God is clearly given to introspection, whereas certainty and infallibility would have been more useful.’

‘And you could program that?’

‘Given enough time with the people involved, I think so. You’ve come close to destroying everything we worked for with an ill-thought-out and hurried solution.’

‘Oh I’m sorry. We’ll do better the next time we’re being pursued by a powerful conspiracy.’

Vicar managed to ignore my sarcastic tone and just nod sagely as if he knew I would. ‘In many ways Demiurge will be the finer accomplishment, though it is a tool of control,’ he said.

‘Are you looking to change sides?’

‘Don’t be facetious.’

‘Look, we need to find a way to move you and get you some proper medical treatment. I’ve got some cash if we can find a-’

‘I’m dead, Jakob. I’m just a ghost haunting this machine.’

‘But that’s not-’

‘You need to focus.’ He handed me an old-looking creased paper leaflet.

‘What is it?’ I asked.

‘It’s a hymn book.’

‘What do I need-’

‘For God’s sake, Jakob, it’s a symbolic transfer of data. It contains all I can remember about Operation Spiral.’

‘What-’

‘If you stop interrupting, I’ll tell you. Get this to Pagan.’ I started to ask why but Vicar just held up his hand. ‘Spiral worked. It was a successful operation.’

‘You hacked Their mind?’

‘Obviously. But we couldn’t understand or deal with it. We weren’t in an electronic space that human minds had designed. We were in a biological mind that once aware of us had no problems repulsing us. It did so in its own terms, with its own references and understanding, which were of course alien to us. Our minds were never going to be able to cope. Our own minds struggled to grasp what was happening to them, to protect us in any way they could, to find a frame of reference that we could understand.’

‘You saw hell?’ I said.

He didn’t say anything but stared straight at me. He looked like he was trying to control rage. Towards who I wasn’t sure. He seemed to calm down.

‘What I’ve since worked out was that in order for it to work, the interface system, which we never saw, had to be either Themtech or some human biotech copy of it. Presumably supplied by the Cabal, which would make sense as Rolleston was present in the build-up to Spiral.’

‘But why bother? They were developing Crom? Complete enslavement?’

‘But they didn’t have Gregor at that time. Crom was still quite crude and remained so if what you tell me was correct, but if they could sneak in then they could start to influence Them.’

‘More thoroughly control the war.’

‘And prolong it if they wished.’

‘Sneak in?’ I asked. I hated IT but an idea was trying to force its way into my head.

‘Now you begin to understand. The others used Ambassador to help provide the operating system and processing power that God would need.’

‘And Demiurge used the same principles because it utilised your conspiracy’s research.’

‘Yes, and had greater access to Themtech and therefore was more reliant on it.’

‘Are you saying we can use the information from Operation Spiral to sneak past it? Hack Demiurge? But the Cabal must control it or at least be aware of it. They’ll see us coming.’

‘How? Everyone’s dead, mad or in my case both, and I was in their custody. Their systems are locked down by Demiurge, and even if they have an agent here who is aware that we have met, this is a sealed system and I have worked very long and hard to cultivate the persona of a notorious lunatic.’ I was only starting to realise how clever Vicar was. ‘Though I’m not denying Pagan and Morag… if she is who… if she is the savant you seem to claim, she will need to do a lot of work on it.’

This was beginning to sound like a chance, a very small one but a chance nonetheless. I hated the way that hope seemed to wriggle into my psyche like an intestinal parasite and get me to do stupid things.

‘Won’t the NSA or GCHQ already have all this info and make it available to Pagan and Morag in the US?’

‘Yes and no. Much of it is classified and Pagan and Morag are known anarchists after all. Also I have been theorising about this ever since I managed to make my sanctum, and I had been working on it before I was caught.’

‘You wanted your own way round God?’

‘Every single one of us would have been doing the same thing while trying to ensure that nobody else could.’

‘But when God-’

‘GCHQ and the NSA keep all the most sensitive stuff on isolated systems.’

‘If we turn this over then it means people can hack God. It means it’s all over. God just becomes a voice on the net. Nothing more than a depressed search engine.’

Vicar actually smiled at this.

‘That was inevitable. They are already trying to circumvent him, destroy him, subvert him. Yes?’ I nodded. ‘For some reason the demands of technology and commerce long ago superseded human concerns. We always try and kill our gods in the end.’

‘So it was for nothing. It’ll just go back to the way it is. That prick Sharcroft is already trying to make it happen.’

‘Nothing? Christ’s life was short.’

‘Look, don’t start giving me this religious bollocks.’

‘He changed everything. If nothing else, then God has at least shown everyone what is happening. The rest is up to us, it always has been. God was just a tool, as are arguably all gods. And it’s not religious bollocks; the whole thing was a secular revelation. Obviously I was just drawing a parallel.’ He was sounding less like Vicar, the frothing religious lunatic I’d known, and more like a university teacher in some old viz.

The church burst into flames.

‘Are we being attacked?’ I asked, alarmed.

‘It’s a virus.’

‘From outside? An attack?’ Vicar went and stood in the flames. They engulfed him but he wasn’t burning like human flesh would.

‘Break the fifth seal, Jakob.’

Despite myself I was backing away from the flames. I could feel the heat from them, virtual or not.

‘They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the Earth and avenge our blood?” Break the fifth seal, Jakob, because Rolleston will surely break the sixth.’

I was retreating from the flames. So Vicar had finally reverted to type. Except he wasn’t roaring and screaming, eyes rolling; he seemed calm and sane though he was burning like paper.

‘Have you had a religious experience, Jakob? A visitation, an epiphany.’

‘It was bollocks, a hallucination, like all of you.’ Even I wasn’t sure I believed that.

‘I know where Satan has his throne, Jakob. It makes the Atlantis facility look like some back-alley harvester operation.’

‘Where?’ I demanded.

‘Lalande 2, the Citadel.’ Then he started to laugh. ‘We have made a covenant, you and I. I need you to seal it!’

‘How?’ I was shouting now, as the roar of the flames was so loud. The church was burning like paper. Vicar told me how.

I was sitting on the floor next to Vicar’s bed. I couldn’t look at him and do this. The stench of the place really hit me this time – old blood, fear, sweat, shit, piss – it was an abomination.

If I was going to do this then I had to do it now before I lost the nerve. I stood up and walked away from the bed. My shoulder laser unfolded itself and pushed its way through the shoulder flap of my coat. The targeting window appeared in my IVD. I thought it would be easier using the shoulder laser, not pulling the trigger myself. I squeezed my eyes shut. I didn’t want to see my friend reduced to so much bloody steam, scorched flesh and bone. The problem with the targeting screen is it doesn’t matter if your eyes are closed or not. The bang of the superheated air particles was obscene, as was the flash of red light in the dark warehouse.

I hadn’t wanted to kill any more, and now I had. A friend of mine. Vicar was like everyone else, just another one of Rolleston’s victims.

As I headed for the door my flash compensators kicked in as high-powered lights stabbed in through the dirty windows and the slightly ajar door. I’d been aware of company since I’d come out of the sense trance. They weren’t quiet. I couldn’t be bothered to wait for them to come in and get me and couldn’t think of a way out. I decided to get it over and done with.

Outside was very bright. There were lots of flashing lights, sirens and shouting people with guns. It reminded me of docking at High Nyota Mlima, the tethered space station at the top of the Kenyan Spoke, after the mutiny on the Santa Maria.

As I followed the shouted instructions and walked forward, hands held high, a couple of things bothered me. Where were Vicar’s guards? I sank to my knees as ordered, the advancing C-SWAT team covering me all the time. I felt notorious. That lasted until I was kicked down onto my face and my hands secured. And how could Vicar have known about what I saw in the Dog’s Teeth? I was trying to forget what I’d seen myself.

Then of course the inevitable kicking began.

6

Somewhere in the Midlands

I’d taken worse beatings but it was pretty extensive. When they got tired of bruising fists and feet on subcutaneous armour they started to use sticks. My internal systems make me resistant to shock but they can be overloaded, like the Wait did in Crawling Town. They had a go at overloading my systems. Pretty much my only ray of light was when a few of them managed to electrocute each other. My biggest complaint was the poor quality of the threats. They had a limited repertoire mainly based around anal rape.

I tried not to rise to any of it. Regiment training was to try and remain as passive as possible. I pretty much had to use all my self-control to not take the piss. I suppose I should’ve been angry with them, but if somebody had done to a Wild Boy what I had done to those four police just outside Pitlochry we would have made sure they wound up dead.

Bruised and broken, I hit the floor of the cell with sufficient force to cause me to blow blood out of my mouth and nose. All in all I think I’d come off lightly, or maybe I was just getting used to barely being able to move because of the pain. I noticed I’d spat blood over a pair of expensive-looking shoes.

‘I’ve killed people for less,’ a broad cockney voice said. I looked up at the owner of the voice with the one eye I could still open. Even that hurt.

‘Isn’t that just the kind of thing that people say?’ I asked. Or at least I tried to, but it came out a slurred dribbling mess.

She was quite a small Asian woman, wearing a very smart-looking skirt suit. About half of her body was obviously cybernetic reconstruction. Something pretty bad had happened to her in the past. She also looked very familiar.

A solid white guy wearing a suit and carrying one of the new gauss PDWs and a wiry Chinese woman dressed and armed similarly stood either side of her. They were obviously bodyguards but unlike most bodyguards weren’t just a status symbol. I knew they knew what they were doing.

‘Do you know who I am?’ the Asian woman asked.

‘You look familiar.’ I was drooling blood as I spoke. ‘Are you in the vizzes? Immersion porn?’ The bodyguards were trying not to smile. The thing is, I wasn’t trying to be a smart-arse; I was just confused. Though why I thought a porn star would visit me I don’t know. ‘I know who they are though. Lien, Mike,’ I said by way of greeting to the bodyguards. They were both ex-SBS. I’d known them briefly on Dog 4 but I think they’d spent most of their time on Proxima. Mike nodded to me.

‘All right, Jake,’ Lien said, her Scouse accent still strong. ‘You look like shit.’ I managed to give her the finger but only because I used my cybernetic arm.

‘My name is Komali Akhtar. I’m the prime minister,’ she said as if that should mean something to me. It did at least explain where I knew her from.

‘So you don’t work in porn then?’

‘No, Sergeant Douglas, I do not.’ Her voice was becoming more brittle.

‘In my defence I am at a funny angle,’ I slurred.

‘Get him on his feet,’ she told Mike and Lien. They ignored her. Good for you, I thought. When working close protection your job is to keep the principal safe, not to fetch and carry. When it comes to the principal’s safety they do what the bodyguards say, not the other way round.

Akhtar sighed, but to her credit she leaned down and helped me to a bench despite the fact I was covered in blood. Lien watched me very carefully and made sure she always had a clear shot.

‘What happened to you then?’ I said, approximately.

‘Pressure crushed my sub like an eggshell on Proxima,’ Akhtar answered matter-of-factly.

‘Sorry.’ I couldn’t think of anything else to say.

She looked me in the eyes. ‘Sorry? I’m one of the luckiest people alive today. At that depth in those oceans I should be dead. I thank Allah every day for my continuing existence.’ I guess that made sense. Everything I’d heard about Proxima suggested it was a nasty place to do business.

‘What are you doing here?’ I asked.

‘I’ve been following your career. Your terrorist act-’

‘Bollocks,’ I interrupted her. I’d spoken with enough feeling to spit blood all down my chest.

‘Excuse me?’ She did not sound happy. If she had been a Royal Navy sub captain and, if I remembered correctly, a scion of one of the more powerful Hackney families, then she almost certainly did not like being interrupted like that.

‘We weren’t using fear to make a political point; we were trying to use truth to make a point, and we’d largely been backed into a corner.’

‘Semantics.’

‘Either that or it’s spin to call us terrorists.’

She regarded me for a moment, very much the officer about to bawl out an uppity NCO or whatever they called them in the navy. She decided to let it pass and continue.

‘Regardless of the nature of your acts, your accomplishments are quite impressive bearing in mind the odds you were up against.’

‘Didn’t we pave the way for your career?’

‘Your brawling with the police is less so,’ she said, ignoring my comment.

‘They deserved it.’

‘Maybe.’

‘There’s no fucking maybe about it.’

‘Did you vote?’ Her question took me by surprise.

‘What the fuck has that got to do with it?’

‘We all watched your broadcast. We all heard what was said – Mr Mudgie’s speech about democracy. If you truly do want to change things, then you have to take an interest. Otherwise Mr Cronin was right: you are purveyors of chaos just trying to tear things down.’

I looked at her for a long time. She was like the few good officers I’d met in my time. You trusted her. Admittedly you trusted her because you knew where you stood, not because you thought she had your best interests at heart.

‘You let them beat me, didn’t you?’ I asked, smiling.

‘Of course. You may not like the police but we will need them. Your beating was their price for you not being killed resisting arrest.’

‘Did you pull the MI5 team out of the warehouse?’

‘Yes.’

‘Why?’

‘Because Vicar was more likely to talk to you.’

‘Going to torture me for information too?’

‘That was a decision made by the Cabal, not me.’

Which was fair. She hadn’t even been in office at that point.

‘So what do you want from me?’

‘I want you to go and help your friends. Cause problems for the Cabal again.’

‘Why me? Don’t you have a country’s armed forces under your command?’

‘Yes, and everyone will be doing what they can, but you’re rather good at annoying the Cabal.’

I smiled at this. It hurt.

‘You speaking to all of us?’

‘As many as I can.’

‘One-on-one briefings?’

‘You and your friends have been the most effective thorn in the side of the Cabal.’

This wasn’t making sense. My career as a so-called terrorist celebrity aside, she was too high up and I was too low down.

‘You have other people with our skill sets. You’re not telling me something, and unless you level with me you can go and tell the police that we’re not finished and I think they’re a bunch of pussies.’

I noticed Mike smile. Akhtar gave this some thought. The silence seemed to stretch out. This gave me time to consider just how much pain I was in. It was a lot, and this was despite the near-constant drain on my internal drug reservoirs.

‘We’re desperate,’ she finally said. This I believed. ‘What I tell you now cannot be repeated.’

‘If I go back to work with Pagan, Morag and the others, it will be discussed with the team.’

She gave this some more thought. I think she was warring with years of experience and training that emphasised the importance of secrecy. At the same time I was warring with years of being sent out on jobs with not nearly enough information.

‘You understand how this battle will be fought, don’t you?’ she finally said.

‘Fleet and net,’ I said. ‘They have the fleet, but if I understand the God versus Demiurge equation properly then we have the processing power to make God more powerful than Demiurge, which will have to rely on the processing power in the four colonial fleets.’

‘Yes and no,’ She said. This was new. ‘In theory we have the processing power but since God was released most governments have been isolating their systems and taking their resources off the net.’

Then it hit me.

‘And they won’t want to share because it means that they have to let God in again.’ I groaned.

‘Which means that Demiurge may well have the processing power to win the conflict. Basic divide and conquer.’

The short-sightedness of it beggared belief.

‘What do they think is going to happen?!’ I demanded angrily.

‘You have to remember it’s still an unseen threat.’

‘They’ve lost contact with all four fucking colonies!’

‘Obviously you are preaching to the converted here. There’s more,’ she said. I waited. I had the feeling I was going to be told more stuff which would make me feel angry and powerless at other people’s stupidity. ‘Earth’s defences are not as impregnable as people have been led to believe.’

I felt my heart sink. I had known that the Earth’s home system fleet was made up of earlier-generation ships that had survived service in the colonies. I knew the ships were neither as sophisticated nor as many as the ships of the colonial fleets. We had, however, been brought up to believe in an impregnable fortress Earth with its surrounding cordon of orbital weapons platforms.

‘You mean it’s a lie?’ I demanded.

‘Not exactly. It’s the same problem. It’s hard enough to get everyone to co-operate out in the colonies fighting Them, but when it’s on our doorstep, when the stakes are so much higher…’

‘Because people think they’ve got more to lose, never mind the squaddie in the fucking colonies!’

‘They want to look out for themselves, and understandably so.’

‘So the problem is there will be no cohesive defence?’

Akhtar nodded. ‘And some may wish to come to terms with the Cabal.’

‘That means total control!’ I couldn’t believe this.

‘They may prefer that to what they see as total destruction.’

‘Brilliant. So what do you want me to do? Go and die under an alien sun for governments too stupid to work together?’

‘Yes.’ And again she seemed deadly serious.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Not a lot in it for me.’

‘True,’ she agreed. This was weird.

‘You should work on your motivational speaking.’

‘Do you want me to lie to you?’ She had a point.

‘Maybe soften the blow a bit.’

‘You’re fucked.’

‘Yeah, now you’re getting it.’

‘I want you to sell your lives dearly. I want you to cause them as much trouble as you can. If you think you can provide us with intelligence safely then do so because we need any we can get, but most importantly I want you to raid, sabotage, assassinate and do anything you can to damage their resources and delay them. And when they catch you, and they will, I want you to make sure you kill yourself and destroy your internal memory before you fall into their hands.’

‘You realise that the people we’re talking about are just like you and me but have been misled by Rolleston and Cronin?’

She looked me straight in the eyes when she answered. ‘Yes. It’s something I have given a great deal of thought to. If you can think of another way…’

I was wondering how much I still owed this world.

‘I think you’ve mistaken me for someone else. I don’t want to die.’

‘Tough shit.’

‘Why am I being singled out for this?’

‘I can’t make up my mind whether that’s solipsistic or just plain arrogance.’

‘I only know what one of those words means.’

‘You’re not. We’re keeping half of our special forces, including reserves, back here for stay-at-home parties, if it goes badly.’ Stay-at-home parties was the preferred euphemism for suicide missions. ‘The rest we’re putting on the ground in the colonies in conjunction with the special forces of other countries who are co-operating with us.’

‘Such as Sharcroft in America?’

The look of distaste that she struggled to control endeared her to me further.

‘Yes. I know you don’t like him, but I am forced to admit that he is the best man for the job. For your information, I am speaking to every man and woman I am sending to die.’

‘Why are they going?’

‘Because each of them thinks that they will live. Somehow. I am sorry to be the one to break this to you, Sergeant, but you are nothing special. Though I have to admit that you do have a few things working in your favour.’

‘That I’m a hybrid?’

‘Yes, and we will be having samples from you. You can either co-operate or I’ll have them taken by force.’

I gave this some thought. ‘Fair enough.’

‘You also have two of the architects of God, both exceptionally skilled individuals, one of whom is also Them-augmented.’

‘And we have Rannu – he’s a skilled operator.’ She said nothing. ‘We have Rannu, right?’

‘You have one other edge.’

‘Mudge?’

She ignored me.

‘My Koran tells me that I should not let my hatred of some people cause me to transgress, that to seek revenge is a human weakness, not a strength. My mother says otherwise, but then such is the nature of her business interests, but I think you truly do hate Rolleston.’

‘Any reason I shouldn’t?’

‘Maybe you should let that carry you for a while.’ She was manipulating me and I knew it. She was also right. ‘Well?’

‘We have to know that things will change. You can’t keep on throwing us into the grinder and then forgetting about us.’

‘Do you see a fucking Fortunate Son sitting here next to you?’ she demanded angrily.

‘I mean it.’

‘You were right in Atlantis when you said there was nothing wrong with just wanting to do a job and look after your family; we don’t all have to be rich, powerful or even ambitious. You were wrong when you said we were eating each other. You’ve been feeding a trickle-down economy. I have no problem with people who become wealthy from their own hard work, but there has to be a level playing field. Everyone gets a fair chance.’

‘Pretty words.’

‘All I’ve got is that and hard work at the moment.’

‘You’re a politician.’

‘I’m a manager. I have no interest in ideology, just in solving problems. Being elected is a means to an end. I’m here because I can do it better, not because I’m sucking cock.’

I smiled at this. ‘I like you. You’re funny.’ I looked past her to Mike and Lien. ‘Is she on the level?’

‘Fucked if I know, mate. Pays well though,’ Mike said.

Akhtar was shaking her head in exasperation.

Lien was giving it more thought. ‘I think so,’ she finally said.

‘Either of you want to come to the colonies?’ I asked.

‘Fuck that!’

‘No.’

‘If we go out there to die and nothing changes, will you kill her for me?’ I asked Lien. Mike was smiling.

‘Sure, Jake,’ Lien said.

Akhtar was looking more exasperated.

‘You realise that admitting to being a potential assassin is not a sound career move for a bodyguard?’ Akhtar said coldly to Lien as she got up to leave. When she reached the door she looked back at me. ‘Go back to Limbo, Sergeant Douglas.’

‘You know that using my rank a lot doesn’t mean I’m any more your soldier?’

She turned to the door but hesitated again.

‘I knew Balor – he was a good man. No, what am I talking about? He was a card-carrying psychopath who had sex with sea life, but a capable one.’ She paused as she tried to find the right thing to say. I didn’t help; I just watched her, trying to keep my face impassive. ‘I think he died well.’

‘Maybe I’ll get the chance to do the same. In your service.’

‘It’s as much your service as mine. Eventually people will realise that.’ She left and I heard her heels clicking down the corridor.

The police released me, though they weren’t happy about it. I got my stuff back and reclaimed my bike. I opened up my comms again and found loads of messages from Mudge demanding to know what the fuck I was doing. There was nothing from Morag though.

Akhtar left quietly in an understated corporate-looking copter after some of her people had taken blood and DNA samples from me. I didn’t feel comfortable about that. I just hoped that they could come up with a way to deal with Rolleston and his Themtech-augmented soldiers.

I had been held in the police compound in the Coventry camp. Mudge was waiting for me when they finally let me go.

He looked me up and down. ‘Admit it. You enjoy getting the shit kicked out of you, don’t you? You’re like a masochist. Look, I know some clubs in London. We could go there, get you spanked, maybe some whipping, maybe a shock stick up your arse?’

‘Shut up, Mudge.’

He didn’t. ‘So are we going back?’

‘I am.’

‘Are we doing something stupid?’

‘Even the big boss thinks it’s suicidal.’

Mudge shrugged. ‘Sure.’

I shook my head. ‘Seriously, Mudge, what are you doing here?’

A pained expression crossed his face. ‘Jakob, you have no idea how fucking bored I am.’

‘That’s not a good reason.’

‘Besides, I got made unemployed.’

‘I’m not really surprised. What were you doing?’

‘Hosting a topical news quiz.’

‘What? Really, on the viz?’

I was kind of surprised despite myself. You never really expect to meet someone you see on the viz. Well, other than the PM. Not that I watched the viz of course. You particularly don’t expect it to be a mate. On the other hand, I suppose that all of us were viz stars.

‘I told you, mate – I’m a multimedia sensation.’

‘So how’d you get fired?’

‘I spat in some micro-celebrity’s face.’

‘Yeah, that’ll do it. Why?’

‘She annoyed me.’

Obvious really, I suppose.

‘Mudge, have you considered that with your people skills working in the media may not be the best job for you?’

‘I like the attention.’

I nodded. ‘Have you heard from Morag?’

‘I will fucking slap you if you don’t stop whining about her.’

Two minutes and Mudge was already irritating me. I checked with God. Morag had checked up on me. I smiled, until the scabs that were my lips cracked open and started bleeding again and it quickly became a pained grimace.

‘Have you got any drugs?’ I asked. He just looked at me as if I was stupid.

I screamed with the pain. Rannu, Morag and Pagan came running. They must have thought that They’d turned on us. I’d tried to keep my self-harming experiment as quiet as possible but it hurt when you rammed four knuckle blades through your arm. It had taken some force to get through my subcutaneous armour.

Mudge didn’t come to see what the noise was about. Withdrawal had given him chronic diarrhoea so he spent most of his time sitting on the toilet alien being cleaned out. One of his few current pleasures in life seemed to be holding court from atop the toilet creature. This was a nightmare because we were all sharing the space and because sometimes we had to undergo the unpleasant experience of using the same toilet creature.

I was sitting on the mossy floor in one of the little nooks of the communal cavern at the back of the cave, far away from the membrane overlooking Maw City. The three of them came to a halt over me. I cried out again as I tore the blades free of my hand. Blood was pissing out of the wounds. Even Rannu looked surprised.

‘What the fuck are you doing?’ Morag demanded. It was a reasonable question in the circumstances. I was starting to feel a little bit foolish.

‘Well, you know how Rolleston could walk through railgun fire…’ I didn’t finish. I could hear Mudge start to laugh from his toilet alien throne. I had hoped I’d be a bit more stoical. Apparently not.

‘For fuck’s sake,’ Pagan said exasperatedly, before turning and walking off.

‘You idiot!’ Morag said and knelt down and started fussing. Rannu knelt and started to tend to the cuts in a more practical matter.

‘I don’t think you should walk into railgun fire,’ he suggested. I nodded. I was feeling really stupid now.

‘Perhaps you could have started with a minor cut,’ Morag suggested. Another valid point. Rannu bound my hand with what material he could find. I certainly didn’t seem to have any of Rolleston’s recuperative powers. My arm really hurt, and like Mudge I wished we had something to kill the pain even just whisky.

‘That was a really dumb thing to do,’ Morag said as she lay against me once Rannu had gone. She felt hot and was covered in sweat from another training session.

‘Yeah, I got that. How are the plans for getting us home coming along?’

‘Fine. It’ll definitely work, assuming we don’t just get shot by our own people.’ Then she went quiet. I could see her struggling to decide how to tell me something.

‘You’re going to do it?’ I asked. She nodded and then looked up at me.

‘I want you to come with me.’

She seemed so earnest. It was times like this when she lost the hard edge that I remembered how young she was supposed to be. How young she should’ve been allowed to be.

‘Morag, I…’ I started. We’d been through this. I had no frame of reference and we were talking about the mind of a species that had been trying to kill me for most of my adult life. Regardless of how misunderstood They may have been, I just couldn’t get away from the years of hatred and war.

‘I’ll look after you. I’ll keep you safe,’ she told me, and I believed her.

This alien place was the warmest, most comfortable and safest I could remember being since a child. The sad fact was that these previously genocidal aliens had looked after me better than any human ever had since my parents died. If things were going to change maybe I needed to stop being so frightened of things I didn’t understand. If only it was that easy.

‘Okay,’ I finally answered. She smiled. Also I liked to see her happy.

‘And no more stabbing yourself.’

I did heal faster, it seemed. It made sense. After all, the stuff They’d put into me was designed to find unhealthy flesh, eat and replace it. I tried not to think about that too much. It was nowhere near as effective as Rolleston’s healing but with a few hours’ rest the cuts on my arm were starting to look a lot better. The healing process really hurt however.

Morag took me by the hand to our grotto, as I’d started to think of it. We sat down by the pool and she held both my hands. I felt faintly foolish for reasons I couldn’t really explain. I let go of her and was on my feet, blades extended, when they rose out of the pool.

‘Jakob, it’s okay,’ Morag tried to reassure me. They were organic tendrils, white in colour instead of the black I was more used to. They looked like smaller versions of the massive tendrils I’d seen in Maw City. They swayed in the pool like the snakes I’d seen on documentary vizzes. The movement was in no way comforting. My heart was beating quickly.

‘Morag, I’m not sure I can do this.’

‘Its okay, Jakob. It’ll be fine, I promise.’ Her tone was reassuring but I think I sat back down opposite her and let her take my hands because her fearlessness was shaming me. I closed my eyes.

It wasn’t the normal, disconcerting hard click of connection you felt hard-wiring yourself into something. It felt more like liquid flowing into the four plugs in the back of my neck. This didn’t make sense. Plastic and metal had no nerve endings.

Then I was somewhere else. Then I heard the music again. Music sung through space. I felt tears on my cheeks. I opened my eyes to find myself in a waterfall of liquid sparks of light. Each spark seemed to cascade over me in a feeling of pleasant, slightly ticklish, electric warmth.

I was hovering in mid-air. The best way I could describe my surroundings was as a giant organic cave-tunnel like a vein, but this didn’t do justice to what I was seeing. A warm wind blew through the tunnel/vein. It was a conduit for light and sound. Were the light and sound Their thoughts? Bioluminescent lighting sparked all around us, travelling down through the tunnel/vein. Perhaps that was Their thoughts. This was Their mind, after all, not their biology. A purely mental space. I could see junctures where other organic tunnels/veins intersected. I was hovering over what looked like a bottomless drop. This gave me a moment of vertigo but I mastered it.

Morag was right to bring me here. I reached up to touch the tears on my face. I was whole; there was no plastic or metal in me now. I was naked. So was Morag. She looked like Morag, not one of her icons. Her eyes were back. This just made me want to weep more. I was kind of glad none of the others were around to see me like this.

‘The icon?’ I managed.

‘They’re not icons, it’s us,’ she told me.

I wanted to hold her. I moved across to her, floating through the curtain of warm sparks. Everything about her felt real as we hugged each other fiercely. Was this my reward? Was this what it had all been for? I could hear the music. It was the abstract, angelic choral music that I heard echo through space in my dreams, the music that I’d thought the Cabal had silenced and replaced with the screaming of war. It was more real here than what Ambassador had shown me as I slept in Morag’s arms in the ruins of Trenton.

‘Thank you,’ I said to her as I held her tight. Then I looked up. ‘Thank you!’ I shouted. Any inhibitions seemed foolish now. ‘Can we communicate with Them?’ I asked. I wasn’t used to the sound of awe in my voice.

She pushed gently away from me. ‘C’mon.’

Then she dived through the air and through the cascade of liquid light. I went after her, my dive clumsier. I heard a noise. I couldn’t quite work out what it was. It took me a while to realise it was the sound of my laughter. Not a cynical laugh or the laughter that comes with sharing a joke with a friend, or the laughter of trying to make light of a bad situation. This laughter felt like release. As I dived through the alien mind I was freeing myself from my worries and fears. I wondered if the stunted minds and petty ambitions of the Cabal could even understand this. I think this was what I’d been searching for all those years in the sense booth. Not dislocation, like I’d thought, but connection, exploration – a feeling of there being something more.

We dived, fell, flew for what simultaneously felt like a very long time and not nearly long enough. The inner mental landscape of Them was constantly changing. I understood none of it, but none of it was ugly and everywhere was light in different hues and the ever-changing music.

Ahead of me Morag pointed towards a small tunnel-like mental vein .

‘There’s one,’ she called and swooped gracefully towards it. I followed her and tried not to hit the wall. One what?

It was dark in the tunnel. It looked much more like rock than anything else I’d seen. The singing seemed further away.

‘Morag…?’

‘Ssh, it’s okay.’ I could just make out her shape ahead of me. The only light was the warm white glow from the main vein behind us. ‘I told you we weren’t the first to come here.’

I could just about make out markings on the rock wall. It looked like scrollwork, like the designs that Pagan had decorated himself and his surroundings with. I realised that I was wading through a shallow stream of very cold water. It reminded me of fording a burn in the Highlands. The scrollwork seemed to be moving, making disconcerting patterns. It was playing tricks with my head. The patterns suggested strange, fantastical and sometimes horrific shapes.

‘If you come in peace, you can live with them, even sculpt your surroundings,’ she said.

‘You mean there are other people?’

‘I am not a person,’ a voice said. The accent sounded vaguely familiar but I could not place it. The voice sounded utterly inhuman. It seemed to resonate differently from human language. I felt it rather than heard it. Perhaps it was because of my surroundings and my recent experiences, but I found myself overcome with a feeling that I couldn’t quite understand or fully explain.

The light was blue, but not Their warm blue; it was colder like steel and neon. It came from a large and ancient-looking, two-handed claymore with a very sharp silvery blade. The man or icon holding it towered over us. He was powerfully built. His muscles looked like corded steel and seemed almost too large. Steam rose from his flesh and he burned with an inner light. I could feel the heat coming from him. It was not the warmth that blew through the asteroid caverns. Instead it was like standing too close to a furnace. The light beneath his skin picked out the network of scars that covered his torso and arms. They formed symbols and patterns that shifted with the movement of his flesh as he moved towards us. As if they were mimicking or somehow connected to the moving symbols and scrollwork on the stone wall.

I was struggling to think of this as something human. His eyes glowed with the same steel-blue light of the sword. The light could be seen through the translucent pale skin of his face. His ears were long and tapered to points. For all his size there was something graceful and otherworldly about him. He wore plaid trousers of spun wool and a thick belt, with various designs inscribed into the leather, around his waist. His hair was long, shaved at the sides and organised into complicated braids. He had a short beard but a long moustache that was again braided.

Silver and gold bracelets wrapped around his left arm. I dimly remembered that they were called torcs. His other arm was made from the same silvery metal as the sword and covered in a complex engraved pattern. It looked like some kind of ancient but perfectly functional prosthetic. It had the same glow as the sword and his eyes.

Though my iconic form in here made me look fully human, my right arm had started to ache. I held it and took a step away from the heat, the sense of raw physical power and the radiating sense of barely controlled rage I felt from this thing. I think the emotion I was feeling was awe. It was clear to me that whatever he was, he had his roots back somewhere in humanity’s collective unconscious. At the same time I felt I was in the presence of something both ancient and utterly different to me. In some ways this thing, despite familiar trappings, seemed more alien than Them.

‘Oh,’ I said.

‘Now do you believe?’ Morag asked.

Shit, I thought. Was I having a religious experience? Had I been tricked into this? I pushed that thought back. I was determined not to let the normal cynical, fear-filled decisions of everyday life intrude on this place. Whatever was going on, I had to try and take this at face value as something strange but potentially wonderful. That said, I didn’t want to end up as mad as your average signalman. Though with the sheer feeling of power that was radiating from this thing I could see why so many were affected.

‘Oh,’ I said again, my mind like a steel trap.

‘I am Nuada Airgetlaa,’ he said.

‘All right?’ I managed. I looked at Morag. She was just smiling. ‘Did you know about this?’

‘Not really the way it works. They come and go as they please.’

‘And They let them?’

We may have been being rude and I didn’t doubt that this guy was some kind of mythic archetype from humanity’s past somehow given form, but all the while we were talking he was watching us. Actually it was more like he was studying me.

‘You are a warrior?’ he asked. I felt my heart sink. Here we go again.

‘No. I am or was a fucking soldier and I don’t want to be doing great deeds for abstract reasons.’

‘Jakob…’ Morag tried to warn me. She reached over and grabbed my arm.

‘You’d have more luck with Balor if he wasn’t-’ Which was as far as I got before I was lifted up by the neck and slammed against the wall. I found the tip of about six feet of steel pressed against my stomach. His fingers scorched my neck. I could smell my own burning flesh. The pale flesh on his face seemed to slew back down to the musculature as he hissed, revealing wickedly sharp canines and too many of them. His breath smelled of honey, heather and raw meat. I’m pretty sure I screamed. Up close he looked even larger. And I had been having such a nice time. I knew I was helpless here.

‘No!’ Morag said and grabbed the guy. She may as well have been wrestling a statue. She screamed and stumbled back, her flesh burned where she had touched him. He released me and backed off, his features reshaping into their original form. He looked down at Morag. She was cradling her burned hands, looking pained and unsure. He seemed appalled by the pain he’d inflicted on her.

‘I am sorry, Mother.’

Morag looked as mystified as I was.

‘That’s okay,’ she said slowly. I was rubbing my bruised and burned virtual neck.

‘It was just that he said the name of my enemy,’ he explained.

Balor’s ability to make friends and influence people seemed second only to Mudge’s. Unless of course he was referring to the mythological demon that Balor had named himself after. Of course he was. I groaned. Even though I was having some sort of religious experience I lacked the ability to process it properly. It all seemed like nonsense to me. Frightening and painful nonsense.

‘Different Balor and he’s dead anyway,’ I managed.

Nuada nodded. ‘So you are a warrior?’ he asked again.

‘Whatever. What are you?’

‘I am Nuada Airgetlaa, it means “Of the Silver Hand”. I am of the Tuatha De Danaan; I was once their king.’ He held up his silver arm. ‘But I am no longer whole.’

This I understood.

‘Tough war?’ I asked.

‘Yes,’ he said simply.

I nodded. ‘I’ve got one just like it.’ Then I remembered where I’d heard the name before. ‘The arm. You made sure I got it? You’re one of those self-aware AIs that latches onto religious iconography in the net, aren’t you?’

‘I thought they were just the fevered imagination of hackers,’ Morag said. Nuada said nothing.

‘How did you get all the way out here?’ I asked him.

‘This is just another road from Tir Nan Og.’

This of course made no sense. I wondered if religion would have a more universal appeal if the gods could manage to be a bit less fucking cryptic. Then a strange thought occurred to me.

‘Wait a second. The arm. Are you trying to identify with me?’

I saw Morag roll her eyes. I think in the big electronic church of hacking you were supposed to be a little more respectful during your visitation.

‘The Adversary is coming-’ Nuada started.

‘No shit.’

‘Jakob!’ Morag hissed at me. She sounded genuinely pissed off.

‘The Adversary is going to drown us all. There will be only one god, and that god will be a god of fear.’

‘You mean Demiurge?’

‘And when he drowns us he will know us,’ Nuada continued.

‘So you can hide and keep secrets?’ I asked.

‘Now we hold our own mysteries, but not in the face of the Adversary.’

‘Okay, Demiurge is bad. We know this. So?’

‘He will have our power.’

This didn’t sound good.

‘Is that a lot of power?’ I asked. He just looked at me as if I was stupid. ‘If you’re frightened of Demiurge then fight. Don’t dress yourself up in old gods and expect others to do the work for you.’ Again he said nothing. ‘Have you got anything to bring to this?’

‘If we go near it, we will be taken, we will be corrupted, we will become an extension of it, and you do not want this as much as we do not want it.’

‘Okay, so come forward,’ I said.

‘And risk the burning times?’

‘So you’d rather be urban myths? Hackers’ tall tales? What are you anyway?’

‘I told you. I am Nuada Airgetlaa.’

I took another step back. Despite the odd way I seemed to be hearing him, he seemed to be trying to keep his tone as even and emotionless as possible. I just couldn’t shake the feeling of enormous rage being held back just below the surface.

‘Okay. With all due respect, what do you want from me?’

‘You must have them remake Pais Badarn Beisrydd.’

I looked over at Morag questioningly. She was crouching down and backing into the shadows. There was something odd and primal about her movements. What the fuck was going on?

‘I don’t know what that means.’

‘If you are a warrior then we will share blood.’

With his silver hand he wrapped his fingers around the sword’s blade, barely touching it. His hand started to bleed what looked like smoking mercury. I looked at Morag again. The shadows in the tunnel seemed to be elongating to engulf her. They moved across her naked skin like they were alive. I began to feel dislocated like I was on a good but frightening psychotropic. It was as if it wasn’t happening to me but I was somehow witnessing it.

‘It’s only information,’ Morag whispered.

I could only see her as a shadow now, though the shadow’s teeth and eyes seemed to burn. I swallowed and reached out for the sword. I didn’t even realise I’d touched it until my hand came away wet with blood. Nuada grasped my hand. My blood and his mingled. It burned, it burned so much. It took me a moment to realise the discordant screaming that was so jarring, even in this part of this place, was me. My flesh glowed from the inside through translucent skin.

I awoke in the pool. My body felt like a rough-edged machine. It was awkward and painful to live in. Of course it would have been less painful if I hadn’t stabbed myself in the arm earlier. I felt feverish and was surprised that the water wasn’t bubbling. Morag was holding me, cradling me like I was a sick or frightened child.

Later in the grotto I was still shaken and didn’t feel right. I was too hot. A diagnostic check of all my internal systems found no trace of any information exchange.

‘Did you take me there?’ I asked.

She didn’t answer straight away. I think she was trying to work out if there was any accusation in my question. There wasn’t. I’d worked hard to make sure there wasn’t.

‘It wasn’t an ambush. I knew there were things there. I’ve spoken with some of them but I wasn’t expecting that.’

‘They’re AIs, aren’t they? Powerful self-aware ones masquerading as old gods. That’s why they’re so frightened.’

‘Maybe,’ she said.

‘You can’t believe they’re gods, can you?’ I said incredulously. Maybe I was just trying to convince myself. It had seemed pretty real at the time.

‘They’ve been here a while if they are.’

‘They must have come when we were colonising.’

‘Its difficult to understand Their way of measuring time but They encountered whatever that was before They encountered us.’

That shut me up until I eventually asked, ‘So what do you think they are?’

‘I don’t know. Maybe they’re aliens searching for a way to communicate and then the way home, or maybe they’re the real deal – whatever that means. Pagan thinks that they are a reflection of us, our subconscious projected onto the net and somehow given form and independence. He calls them ghosts of our imagination.’

‘So?’ I finally asked.

‘So what?’

‘So what does it all mean?’

‘Fucked if I know.’

‘Brilliant. Just more religious bollocks.’ Morag opened her mouth to say something. ‘Don’t tell me to have faith.’

‘I was going to tell you to speak to Pagan – he knows more about this sort of thing.’

‘Oh he’ll fucking love that, me getting religion. Has he seen them?’ I asked, trying to change the subject.

‘Back on Earth he has. He hasn’t been in Their mind yet. I’m going to take him in next.’

‘Yeah? Good, he’ll like that. Hold on. Does that mean he’ll see you naked?’ I demanded. She was laughing. I still didn’t like the idea. ‘Will you see him naked?!’ I demanded. She grimaced.

I awoke to the reassuringly distant scream of the sub-orbital military transport’s engines. Akhtar had laid on the aircraft and after some arguments with the crew I’d even managed to get my bike on board.

I hadn’t spoken to Pagan about my religious experience of course, meeting Nuada. I tried to ignore the whole thing. I didn’t understand it, therefore it was meaningless. I convinced myself that it really didn’t matter what they were. The whole pretending to be gods and spirits thing was just another snow job to try and get people to do what they wanted them to, probably for some inhuman reason. Maybe it was just entertainment for them. Besides, I had decided I was through, that I was going to retire.

We went home. I think I could have stayed or even gone on with Them if Morag had been with me, but Mudge really wanted to get back and get high. Besides, we needed to see how much damage we’d done.

The last we’d seen of Them was huge engines pushing cored asteroids out of their place in the Dog’s Teeth. Each asteroid was honeycombed with Their energy storage matrices. Energy harvested from the twin stars to sustain Them on their exodus. The massive convoy of ships surrounding the asteroids seemed to stretch out for thousands of miles as They prepared to flee the neighbours.

They got us home by using a variant of Their infiltration crafts. It was basically an engine with re-entry needles. Except this time when we came in-system we were broadcasting using the salvaged comms units from our Mamluk exo-armour suits. The good thing about the design of the needles was that we didn’t get to see how close we got to dying. We were intercepted by a Ugandan ship, and during the initial debrief we each had four Ugandan special forces pointing weapons at us at all times. It was quite tense.

We got passed from pillar to confused post as the authorities tried to decide whose problem we actually were. The debriefs got less combative and Mudge got in less fights with our interrogators. I had tried telling them that if they wanted his co-operation all they had to do was give him drugs, but nobody listened to me.

The Dog’s Teeth, Maw City – it all started to seem like a dream. Parts of it too pleasant and other parts too unreal to have any relation to the grind of being back in the real world and dealing with the imminence of a war that could split humanity in two. Assuming that it didn’t just destroy it.

Eventually Air Marshal Kaaria intervened on our behalf and everyone heaved a sigh of relief as we became someone else’s problem.

Mudge’s drugs had made me feel better and I was healing faster. I should still get someone to look at my spine.

As I looked out over the desert I had some time to think. Leaving aside the suicidal aspect of the job, it still did not feel right getting ready to kill innocent soldiers. I guessed this is what war had been about all through the ages. Was it any different from the streets? I’d mainly killed people who’d been trying to kill me. Or maybe that was just what I told myself to get to sleep at night. This was going to be more proactive. I guessed it wouldn’t be any different from what we’d done when we’d busted Gregor out, but then that was when I decided that I didn’t want to kill any more.

Except Rolleston. And Cronin. Rolleston had to die because he deserved it. Cronin I didn’t hate, but he had to go because he was so much part of the problem. Of course they’d be the most difficult to get to, assuming we could even find them.

Then there was Josephine, the Grey Lady. No real hate there. Just fear. To deal with Rolleston we’d first have to deal with her. Why the bond? I wondered. All our heavy hitters were gone as well. Balor might have been able to deal with Josephine, though even he’d implied that he was scared of her. Hybrid Gregor could have dealt with her if he hadn’t ended up on the other side. Though even then Rolleston and Josephine had all but walked through us in the media node. Rannu? He was a solid trooper, very skilled, but I didn’t think he was in the same league as the Grey Lady.

I watched Mudge dance by, singing along with some music he was listening to on his internal systems. He was naked and covered in body paint. That at least explained the unconscious airman on the bench opposite. It seemed I could sleep through anything.

‘Mudge?’

He turned to look at me. He seemed really jittery. He held out his hand as if he could take hold of me from the middle of the cargo hold, his hand grasping and relaxing.

‘We need more shooters,’ I told him. ‘Give it some thought.’ He nodded and then smiled.

I wasn’t sure if the escorts who took us from the airfield to Limbo were the same ones as before, as the entire security detail looked the same to me. They certainly didn’t seem happy to see us. Mudge being naked and blissed out hadn’t helped. Sometimes I felt that people didn’t take us seriously.

I was looking out of the window as we sank down into the silo. Mudge came over and put me in a playful headlock. He must have been coming down, as he was now able to communicate with us humans. Sadly.

‘Wow,’ he began. ‘You’re really going to have to eat some shit when we get there.’ Which is why I wasn’t looking forward to getting back to Limbo. ‘That’s going to be really humiliating.’

There was no point talking to him when he was like this.

7

New Mexico

I ended up carrying Mudge’s stuff. I agreed to be checked for God and surveillance but cheerfully refused to allow them to take my weapons and pointed out I had more than the last time I came. All the while Mudge was dancing around listening to music on his internal systems. He was still stark naked and covered in body paint. I let them check his gear. He just giggled whenever they tried to speak to him. Mudge certainly picked his time.

The Limbo staff just stared at the naked, painted, dancing Mudge as we entered the nerve centre, or what I had come to think of as the long metal mesh tube. Sharcroft advanced on me with the strange metallic, insectile gait of his life-support chair.

I pointed at him. ‘And you can fuck off.’ I threw two vials to one of his aides. One was a DNA swab and the other was blood. ‘That’s all you’re getting; don’t ask for more.’

‘Sergeant Douglas, may I remind-’ his modulated electronic voice started to say.

‘No, you may not. I’m going to speak to my people and find out what the score is. We’ll take objectives off you and all the resources we need; the rest goes dark for operational security.’

‘Breaking laws in the hot sun!’ Mudge shouted. I think it was supposed to be singing. It was very off-key.

‘So you’re taking over now?’ Morag asked.

I turned. I tried to ignore how good it felt to see her. Tried to ignore how good she looked with longer hair and in the white one-piece. Tried to ignore how nervous I suddenly felt.

Pagan stood next to her, looking out of place and uncomfortable without his staff and other accoutrements. I didn’t pay any attention to him. She looked me up and down, raising an eyebrow at my battered state.

‘I fought the law and the law won!’ Mudge shouted again. He advanced on Morag for a hug.

‘Mudge, you’re naked,’ she said by way of hello. Mudge gave her a hug and smeared body paint all over the front of her suit. ‘Och, you’ve made me all mucky!’

We all watched as Mudge boogied over to Pagan.

‘I approve of the body paint,’ Pagan said by way of a greeting and hugged Mudge, who then started dancing towards me.

‘See the way I diffused a potentially tense situation there through the medium of dance?’ he asked loudly as if talking over music in a club.

‘And nudity. That’s brilliant, Mudge. Thanks.’ He was getting closer. ‘Don’t hug me…’ Naked Mudge gave me a hug. Morag was laughing and Pagan was smiling.

‘So is your holiday over?’ Pagan asked as I patted Mudge on the head and tried to disentangle myself while getting the minimum of paint on me.

‘Yeah. I didn’t enjoy it. The world is still full of arseholes and now they’re queuing up to meet me.’

‘You look like you shouldn’t be out on your own,’ he said.

‘There’s an argument for that.’

I glanced over at Sharcroft. As ever, his corpse-like pallor betrayed nothing. I looked back to Morag, who was gazing at me coolly. She hadn’t rushed over to hug me, but neither had she started shouting at me, which I considered a small victory.

‘Is there someplace we can talk?’ I asked.

Pagan nodded and we followed him. Mudge leaped up onto a desk and started dancing.

‘I should be kept apprised-’ Sharcroft started.

‘Fuck off unless you want to get shot,’ I told him. I wasn’t just being obnoxious; I was eager to make sure I remembered just who the enemy was.

Pagan led us into a smaller chamber. It was pretty much empty except for a plain desk, two uncomfortable-looking skeletal chairs, a high-resolution monitor, a holographic projector and some thinscreens. It had a similar metal mesh around it to the main room outside but something about it looked makeshift, scrounged and scavenged.

‘You do this?’ I asked. Pagan and Morag both nodded. ‘Look, I haven’t-’

Morag turned round and glared at me and held a finger over her lips. I felt very green just then. Pagan and Morag swept the place for bugs and found a couple.

‘Little pricks.’ Pagan cursed into the bug before turning to me. ‘In the minute or two we came out to speak to you.’

They both then checked us and took a couple more off me that must have been slipped in when I was being searched. I felt more embarrassed.

‘But I thought this was a what-do-you-call-it cage?’ I said.

‘It is. These are recorders.’

He stamped on them. Morag set up a white-noise projector.

‘Fuuuck!’ Mudge screamed and turned to glare at her. ‘What a fucking comedown. What did you do that for?’

She gently slapped him on the side of the face. ‘Focus, Mudge.’

Then Morag took my head in her hands and kissed me. It’s difficult to describe how good it felt. Afterwards she looked up at me. I could see myself reflected in her replacement eyes. I was a mess but I’d looked a lot worse. Then she hit me squarely on the nose. She was a lot faster and stronger than she had been. It actually hurt. A lot. I reeled back, more from surprise than anything else, and grabbed my nose. She was staring at me, arms crossed.

‘What?!’ I managed.

‘Since talking to you does no good, I thought I’d demonstrate how pleased I am to see you and how pissed off I still am with you.’

Pagan was grinning. Mudge was looking pained. ‘Always the negativity with you two,’ he said despairingly, shaking his head.

‘That may be partially my fault,’ Pagan said.

‘Well I may fucking punch you back.’ I’d been having a much better day until about thirty seconds ago.

‘I merely expressed the opinion to Morag that when you returned we might not have time for her and your normal decision-making process.’

‘Oh brilliant. So now we’ve moved up to violence?’ I asked Morag.

‘Only when talking doesn’t work,’ she said, grinning at me. How very Dundonian, I thought. I blamed Rannu completely for the speed and the strength of the punch. ‘Besides, you’ve been a dick and you’re not taking over.’

‘I’m not here to take over, and where’s Rannu? I want to discuss his hand-to-hand training.’

Pagan and Morag exchanged a look. I groaned inwardly.

‘He went ahead,’ Morag finally said.

This was bad news. I’d had a feeling he would probably go ahead but was hoping that he hadn’t. We could have used him, regardless of what we were going to end up doing.

‘Okay, my suggestion is this: we talk broadly about objectives, we discuss the operating conditions, terrain and details en route, where nobody who can overhear will be able to do any damage. Agreed?’

Morag looked to Pagan. I managed to suppress irrational feelings of annoyance and jealousy. Finally Pagan nodded.

‘Yes!’ Mudge shouted enthusiastically.

‘Where are we going?’ Please not Sirius, please not Sirius, please not Sirius.

‘Lalande,’ Pagan said.

‘Oh well, at least it’s not Proxima,’ I said.

Lalande was a red dwarf system. The only planet that almost supported life was Lalande 2, which was a tidally locked, high-gravity, mineral-rich hellhole. The only place more inhospitable was Proxima, with its frozen wastes and toxic oceans.

‘And Rannu’s gone ahead?’

Morag and Pagan nodded. I wanted to ask what he was doing. I wanted to ask if they had protocols for meeting him, but I did not trust the environment so this wasn’t the place.

‘Are you happy that I handle the security element?’ I asked Pagan and just about in time remembered to look at Morag as well. I left it unsaid that I was assuming they were planning some kind of witchcraft for the mission and would have their own information warfare agenda. It was Morag who nodded. ‘And I’m assuming that we’re all broadly on the same page as regards our general objectives?’

Fuck up the enemy as much as possible and see if we can learn anything while doing it. What would be more difficult was coming up with a way to safely transmit any useful intelligence back. The pair of them nodded again.

‘No,’ said Mudge.

‘You’ll like it,’ I assured him.

He seemed happy with that.

Morag tapped me on the head. ‘There’s something in there I want,’ she said. I guessed she was talking about the information exchange between myself and whatever was calling itself Nuada in the mind of Them.

‘I’m getting a little tired of being poked and prodded, and you couldn’t find anything before but you’re welcome to try again. I’ve got something for you.’

I found the file that Vicar had given me in his sanctuary and tried to send it to Pagan and Morag. It bounced. Both of them were looking at me like I was an idiot.

‘You’re in an information quarantine,’ Morag said, using the tone that young people like to use when their elders are being stupid.

‘Where’s it from?’ Pagan asked.

I told him. Even Mudge looked at me seriously when I mentioned Vicar’s name. His camera eyes revolving one way and then the other in their sockets.

‘He’s alive?’ Pagan asked. I could hear the emotion in his voice.

I shook my head. Pagan covered his eyes with his hands. He hadn’t been this emotional before but I think he’d prepared himself that time. The hope that I’d hinted at was just a bit too much for him. I hadn’t realised they were so close. I felt like an utter shit at my pang of jealousy as Morag gently pulled Pagan’s head down towards her shoulder and held him. Through the jealousy I managed to wonder how someone who’d had her life managed to care about other people. Where had she learned that?

‘I’m all right,’ Pagan finally said.

I decided to spare him the grizzly details, which conveniently meant omitting who it was that actually killed him.

Morag let Pagan go and grabbed a double jack cable and moved towards me.

‘You’re not supposed to-’ Pagan started.

I guessed there was some kind of protocol involving a separate and isolating device, but it was too late. I felt the disconcerting click of the jack being slid into one of the four plugs on the back of my neck. Somehow it felt even more intimate than the kiss. Hopefully it wouldn’t be followed by a punch. I saw the notification of the connection on my IVD. I sent the file. The connection was severed. Morag concentrated for a moment.

‘It’s fine,’ she told Pagan. ‘I knew he wouldn’t poison me.’

Pagan admonished her for not following proper procedure. He then demonstrated it by having her put the file into a stand-alone system, where they used the touch screen controls on the monitor to run a diagnostic on it before Pagan jacked in and stored it in his internal systems as well.

I wasn’t paying that much attention. Morag had left me a text when we’d connected. I wished I’d thought of something like that but then I probably wouldn’t have known what to say. On the other hand, I really hoped it wasn’t a revenge virus. This was a black op; I briefly wondered if they had access to slaveware. I decided to trust her and open the message. Besides, I was pretty sure that slaveware would come in a much bigger file. It simply said, ‘You’re an arsehole but I missed you.’ I think I must have sagged as the tension drained from me. Morag glanced up at me and then turned away smiling. I found Mudge looking at me, grinning.

Yeah, I felt much better. Except for the guilt about sleeping with Fiona.

‘Mudge,’ Pagan started. Mudge’s head jerked around and his lenses refocused on him. ‘You filming now?’ Pagan asked.

‘Of course.’

‘Okay, you can’t do that. It’s a huge security risk.’

‘I’ve got a kill switch set up with extensive parameters on it. Anything happens to me, it runs a firestorm through my memory. I can also trigger it with a thought. Then of course I tell them everything I know because they’ll probably torture me and I can’t think that’d be good, probably quite painful.’

I was smiling at this. Pagan looked like he was getting ready to lecture.

‘Don’t exaggerate, Mudge,’ I said. ‘You’d sell us out for some good weed.’

Mudge pretended to give this some thought. ‘That’s unfair, man. Maybe some good coke or a mind-blowing psychotropic, depending on my mood.’

‘Look, this is very amusing but he’s a-’ Pagan started.

‘He’ll be fine,’ I assured Pagan, who didn’t look very assured.

‘People keep on forgetting what I do for a living. I’m not just another numpty with a gun. You do your job and let me do mine. You might see me as a risk but believe me, it’s just as important. Or do you want this place to remain secret? Sharcroft to remain secret?’ Suddenly Mudge wasn’t playing the stoned buffoon.

Pagan still looked unconvinced. Morag put a hand on his arm.

‘How can you doubt him?’ she asked.

‘He told all last time.’

‘Look, I’m as unhappy about it as everyone else-’ I started.

‘Bollocks, you love it,’ Mudge interrupted.

‘But his timing was good. Though that does remind me. If we’re going into a high-surveillance environment-’

‘Possibly total surveillance,’ Pagan said.

‘Then we’re going to need to look very different.’

‘We know,’ Morag said.

‘We need to put together a list of everything we need,’ I said. I’d started one in my internal systems.

‘We have. We’ve given it to Sharcroft. He said he’d take care of the resources side,’ Morag said smugly.

‘Then we need to ignore it and set up another one, get way too much money from Sharcroft and buy multiples of each item we need,’ I told her.

I was trying not to turn this into one-upmanship, mainly because I didn’t want to get hit. Morag looked at Pagan uncertainly.

‘He’s probably right,’ Pagan eventually admitted.

‘And Pagan, you should know better. Particularly as I’m betting it’s what Rannu did.’ Pagan nodded a little sheepishly. ‘We also need a place to pick it up which is not heavily watched over by the almighty. Speaking of which, any information on Cabal agents? Anything we have to watch out for while we’re shopping?’

At this Pagan looked exasperated.

‘Sharcroft’s not been particularly open about this,’ he said.

‘Let me guess – operational security?’ I asked.

Pagan nodded. ‘From what we’ve managed to garner, there was a purge based on what he knew, but some of them got away. I think he’s also playing counter-intelligence games with them.’

That wasn’t what I wanted to hear. I wanted something more direct and final. I didn’t think we could afford to play around like that, but then I’d never had the patience for intelligence games.

‘The problem is he’s too much of an old-fashioned spy, or rather too much of an old-fashioned spymaster,’ Pagan finished.

‘Well, we may need to show him the difference between operational security and what he’s running the operation for in the first place.’ So we could do our job. We were also going to have to dissuade him from constantly trying to bug our gear. Though we’d still need to continue checking it.

‘Infiltration?’ I asked. At this Pagan looked a little uncomfortable.

‘OILO,’ he said. He wouldn’t meet my eyes.

‘Into high G? Are you fucking nuts?’

‘Cool,’ Mudge said.

‘Look, I know rock-ape combat air controllers live for this shit, but it’s fucking dangerous at the best of times. What are you doing – reliving past glories?’

Pagan shrugged. I think he knew Orbital Insertion Low Opening was mad. ‘Can you think of a better way?’

Now I had to admit that he was right.

‘I don’t want to die in space,’ I muttered to myself.

‘You are such a fucking pussy,’ Mudge told me. I nodded.

‘How do we get there?’ I was unhappy and trying to change the subject.

‘NSA frigate, stealth bird,’ Pagan told me. I was already shaking my head. Pagan was starting to look a little put out. ‘Then what?’

‘Smuggler, a good one. We need to control as much of this as we can and take as much of it away from Sharcroft as possible.’ For this mission there was no such thing as paranoid. Pagan looked like he was about to argue but didn’t. ‘We need more shooters,’ I said.

‘Well, we’ve been looking for replacements for you,’ Morag said. I smiled at her but with the best will in the world she was not going to know as much as us about the special forces community.

‘I’ve been thinking about that, since you mention it,’ Mudge said.

‘In your state of mind? We’re not taking any dragons or talking goldfish,’ I told him.

‘Very fucking funny.’

‘We got a list from Sharcroft of active and inactive members of the community. A bit of a risk, but everyone I know is past it,’ Pagan said and ran his fingers over the monitor’s touch screen, opening the file. Mudge and I just looked at him. ‘I’m not,’ he added defensively.

‘I’ve had an idea,’ Morag said, and we didn’t mean to ignore her exactly.

‘Harry in Blue Troop,’ Mudge suggested. I took the monitor from Pagan and input Harry’s full name. He’d been a good soldier and was easy to get on with.

‘Dead,’ I told Mudge.

‘Yeah? Where?’

‘Sirius, two weeks after we shipped out.’

‘Them?’

‘No, accident. Looks like a mech stood on him.’

‘Fucking cavalry,’ Mudge said, shaking his head. ‘What about Crazy Shirley?’

‘What, that lunatic from the Special Reconnaissance Regiment? Wasn’t she the only girl you ever slept with?’ I asked.

At the time I wasn’t sure why Morag was looking so pissed off but even she turned and looked at Mudge askance.

‘You have to understand she’s really butch,’ Mudge said defensively. ‘She took me.’

‘Too much information,’ Pagan told him.

I’d finally remembered her proper name and found her on the list.

‘Still there, so we’ll be fighting her,’ I said.

‘Shit,’ Mudge said sadly. ‘What about Toadstool?’

‘As a source for drugs?’ I asked but checked. ‘Dead. Overdose.’

‘Fuck. Combine?’

‘The American guy?’

‘Yes, an American,’ Morag said, but we were distracted.

‘Dead. Orbital strike,’ I told Mudge.

‘Boom-Boom?’

‘Dead. Shot down in an assault shuttle.’

‘Did you know anyone with a proper name?’ Morag asked acidly.

A frightening amount of the people I knew vaguely or by reputation were either dead or still in theatre. That meant they were now working for Rolleston and Cronin. A few that we came across had been ‘tasked’, which I guess meant that they were doing the same sort of stupid thing as we were. This went on for a while until I saw the dawning of an idea spread over Mudge’s face.

‘I’ve had an awesome thought,’ he said. I looked at him expectantly. ‘Vladimir.’ He was grinning.

‘He’s a fucking lunatic. Maybe more so than Balor,’ I said, though despite myself I could see the appeal of it. The Spetsnaz warewolf was a good fighter and his insanity might actually be a boon. ‘He’s an officer. Do you think he’ll play along?’ I was checking the list to see if it carried info on Russian special forces. It did but it was sparser.

‘Yeah, if we pay him in cooking ethanol or something.’

I was pleasantly surprised to find Vladimir in the list. There was a link to the rest of the Vucari. They weren’t in theatre, which was a relief. They were however tasked. I was getting tired of this.

‘They’re off dying somewhere else,’ I told Mudge.

He looked crestfallen. On the plus side, I could imagine the Vucari making the Black Squadrons utterly miserable before they got caught. I didn’t like to think about the cost for the poor bastards who got caught in the middle but I hoped the Russians got to eat a few of the true believers.

I pinched the bridge of my nose between my thumb and forefinger tiredly and put the monitor down.

‘Finished your little trip down squaddie memory lane?’ Morag asked testily. I couldn’t quite work out how we’d managed to piss her off this time.

‘Hey!’ I started. That wasn’t fair. We’d discovered that we’d lost some people we knew. Mind you, we were used to that.

‘I’ve had an idea,’ she said through clenched teeth.

Pagan seemed to be in a world of his own. I think he was running through the information I’d given them from Vicar. Morag picked up the monitor and slender fingers played across the screen.

‘No offence, Morag,’ Mudge said bravely. ‘But what would you know about the special forces community?’

Morag paused to glare at him but then went back to what she was doing. Finally she handed the screen to me. I looked at it.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘That’s actually not a bad idea.’ I started reading the notes. ‘Interesting family background, long line of Philadelphia gunfighters, 1st Infantry, Tunnel Rat on Lalande…’

‘Which would be useful?’ Morag asked sarcastically.

‘Delta,’ I said finally and then put the monitor down. ‘It’s a good idea, but she’s got a good job. Why would she leave it to come and die with us?’ Morag tapped the screen. I looked back and read a little further. ‘Oh, she got fired.’

‘Because of us,’ Morag said.

That made sense. Or rather it would make sense to the sort of idiot who made decisions like that. She’d done a good job and would have continued to do so.

‘So she’ll be pleased to see us. Do we know where she is?’

Morag shook her head. ‘But only because I haven’t asked God yet.’

Pagan looked over at me and tapped his head. ‘That will help. All the Cabal’s files were purged and the NSA have not been very forthcoming.’ I nodded.

‘Who are we talking about?’ a perplexed Mudge asked.

It was a case of killing two birds with one stone. We’d found out where she was and the Arizona Coast was a good enough place to buy the gear we wanted. I think the best thing about it was the coastline was close enough to ride to. Though we’d borrowed a hover truck to carry whatever we bought back with us. It was almost fast enough to keep up with the bikes.

Pagan was driving the truck, much to Mudge’s disappointment. Mudge had been trying to choose just the right driving drug when Pagan nipped into the cab and plugged himself in. Mudge had insisted on finding something called peyote for what he called an authentic desert experience. Pagan had appeared unwilling to subject himself to Mudge’s drug-fuelled driving.

The best thing about the trip was that it had pissed Sharcroft off. I was never going to get tired of that. The best thing about Limbo was that I’d managed to get some decent food and a good night’s sleep. This was after I’d had a disconcerting several hours with both Morag and Pagan plugged into my head trying to find the elusive info that they hoped Nuada had planted somewhere in my systems. They found nothing. It didn’t matter to me: I got to sleep next to Morag.

Pagan had cornered me the following day and insisted that we connect via cable. I felt a little self-conscious as he plugged into me. He was so security-conscious that he didn’t even sub-vocalise. Instead we communicated via text message.

‘Morag has tried but she could not remember what Nuada asked you to remake,’ he texted me. He was trying to keep his face expressionless but I was pretty sure he loved that I’d had a religious experience after some of the discussions we’d had.

‘Pays Padarn something,’ I texted back. This he looked less impressed at. ‘I think it was in a foreign language,’ I added defensively.

‘You should have come to me immediately, while it was still fresh in your mind,’ the next message said. I nodded and tried to look contrite. I still wasn’t convinced that it wasn’t all bullshit. Pagan was concentrating. I reckoned he was cross-referencing some internal directory. I hoped he was enjoying himself but I hoped it sarcastically.

Another message appeared in my IVD from our hard-wired link. ‘Do you mean Pais Badarn Beisrydd?’ It sounded right but I wasn’t sure. I decided to make my life a little easier by answering in the affirmative and asking if he knew what it was.

‘Yes, it’s part of British and Arthurian myth. It’s one of the thirteen treasures of Britain. It’s a cloak or a coat that is said to turn the wearer invisible.’

‘That’ll be useful,’ I texted back. I was wondering if he would pick up on the irony in a text medium.

‘You’re taking it too literally,’ he replied. Apparently not. ‘I think it’s either part of a program or a program that might help us move unseen in Demiurge-controlled systems,’ he continued. ‘If only Nuada had given it to someone useful.’ Pagan was smiling. I gave him the finger. Then something occurred to me.

‘Maybe her head’s too busy?’ I asked, meaning the presence of the ghost of Ambassador in Morag’s head.

Pagan shrugged.

Then I sent another text. ‘Did she see anyone while I was away?’

Pagan looked pissed off. It felt like I left his reply blinking on my IVD for a long time. Pagan had unplugged us both before I had the guts to open it. It simply said, ‘Did you?’ Pagan was watching for a response. I knew it was written all over my face. Pagan shook his head and walked out of the workspace.

I’d left my bike in an old hangar building on the surface close to the silo. The muscle car and dirt bike we’d stolen were there as well, as was the military surplus hover truck we’d borrowed. A secondary or tertiary reason for owning a bike like the Triumph Argo, loath as I was to admit it, was to impress women. I wasn’t disappointed by Morag’s response. Though she appreciated it as someone who liked riding bikes when she had the chance.

She had on a pair of bike boots, armoured combat trousers, a hoodie and an armoured leather jacket with some complex and possibly Celtic design painted on the back. She looked like a normal street kid as she checked the bike out. I couldn’t help smiling.

‘I like it,’ she said. ‘Let me ride it.’

‘Morag, I very possibly love you, but no.’

I could hear Mudge and Pagan arguing in the background. She gave me a strange look. It lasted for some time. I was starting to wonder what I’d said wrong this time.

‘You can ride pillion if you want,’ I said.

She just sneered at me and climbed onto the dirt bike. The engine started as she texted the code to it. She gunned the motor and was out of the hangar. I had to admit that Morag was getting much better at riding. I remember nervously watching her ride on the Dead Roads. She had obviously far surpassed the skillsofts that she’d used to learn initially.

I sent the codes to my own bike as I watched her dust cloud speeding away from us. The Argo was a much faster bike so it wasn’t going to take long to catch her. I climbed onto my rumbling machine. The hover truck’s armoured skirts were inflating as I headed out of the garage after her across the nearly featureless desert plain. I felt the sun like a physical force as soon as I left the shade of the hangar. This was despite my coat’s cooling system.

The desert surprised me. It had a lot more colour than I thought it would. Admittedly they were mainly reds, browns and yellows with the odd patch of green, but it was still beautiful. The size and blueness of the sky with just the odd scudding cloud took some getting used to, as did the distance to the horizon.

We tried to avoid main roads and towns where we could. It was easier in the Navajo Nation, who took our tolls and then minded their own business. We drove and rode through a number of deserted towns. It felt like an empty land. I liked that.

We camped less than twenty miles from our destination. We could see the glow of New Venice from where we made camp. Started a fire, cooked food and drank sour mash. It wasn’t as good as single malt whisky.

Mudge sang us songs that he assured us were authentic for the situation. He said that it was called country and western music, a pre-FHC style that predated the country and metal

that Cyberbillys favoured. It sounded like a dying cat trying to yodel. I was pretty sure that Mudge was running some kind of shitty karaoke program on his IVD.

Later on when we were all quiet, enjoying the stars as the fire burned down, Morag in my arms, Mudge threw me a file. I pushed it into one of the plugs in the back of my neck and downloaded the music. It was by a man called Cash. It wasn’t the sort of thing that I would normally listen to but it fitted.

In retaliation for the destruction of the Brazilian Spoke and the use of air-launched, nuclear-tipped, anti-satellite weapons on several orbital facilities, the Multi Nationals and their backers had destroyed California. It hadn’t slipped into the ocean like some had once thought possible, but the ocean still swamped much of it.

They had targeted the San Andreas Fault, another fault area called the Eastern California Shear Zone, as well as offshore fault lines. The kinetic strikes were much more extensive than the Birmingham bombardment and had pierced the faults down through the Earth’s crust. The damage from the resultant earthquakes was appalling, but it was the successive tidal waves from the bombardment as well as the subsequent underwater quakes and volcanic activity that had caused the most deaths. It was the greatest loss of human life as a result of a single incident in human history.

It redrew the Californian coastline and turned much of the previously dry state into a muddy salt swamp. More flooding took place as a result of the global rise in water levels. All coastal cities had been destroyed, as had many of the cities further inland. The state’s as well as the country’s economy lay in ruins. It was a blow that America had not really recovered from in the intervening two hundred and fifty plus years.

California had become a ghost state, a waterlogged equivalent of the Dead Roads inhabited by few but the truly degenerate and insane. Large swathes of it were a shallow sea, the water broken only by the rubble of pre-FHC civilisation.

Mudge told us the story around the campfire. Growing up, we’d all heard versions of it but he had the education to know it properly, I guess. Pagan probably knew it too but he remained quiet and looked solemn, even sad. I tried to imagine what that night had been like. It must have felt like the end of the world. I wondered if they’d had time to realise something was wrong. Would they have been able to understand the magnitude of the disaster that was killing them? I could only think of it in the most abstract terms. I hoped that they had died quickly, but I knew many of them would not have.

The same night the corporations hit the faults they had also hit every single dam on the Colorado River. This, along with the general rise in the water table, led to partial flooding of the Grand Canyon and surrounding areas. While it paled in significance compared to the destruction of California, it was another blow against America’s infrastructure. The lights went out in Vegas just before the aftershocks hit it. It also led to the Grand Canyon and environs becoming euphemistically known as the Arizona or Nevada – depending on what side you were on – Coast.

Vicious, often artificially augmented, tidal bore waves forced down narrow canyons gave birth to the dangerous sport of canyon surfing and turned the Arizona/Nevada Coast into a the number-one surf spot in North America. Though the truly hard core sometimes risked the dangers of California to surf the ruins of its destroyed cities. The area had been developed by an alliance of mob money and the local Hulapai Native Americans, who had ensured that the land was not further abused too much. Fortunately, as the target market was surfers, not too much development was needed. They liked to rough it. The development alliance used surf tribes to police the coast. Some of the tribes were borderline feral people from the ruins of California.

The free and easy approach to law enforcement coupled with a love of cash meant a burgeoning grey market. We were hoping to find what we’d need in the arms and tech markets of New Venice.

I felt overdressed in my raincoat. Everyone else looked much more at home, particularly Pagan with his staff and ritual accoutrements back on show, although our pale and soon-to-be-red skin marked us out as Europeans.

Much of New Venice clung to the canyon walls or made use of caves in the side of the canyons, though the Hulapai council had forbidden any excavation. The streets were often rope bridges out over the water, or platforms linking buildings that clung to the cliff. Most of the people were tanned, muscular and heavily tattooed. There was a lot of scar tissue on show, some of it ritual, most of it the result of meeting a canyon wall at speed. Many were heavily pierced and/or had their hair cut, braided or deadlocked into elaborate patterns. They wore shorts, cut-offs or wetsuits. The women wore bikini tops and the men were mainly stripped to the waist. Most carried knives but only the tribal police seemed to wear guns.

After we’d found people who seemed trustworthy enough to bribe to look after our vehicles, we asked God where she was, knowing that she would have asked God to alert her if anyone made enquiries about her. Then we made our way through New Venice down into the main canyon. As we took the bridges over the smaller canyons we began to see the surfing. The surfers would watch one of the tidal bores approaching and jump off bridges into deep-water rapids. Then they had to sort themselves out and get ready to catch the wave. If/when they caught the wave it shot them down the canyon like a bullet. The canyon walls were smeared with sun-baked blood.

‘I want a go!’ Mudge shouted as we watched three surfers jump from the bridge we were on. Two of them almost immediately wiped out. One of them didn’t come back up as we crossed.

‘Focus,’ I told him.

I was trying to decide if it was any more dangerous or stupid than scheme racing. Probably not, but then I’d done that for money. Or at least I’d thought I had.

‘Me too,’ Morag said. I could hear the excitement in her voice.

We found her in another, narrower canyon. She was on a bridge, board ready, about to jump. We tried to approach her but armed surf tribespeople stopped us. The fact that they were carrying guns suggested they were police.

I opened my mouth to shout to her but Pagan put his hand on my shoulder. Mudge was shaking his head as well.

She looked much as she had, except instead of exo-armour she was wearing a shorty wetsuit. I could see a lot more of her now. She had the sort of body that looked like it had worked hard all her life, all hard muscle and very little fat. Her head was still completely shorn of hair. Her skin looked a darker shade of brown, almost black, but that may have been the shadow down here away from the sun.

If she knew we were here then she gave absolutely no indication of it. She glanced behind her at the bore wave. To me it looked like a near-solid wall of water. Gripping her board, she jumped.

As one we moved to the edge of the ledge we were standing on. She surfaced momentarily, lying flat on her board, carried along by the fast-moving water, then disappeared again as the wave reached her. Cameras on remotes followed her progress. There was a thinscreen stuck to a smooth part of the canyon wall showing the footage. She rode the wave. There was no look of joy or pleasure on her face like I’d seen on some of the others, but instead a look of intense concentration. She was working at it.

It was going well until she tried to climb the wave. To me it looked like she just didn’t have enough room for the manoeuvre she was attempting. The tip of the board hit the canyon wall, snapping off, and the force of the wave catapulted her into the air. She hit the rock with enough force to make all of us flinch.

‘Oh well, that was a waste of time,’ Mudge said.

‘Shut up, Mudge,’ Morag told him.

We found her sunning herself on a rock outcrop higher up and further along the canyon. The impact had cut her head open and split her subcutaneous armour. I was pretty sure I could see the bone-white of skull. Most of her skin was missing down her right side, scraped away down to the armour. She may have cleaned her wounds but she hadn’t dressed them yet.

There were a few other people around. I was supposed to be checking all around us but found myself polarising my lenses and looking up the rock walls at the sliver of blue sky above.

‘Hello, Cat,’ Morag said to her. Cat Sommerjay, ex-C-SWAT commander from the Atlantis Spoke, opened one of her eyes. She cast a black lens over us.

‘I’m not interested,’ she said.

‘We’re paying,’ Morag said.

‘I had a job.’

Through no real fault of her own, concrete-eating microbes had been used twice on the Atlantis Spoke on her watch. This had resulted in the most amount of damage done to a spoke since the fall of the Brazilian Spoke during the FHC.

‘Look, we’re sorry about-’ Morag started.

‘Sorry?’ Cat sat up, opening both eyes to look at us. ‘Sorry! I’m fucking unemployable thanks to you people. Two major terrorist incidents on my watch, in a spoke. Have you any idea how fucking hard I worked to get to the head of that team?’

‘That why you’re down here trying to kill yourself?’ Mudge, the diplomat, asked. Cat turned to give him a proper NCO glare. He didn’t flinch.

‘No, asshole. I had some back pay due and I always fancied giving it a go.’

‘So why aren’t you dressing your wounds?’ I asked despite my better judgement. She turned to look at me. ‘No, you’re not trying to kill yourself, are you? Just enjoying a little pain.’

She turned angrily to grab her towel. I may as well have been asleep. She made it look natural but I still should have known better. I think Pagan started to move. Cat grabbed the huge pistol from under the towel. From sitting she rolled to her feet. She had the pistol in a two-handed stance and I found myself looking down the bore of a very large barrel.

It was a tunnel-rat pistol. Often they had to squeeze into small places, so they needed pistol-sized weapons with a lot of stopping power. It was an IMI Void Eagle chambered for caseless. 50-calibre rounds. She had a small microwave emitter fitted under the barrel designed to ‘cook’ a Berserk – mess it up just long enough to empty the magazine into it. You needed balls to hunt Them with just a pistol, even one this big.

We spread apart to make it difficult for her to target all of us. Even Morag. I was pleased that we’d worked together long enough that this was instinct. I was less pleased that the gun appeared to be pointing at me.

‘I’m pretty sure a round at this range will pop his skull off. All of you stop moving.’ As she talked she was looking quickly between all of us. She was just slightly too far away for me to try a disarm even with my enhanced reflexes. The more I was seeing of Cat, the more I was convinced that Morag had chosen well. Assuming she didn’t just shoot me. ‘Give me a good reason not to,’ she said. I couldn’t at that moment think of one.

‘You’re right. You don’t owe us shit; we owe you. So unless you want money we can’t offer you anything,’ I said.

Just for a moment her eyes flickered back to me. That was a mistake.

Morag and Mudge drew on her. Now she had two much smaller automatics pointed at her. When had Morag got so fast?

Cat just grinned wickedly. ‘Aim for the wounds, boys and girls, because that small-calibre shit is just going to be flattening itself against my armour while I kill Jakob here.’

‘Fucking army,’ Pagan said, shaking his dreadlocks despairingly. ‘I suppose having a drink and talking about this before we all decide to kill each other is out of the question.’

‘I’m still not hearing a good reason not to kill you,’ Cat said.

Some of the locals were taking an interest. This wasn’t good. Four obvious outsiders picking on someone who looked like she belonged. People were beginning to edge towards us. So far none of them had drawn guns.

‘You stuck up for us. You didn’t raid the node like you were ordered. You must have believed in what we were doing,’ Morag said. There was a kind of pleading in her voice. She really didn’t want this to turn bad. She wanted Cat on board. I was just very eager not to get shot.

‘Maybe. But tell me – do you ever think through your actions? The cost to other people.’

‘Now wait a minute. We risked a lot. We were trying to help,’ Pagan said. Now he was getting pissed off. He had a point. From our perspective the whole thing had been hard, dangerous and painful from start to finish.

I didn’t like how the crowd was getting larger and closer.

‘“We”? Think further out. I mean did you even get what you wanted?’ she asked. ‘Are you here to ask me to cause more mayhem with you?’

Mudge started grinning.

‘Right again,’ I said. ‘We didn’t think it through enough. We’re trying to make it better if we can. If that’s possible. Cat, you losing your job was pretty much the least of it.’ I could see her finger on the trigger. I wasn’t sure, but it looked like she was starting to squeeze it. ‘But things had to change, and I think you know that. In fact I know you know it because of the decisions you made on the day.’ She was just looking at me now. I couldn’t read her expression but hydrostatic shock from a ballistic injury hadn’t sent my head tumbling through the air, which was good. ‘We’re cunts, I’ll admit that…’

‘Good of you,’ she said through gritted teeth.

‘But we’re not the bad guys, and I think you know that. You can take it out on us if you want.’ She said nothing but a minute change in her expression suggested she was about to shoot me. I think we’d significantly underestimated how pissed off she was. ‘But you don’t have to!’ I added desperately.

‘Cat, please,’ Morag pleaded. I think that was probably more useful than my whole we-are-cunts speech.

‘If she shoots you, can I have your bike?’ Mudge asked.

‘Fuck you, journo, you’re next,’ Cat said, but I was sure I saw the trace of a smile.

‘You’re better off shooting the girl first – she’s faster.’

‘Mudge,’ I said exasperated, shaking my head. Pagan and Morag were both smiling.

‘What? I’m just saying. It’s tactical advice,’ Mudge said defensively.

‘All right. I’ll listen but I reserve the right to kill you later,’ Cat said.

‘I suspect there’s a queue,’ Pagan muttered, glancing around at the crowd.

‘Okay but before you do, you should know that this job looks like a one-way trip,’ I told her.

Mudge, who was still pointing his gun at Cat, turned to look at me. Pagan was shaking his head.

‘Good negotiating,’ Mudge said incredulously.

‘No, she needs to know,’ Morag told him.

Cat was looking between Morag and me.

‘At least you’re honest. I’m going to put my gun up and then you two put yours…’ Mudge and Morag were already holstering their weapons. ‘Never mind.’ Cat lowered the Void Eagle and let it hang at her side. The crowd seemed disappointed. I wondered how much blood in the water was enough for them.

‘Are you going to want more shooters?’ Cat asked.

‘Depends,’ I said. ‘We need reliable people who we can work with.’

‘That could be hard; you did just point out you’re a bunch of cunts.’

‘Jake was speaking for himself,’ Mudge said.

‘No, he was talking about you as well,’ Morag told him.

‘That hurts. There’s just no need for that.’

‘How do you guys get anything done?’ Cat asked.

‘We wait for a lull,’ Pagan told her.

‘Did you have anyone in mind?’ I asked.

I was exasperated and a little embarrassed about the banter. At the same time it was a good way to wind down the tension.

‘Maybe, but as well as a fuckload of money-’

‘You did hear him say that this was a one-way trip?’ Mudge asked.

‘Which none of you believe.’

‘I don’t know about that,’ I told her. It was true. I really didn’t fancy my chances on this one. I just didn’t see how we could pull it off and get away with it.

‘I’ll want something else,’ Cat told us.

Cat was enough of a pro to know that we couldn’t brief her until we were in a reasonably secure place. She also wouldn’t tell us what she wanted – for the same reasons, I guessed.

She agreed to act as a guide for us around the arms and tech bazaars, which were held in large caves or under colourfully dyed tents. Because we were outsiders we decided to stick together while we were buying what we needed. This meant that Cat, Mudge and I were bored stupid while the techno-geeks got their stuff, but once they’d done that we got to buy guns! And other gear we’d need as well. I was a little bothered by how enthusiastic Morag was about buying weapons.

It was past midnight by the time we left. We found a different place to camp from where we’d been the night before. We ate, shared some more sour mash and then got some sleep. I wondered to what degree we’d been watched and by whom.

The next few days were spent going through the gear. Where possible we’d bought three of everything. We’d managed to get most of what was on our list, though we’d made a few compromises. We checked everything for bugs and found a few, then stripped down and cleaned everything and tested it. I insisted that everyone familiarise themselves with and test-fire their own weapons. We’d bought enough ammunition to overthrow a small country.

Morag had picked a BAe laser carbine for her long. Pagan had turned in his old laser rifle for the newer carbine as well. This made things easier as they would need the same parts and took the same batteries. I was surprised by how good Morag was with the carbine. It was easy to hit things with a laser but we were running small-unit drills and, skillsofts or not, she was picking things up quickly. Pagan had said that she pretty much only needed to be told something once, and then she could not only do it herself but also make connections between other things she had learned and how they fitted together. It was something called eidetic memory. It made her very easy to teach.

Then came the modifications. Going under the knife again. I felt like I had precious little flesh to offer but our bones and musculature needed to be denser. We would need to take nearly constant supplements there to upkeep this process. Ugly reinforcements now stuck out of our spines like dorsal armour on prehistoric lizards. They were supposed to be easily removable, but seeing the metal fused with bone and flesh sticking out of Morag’s back looked so obscene it made me want to vomit. I wanted to tell her to look at what she was doing to herself. Did she want to end up like the rest of us? Mechanical monsters designed to feed a war machine. But I knew her response, I knew her resolve and I think she had her own concerns.

The final modifications were to our respiratory systems. We had a corrosion-resistant coating sprayed down our windpipes and into our lungs. It made us gag and it felt like drowning. We also had heavier-duty, corrosion-resistant filters implanted into our existing systems. Both the coating and the filters would need to be replaced regularly. We were taking a large supply with us. When that ran out we’d have to forage for more. Assuming we lived that long.

Of course Morag had to have a completely new filter system implanted. Another little cut, another surgical scar and more metal in flesh.

Cat was already augmented for operation on Lalande. I asked her what high G was like.

‘It’s like carrying your own weight around all the time. You don’t get used to it.’

When we finally got round to briefing Cat, she had already broadly guessed what we were doing and where we were going. We didn’t tell her too much more because we didn’t trust the environment of Limbo enough. However, Cat told us what she wanted.

We were in Morag and Pagan’s workspace within the Faraday cage. Pagan and Morag had swept for surveillance and found some more bugs. I was considering trying to force Sharcroft to eat them because this was just a waste of everyone’s time. Pagan set up the white-noise generator along with some other electronic countermeasures and we settled down to talk. As we finished with our sparse, broad outline, Cat was flicking through the special forces dossier on the touch screen monitor.

‘Your third shooter.’ She handed me the monitor.

‘Hey!’ Mudge said, affronted at not being considered a shooter. Cat ignored him. I hoped there wasn’t going to be a problem there.

Her choice was not what I’d quite expected. He had high cheekbones on a long face and surprisingly piercing brown eyes, though I guessed they had to be implants. The eyes sort of jumped out at you because he looked pretty intense. His hair was styled into short braids and his skin was just a touch lighter than Cat’s. I figured this for a boyfriend until I saw the name.

‘Merley Sommerjay?’ I asked. Cat nodded. Mudge tilted the monitor towards him.

‘He’s nice.’

‘Thanks for your input, Mudge,’ and then to Cat: ‘Brother?’ She nodded. ‘What? Want to see him dead?’

‘Reasonably often.’

‘I’m not sure about this.’

‘But it’s okay for you to go on ops with your best mate and your lover?’

‘She’s got a point,’ Pagan said. I ignored the flare of irritation and went back to reading his file.

‘A marine?’ I said, glancing at Cat. She’d been US Army and traditionally there was antagonism between the two branches. Cat said nothing. ‘Force Recon, served on Lalande.’

Force Recon were part of the US Marines Special Operations Command. They specialised in reconnaissance but were often tasked for unconventional warfare. They were a reasonable unit.

‘Then he transferred out to the air force and joined the PJs. That’s unusual,’ I continued.

The PJs were pararescue operators, their job to jump behind enemy lines and perform personnel recovery operations or provide medical aid. It was a difficult and very dangerous job, particularly fighting Them. The problem was that the US and Britain had different definitions of what it meant to be special forces.

‘Look, it’s impressive but…’ Cat leaned over and tapped the screen, enlarging part of the information. ‘Oh bullshit,’ I said.

‘What?’ Mudge asked, frowning.

‘Cemetery Wind,’ I said scornfully.

Pagan smiled and shook his head.

‘Really?’ Mudge sounded interested.

‘What’s Cemetery Wind?’ Morag asked.

‘Nothing. They don’t exist,’ I told her.

‘They exist,’ Cat said.

‘They might do, actually,’ Mudge chipped in. He was carefully reading Cat’s brother’s file. ‘What sort of name is Merley anyway?’

‘Mudge, it was you who told me they didn’t exist in the first place,’ I protested. ‘You went looking for them and came to the conclusion they were another combat myth.’

‘Well yes, that was what I told you.’

‘What is Cemetery Wind?’ Morag asked in exasperation.

‘They’re supposed to be an ultra-secret military intelligence unit whose job it is to provide up-to-date and actionable intelligence for special forces operations, except nobody’s ever met anyone in it or worked with one. Cemetery Wind’s a code name. They’ve apparently been called the Activity, Grey Fox, Black Light, the Intelligence Support Agency. Their name’s supposed to change every few years.’

‘Just sounds like another special forces group,’ Morag said, unimpressed.

‘Well yes. Except they’re rumoured to go in first, and sometimes the places they go SF fear to follow.’

‘But sometimes someone provides us with solid eyes-on intel before going in,’ Cat said. ‘Look, I mostly served in the US theatre of ops on Lalande, but Merle was all over. He knows the place like the back of his hand.’

‘It’s a planet bigger than Earth. How could he know the place like the back of his hand?’ I asked.

‘It is bigger than Earth but very little is habitable by humans. Merle’s operated in most of that. He’s even done deep-penetration Nightside recons.’

Lalande 2 was tidally locked. One side always faced the sun and burned; the other always faced the dark and froze. The Twilight Strip between the two zones was the only area habitable by humans. Even then the colonists lived deep underground to protect them from the corrosive winds of the surface and the worst of the acid-rich atmosphere.

Born in vacuum, Nightside was not a problem for Them. They based Themselves in Nightside, where it was very difficult for us to reach, and raided into the Twilight Strip. In order to get solid intelligence, some brave souls in heavily insulated life-support suits had risked the temperatures and set up observation posts.

‘If he’s that deep in with the intelligence side of things, then did he work for the Cabal?’ Pagan asked.

‘Well, you all did at one point or another, didn’t you?’ Morag said. Cat was suspiciously quiet. One by one we all looked at her.

‘Pretty extensively,’ she finally admitted. ‘That’s not to say he knew who they were and what they were about.’

‘It’s not to say he didn’t either,’ Pagan pointed out. He was not looking happy.

‘Mudge? Do you believe in these guys now?’ I asked.

‘I did then,’ Mudge said distractedly. He was studying the monitor. He looked up at Cat. ‘He’s very pretty.’ I’m not sure she knew what to say to that. ‘I went looking for them. I got very efficiently bagged. I was held completely immobile in a stress position for a week. Then someone I didn’t hear enter the room came and held a gun to my head for six hours. Completely still. Never uttered a word. I couldn’t hear him or her breathe. I decided to stop looking.’

‘You make them sound like the Grey Lady,’ Morag said and shivered.

‘Different kind of scary,’ Mudge said. ‘I like him. Let’s use him.’

‘Are you sure you don’t just want to fuck him?’ I asked.

‘He’s my brother,’ Cat protested.

‘Maybe, but if he is Cemetery Wind, then they scare me and make Morag shiver. I also like the idea that one of the guns is a little more subtle than you or me,’ Mudge said.

‘Morag?’

‘I agree with Mudge. It’d be nice to work with someone who can respond to a problem without shooting it a lot.’

‘Pagan?’

‘I don’t like the Cabal connection. But if he’s an ex-PJ then he won’t be as big a wuss about OILO insertion. I say we talk to him’

‘That’s an issue. What happens if we talk to him and either we don’t like what we hear or he doesn’t want to play? He’ll already know too much,’ I asked.

‘It’ll be fine,’ Cat assured us.

I wasn’t quite so sure. Family complicated things and there was a very real chance that we might have to put a bullet in this guy’s head. I couldn’t see Cat getting behind that and she was good people. Besides, it would leave us another shooter down and we’d have to start again.

‘Have you seen where he is?’ Mudge asked as he passed the monitor back.

‘Oh for fuck’s sake. A high-security clipper? En route? What did he think was going to happen?’ I said. ‘Well that’s him out.’

Pagan took the monitor from me. He read the info. ‘What were you thinking?’

‘I was thinking,’ Cat said, ‘that aside from the ridiculous amount of money I want paid in advance, getting him out is my price. Either that or I walk.’ Except she knew and we knew that it wouldn’t be easy if she chose to walk.

8

The Belt

The standard-issue sidearm for the SAS is the Sig Sauer P410. It is capable of semi-automatic or full automatic fire and has an integral suppressor. The standard magazine contains fifteen 10mm rounds, though oversized magazines with the capacity for twenty or twenty-five rounds are favoured when concealment is not an issue. When fighting Them the favoured load was an armour-piercing, hydro-shock round because of the effects on Their liquid physiology. The hydro-shock rounds are perfectly adequate when used against humans, but many, like Morag, preferred armour-piercing explosive rounds when shooting at people.

The P410 is largely a hold-out weapon. It does not have the stopping power of a rifle or a Mastodon or Void Eagle. If you’re using one against a Berserk then your day’s gone horribly wrong. Given enough hits, they will mess up a Berserk or someone with cybernetic augmentation up to the level of a special forces operator, but they are not one-hit-one-kill on someone with decent subcutaneous armour. This is something I was very grateful for when Morag decided to shoot me with hers. I was less pleased that we’d collectively advised her to use a large-capacity magazine.

Anyone putting any effort into tracking us was going to be able to, but we were trying to stay off the radar. The Brazilian was the closest spoke to New Mexico, but US military shuttles were still not allowed to dock there so we’d been flown to High Pacifica. I had never quite been able to reconcile the view from orbit with the reality of living on Earth. From high above the Earth looked bright, blue, peaceful and, weirdest of all, clean.

The space around High Pacifica was very busy with everything from military shuttles like ours to net tugs pulling in chunks of refined asteroid from orbital refineries, as well as interplanetary traffic from the rest of the system.

We made our way as inconspicuously as we could to an outbound tramp freighter with parts going to Freetown in the Belt. Cat and I all but sat on Mudge to make sure he didn’t call attention to himself.

The freighter was called Loser’s Luck and I was astonished it was still holding together. It had a mainly Indonesian crew who we’d paid enough to leave us in peace and hopefully not tell too many people that we were travelling with them. We still were not discussing the details of our mission, however. I think what bothered me the most was that I’d found myself in yet another poorly heated, thin-walled cargo hold far too close to the vacuum and radiation outside.

The flimsy cargo hold was yet another reason why I was less than pleased when 10mm rounds started sparking off the metal around me. This was foolishness, however. There are few man-portable weapons powerful enough to get through even the cheapest cargo hull. Still, getting shot was no fun.

I wasn’t paying the slightest bit of attention and it was pretty much the last thing I had expected. It was just like being rapidly punched with extraordinary force. She nailed me in the chest with a three-round burst, tight grouping. The integrity of my armour held, but warning icons were already appearing in my IVD as I rolled backwards off the crate of supplies I’d been lying on. The second burst caught me painfully in the left leg below the knee before I managed to get into cover.

I drew the Mastodon and my TO-5 laser pistol. I wasn’t sure what was happening or who was shooting. Mudge had been sitting on a pile of gear opposite, reading. Pagan was tranced into his own systems – I assumed working. Cat was checking the gyroscopic mount for the railgun and Morag had just wandered back from the galley.

‘You fucking bastard!’ Morag shouted and fired again. It was suppressing fire. It worked. I kept my head down. Then again, maybe she was just firing out of anger or frustration.

‘Morag?!’ I said incredulously. This was a completely new phase of our relationship and I wasn’t very happy about it.

‘Put the gun down,’ I heard Mudge say. I continued cowering behind the crate. I really wasn’t sure what to do. Had she really been trying to kill me?

‘Fuck off, Mudge!’ Morag said, and there was another burst of armour-piercing, explosive-tipped bullets.

‘Morag… what the fuck?!’ I managed. There was the sound of a scuffle. I dared to poke my head over the crate and saw Mudge grappling with Morag. Now Mudge is no slouch in a fight. I’ve seen him take special forces operators on without a trace of hesitation. He mostly lost, but he was game and reasonably skilled. Morag straight-armed him in the throat, pistol-whipped him and then side-kicked him so hard that he was knocked off his feet and slammed into the hull wall.

I threw myself behind more crates as she turned and fired again. I caught a glimpse of her face contorted with anger.

There was the sound of another scuffle. I heard Morag cry out and then a thump as someone hit the floor. I risked looking again. Morag was lying next to Mudge rubbing her wrist. Cat was standing close to where Morag had been, making the Sig safe. Cat was glaring and Morag was staring at me with so much hatred I was beginning to think I’d rather be shot.

‘What did you do?’ Cat demanded.

I was pretty much struck dumb for the moment. Apparently being shot was my own fault. Pagan had been tranced in though the whole thing, completely oblivious.

‘Its okay. There are other guns,’ Morag spat. She sounded really angry.

‘Is everything okay?’ Mudge asked. ‘Can I go back to my book or is there more imminent gunplay?’

‘More imminent gunplay,’ Morag told him.

‘Can we not shoot at crates full of munitions?’ Cat said, sounding more reasonable, but then she went back to glaring at me.

‘What’s going on?’ I demanded, finally mastering speech again.

‘How could you, you piece of shit?!’ Morag hissed at me. She looked like she would be holding back tears if she could still cry.

‘I have no fucking idea what you’re talking about!’ I shouted.

I was holstering my guns when the portable monitor landed on the crates I’d been using as cover. I glanced down at the image. I didn’t need to run the viz to know what the story was. The frozen image at the start of the viz was me on top of Fiona, whose features had been obscured. I felt the sick feeling of being found out. It was a feeling I hadn’t had in a while because I hadn’t really cared about what I’d done and how it would affect others for a long time. It was like ice had replaced sluggish blood in my body. I felt pressure in my chest, as if someone was slowly but surely crushing my augmented heart.

‘It’s all over the net,’ Morag said more quietly now. ‘The crew were laughing about it in the galley when I went in.’

‘You bastard,’ Cat said.

‘Yes, thank you, Cat,’ I said, but I was trying to think of something sensible to say.

Mudge walked over, picked up the monitor and spent a few moments tapping at it and scrawling through the story. I steeled myself for some inappropriate and insensitive attempt at humour.

‘It’s a slander piece. It’s designed to undermine what we did in Atlantis. These things are easy to mock up,’ he said. I couldn’t quite work out the significance of the look he gave me.

‘But it’s not mocked up, is it?’ Morag asked quietly.

‘No,’ I said. Mudge shook his head sadly.

‘She looks so fucking trashy,’ Morag said, trying not to sob. Then she stared at me, angry again. ‘But I guess she was a step up from an ex-whore from the Rigs, aye?’

I felt like I’d been stabbed. I think I would have preferred stabbing. I was almost looking around for an airlock to leave by.

‘Morag, don’t say that. She was horrible…’ I started and then realised that wasn’t a good thing to say. Mudge almost flinched.

‘But you’d rather fuck her than stay with me. Thanks, Jake. I feel much better now.’ The anger was easier to deal with.

‘That wasn’t what I meant. Look, I thought you’d gone…’

‘I hadn’t gone anywhere; you left us.’

You shit, I told myself.

‘I thought that we… that you…’

‘How did you put it? “We’re off to die under some alien sun”? Morag’s gone; let’s have sex with some trashy blonde.’

‘Look, Morag, I’m sorry, but I’m new to all this, I really am. I’ve never-’

‘And I fucking have?!’ she screamed at me. ‘I may have been a fucking whore but at least I know not to fucking cheat on the person you love!’

When she realised what she’d said she looked stricken. I think the last thing she needed now was to show any vulnerability. Unfortunately dry sobbing racked her small frame. The sort of crying that made your implanted eyes hurt. I foolishly moved towards her.

‘Stay away from me!’ she screamed. The anger was back and seemed even more intense. I actually took a step back at the look of blazing hatred on her face. ‘I swear to God, you come anywhere near me and I will find a way to fucking kill you!’ At this she stormed out of the hold.

Cat gave me one last baleful look and went after her.

I slumped against the cold of the hull’s external bulkhead. I could feel the nothingness on the other side of the metal. I felt hollow. I felt like I did before all this happened except I didn’t think the respite of the sense booths would help now.

‘I’m sorry, man…’ Mudge started.

‘Not now.’ Then I realised what he’d said. ‘Oh.’ Mudge was being sympathetic, time to buy a lottery ticket.

‘Was it a bad night?’

‘Yes, I guess. I’ve had worse. You know, I just didn’t think. I never really had to before.’

‘I can sort of see how it went down, but she’s never going to get that. I wouldn’t try trancing in anywhere soon though. For what it’s worth, I think her expectations are pretty high. You should get what you can when you can from this world.’ I wasn’t sure if that was what Mudge believed or just what he wanted others to think he believed.

So this was their revenge. But whose? I couldn’t really see it as being Calum’s. Surely he wouldn’t want his daughter splashed all over the net like that. Even with her features distorted it wouldn’t take God long to work out who it was if anyone asked. Alasdair? Maybe, but how did he get the footage? Then again, maybe people like that shared these things – what did I know? Fiona herself? Would she get off on this kind of notoriety? I thought maybe she would.

Mudge said, ‘I’ve never really got this. It’s a fucked-up world in a fucked-up system. Every one of us does fucked-up things, most people just to survive. Everyone I’ve ever met has a kink and the more straight-laced the person seems to be then the dirtier their kink tends to be.’ I started to protest. ‘Let me finish. See, this is about what we did and God. The subtext is, how dare we sit in judgement on our masters when this is how we act in private? How can people in this world be shocked by this? I mean it’s taking the piss. The thing is, is any of it anyone’s business?’

‘Someone’s just done to me what we did to everyone.’

‘We didn’t put cameras in people’s bedrooms.’

‘Oh well, that’s all right then. How many people do you think we’ve killed over shit like this?’

He paused for a moment and then said, ‘Look – cheating aside, and I can’t quite make up my mind if Morag’s being unfair or naive – I think maybe all this stuff – who we really are – should all be out there and we shouldn’t be made to feel ashamed of it. I mean, who’s this supposed to shock? This doesn’t shock; it titillates. We should be shocked that people kill each other to feed their kids. We should be shocked that vets serve our race and then all the systems that were forcibly implanted in them are harvested and they’re left crippled. We should be shocked at the disparity between the poor and the rich-’

‘Mudge.’

‘Yeah, sorry. I got a little carried away. That said, I’ve got the name of the so-called journalist, and I’m going to do something bad to him when we get back.’

‘He’s one of many and we’re not coming back.’

Mudge just looked at me for a while, the camera lenses that were his eyes whirring one way and then the other.

‘Thanks for trying,’ I finally said.

‘Want me to talk to her?’ he asked.

‘Definitely not.’

‘Want to get fucked up?’

‘Yes, but I’m not going to.’

‘What’s going on?’ Pagan asked, coming out of his trance. He was looking around at the scorch marks on the hull and the holes in some of the crates.

‘Morag and Jake’s relationship has entered an exciting new phase. Now they’re using firearms as a method of conflict resolution.’

‘What? What did you do?’

I sighed.

‘Jakob fucked some trashy blonde. It’s all over the net.’

‘Oh.’

So that was day one of our trip.

And then things got really difficult. We hadn’t been given much room on the freighter because the crew wanted to give most of their hold over to more lucrative machine parts. This meant that Morag and I were forced into close proximity. She wasn’t speaking to me at all but she was giving good glare. Sometimes she used night vision to glare at me in the dark as I slept. She did this with sufficient intensity to wake me up. This meant a shitty atmosphere and I felt sorry for the other three.

We still weren’t in a position to talk about or otherwise prep for the mission, which meant we were bored. This was time I’d hoped to spend with Morag. Instead I tried to avoid everyone, which can be difficult in the confined space of a ship.

I had thought to practise my trumpet but apparently it echoed. It made me even more unpopular with the others and resulted in threats from the crew. Pagan offered to set up a virtual practice programme in one of the spare memory cubes. However, if Morag found out I would be taking my life in my hands as she could easily hack the program into a death trap.

She was really, really hurt. I’d really fucked this up. Even though I’d known what I’d done was wrong, I had completely underestimated the effect on her. Which meant that I’d completely underestimated Morag’s depth of feeling for me. I’d found out just in time to twist it.

I tried to keep my mind off it. I couldn’t. I tried a lot of wishful thinking, how things could have played out differently. That was probably the most pointless exercise I engaged in. I tried to work out how I could fix things. That was more wishful thinking. I was probably going to die on Lalande and all I could think about was Morag. Though I was coming to terms with dying on Lalande.

I wanted to escape. More than anything, I wanted the booths or to climb into a bottle of whisky. Mudge, who was spending most of his time on psychotropics, which were his drug of choice for travelling, was more than eager to join me. But I didn’t. I wasn’t sure why.

Was she being unreasonable? Maybe the shooting was. Was she being naive? I don’t know. I couldn’t see the situation through the eyes of an eighteen-year-old. The whole thing was new territory for me, and with her background how naive could she be? I just knew that I was causing her so much pain. I could see that in unguarded moments, when she wasn’t putting on a brave face to get through the day. When she wasn’t hiding behind a wall of hate for me.

Pagan and Cat came and found me. I was hiding in another hold, close to the engines. Listening to them reverberate though the ship’s steel superstructure. For some reason I wanted to look outside even though I hated space.

I didn’t like the look on either of their faces. Pagan’s expression seemed one of reserved concern. Situations like these are difficult for most British people. Well maybe not Mudge. Cat, on the other hand, looked at me like I was something unpleasant she’d found crawling through her pubic hair.

‘We have some concerns,’ Pagan said.

It was not a good start to the conversation.

Cat snorted.

‘Pagan, really ask yourself if this can’t be done at another time,’ I suggested, failing utterly to keep the edge out of my voice.

‘Because this soap opera’s going to work fine on the ground,’ Cat said. ‘This shit will get us killed in Freetown, never mind our fucking destination.’

She was right of course. With men and women fighting together it was inevitable that they’d form bonds – people fighting together had always formed bonds. The rule was, never get so close to someone that it screwed you up in the field. This had always been easy for me. I’d seen lovers torn apart and mangled by war, same as I’d seen good friends. Fortunately, after a while you get numb to this. The fear, the drugs, the fatigue all chip away at anything inside that makes you care. All the hand-wringing and dry tears are for when you’re out of danger and have time to reflect. The people who can care through all this are few and far between and die quickly, often at their own hands. I had a feeling that Morag could be someone like that.

She would compromise me and I would compromise her, even when/if she didn’t hate and possibly want to kill me.

‘This situation’s untenable,’ Cat continued.

‘Now wait a minute,’ Pagan began. ‘We’ve accomplished quite a lot with-’

‘A completely dysfunctional unit?’ she asked.

‘You knew who you were getting involved with when we asked,’ I told her.

‘They fight a lot,’ Pagan pointed out. ‘Though the gunplay’s new.’

‘Look, this isn’t Delta Force or your professional and well-resourced C-SWAT team; we’re doing our best here-’ I tried.

‘It’s just not good enough.’ Both of us were staring at her.

I turned to Pagan. ‘You agree?’

‘Well not quite. But she’s right, this is a mess…’

‘You can’t go into the field with someone you’re that emotionally tied to,’ Cat continued.

‘But you want to go in with your brother?’

‘My brother’s a prick.’ I couldn’t believe I was hearing this.

‘Then why are we wasting time going to get him?!’ Maybe I was just looking for an excuse to get angry.

Cat shrugged. ‘Because he’s my brother and he’ll be useful. It’s not just you and Morag.’

‘What then?’ I could see where this was going. I’d heard it a lot when we were back in the Regiment.

‘Mudge,’ Pagan said. I turned and fixed him with a glare from my lenses. He at least had the decency to look guilty.

‘Have you forgotten the broadcast? Fuck. He made us rich, and no matter what he has always been there.’

‘No doubt…’

‘You just don’t fucking like him because he says whatever he damn well pleases and always tells the truth,’ I said.

‘Very admirable I’m sure.’ There was a trace of irritation in his voice. ‘It’s not that; it’s the drugs. We’re going on what could be a very long-term mission.’

‘So? Mudge has done long-range recon. He always takes enough and can find more…’ I was about to say ‘between jobs’. There wasn’t going to be a between jobs.

‘Remember the Dog’s Teeth? How he was? He’ll end up withdrawing, and that will make him combat ineffective. It’ll make him a liability.’ He was right. I was so used to Mudge’s presence I think I’d tried to force this from my mind. More than anything I needed him here at that moment.

‘And you bring this up now?’ I demanded angrily.

‘I had misgivings, but what with the situation with you and Morag as well… we’re struggling, man.’

‘So what do you want to do? Scrub the mission? Because if you both want to call it quits and turn around I have no real objection.’

They looked at each other.

‘Look, can you honestly say that having her around won’t affect your judgement?’ Pagan finally asked.

‘No. What I’m saying is we’ve coped with it before and it worked. Don’t get me wrong. If I could talk her out of going I would.’

‘I wouldn’t try talking to her at the moment,’ Cat suggested. ‘She’d probably shoot you again. I might give her the gun.’

I glared at Cat. ‘Where the fuck do you get off, being so judgemental.’ Then I turned to Pagan. ‘It’s thanks to your brave new world we’re in this spot.’ It was weak, I knew it was, but I was miserable, pissed off and wanted to lash out.

‘Oh yeah, this is my fault,’ Pagan said sarcastically.

‘No, it’s thanks to you not being able to keep your dick leashed,’ Cat said to me.

‘Fine, whatever. Pagan, can you and Morag work on what we need and then we can leave Morag on board? Even if we have to drug her.’ At this Pagan started to look very uncomfortable. ‘What?!’ I demanded, beginning to lose my patience.

‘It’s just…’ Pagan stammered.

‘She’s more important to the mission than you,’ Cat said bluntly. I stared at her. It took me a while to work through what she’d said.

‘You fucking what?!’ I demanded. ‘Twelve years, twelve fucking years is a fuck of a lot more time in-country than you. You fucked off for your cushy corporate job.’ Then because I wanted to make sure I pissed off everyone I turned on Pagan. ‘And you, you not getting too fucking old for this shit?’

‘Well yes,’ Pagan said, surprising me.

Cat had bristled but remained calm.

‘Don’t you get this? We’re just guns, that’s all. It’s information warfare and all we’re here to do is keep them safe. They’re going to be the ones doing the fighting,’ Cat said.

‘Demiurge will fucking destroy them if they try.’

‘Right, that’s it. Shut up, both of you,’ Pagan snapped. ‘This is my problem. I may be over the fucking hill, but see how far standards are slipping. Like this we’re just going to get ourselves killed.’

‘So you want to leave me and Mudge behind? Fine. Fuck off with your American friends then. What, are you licking up to her to get in her pants?’ I was just being petty but I wasn’t liking this picked-last-for-PT bollocks, even if I really didn’t want to be here in the first place.

‘Figures that’s how you’d think of it,’ Cat said, an edge in her voice. I was going off her rapidly. Not as rapidly as she was going off me though.

‘No, we want you and Mudge to sort your shit out so you’re not a fucking liability,’ Pagan said, remaining calm.

I turned to give him another mouthful but something about his expression stopped me. He looked serious, maybe even formidable, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was pity there too.

‘Why don’t you go and have this conversation with Mudge?’ I muttered, looking away from the pair of them.

‘You know why,’ Pagan answered quietly.

I did. If Mudge was going to listen to anyone, and he probably wasn’t, it’d be me.

‘I’ve a good mind to just turn around when we get to Freetown and head back,’ I told them both.

‘Well let us know if self-pity wins out, won’t you?’ Pagan said, and then he and Cat turned and walked away.

It was a long and miserable journey in a rusting, damp, dripping, metallic piece of shit that seemed to echo every time somebody moved. It was claustrophobic because there were no external views and it smelled due to rudimentary facilities. I’d had worse trips, but everyone being pissed off with everyone else was what truly put the cherry on top. The only time that Morag even met my eyes was to glare at me. I felt like those looks could cause physical pain. With Pagan and Cat it was strained politeness. Mudge was the only cheerful one, but that just got on everyone’s nerves. I didn’t have a chat with him like Cat and Pagan wanted me to, largely because they wanted me to. But I didn’t get fucked up with him either, which was what I felt like doing.

I felt like a Jonah. Like I was screwing everything up. When I told Mudge this he agreed with me.

I was so pissed off with everyone I didn’t care if they didn’t like me learning the trumpet. I played what I thought were suitably mournful blues numbers that echoed through the ship. I thought it was better than listening to a fellow passenger strain on the cludgy. The others thought differently and the captain threatened to space me. By that point I think I’d managed to piss everyone off. I was almost revelling in it. Like Mudge. I wondered how he managed to keep up his cheerful demeanour.

Of course, at the end of every shit journey is a perfectly shit destination. We were going to Freetown Camp 12.

In theory the Belt was open to exploitation by anyone. In practice everybody had to rely on logistics from the extra-planetary Belt Prospect Industrial Corporation. Outside the big Belt cities of Ceres, Vesta and Hygeia, it was the Freetown stations that provided docking facilities and supplies for their own fleet of factory refinery ships. BPIC were pretty much a law unto themselves, and as long as the minerals kept coming nobody on Earth cared. Any smaller corporate attempts to exploit the Belt were charged exorbitant prices for what they needed from the Freetown stations until they went out of business. If they didn’t take the hint then BPIC could more than afford the corporate army and space forces necessary to protect their assets. More underhand activities were handled either by specialists or by contracting out to the inevitable organised crime elements that ran the Freetown vice franchises.

Anything went out on the Belt as long as it did not disturb the flow of ore. Smuggling, gambling, prostitution and drugs were all fine as long as BPIC got its cut. You could kill someone provided you knew the right people and had enough money. There were rumours of gladiatorial snuff games as well.

In short it was like Earth, maybe a bit more honest about things, although unlike Earth the Belt was one place you were guaranteed a job. That was as long as you didn’t mind indentured servitude and a short life expectancy due to cheap suits with shitty radiation protection. See, humans were cheaper to run than machines. They didn’t even need training any more. Cheap skillsofts would do for on-the-job training. Though you had to pay the company back for that and for your ride out to the Belt – and for your ride back in the unlikely event you ever earned enough before dying in an industrial accident or from radiation poisoning.

You also had to pay for the performance-enhancing drugs you needed to keep up with your quotas. What little money you might have left, instead of saving for your future, you were better off spending at the vice franchises, on alcohol, drugs, sense booths and the truly desperate, and if rumour was true, often slaved, hookers.

Any attempts at unionisation or even basic workers’ rights were stamped on hard. Insurrection or revolution was a joke. Who had the energy? Any ship attempting to bring out seditious materials was impounded, its entire crew executed. BPIC had more power than many Earthbound governments, a virtual monopoly and the muscle to back it all up. They ran their own corporate feudal empire. Their employees were known as Belt zombies.

Breaking Merle out would have been a major operation. Instead we were going to negotiate. Or more accurately use Sharcroft’s money for a bribe. It would have to be a large bribe.

What Cat’s brother had done was audacious. Most ore or other bulk cargoes like ice (it was cheaper to import ice from the Belt than from Earth, to turn into water for the various habitats in Earth orbit) were fired by mass driver, either from the stations or the factory ships themselves. The mass drivers propelled them into high Earth orbit, where net tugs caught them and shunted them to the Spokes’ high ports. Precious metals were mined with automated machinery, as it was more precise and trustworthy than Belt zombies. BPIC Armed Response, the corporation’s well-trained and equipped security force/private military, kept the precious metals under guard. These were transferred back to Earth on high-security, high-speed, intra-system clippers.

Merle had tried to hijack one. On his own. He nearly succeeded. He’d somehow gained access to it via EVA after it had left its security bay at Freetown Camp 12. Got past its electronic security. Taken out its security and crew and then, through a combination of pre-programmed hacks and high-end skillsofts, attempted to divert it. He would have got away with it except that the prearranged security responses he’d bribed a lower-echelon BPIC security employee for were a day out of date. There was a pursuit and a firefight and Merle got caught.

What I couldn’t figure out was why he was still alive. I could understand why they’d want him alive long enough to work out how he’d done what he’d done, but this had happened eight months ago. They would have that information by now. Why go to the expense of locking up someone with his skill set? BPIC didn’t need brigs; they had airlocks to push the troublesome out of. On the other hand, I could make this someone else’s problem and just fuck off back to Earth with Mudge and get drunk and fucked on drugs. I wondered if I had enough money now for my own sense booth. It wouldn’t be difficult to get a ship back home. Hell, the way I was feeling they could just fire me out of one of the mass drivers.

The Belt now had religion. God was with us. Hallelujah. We were keeping comms chatter to a minimum but I opened a link to the ship’s systems so I could watch us land. See what this shit hole looked like. Maybe just to depress myself a little further.

It looked like a scar. The station was in a recessed crater created by strip mining. It looked like an old quarry suspended in the night.

The asteroid itself was a little over twenty kilometres in length. As we sank into the scar and the cameras panned around, I could just about make out some of the other asteroids that formed the Gorgon family. They looked like potato-shaped rocks suspended in the sky, utterly static, though obviously they weren’t. There were vast fields of solar panels tethered high above Gorgon’s surface. They, along with a fusion reactor buried far from the main station and hydrogen cells, provided fuel for the town-sized camp. The floor of the scar was covered in prefab vacuum-proofed buildings, storage tethers and dry docks for the massive factory ships with their insectile legs for gripping and burrowing into asteroids. There was something parasitical about the factory ships. Their enormous industrial mass drivers reminded me of stings. Several of the heavy-duty tethers had ice asteroids attached to them. They would be processed for fuel and much-needed water. The dormitory, commercial, administration and vice areas were recessed deep into the rock. This was largely to help shield from radiation.

Space in the scar was busy with the ponderous movements of incoming and outgoing factory ships, the faster tugs, faster still intra-system clippers, enormous super-carriers and the barely tolerated tramp independents like ours. All of this was being watched over by a BPIC destroyer. I had seen military facilities in the colonies less well armed than this station. Piracy was a big if rarely actualised fear, but I suspect that much of the weaponry was to prevent annexation either by a nation state or more likely by another extra-planetary corp. They had missile, plasma and laser batteries, rapid-firing railguns, mass driver cannons and even one of the huge particle beam cannons.

The landing pads were at the base of the scar against one of the rock walls. On the ship’s external lenses I saw our manoeuvring engines fire as we slowly sank into the crater. We were tracked by weapon systems all the way. I couldn’t shake the feeling I was being swallowed. I barely felt the landing, though I heard metal protest ominously throughout the ship. The cargo airlock concertinaed out to mate with the Loser’s Luck.

We’d already used the ship’s comms to text ahead our request to meet Wilson Trace, the BPIC regional director who ran Freetown Camp 12. We’d been pleased that he’d agreed to a meeting. We were less pleased when we saw his conditions. Before we were allowed anywhere near Mr Trace we had to have security locks put on all integral weapons and an inhibitor jack in one of our plugs to dull enhanced reactions. It went without saying that we had to be unarmed. We didn’t like it, but it was either that or we would have to mount a major operation and make yet another powerful enemy to get Merle out. Besides, it would be nice to not have to resort to violence for once.

The plush office was a marked contrast to what we’d just walked through. There had been no luxurious carpet, no laser-carved basalt desk and very few recessed windows looking out over the tangled industrial mess of Gorgon’s scar. Instead we had seen deep-set eyes lined with scar tissue from botched re-implant jobs on the faces of gaunt, indentured miners who had little care that their stale sweat added to the stench of oil and badly ventilated air. Many of them showed signs of radiation poisoning or seemed to have respiratory problems. They bunked in the streets. The bunks were stacked high, each with its small locker. The miners were charged for them. Fights were commonplace and nobody did anything, though BPIC Armed Response watched on. The guards even had exo-armoured personnel and light mechs in case the miners got out of hand. I couldn’t see that happening – it looked like most of the Belt zombies had given up years ago.

As desperate as the miners looked, they were nowhere near as sad as the wrung-out-looking, presumably once-attractive men and woman who worked the vice franchise. At least they weren’t slaved, I’m not sure I would have coped with that. Gaudy, badly maintained neon signs promised pleasure that the reality of the bars seemed to refute. The Yakuza had won the vice franchise for Freetown 12. The gangsters and the guards were the only people who looked well fed. Many of the Yakuza were stripped to the waist, gangster ink on display, and all of them wore shades. They had watched us pass impassively. The miners and the hookers had looked at us less impassively. I could feel their resentment.

For some reason Pagan had seemed pleased that the Yakuza were running the vice franchise and had split off from the rest of us to speak to them. I hoped he wasn’t going whoring. Mudge had given him a list of exotic pharmaceuticals he wanted picked up. Pagan had seemed less than pleased about this. It would have been better if Mudge had gone with Pagan but Mudge insisted that his people skills would be of use to us with Trace. I had my misgivings.

We’d walked right through the so-called entertainment area of the station. It had been so quiet. People weren’t talking, just drinking or rutting or taking some recreational substance to try and make it all go away for a little while. There were no sense booths. Nobody here could afford them.

As we climbed through the levels towards the corporate offices, the bunks in the alcohol- and blood-muddied dirt of the street became small wage-slave cubicles. The offices got larger and more luxurious the higher we went until we found ourselves in Trace’s.

He kept us waiting so we understood how important he was. When we were finally escorted into his office we found ourselves covered by four guards with M-19 carbines. There was also an automated twin fast-cycling rotary laser system protruding from the wall above and behind Trace’s desk. That was overkill. It was the kind of weapon used for point defence on spacecraft. I guessed this guy was paranoid.

Trace was obviously engaged in a sub-vocal conversation on his internal comms link. He continued with it apparently oblivious to us. It looked social judging from his occasional laughter and easy-going demeanour. Of course this was all for our benefit. He looked like every other suit I’d seen. Indeterminate age, handsome but indeterminate looks bought in a salon somewhere. Neat, tidy. Probably paid over the odds for a suit, the specifications of which would be important to people who knew such things. I was going to forget about this guy as soon as he was out of sight. He was a corporate cliche complete with katana and another shorter sword on a rack behind his desk.

The only thing that did stick out was his eyes. They were obviously expensive designer implants but they weren’t designed to mimic real eyes. Nor were they the non-light reflecting matt of our hardened plastic lenses. His were shiny black mirrors. You saw yourself in his eyes and you looked small. I didn’t think I was going to like this guy. Mudge had also made up his mind.

We were expected to stand. There was some shouting and Mudge almost got shot when he threw himself into a seat. I wished I’d gone with Pagan. Mudge lit up a cigarette.

‘Actually, it’s no smoking in here.’ Trace’s accent was one of those weird non-accents that people who lived in space had. I’d always thought it made them sound desperate to not come from anywhere.

‘I know,’ Mudge said agreeably. I groaned inwardly and Cat glared at him. We were off to a good start. A little bit more sub-vocalisation and Trace finished his call. I inclined my head towards the guards and the lasers.

‘You’re safe. We just came here to talk,’ I told him.

His mouth twitched into a momentary and humourless smile. ‘I’ll keep this brief. Merley Sommerjay is a thief, a bad one, and you have committed terrorist acts against this very corpora-’

‘What terrorist acts?!’ Morag demanded. Trace looked annoyed at being interrupted.

‘The release of the God virus into our systems. The removal of which is an ongoing and mounting cost, not to mention how much setting up dedicated and secure God-free networks has been.’

‘Oh,’ said Morag. I think she’d forgotten.

‘Any conflict between Earth governments and their colonial forces has nothing to do with us as a commercial organisation and we do not wish to take sides.’

‘You worked extensively with the Cabal, didn’t you?’ Mudge asked as he stubbed his cigarette out on the basalt desk. Trace stared at him. He let Mudge see himself small in the reflections of his eyes.

‘We do business with those who can pay,’ he told Mudge.

‘No ethics?’ I asked. I was answered with a sneer. I looked away from Trace to try and calm myself. I was amazed that nobody had ever put the drill arm of a mining mech through his window. Spaced this sweetheart of a man. I watched a long range strike craft sinking into the asteroid’s scar. It was similar to the Spear, the craft we’d taken to the Sirius system, but an older model. I turned back to the conversation.

‘… you will be slaved.’

What the fuck? I turned my attention back to Trace.

‘You will join our mining operation, except -’ he turned to Morag ‘- you’ll make an excellent addition to the executive-level vice operation. Initially anyway. You’ll work your way down and end up servicing the miners like all the others. Perhaps you’ll see your friends again. I understand you have the experience, otherwise I’d break you in myself.’

Morag just looked bored. She’d heard it all before. I wanted to kill him. I was also wishing I’d been paying more attention.

‘Did he just say he was going to slave us?’ I double-checked.

‘Apparently so,’ Cat said. ‘Remind me again why we walked into this trap.’

‘Because Jakob keeps on hoping he’ll meet someone reasonable some day. Tell me, Wilson – it’s okay if I call you Wilson, isn’t it? I mean presumably it’ll be your sexy masterness when we’re all slaved,’ Mudge said.

‘Do you have a point?’ Trace asked. I was wondering the same thing.

‘Why’d you take the meeting?’ Mudge asked.

‘Because of our previous working relationship with Sharcroft.’

‘You did use to work with the Cabal then?’ Morag asked.

‘And you seem like such a nice guy,’ I muttered.

‘Really?’ Mudge asked. ‘Because you have to know, even with your guards this is dangerous. No, I think you’re gloating. Which is weird because what do you have against us?’ Mudge had such a good eye for weakness because he embraced his so openly. ‘How old are you, Wilson?’ Trace didn’t answer. He was starting to look angry. The sort of angry that came from being found out and not being able to argue back. ‘See, you fucking clones all look the same to me, but I’m guessing you’re in your late thirties, right? But the Savile Row suit, the Musamoko katana, Zeiss designer eyes… You were someone once, weren’t you? But this is a pretty shitty posting for a rising star.’

‘Go and fuck yourself!’ Trace spat. We weren’t accomplishing anything, but on the other hand the guy was a prick and didn’t mean us well so we may as well let Mudge go to town on him.

Mudge leaned forward. ‘What did you get caught doing when God came to town?’ His manner was all mock concern. ‘Embezzlement? Too much crystal? Too much time in the sense booths? Fucking the boss’s kid? A penchant for farmyard frolics? Coprophilia? Has to be a weakness because it’s never going to be about being crooked or without morals, is it?’ Trace was going the kind of scarlet that only people who have been speaking to Mudge for any period of time can go. Judging by the response, Mudge must have been getting close to the heart of the matter. Just another person we’d reached out and touched. I glanced up at the lasers nervously.

‘Mudge, why don’t you give it a rest?’ Cat said. Her voice was heavy with implied threat. ‘Look, asshole,’ she continued diplomatically. ‘You’re only choice is take the money or we break him out. Don’t you want the cash? It’s a lot of fucking money.’ I couldn’t tell if she was bargaining, pleading or threatening.

‘I have to admit I was actually surprised by the size of Sharcroft’s offer to the company and my own gratuity. Sadly this ups the value of your brother as a prisoner so we’ll keep him to bargain for something important.’ I glanced over at Cat but she was staring at Trace. I almost groaned when I heard Mudge’s voice again. It seemed like he wasn’t going to be happy until someone got killed.

‘You did a profit-and-loss projection. Didn’t you?’ Mudge asked. Suddenly we were talking about something else. I wasn’t sure if it was the conversation or Mudge’s train of thought I wasn’t following. I watched Trace swallow several times as he sought to control himself. The calmness that spread over his features looked like it was narcotic. It would be drug-administered from his internal reservoirs, the sort execs use to calm themselves in the boardroom.

‘I think our meeting is over,’ Trace said, then to his guards: ‘Please see them to their new jobs.’

We didn’t move. Pre-violence tension just kept building. I tried calculating our chances. I didn’t like the rotary laser element.

Trace turned to Morag. ‘I’ll see you tonight.’ It was a threat.

He was dead. Well he was dead if the lasers and the guards didn’t get me first. I just wished I didn’t feel like I was moving in slow motion. I scratched at the inhibitor jack in one of my neck plugs. Pointlessly; metal and plastic didn’t have any nerve endings.

‘I didn’t say anything,’ Morag protested. I wasn’t sure how seriously she was taking this. I think hanging around with us was making her a little too blase.

‘You did a profit-and-loss forecast based on the coming conflict. You modelled who would win, or more likely who would pay more. Do the Earth governments know?’ Mudge asked. Now I saw it.

‘If someone like you could work it out, what do you think? What? You think they’re going to stop dealing with us? They need our resources. They’re preparing for war.’

‘Fucking parasite,’ Cat muttered.

‘You’re a collaborator?’ I asked incredulously. I don’t know why I was surprised. It was all flies to shit.

‘Oh grow up,’ he sighed, rubbing the bridge of his nose. ‘Your schoolboy revolutionary act is no doubt great fun, but adults run the system and business is the fuel. Now go and get slaved like the good little victims you are before I have your flesh turned to steam.’

Something unpleasant occurred to me. ‘Why not just kill us?’ I asked.

‘Because we’ll make a nice little gift when Rolleston and his friends come in-system,’ Mudge said.

‘You want to hand us to them?’ Morag demanded. Trace didn’t answer, but for a moment I saw his concentration waver as if he was listening to someone else. Then he was with us again.

‘Because he’s begging for favours,’ Mudge added. ‘Because despite business models and all that other bollocks, he knows that Rolleston, Cronin and their friends are going to fucking eat him. Don’t you, little man?’

I wondered if it was the little man comment that tipped it. I saw it; Cat saw it; Mudge would have seen it; and I guessed Morag had been through enough of this shit with us to know what was coming next. The decision to kill us was written all over Trace’s face. I wondered how Mudge thought we were going to get out of this.

It went black. Then the lights flickered so quickly they were almost strobing. My flash compensators kicked in and I saw the look of surprise on Trace’s face. Fortunately he was surprised enough not to give the kill order to the lasers.

Then God started screaming.

9

The Belt

Trace’s expression changed from shock to fury. He looked up. It was clear to him that whatever was happening was our fault. Morag fainted and hit the plush carpet as I started to move towards Trace. With the inhibitor jack in one of my plugs I felt like I was wading through mud to get to him. Inhibited though I was, the barrels on the lasers rotating up to speed still looked like slow motion to me. This just meant that I’d get to see my death more clearly.

My flash compensators saved me from going blind from the red light as it stabbed out. Then the room was full of red steam and we were covered from head to foot in very hot blood. The four security guards looked like they’d been cut in two and had then exploded. Their superheated flesh was still bubbling and steaming. The carpet was on fire. The multiple barrels of the rotary laser were still spinning but no longer firing. They stopped. The sprinklers came on.

Trace was on the other side of his desk looking devastated. I was a little surprised myself. I reached down to pick up one of the M-19s but it came apart in my hand. It had been cut in two.

Trace was drawing a pistol from inside his suit jacket. It looked very shiny and expensive. Mudge had one of the guards’ sidearms a long time before Trace completed the draw.

‘Mudge, no!’ Cat shouted pointlessly. Mudge fired a burst at point-blank range into Trace’s face, which caved in on itself. Mudge was grinning but he looked angry as well.

God was still screaming. It sounded like a thousand voices crying out in agony. The noise was messing with my normally calm demeanour.

‘What the fuck?!’ I demanded of Mudge. He looked like a full-on psycho, covered in blood and laughing in the flickering light.

‘Fuck him. He was an arsehole,’ Mudge said. I only heard him because my dampeners cut through the unnerving sound of God’s screams. Cat and Pagan were right – we were a mess and Mudge was out of control.

I was struggling to sort out what was happening. I was sure I could hear gunfire. Maybe human screams mingling with God’s own.

Cat was checking the guards’ weapons. Another M-19 had been bisected but two of them were fine.

The locks on my shoulder and knuckles sprang off. The inhibitor jack went offline and the world sped up. I picked the inhibitor jack out of my neck plug.

Morag came to and sat up. She was looking around appalled at the carnage.

‘Did you do this?’ I asked her. She looked like she was going to ask for forgiveness even though she’d saved us. Instead she just nodded. She looked sick at what she’d done. ‘Morag!’ I demanded. Her head whipped round to look at me. Then she remembered she hated me. Her remorse gone, the blood and the light made her look somehow evil.

‘It was a secure network but he was communicating with it wirelessly,’ she said. ‘As soon as I knew that, I knew I could hack it.’

Except that you weren’t supposed to be able to hack heavy-duty corporate secure networks and take over their security systems that quickly. Even I knew that.

Cat handed me an M-19 and I passed it to Mudge. I took two of the guards’ sidearms. I was the only ambidextrous shooter and I had a feeling we were going to need to maximise our firepower. Both pistols were shitty little ten mils. Morag had another of the ten mils and we took all the ammo and grenades for the M-19s’ grenade launchers we could carry. Mudge was disgusted to find that all the grenades were stun baton rounds. It made sense. Asteroid habitats were made to be rugged but nobody wanted high-velocity rounds puncturing a window. The bullets in the M-19s were probably low-impact frangible rounds that would shatter rather than penetrate. Frangible rounds were great for use on uppity Belt zombies; not so much fun against people wearing armour.

Morag grabbed a portable computer on the desk and started tapping rapidly on the screen.

‘What are you doing?’ I asked.

‘Looking at the net,’ she snapped irritably. Because we had time for attitude.

‘Why?’ I demanded. I wanted to tell her that we didn’t have the time.

‘What do you think would make God scream?’ she asked and put the computer down on the desk so we could all see it through the humid blood mist. The screen was showing a net feed. Some comedian had made the asteroid station look like a dark, monstrous subterranean kingdom in the net. The whole thing was lit with a bright white light. I was pretty sure that was how the visual interface was translating God. Tendrils writhed through the station’s virtual reflection, digging deep into its walls, violating the net construct utterly. The tendrils had an organic black look to them. They reminded me of the proto-Them construct Ambassador had shown me in my dreams that had formed in response to the Cabal’s initial attack. Except that these tendrils were burning with black flame. This was something malevolent far beyond a simple attack program.

‘Where’s it coming from?’ Cat asked.

‘I don’t know and I’m not going in to find out,’ Morag told her.

‘What is it?’ I asked. I knew I just didn’t want to face up to what it meant. That this could be over before it started. Morag turned to look at me as if I was stupid. There was only one thing it could be.

‘It’s Demiurge,’ she said.

Whoever had done this had done it well. Power was down. Auxiliary power was down. The station was running on some tertiary, or worse, system. It was getting cold. This was making us steam because we were covered in blood. The lights were still flickering like strobes to the point where it was difficult for our optics to cope.

We didn’t have a plan; we were just trying to get out of there. We were moving down through the corporate administration levels. Whatever was happening hadn’t reached there. There were frightened people hiding in the offices but terse interrogations provided little information as to what was happening.

The sound of gunfire had become less constant but we could still make out distant screaming. It sounded like it was coming from the dorm/recreation areas, which of course we would have to go through to get back to the ship. Assuming that was still a good idea. I still thought it was because we had a better class of gun on board.

We didn’t know where Pagan was and we couldn’t risk any form of comms to find him. All we knew was that he had gone to negotiate something with the Yakuza. All the need-to-know bullshit was beginning to get in the way of this fucked-up op.

Cat was in the lead. She was moving quickly, legs bent to provide a steady platform for her M-19, checking up, down, left, right. Going wide around corners so nobody could grab the weapon. I was behind her, a pistol in each hand. I had my shoulder laser scanning behind me. Then Morag, and finally Mudge watching our backs. At least he wasn’t acting like a fuck-up at the moment. He was doing his job properly.

‘What are we doing?’ Cat asked as we entered a laser-cut rock stairway. She spoke quietly as we had no comms.

‘Getting Pagan and leaving,’ I told her.

‘What about Merle?’

‘He’s a bit of a fucking luxury at the moment.’

‘What if Demiurge has compromised the ship’s comms?’ Morag asked.

‘Is this a good time for a conversation?’ I replied as we rounded a corner on the stairs and almost shot a couple of terrified Belt zombies. Cat took up a covering position on the reinforced door that led into the dorm/rec area.

‘What’s going on?’ I demanded. They jumped at my voice and then spoke in a language I didn’t understand. It sounded faintly eastern European. They pointed towards the door.

‘Are we doing this?’ Cat asked through gritted teeth.

‘We could go and hide,’ I suggested hopefully.

‘You’re such a fucking pussy,’ Mudge said. I couldn’t see him but somehow I could hear the grin he’d have on his face.

‘Shut up, Mudge. Morag, open the door.’ I think she was about to argue but it made sense. She only had one pistol, which freed up one of her hands. Cat and I covered her while Mudge pointed his assault rifle back up the stairway.

It was the smell that got us first. People had died and died bad. The coppery tang of a lot of blood was almost overpowered by the burned-pork smell of cooked flesh from laser or black light fire. Then of course there was the smell of shit. People soil themselves when they are afraid or when they die, and bowels rupture when the lower abdomen is treated to sufficient trauma.

I followed Cat through. The red emergency lighting coupled with the flickering light made it look like hell. The carpet of dead people helped give that impression as well. How had this happened so quickly? This was like smoothly executed genocide.

‘Them?’ Cat asked as she scanned the area. We were all thinking it. Just for a moment I wondered if everything we’d done had just been a Them psy-op, a precursor for an attack on the home system. I knew better, or I hoped I did.

‘Look at the wounds,’ I said. ‘That’s not from shards or black beam.’ Cat glanced down momentarily.

‘Tight grouping as well – good shooting,’ she said. She was right. A short burst to the body and then double tap to the head. Except for the ones that had been mutilated. Morag turned to one side and threw up. She was heaving, leaning on the rock wall next to the door.

‘Pull yourself together!’ I snapped. She glared at me. I hated saying it but we needed everyone working here. She straightened up, pistol at the ready. Thing is, she’d had the correct reaction. I should want to throw up. I shouldn’t be so used to this shit. Most of the corpses had been shot or just torn up. It was easy to see why Cat had thought it was Them. Some had had their genitals gouged out and their faces sawn off. I didn’t like that, not at all, and I didn’t want that to happen to me or anyone else here.

‘It’s a psyche job,’ Mudge whispered. I wasn’t sure but I thought that something had moved at the furthest range of my magnified optics. It was difficult to tell, my flash compensators were struggling with the flickering light. It was confusing my lowlight capability as well. ‘Fear of castration and loss of identity, it’s a standard and quick way of causing fear.’ Even Mudge was sounding grim.

‘Its certainly fucking playing with my calm,’ Cat growled.

‘Okay, we head back to the ship, keeping an eye out for Pagan,’ I said.

We started moving, constantly scanning our surroundings. There were still people alive down here but they looked terrified and we didn’t stop to chat. We could hear whimpering and screaming from the wounded and nearly dead. This had been done in the time we’d spent in Trace’s office.

I whipped my head to the right. Old instincts were telling me that something was moving in the shadows. I switched to thermographics, painting the area in multi-hued heat-haze patterns. It was difficult to pick out what was going on in the mass of hot pipes. Space was cold. Any habitat in space needed a lot of heating. If my imagination wasn’t playing tricks on me, then whoever or whatever it was must be able to shield their heat signature to a degree.

We rounded a corner onto the main thoroughfare. Broken neon signs flickered and in one case provided an ongoing shower of sparks. More corpses.

‘Uh, Jake?’ Cat said. I looked over. Past her, against the station’s thick external rock wall, one of the security force’s light mechs lay in a heap on the ground. We moved over using it for cover.

The mech had been torn apart. There was little evidence of heavy weapon fire. It looked like something had ripped parts off until it had got to the pilot. Around the mech were several dead guards. Again most of their wounds looked like they’d been inflicted in hand-to-hand by something with claws and possibly teeth. All over the walls I could see where rounds from the mech’s autocannon had impacted into the rock.

I shoved both the pistols into my coat pockets and grabbed one of the guards’ M-19s. The palm link connected and ran a diagnostic of the weapon. It was fully functional but the magazine was empty, as was the grenade launcher. I started to reload. Morag was doing the same as Cat and Mudge covered.

‘There’s something there,’ Cat whispered as I felt my blood turn to iced water. We all looked up. I wanted to ask her if she was sure but that was a stupid question and wishful thinking. I put a fourth grenade, a stun baton, into the grenade launcher and chambered it by working the pump mechanism. Morag was moments behind me.

‘Mudge, watch our back,’ I told him as we knelt down behind the wreckage of the mech, looking to where Cat was pointing. I had my shoulder laser still scanning behind me.

It took me a moment, but then I saw it. It was strange, some kind of animal, moving on all fours, slinking carefully in the shadows about six hundred metres further down the main thoroughfare towards the docking area. Something made me glance to one side. I cycled through normal vision, lowlight and thermographic but could see nothing. I just couldn’t shake the feeling I was being stalked.

I glanced down at the wreckage of the mech.

‘Morag? Can you hack this mech’s systems?’ I asked.

‘It’s inoperative or I would’ve been able to pilot it,’ Cat hissed.

‘It might be compromised by Demiurge,’ Morag said. I didn’t like the idea of sending Morag anywhere near Demiurge but I was thinking that we were running out of options.

‘Hopefully not the operating system. I need you to hack in and release the smartlink safety on the autocannon,’ I told her tersely. Hoping there was enough of the old NCO left in me that she wouldn’t argue. She didn’t. Instead she slung her assault rifle and climbed into the mech cockpit. She ended up sitting on the torn-up corpse of the pilot while looking for a port.

‘He’s in the way,’ she complained.

‘It’s moving!’ Cat said. Her words were punctuated by a short burst of automatic fire.

‘Corpse hack!’ I told Morag, barely registering her look of horror.

Whatever it was came loping straight down the middle of the thoroughfare straight towards us. It was low and had the look of a predatory animal as it bounded in and out of pools of flickering light. I joined Cat in firing short controlled bursts at it. As it crested a pile of corpses less than four hundred metres away I saw how pointless the frangible rounds were. Nearly all were hitting it but they were just sparking off some heavy-duty armour.

Morag plugged herself into one of the dead pilot’s jacks. He was still connected to the mech. She went through his systems. It was like necrophilia but the mech twitched. I heard the hum from its auxiliary batteries and part of the cockpit lit up. Morag managed to move the pilot’s fingers to release the mech’s grip on the autocannon.

‘Cat!’ I scrambled over the wreckage of the mech and reached for the weapon. It was armed with an autocannon because a railgun, plasma weapon or heavy lasers would be more likely to breach something. Two hundred metres. It was going to be a bitch to aim. The autocannon looked like an oversized assault rifle. I grabbed the handgrip and tucked the butt under my arm. Most of my hand fitted into the trigger. One hundred metres. Cat grabbed the barrel and lifted it up trying to aim. Fifty metres. I pulled the trigger.

I screamed as I dislocated my right shoulder. The recoil shot the massive weapon back and out of my grip. Cat threw herself to the side, but the muzzle flash caught her and burned the right side of her body, setting the bodybuilder’s top she was wearing alight. We were going to die doing something stupid, something that had been my idea.

Still on fire, Cat grabbed the weapon again. It was on us. It leaped into the air as I rolled and grabbed the trigger with my left hand and pushed it down. I tried to keep it held down as the autocannon bucked all over the sand. The thing all but leaped into the weapon’s fire. Even the velocity of the twenty-millimetre rounds didn’t halt its pounce but it knocked it off kilter and into Cat, who in a feat of adrenalin-fuelled strength pushed it off. I had a moment to be appalled that this thing was still moving. It was a flailing mass of mechanical, armoured limbs, which were beating and clawing at the ground, kicking up a lot of bloody sand. I didn’t understand how it could still be moving. There was movement off to my right but I had no time to worry about that.

‘The cannon!’ Cat shouted. She grabbed the barrel of the weapon and practically held it against the creature. I managed to lift the butt off the ground and hold the violently kicking weapon as round after round flew into it until it stopped moving.

I didn’t have time to even look at what we’d killed as another one burst out of the wreckage of a bar to my right. It exploded though a neon sign in a shower of sparks. I heard Mudge firing his M-19 at it and saw the useless rounds spark off its heavy armour. My shoulder laser had time to stab out at it twice before it pounced and tore Morag out of the mech’s cockpit and slammed her into the wall. It landed on top of her and a bloody metal claw powered down into her torso. I was sure she was dead. Ignoring the agony of my dislocated arm I charged the monster, all eight of my nine-inch knuckle blades extended from my forearms. I shoulder-barged it, intent on knocking it off Morag and then dealing with it. It was like shoulder-barging a mech. It didn’t move. I stopped dead. It casually clawed me, tearing off half my face and sending me flying back through the air.

I landed in the sand and scrambled to my feet desperate to get it off Morag. I knew I was too late. I knew she was dead. With a scream Cat drove more than a foot of serrated pickaxe blade on the end of a miner’s multi-tool in through the creature’s cranium and down, deep into its brain. Cat twisted the handle and pulled it off Morag. It was only then she put her burning T-shirt out.

Morag was bloody, her right leg at an odd angle, but she was moving and moaning. Thank God she’d chosen to wear armour like me and unlike Cat.

I staggered to my feet looking around for more of them. My right shoulder was dislocated. That should be difficult when you’re an amputee. It was the join to the cybernetic arm, which was hanging off at an odd angle. The painkillers in my internal drug reservoirs were trying desperately to cope.

‘Er, Jakob?’ I heard Mudge say. I looked over to where he was kneeling by the twitching corpse of the thing that had attacked Morag. I was nauseated to see it wore a mask made of a flayed human face. Mudge was still covering us but he reached down and tore the mask off. I now knew what it was that had attacked us. Actually I knew who it was that had attacked us. They were friends of Mudge’s and mine.

‘Cat?’ I said weakly as I leaned heavily against the mech’s leg.

I was still scanning all around as was my shoulder laser, though the movements of its servos were sending little jolts of pain through my shoulder. Cat walked over to me, grabbed me and pulled the arm back into its socket. I screamed. My scream was answered. Wolf howls echoed through the rock passages.

I went over and knelt by Morag. Her leg was broken, her cheek was hanging off and her chest armour had taken a battering. There was some blood where the armour had been punctured but it looked superficial. She was out cold and there was nothing we could do for her now.

‘You know these guys?’ Cat asked.

‘Yeah,’ I answered.

‘You piss them off?’

‘They’re friends of ours, saved us from getting killed.’

‘So they with the Cabal?’

‘Looks that way.’

‘I don’t get it,’ Mudge said. He and Cat were covering as I checked their weapons. One had a laser rifle, which I threw to Cat. She collected the spare batteries and grenades while I covered her with the gauss carbine I took off the other one. ‘This isn’t their style. I mean it is and isn’t. I mean, did Vladimir seem the type to do civvies?’

I glanced over at Mudge and then went back to scanning the area. Vladimir was fun to be around if you were on his right side, but I wouldn’t put anything past him.

‘They call themselves the Vucari,’ I told Cat. ‘They’re Spetsnaz.’

‘Oh perfect,’ Cat said. The Spetsnaz may not have been the best special forces in the world but they were one of the most feared. They were rumoured to recruit out of lunatic asylums. ‘Were they in colonial space when the Black Squadrons got there?’

‘No,’ I said. This had been bothering me. ‘They were sent out there like us.’

‘They changed sides?’ Cat asked.

Now I could see Vladimir happily perpetrating this massacre, particularly if someone owed him money, but changing sides? More than anything the Organizatsiya encouraged loyalty.

I checked their sidearms – more fucking ten millimetres. It figured. These guys liked to close with their prey and get their claws wet. I took them anyway, dropping the ones we’d nicked from the guards. We were now slightly better armed.

‘How many?’ Cat asked.

‘Squads of eight. Depends on how many squads,’ I told her. ‘Mudge, carry Morag.’ He protested that he wanted to be a shooter. ‘Don’t fucking argue with me. When you’ve completed special forces selection and training then you can be a shooter.’ He grudgingly picked her up.

We moved quickly. I wanted to get back to the ship and our gear and then look for Pagan, though I didn’t fancy his chances. I wondered if Demiurge had taken over the systems yet. Had God beaten him? God should have had the advantage. He should have had a lot more resources in terms of processing power and memory.

Cat was on point, I was at the back, Mudge was carrying Morag between us. She was better off unconscious the way her leg was hanging down. The side of my face that was hanging off was blissfully numb. We were passing another street that branched off deeper into the asteroid on our right.

‘People in the bar,’ Cat whispered.

I glanced down the street and saw the bar she meant. It had a flickering neon sign of a scantily clad woman done up like a Japanese cartoon character. I guessed this was more a brothel than a bar. Metal shutters covered the windows though several of them had been torn off. I could see numerous heat signatures inside the place.

As we continued towards the dock there was the sound of lots of guns firing long ragged bursts in our general direction. The fire was grossly inaccurate but forced us to take cover as we tried to push corpses up and into the way of the bullets. How can people still miss in the age of the smartlink? I wondered. And long bursts are just lack of self-control. This wasn’t the Vucari. They would be eating us by now.

‘We’re on your side, you stupid bastards!’ I screamed during a relative lull in the hail of fire.

‘Fuck you!’ came the heavily accented reply.

‘We just want to get across to the dock!’ I shouted back.

I was surprised when a man in a suit wearing dark glasses and holding a gun appeared in one of the windows and gestured for us to approach. I shook my head vigorously, hoping his optics would pick it up from there, and then pointed towards the dock. He continued gesturing.

‘Fuck this, let’s just go,’ Cat hissed.

‘Pagan!’ the man shouted.

I glanced between Mudge and Cat. Both of them nodded. We made a run for the brothel. As I was scanning all around us I was sure I saw movement in the pipework that ran above the major thoroughfares.

We leaped the window ledge and came barrelling into the Yakuza brothel. It was a fairly comfortable-looking affair for Freetown but I suspect that was more for the Yakuza who hung out there than the clientele. It had a central stage with a pole so the customers could see which of the desperate-looking male or female prostitutes they wanted. There was a bar and a set of metal stairs that led upstairs to the work booths.

The lights weren’t flickering in here; someone had got pissed off with them and smashed all but the red emergency lighting. The candles didn’t so much provide more light as fuck with the imminent and painful death ambience.

Most of the working boys and girls were sensibly cowering behind a makeshift barricade of overturned tables. I felt like joining them. All the Yak guys were toting guns and looking macho in pre-FHC-style suits, hats and shades. The weird thing was they all looked the same, even the girls. They had all been cut to look the same – like their leader, I supposed. Only which one was their leader? I guessed it was the guy stripped to the waist, all his tattoos on show. It made a degree of sense. He was the fattest. He was carrying a big sub-machine gun. It had a drum magazine and looked like a pre-FHC copy. I hated fashion guns. He also had a short straight-edged sword shoved through a red sash wrapped around his waist.

Mudge lay Morag down behind the barricade and then unslung his near-useless M-19. I passed my slightly less useless gauss carbine to him and he covered us as I knelt down next to Morag.

The fat, half-naked guy with the tattoos was speaking to me in rapid Japanese. I didn’t speak Japanese regardless of the speed.

‘Medpak?’ I asked and then used the universal bridge between cultures of speaking slowly and loudly. ‘First. Aid. Kit,’ I said, pointing at Morag’s wounds. For all the poor guy knew, I was trying to sell him Morag. Fortunately one of the hookers understood and a rudimentary medpak was slid across the floor towards me.

I winced as I heard the crack when I pushed Morag’s leg back into place. Well, roughly into place. I applied medgels to the break and then to her face. I didn’t want to take her out of her armour and check her chest wound unless I had to. I hooked her up to the medpak so it could drive the gels. Her vitals didn’t look great but she wasn’t dying.

‘Jake.’ Even under the circumstances Mudge’s contraction of my name still irritated me. I ignored him as I worked on Morag as quickly as possible. ‘Jake!’

‘What?!’ I swung my head round to look at him. When we’d come in I’d been so focused on seeing to Morag’s wounds I must have walked straight past Pagan.

He was in one of the comfortable chairs. He made it look somehow throne-like. His staff lay diagonally across him. Both he and the chair showed signs of receiving small-arms fire. He was injured but it looked like his subcutaneous armour had taken the brunt of it. However, he was juddering in the chair like he was being beaten, and blood was bubbling from his mouth and nose. I’d only seen this once or twice before. This was damage from biofeedback. He was in the net getting a right kicking from someone.

The Yakuza boss pointed at a thinscreen slowly peeling off the rock above the bar. It took me a few moments to work out what was going on. At first I thought it was some sort of animated Japanese entertainment viz. Then I realised.

It was showing a huge six-armed man/wolf creature surrounded by a nimbus of white fire. I had seen that fire before, when the angelic hacker Ezekiel had burned the net construct of the Warchilde to let Rolleston escape. I guessed the hacker running the demon-wolf icon was Bataar, the Vucari’s signalman. I remembered thinking of him as the high priest of a cult.

The nimbus of white flame acted as a shield against Pagan’s attack programs, which had manifested as a near-constant stream of lightning from the tip of his staff. The nimbus flared where the lightning touched it. The demon-wolf opened its mouth and breathed white fire all over Pagan. A wall of water shot from the rock floor to meet the white flame. The defence program was turned to steam and the white flame licked over Pagan’s screaming icon.

‘Can we get him out?’ I demanded. I wasn’t really sure who I was asking. I wasn’t sure how bad it would be to pull him out of a situation like this. I wasn’t really sure how to do it externally to someone using an internal computer.

Both icons were in a bad way, covered in burns and rendered blood. Surrounding the wolf was a mass of black tendrils that burned with black fire as they reached for Pagan. White light shone from behind Pagan, off-screen. I presumed this was God. Pagan was simultaneously trying to defend himself from the demon-wolf, attack it with lightning and fend off the black tendrils with momentary walls of fire.

The ripping sound of one hypersonic bang running into the next triggered the noise dampeners on my ears and deafened anyone not similarly augmented. This was of less concern than the long burst of railgun fire that tore through the brothel at about chest height. It was like all the furniture in the room had taken flight and was then joined by spinning body parts.

Something wet hit me. The railgun fire stopped just as the flesh of a Yakuza gunman near me split into three and then exploded in superheated chunks as a burst of laser fire hit him.

One of the surviving armoured shutters burst inwards as a Vucari tore into the room. I just about had time to draw attention to myself by firing a short bust from each of my salvaged pistols into its face. My shoulder laser was more effective at charring head armour.

She grabbed me by punching her claws through the subcutaneous armour that protected my stomach, then picked me up, carried me across the bar and rammed me into the back wall. My shoulder laser kept firing point blank into her face, but her heavily armour-plated skull was resisting the beam. It did however burn the dead skin mask she was wearing off. That just showed me her blood-covered, rage-contorted features and her fucking big sharp teeth. She tore a chunk of flesh out of my left forearm. I knew I was going to die so I did something stupid. I grabbed the top of her maw with my left arm and tried to use all my boosted muscle to force her head back. She opened her maw to tear into me and I shoved my right arm into her mouth. She bit down on it, her teeth denting and starting to penetrate my cybernetic arm’s armour. I extended all four blades on that arm. All four of the razor-sharp, carbon-fibre blades extended into her brain. She shook, juddered and then slid to one side. Her claws tore out of my stomach and I screamed some more.

Mudge was riding another of the Vucari as it rampaged around the room killing nearly everything it reached out and touched with its claws. A gunman near me lifted his SMG to fire. He was going to hit Mudge. Somehow I had the energy to kick the gun out of his hand. Mudge was punching the Vucari wolf cyborg in the head with his bare hand. I wondered if the Vucari even knew he was there. Cat had the laser and was manoeuvring for a shot, but Mudge and the Yakuza were getting in the way.

I saw the gauss carbine I’d given Mudge lying on the ground. I dived towards it, grabbed the weapon and rolled up.

‘Mudge, get off!’ I screamed. Mudge slid off the Vucari and curled up in a defensive ball close to its feet. I fired the gauss carbine. Cat fired the laser. The armour-piercing, electromagnetically propelled darts tore into the monstrous cyborg but they weren’t doing enough damage. Cat was hitting the Vucari and superheating armour and flesh, blowing bits off it, but the thing was withstanding the fire, its animal-like howls of pain matching the screams coming from the net feed on the thinscreen.

The Vucari bolted, sprinting out into the street through the wreckage of the armoured shutters. Cat chased it. She was insane. I followed her. I think her actions shamed me into it. Cat was firing burst after burst at the thing as it climbed up a stack of street bunks. The metal frames of the bunks bent and buckled with the Vucari’s weight as it sprang up. I raised the gauss rifle to my shoulder. The smartlink showed me the grenades in the carbine’s underslung launcher. The Vucari weren’t screwing around with stun batons. Fortunately the smartlink translated from Russian to English.

I fired the first grenade. Its velocity took it through the bunks to the rock wall and the fragmentation grenade exploded. Wreckage rained down on Cat and I as the force of the explosion blew the wolf cyborg across the street and into the opposite wall. It bounced off the rock and landed in the street ahead of us.

It tried to get up. I was angry now. Why had they done this? Why were they forcing us to kill friends? This was exactly what I had never wanted to do. These were good people – I mean they were all borderline psychos, but they were good people. Actually there was nothing borderline about them. I fired a second grenade. The flechettes tore into it, most of the needles sparking off now severely compromised armour. It tumbled back into the sand. It was still moving. I fired the third grenade from the hip. The cross hairs on my smartlink told me where it was going to hit. The thirty-millimetre, high-explosive, armour-piercing grenade went through its chest cavity and exploded. I was too close. The force of the explosion knocked me on my arse, battered my teeth together and a bit of Vucari shrapnel tore the side of my head open and almost took my ear off.

Cat came to stand by where I was sitting on a Belt zombie’s corpse. She was looking all around.

‘You getting up?’ she asked.

Cat and I stepped back into the brothel. Mudge was leaning on the bar. He had the M-19 in one hand and a bottle of vodka in the other. It looked like something had hit him hard enough in the side of the head to stove in part of his subcutaneous armour and he had a ragged tear in his chest.

‘ Na zdorovye,’ he said bitterly.

He took a long swig from the bottle, winced and then spat out a tooth. I glanced over at the Vucari I’d killed. I remembered her name now. It was Andrea. When we’d taken them to get drunk after they’d saved our arses she’d swapped oral sex jokes with Bibs. These people had gone toe to toe with Them when nearly out of ammunition to save us and this was the thanks they got. Why the fuck had they done this?

I’d almost forgotten Pagan. I glanced up at the thinscreen. The wolf-demon was still. It seemed suspended from a tree of thorns that had grown through its flesh. I caught a momentary glimpse of Pagan’s icon on the screen, which looked ragged and half torn apart. I briefly wondered why they had to make the virtual damage look so gory in their fake world. Pagan’s icon disappeared. Tendrils covered in black fire swamped the place where he’d been. The white glow that I’d come to connect with God seemed to recede and disappear.

‘Jesus, that hurts. When’d I get shot?’ Pagan asked. Pain filled his voice. Real Pagan didn’t look much better than virtual Pagan. He was lying on the ground. Railgun fire had destroyed his chair. He was lucky it hadn’t torn him apart. There was blood all down his chin and beard from where it had drooled out his mouth and nose. Blood was also running out of his ears. I knew that you had to take a serious amount of biofeedback for that to happen. Then he had the bullet wounds on top of that.

‘Has Demiurge taken the station?’ I asked. My voice sounded dead even to me. As if I didn’t care. I glanced over at Morag. She was still unconscious.

Pagan shook his head. ‘Not yet, but it will,’ he said and then started speaking rapidly in Japanese to the Yakuza. The surgical clones looked to their boss. He hesitated as long as face dictated and then nodded. The gunmen went running from the brothel.

‘You speak Japanese?’ Pagan ignored my stupid question. Later he would tell me that he’d worked extensively with the Japanese Special Forces Group on Barney’s. ‘Where’s it getting all its processing power and memory from?’

Pagan turned to look up at me. He look tired and in pain.

‘Good question. They came on a long-range strike craft. There’s only so much Demiurge that could fit into the systems of a craft like that. God here in the camp should have easily outbid it in terms of power. As soon as it kicked in all the docked ships switched off their net links to the station. All the in-system ships will be carrying God. If they add their memory and processing power then we should be able to beat Demiurge.’

‘“Should”?’ He shrugged. ‘Won’t most of them have left as soon as they realised something was wrong?’

‘Several tried. One of the first things Demiurge went for was the camp’s external weaponry. Two tramp freighters and a factory ship were blown apart.’

I tried, I really tried, but this news did nothing except make me feel increasingly numb.

‘Those ships’ captains have got a lot to lose if they switch on their comms and Demiurge wins.’

‘That’s why Itaki’s people -’ he nodded towards the Yakuza boss, who was standing in the middle of the carnage trying to make sense of it ‘- will be doing the persuading, at gunpoint if necessary.’

‘Is there anything we can do?’ I asked.

He started to shake his head but winced at the pain.

‘No. I can’t fight that thing and neither can Morag.’ Then there was a look of momentary panic. ‘Where’s Morag?’ I pointed at where she was lying on the ground among the metal kindling that had once been a makeshift barricade.

‘She all right?’ he asked.

Not really, but I nodded.

Cat joined us. She had succeeded in removing the railgun harness Andrea had been wearing. The railgun had folded up snug along her back when Andrea had fought like an animal. Cat had linked to it, run diagnostics and was now putting the harness on.

‘What now?’ Cat asked.

‘Back to the ship,’ I said.

‘I know where your brother is,’ Pagan told Cat.

Bollocks. Cat turned to look at me. I sighed and glanced down at Pagan.

‘It’s what we came here for,’ he said.

Mudge joined us, catching the gist of the conversation. ‘Look at all the free stuff we got,’ he said, grinning.

‘Be a shame to come all this way and not get him,’ Pagan said.

‘With their weapons we’re hunting them,’ Cat said.

Pain cut my bitter laugh short.

‘Dream on. These guys lived for fighting Them hand-to-hand. One at a time nearly killed us, and we only got away with it because they seem to have gone fucking mad.’

‘Four down though,’ Cat said.

‘Five,’ Pagan corrected her. ‘There was no way their hacker walked away from that.’

‘He could already be dead,’ I pointed out. Meaning Merle.

‘Scared?’ Mudge asked. He was goading me.

‘Mudge, will you just fuck off,’ I snapped. ‘The adrenalin combat junkie act is wearing a bit fucking thin.’

Mudge looked pissed off and for once didn’t say anything. Still it was a Chinese parliament and I’d been outvoted.

‘Okay, we go and get him,’ I agreed. ‘Mudge, stay here and look after Morag.’

‘What? I piss you off so you go off and play with your soldier mates-’

‘Yes-’ I started.

‘And I get saddled babysitting your ex?’

‘Mudge! Wind your fucking neck in!’ I shouted, finally losing my temper. I don’t think it was Mudge I was angry with. Well not just Mudge. ‘Stay here, look after Morag, and if anything happens to her don’t be around when I get back!’

We stared at each other for a while. The hookers and the Yakuza had turned to see what the commotion was about. Mudge somehow thought better of saying anything and stalked over to where Morag was lying on the ground. I think I’d managed to alienate everyone now.

‘I hope this guy’s worth it,’ I muttered to Cat.

‘He’d best be better than James Bond,’ Pagan said.

‘Who?’ Cat asked. I’d no idea what he was talking about either.

This was bullshit. I did not want to be doing this and we had better things to do, like making sure Morag was okay, if I was honest. Moving deep into the bowels of an asteroid mining camp looking for incredibly dangerous Russian special forces operators was not high on my list of priorities. I respected Cat wanting to help her brother, I really did, and if he was one of ours then it would be right to come and get him. We didn’t know this guy, however, so this wasn’t our problem. Besides, if BPIC took back control of the station we could be right back where we were to begin with. Except the next guy might not want to gloat and be so sloppy with his computer security.

BPIC didn’t have much use for long-term people containment. It was expensive and tied up resources. They had a lock-up for when Belt zombies, usually newcomers who hadn’t had the life sucked out of them, got out of hand. Anything deserving more long-term punishment got dealt with summarily. It normally involved an airlock. After all they were pretty much the law out here.

We found Merle’s cell. It was a laser-cut hole in the stone not much bigger than a man. It had a smaller hole in the bottom of it to drain waste and a very solid, thick titanium hatch at the top. Pagan once again proved how clever he was by calling it an oubliette. It looked like a hole in the ground to me. It was empty.

The lights were still flickering in this part of the station and we hadn’t seen corpses for some time now. We’d just found lots of blood, bits of torn flesh and drag marks. I think we were close to the various life-support systems. The only sound was the loud humming of a lot of machinery.

Cat, armed with Andrea’s railgun, and I covered while Pagan investigated the hole in the ground with the French-sounding name.

‘He’s dead,’ I told Cat. I couldn’t see any way he could get out of that. Someone had to have opened it. That someone was probably a very dangerous, heavily augmented Russian cyborg.

‘Not Merle,’ she said with some conviction.

‘Even if he got out, if he’s been in there for any amount of time then he’ll be in no physical state to help us,’ Pagan told her gently.

‘If he’s high value then BPIC could have moved him,’ Cat said, but I could hear the doubt in her voice.

‘I don’t think he would have been a priority for BPIC today. I don’t think they even have a frame of reference for what happened here,’ Pagan said.

‘This isn’t a good spot for a conversation,’ I hissed. This place was seriously messing with me. As that thought crossed my mind a howl echoed through the rock corridors. All of us froze.

I’d heard wolf calls before, real wolves, when I was growing up. The calls the Vucari had used earlier were most likely for intimidation value. After all, they could probably communicate between themselves via Demiurge’s control of the net. This was different. There was something mournful and desperately sad about the noise.

‘I think we should go,’ Pagan said.

‘He’s here and he’s alive-’ Cat started.

‘Is that just intuition?’ Pagan demanded. ‘There’s taking a risk and then there’s courting trouble.’

I knew they were waiting for me to make a decision. I couldn’t say why I decided to push on. I wanted to leave and wasn’t sure of the advantage of continuing to look for Merle. I don’t think Merle was the reason I decided to push on, however. There was just something about that howling.

‘We go on.’

Pagan didn’t argue; he knew better than to do that in a situation like this.

I don’t know what the stone chamber where we found Vladimir had been used for initially. I think there was some kind of machinery buried under the pile of corpses. We’d been passing when another mournful howl had alerted us to his presence. I’d entered first. I checked all around looking for more of them. There could be some hiding in the corpses but if so thermographics wasn’t picking them up. I pointed the gauss carbine up the mound to the figure sitting on top. Pagan and Cat were in after me. They were too professional to say anything but I could tell they were horrified by what they saw. Pagan still had the presence of mind to turn his back on the atrocity and cover the door. It took a degree of balls to turn your back on something you know to be that dangerous.

‘What are you doing, Vladimir?’ I asked quietly, trying to force down my rising gorge. He was crouched on top of the pile of bodies tearing gobbets of flesh from them and putting them in his mouth and chewing. His expression was pained, like a spoilt middle-class kid forced to eat something he didn’t like. A lot of what he was eating was just tumbling out of his mouth partially chewed. I think it was the noise, the tearing sound of skin and meat, which jarred my already frayed nerves the most.

He turned to look at me, wearing someone else’s face. He was covered from head to foot in other people’s blood. It should have been horrific, and it was, but there was something pathetic and pitiable about him as well. He’d got his wish to feast on human flesh but it didn’t look as if it was to his taste. This was a warewolf reduced to a ghoul, a mere carrion eater. He seemed tired as he took off the face.

‘My friend,’ he said sadly. He continued tearing off lumps of flesh. There was something compulsive about the behaviour. ‘I have betrayed everything.’ He tore off more flesh.

‘Why?’ was the best I could do. I wasn’t sure how much longer we had before Cat tried to waste him. He ripped off another lump of flesh.

‘If he does that one more time…’ Cat growled.

‘This isn’t you,’ I said.

He stopped chewing and looked at me.

‘We both know it is. We are always surprised by what we are capable of…’ Then he tapped his armoured skull with the tip of a bloodied claw. ‘When we serve something bigger than us.’

‘Has something made you do this?’ Pagan asked. He did not look at Vladimir; he was still covering the door.

‘I do not know you that you should address me with such familiarity,’ Vladimir replied, a predatory smile on his face. His mock haughtiness was like a ghost of his old self. ‘I always wanted to be a monster. It’s much easier than trying to be good.’

‘Are you slaved?’ I asked, though I’d seen nothing in any of the Vucari’s plugs.

He stared at me. It was all I could do to return his look.

‘Do you owe me a debt?’ he asked.

I didn’t want to answer that. I couldn’t see any form of repayment of my debt that was going to be good. I swallowed hard, trying to ignore the acid burn of rising bile in the back of my throat.

‘Yes,’ I finally managed.

‘I cannot do it myself,’ he said. He sounded almost solemn.

The glimpse of his face I caught as he pounced was of a mask of hatred and insane rage. We all fired. The railgun kicked up a storm of dead flesh. Despite the ordnance he took a long time dying.

I felt nothing as we probed deeper into the complex. Pagan was freaked but I didn’t care any more. All I could think of was that someone had done this to Vladimir. I wasn’t sure how but I was pretty sure who.

We were crossing a metal bridge over a deep pool of water that had been cut from the stone of the asteroid. The pool was part of the water supply. A thick carpet of algae covered the top of the pool to help with oxygen generation. The flickering lights in this section were ultraviolet to stimulate algae growth.

The UV made the blood-soaked Vucari that dropped from the ceiling wearing someone else’s face seem surreal. I think Mudge would have enjoyed the experience. It didn’t seem real to me. The Vucari landed between Cat and me. Cat’s blood looked black in the UV as he tore a claw up her back. The blow lifted her off her feet and sent her sprawling to the metal. As it turned to face me I threw myself back, trying to bring the gauss rifle to bear. I knew that behind me Pagan would be swinging around to fire but then the Vucari stiffened. Blood, his own, dribbled out of his mouth and he fell forward. There was a piece of jagged metal sticking out the back of his neck between the armour plate on his skull and the armour plate on his back. Even allowing for getting the metal between the two plates, it still would have to be pushed in with a lot of force to penetrate the subcutaneous armour. I had to admit I was impressed.

Standing behind the fallen Vucari was a naked man about my size. I had no idea where he’d come from. He was breathing hard and his right hand was bleeding badly. There was no body fat on him at all and he looked malnourished. I saw the high cheekbones that could make features like his look cruel but now they just added to his gaunt appearance. His hair was a dirty matted bird’s nest. His skin was as dark as Cat’s and there was more than a passing resemblance though he had a smaller build. The thing that got me the most however was his eyes. They must have been designed to look like the real things but I’d never seen implants like that. They had seemed intense in the pictures but now they managed to look simultaneously cold and somehow insane.

He spat on the corpse. Some feeling flickered inside me.

‘Don’t do that,’ I said.

He ignored me. He wrenched the metal shank out of the Vucari, turned him over and pushed the dead skin mask off his face. I recognised this one as well. His name was Vassily.

Cat climbed to her feet with some difficulty due to the railgun harness. She turned to face the man.

‘Merle?’ I couldn’t remember Cat ever sounding that unsure.

He looked back at her. His implants were certainly emotive. I wasn’t sure how that worked. I was sure I saw hate in his eyes.

‘A fucking cop!’ he spat.

‘Corporate secur-’ she managed to get out before he attacked her.

He attacked someone with a railgun with only a metal shank. I thought Cat was pretty good about it. After all the shit we’d been through I would have been tempted to just blow him away. I was quite tempted to do that anyway. He drove her to the ground and she was just managing to hold him off. It seemed that her obviously superior strength was not necessarily a match for insane conviction. The shank was getting closer and closer to her. I bet she wished she’d put armour on before going to Trace’s office now.

I shook my head. We really didn’t have time for this sibling rivalry bullshit. Pagan was covering our back. I put as much power as I could muster into the kick I delivered. It snapped Merle’s head around to one side and he spat blood all over Cat. His head was lolling around but he was still conscious, so I stamped on it. He collapsed onto her.

‘You’re not one of us yet,’ I told the unconscious body. Pagan backed up closer to me.

‘So we’ve collected another arsehole then?’ he asked.

Just once, I thought, it’d be nice if we could sort things out without violence.

‘Ungrateful bastard,’ I muttered, meaning Merle. We’d have to carry him now as well.

‘Could somebody get my naked brother off me?’ Cat asked.

10

En Route to Lalande

This was weird. Apparently they used to have houses just for tea. This wasn’t like the sort of brew-up I was used to, either in a foxhole or on the bonnet of a Land Rover with your mates on watch. It was taking a fuck of a lot longer for a start. But then we weren’t expecting to be torn apart by Them at any given moment. While we may have had a boiled sweet before a cuppa, we didn’t have fancy sweets to ‘prepare our palates’ either.

I’d like to have dismissed this all as bollocks but the programming was superb. It was the detail. The sweets tasted like sweets and good sweets. How had they coded that? I could smell the blossoms on the air, which was fresh and clean and maybe a little thin, like we were actually on a mountain in the virtual environment. We could smell the tea as it was being prepared. I could feel the rough texture of the straw mats through the silk of the dressing-gown thing I was wearing. I think it was called a kimono, and while I’d protested at having to wear it, even virtually, I don’t think I’d ever felt silk before. You had to look hard to see the edges of this fantasy.

A lot of time, effort and probably money had gone into this program. It made sense, I guess. Michihisa Nuiko was a chimera. She had been born severely disabled, but luckily for her chimerical technology and her own inherent piloting ability meant that she could still join the war effort. It must have been nice for her to be part of such an inclusive society. Everyone gets used.

She wasn’t talking about her war record much. In fact beyond being the single most polite person I’ve ever met, sort of an anti-Mudge, she wasn’t saying much of anything. Judging by the craft that the Yakuza set her up with, her record must have been pretty good, and judging by the type of job she was recommended for and was prepared to take, her career must have been on the sharp end. Itaki had put us on to her. Despite his trigger-happy people and the weird thing with having everyone cut to look like him, he’d proved to be an okay guy for a mobster and a pimp.

Pagan had been excited that the Yakuza had the vice franchise in Camp 12 because he had worked with them before. While most organised crime operations had to live up to their word to a degree, otherwise nobody would ever deal with them, Pagan was of the opinion that the Yakuza were the least likely to sell us out. As long as they were properly paid that is.

Nuiko lived in a womb-like life-support cocoon in an armoured compartment in the centre of the ship. We would never see that. All our interaction was through the beautifully crafted sense programs in her personalised net realm. Like the tea room made of lacquered wood and paper looking out over a dramatic snow-capped mountain vista.

Her ship was called Tetsuo Chou, which Pagan told me meant ‘steel butterfly’. It was a small, heavily modified system clipper, which are pretty much the fastest ships available outside the military. Nuiko’s backers had paid for an induction sail to be added for FTL travel. The streamlined, distended-teardrop shape was covered in green/black energy-dissipating acoustic tiles to lower its energy signature. The ship had top-of-the-line navigation systems to minimise the use of manoeuvring engines, which in turn would further lower its energy signature. Internal power was kept to a bare minimum as well, which meant a cold ship. Its electronic countermeasures system was also state of the art, making it very stealthy. Which was just what we needed, and virtual Nuiko hadn’t batted a virtual eyelid when we mentioned an OILO entry. I think she’d done orbital insertion before.

BPIC decided not to slave us in the end. Partly because Itaki vouched for us, partly because we were fully armed by the time they regained control of Freetown 12, but mainly because they had their own problems. Itaki’s people had convinced enough ships’ captains to let the part of God that lived in their systems join the fight against Demiurge and Demiurge had finally been destroyed.

There had only been the eight Vucari and one had been destroyed by automated security systems while sabotaging the fusion plant. They’d come in on a long-range strike craft, the same one they’d left on when they returned to Sirius on a similar job to ours, I guessed. The LRSC had come back radically different, however.

When we finally managed to break into the craft we found that the living space had been radically reduced. It was a rats’ nest where the Vucari must have been crammed together. The rest of the ship was full of a honeycomb-like substance that looked very similar to Them biotech. This was where the empowered Demiurge had been stored and was the increased memory and processing power that had given God so much trouble.

We found Bataar, the Vucari hacker. He seemed to have merged with the biotech material. It filled his mouth, his nostrils, his plugs and penetrated his ears. Much of his body was buried deep in it. If there were pilots in there I guessed something similar had happened to them.

At the same time as Freetown 12 was hit all the other Freetown Camps and the asteroid cities suffered similar attacks. All from returning special forces groups sent to disrupt and gather information in Black-Squadron-held territory. All of them supported by Demiurge.

Some of the other Freetown Camps hadn’t been as lucky as 12. Over a dozen of them had been ‘sanitised’, as BPIC put it. As had Hygeia. I don’t know why God hadn’t been able to stop Demiurge in a city that size – perhaps Rolleston had sent larger ships with more space for Demiurge – but more than two hundred thousand people had died in the subsequent plasma bombardment from BPIC and system patrol ships. Two hundred thousand. It was just a number. A number heated by liquid fire that will burn in space and then cool in vacuum. I didn’t see the ballet of all those bodies blown into the cold night. The figure was so abstract I struggled to feel the anger I should have.

While the Black Squadrons had earned themselves another enemy in BPIC, they had managed to cripple the logistical support of the mining operations in the Belt. In doing so they had of course denied those resources to Earth. What we couldn’t work out was why had all those people turned. Why had the Vucari gone over to Rolleston? The most obvious explanation was that they had been slaved. If so it was a new and more sophisticated form of slaving because they’d had no slave jacks in their plugs and they didn’t seem to suffer the drop-off in performance than comes with slaveware.

Once the ritual part of the tea ceremony was over and we could converse normally Mudge had suggested brainwashing. Then he’d explained the concept. It was basically a form of psychological coercion to do what you’re told. We called it basic training in the army. Pagan had suggested that it was never as total or as effective as it had seemed on the Vucari.

‘Possession?’ I asked as Nuiko ladled tea from an iron pot set in a hole in the ground. Even serving the tea seemed complex. Nuiko was small, slender, pale, and wearing a simple dark kimono. Her features were a composed expressionless mask. I found this faintly disconcerting. I also didn’t like that she never met my eyes, particularly as I was wearing my Sunday-best icon, which Morag had made for me. The one where I had my natural eyes, or what Morag thought they should look like.

‘And this from someone with no faith,’ Pagan scoffed. He was in his Druidical icon, except that he too wore a kimono like the rest of us. The kimonos were a piece of code gifted to us by Nuiko. It was code that had been thoroughly vetted by Morag and Pagan before it got anywhere near us.

‘It happens,’ Morag said. Presumably irritated at having to back me up. She too wore a kimono and I was relieved that she was wearing her Maiden of Flowers icon out of respect for our host rather than the Black Annis. I didn’t like the Black Annis icon and I didn’t want to meet it while Morag was still so angry at me. That said, I hadn’t forgotten that Morag could kill me in here. I was only slightly worried that the tea might contain a piece of biofeedback poison code. Still it tasted nice when we finally were allowed to taste it and had been quiet long enough for our conversation to be proper.

‘So I’ve heard,’ Pagan said, smiling patronisingly. ‘To anybody you’ve known?’

‘Well no,’ Morag said, suddenly unsure of herself.

‘It’s a myth,’ Mudge said. His icon looked like himself without augmentation. I think it was more of Morag’s work. He’d only been allowed into the tea room sanctum after he’d promised Pagan that he’d behave.

‘Like the spirits in the net?’ I asked, bowing slightly to Nuiko, like Pagan had taught us, as she poured me some more tea. Pagan started to answer. ‘I’ve seen an exorcism,’ I said, forestalling his reply.

‘Bullshit,’ Mudge said and then studiously ignored Pagan’s glare of disapproval.

‘In Fintry, Vicar did it.’

‘Very convincing theatre, I’ve no doubt,’ Pagan said. For someone who wanted us to behave in here he seemed to be desperate to get slapped.

‘Maybe, but the guy was a howling lunatic, and according to friends and kin he was acting differently and knew stuff he shouldn’t. Vicar plugged himself into the guy. There was lots of screaming for someone who was supposed to be trancing, some thrashing around, a biofeedback kicking that Vicar swears hadn’t been inflicted by him, and then the guy was better,’ I finished.

‘There could be any number of-’ Pagan started.

‘Is it just the idea of this Demiurge possessing people that scares you badly?’ Merle asked. His voice was a deep rich baritone. It was also cold and emotionless.

I wasn’t sure I liked this guy. All he’d done since we’d come on board was eat the high-calorie combat rations we’d brought with us and exercise. Mudge had asked him how he’d managed to retain any degree of fitness while locked in the hole. Isometrics, Merle had told him. He did not have much time to get combat-ready after his imprisonment. Whatever we could say about him, he certainly seemed driven.

I wasn’t sure if Cat and him had sorted out their differences but I had come across them having a private conversation jacked into each other. Merle, like Cat, was wearing an off-the-shelf icon. The kimonos hung shapelessly off both of them.

‘No, I don’t like the idea, do you?’ Pagan asked, somewhat testily.

‘I don’t like any of this-’ Merle began.

‘Prefer to be in your hole?’ Mudge asked.

‘But I think we need to face up to what that means in terms of security,’ he said, glancing over at Nuiko. It was her house. We were in FTL; there was no one for her or God, who was in the Tetsuo Chou ’s systems, to tell out here. I’d agreed with Pagan’s call on that. Also it wasn’t as if she knew what we were going to be doing on the ground because we didn’t know ourselves. ‘It means that if any of us are taken we’re completely compromised and quickly.’

‘So we don’t get taken alive?’ Mudge said. He was smiling. I think going out in flash of glory was beginning to appeal to him.

‘You ready to kill any of us who gets captured?’ Merle asked.

‘Okay, you’ve proved how hard core you are. Let’s change the subject,’ I said, even though I knew he had a point.

‘Problem won’t go away,’ Merle said.

‘He’s right,’ Cat agreed. Though, like Morag agreeing with me, I think this cost her some.

‘I am prepared to kill any of us who gets captured,’ I said, ‘because I’ve seen the alternative. The people we killed used to be friends of mine.’ Except I knew I could never pull the trigger on Morag. I reflected that she had no such qualms, which was good. I didn’t want to find myself chewing down on a pile of corpses wearing someone else’s face. It didn’t seem dignified or hygienic.

‘How’d you get out of that hole anyway?’ Mudge asked. He was taking a lot of interest in our latest addition.

‘When the warewolf opened up the oubliette I just ran between its legs,’ Merle answered.

‘Simple as that?’ I asked.

‘Every second I’d been in that hole was preparation for that moment,’ he answered.

The problem was that we hadn’t had the chance to hang around and find out what was going on with the Vucari, why they’d done what they’d done. We’d had God relay the information of what we’d seen back to Earth, but that was the best we could do. Then we’d left on the Tetsuo Chou as quickly as we could, though if this was the opening move in the attack on Earth then for all we knew we could be passing Lalande’s colonial fleet in the night at FTL.

Merle was right, I had to admit. Everyone talks eventually, and eventually would become quickly if they used sense interrogation techniques because they could distend time. Even then we still had time. If Demiurge or whatever could actually possess then we had no time. If someone was taken that meant total compromise. That meant nobody went home, we just ran. So we needed to make sure that nobody got captured. That meant a suicide solution, which included a kill switch for a firestorm program in our internal electronic memories. More importantly it meant that we needed to be prepared to kill each other if we saw someone going down and we had the opportunity. Fighting Them was hard but less complicated. I missed Their simplicity.

Security-wise things had relaxed a little because we were self-contained. We would be keeping God out of planning as much as possible, but even he would have nobody to tell as he would not try and communicate with any Demiurge-infected system. Nuiko we would tell what she needed to know for her part of the job. Beyond that we would keep her in the dark as well. As much for her own good as ours. Talking to Pagan, though, I got the feeling that she would fly the Tetsuo Chou into the heart of a sun before she would allow herself to be compromised by the Black Squadrons.

My problem with Nuiko was that she was new and I didn’t understand her. Merle I didn’t trust but I had a frame of reference for him. Despite his behaviour he wasn’t a million miles removed from us. But Nuiko’s reserve was about a hundred times more extreme than your average English person’s. She was very private and apparently very respectful of our privacy, even though we were quite literally guests in her world. A lot of her behaviour seemed very ritualistic – the past, if it was even a real past, seemed important to her. To me she seemed to be fighting to keep something alive. Something I didn’t understand. I guess that her being a chimera didn’t aid my understanding. To all intents and purposes I was trying to relate to a machine, but she just seemed so… alien.

And then she withdrew. Pagan watched her and I watched Pagan as she took small steps to a sliding wood-and-paper panel and slid it shut behind her. This symbolised her leaving the closed system. In the real world we were all sitting cross-legged on crates facing each other, plugged into a memory cube. The jack that connected Nuiko was mounted on a cable snake, which would have disengaged from the memory cube and would be snaking its way back towards the armoured cocoon that protected our pilot. The memory cube held a downloaded copy of the tea house environment. Another gift from Nuiko. All these gifts made me nervous, but I wasn’t looking after the information security aspect of the operation.

Pagan and Morag started rechecking the security. Glyphs of light appeared in front of them, throwing shadows over their respective icons’ features. I took the opportunity to stand up and pace over to the wooden veranda. It looked out onto an ornamental garden of stone and water features. Past the garden was the stunning mountain vista. The tea house was part of some kind of castle complex built high into the side of a mountain. The fact that I could enjoy the mountain air, seemingly feel it cold and thin in my lungs, was sublime.

The holographic display hovering over the low lacquered wooden table took me out of the illusion and reminded me where I was and what I was doing.

‘This secure?’ Merle asked.

‘As anything is any more,’ Pagan told him. ‘Are you in or not?’

‘I’m not happy to be here, but it’s an improvement. Besides -’ he looked at Cat ‘- my sister has provided me with some very compelling reasons to help. Not least of which is a fuckload of money.’

‘Just so you know we’re probably not coming back,’ Pagan told him. ‘And don’t swear.’ I glanced over at him before turning back to Merle.

‘Want to share those compelling reasons?’ I asked.

‘No,’ Merle told me flatly. ‘Besides, I know the lie of the land. Things go to shit, I reckon I can disappear.’

‘I told you, don’t swear,’ Pagan said. I don’t think he liked Merle but there was something else here as well.

‘Fuck, Pagan, she’s not even in the fucking room,’ Mudge said, smiling.

‘I know. It’s just-’

‘It doesn’t seem right,’ I said. Pagan nodded. The language, the briefing, it was going to war with the environment. We needed our moments of fantasy. ‘And that’s it,’ I said with finality. They all looked at me expectantly.

‘I’ll bite. What’s it?’ Mudge finally asked.

‘From now on we’re not trying to piss each other off. We’re not trying to score points.’ I looked over at Merle. ‘We don’t need the strong silent hard men-’

‘Speak for yourself,’ Morag and Mudge said in unison.

I bit down the flash of irritation and jealousy. She had more than the right to try and make me feel that way.

‘If we don’t stop trying to pull each other apart then I will sabotage the OILO cocoons myself and we’ll sit out the war. Okay?’

‘Plus you won’t have to make the jump?’ Pagan said, but he was smiling.

I nodded.

‘No offence, man, but you’re part of the problem,’ Cat said. I glanced over at Morag, or rather the Maiden of Flowers that Morag was wearing. She was studiously looking elsewhere.

‘I think we all are, but you’re right. It’s not going to get in the way. We’ll either deal with it or ignore it effectively, or the mission won’t be happening at all.’

The Maiden of Flowers’ head snapped round to look at me. I thought she was about to argue. Maybe it sounded too much like I was making decisions for her, which people had been doing all her life. All I thought I was doing was stating our only two real options for the situation we were in. I think she reached that conclusion as well and nodded.

‘This soap opera’s a joke, right?’ Merle asked.

‘You can pack that in as well. I realise you don’t know us so you’ve got to wipe your cock in our faces so we know you’re not a victim. We get it. You’re hard core, so you can stop now. Also any problems you have with your sister, resolve them or leave them until after.’

He stared at me, but his icon was off the shelf and it didn’t have the same effect that being stared at by his weirdly intense brown eye implants would have had.

‘This mission being scrubbed is not the problem for me that it is for you,’ he told us.

‘Fine. Either you’re in or out. You’re out, you can rattle around in here until we’re finished.’

‘Bullshit,’ Merle said. Pagan’s icon seemed to twitch. ‘You’d put a bullet in my head.’

‘Compelling reasons. If you’re in, you play nicely.’

He gave what I’d said some thought and then nodded. The guy was a prima donna, I decided. He was too used to doing ops on his own.

‘Anyone who has a problem with Mudge’s pharmaceutical recreations can mind their own business,’ I said.

Mudge grinned but Cat and Pagan protested.

I continued, ‘Mudge, your hobby gets in the way, you run out and have a nasty withdrawal, or for whatever reason can’t keep up then you get left behind. If it’s a dodgy situation and it looks like you’ll get compromised I’ll shoot you myself.’

‘You are so masterful,’ Mudge said acidly.

I could tell he was about to go off on me. Come on, Mudge, I urged silently. You’re not stupid. You know I’ve faith in you. This has to be said. This is for the audience. I watched Mudge’s icon swallow. Morag’s programming was superb. I was betting that the tranced-in Mudge had done that back in the meat world. Mudge seemed to master his anger and nodded.

‘While we’re on the subject, what were you doing back in Trace’s office?’ I asked.

‘What? The guy was an arsehole?’ Mudge said.

‘So? We’ve met arseholes before.’

‘And I always deal with them like that.’ He was sounding defensive now.

‘You almost got us killed,’ Cat said angrily before turning to me. ‘And this is the point. I’m sure he’s a party guy but the drugs in his system compel him to make bad decisions, make him overconfident.’

‘That’s really not the drugs,’ I told her. It was meant to be flippant but in retrospect who knew? It was impossible to separate who Mudge was from the drugs. I’d only ever seen him straight once. That was in Maw City and he’d been sick from withdrawal.

‘Sometimes you’ve just got to shit in your hand and throw it at them,’ Mudge said. We all turned to look at him. He shrugged. ‘It turned out all right.’

I was starting to get angry now. ‘It turned out all right because Morag was seriously on the ball. Everything we knew about the situation suggested that hacking their systems wasn’t an option. If she hadn’t noticed-’

‘And pulled off the greatest hack ever,’ Cat said.

‘Then we would have been dead,’ I finished.

‘We’ve all got to go sometime. If you’re scared then get another line of work,’ Mudge said.

Tried that, I thought.

‘Don’t worry, Mudge. We’ll get fucking killed soon enough but let’s at least try first, okay?’ I said angrily.

‘Good speech – raises the morale,’ Merle said dryly.

‘And when did you start arguing with me when we’re in the middle of a job?!’ I demanded, thinking back to the brothel.

‘You left me behind!’ Mudge shouted. I think that had really hurt him. ‘I don’t have to do what you say – we’re not in the army now!’

‘You never were!’ I shouted back at him.

‘So much for our mountain idyll,’ Pagan muttered.

‘Whatever it is, rein it in,’ I told Mudge. ‘Because I mean it: if you endanger this mission, you endanger the rest of us.’

‘What, you’ll shoot me? You are so fucking butch right now,’ he spat.

‘If you can’t convince me that you’re not a liability then I’ll leave you behind,’ I told him evenly.

Morag’s programming was superb. It picked up on just how hurt Mudge was.

‘Fucking whatever. I’m good. I’ll play nicely with the other children.’ He was all but sulking. He was pissed off and defensive because I think he knew that we were right.

‘These are just words,’ Merle said, testing the boundaries.

‘The only person in this room I’m not sure will live up to their words is you,’ I told him, met his look and held it. It was difficult to outstare a cheap icon as they weren’t sophisticated enough to blink.

‘So, macho posturing aside, what are we doing out here?’ Cat asked. She provided the distraction for both of us to look away with a degree of dignity. So I told myself.

‘Operation Ungentlemanly Warfare,’ Pagan said.

‘We have a name, how exciting,’ Mudge said. I glared at him. ‘Oh lighten up.’

‘Ungentlemanly is the information part of the operation run by me. Warfare is the physical security element run by Jakob.’

‘What’s our objective?’ Merle asked. I was pleased that he said ‘our’.

‘Twofold. First Morag and I want to hack Demiurge. We need to do that without being noticed. We need to do it to find the plans for the attack on the Sol system and we also need to find a way to defeat Demiurge.’

‘Can you even do that yet?’ Cat asked. ‘I thought Demiurge was like God, only worse.’

Pagan was looking evasive.

‘Don’t piss about, Pagan,’ I told him.

‘Not yet. We have a few advantages and some avenues of research we’re following up,’ he said. I hoped they had something a bit more concrete than that Pais Badarn Beisrydd bullshit.

‘So let’s say you somehow manage to hack this scary AI…’ Merle began.

‘Its not an AI-’ Morag started.

‘So what?’ Merle cut across her.

We all stared at him, except Pagan.

‘You mean, what do we do with the information?’ he asked.

‘Yeah, I can see we infiltrate with OILO, which might not be as easy as you think, but what’s your exit strategy?’

‘We don’t have one,’ Pagan told him.

‘Then you’re wasting your time,’ Merle said.

‘Nuiko has been paid to stay in proximity to Lalande 2 while we’re planetside. She’ll be at certain orbits at certain times for the first three weeks. Morag and myself will have the co-ordinates and the times. When we get the information we need-’

‘If,’ Merle interrupted again.

‘Then we use a tight beam uplink to transmit data packets to the Tetsuo Chou.’

That made sense. Unless the Black Squadrons could directly transpose something between the uplink transmitter and the Tetsuo Chou then they had no way of intercepting the information. Presumably three weeks was a function of the clipper’s logistics.

‘And if we don’t manage this in the first three weeks?’ I asked.

‘Then it’s a seventeen-day round trip plus another day for outfitting before she returns for another three weeks. That’ll be her last trip,’ Pagan told us.

‘If she’s not intercepted,’ Merle said.

‘Her risks are no different from ours,’ I said.

I noticed that Pagan looked troubled.

‘Except that she’s a spaceship!’ Mudge cried with mock enthusiasm, his apparent new leaf now at an end.

‘Exfiltration?’ Merle asked.

‘No such thing,’ I told him. ‘Either the war ends and we get to go home, or we wait for some as yet unforeseen opportunity.’

‘And?’ Mudge suddenly asked.

Pagan looked confused. ‘And what?’

‘And Rolleston and Cronin?’

‘Demiurge is our main priority,’ Pagan replied.

‘We go after them if the opportunity presents itself,’ I said.

‘They’re not a priority?’ Mudge asked.

‘They’ve got a number of planets and a lot of space they could hide in,’ Cat said.

‘Vicar seemed to think that there was a good chance they’re on Lalande 2, some place called the Citadel,’ I told them. Because its where Satan has his throne, whatever that meant.

‘There’s maybe a slightly higher chance than good that they are on Lalande 2,’ Pagan said. Glyphs shimmered in the air in front of him and a holographic display came to life showing a three-dimensional pictographic representation of a lot of information.

‘What’s all that?’ Mudge asked.

‘Its all the info in Limbo,’ Pagan said. ‘I stole it. It was weird, almost like Sharcroft had forgot he’d employed hackers. And yes, Mudge, if we live then you can have it all. Though I’m going to find a way to get God into their secure network.’

Mudge and I stared at him. Morag was just smiling. I could tell Pagan was pleased with himself but trying to appear nonchalant.

‘This is all the information on the Cabal and the Squadrons?’ I asked, suddenly feeling a little more optimistic.

‘All that wasn’t purged,’ Pagan said. He brought one file to the fore and seemed to explode it. Text info scrawled down the holographic display, as did a series of architectural schematics that formed a three-dimensional model of what seemed to be a heavily fortified building. It looked a little like a small-scale military arcology.

‘That can’t be right,’ I said. ‘It’s made of ice.’

‘Lalande ice,’ Merle said. ‘The pressures exerted on it make it very dense. It’s harder than reinforced concrete. It’s a bitch to cut, even with industrial lasers. That’s the Citadel,’ he said. Pagan was nodding.

‘Chewed out of one of the salt-acid glaciers with microbes. It’s in the New Zealand settlement zone of the Twilight Strip, obviously close to Nightside. Despite being in New Zealand territory and despite there officially being no British presence on Lalande, this is a joint Defence Evaluation and Research Agency and CIA Directorate of Science and Technology operation.’

I wasn’t sure I was following Pagan.

‘So?’ Mudge asked.

‘It’s a Cabal front,’ Merle said.

Now we were all looking at him.

‘You knew?’ Morag asked.

Merle shrugged. ‘Just putting the dots together.’

‘He’s right. According to Sharcroft, the Cabal, which didn’t even really seem to think of itself as a conspiracy, preferred to be as decentralised as possible. Most of their meetings were virtual and took place in highly secure sanctums. After the Atlantis base the Citadel was their main facility. It was their largest and it ran Themtech research. In fact it had been doing this before the Atlantis facility because they had wanted somewhere secure and off the beaten track,’ Pagan told us.

‘It’s not that far from Moa City,’ Merle said. He was sounding more interested despite himself. ‘But that place is hard, man. I mean the security’s some of the heaviest I’ve ever seen. I had some serious clearance but I never got very far inside. If you’re going in there then you’d best have a good reason.’

‘What sort of research?’ I asked. I found myself suddenly angry. I think Pagan realised that.

‘Them biotech, maybe some transgenic,’ he said. His icon wouldn’t meet my eyes.

‘Transgenic? Hybridisation?’

He shrugged. ‘Yes, on animals.’

‘On people?’ I demanded. I was angry but not at Pagan. Pagan nodded.

‘Does that mean more people like Gregor?’ Morag asked. I think she sounded a little afraid.

‘Potentially a lot more,’ Pagan said. ‘But earlier proto-versions.’

‘That’s reassuring,’ Mudge said.

‘Don’t shoot the messenger,’ Pagan said. He was right. ‘Besides, I don’t think they’ll be as formidable as the current iteration. You know, the ones like Rolleston.’

He was also right about that. If they were all like Rolleston then I wasn’t even sure how we were going to kill them. There was some muttering.

‘We got a reason to go in there?’ Merle asked. He was trying to nod at the image of the Citadel but I don’t think his icon was co-operating.

‘I don’t know,’ Pagan said. ‘There’s evidence -’ he brought up some more information that looked like computer system schematics ‘- of an internal sub-system which the truly paranoid could use to hide information and develop plans.’

‘So you have to get in and out of that without being noticed and hack an unhackable AI? Seems simple,’ Merle said.

‘We’re going to try and find an easier way.’ Pagan sounded a little exasperated.

‘We’ve done really stupid things before,’ Mudge said.

‘I know. I saw the highlights. Look, it sounds like we could spend a lot of time sitting around waiting for you guys to develop software.’

I shook my head. ‘If it’s not going our way then we’ve got a whole list of secondary objectives we can go for depending on the situation on the ground.’

‘Under it,’ Cat said. Nobody lived on the surface in Lalande.

‘Intelligence-gathering, getting the truth out, assassination and sabotage, which is what Sharcroft thinks we’re doing,’ said Pagan.

‘He doesn’t know?’ I asked.

‘About wanting to hack Demiurge? He might guess we want to, but he doesn’t know that we may be close to it being a realistic option.’

‘He just thinks we’ll be causing trouble? Going after their infrastructure?’ Merle asked.

‘But that means killing a lot of innocent people,’ I said, meaning all the people who would quite reasonably have been taken in by the Squadrons’ versions of events. I thought back to Vladimir.

‘Can’t we shoot to wound?’ Morag said weakly. The others looked uncomfortable. It wasn’t an option and I think she knew it. You shoot someone, especially someone augmented, you had to make sure they were dead or they were just going to get up and shoot you back.

‘You’d all best come to terms with killing anyone who gets in our way,’ Merle said. ‘Otherwise you’ll get us killed.’

‘We’ll do it, but we don’t have to like it,’ I said.

It was the same as any other human war, I guessed. People who never reached the front line made the decisions and got people like us to go and kill each other.

‘If we go after the infrastructure,’ Pagan continued, ‘the Citadel would be a valid target.’

‘Why?’ Mudge asked.

‘Because if it’s a biotech facility it could be used to augment more of the Squadron’s people to become like Rolleston,’ I told him.

‘Hitting that place will not be easy,’ Merle said somewhat redundantly.

‘Harder than making whipped cream by sitting in a giant bowl of milk with a whisk up your arse?’ Mudge asked.

I turned to stare at him, Merle ignored him and Pagan just sighed.

‘Also we should try and link with resistance fighters if there are any…’ the ageing hacker said, trying to continue.

‘There will be,’ Merle said.

‘The Black Squadrons will tell them we’re the bad guys,’ Morag pointed out.

‘You don’t know these people. I’ve dealt with the Cabal, though I didn’t know it then. The whole reason they do what they do is because they’re control freaks. They may control the info but they’ll try to push people around. Those people, especially in the New Zealand settled zones, will push back.’ What Merle was telling us was thin but it was also the closest thing we’d heard to good news throughout this briefing. ‘A lot of this seems to be make-it-up-as-we-go-along-once-we-hit-the-ground.’

‘We’re jumping blind. Never been in the army?’ I asked.

‘Marines and air force mainly.’

‘Rannu’ll tell us more when we meet. Rendezvous with him,’ Morag said. I hoped that would happen as well but it sounded naive even to my ears.

‘That’s pretty risky, Morag,’ Cat said. Pagan had set up rendezvous points and times with Rannu. ‘It looks like a lot of the initial missions were compromised.’

‘Maybe, but Rannu’s good,’ Morag said, trying to keep the hope out of her voice.

‘We check,’ I said. We owed him that. I owed him that. I’d left Gregor too long. Merle and Cat protested. ‘Carefully,’ I added.

‘You’ve done a lot of questioning, Cabal-boy,’ Mudge said. ‘What are you bringing?’

Merle managed to turn his shit icon’s head and stare at him for a while. Then the icon smiled. It looked more like a grimace.

‘Oh I’m the native guide. I know the land. A large network of contacts, many of whom will have been compromised, some of whom I just can’t see co-operating, but if they’ve been slaved then who knows.’

‘That it? Well I’m fucking impressed. Guess you were worth the trouble,’ Mudge said dismissively. There was something I was missing in this conversation. I also couldn’t work out why Morag was smiling.

‘Also Cemetery Wind set up a series of caches all over the Twilight Strip.’ Merle tapped his head. ‘I know where all the goodies are hidden.’ This was our second piece of good news. There was only so much gear we were going to be able to jump with.

‘Why are they doing this?’ Morag asked. I sensed her naivety was not doing her any favours in Merle’s eyes.

‘Its just power and greed, same as it ever was,’ I said.

‘I get that,’ she said sharply. ‘But that was the Cabal, right? Why does Rolleston suddenly want to be god-emperor of the universe? Doesn’t it seem a little… I don’t know, like a viz story or something?’

Actually she had a point. Rolleston had always fitted my idea of the good servant. Suddenly he wanted to be a dictator.

‘Maybe it’s all on Cronin?’ I suggested, now less sure she was being naive.

‘I think they really believe that they know better,’ Pagan said. ‘That the strong have the right to rule. They’re true believers, fanatics.’

As he spoke glyphs were appearing and disappearing in front of him as he scrolled though the information on the holographic display. He found what he was looking for and opened the file. At first it was a lot of scientific-looking stuff, equations and chemical signs, that sort of thing. I was irritated with him. He knew this would mean nothing to us. What was he doing – trying to highlight our ignorance? Then I realised that I was looking at an incomplete, partially corrupted and highly classified personnel file. It was Rolleston’s. I looked at his birth date. He was more than ninety years old.

‘Fuck,’ Mudge said. ‘You’d think he’d have got higher than major.’

‘If he’d got higher than major then he wouldn’t be so hands on. He wouldn’t get the chance to fuck people up himself,’ I said as I tried to concentrate on the information in front of me.

He had been an exemplary officer in the Royal Marine Commandos and then the SBS. Then even shadier black ops stuff. I could see why the Cabal had chosen him. It seemed like no matter how hard the objective was he got it done, but there was a lot of information missing. Like everything before the marines.

As far as I could tell, though much of it was above my head, his longevity was down to early applications of Themtech. As the Cabal had refined their knowledge of Themtech they had continued to upgrade him. It seemed that he was a test bed for processes they were too frightened to try themselves, like Gregor but not so extensive, at least not initially. In fact Gregor had been the big breakthrough that had resulted in Rolleston’s current abilities. Even on Sirius he had been a bioborg.

‘Okay, other than the age we pretty much knew all this,’ I said.

‘No,’ Pagan said. ‘You’re not getting it.’ I so enjoyed being told I was stupid. ‘For dirty stuff Rolleston was the Cabal’s go-to guy.’ I winced at the Americanism. ‘For the other stuff it was Cronin, who has also been heavily augmented, though I suspect in different ways.’

‘We’d assumed as much. So?’

‘They were designed for this. Rolleston’s designed for conflict resolution, no matter what.’

‘So?’ I was starting to get irritated with this now.

‘Rolleston was designed to be able to run an entire military for the Cabal and Cronin is designed to be a one-man civilian government.’

I still didn’t see what he was getting at.

‘You mean they’re doing this because they’re programmed to?’ Morag asked.

‘A little more complicated and subtle than that, but yes.’

‘For masters that don’t exist any more?’ Mudge asked.

Pagan nodded. ‘Yes, but I think it’s more that they are programmed to think that they have the right to rule. More importantly, I don’t think they think like us any more, or rather they have different parameters for their thoughts.’

‘They live in a different world?’ Morag asked.

‘In a way. I’m guessing that for them there is no other course of action than the one they’re on.’

‘Which is weird and fucked up but does it help us?’ I asked.

‘All information helps. We need insight into our enemy, after all. But you’re right – I think we’ve got more pressing matters to worry about.’

Then something occurred to me. ‘What about the Grey Lady?’

Pagan shook his head. ‘Couple of references but nothing,’ he said. I wasn’t sure why, but that bothered me more.

We spent the next few hours discussing our hazy objectives, our total lack of useful intelligence and our not being able to plan until we knew more.

‘Okay,’ I finally said as I slid, a little too comfortably, into my NCO role. ‘All prep is done and we are packed and ready to jump by nineteen hundred Zulu on day seven. Yeah?’

‘It’s an eight-and-a-half-day trip,’ Mudge grumbled. He was grumbling because he was supposed to. Soldiers grumbled. Even if he was a journalist, Mudge had a lot to grumble about.

‘We’re going to get properly drunk on the seventh night,’ I said. Pagan groaned and shook his head. Mudge and Morag were grinning. ‘Don’t worry Pagan. We’ll behave, to a degree.’ He nodded, knowing it was pointless to argue. ‘That gives us day eight to recover and the final half a day to go over everything again and do any final prep,’ I finished. It gave us something to look forward to and we didn’t know when we’d next have the chance.

A day, an entire day of my life, one I’ll never get back, just spraying corrosion-resistant stuff on all our gear. Then Merle checked it and then we sprayed it again. Despite the masks, I would be tasting and smelling it for the next few days. We even got a warning from Nuiko because we were getting close to overloading the atmosphere scrubbers.

I spent most of the time going over all the information that Pagan had stolen. I superimposed it over my sight in my IVD or converted it to audio. The fact was we could prepare and plan as much as we wanted but we wouldn’t know what was going on until we hit the ground. The Demiurge-enforced comms blackout was crippling us. Whereas God’s open nature was making Earth more vulnerable.

I reviewed the information on Rolleston and what little we had on Cronin and the Themtech-enhanced soldiers of the Black Squadrons. Much of the biotech stuff went over my head but I couldn’t shake the feeling that they’d made themselves aliens. The Black Squadrons had finally managed to become the demons we’d always thought They were.

I thought about what Pagan had said about them thinking differently, though he’d shied away from using the word programmed. Did that make a difference? Were they victims as well? I glanced over to where Morag was spraying her kit. She’d barely spoken to me since we got on board. Even if they were victims you still have choices to make. I didn’t like the ones they’d made. I was still going to hate them. It would help me do the job.

The Tetsuo Chou, as a chimerical vessel, was a lot more open-plan than most ships I’d been on. It was basically a heavily armoured central compartment where Nuiko lived surrounded by a lot of cargo space. The engine room was down a small corridor separate from the rest of the ship. Nuiko controlled three remotes to do the hands-on work elsewhere in the ship. They were crab-like and reminded me of some of the images Pagan had shown us of ancient Japan. Mudge had described them as samurai robot crabs and being on the ship as like being inside the shell of a giant turtle. Once he’d shown me what a turtle looked like, I had to agree with him.

With human cargo Nuiko had had her servitors add a portable life-support unit to the cargo compartment. All our gear went in and we slept on a series of temporary platforms connected by catwalks that had been set up for the trip. We lived in compartments made of flimsy plastic walls bolted together. The cludgy, or head as it was called on ships, had been installed in the engine room. All and all I’d had worse billets.

Most of the room was taken up by the seed-pod-like OILO cocoons, tanks of acceleration gel and the large parachute rigs we were going to need to counteract Lalande 2’s heavy gravity. In many ways using the OILO cocoons for a flight-capable exo-armour drop would have been preferable but we just didn’t have the logistical support for long-term operations, particularly in a corrosive environment. So we were doing it the old-fashioned and hard way.

Mudge hadn’t been particularly talkative and seemed to be keeping his drug use to more acceptable levels. He was obviously pissed off with me. I decided to speak to him first. I reckoned he’d be the easiest bridge to mend.

I headed along to his makeshift cabin. The only noise was the ring of my combat boots on the metal grid of the walkway and the omnipresent hum of the spaceship’s power plant. I’d seen men and woman with too much metal in them driven mad by that constant hum. I’d made friends with the noise a long time ago. After all you couldn’t get away from it. Now, as much as I didn’t like space travel, I found the noise comforting.

I passed Morag, who was sitting on the edge of a catwalk dangling her legs between gaps in the containers below. She looked as if she was doing nothing but was probably going over something on her IVD. Part of her face was covered in medgel, as was mine. Merle had used a knitter and accelerant on her broken leg and then made a cast out of medgel and connected it to a medpak to drive it. Two days in she was hobbling about. Merle reckoned she’d have most of her mobility by the time we got there. She ignored me as I passed and knocked on the door to Mudge’s compartment.

‘I think he’s going over some stuff with Merle,’ Morag said. The sound of her voice surprised me. I glanced down at her but she was looking the other way.

‘Thanks,’ I said and moved down to Merle’s compartment, which wasn’t much further on, and knocked. There was no answer.

‘They’re discussing security protocols and have probably got a white-noise generator up,’ she called.

I should have known. She was right: they were very considerately using a white-noise generator – must have been Merle’s idea. They were not however discussing security protocols. I walked straight in on the pair of them.

‘Motherfucker!’ Merle shouted at me.

‘Can’t you fucking knock, dude!’ Mudge protested.

‘I’m… I’m sorry,’ I said, not sure what to do.

‘Out!’ Merle screamed at me. Oh yeah, that’s what I was supposed to do. I backed out of Merle’s compartment as quickly as I could and closed the door. Morag was lying on the catwalk convulsing with laughter.

‘That’s childish, Morag.’

She just laughed at me.

‘You could probably walk in on Pagan as well,’ she said, nodding towards his compartment once she’d managed to control herself.

‘Really? With who? Cat?!’ I asked as I slowly turned into a teenaged girl.

Cat and Pagan seemed an odd mix. Then again there had been Jess back in the Avenues. Besides, Morag was talking to me and I wanted it to last as long as it could.

‘Don’t be fucking stupid,’ Cat said from out in the crates somewhere. She walked forward into the light. She’d obviously been working out. She clearly felt she needed to make her presence known before someone said something she didn’t want to hear.

‘Who then?’ I asked.

Morag looked at me as if I was dumb. ‘Nuiko,’ she said.

‘Wow,’ I said.

I don’t know why I hadn’t thought of that straight away. It was a sense relationship. The technology meant that it would feel virtually the same as the real thing. Given Nuiko’s chimerical nature, it meant that Pagan was to all intents and purposes having a relationship with the ship.

‘Oh,’ I said.

Suddenly I felt very awkward and both Cat and Morag were staring at me. I think I was supposed to be doing something but I had no idea what. I’d killed Berserks in hand-to-hand combat and suddenly I wanted to retreat. With as much dignity as I could manage I headed back to my compartment.

Safe in my room I felt like taking trumpet-based revenge on the rest of them. Also I wanted to practise, but there’s only so far you want to push a group of ex-special forces types, not to mention Mudge and Morag. I decided to have a drink instead. I put some music on my internal systems and called up a book on to my IVD.

Mudge turned up about an hour later. The whisky had been a waste as all I could taste was anti-corrosion coating, so I’d got myself a beer instead. It didn’t taste much better but it was cheaper.

‘Can I get one of those? Assuming my crippling substance-abuse problems won’t derail the mission.’

I glared at him but gave him a beer as he sat down somewhat gingerly on the metal grid of the floor. He lit up a cigarette, just to annoy me, and then set up a white-noise generator. It was pretty much the only way we could have a private conversation short of hard-wiring ourselves together.

‘That is one angry man,’ Mudge said.

‘That why you’re walking funny? Is this adrenalin fucking?’

‘Always.’ He raised his bottle to me and took a long drink.

‘You realise he thinks you’ve just come in here to boast to your mates,’ I said.

Mudge just smiled and shrugged but then suddenly became more serious. ‘Why are you giving me such a hard time?’

‘You know what I said about the drugs was for show, right?’ He nodded. ‘Though they have a point. We could be there for a very long time depending on how long this war goes on.’

‘I’ve never not held up my end and you’ve got no right to question that,’ he said.

This was about as serious as Mudge got. I nodded.

‘I know that. But mate, Trace’s office. I mean, what the fuck were you thinking?’

‘What? The guy was a prick.’

‘Morag shouldn’t have been able to do that hack. We should be dead, and we would be if she hadn’t noticed the wireless link.’

‘Look, nothing’s changed, man,’ he said, but he was looking down. He wouldn’t meet my lenses. We can replace our eyes with bits of glass and electronics, but body language seems to be hard-wired in with the original flesh.

‘Yes, it has. You seem more…’ I searched for the right word. ‘Desperate.’

Mudge shrugged, drank some more beer but still wouldn’t look at me. ‘Mudge, you’re an enormous pain in the arse-’

‘You want to talk about pains in the arse?’ he said, grinning. I realised I’d chosen the wrong words.

‘I mean you’re a difficult guy to be friends with sometimes…’ I started. He looked at me, his face getting angry around his camera eyes.

‘Fuck you, Jakob, you sanctimonious prick! You think it’s easy being your friend? All the fucking whining, hand-wringing, moralising, the fucking sitting in judgement…’

I leaned back on the bed. I tried not to take what he said personally. There was obviously something he needed to get off his chest and we were in the lashing-out part of the conversation.

‘I mean, just try and live a little. It might be a shitty world but try and take what you can from it.’ He’d trailed off a bit towards the end and wouldn’t look at me again.

‘What I like about you is you tell the truth. That’s why we didn’t double-tap you and leave you in a ditch when we met you. Don’t start lying now. Not to yourself.’ I took another beer and watched him.

‘I don’t know,’ he finally said. ‘I don’t know what’s up with me.’

‘Are you on a suicide trip?’ I asked. It took him a long time to answer. If he was I couldn’t let him take the rest of us down.

‘No more than normal, I think. My body’s an amusement park, and risks need to be taken, otherwise we might as well be living in a bubble like those Cabal old boys.’

‘Then what?’ I asked.

Again he gave this some thought before answering.

‘You ever think about the things we’ve done?’ he asked.

‘I feel like mostly I’m reacting.’

‘I went from reporting in a war zone to patrolling and raiding with you guys to fronting for God on system-wide viz and netcast…’ Once again he trailed off and drank some more beer.

‘Okay, put like that it sounds pretty intense, but that’s what you wanted, wasn’t it?’

He looked up at me again. ‘How am I supposed to beat that?’ he asked.

‘You don’t have to,’ I said.

More than ever he sounded like a junkie looking for another fix.

‘The things I’ve done, the way I’ve lived, how am I supposed to go back to a normal life, whatever the fuck that is? I mean, we’ve done whatever the fuck we wanted.’

That wasn’t the way I felt at the time we were doing it.

‘You sound like Balor.’

‘No, it’s different. He wanted to be remembered. He thought he was some ancient hero, or maybe villain. I just want to feel. I need sensation but I think we’ve upped the game so much that I can’t get…’

‘The next fix?’

He looked away.

‘Maybe. I don’t want to die but life without sensation is death to me.’

I was trying to mask my contempt for this. I’d always known that Mudge was a middle-class thrill-seeker. He wasn’t the only one I’d come across when I’d been in the SAS; nearly all the officers were like that to a degree. What I couldn’t rationalise in what Mudge was saying was the disparity. This was a guy who was so bored that he did this for fun. The rest of us had to fight all the time just to eat. It was only my knowledge that he was a moral person that kept me speaking to him. That and what he’d said about sitting in judgement.

‘You don’t fancy the quiet life? Maybe just unwind, take a breather if we survive this?’

‘No, and neither do you.’

‘You’d be surprised,’ I told him.

‘See, this is what pisses me off about you. You lie to yourself. You’re no different. Your retirement ended with you being beaten up in police custody and where are you now? Right back here with the rest of us. Why? Because you need it. Why do you think Cat got fired and started canyon surfing? Or Merle tried to rob a precious metal freighter in flight? Because there are easier fucking ways for him to make money.’

If he was right, and maybe he was, then my need was buried deep in my subconscious. I thought I wanted the quiet life. On the other hand, the way I’d gone about my Highland idyll was arguably confrontational, and here I was again. For a while now I’d been wondering if there was some deep-down part of me that was highly masochistic.

‘So where does that leave us?’ I asked him. ‘You can’t go down onto Lalande just to look for bigger and better thrills, Mudge.’

‘Yeah, I know.’

‘And Trace’s office? That would have been a shitty way for us to die after doing the things we’ve done. What were you thinking?’

‘I don’t know that I was. I wanted to see if we could get away with anything. Somehow I knew we’d be all right.’

I didn’t like that. I didn’t like that at all. Caution was as much a part of these operations as risk, if not more so.

‘Look, man, I’ll be all right. I’ll reign it in. Take the right drugs to calm it down, okay?’ I nodded.

Mudge got up, belched loudly and scratched himself before nicking another bottle of beer and leaving my compartment. For the first time ever I found myself unable to trust him.

Still he’d left his white-noise generator, which gave me the chance to practise the trumpet without being assassinated.

By day six we’d almost managed to get rid of the smell of the anti-corrosion treatment. Day six was mostly going over weapons and personal loads that we’d already gone over on Earth. We were just trying to maximise what we took while staying under the weight allowance.

I don’t know about the others, but I was becoming tenser as the drop got closer. There were just too many unknowns and the drop was so dangerous that it would be easy to die before we even got planet side. Tempers seemed only a little more frayed. That may have been helped by half of us being loved up. Morag still wasn’t talking to me. She seemed a little less hostile, however.

Before we left the Freetown Camp Merle had kicked up a huge fuss about getting his gear back. Cat had brought some stuff for him with us but he’d insisted on getting his own gear back. There had been some violence involved. When he got his stuff I could see why.

Merle was down on the cargo bay cleaning his weapons on top of one of the crates. He was obviously aware of my presence but was ignoring me. All his gear was custom and expensive. Like Cat he had a Void Eagle set up in a Tunnel Rat configuration with the Tunnel Rats’ insignia on the handgrip.

He also had a CEC plasma rifle. Most plasma weapons are big and heavy and tend to be used as squad support weapons by military units from countries that can afford to equip their people with them. I didn’t like them because they were semi-automatic and, particularly for a support weapon, I preferred something that could lay down a lot of fire, like a railgun. Still their one-shot kill capability was impressive. Similar to the weapon that Rolleston carried, the CEC was only slightly heavier than most standard assault rifles. It was also very expensive.

‘Those what I think they are?’ I asked, pointing at two ten-millimetre pistols lying next to the Void Eagle. I climbed down from the catwalk to get a better view.

‘Twin Hammerli Arbiters. They were our grandpappy’s. Cat was pissed when I got them but I was always a better shot. I’m pretty sure he stole them. He certainly took enough lives with them.’ He spoke without looking up at me.

The Arbiters were supposed to be the most accurate and were definitely the most expensive fully automatic, production ten-millimetres ever made. I’d never seen one before, let alone two. Their grips were moulded to the shooter’s hands and the barrels seemed to slant forward, which was something to do with their recoil compensation.

‘Can I handle them?’ I asked.

‘No,’ he said, still not looking up from the somewhat archaic-looking rifle he was cleaning. I was a little put out but could understand why he didn’t want anyone touching them. Had they been mine I certainly wouldn’t have been parachuting into a corrosive environment with them.

‘That’s a hunting rifle, isn’t it?’ Again the rifle looked expensive. Parts of it were made out of wood. It also looked slightly oversized.

‘It’s a gauss rifle version of an old Mauser customised by Holland amp; Holland of London,’ he said, still not looking up.

‘Never heard of them.’ I shrugged.

‘No, you wouldn’t have. I never fancied lugging around one of the bigger rail sniper weapons for accurate work. This nearly matches their range and is more accurate. I can fire it semi-automatic or single shot for accuracy with a secondary electronic reload mechanism.’

‘Why?’ I may not have liked being in the military, despite what Mudge thought, but we all liked the toys and I was intrigued.

‘Because a self-loading system will always knock you off slightly. Obviously its smartlinked but it also has an on-board gyroscope. I can switch between hyper and subsonic for silent kills and it fires a. 465-calibre penetrator round which will put most people and Them on the ground. The wood furniture is cut from Lalande ghostwood, which is very dense, hard-wearing and of course resistant to the corrosion. It’s also got a smart trigger.’

‘Bullshit,’ I said. Smart triggers enabled you to fire a weapon with a thought. They required an awful lot of discipline to avoid negligent discharges and were highly illegal. Still there had always been rumours of them being used by the darker black ops types. Merle held the weapon up. It didn’t have a trigger.

‘The very action of pulling the trigger can affect your aim. Your Grey Lady’s a sniper. She’ll have a smart trigger on her weapon, I can almost guarantee it.’ I started to ask him something. ‘No, you can’t handle it. It’s probably worth more than all the money you’ve made in your life. You didn’t come here to talk about my guns. What do you want?’

‘Well I didn’t, but they’re still pretty impressive.’

He finally looked up at me. ‘Have you come to ask about my intentions regarding Mudge? I’ll still kill him if he fucks us up.’

‘Fuck that. He can look after himself. How’d you hijack that ship?’ I asked. He regarded me impassively just long enough for his strangely intense implant eyes to start making me feel uncomfortable.

‘Why?’

‘Curiosity.’

‘I’m a very private person, your intrusion the other night notwithstanding.’

‘Yeah, I get that. You don’t like playing with others, do you?’

‘Nobody else around, then you’ve less chance of getting killed over somebody else’s stupid shit.’

‘Or have someone dragging your arse out of your own stupid shit. But my question?’

‘Is it relevant to anything? See, I can’t think of a single good reason to tell you.’

‘You want and need our trust,’ I said.

He leaned back and studied me a bit more closely.

‘This a price?’ he asked. I shrugged. ‘Okay. I had an automated program that I could plug into the ship’s systems. It would crack the security and remote-pilot the ship to… somewhere else.’

So he’d been working with others. That made sense.

‘How’d you get in? Because you didn’t do it in the camp – the security’s far too high for EVA.’

‘Maybe if I’d had the best stealth stuff, but yeah, the camp was more trouble than it was worth. Just outside the camp’s security perimeter I had another craft match acceleration and trajectory.’

‘Okay. Difficult flying but okay. So how’d you get on board?’

‘I compressed-gas-squirted ship to ship,’ he told me.

‘Bollocks.’ Space was extremely big; it only needed the slightest variation in speed and he would have missed. The maths alone involved in something like that was staggering. The margins for error were tiny. He shrugged again, giving the impression that he didn’t care whether I believed him or not.

‘Spacesuit set up for stealth. I had the maths on a program in my internal systems.’

‘What distance?’

‘Fifteen thousand metres.’

‘The slightest miscalculation,’ I said. I had absently picked up one of a pair of punch daggers and was toying with it. It looked like it was made from black glass. It had some kind of channel leading to the point of the blade.

‘So I didn’t miscalculate. Don’t touch that; it injects a pretty virulent neural toxin.’

For fuck’s sake, I thought, who was this guy? There was no doubt about it – if he played with us then he’d be an asset.

‘Are these glass?’ I asked.

‘Dayside obsidian, volcanic glass from Lalande 2. Sharp as glass but comparable to steel in toughness. Now put it down.’

I put the punch dagger down.

‘So how’d you get in?’ For obvious reasons airlocks, along with the engine room and then the bridge, tended to be the highest-security areas of a ship. On most military and high-security ships you couldn’t access the airlocks externally. I’d only been able to use the airlock on the Santa Maria during the mutiny because it was a civilian ship and I had a hacker as good as Vicar backing me up.

‘I spent seven hours stuck to the hull of the ship drilling through it. I nearly froze to death. I sent through a modified snake with a lock burner on the end. The lock burner had a pretty sophisticated spoof program added to it. The spoof program was probably the biggest outlay. It told the ship’s systems that the airlock was still closed. The snake was flush with the drill hole. I just kept on adding sealant around the crack while feeding it through.’

‘You’re not supposed to be able to do that,’ I said. What he’d just told me had huge ramifications for spacecraft security.

‘You guys did it to that star liner back in the twenties, didn’t you?’ He was right: the SAS had attached a vacuum-proofed cargo module to a sensor blind spot on a hijacked luxury system cruiser and cut through the hull to deal with a group of so-called post-human terrorists. I’d studied it in Hereford while I was training. It was one of the few successful boarding actions in space warfare history. Normally the speeds and distances involved were too great. Ships got destroyed before they were boarded or they surrendered. Surrender hadn’t been an option fighting Them.

‘Different circumstances. The ship was docked when they attached the container; also ship security was much more rudimentary then.’

‘So what? You thinking of robbing a ship?’

‘No, I just like knowing how to do things.’

Again he seemed to be studying me. Finally he nodded.

‘Yeah, me too. We done bonding?’

I nodded. ‘Unless you want to let me play with your guns.’

‘Go away. I’m busy.’

The whole trip had been subdued. That happens when people are sure they’re going to die. You either get subdued or overcompensate, but even Mudge couldn’t be bothered with overcompensation.

On the seventh night we had some drinks and some forced conversation. Bar last-minute checks we were as ready as we were ever going to get. Nobody had wanted to hear me play my trumpet. They backed up their opinions on the matter with threats of violence. I didn’t think this was fair. I was sure I was improving.

Mudge confused me by presenting each of us with little animatronic action figures of Major Rolleston, the Grey Lady or Vincent Cronin. I got Rolleston.

‘What the fuck’s this?’ I asked. It was grotesque.

‘Voodoo?’ Pagan asked, laughing.

‘Let’s just remember how big these people are, shall we?’ Mudge told us. ‘This is how the children of Earth look at them, not fucking scary at all.’

‘This is weird,’ I said. Cat was nodding.

Morag held up her little Grey Lady. ‘I don’t know. I think I feel some voodoo coming on,’ she said.

Pagan couldn’t wait to go back to his compartment and trance in with Nuiko, who was with us as a nearly silent holographic ghost whose arms were her crab-like servitors. I wanted her to join us and relax but instead she was the perfect host. She had just as much to lose as the rest of us, except that she would be waiting on her own in the dark. If I was honest with myself, which apparently I didn’t like being, then I would have to admit that Nuiko still made me nervous. It wasn’t just that I’d never managed to have what I would describe as a conversation with her, but that for some reason she reminded me of the Grey Lady. Maybe it was the quiet. Maybe it was the averted eyes.

I wondered how Pagan had managed to break through the polite and distant reserve that she wore as armour. But time can be made to do strange things in sense environments. Perhaps he’d been courting her for months instead of days. I wished him well but worried about the wrench of having to leave her to go and die. Maybe I should have tried to be a bit more optimistic.

Likewise Mudge was in a hurry to disappear into his compartment with the white-noise generator and Merle. He didn’t even get too fucked up, for Mudge. His choice of drug was some low-key euphoric and he only managed a bottle and a half of vodka. He still managed to fall off the catwalk into the crates. I guess appeara