Combat Jack : A brand new short story from Gavin G. Smith

Gollancz Blog Exclusive! We have an exciting short story from author Gavin G. Smith to share with you to celebrate the publication of War in Heaven. ((WARNING STRONG LANGUAGE!))

Capital probably had a name once. It would be New something or other. Named after a city in whichever nation had claimed this particular part of Sirius real estate. It wasn’t the planet’s capital, just the biggest city, with the biggest spaceport. People are lazy and they just started referring to it as Capital. Everyone knew what they meant. Regardless of its size and importance, Capital had fallen with Their initial invasion.

We may well have abandoned the city, but it hadn’t been abandoned by Them. Now humanity wanted this dead city back. What this meant to me was that, for once, I wasn’t lying in mud. In fact, it had rained heavily and then frozen, covering the abandoned city in a sheet of ice. Sirius A was warming the other side of the planet, which left us with the pale glow of Sirius B lighting the ice-encrusted city during breaks in the cloud cover. It gave the city a sort of strange twilight glow. It was the closest I’d seen to beauty since I’d come to this cold, wet, muddy, miserable shithole of a planet.

The cloud cover was heavily ionised. We watched lightning frequently flash across the sky, sometimes darting towards the ground. This was playing merry hell with orbital observation. And this was why we were running an OP in the overrun city, high up in one of the skyscrapers, close to the lightning. We were recce for the armoured push, and forward observation for the artillery.

Edna Canavan, or Eddie, as everyone called the tough sergeant from Halifax, the head of the Wild Boys, had announced that the mission was bollocks. She told that to Rolleston to his face. I felt she’d been out of order. As COs went, Rolleston seemed okay. At least he was competent. He wasn’t going to get us killed because he’d fucked up – he was going to get us killed on purpose. Still, nobody gave a shit what I thought, least of all Eddie, because I was new. Everything I’d done in 5 Para meant shit here. Passing Special Forces selection and training meant shit here. My rank meant shit here. I was starting all over again, but the bar was set much higher this time.

“Get out of my way,” Ashley Broadin snapped at me. She was the Wild Boys’ bullet headed, Afro-Caribbean, Combat Engineer. A Brummie, she’d grown up in the Coventry refugee camps. She elbowed me out of the way and crawled over to the edge of the building. We were forty-seven storeys up, looking down on a bank of freezing fog creeping into the city obscuring the wreckage-strewn street below us. Dorcas, the Kiwi sniper, and Eddie were both wearing urban ghillie suits. Dorcas was all right, not as stand-offish or downright hostile as the others, but, like the others, he didn’t want to become close to anyone. It was the same when I’d joined the Paras, only here it was more extreme, as what the Regiment did was more dangerous, and therefore the consequences for screwing up were that much more dire. Once upon a time we would have done integration training, run sense training simulations, but the demand for people was just too high. Now there was never enough time. Hence the sink or swim approach, and why I’d just been chucked in with this group.

Dorcas and Eddie stood on the edge of the building, its windows long blown out, leaving the floor open to the freezing elements, looking down into the fog-shrouded streets. They were using their thermographic optics trying to find any telltale heat traces. The rest of us were providing security.

“Waste of fucking time,” Eddie sub-vocalised over the tac net. “If they fire from orbit they’ll hit something. All our presence does is increase the chance of a blue-on-blue.” Blue-on-blue was what the British military called accidentally shooting people on the same side as you. I wasn’t convinced that Eddie was doing our morale much good, but I kept quiet, I just wanted to remain unnoticed. After all, Peter Farrow, the huge railgunner from the East End of London, had threatened to rape me if I fucked up. I don’t think he was into guys. He just seemed to think that rape was a valuable motivational tool.

Suddenly Dorcas looked up.

“There’s someone above us,” Dorcas sub-vocalised over the tacnet, his Kiwi accent noticeably strong.

“Okay, Dorcas take Blame and the newbie and go and see. No unnecessary shooting, clear?” Eddie said.

Dorcas nodded. Tracy Blamire, or ‘the Blame’ to the rest of us, the whip-thin, speed-freak signal woman, turned to glare at me, as if this was my fault.

“Why the fuck have I got to go with green boy?” she snapped over the tacnet.

Because everyone hates you, and Eddie wants you out of her hair, I thought.

“What? Are you questioning …” Eddie started.

“I’ll go,” Gregor said.

Eddie glared at the Blame. This wasn’t finished. I suspected that Blame was going to get a bit of a kicking when we returned to the firebase. Blame turned to look at me is if that would be my fault as well. Shit rolls downhill, and I was definitely at the bottom of this hill.

Dorcas led the way. We moved up through heavily damaged stairwells as quietly as we could, checking all around us as we went. Despite the refuse on the stairs, Dorcas moved silently. I followed him, but I felt like I was making a hell of a racket in comparison. Gregor brought up the rear. I worried that if he had to fire his railgun in the building it could cause enough structural damage to drop the whole thing on us.

Gregor was the most approachable member of the Wild Boys. He was also one of the longest serving. Only Eddie had been in the squad longer. Initially, I’d thought he was being nice to me because we were both Scots – he’d grown up in Stirling, me Dundee – but he seemed to treat everyone the same. He was a quiet man with dark eyes and a surprisingly slight build for a railgunner. He’d been the only one who’d taken the time to explain how things were done.

My musings were interrupted by Blame’s voice coming over the tacnet.

“Be aware we have Heavy Battle Tanks with mounted infantry entering the central district. Both orbital and the artillery are requesting target references.” She still sounded angry. She always sounded angry. I couldn’t shake the feeling that, fitting with her name, she blamed me for something. Gregor, who had the rank here, acknowledged her message.

“Guys,” Gregor’s voice came over the tacnet. Dorcas stopped, the barrel of his Steyr carbine still pointing up the stairs as he covered our front. To my right, the stairs were open to the outside world, forty-nine storeys up. I turned to cover the inside of the building.

“You see that?” Gregor asked.

We were very still now. I could hear ice cracking and the refuse in the building being blown around by the slight breeze. I increased the size of the feed window from Gregor’s guncam in my IVD. I was looking down at a wide street filled with fog, quiet, nothing going on. Then I saw it. At first it was a disturbance in the fog, eddies in the cold, white cloud. Then something black, organic and huge briefly broke the cloud cover. The glimpse I saw reminded me as much of an insect’s stinger as an enormous gun. I felt, rather than heard, the thing’s heavy step as a shiver ran through the steps on which we stood. Then tendrils whipped out of the fog. Where they impacted I saw the superstructure of a nearby building flex inward in an explosion of debris.

“How did we not hear that?” I asked, almost involuntarily.

“The fog does strange things to sound,” Gregor answered. “Eddie, you getting this?” he asked over the tacnet.

The building shook again as the Hydra took another step nearer. I knew that Gregor would have already transmitted info from his guncam, GPS and smartlink to the hover-batteries of long-range missiles waiting out in the suburbs somewhere. This would provide them with the target acquisition information they needed. Expert and AI systems would then predict the movement of the Hydra based on the information.

“Got it. Blame, send target solutions to orbital and artillery, and warn the HBTs that we have a Hydra in town.”

Hearing Eddie confirm what I had guessed filled me with dread. I’d only ever heard of Hydras before, never seen one. They were six-legged, monstrous, bio-mechanical mechs, armed with a number of different weapon systems. They had shard cannons, black light point defence, tumour-like organic missile batteries, but most significantly Their take on the particle beam weapon. Everyone called this the Entropy Cannon. And it was that I’d glimpsed breaking the cloud cover. My knowledge of Hydras was not restricted to their fearsome weapons complement. I also knew that they didn’t go out alone. Beneath us, in the freezing mist, would be Walkers, Berserks, their ground effects tank/APC hybrids, and their version of our fast-attack sleds. The only good news was that they didn’t seem to have air-support. Yet.

“If orbital’s involved we need to get out of here, Eddie,” Gregor said. “They don’t care about us.” I agreed with that sentiment. I wanted to get back to the wagons we had parked in the garage beneath the building, and foxtrot oscar. I didn’t want to be anywhere near a Hydra.

“Agreed. But I need to know if they’ve got an OP on the roof because that could fuck up everyone’s day. Sorry Gregor.”


Gregor signalled for us to continue up the stairs. Ice crystals and concrete dust landed on us as the Hydra took another step. The stairway was so open to the elements that it made me feel a little like we were climbing into the sky.

Once on the roof, we just stared. There was a guy stood on the edge of the roof, his back facing us. He had a pack with what looked like an antique rifle lying across it. One arm was visible. The other was obscured by his body but appeared to be moving rapidly. Gregor was covering behind us, but he could see what was going on through our guncam feeds.

“What the fuck?” Dorcas muttered.

“Go and see who he is,” Eddie ordered over the tacnet.

“What if he’s one of their infiltrators?” Dorcas asked. “One of the Ninjas that look like us?” He sounded a little nervous.

“That’s a combat myth,” Gregor said. “And if he is, I believe we have SOP for Them.” Meaning shoot Them. A lot.

Still, Dorcas was right to be suspicious. The guy was wearing serviceable, old, battered-looking, and very civilian, outdoors gear. He did not look military and shouldn’t be out here. Unless, maybe, he was green slime – military intelligence, or something like that. He was not, however, watching his back, and hadn’t heard us because our conversations had all been sub-vocal over the tacnet.

“Go and introduce yourselves then,” Gregor said over the tacnet. Dorcas looked at me uncertainly. I swallowed and nodded, and we both started moving quietly towards him, weapons at the ready.

“You see this?” David Brownsword, the taciturn Scouse medic, cut across the net. I paused, increasing the size of the window showing his guncam feed in my IVD momentarily. I could see Their biomechanical Walkers pulling themselves up the side of the building we were in by their tendrils. There were a lot of Them. Shit, I thought.

We continued edging towards the guy. Below us, beneath the fog bank, the Hydra continued moving, ponderously turning the corner. Dorcas reached him slightly ahead of me.

“Incoming missile fire,” Blame announced over the tacnet. She’d included graphics of the missiles, fired from the hover batteries, trajectories. I could hear their approach now.

“Are you alright, mate?” Dorcas asked out loud, ignoring this.

“Don’t talk, I’m concentrating,” was the answer. English, from down south by the sound of it.

“Mate, are you taking a piss?” Dorcas asked.

The guy partially turned around, and smiled.

“Oh fuck, he’s a lenshead,” I heard Dorcas say. A lenshead, a combat journalist who’d replaced their eyes with lenses; few soldiers liked them, Special Forces hated them.

“What are you guys? 22 SAS?” He was right on the money.

His arm was still obscured by his body and, if anything, was moving more rapidly. I saw a look of horror on Dorcas’ face.

“Are you having a wank?!” he all but shouted. It hadn’t been a question I’d expected to hear today, particularly now.

Black beams of light cut through the fog and stabbed the sky. Everything within view seemed to explodeas the Hydra’s point defence systems shot down incoming missiles. The building shook, and we were blown off our feet. The lenshead was laughing. He tried to stand up but was immediately knocked off his feet again. Fireballs were blossoming all around us. Beneath us, I heard the sound of missiles hitting home and detonating against or near the Hydra. The building felt like it was about to shake itself apart, it must have been near the point of collapse.

“Yes!” the lenshead was screaming. He was trying to stand up; I was trying to hold him down. “Let me finish! Let me finish you bastard!” he shrieked this, even as he was still laughing. I let him go. What did I care? I climbed shakily to my feet. Dorcas was doing the same.

“Let’s get the fuck out of here,” Dorcas said. I agreed. Let this idiot lenshead die here. No loss.

Below us in the fog I could see the Hydra’s shape outlined in plasma flame. It looked more nightmare than mech. There was something insectile about its enormous, hulking form, though I knew it was largely made up of the same liquid-like solid as the rest of Them.

The air seemed to be sucked out of the world and I was overcome with a wave of nausea as the mech fired. The fog bank burned blue and then disappeared in a line in front of the Hydra, giving me another good look at the monstrous organic mech. Fear gripped me and I fought against freezing up. In the distance, the suburbs of Capital exploded in a line of powdered debris as buildings collapsed and the ground threw itself into the air.

“The missile batteries are gone,” Blame reported. She sounded subdued.

I went cold. The Hydra’s line-of-sight to the batteries should have been blocked by the curvature of Dog 4. The Entropy Cannon had shot through Dog 4 itself.

“Yeeeessssss!” the lenshead shouted. I was pretty sure he’d just come. He was shaking himself off into the air above the Hydra.

“Three minutes to orbital fire mission,” from Blame.

“Eddie, it’s just a lenshead. We’re coming back to you,” Gregor said over the tacnet.

“Negative, need a favour. Can you draw Them to you first? Hopefully that way They’ll go straight past us,” Eddie replied. Good plan, except for the drawing Them to us, part.

“So, where are we going next?” the lenshead asked, turning towards me. He was putting himself away and zipping up. He had straw-like blond hair, a few days of sparse stubble and a long face with somehow off-kilter features.

“You’re not going anywhere,” Dorcas told him.

Gregor moved over to the three of us and glanced over the edge of the building. The lenshead did the same.

“Walkers.” The lenshead sounded happy. I was beginning to suspect that he was on something. Who wasn’t? – We’d been doing military issue stims, and not so military issue speed, just to keep going. I just wished I’d had time to drop some Slaughter before this well and truly kicked off.

The lenshead swung his pack onto his shoulders and grabbed his antique-looking weapon. He leant over the side of the building and fired his entire magazine down onto the Walkers. The three of us just stared at him in shock. The lenshead walked away from the edge of the building, changing magazines. Gregor, Dorcas and I dived away from the edge of the roof as it disintegrated in a hail of black light and shards from returning fire.

“Let’s fucking slot him,” I suggested. It was heartfelt.

“Why?” Gregor asked, climbing back to his feet.

“Because we’re supposed to be fucking SF,” I retorted as I climbed back to my feet. I left unsaid that the lenshead was one big walking liability.

“What would you know about being SF?” Gregor asked. He sounded pissed off. Brilliant. I’d managed to piss off the one guy in the Wild Boys who hadn’t hated me. Gregor changed the subject.

“Let’s draw their fire.”

The three of us walked to the new edge of the roof. The lenshead watched us, probably filming. We each had time to fire a short burst from our weapons at the Walkers, who were using their tendrils to rapidly pull themselves up the side of the building.

The hypersonic bangs from Gregor’s railgun caused a shower of ice crystals from buildings all around us. The Walker he hit was torn off the side of the building. Through magnified optics I could just about make out the ripples in their flesh as Dorcas and I hit our targets – our lighter weapons made significantly less impact. Then we quickly moved back from the edge as it disappeared in another hail of fire.

The smartlink on my weapon had given me the lock I needed. I transmitted the target acquisition information to one of the two Laa-Laas in the vertical launch tubes strapped to my back. I knelt down and moved my neck forwards as a missile exploded out of the tube and its rocket motor carried it on its downward trajectory.

“Wait!” Gregor called out far too late for me to abort the launch.

I had no idea if the missile hit or it was taken out by one of the Walkers’ black light point defence weapons, but the explosion shook the building.

“What are you trying to do? Kill us all?” Eddie hissed over the tacnet. Gregor was looking at me reproachfully.

“I think they know we’re here now. Let’s go,” he said.

Before, the edge was being eaten away, bit by bit. Now half the roof suddenly disappeared, fortunately not the section with access to the stairs. Shrapnel from the rubble was flung at us, showing we’d caught the Hydra’s attention. It hadn’t been the Entropy Cannon, we were an irritation that didn’t warrant that. I think it was fire from a heavy shard cannon. My unprotected face was bleeding badly and I’d been battered about, but my armour had withstood the rest.

I was annoyed that the lenshead was still laughing. He definitely had better drugs than me.

We made for the stairs and started running down them. The lenshead was still in tow. The building shook as the destruction of the roof and the upper storeys continued, and rubble rained down through the entire building. Views of the city flashed by beneath us as we ran and jumped down the stairs, abandoning tactical movement in favour of pant-shitting speed.

We had to jump a partially collapsed section of the stairwell to reach the forty-seventh floor and as I landed, a lump of masonry hit my side a glancing blow, sending me sprawling. The others were long gone but our route out was still there. The central elevator shaft had been largely unblocked and lead all the way to the basement car park. The cables were still load bearing, and we’d attached climbers to them to get up here. It had been slow progress winching ourselves up forty-seven floors. Our descent was going to have to be a lot quicker.

We ran towards the elevator shaft. Walkers swung up through the empty windows and onto our floor. There were a lot of Them. They had to crouch due to the low office ceilings. I realised I was screaming, fuelled by adrenalin and fear, as I started firing short controlled bursts into Them. Black liquid flew off Them. Ripples flowed over Their armoured bodies. The long concentrated bursts from the railgun shook debris and dust down on us. I watched as one Walker staggered back through a gap in the wall, its tendrils flailing for purchase, and then fell out of sight.

The building shuddered again as Dorcas fired four grenades from his Steyr’s underslung grenade launcher at another of the creatures. The successive explosions blew it back out of the building.

Their return fire sent us diving to the ground as the power and the fury of it bisected everything at about waist height. Support pillars were shot through, and any remaining furniture disintegrated.

“Now use the rocket,” Gregor’s calm voice over the tacnet. Prone, the launch explosion badly burnt the back of my neck, but the missile caught one of Them dead centre. The distance between the Walker and me was too short for its point defence to work effectively. The explosion blew a large hole in its central mass, rupturing it, sending black liquid splashing across the floor as it stumbled out the glassless windows.

Gregor fired one of his Laa-Laas. He was a little further away from Them than I, and the Walker he was aiming at managed to hit the incoming missile with a beam of black light. The missile detonated, sending dust and debris raining down on us. The concussion wave battered my teeth together painfully and rolled me across the floor, but the Walker was blown out into the sky, tentacles thrashing wildly.

Even the lenshead was getting stuck in. His antique weapon wasn’t doing much good except as a distraction, but he fired long and accurate bursts into the Walkers. He hadn’t stopped laughing, though it had acquired a manic tone.

Dorcas was rapidly reloading his grenade launcher as I emptied mine. The floor was rocked and we were battered by overpressure and debris as the Kiwi fired one of his back mounted Laa-Laas. Another Walker disappeared from sight as I hit it again and again with my grenade launcher. I started to reload the launcher as Dorcas fired his. More long bursts from Gregor as he fired from a kneeling position. We were relying on thermographics to aim now, as the air was thick with dust. A large lump of masonry fell through the ceiling and crashed through the floor, narrowly missing Gregor and the lenshead. Another lump of masonry fell through the ceiling and crushed one of the Walkers. A missile exploded in the dust and knocked Gregor over, and I couldn’t see any more Walkers, even using thermographics.

“Clear,” Gregor said over the tacnet. I searched my immediate area, scanning for any heat signatures. Nothing.

“Clear,” I ventured.

Dorcas echoed me.

“Clear,” said the lenshead. Clearly he was enjoying playing army. I gave some thought to kicking him down the elevator shaft – it would get him out of our hair, and save ammo.

It had been my first firefight with the Regiment and I hadn’t fucked up too badly. It was only as I considered this that I registered the red warning icons on my IVD. I’d been hit with shard, beams and multiple pieces of shrapnel. The integrity of my armour had just about held up, but I was bleeding from both my arms and my right leg, and I had two bad cuts on my face.

The building was feeling decidedly unsteady and the sound of parts of it collapsing had become almost constant. Dorcas, who looked like he’d taken a bit of a battering, made for the elevator shaft. He tossed a climber at the cable. The climber gripped the cable and wrapped itself around it. Dorcas yanked hard, testing the cable. We were acutely aware that the building had been extensively damaged, and were hoping the cable assembly at the top hadn’t been hit too hard. The cable held, but that was no guarantee it wouldn’t give out when our combined weight was on it. Dorcas swung out into the shaft. The cable took his weight and he didn’t plummet to the ground.

Something occurred to me. “Got a climber have you?” I asked the lenshead, who had finally stopped laughing. His face fell almost comically. He looked stricken. “See you later then.” I couldn’t help but feel a small burst of satisfaction.

“I’ll take him,” said Gregor. “That means you provide cover.” Which meant I went last.

The lenshead looked relieved. He had the courtesy not to look smug. Gregor’s gyroscopic harness folded the railgun up onto his back and he hooked his climber to the cable.

“You’d better hold on,” he told the lenshead seriously.

The pair of them swung out into the elevator shaft. I heard the sound of metal complaining higher up, but the cable held. They disappeared from sight as my audio dampeners struggled with the thunderous roar of heavy and sustained shard fire from the Hydra’s cannon. It went dark outside, then half the side of the building collapsed down towards street level. Dust engulfed me. I struggled to find the cable to attach the climber to. I cast the climber at where I thought the cable was. Bits of masonry and other debris were raining down the shaft. The floor was beginning to feel less and less like a floor and more like a violently moving platform. I hoped that Gregor had dropped the lenshead, after all the trouble he’d caused. Maybe that had been Gregor’s plan all along. It would look better on the after action report.

The climber caught. At least I thought it did, I still couldn’t see anything. I yanked it hard. It didn’t give, much. All I could hear was the constant avalanche of concrete. I swung out over the drop, almost surprised when I didn’t immediately fall to my death. I engaged the climber, sending instructions for a rapid descent through my palm-link. Sizeable bits of reinforced concrete were landing on me, and I couldn’t waste a moment. I suddenly dropped. Panic overwhelmed me as I thought the cable had snapped and I was battered about between the cable and the shaft wall. A large chunk of masonry hit me in the shoulder, hard enough to make my left arm go numb. Another smaller piece hit me in the head. Despite my helmet, I think I lost consciousness momentarily. My IVD certainly jumped.

A hard yank brought me round as the climber tried to brake. I glanced up to see the sleeve of the climber glowing red, smoke billowing out of it. The ground came up to meet me hard. I kneed myself in the chin, biting my tongue. I was in the pit at the bottom of the elevator shaft. Rubble was still raining down on me. Some of the pieces were large enough to really hurt.

I unclipped the harness from the now fused climber, and clambered out of the pit, through the wedged open elevator door, and onto the lowest parking level. It was full of the skeletons of old ground vehicles. Most were expensive executive cars from sixty years ago.

I was disappointed to see that the lenshead was still alive. He, Gregor and Dorcas were sprinting towards the two Land Rovers. I ran after them. Behind me, the elevator shaft collapsed in on itself, and a cloud of dust shot out of it, engulfing us and covering the floor.

I reached the nearest Land Rover. The lenshead was in the passenger seat, behind the wagon’s railgun. Ash was climbing out of the driver’s seat and into one in the back, plugging herself into the wagon’s short-range anti-armour battery. Dorcas had leapt into the gunnery seat for the heavy plasma gun.

I threw myself into the driver’s seat, pushing my SAW into its clips. I leant back and the wagon’s interface jacks slid into my plugs. Ahead of me, Brownie was driving Eddie’s Land Rover. I mentally pushed my vehicle into gear, fed it fuel and shot it across the car park towards the exit ramp. I had to slew the wagon violently left and right to avoid more falling masonry.

The Land Rover was airborne from the speed with which it came out of the garage onto the ice-encrusted, fog-shrouded street. I threw it to the left, away from the big fucking mech. I could feel the Hydra’s presence behind us. Felt the earth move beneath the wheels with every step it took.

Visibility was shit. I couldn’t see more than twenty or thirty metres in front of the wagon. I was using the Land Rover’s forward scanners to try and avoid the worst of the rubble.

I actually screamed as a tentacle whipped out of the fog right at my head. I ducked under it and accelerated. Berserks and Walkers were all over the shop, surrounding and moving in on us while obscured by the fog. I could see Them as heat phantoms on my thermographics.

We were running close to the other wagon. I caught glimpses of it through the freezing fog. I could hear railgun fire, and the white light of repeated plasma fire illuminated the fog.

From our wagon the lenshead was firing the passenger seat railgun. Gregor had clipped himself to one of the rails in the cargo bed and was trying to fire his railgun as best he could, but he was being thrown around about by my necessarily erratic driving. Likewise Ash was firing her SAW inaccurately, not willing to use the missile battery yet. Dorcas had the plasma gun angled upwards and I had a horrible feeling he was firing it at the Hydra. I wanted to tell him not to do that, that it would only draw the mech’s attention down on us.

“Missiles, three-sixty spread, now!” Eddie ordered tersely over the tacnet. Ash stopped firing and grabbed the trigger mechanism for the battery. The missile battery spun until it was pointing to our rear, then fired half the payload. The missiles flew into the obscuring fog. The battery swung to the left and fired the remaining missiles. I could see the brief contrails from Eddie’s jeep as their battery fired forward and to the right.

We were in a circle of fire as the missiles’ warheads exploded, lighting up the fog, showing us the Berserks and Walkers moving in on us. It also showed me how pitted our Land Rover’s armour was. Shards sparked off the armour and black beams scorched it. More red warning icons appeared in my IVD, warning me of the imminent collapse of the wagon’s armour’s integrity.

I found myself driving through an explosion. As a Berserk flew past me, I hit it with the wagon, and sent it tumbling over the Land Rover, feeling the impact in my teeth. Even in the air it swung its weapon glove at me, just missing.

Once more, oxygen seemed to be sucked out of the air, and I felt nauseous. On my IVD, in the window for the Land Rover’s rear facing camera, I could see the world glow blue. The fog burnt away around the Hydra, like toilet paper thrown on a fire, exposing us, and exposing the streets crawling with Them. Fire against the two Land Rovers intensified. A shard grazed my face and almost took my chin off. There were more impacts against my armour, kicking me back into the seat. The enormity of the lumbering war machine behind us terrified me, and I desperately tried to find an unblocked street to turn into, anything to get off this main drag. The Entropy Cannon fired. The crumbling building next to the Hydra seemed to throw itself up into the air as the beam shot through it at a steep downward angle. I guessed there were a few fewer Heavy Battle Tanks in the British Army now. The building collapsed on the Hydra. The Hydra walked through it.

The dust cloud from the collapsed building engulfed us. I accelerated, trusting the scanners and the three dimensional topographical map overlaid on my IVD to navigate and avoid driving into Them.

Out of the choking dust I saw the ground erupt in a line that reached out to Eddie’s Land Rover as the Hydra fired one of its heavy shard cannons. The right side of the Land Rover was immediately destroyed. The Land Rover was blown off the ground and rolled in mid-air before slamming into the street in a shower of sparks and ice crystals.

Berserks and a few Walkers surged towards the fallen Land Rover. I watched Eddie stagger out of the wreckage firing her SAW at the surrounding Berserks. A Walker whipped one of its tentacles towards her. Her head jumped off her neck. She fired a moment longer and then her headless body collapsed. She was dead. They must all be dead. I started to drive past. The fog rolled over us again.

“Get to the other wagon, now!” Gregor ordered. Reluctantly, I turned our wagon towards the other Land Rover. I drove blind through the fog, their position marked by the other Land Rover’s transponder on the map overlaid on my IVD.

They loomed out of the fog ahead of us. Dorcas fired the plasma gun at the Walker again and again. The barrel was burning red above me as white flame rapidly ate away at the Walker’s body until it collapsed in a deluge of black, still burning, liquid.

We were just in time to see the Blame run through with a Berserk’s weapon glove, the spiked blade appearing through her back. The lenshead and Dorcas were both firing ahead, trying to clear some of Them away from the other wagon. Gregor and Ash were firing into the fog behind and to our sides as Berserks came sprinting out of the fog.

I barely had time to draw the Mastodon and fire as a Berserk charged out of the fog to my left. I squeezed the trigger on the big revolver as quickly as I could, feeling it buck in my hand from the massive recoil. I emptied the cylinder into the Berserk just as it reached me. It dissipated into black liquid, showering me with itself. I felt some of it in my mouth. It tasted acrid and chemical.

Farrow was staggering backwards from the wrecked wagon towards our Land Rover, firing long bursts from his railgun. Every burst ripped up a Berserk, but there were just too many. I watched as They concentrated fire on him. He got hit so often that his flesh was churned inwards. What landed on the icy road wasn’t even recognisable as a human corpse. It was just constituent parts.

Brownie was sprinting towards us. He threw himself into the wagon. I didn’t need to be told. I mentally floored the accelerator. The Land Rover surged forwards, clipping a Walker.

The other Land Rover exploded. I guessed that Gregor, as the second in command, has sent the codes for the self-destruct charges.

Suddenly, everything behind us went bright white. All of us were silhouettes against the intense glare. The flash compensation on my optics kicked in, but my optics still had a whiteout. Everything went silent. Then my audio dampeners struggled to deal with a deafening rushing noise. I felt the Land Rover thrown into the air.

Vision returned as we hit the ground nose first. Brownie was thrown forward and almost out of the wagon, but he hit the front roll bar with the small of his back and slumped into the cab. Had he not been as heavily augmented as he was, the impact would have easily broken his spine.

Behind us the centre of the city was a smoking crater. We had come to a halt. I was appalled to see that the Hydra still existed in the wake of what must have been an orbital strike. Much of the mech was gone, black steam mixing with the fog tendrils creeping back towards the crater, but some of it still remained, floundering around like a horribly wounded, obscene mockery of an animal. I was transfixed by this. Oblivious to the hits we were still taking, oblivious to Gregor screaming at me to drive. Ash grabbed my shoulder.

“Drive, newbie!” she screamed at me. Berserks were pouring out of surviving buildings on either side of us. The rest of the team, even the badly battered Brownie, were firing, as I moved the vehicle into gear and accelerated away.

Ahead of us I saw HBT’s use their tracks to pull themselves up and over one of the barricades that blocked the side streets. I swung the Land Rover violently to one side, the smart tires biting into the icy ground to give me traction, to avoid the blast from a heavy plasma cannon. The ground where we had been moments before went up, as concrete caught fire. Some trigger-happy gunner had just shot at us.

“We’re on your side, you cunt!” I screamed.

They would need to hide that guy from us later. The tanks, many of them looking badly, and recently, damaged, started to line the road ahead. Plasma blast after plasma blast was hitting the remains of the Hydra. Secondary and tertiary anti-personnel weapons were making quick work of the remaining Berserks. The Berserks’ and the few remaining Walkers’ weapons were no match for the Heavy Battle Tanks’ armour. All we had to do was make their line, and we were safe.

I had moments to register the loss of the rear left wheel, information relayed by the Land Rover’s systems, and we were spinning. A seven-twenty spin at least, at speed, before jamming the back of the Land Rover under the tracks of an HBT. The tank was trying to stop but couldn’t before chewing up the back of the wagon.

We bailed. Gregor had to pull Brownie off the front of the tank. We ran. The wagon blew, ammo in the cargo bay cooking off. The tank rolled over the flaming wreckage.

We dumped Brownie at the edge of the road. He was fucked. He was also our medic. We surrounded him, down on one knee, guns at the ready. Dorcas did what he could to help him. Bad day. Brownie had to live, these guys may not have liked me but they’d, we’d, lost too many today. The lenshead was still with us, down on one knee, antique weapon at the ready. Firing if any of the Berserks got too close.

Behind the tanks were a line of tracked APCs and dismounted infantry. The infantry looked young and scared, showing a degree of awe as they passed by. They were me, eight years ago. I nodded back to those who nodded at us. Soon they were just shadowy ghosts in the mist as it crept back to consume us.

“A Walker hit the wagon?” I asked, once Dorcas got Brownie stable, and we knew he was going to be okay. Gregor gave a wry smile.

“Blue-on-blue,” he said.

“You’re kidding? Fucking tankies!”

“Bit closer to home,” Gregor told me. I noticed the lenshead looking sheepish. During the chase he’d swung the railgun round on its mount so it was firing backwards down the side of the Land Rover. I turned back to Gregor.

“The railgun can’t hit the rear wheel, the mount’s locked so it can’t do that.”

“I broke it,” the Lenshead said. It was the first time I’d ever heard him sound remotely sorry. Even then, it didn’t seem sincere, coming from him.

I snapped. Claws out. Ash and Gregor had to get in the way. The lenshead backed up, but didn’t look too frightened.

“I’m going to fucking kill you! You stupid bastard! You nearly fucking killed us all!”

“Calm down. Jakob, calm down!” It’s the first time I’d heard Gregor raise his voice.

“He nearly killed Brownie!”

“Brownie’s going to be fine.”

I stopped struggling, and eventually Gregor and Ash let me go. I darted between them. The lenshead tried to get away, but I swung a right hook, only just retracting my blades at the last moment. It was a solid blow. The lenshead ended up on his arse on the ground.

“Pack it in,” Gregor said quietly. The lenshead was rubbing his jaw, but he didn’t look angry.

“Do you know what no wagon means?” I asked the lenshead, standing over him. “It means we either walk back, or ride in the back of a cramped stinking APC. If I’d wanted to do that I’d have fucking stayed in the regular fucking army, you cunt!” I yelled at him.

I was suddenly exhausted. I realised that the tension was draining out of me as I shouted. The lenshead just looked bemused.

“Let me make it up to you,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of good drugs with me.”

“How’d you get here?” Gregor asked him, ignoring his offer.

“I had a scout hover but I can’t remember where I parked it. Walked the rest of the way.”

“What were you doing?” Ash asked.

“There’s a competition amongst the press corps. Who can have the most extreme combat wank.”

We all stared at him.

“Can I kill him now?” I asked.

“Not just yet,” Gregor answered.

“If you don’t win, I’d like to see the winning entry. No, hold on, you know what I mean,” Ash told him.

“You filmed yourself?” Dorcas asked.

“Of course, how else could I prove I had a wank on a Hydra in an artillery barrage?” the Lenshead asked, his tone implying we were the stupid ones.

“Dirty bastard,” Dorcas said, shaking his head and grinning.

“Now?” I asked.

There was a long pause, before Gregor answered. “No. We take him back.”

“What? Why?” I demanded.

“Because he’s got some good drugs, all of which we’re going to rob off him, and because it’ll annoy Rolleston.”

I wasn’t sure why they wanted to annoy Rolleston. Competent Ruperts were not easy to find, even if he was a cold-blooded bastard.

“What’s your name?” Gregor asked.

“Howard Mudgie. Everyone calls me Mudge.”