This story takes place between the events of Veteran and the events of War in Heaven.
With thanks to Ceri Williams for proof reading. The mistakes remain mine own and are no reflection on Ceri’s ability.
Tailgunner screamed. He howled up at the wooden roof of the Marae. The carved faces of his ancestors leered down at him. Tailgunner’s bare foot slammed into the wooden planks as his chant began. He made the ritualistic movements, slapped his own flesh and stuck out his tongue, making his ta moko, the sacred tattoos that showed his identity through his lineage, covered face as grotesque and frightening as he could.
He moved through the sacred meeting place of the Marae, performing the complex haka, making mock strikes with his taiaha, a wooden bladed club. His feathered cloak billowed with each violent but carefully-choreographed movement. The cloak was a sign of his station as his whānau’s, or family’s, tohunga, shaman.
He stamped down his foot and thrust the wooden spear point of the taiaha forward, tongue stretched down as far as it could go, eyes wide in apparent fury.
“Ssssshhh.” The voice sounded like the crackling of dried leaves. Despite the fact that Tailgunner had mana, that he was one of the toa, the warrior class, he still felt his blood run cold. It felt like a dead snake had just wound its way up his spine. Slowly he turned round and looked at the hole in the floor of the Marae that had not been there a moment before. He saw the rope that lead down into the darkness.
“This is what you want, isn’t it?” the cold, dry, dead voice asked. This shouldn’t, couldn’t be happening here, Tailgunner thought. Not in his sanctum. He swallowed several times, and had to remind himself who he was and who his people were, before he stepped towards the hole and took the rope.
* * *
Call sign Mother wondered if she was going to drown in her own mech. Hermetically sealed my arse, she thought as the highly corrosive salt acid liquid that could only laughingly be referred to as water dripped into the cockpit of her Bismarck-class heavy mech.
Mother was old for a soldier, which pretty much meant old for anyone these days. She was in her mid-thirties and was the matriarch of their whānau. She, along with her lover, call sign Tailgunner, led the family, or cavalry patrol as the mainly pakeha, or white, officers in the army preferred to describe it.
Mother was like most of the people on Lalande: she had the squat, powerfully-built endomorphic body type that came from living on a high-G world. Her skeleton and musculature were all cybernetically enhanced to help with the added strain from the 1.5G. There was little if any fat on her powerful frame, and her face, once pretty, was lined and aged more than it should have for her age.
Her complexion was a mix of the light brown of her Maori heritage and the sallow tones of the permanent subterranean dweller. Half her face and most of the skin that was visible on her arms and hands were covered in the complex, intricate and beautiful spiral and plant like patterns of her ta moko tattoos. They told the story of who she was, for those who could read them.
Her thick, wavy dark brown hair was tied back in a ponytail just above the four plugs in the base of her neck that hardwired her into the quadruped heavy mech. Her eyes were the matt black lenses of all serving soldiers and veterans.
Mother propped herself up from the body-formed couch she was strapped into to look back at Tailgunner’s massive, powerful form lying almost head-to-head with her in his own couch. He was hardwired into the mech as well but his main job was sensors, comms and weapons – when he was here. At the moment her lover was somewhere else. He’d picked a great time to disappear into the net, or maybe go to his sanctum.
Mother sucked air in between her teeth angrily as she glanced over at the small stream of water that was running through the armoured roof and dripping down onto the floor. She would need to speak to Dog Face about this. They might not have used biological or chemical weapons yet; that didn’t mean they wouldn’t in the future.
In her Internal Visual Display she brought up a three dimensional topographical representation of the bottom of the cavern sea they were currently submerged in. The representation was formed with information gathered from the thermal imagers and the various other passive scans they were running. She could make out call sign Dog Face’s mech about a hundred feet off her left flank. Dog Face called his bipedal Landsknecht mech Kopuwai. It was named for a dog-headed monster from Maori myth, or history, depending on your perspective.
A similar distance off her right flank was Dog Face’s street brother, call sign Big Henry. Whether they were related or not was irrelevant: they’d come up together. Big Henry was the most endomorphic of the endomorphic. He was very short and squat. His braided goatee beard did nothing to dissuade people from comparing him to creatures from old earth pakeha fairy tales. His Landsknecht mech was named Whakatau, after a tiny but vengeful warrior.
Call sign Strange’s Steel Mantis class scout mech was harder to make out. It was in the shallow water closer to the shore of the cavern sea somewhere in front of Mother and Tailgunner’s mech.
Strange was the most tragic member of the whānau. They’d found her nearly feral on the streets of Moa City, traumatised, and judging from the scars on her body she had been a victim all her life. Maori or pakeha, it didn’t matter; she was whānau, one of the Toa, and to harm her one would have to kill the rest of the family. Strange never spoke except to Tailgunner, and the only thing that bothered Mother about that was that she could not get Strange to talk to her. People had died messing with Strange, at her hands and at the hands of the rest of the family.
Strange had named her mech Atua Kahukahu. It was the name of the malignant angry spirit of a dead child.
All of them had been street kids, orphans of the war and mining accidents. They’d done what the needed to survive – theft, dealing, hurting people, killing them when they had no choice. As soon as they could pass they had gotten jobs in the mines, providing the raw materials for the war against Them. A war they practically lived on the front line of.
The mining mechs they piloted had been stripped down to provide components for the fighting mechs. Dog Face had worked out that they’d lost almost as many to mining accidents as they had in the war after they had been drafted. The Darwinian environment of the mines meant that they either got good at piloting mechs or they got dead.
By the time they got drafted they knew their way round a mech. The Queen Alexandra’s Mounted Rifles were the obvious choice, or would have been if they’d had a choice. The Rifles were an armoured cavalry regiment within New Zealand’s colonial self-defence force, or Ngāti Tumatauenga, the Tribe of the God of War, as the Maori called it.
Tailgunner had used his share of the whānau’s ill-gotten gains to get himself some rudimentary ware, so that when they had been drafted he was able, along with some bribery and threats, to hack the system to make sure they stayed together. The command structure was probably aware of this but chose to turn a blind eye, as Mother and Tailgunner ran a tight unit.
With a thought Mother changed the position of one of the sensor fins; the tip of it just broke the surface of the salty acidic almost-water. She enlarged the window in her internal visual display for the viz feed from the makeshift periscope and scanned the enormous cavern.
Ahead of her she could make out the barren rocky shore and the darkened, arch-like cavern entrances that she knew lead to New Dunedin. New Dunedin had been lost two months ago to Them. The whole place should be crawling with Them. Their Berserk bioborgs had submarine capability, as did their Walkers, the biological equivalents of the mechs, but where were They? And where was Tailgunner? If he was playing virtual Rugby again she would kill him. Mother knew he would not be, but shouting at him for something would be quite cathartic.
* * *
This should not be happening. This hole should not be here, Tailgunner thought as he climbed down. The simulation was so real that the earth all around him felt and smelt like actual earth. Or at least how he imagined it would feel and smell like back on Earth, in Ao Te Aroa, the Land of Long White Clouds, or New Zealand as the pakeha had renamed it.
As amazed as he was by the programming, the most frightening thing was that his secure and hidden sanctum had been hacked, violated on a huge scale. What he did not understand was why he was not sending bad makutu, attack programmes in the form of violent sorcery, down into the hole. Why was he climbing down, he wondered, and what was that smell, animal-like, but he couldn’t place it?
Tailgunner’s second question was answered first. At the bottom of the hole was an earthen passageway of hard-packed dirt. Torches pushed into the ground provided a flickering orange light. Tailgunner realised that the whole scene did not have the high-end animation look of most of the net, including his own sophisticated sanctum Marae site. The tunnel, the flickering flame looked photo-real, felt, smelled and even tasted very real. Fear, curiosity and excitement warred within the normally calm mind of the powerfully-built Maori.
The passage was dry, which seemed to contradict the cold, clammy feel of the atmosphere. Tailgunner could see his breath. An impressive bit of programming detail, he thought. He felt lighter here, as if he was moving through Earth-standard gravity. He wrapped the Kahu Huruhuru feathered cloak tighter around himself and walked forwards.
He could make out some sort of house, the sort of wooden A-frame that had been used in Maori villages a long time before the Final Human Conflict. Standing in front of it where two huge and inhuman shapes. He readied his taiaha and crept forward like a warrior. A very cautious warrior.
They looked like nine feet tall, powerfully-built Maori warriors, their godly whakapapa, or genealogy, carved into their mahogany like flesh in grooves of spirals and patterns of ta moko. Their bodies were not endomorphic in any way; they were tall, strong and proud, for they had grown up free of the oppression of heavy gravity. Their heads were the heads of fearsome crested lizards. They hissed angrily at his approach and shifted weapons that looked like handsomely carved, mighty two-handed versions of wahaika clubs.
They bared their fangs. Venom dripped from them. Their hissing was a non-verbal challenge. Tailgunner readied his makutu programmes and his taiaha, itself a manifestation of a powerful attack/defence programme. He knew them and he knew where he was and who had violated his sanctum.
* * *
Mother could not make up her mind if it was psychosomatic, or if the acrid smoke coming from the corroding metal in the cab was actually making her throat sore despite her inbuilt filter system for poisonous and hazardous gases and chemicals. Whether she could breathe it or not, she was not enjoying the stench of living in the acrid air of the Mech’s cramped cab.
The resolution on the sensor fin was not up to much, despite her trying to beef it up, but she could make out the multihued strata of the smooth hard rock that made up the cavern. The cavern had been formed millennia ago by the now receding salt glaciers.
New Dunedin was closer to the Night Side than the Sun Side in the habitable Twilight Strip of the tidally locked Lalande 2. Temperatures were often cold enough to freeze liquid with even a very high salt content.
They attacked from the Night Side. Them bioborgs, after all, had been known to operate in vacuum. Sub-zero temperatures were no problem to them. That was how they had taken New Dunedin, an armoured push out of frozen caverns that humans had to take a lot of technology into just to survive, let alone fight in.
Nothing, nothing at all. Mother knew that a passive scan was nowhere near as comprehensive as active scans, but if They were still here she should be able to see something. Where the fuck is Tailgunner, she thought angrily, resisting the urge to turn around in the couch and glare at him pointlessly? Making sense of the sensor information was his job.
She did not feel Them. Instinct was a long way from infallible but she had gotten use to the anticipation of combat and she, like many vets, got to know when they were about to get into a firefight. This did not feel like one of those times.
“Mother to Bossman,” she sub-vocalised over the secure tacnet. As always she mentally added the word prick after the word Bossman. “Everything we’re seeing says that they’ve pulled out.” Because you use your mech element for scouting, she silently added sarcastically. It was probably something that Major “Arsehole” Martins thought passed for innovative military thinking as opposed to what it was: a new and interesting way to rust major military assets.
“This is Bossman,” Of course he had chosen his own call sign – let the grunts know where they stand. “Maintain comms discipline. Where’s Tailgunner? I thought he was running the net?” Brilliant, Mother thought. Do you want me to answer or maintain comms discipline?
“Can we send in a remote?” Mother risked reprimand by asking. She was aware of Strange non-verbally keying her comms. It was Strange’s way of letting Mother know that she was happy to go and scout on dry land. Mother texted a negative reply back.
“Sergeant, this is Bossman. You are jeopardising this whole mission with poor comms discipline.” Mother shook her head scornfully. “Why is Tailgunner not running comms?” Bossman asked. This time Mother did glance behind her. Because apparently he’s got better things to do, she didn’t say.
“But can we send in a remote?” Or just sit here until we finally corrode away, she silently added.
“Negative, sanitise the area. Rain fire down on it,” the Major ordered. Mother wished she could have been surprised but she was not. At a time of war, when resources were at a premium, he wanted to fire the most expensive payload in the most expensive munitions they had. Sure, “rain fire” sounded dramatic, but it was expensive drama that could be better spent when they actually had something to aim at. Mother wondered how this guy had got the job and why he had not fucked off back to Earth and just become a Fortunate Son.
“Is he fucking kidding?” Dog Face growled over the patrol’s tacnet.
“That’s enough,” Mother said over the patrol’s tacnet before switching back to the company tacnet. “Confirm orders,” she requested. She knew she was going to have to get Tailgunner to hack into Command and make sure the actual conversation was not changed when Major Martins’ superiors reamed him out and he decided to play cover-arse.
“I said sanitise the area, Sergeant,” Bossman’s more insistent sub-vocal command came back. Mother used her thumb and forefinger to pinch the bridge of her nose. She had been using mild amphetamines for the seventy hours she’d had her mech stood on the bottom of the cavern sea. Not enough to turn her into a jittery, claustrophobic mess but enough to make her feel like hot knives were being pushed into the nerve endings behind her machine-filled eyeballs.
“Acknowledged,” she muttered. She knew she was going to take this out on Tailgunner later on.
As she thought this he started to thrash in his couch. Startled, Mother’s cybernetically-wired and drug-enhanced reactions almost had her out of the couch before the straps reacted to the sudden movement and tightened up. Mother calmed herself down. Tailgunner continued to thrash; blood seeped out his ears and at the corner of the black, hardened plastic lenses that replaced his eyes.
Mother had seen this before. He was fighting – and getting a kicking – with someone else in the net. Who and why she did not know. Mother considered unplugging him, but annoyance aside, if he had done this then he had done it with a reason, and she had to trust that he knew what he was doing and could handle himself. That was hard; she wanted to make sure he was safe and then bawl him out.
* * *
His fight with Moko-hiku-waru and Tu-tangata-kino, the two lizard-headed guardians, was not going well. Tailgunner reflected on this as he hit the ground bloodied and broken. Again. He spat out blood. This was a hell of a site, he thought as he tried to cope with the pain and climb to his feet. Before he could he felt powerful, clawed hands wrap around his tattooed biceps and lift him. He struggled – that was his nature – but he could not break their grip. For an epiphany, a religious experience that all hackers and signal people both want and fear, it was proving very painful.
Moko-hiku-waru and Tu-tangata-kino picked him up and carried him into the A-frame house. There was only a small amount of pale light in the house. It smelt old in a way that Tailgunner did not quite understand. There was also the smell of the earth, but wrong somehow, as if he could smell the corruption of decay underneath it.
Things hung from the ceiling. Tailgunner did not want to investigate too much, as the shapes looked faintly human and were hung like the pictures of drying meat he had seen on history sites on the net when he and the rest of the whānau were trying to find out who they were.
He was flung to the ground again, which elicited more blood-spitting and pain. He found himself looking at two bare feet with paper-like pale skin stretched over them. He looked up at the Maori who stood over him. He was gaunt and cadaverous. The contrast of his nearly-white skin and the black of his somewhat sinister, Tailgunner thought, ta moko gave him the look of a tattooed corpse.
“It’s not necessary to win,” came the voice like dry leaves. “It is necessary to fight.” Miru, the Ruler of the Night, looked down at Tailgunner. “Somehow it always seems to be a surprise to you people when your summons works.”
* * *
Mother’s Bismarck-class heavy mech was called Apakura, the Woman Who Urged Revenge. When there had been more of them, when they had been a gang rather than a whānau, they had called themselves Ngāti Apakura the Tribe of the Woman Who Urged Revenge. They wore patches on their jackets, worked the mining mechs and ran wild in the streets of Moa City. They still wore the patches, but most of the tribe was dead now.
Tailgunner was lying still now. Still breathing. Mother tried to put him out of her mind as she plotted a firing solution for the missiles, which strictly speaking should have been his job. Schematics from the smart link to the weapons system showed her where the missiles would impact with the greatest spread.
Apakura’s 300mm mass driver broke the surface of the corrosive almost-water. Set behind and on either side of the massive barrel were two long-range missile batteries. Mother left the rest of the mech submerged. Seventy-two hours of being submerged for this. Seventy-two hours of breathing in acid, as it slowly corroded parts of her uniform, for this! Still, she thought, it wasn’t her buck and plasma was always pretty.
Mother knew the flight was very quick but watching the arc of the three missiles’ contrails seemed to take forever. Her wired reactions made it look like slow-motion on a viz. The three staggered explosions blossomed into a beautiful living liquid fire that engulfed the entire of the smooth stone shore.
“Well, that was a seven hundred and fifty thousand dollars well spent,” she muttered to herself, but she took her time enjoying watching the fire flow serpentine around the cavern mouth. With a thought, after she had enjoyed the show, after she had left stone burning she pulled Apakura back beneath the surface of the almost-water. As she did she popped a remote and sent it towards the shore. She linked command to the feed from the drone as it flew over pools of still-burning stone that had been reduced to a liquid state.
* * *
Tailgunner, still feeling bruised, bloody and broken, a state he was not unused to, staggered to his feet in front of the corpse-like ruler of the night. Miru’s eyes were black. Not the hard plastic, unreflective black of a soldier’s eyes, but like black pools. They looked like they would ripple if touched.
Tailgunner watched Miru warily. Miru could teach him makutu, sorcery, or keep him here forever, imprison his mind and make him a slave. Of all the ancestors he could have met, Miru was one of the more dangerous.
“I am here,” the dry, scraping voice began. “So you know we do not have much time.” But enough time to have the lizard boys beat the shit out of me, Tailgunner thought, but held his tongue. He hadn’t lost a fight that badly since he was fifteen and two of the mine cops caught him stealing fuel.
“A wave is coming.”
“A wave?” Tailgunner couldn’t help himself. Miru merely placed his hand on Tailgunner’s chest. All Tailgunner’s makutu, all his armour and defence programmes were for nought, he felt coldness permeate his icon and knew that back in Apakura, in the so-called real world, the biofeedback from this ancestor was killing him.
“Listen,” Miru hissed. “Focus. A wave is coming, a foreign god greater than all of us. We, the spirits in the underworld, must hide from it if we can. We must leave this place and our adopted children, go far away, perhaps back to Hawaiki.” Hawaiki was the Maori’s mythical homeland.
“You’re leaving us?”
The pain from the cold hand on his chest was agony, and this time he cried out.
* * *
Tailgunner’s cry made Mother start. She glanced around from her couch and what she saw shocked her. Tailgunner was pale, covered in cold sweat, and his breathing was shallow. Mother called up his vital signs on her IVU. It didn’t look good. She had seen this before. This was the readout of a hacker receiving dangerous levels of biofeedback.
“What are you doing?” she muttered under her breath.
“Bossman to Mother, advance on the shore armoured recon,” Major Martins sub-vocalised over the tacnet.
“If you’re sure it’s safe,” Big Henry said over the patrol tacnet. Mother smiled despite the worry. The feed from her remote had showed a complete lack of Them in the near vicinity.
Strange’s Steel Mantis class scout mech Atua Kahukahu was out of the water first. The small, fast-moving mech moved with its oddly off-kilter, jerky movements up the smooth stone shore. Strange sent back more detailed footage and passive scan info as she quickly moved from cover to cover. Her mech’s advanced reactive camouflage system, which had been further improved by Dog Face’s tinkering, made it difficult to pick the mech out on the low-resolution image from Mother’s ad-hoc periscope.
Apakura and the two Landsknecht class mechs, Whakatau and Kopuwai, moved forward in support at the same time, but because of the size of Apakura it was the huge Bismarck-class heavy mech that broke the surface first.
The quadruped mech rose from the corrosive almost-water with smoke pouring off it, a result of the salt-acid attacking the Mech’s corrosion-resistant finish. The barrel of the huge mass driver swept left and right as one huge reinforced leg, followed by another, broke the surface. All mechs used on Lalande II had to have a considerably stronger superstructure than similar models used on the other colonies due to the tidal locked planet’s high G.
All attempts and stealth were now redundant as the quadruped mech made its ponderous way towards the shore. Powerful spotlights stabbed into the gloom. On Apakura’s knee joints, ball-mounted point defence lasers rotated, looking for incoming projectiles. As the mech waded towards shore the four belly turrets were revealed with their multi-barrelled rotary rail guns, searching for light armour and personnel to fire at.
In the mech’s cab Mother cursed Tailgunner again, now more worried than angry, as she tried to juggle the sensor and weapons data.
On either flank the heads of the two bipedal Landsknechts broke surface, marching towards the shore, revealing more of their scarred armoured hides with each stride. Dog Face and Big Henry had their plasma cannons raised high out of the water. Their mechs held them like oversized assault rifles. More powerful searchlights stabbed into the darkness and found nothing. Or at least, none of Them.
Strange found it first. She beamed the feed to Mother. Mother closed her eyes. She was worried that she did not even feel horror anymore. She had known what to expect. Apakura, flanked by Whakatau and Kopuwai, made their way through the naturally arched cavern entrance towards New Dunedin.
“Christ,” Big Henry said over the tacnet. Dog Face let out a little whimper. Strange, as ever, said nothing.
“Target is secure,” Mother said over the company tacnet, and forwarded the feed of what they had found on the outskirts of new Dunedin. They played the powerful lights from the mech over the field they had found with its strange crop.
* * *
The pain warred with a cold numb sensation that made him feel–no–that made him know he was dying. Miru leant in towards him, his breath smelt of raw meat.
“Yes, we are leaving,” he hissed in Tailgunner’s ear. “We are leaving lest we are swept away. We are leaving before we become it. We are leaving before the secrets of heaven and the underworld are laid bare. You are all alone. You will be all alone. You must not come back into the spirit world. You must sever all links or the wave will take you. Do you understand?” Tailgunner nodded, as his previous attempts at verbal communication had gone badly for him. Miru wanted him to stay out of the net. He wanted to ask why. Was it them? But he was pretty sure that Miru – whether he was a spirit in the net, a complicated programme, another hacker with god-like power, or some kind of evolved AI – would kill him.
“Keep all our people out and separate from the spirit world, but you must be the last one out. For you I have a task.” Miru kept one hand on Tailgunner’s chest. Wouldn’t want to not cause agony, some dislocated part of Tailgunner’s mind thought. With his free hand Miru unwrapped an eel net from around his waist. He handed the net to Tailgunner. Tailgunner tried to close his hand around the net’s material form but failed. Miru took his hand away from Tailgunner’s chest. Tailgunner collapsed to the ground, fighting for virtual breath, which was odd. Heat returning to his form was such a contrast it caused him to cry out in pain. He scrabbled on the dirt floor for the net.
“Be last out of the spirit world. Face the wave and cast your net into it before you leave.” Miru said staring down at Tailgunner with the unfathomable black pools that were his eyes. “Now go before I make you my last feast and eat of you as the meat of the pig.” Tailgunner finally grabbed the net and stood up. Pain aside, he was remembering now who he was and what he was about. Eyes blazing, he stared back at Miru, but the Ruler of the Night had turned his back on him.
Tailgunner turned and stalked from Miru’s house, past the guardians to the rope that lead him back to his Sanctum.
* * *
Big Henry had somewhat laconically described Martins’ charge as “Awesome”. As soon as their commander had known it was safe the Infantry contingent, in assault hovercraft, had sped from their hiding place and performed a by-the-book amphibious assault on an area they knew to be safe already.
Mother and the rest of the whānau did not blame the infantry guys. They knew them well and had fought beside a lot of them for years – the survivors, anyway. After all, the Infantry did not even have the benefit of being surrounded by tonnes of armoured German-made mech.
Once the area had been secured, again, Mother, Strange, Big Henry and Dog Face had dismounted. Tailgunner was still jacked in but his life signs had stabilised. Mother was looking out over the field, her arms crossed. Dog Face was first to join her.
Dog Face’s mother had been killed after the exoskeleton she had been driving had malfunctioned and thrown her into a crevice. He had been fostered out to a family that had connections to the biotech black market. Their warehouse had a problem with rats. The rats had stowed away on colonial ships and somehow, without genetic engineering, had adapted to the high G environment. Dog Face’s stepfather replaced his eyes with cyber eyes, increased his olfactory capability to the rough equivalent of a hunting dog’s and used the boy to control the rat population. This had gone on right until Dog Face started to run with Ngāti Apakura, and then Mother and Tailgunner had gone to speak to the man.
His foster father may have got him started but Dog Face had done the rest himself. The surgical steel claw-like fingernails, the surgical steel teeth replacements and the pronounced, power-assisted jaw. His dreds were tied back in a loose ponytail. He wore the black and red stylised demon face patch with the rolling eyes and outstretched tongue on a sleeveless leather jacket worn over his inertial armour fatigues. Mother knew he had ceramic armoured plates sewn into the jacket. The only visible ta moko patterns on Dog Face’s skin bridged his forehead and ran down his cheeks.
Dog Face looked over the field and growled. Mother just nodded. Big Henry walked up to them. He had a peculiar waddling gait that belied how quickly he could move when he had to. The squat, hugely muscled looking man had his long thick hair in an elaborately braided ponytail. His beard was equally elaborately braided. What little of his skin that could be seen was also covered in ta moko patterns. He was wearing his battered bowler hat and, like Dog Face, he wore his patch on leather over his inertial armour fatigues.
New Dunedin was, or had been, a series of squat low industrial complexes with both the commercial and dormitory buildings built with a similar disregard for any kind of design aesthetic. Framing the buildings, nearly two mile high by a mile wide, was the dirty grey ice of the Dunedin Salt Glacier. Either side of the Glacier the smooth hard rock had been quarried into regular terraces. The mine workings had been left where they lay after Their initial assault. After all, They didn’t seem to care about resources. Just killing.
The river was a sewer of mine pollution and the city was ringed with heaps of gravel that the people of the city had tried in vain to use defensively against Their onslaught. But it was the field that caught everyone’s attention.
More than anything, the field worried Mother because she was used to it. It did not shock or unduly surprise her. The cold ball of anger in the pit of her stomach was comforting. Her wishes for utu, not revenge, more reciprocity, to balance this, made her still feel human. Despite all the metal and plastic in her. Despite that she was starting to think of Apakura as her true form, her real body.
The field was row upon row of severed heads on the ends of sticks. Many of them had ta moko on their faces. All of them had an expression that told Mother they were well aware of what was about to happen to them.
“Well, they’re neat,” Big Henry finally said. He took off his bowler hat and scratched his scalp through his braids.
“The entire city,” Dog Face growled. The torsos were piled behind the field of heads. They had tried to fire them. Turned them into human slag heaps that mirrored the heaps of waste from the strip mine. Powerfully-built rats moved amongst the heaps.
Strange almost seemed to be dancing amongst the regular rows of heads. She was as slender as you could get on this world without your spine breaking from the weight. Her skin was pale. She had long straight black hair that constantly got her into trouble with command. Her lips and chin were tattooed. Every so often she would stop and caress one of the heads. Dog Face and Big Henry watched her uneasily but said nothing.
“Where are they all?” Mother asked. Why had They abandoned Dunedin?
“Heads up,” Dog Face growled. Mother glanced away from Strange’s somehow hypnotic dance amongst the heads. Martins was heading towards her. He looked red-faced and out of breath. He was fleshy and soft-looking. Mother did not understand how you could look soft on this world. Sure, Big Henry might be carrying a few more pounds than he strictly needed, but he had fought for that.
“Beat it,” Mother said. Both of them made to protest. “Now.” Hard men or not both of them knew this was not a time to argue with Mother. Big Henry and Dog Face left as Martins arrived.
“Sergeant…” He stopped to watch Strange’s dance. “What’s she doing?”
“Dancing, sir,” Mother answered, keeping her tone neutral. Martins still got irritated.
“Obviously. Why is she desecrating the dead by dancing amongst them?”
“I don’t know why she’s doing what she’s doing but she’s more likely to be honouring than desecrating,” Mother said through gritted teeth.
“She’s disturbing the men,” Martins said. By men he meant men and women. Old habits died hard in the military.
“No,” Mother said.
“No what, sergeant?” Martins demanded. Mother shifted her body, made its language just a little more intimidating. Just in case there was any doubt that she could break him in two if she wanted.
“No sir, she is not freaking the men out. They may be wondering what the fuck she’s doing, like the rest of us, but they’ll let it pass because they know her and they know what she does for them. If, however, it’s freaking you out–” like everything seems to, she did not add, “–then I can ask her to stop. Is there anything else, sir?”
“You can’t speak to me…”
“Is there anything else, sir?” Mother asked, shifting her posture again slightly, trying to communicate how this worked. Bad officers got fragged. She had killed three herself. She had no problem with that; it was either them or her and her people.
“Where’s Tailgunner?” Martins asked. “He was supposed to be running comms.”
“I was running a diagnostic on the tacnet. I found a glitch. I was trying to sort it before the action started.”
Martins jumped; even Mother flinched. For such a big guy he could be so quiet.
Tailgunner walked up to them. He was tall, for Lalande, and heavily built. Next to no body fat, his muscle was a mixture of hard won and enhancement, but he still moved gracefully and when he wanted to, quietly.
Most of his head was covered in the hardware of his integral computer. The ware was made of squat, ugly utilitarian components made for the military by the lowest bidder. Tailgunner had augmented the military ware with whatever higher spec components he had managed to find, beg, borrow or steal to keep up in the Darwinian world of the signalman hacker.
Like all the others in the whanau his skin told his story in ta moko, lines and scar tissue. He also wore his patch over his inertial armour fatigue suit.
“You should have told me, Corporal,” Martins said. He was apparently unaware of how petty he sounded.
“Sorry sir, but I thought, comms discipline.”
Martins was trying to make up his mind if he was being made a fool of. He looked Tailgunner up and down and then turned to look at Dog Face and Big Henry standing some way off and finally Strange dancing amongst the heads. He turned back to Mother.
“Your men are a disgrace, Sergeant.”
“So are the women.”
“Look at you all – non-regulation haircuts, non-regulation uniforms, I understand that you have previously been given leeway on account of…”
“Being able to do our jobs?” Mother asked. Martins coloured. Tailgunner put his hand on Mother’s shoulder, trying to signal her to calm down, to not push so hard.
“Who do you think you are, special forces?” he demanded. Mother grabbed him and pulled him towards her. Tailgunner moved between him and where the other officers were standing. He gave her a warning look. This was way too public. Mother had practically picked Martins up off the ground by the front of his fatigues.
“You know how this works, motherfucker?” she hissed. Martins looked frightened.
“I’ll have you on a charge…” he started.
“They won’t even find your fucking body where I leave it,” she spat.
“Okay, that’s enough,” Tailgunner said softly. Mother’s head whipped around to glare at him angrily but she let go of Martins. He almost fell over, stumbling away from her.
“Remember what she said,” Tailgunner warned the Major as he backed away from them. Martins all but fled.
“Thanks for backing me up,” Mother said bitterly.
“The guy’s stupid enough to do something. He’ll force your hand.”
“That’s pretty much inevitable. Where the fuck were you?” she demanded.
“I saw Miru,” Tailgunner answered. Mother gaped at him for a moment.
“You went on a spirit quest? A fucking spirit quest! Now!” she was shouting now.
Others, including Martins, were looking over at her.
“Will you calm down?”
“Don’t fucking tell me what to do, Corporal!”
“Oh, this is about rank now, is it? Sorry, I thought we were having a domestic. I’ve told you before, this shit is important. This is about who we are, what we are.”
Mother took in his earnestness, trying to calm herself, fighting the omnipresent anger. She knew he was not the enemy.
“I know,” she sighed, calming down. “It just seems so far removed from… everything. Like a luxury, you know?”
“All the more reason we have to listen to our ancestors.”
“We are so far from home.” Mother had never set foot on Ao Te Aroa; nor had her parents. She often wondered how she could feel homesick for a place she had never been to. The rational part of her knew it was a fantasy, a promised land that could never live up to her expectations. She knew it was the irrational part that Tailgunner’s ferocious mythologies played upon, but she also knew there was no deception on his part. Maybe it was all a comfort tale; maybe that was what she – they – needed.
Tailgunner wrapped his arms around her. She felt comforted but knew it made her look weak.
“It’s not faith anymore,” Tailgunner whispered to her. She gently pushed herself free and silently shook her head, signalling not at the moment.
“What did he say?” she asked.
“Let’s call the others.”
* * *
Dog Face and Big Henry were looking troubled. Strange had hugged Tailgunner and held onto him as he told the story of his encounter with the God of Night in his sanctum.
“What?” he asked them when he had finished. Dog Face and Henry were still looking uncomfortable.
“Its just so…you know…” Henry managed.
“Fantastic?” Tailgunner asked. Henry nodded and Dog Face kicked at the stone beneath his feet. “Yeah, that will happen when you speak to gods,” he deadpanned.
“You want us to switch off all comms? The Mechs, our personnel stuff?” Henry asked.
“If it was a hack or ECM, or any of the other stuff I normally do, or any other form of intel, would you question me?” Tailgunner asked.
“This is different,” Big Henry began. “Hackers see stuff; the way they’re wired, it does something to the parts of your mind that handles religious stuff. Your…” Henry stopped. He seemed embarrassed.
“My imagination?” Tailgunner asked. “What have we been doing? Has it all been lip service to our ancestors?” Tailgunner was a calm man and he did not anger easily, but Mother could sense his disappointment and maybe even a feeling of being betrayed.
“It’s a lot to ask,” Dog Face growled.
“Switching off your comms to see what happens?” Tailgunner asked.
“That leaves us tactically isolated. Exposed. Not to mention the reaming we’ll get.” Mother had to admit that Dog Face had a point. About the Tactical Exposure, at least – she did not care about Martins.
Strange apparently saw it another way: she just walked over and slapped Dog Face as hard as she could. Dog Face had not seen it coming and Strange was probably the fastest of all of them, which was why she drove the Scout Mech.
“What the fuck!” Dog Face’s head whipped back, his canines bared.
“Enough,” Mother said quietly. Strange backed away from Dog Face, her expression defiant. Dog Face glared at her but did nothing. “Tailgunner’s right. He’s never given us reason to doubt him, and we’re not going to start. Consider it an order; it’s on me if there’s any comeback.” Tailgunner opened his mouth to protest. “I said enough. Lets get this done.”
All of them were surprised when the cheering started. They looked over at the infantry. All of them were smiling and cheering, a few of them fired shots into the air before their officers took control.
“What the fuck have they got to cheer about?” Dog Face asked. “They think the war’s over?”
Max was running towards them. He was even older than Mother; he had reached his age by being what he described as physically cautious. He had the look of someone that desperately wanted to go to seed but simply did not have the resources. He was the senior NCO in the part of the supply chain that kept the Mechs and their pilots running. He was a corrupt black-marketer but he always came through for them with what they needed. Strictly speaking he outranked Mother but he always deferred to her.
He came panting up to them in his badly-fitting, sweat-stained uniform.
“We’re looking at a field of severed heads. What the fuck have you got to be happy about?” Dog Face barked.
“Its over!” he yelled.
“What is?” Mother asked. She knew what she wanted the answer to be but it seemed beyond hope.
Nobody reacted. Max looked at the five of them, questioning but still grinning.
“Bullshit,” Big Henry said carefully.
“Okay, look, it’s not over. But They’ve all gone. Pulled out.”
“Them?” Mother asked incredulously.
“Yep. Not one of them left. The only trace they were ever here is little puddles of junk genetic crap from where they died. Everything else is gone.”
“They’ve pulled into Nightside in prep for a big push,” Tailgunner suggested. Max shook his head.
“We’ve got unconfirmed reports from a Nightside deep recon team that they saw Them leaving the planet.” It was starting to sink in. Big Henry was first to start smiling, then Dog Face; a smile even made it to Mother’s and Strange’s faces but Tailgunner still looked troubled. Max slapped him on the shoulder.
“Cheer up man! It’s over! We’re going to head back to the firebase and we’re going to party! Bad booze and cheap sex! Hell, I’ll even treat you guys to a crate.” In his exuberance Max grabbed Mother and hugged her. Dog Face and Big Henry looked on in utter surprise at this.
“Have you lost your mind?” Mother asked. Max immediately let go of her, looking apologetic.
“A little bit,” he answered.
“Thanks Max, we’ll be over soon,” Tailgunner said. Max looked between him and Mother and then shrugged.
“Suit yourselves.” He walked away, looking slightly baffled at their attitude. They watched him go; Dog Face and Big Henry were still grinning, and even Strange looked happy.
“Well?” Mother asked.
“Nothing’s changed. We disable the comms,” Tailgunner said.
“What, now? Didn’t you hear…” Big Henry started.
“We heard. Do what Tailgunner said; if Max’s right then all that means is that we’ll be less tactically exposed.” Big Henry and Dog Face both looked as if they were about to object but in the end they nodded.
* * *
Command called it a firebase; it had a name made up of numbers and phonetic letters. The whanau just called it the pa, an old word for a fortified settlement. In reality it was a large cavern; the various entrances had been blocked off with scavenged armour plate from a destroyed cavern sea frigate. Various firing ports had been cut in it for manned and automated heavy weaponry.
Past the armour walls was the normal mixture of tents and pre-fabricated buildings. Mother thought of it as a storehouse for military vehicles and equipment. Some of that equipment had human components, like her.
The trip back had been uneventful. Tailgunner had disabled each of the whanau’s integral comms and done the same for their vehicles and any equipment they might have. He had made sure that they, their mechs and all their gear was utterly isolated from the net.
This had not gone unnoticed, and eventually Martins had one of his adjutants keep pace with Apakura in one of the patrol vehicles. Tailgunner had unplugged himself and stuck his head out of the belly hatch. He had explained that the comms problems they had found earlier was systemic, possibly viral, and he had taken everything offline until he could deal with it.
At the pa most semblance of military discipline had gone out the window. There was only a resentful skeleton crew looking after the pa’s defences.
Amongst the sober and resentful were Dog Face and Big Henry. Tailgunner still did not like the situation and had talked Mother into maintaining the whanau in a state of readiness. Dog Face and Big Henry had talked about jumping Tailgunner. They were only half joking. On the other hand, signalman or not, neither of them fancied messing with Tailgunner.
Mother was less pleased with Tailgunner when, after he had insisted that everyone isolate themselves from the net, he himself had tranced in. But he had not used the Apakura’s systems to do it.
After they had run diagnostics, done maintenance, used the party atmosphere to steal some much needed spare parts and upgrades and installed them, Mother found herself leaning against the leg of Apakura listening to Dog Face and Big Henry moan. Strange was sat cross-legged watching Big Henry and Dog Face slyly. A naked drunken couple ran by them; this only seemed to further annoy Dog Face and Big Henry more.
“What the fuck is he doing?” Dog Face all but howled. He swung on Mother. “We’ve fought hard enough, we deserve some of this!”
“Settle down,” Mother said. Her voice was even and quiet with just enough menace to let Dog Face know that he was approaching the line. The problem was she did not altogether disagree with his sentiments. She wanted to get drunk, go back to her tent and have some quality naked time with Tailgunner.
“Have we not been good enough soldiers?” Big Henry asked in a tone that was almost sulky.
“We’re not soldiers, we’re warriors,” Mother said without thinking. It was a reflex, something that Tailgunner always said. She wanted to talk to him. Get more of an explanation. Mother had often cursed what had seemed to be the constant violation of being personally linked to comms through her integral systems. Always being on call gave her a feeling of diminished privacy, even identity, but now she felt cut off, isolated from everyone else.
* * *
Tailgunner had been the system architect for the pa’s net representation. It looked like a pre-FHC Maori fortified settlement. A village of A-frame wooden buildings with a series of complex trenches that symbolised the defensive systems of the pa’s site. The mechs had been the to-scale mythological creatures they had been named for. Now cut off from the net, the mech’s icons were no longer present, and it made the pa look strangely empty to Tailgunner’s eyes. The environment looked like a sub-tropical volcanic landscape based on info he had found on Ao Te Aroa in the net.
He stood in the centre wearing his kahuh huruhuru feathered cloak, cradling his taiaha. The eel net that Miru had given him was hanging from a rope wrapped around his waist.
All around him patterns appeared and disappeared in the carved wood of the virtual pa’s structures, providing him with system information. There was only one other signal person tranced into the net at the moment and they were there under protest; they wanted to be partying in the real world like everyone else.
Nobody was visiting the site from elsewhere but more and more information about Their withdrawal was making its way to the pa. Most of it was still classified, as nobody wanted to be the one to officially break the news in case they were wrong. So other than him and the wairua water spirits, guardian programmes of his design, and the inattentive signal person, the net seemed a lonely place.
What got Tailgunner was that there was no warning. It should have tripped every single one of his sentry and defence programmes. Its virtual size alone was violating the pa’s protocols, the virtual rules that the environment was programmed to obey.
Tailgunner had walked over the tops of the trenches to look out over the ocean scene he had programmed for no other reason than aesthetic pleasure. It was a high spec animation of the sun rising over what he thought was called the Pacific Ocean in the farthest, most eastern point of the north island of Ao Te Aroa. Tailgunner assumed that he could never do it justice, but it was vastly preferable to the harsh strip lighting of his subterranean life.
In the sunlight-dappled water he was aware of, rather than saw, the inhuman movements of the wairua guardian programmes. Spirits, he reminded himself: spirits, not programmes, and he was a tohunga, not a hacker. Words were important, or rather belief in those words, particularly after the way he had lectured the others earlier on.
Then the sun went out. Horror was etched on the beautifully rendered icon that Tailgunner wore in the net as he looked up. Something had blocked out the sun. He had only moments to register the wairua being sucked up into the wave, their colours changing to match the black water, their already monstrous features warping further. Less than a moment to register the beatific, angelic figures in the sky above the wave glowing with their own fierce light. Less than a fraction of a moment to grab the eel net from his rope belt and cast it at the wall of water about to engulf him and then eject himself from the net.
* * *
Tailgunner’s eyes flicked open. He was lying on his couch in Apakura, though he had tranced in through his own integral comms link, which he had just hurriedly shut down. He checked all his systems, software and hardware to see if he had been infected by what he had seen. He felt like he had been immersed in ice, it took him a while to realise that this was fear and not some kind of biofeedback from a viral attack.
It must have been what Miru had warned him about, he thought. Was this a new Them attack? It had just swept through every defence as if they had not existed. What were the angels? Were they the icons of Them hackers?
Tailgunner swung off the bench and headed for the belly hatch, dropping down onto the gravel. He could see Mother, Dog Face, Big Henry and Strange all staring at the massive viz screen bolted to a laser cut section of rock wall. He walked over to join them. The party had stopped. All the base personnel were watching the huge viz screen and suddenly seemed very sober.
The viz was split-screen: half of it showed a group of armed people that Tailgunner recognised as soldiers or ex-soldiers – but then again who isn’t these days, he thought. The other half showed a handsome, well-groomed man with duelling scars that suggested an executive samurai to Tailgunner. He was wearing a flight suit.
The soldier types looked like they had taken over some kind of broadcast facility. There was a sickly-looking man, a weirdo in a string vest and boxer shorts, a pretty young woman with short hair, a dark skinned operator whose ethnicity Tailgunner could not place, two cyberbilly musicians and then the two monsters.
Tailgunner recognised one of the monsters; he looked like some kind of sea demon. His name was Balor, an ex-special forces operator turned pirate king of New York. Everyone had heard stories about him.
The other was something different. The other appalled Tailgunner. Despite all the cybernetics Tailgunner just could not shake the feeling of disgust at the violation of the human form and flesh of the second monster. It looked like someone had tried to squeeze one of Them into a human form.
Mother spared Tailgunner a glance as he joined them.
“What’s going on?” he asked. Big Henry pointed at the ex-soldiers with the monsters.
“Them Fifth Column.”
Tailgunner was often described as taciturn but at this he just gaped at Big Henry in astonishment.
“It seems that some vets including a human/ninja hybrid took over a media node and released a Them virus into the Earthnet. Handed all of the Sol systems comms and defences to Them,” Mother continued the story.
“Earth’s fallen?” Tailgunner managed.
“No. As far as I can tell Earth has been co-opted by a sophisticated black propaganda operation,” Mother told him. Tailgunner was struggling to keep up.
“Looks like that’s the reason for the withdrawal,” Big Henry said. “You were right, it is a big push, but not on us – on the home system. And They’re going to find it wide open.”
Dog Face just whimpered. Strange looked stricken.
“Who’s the suit?” Tailgunner asked, because he couldn’t think of anything else to say.
“Vincent Cronin,” Mother answered. “Apparently he’s the head of the Free Earth Government in Exile. Him and a group of special ops and military intelligence types managed to fight their way out. They call themselves the Free Earth Squadrons.” Then Mother turned on him. “Where have you been this time?” Tailgunner was struggling to deal with information overload. “Tails!” Mother snapped.
“Something just happened to the Net. Something swamped it, just went through every defence I’d set up as if it wasn’t there.”
“That was the Free Earth Guys,” Big Henry answered. “It’s some kind of intelligent programme, it’s the only defence we have against Their alien virus apparently.”
“It’s what Miru warned me against,” Tailgunner said. The others turned to look at him. “What?”
“It’s supposed to be our defence,” Big Henry said.
“Then why did Miru want me out of the Spirit World?”
“You mean the net, right?” Henry asked. Tailgunner stared at him. Big Henry met the look without flinching.
“Crisis of faith, Big Henry?” Tailgunner asked. Strange came over and stood by Tailgunner and wrapped her arms around him. Mother tried not to let it bother her.
“He’s right,” Dog Face growled.
“Look, I’m all about this Maori thing,” Dog Face began. “I really am – our identity, our history, it’s all important. But believing our mythology? Literally?”
“What, you think I’m lying?” Tailgunner asked. He felt Strange tense.
“No, I just don’t think we can be sure what it was you actually spoke to.”
“So that’s it? The first time we’re actually challenged over anything, we find it’s all a lie we’ve been living? Who we’ve tried to be, it’s all meaningless?” Tailgunner was starting to get angry. Dog Face and Big Henry were starting to shift uneasily. Strange was staring fiercely at the pair.
“Slavish adherence to faith in the face of sense…” Big Henry started.
“So we’re just going to take the word of a group of Earthers we’ve never met over one of ours because they’re up on the Viz screen?” Mother cut in. This stopped Big Henry and Dog Face. “We leave all the comms gear off, especially our personal stuff, until we find out more, okay?” Dog Face and Big Henry nodded, looking slightly ashamed of themselves.
Strange tugged on Tailgunner’s arm and pointed. The other four looked over. They could see Martins talking to four MPs. They used their optics to zoom in on the conversation. Martins seemed to be looking repeatedly over towards the five of them.
“Shit,” Mother muttered. She knew she had pushed Martins too hard and this was too public to get rid of him. Martins and the four MPs started to head over to them.
“What do you want us to do?” Big Henry asked.
“Let’s see what they’ve got to say,” Mother said.
“They’re not taking you,” Dog Face growled.
“Everyone salute and play nice. That means attention,” Mother said.
“Then they’ll know something’s up,” Dog Face growled. The five of them tried to suppress smiles as Martins reached them. This probably infuriated the Major further. The five of them snapped to attention and saluted as smartly as they could manage. Martins glared at Mother but turned to Tailgunner.
“Sergeant Harrison,” he said to the MP sergeant. “Place Corporal Ruru under arrest.” Ruru was Tailgunner’s real name. All of the Whanau started to protest, though Strange did it silently.
“Quiet!” Mother snapped. “What’s he charged with?”
“Terrorism,” Martins answered. He seemed serious. Tailgunner smiled; Big Henry and Dog Face started laughing. Martin nodded to the MPs. They stepped forwards nervously and suddenly the smiles disappeared.
“Keep your fucking hands off me,” Tailgunner told the two MPs reaching for him. They hesitated.
“Come on, Tails, don’t make this any harder than it already is,” Sergeant Harrison said.
“Are you resisting?” Martins asked.
“I want to know what you’re talking about,” Tailgunner demanded.
“We have received a report that you attempted to attack the new computer defences put in place by the Free Earth Government.”
“Who from?” Mother asked. Martins gave her a look of contempt. Mother resisted the urge to reach out and snap the foolish little prick’s neck. “From the Squadrons? Are they even part of our command structure?”
“They are our government Sergeant,” Martins said, as if he was explaining something to a particularly stupid child.
“You’d better keep a civil tongue in your head,” Big Henry told the Major.
“That’s enough,” Mother admonished, but Big Henry kept on staring at Martins.
“Look, everyone must’ve tried to attack that thing. It just swept though all our defences as if it didn’t exist. To be honest I didn’t have time to do much. I didn’t know what it was.”
“So your defence for terrorism is ignorance?” Martins’ tone dripped with sarcasm.
“No, it’s doing his job, you fucking idiot!” Dog Face spat. Martins swung on him.
“Arrest the freak as well!” The MPs were still hesitating. “Now!”
“I don’t think that’s going to happen,” Mother said.
“C’mon, Mother, don’t be difficult,” Harrison was all but pleading.
“I don’t accept the charge and I don’t accept the authority in this matter,” Mother said.
“This is mutiny!” Martins was drooling, he was so angry. Mother shrugged.
“Whatever, but face facts, your people have been drinking for eight hours straight. Mine haven’t.” She leant in close to Martins. He in turn leant away from her. “You lack the ability to enforce your will.”
“Perhaps you haven’t noticed the Company at my command?” Martins pointed out.
“Perhaps you haven’t noticed our mechs,” Dog Face pointed out.
“Besides,” Mother began. “We’ve fought with most of these guys for a long time. I don’t think you’ll find many takers. So why don’t you just fuck off? We can sort this out when we know more about what’s going on.”
“Sort this out! Sort this out! Mutiny, insubordination, cowardice – they’ll take you out behind the latrines and fucking shoot you!”
“Cowardice?” Mother was genuinely confused.
“You disobeyed a direct order and sent in a probe after sanitising the area. You lacked the courage to follow my hard charging orders!”
Mother, Tailgunner, Dog Face, Big Henry and Strange all stared at Martins and then as one started laughing. Even Strange, though her laughter was eerie and silent.
“You had us hide in a sea of acid for seventy two hours,” Mother managed through what would have been tears if she had real eyes. “You wasted hundreds of thousands of dollars of taxpayer’s money on a plasma strike…” Mother found herself unable to continue, she was laughing so hard.
“Fucking arrest that ridiculous tattooed bitch as well!” Martins was practically screaming now. It is not as easy to kick people in the face in 1.5G as it is in lower gravity. Dog Face managed it. Martins presumably had subcutaneous armour like the rest of them but he also had a fleshy face. The reinforced cartilage in his nose held but blood still exploded out of it and the force of the impact made his face ripple. The force of the kick picked him up off his feet, the higher G pulling him painfully to the ground. He was unconscious before he landed.
Harrison rather gamely tried to draw his sidearm. Mother stepped forward and locked up his wrist, causing Harrison to double over. She took the pistol from his hand with ease. The other MPs started going for their sidearms.
“Don’t be stupid,” Tailgunner said. They stopped. Dog Face was growling and drooling. Strange started to growl as well. Mother let Harrison go. She ejected the magazine on his pistol, worked the slide ejecting the chambered round and threw the gun back to him.
“This is on us. Get out of here,” she said to the MP. Harrison gave it some thought and nodded. He and the four MPs turned and headed off. They left Martins where he had landed. Mother turned on Dog Face.
“What the fuck’ you thinking?!” she demanded.
“He did the right thing,” Tailgunner said. “They can’t speak to you like that.” Mother was only slightly mollified.
“What now?” Big Henry asked.
“Prep the mechs,” Mother said as she started walking away from them.
“We’ve prepped the mechs already!” Big Henry shouted back.
“Prep them again! Get them ready to move!” Mother shouted back. She was surprised when Strange joined her. She glanced down at the girl but Strange was just looking ahead, the expression on her pale features unreadable.
* * *
Max was sat on his sofa, naked, his head in his hands. It had all seemed so great for a moment. An end to the war, then a long party, and then slowly try to find a life without the conflict. How quickly that ended. He had drunk too much. Sobriety and the hangover had seemed to accompany the bad news from Earth. The headache made him feel like his head splitting open would be a blessed relief.
Mother all but kicked the door down. Max jumped, he looked around for a weapon before the visual information forced its way through his hangover and he registered that it was only Mother and Strange.
“What the fuck?” he managed weakly.
“We’re going AWOL,” Mother announced.
“That’s nice. What the fuck’s it got to do with me?”
“The caches.” Suddenly Max was even more and painfully sober.
“I don’t know what you’re talking…”
Mother was across the room, yanked Max off the sofa by his throat and rammed him into the wall. She was all but nose-to-nose with him.
“Don’t fucking insult my intelligence! Everyone knows you’ve been siphoning off our supplies and hiding them through out the T.O.O!” She snarled at him and then looked down. “Why are you naked?” She suddenly let go of him and backed off.
“We thought it was the end of the war,” he shrugged. Mother was not sure she completely understood the connection. “Okay, let’s assume what you say is correct. What’s it to you?”
“I want the coordinates.”
Max started laughing. “Who wouldn’t? So fucking what? Whoa!” Mother had drawn her Personal Defence Weapon, unfolded it and Max had found himself looking down its barrel. “What the fuck are you doing?!”
“Look, I could beat it out of you, you know I could, but I don’t have much time.”
“So you’re going to fucking kill me? We’re supposed to be friends!”
“It’s you or the whanau, Max. I’m sorry. Don’t die for profit you’d never see anyway,” Mother said earnestly. Max looked from the barrel of the PDW to Strange. The girl was leaning against the wall, her head cocked at an angle, watching Max. She had a slight smile on her face. Max knew she would really kill him.
“Fucking Ngati Apakura, it’s just you guys and fuck everyone else, huh?”
“For what it’s worth, Max, I’m sorry it came to this.”
“Fuck you! What, the war’s not over so you’re going to run? Fucking cowards!”
“Max, the caches.”
“I’ll text them to you now.” He spat bitterly.
“No.” Max looked confused. “Write them down. Just the coordinates.”
“Write them? I can just text them…”
“You’re fucked in the head, you know that?” he snarled, and then started looking around for something to write with and on. Everything was electronic so this was easier said than done. Mother turned to Strange.
“You stay here with him. When he’s finished, bring it over to me.”
Strange nodded and then Mother walked out of Max’s office. Max turned to look at the girl. He had a lot of weight and years on her. He had grown up hard like everyone else around here and seen his fair share of combat. Even then he was not sure he could take Strange. She had been taught to fight by Tailgunner and Mother and he had seen her in fights in the mess before – she was an unrestrained psycho. Besides, even if he could take her, he knew that the whanau would kill him. He found a crate marker and some packing material and began to score info down on it.
“I think you should write the real coordinates down,” Strange whispered in his ear. Max jumped again. She was stood behind him, looking over his shoulder. He had not heard a thing and she never spoke!
“I was,” he stammered. Max had no idea why he was so frightened. Strange just shook her head.
* * *
Mother tried to ignore the sounds of Max’s screams as she made her way across the pa towards the mechs. A number of her fellow soldiers were looking at the prefab where Max’s offices were but nobody wanted to get involved, yet.
As she made it back to the mechs Martins had just pushed himself up on his arms and was trying to climb to his feet. She put the full force of her body behind the punch. She felt armour crack beneath her knuckles as she contacted and knocked him out again. The sound of the blow seemed to echo around the cavern.
“We’ll give him brain damage, we keep hitting him that hard,” Big Henry commented.
“What brains?” Mother muttered under her breath.
“Where we taking the mechs?” Dog Face asked. “You know they’ll come after us.”
“I’m hoping they’ll have other priorities, but we’re going down the Dunny.” Dog Face and Henry just stared at her.
“So we’re not taking the mechs?” Dog Face asked, fearing the answer.
“We’re taking the mechs.”
“What are you talking about? Mechs can’t climb down the Dunny,” Henry said.
“Then we’re going to end up crushed corpses in a pile of crumpled metal at the bottom, aren’t we? Which is no different to what we’ll be if they catch us and court martial us.”
“We’ll get a nice last meal,” Big Henry said, but went back to his prep after Mother glared at him.
“Where’s Tailgunner?” Mother found herself asking again.
* * *
Tailgunner was in his own personal net. It was largely just a lot of memory space in a solid-state memory cube. He saw it as a large black void. It was empty except for the net that Miru had given him. It was completely cut off from the planetary net.
Tailgunner floated in the nothingness, looking down on the glowing net. The part of the black wave programme that he had captured looked like a huge, vicious and somewhat demonic, very angry, black eel. It was thrashing in the net, trying to break free, but the net was holding.
Tailgunner did not want to get too close to the thing, as ridiculous as that was, as if space had any real meaning in here. Tailgunner had also been very careful about analysing the black eel programme. He did not want to be in direct contact with it and risk contamination or assimilation of his systems. He did not want to risk breaking the containment programme that was Miru’s eel net.
What he had found, however, disturbed him greatly. The programme was incredibly powerful, with an architecture that he did not quite understand, that somehow seemed alien to him. It had been designed to take control of every system it encountered. In short it may be the inoculation programme that the Free Earth Squadrons had described but it also seemed to be like the programme the Free Earth Squadrons had claimed that the Fifth Columnists had used to take control of the Sol System’s net.
Tailgunner jacked out.
* * *
Mother was stood over Tailgunner as he lay on the couch in Apakura.
“Is it important?” she asked.
“Yes,” he answered.
“At this very moment?”
“Probably, but I don’t think I can figure it right now.”
“Then we have other things to do,” she said. Tailgunner nodded and sat up, pulling the jacks from the back of his skull.
“I have a piece of the programme that appears to have taken over the net,” Tailgunner said. Mother stopped to listen but said nothing. “I caught it in a containment programme that Miru gave me. I don’t understand the containment programme and I don’t understand the black wave that took over our net. I do know that Miru wanted us to stay away from it.”
“Okay. Can we do anything about this now?” Mother asked again.
“No, but I think that’s the terrorism they were talking about. There’s probably people on the way here now but they control the net, so I can’t check, can’t communicate with anyone else. Can’t use the pa’s automated defences. We’re clean, the mechs are clean, and that’s it. We’re blind, deaf and dumb.”
“Okay. We’re going down the Dunny,” Mother said. Tailgunner gaped at her.
“You mean figuratively?” he asked, a worried expression on his face.
“Mother!” It was Big Henry from outside. Both of them got up and headed for the Belly Hatch.
* * *
Tailgunner and Mother slid out of the Apakura’s belly hatch and dropped to the gravel. Big Henry, Dog Face and a number of other people who had been milling around were watching a figure that was moving towards the mechs, staggering as if drunk.
“Is that Strange?” Tailgunner asked, and magnified his image. Strange was walking towards them, grinning.
“Is she high?” Dog Face growled. “Jesus.” Strange’s hands were bloody up past her wrists. She reached up to caress her face and smeared blood on it. She reached the four of them. There was murmuring amongst the other soldiers hanging around, looking at Strange’s odd behaviour, blood dripping from her hands.
Strange walked up to Mother and took hold of one of her hands, smearing it in blood. She put the bloody paper with the coordinates for the caches in them, and something else. Mother looked appalled as she held up a grisly plastic component. Tailgunner stared at it as Strange ecstatically caressed her face with her bloody hands.
“You cut out his memory chip?” Tailgunner said, aghast. Strange smiled.
“You killed Max?” Mother said a little too loud. A ripple of conversation went through the other nearby soldiers.
“You knew that they would get the coordinates from Max’s head when they wanted them,” Tailgunner said. Strange smiled. Mother had known the same thing but she had not wanted to face up to it. She had to now. She wondered if she was the one who had forced Strange’s hand, but she knew the girl had enjoyed it. Something else she did not want to face up to. Just how sick was Strange?
The grinding noise of the main gate opening echoed around the cavern. They all turned to look. Everyone in the camp had turned to look. This worried Tailgunner and Mother because it meant nobody had expected it.
“We need to go,” Mother said before turning to Strange. “Clean off your hands. Don’t gum up the control gloves in Atua Kahukahu.” Strange looked disappointed but nodded. She started wiping her bloody hands on the front of her fatigues.
Through the widening gap in the huge armoured gates they were surprised to see some sort of airborne craft, bobbing up and down as it hovered. The craft looked as if it was impatient to get inside. A figure walked through the opening in the gate. The figure was making his way straight towards them.
“You there, stop!” the figure shouted. The man’s accent was English. He was holding a gauss carbine at the ready but not pointing it at them. As he shouted, Martins began to groan.
“Perfect,” Mother muttered. All of them were edging towards their mechs. The man was closer now. He was a short man, compact but he looked wiry and there was suggestion of coiled power in his surprisingly easy step for an offworlder new to a high G world. His hair was short and he was nondescript in an almost purposeful way. He wore inertial fatigues that bore no insignia.
As they continued edging towards their mechs, he raised his gauss carbine and pointed it at Mother and Tailgunner.
“I said stay were you are.” They knew that he probably could not get all of them, but getting one of them was unacceptable, so for the time being they froze. That was except Strange, who was moving away from him as if trying to circle him.
“Strange,” Tailgunner hissed as the barrel of the gauss carbine twitched between all five of them.
“Have no doubt I will kill her,” the man said. They only caught the end of his sentence through their audio filters as the craft that had been hovering impatiently outside tilted almost to ninety degrees and flew through the gap and into the pa.
They recognised it as an assault shuttle but not one they had ever seen before. Whilst definitely human in design it looked somehow futuristic to them, as if it was the next iteration of military hardware. The assault shuttle remained hovering behind the human, covering the mechs. The man turned to point his weapon at Strange. She kept moving.
“Strange!” Mother shouted with all the authority that came of being first a gang leader and then an NCO. Strange looked resentful but stopped moving. Martins sat up. All of the pa’s personnel were now out watching this unfold.
“All of you are under arrest!” the short man shouted. His voice was as devoid of character as his features.
“On what charge?!” Mother shouted over the assault shuttle’s engines.
“Terrorism and treason!” the man answered as he moved towards them, still pointing the carbine between them. Tailgunner was backing towards his pack which he had left lying on the gravel. He had left something lying across it that he felt he needed now. The man’s carbine twitched to cover him.
“I said freeze!” Tailgunner did so, staring at the man, trying to wish the carbine away so this could be equal. Like warriors. The short man was approaching Mother.
“Down on your knees!” he ordered.
“That’s not going to happen,” Mother answered evenly.
“I will fire!”
“You’re going to have to,” she answered. He was still moving up on her, one hand held the carbine the other was reaching for restraints. Rookie error, or so Mother thought. As soon as he closed she batted the barrel to one side, stepped into him, spinning round to elbow him in the face. Strange started running.
The short man ducked under her elbow and swept out her legs. She found herself on the floor with the man’s foot about to stamp on her face. She only just rolled out of the way as he stamped down, causing a small explosion of gravel. Mother managed to roll onto all fours as the man’s foot kicked her in the stomach so hard that, despite her subcutaneous armour, it winded her. The force of the blow picked her up and spun her onto her back. Mother found herself lying on the gravel fighting for breath. The man stood over her, his carbine levelled at her.
“Roll onto your front and put your hands behind your–” Strange landed on the man’s back. She had a carbon fibre kerambit in each hand. She was screaming and repeatedly stabbing the man in the head with the curved Malaysian blades. The man reached over his back and grabbed her, tearing her off and throwing her to the ground like she was a rag doll.
Mother forced herself onto all fours.
Dog Face was on him next, his stainless steel claws tearing at the man’s face. The man clubbed Dog Face in his dog face with his gauss carbine. Dog Face staggered back. The man kicked forward and down, catching Dog Face in the stomach and knocking him off his feet.
Mother forced herself onto her feet.
Big Henry swung his club into the back of the man’s legs. The club was made of ghostwood, the dense hard wood of genetically engineered trees that grew in the parts of the Twilight Strip closest to Dayside. The club was studded with hardened Dayside obsidian that had been laser cut into the shape of shark’s teeth. They tore and ripped as they penetrated the man’s skin after puncturing the inertial armour that had hardened under the impact of the club’s kinetic force.
The man sank to his knees. Big Henry swung again. The man blocked the blow with his own arm. Big Henry felt the impact through the hardwood haft of the club. From the ground the man kicked up hitting Henry in the chin. There was the sickening crunch of armour cracking and bone powdering. Henry was knocked off his feet and landed on his arse.
The Man stood up and winced as he tore the club out of his arm. He started to bring the carbine up to bear on Dog Face who was about to pounce again when the carbine was hit so hard that the weapon cracked and was rendered useless. The man turned to look at Tailgunner. Tailgunner was casually twirling the taiaha from one side to the other. Tailgunner’s eyes widened in surprise as he finally got a chance to have a look at the wounds they had inflicted on the man’s face.
Where Strange’s kerambit and Dog face’s claws had ripped open the flesh, tendrils of black liquid were knitting it back together and sealing it. It gave the man’s face the disconcerting look of something seething and crawling under the skin. It took a moment to place where he had seen it before.
“You’re one of Them,” he said. “Some kind of infiltrator.” Dog Face had been on all fours but he straightened up, smiling. Strange was pacing backwards and forwards but made no move to attack. Big Henry retrieved his club with one hand and held the remains of his chin with the other. He stared at the short man with a sense of satisfaction. They all knew Tailgunner would deal with him. Tailgunner had, after all, grown up hard and been fighting all of his life in some of the toughest neighbourhoods in Moa City. No amount of special forces training, so they thought, could match that kind of experience. This would not be the first special forces type who had underestimated the hacker.
“We’re not Them, you ungrateful bastards, we’re here to save you,” the man said, looking at the taiaha. He laughed humourlessly. “What are you going to do with a wooden club?” He asked. Tailgunner showed him.
Tailgunner struck with the hard wood blade of the taiaha lightning fast strikes, swung hard and each one punctuated with a scream. He struck each arm and each leg. With each blow came the sound of a sickening crack. The man screamed in pain and collapsed to his knees. Tailgunner screamed again and hit the man in the face with the full force of the taiaha, powdering bone and whipping the head round. The man’s head went limp, sagging forwards. There was a wet gurgling sound. Tailgunner looked down at the man’s eyes wide with anger. It took him a moment to realise that the strange gurgling noise was laughter.
Tailgunner’s expression changed to one of shock. There were more horrible cracking noises as bones knitted back together. The man stood up, his laughter sounding more human as he healed himself.
“A club?” Black blades slid out from under each of his fingernails. The looked somehow organic. “You fucking savage.”
“Now!” Mother’s amplified voice screamed. Tailgunner dived out of the way. To all intents and purposes the short man ceased to exist when the 300mm penetrator round from Apakura’s mass driver hit him centre mass with enough kinetic force to basically cause him to explode. There was an explosion of rock and gravel as the round buried itself deep in the cavern floor, leaving a tube-like furrow of smoking, red-hot rock in its wake.
* * *
On her couch in Apakura Mother had triggered three weapon systems simultaneously. As the short man had exploded she had fired four of her long-range missiles at near point-blank range at the assault shuttle. At the same time she had also activated the ball-mounted laser point defence system. As soon as the little man had ceased to exist, perhaps even at the same time, the assault shuttle had launched missiles at the Apakura.
The duel between the shuttle and the mech was fought in the air between the two vehicles in less than a second. Rounds from the shuttle’s rotary rail guns sparked off the armoured hull of the Apakura as lasers detonated missiles in mid-air. The Apakura won as one of her High Explosive Armour Piercing Missiles made it through the shuttle’s point defence lasers, burrowed into the shuttle’s armour and exploded. Mother shifted the mass driver towards the shuttle and started firing round after round into it. The penetrator rounds flew straight through the shuttle as it tilted and seemingly in slow motion started to fall to the ground.
People fled as the shuttle hit the ground, a crumpled, tangled mess of armour, engines and ordinance that miraculously did not explode. Mother watched through the mech’s cameras as the rest of whanau emerged from their hiding places.
“Get in your mechs, now!” she ordered. They ran for their respective mechs. She heard Tailgunner climb in the Apakura behind her as she started to make the mech walk towards the gate. She saw the gates were starting to close so she put a mass driver round into the motor housings of each of them.
Small-calibre, and some less small-calibre, rounds began to ricochet off the mech’s armoured hull as all the remote drones in the base rose into the air as one and began to fire on the mech, as did the base’s automated defence systems.
“Tailgunner, are you working today?” Mother enquired as she headed for the gate.
“They’ve taken over every automated weapon system they can find,” Tailgunner explained as the Apakura’s systems overlaid targeting solutions onto the three dimensional topographical map that was being fed to Tailgunner’s Internal Visual Display.
“I don’t care,” Mother muttered under her breath. The Apakura’s belly, rotary rail guns started firing, moving from target to target as did the point defence lasers. Tailgunner used them to destroy the remotes and the pa’s internal defence systems in very rapid succession.
Through the cameras Mother saw the other three mechs come to life and fall in behind her. She also saw Martins still sat on the ground looking frightened, confused and frozen. Most of the other base personnel were still hiding. With a thought, Mother switched on Apakura’s loudspeaker.
“It looks like these so-called freedom Squadrons are impostors. Them infiltrators of a type we’ve never seen before. There will be more on the way. You need to run. Go to the places you know and we will find you.” The Apakura was nearly at the door now.
“The external defences,” Tailgunner warned, and then he spoke through the loudspeaker to the base personnel as well. “They control the net. Everything you do is monitored. Do not try and use the net or anything connected to it, or they will be able to track you. All the automated defence systems, remotes and anything controlled through the net can be turned against you.” Then they were at the gate.
The external defences were straining to get angle on the whanau’s mechs but they could not turn inwards enough. The Apakura, as well as the two Landsknecht class mechs, Dog Face’s Kopuwai and Big Henry’s Whakatau, fired on the automated weapons. Plasma and mass driver rounds turned them to slag and wreckage. Strange’s small Steel Mantis scout mech Atua Kahukahu crouched and ran under Apakura and ahead into the darkness.
* * *
Randolph’s Dunny was a vertical crevice about three miles deep. It was used as a dumping ground for non-recyclable waste from the pa. This included at least one of Mother’s previous commanding officers. Little attempt had been made to explore the vast underground tunnel system connected to the base of the crevice. It was uneven, pitted, with lots of handholds, reasonably easy to climb if you were not in a large armoured fighting machine.
Mother was glad that there was no comms traffic so she could not hear all the complaints for what they were about to do.
“You sure about this?” Tailgunner asked.
“Don’t ask stupid questions.”
“Okay. Do you think there’s any chance we can make it?”
“I need you to be quiet, Tails,” Mother said. She was studying the topographical rendering with the eyes of an experienced climber. Every Lalande colonist could climb. It was an important survival skill in their subterranean world. Mother decided where the legs where going to go. With all the external lights on she stretched the legs over and used them to wedge the Apakura over the three-mile drop and slowly lowered the mech into the hole. She steadied the mech and then moved the mech’s legs to their next position. To the others watching in their own mechs it looked like the Apakura was sinking into Randolph’s Dunny. As the Apakura sank lower and lower one by one the other three mechs climbed over the edge and followed.
His men had the remaining firebase personnel down on their knees, hands secured behind their backs. Major Rolleston watched as Josephine walked up and down the line of prisoners.
“What happened?” Cronin’s comms icons asked from its window in the Major’s IVD. Rolleston cast his eye on the crumpled wreckage of the assault shuttle. It had been doused in flame-retardant chemicals before they got here.
“It’s what you saw through the lenses. The mech operators took out the shuttle and the automated defences and then climbed down the crevice, and I don’t have enough people to play hide-and-seek in the cave system down there. It’s enormous,” Rolleston explained in his cultured, educated upper-class English accent.
“What about the rest of the base personnel?” Cronin asked.
“Some fled. Most stayed. People are sheep. Of those that fled we’ve recovered maybe a quarter, but this Corporal Ruru warned them about Demiurge and most of them have maintained comms discipline.”
“Freedom Wave,” Cronin corrected.
“I appreciate the importance of giving Demiurge a less sinister name but couldn’t your psych ops people come up with something better?”
“PR, not psych ops. We should have killed them with the firebase’s internal defence systems when we had the chance.”
“We need to know how they managed to harm Demi…Freedom Wave. Did you ask the Seraphim how that could happen?”
“Not yet, but something that can harm Freedom Wave is not good unless we can harness it and use it against God.”
“One of the Aberrations?” Rolleston asked.
“Probably, what do you want to do?” Cronin asked, changing the subject.
“Well, Freedom Wave controls all the footage, and we manipulate it. Make the mech pilots out to be responsible. Paint them as a Them fifth column; that should frighten people enough that they will find little succour.”
“We don’t want a resistance movement.”
“We control the surveillance infrastructure of the whole planet. All they can do is hide in caves far away from everyone.”
“The survivors have to die.”
“I’ll see you when you get back here.” Rolleston cut the link.
Rolleston nodded to Bran. The Grey Lady lifted the laser carbine to her shoulder and aimed at the back of the head of the first prisoner in line. As the prisoner’s head exploded in superheated red steam, Rolleston wondered why people just would not do what they were told and spare themselves all this suffering.