Chapter 17

A warm wind blows across a narrow upland lake that smells of salt. Until three months ago, I’d never even seen a proper lake. But then, until a year ago all I knew was desert and forts and battles against the ferox. It’s been two days since we fought the Silver Fist, and five hours since we made camp high on the edge of a mountain.

Franc and I stand guard.

Except we sit. Somehow, I end up telling her about losing my arm. It is a simple enough story. My arm was ripped off by eight foot of fur and fangs. If the ferox hadn’t been dying, it would probably have taken my other arm and both my legs as well.

I took the beast’s head and left my arm.

Seems a fair trade to me.

Franc laughs when I say this, though I’m not sure why. Then I see it, or at least I think I do. A light skimming high in the sky above us.

At its fattest point, Hekati’s ring, in a cross section, is eighteen miles from side to side. Most of the ballast beneath our feet, including the mountain on this side and the rubble under that, exists to provide radiation shielding. That still leaves several miles of air above us, before you hit the chevron glass overhead.

‘What?’ Franc says.

‘He’s glitching,’ says the SIG.

I ignore it. ‘Up there,’ I tell Franc.

She scans the night sky. ‘A shooting star?’

‘Wrong side of the glass.’

As I stand, the single light becomes two. I keep watching, just in case it splits again, and when both lights begin to drop, I yank Franc upright. ‘Get Neen and tell him to catch up with me.’

I head downhill before she can reply.

‘Suppose Vijay gets them killed?’ demands my gun. ‘Not that I give a fuck, obviously.’

‘He won’t.’

‘How can you be sure?’

‘Neen won’t allow it.’

If you want to build your leg muscles, spend fifteen years marching on sand. Running over rock is nothing after that. Withered trees slip by. A stone wall appears, the first sign of civilization. A dog barks from a hut below. Only the hut and dog and slope are now somewhere behind me.

The two lights are closer now. Still falling, faster than I would expect.

Flicking up the screen on my helmet loses them. Flipping it down brings them back. Their heat signature is tiny. Most of the energy transfer is happening beyond the visible bands. Shit, I think. Where did that thought come from? ‘Where do you think?’ asks my gun.

Didn’t realize I had spoken aloud.

‘You can see it?’

‘Them,’ says the SIG.

I turn it off.

My boots take me down a twisting path and through an orange grove towards a small valley where the lights are heading. And the lights are powered, because they shift position twice, adjusting direction and rate of fall. But this isn’t a powered descent; it’s a jump followed by a controlled fall.

FLEAS – fast leaping enemy access system. Some geek’s idea of a joke. Slapping the gun awake, I say, ‘Explosive.’

‘Don’t you want to confirm identity?’

I hate it when the SIG’s right. ‘Be ready,’ I tell it.

Yeah, I know, it’s always fucking ready.

Hitting the bottom of a slope, I make it halfway up the other side in a single rush and roll to a stop. I’m grinning. Not sure I knew how much all that going to parties and being polite to Colonel Vijay was getting to me.

‘Incoming,’ says the gun.

I duck, but it means the landers.

Metal hits rock and long legs splay, pistons hissing. Dust rises, clearly visible through my night visor. The metal legs stay splayed, because each flea spikes to bedrock to stop its rebound. Flame adds to the dust, as explosive charges blow off doors and restraining straps peel back.

One of the two pilots yanks the ring on a ceramic tube.

Chaff, I think. Only it’s blinder.

A million sparks flare as magnesium ignites. Luckily, my brain’s ahead of me and I’m flat in the dirt, eyes shut and then rolling out of harm’s way before a slug clips splinters from a rock beside me.

Night vision’s fucked, though.

These aren’t Silver Fist, and they’re sure as hell not Death’s Head. They are carrying weapons from half a dozen different armies.

Dropping into a ditch, I sight over the edge. Empty a clip to keep them locked down. ‘Got one,’ says the gun.

I’m not sure. So I stay low until I hear a rustle behind me.

Flipping round, I find Colonel Vijay wearing a red dot from the SIG right in the middle of his forehead. Remember that one-second rule? Never been so tempted in my life. Only then, of course, we wouldn’t have the jump coordinates to get us off this habitat.

‘Get down,’ I tell him.

He opens his mouth to object.

‘Alternatively, sir . . . feel free to get yourself killed.’

Something tells me this really is his first time in the field. Behind him, five troopers crouch in the dirt.

Neen crawls forward.

‘How many, sir?’

‘Two.’ Half of me wants to bollock him for not being quicker. The other half for not taking longer. I was just beginning to enjoy myself.

‘Silver Fist?’

‘Guess again,’ I tell him.

The army’s mostly militia where he comes from and their job is to die. Militia don’t qualify for jumping fleas or use night haze. Kit like that comes expensive and militia are cheap. Since our new arrivals are not Death’s Head and they’re not Silver Fist, that only leaves . . .

‘Mercenaries?’

Maybe Neen will make good after all.

Nodding, I tell him to take two troopers and work his way round to the other side. He chooses Rachel, plus Haze, which surprises me.

‘You,’ I tell Franc. ‘Go that way.’

My corporal slips away to my left, a blade between her teeth. I used to think soldiers only did that for effect. Not Franc, she lives those knives. Probably sleeps with one clutched to her breast. Now there’s a thought.

‘And you, follow her.’

Shil vanishes.

Who are they?’ Colonel Vijay asks.

‘Mercenaries, sir.’

These are the first civil words we’ve spoken to each other since he ordered the Aux to slaughter the Silver Fist troopers two days ago. They obeyed, despite knowing I wanted a prisoner. What else could they do?

‘Why are they here?’

‘Same reason as you, sir. I imagine.’

My answer makes him go very quiet indeed.

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