To celebrate the mass market paperback publication of Gavin Smith’s awesomely violent and breathlessly fast-moving WAR IN HEAVEN SF thriller we are delighted to be able to bring you an exclusive short story set in the same Universe. But some years earlier.
Welcome onboard the Leviathan Class Carrier Submarine HMS Vicious. There you will meet a Special Boat Squadron commanded by an eight foot tall armoured cyborg/devilfish called Balor, a heavily enhanced bull shark called Dagon and a certain Private Josephine Bran. AKA The Grey Lady.
Just another day out in the crazed, dark universe created by Gavin Smith. Violent? Yes. Crazy? Probably. Dark? Oh most certainly. But as the likes of SFX and Stephen Baxter have already pointed out there is a lot more to Gavin than Wham and Bam and thank you Ma’am. Here’s a writer who leavens the thrills with a deep satirical edge, a sound conscience and a thought provoking take on what we’ll be like when the future comes to call.
A chance to get your SF thrills seriously thought-over for free? You’re welcome.
(Spoiler warning: May give hints to events in Veteran)
12 Years ago.
The Second Battle of Mag Tuired
Balor stood upon the pile of corpses. Tuatha de Danann warriors scrambled over their slain to reach him. Balor struck out with his longspear again and again as all over the plain his Fomorians fought for their lives against the, until recently enslaved, tribes of the earth goddess. There were too many of them. He ran one Tuatha warrior through and another was there to take his or her place. Across the dead-littered red plain, under the burning sky, he could see why the onslaught was never-ending. The Tuatha were taking their dead and dumping them into a huge cauldron carved with symbols of their leaders and the earth goddess herself. The dead were pulling themselves silently out of the cauldron and charging back into the fray.
Balor was screaming, more in fury than in pain, as their weapons pierced his armoured skin and searched for ways to end the life of the godking of the Fomorians. The massive figure went down under a sea of the reanimated Tuatha warriors. They crawled all over him, swords and spears biting and burrowing in flesh. He disappeared under the writhing pile of bodies. Gradually the movement of the heap became less and less, and finally stopped.
So many wounds, Balor thought, as his lifeblood dripped down through the corpses of his fallen and theirs. If he could just reach. His massive clawed hand pushed through limbs and reached for the hooks that hung from his locked, mechanical eyepatch.
White light shone through the pile of corpses, illuminating it from within. Any reanimated Tuatha warriors touched by the light were incinerated, their remains caught in the wind like tiny bits of burnt paper. As the pile of bodies was reduced to ash, a figure, little more than a black silhouette illuminated from within, emerged, bright, white light shining out from both the front and back of his head from roughly where a left eye should be. The light reached like a lance across the battlefield, and, where it touched them, Tuatha and Fomorian alike died. A simple movement of the head and yet more were destroyed.
Across the field he could make out the Tuatha champions and leaders. Lug glowed like the sun, Nuada like the moon, the Morrigan – their cannibal hag war witch.
‘Face me, you cowards!’ he screamed at them. Then everything stopped and a woman was standing there before him. She was wearing combat trousers, boots and a sleeveless t-shirt. These were the most singular things about her. She was so nondescript and average looking she literally could have been anyone. It was a face designed to be forgotten. But the way she carried herself, her lean musculature, told another story. Whoever she was, she knew how to fight. This must be important, for her to have interrupted his time in the Sense Booth.
Balor made the light disappear; his eye-patch closed and the mechanical locks secured themselves. Balor’s companion in the sense programme glided over the bloody field towards them, a fish swimming through air as easily as water.
The flying armoured shark Balor rode as a steed in the sense program wore fanciful, knotwork engraved armour. The huge bull shark was about the size of a truck. Its maw was red from feasting on its victims and still-twitching bodies were impaled on the armour’s spikes. The shark glided to Balor and started nuzzling against him, one inhuman eye glaring at the woman.
‘Your mode of dress is spoiling my sense experience,’ Balor finally broke the silence. His voice was a low bass rumble. People had compared listening to Balor speak to experiencing a tectonic event. Suddenly the woman was wearing a black hooded robe. She hadn’t made the change, nor had Balor hacked her icon. He had merely added a filter to his visual information to make her appearance fit in.
‘Who are you?’ Balor asked, despite himself.
‘Private Josephine Bran,’ the hooded and robed figure said.
‘Oh!’ Balor said. It wasn’t often he was surprised. The Grey Lady. He had been under the impression that she operated mainly on Sirius. ‘The other famous one.’
‘I think it must be easy to be a celebrity on Sirius,’ said Balor, the seven-and-a-half-foot tall armoured cyborg, as he climbed out of the Sense Booth. His massive clawed hand, covered in segmented, lizard-like armoured scales, with web-like membranes running between the fingers, reached behind his large, strangely angular head to pull the jacks from the four plugs at the base of his skull. His mainly-machine cyborg body had been designed to withstand the crushing pressures of the near-freezing depths of Proxima Centauri’s ocean. His body had then been sculpted to look like Balor’s idea of a sea demon from Irish mythology. His right eye was the normal hardened black plastic lens of most soldiers. His left eye was another matter all together – a sharkskin eye patch, decorated with a knotwork design, covered most of the upper-left side of his face. Smaller black lenses studded his head to provide depth perception, making up for the concealed left eye. Instead of hair he had a mane of seaweed-like dreadlocks. ‘I think life is easy there; there is some rain, pretty lights in the sky when Sirius B gets too close, but you do not live in darkness and cold like we do,” he continued, while grinning. The rows of shark-like teeth were always good for intimidating people.
Josephine Bran didn’t even look at him. She kept her eyes down. Balor would normally have liked that, but he got the feeling that she wasn’t being servile. He decided to ignore it.
Josephine was standing in over a foot of water. Some effort had been made to make the quarters for the Fomorians – the nickname for the Special Boat Squadron troop that Balor commanded – on the Leviathan Carrier Class submarine HMS Vicious look like some fantastical grotto from a particularly dark fairy tale. As a result, she hadn’t been able avoid standing in one of the many shallow pools pervading the area.
All of the Fomorians had been extensively modified and sculpted, though none had gone as far as their leader, to whom they had a cult-like devotion. As she had made her way to Balor in the Sense Booth, the inhuman faces of his troop had stared at Bran. This was not a place where normal-looking humans were supposed to feel welcome. Perhaps not just ‘normal-looking’ – it was rumoured that in order to be accepted as a Fomorian you had to submit to neural surgery designed to change the way you thought.
Next to the stolen Sense Booth a heavy-duty cradle hung from the ceiling. Suspended limp in the cradle was an extensively cybernetically augmented armoured shark. A sprinkler system kept it wet. Two suction tanks attached to hoses covered the shark’s gills, feeding them oxygenated water. Several of the armoured plates on the ocean going predator’s skull were open, revealing more circuitry and cyberware than flesh or bone. Two cables ran from plugs in the shark’s reinforced skull to the Sense Booth. One of the Fomorians was kneeling on a platform working on the shark’s neuralware. The shark twitched in its cradle. Being over twenty foot long and weighing just under six tons, even a twitch in such cramped conditions was a big deal. The sea creature-looking Fomorian threw himself off the platform, landing in the water cursing.
‘She’s much happier when you’re in there with her,’ the cyborg said, addressing Balor with a voice modulated to sound unhuman. He glanced irritably at the Grey Lady. By now other Fomorians were unfolding themselves from bunks or climbing out of bath-like sleeping areas. It was as if the dark, tunnel-like quarters were suddenly alive with monsters.
Balor made his way over to the shark and stroked her armoured maw. He placed his head against hers, murmuring. ‘It’s alright my sweet, soon you’ll be back in the ocean.’ He turned to Bran. ‘Dagon’s a bull shark, fed a lot of growth hormone and then extensively modified. She is … invaluable.’
Balor frowned. Bran still hadn’t looked up. The shark twitched again. Its armoured tail sent a stack of crates containing mini-torpedoes crashing into the water.
‘She smells blood.’ The Fomorian who had been working on Dagon had not stopped glaring at the Grey Lady. Bran ignored him, instead addressing Balor.
‘The Captain wants to see you,’ she said quietly. Balor looked down at her. It was only then that he noticed the encrypted text message blinking on his Internal Visual Display. Using that day’s Special Forces command decrypts, he opened the text. Immediately after reading it, Balor sent texts to Eithne, the med/cybertech who’d been working on Dagon, Tethra, his heavy weapons trooper, and Conand, his signals person, commanding that they join him in the Captain’s briefing room.
Balor looked up to see that Bran had already turned and was walking away. He assumed that she had seen all that she wanted to.
‘What about Dagon?’ Eithne asked. Balor looked down at the Fomorian cybertech.
‘Dose her. Run a stronger soporific program. You’ll need to finish the upgrades quickly after the briefing. Whatever nonsense we’re about, I want her with us.’ Eithne nodded then glanced after the Grey Lady. Balor was certain they were thinking the same thing. The Fomorians worked cohesively because they were so close, like a family, or, if Balor was being honest, like a cult, centred on him. This meant that they did not play well with others. Balor did not want Bran along with him, despite her reputation, but sometimes even he had little choice.
Captain Komali Akhtar was the youngest captain of a Leviathan Class Carrier Sub in the entire navy. Her detractors, of whom there were many, whispered that she had only managed to achieve this because of family ties to the Bangladeshi mob back home in London. Captain Akhtar was of the opinion that such rumours just proved what vivid imaginations people less competent than her had.
Balor did not like receiving orders. Akhtar’s initial inclination had been to come down on him like the proverbial until Admiral Spanton had explained, in no uncertain terms, that despite the enormous cyborg being a huge pain in the arse, Balor was tactically useful. Captain Akhtar had found herself in the unenviable position of having to use diplomacy with an NCO to get him to follow what were supposed to be commands. He had managed to rack up a series of successful operations in the short time she’d been in command of the Vicious, but like many officers in conventional forces she had little time or patience for Special Ops.
Captain Akhtar was small, though toned and wiry from the constant exercise that she forced herself to find the time to do. Her dark hair was kept short and she tried as much as possible to de-emphasise her elfin good looks. Her eyes were the same black plastic lenses of all service men and women; she had the four plug sockets in the back of her skull, and moved liked somebody with wired reflexes, but she had tried to keep the amount of augmentation to the bare minimum and had used her own money to get better gear than the military offered. She did not wish to end up a machine. She had seen what it had done to others.
The briefing room was kept simple and bare to make it more difficult to hide surveillance devices. There was a table and a number of surprisingly comfortable mono-form chairs, but little else.
Sat on one of the chairs was the cause of Captain Akhtar’s current state of barely contained fury. They had been two days out of the Ultima Thule ice cavern dock, with an escort screen of Falkland class hunter killers, making for a rendezvous with the Somalia 8th fleet, when they’d been hailed by an unknown stealth boat that her sensor people were sure was part biotech. Because of the other boat’s biotech nature she had been tempted to open fire on it – only They had biotech craft – but the boat had been broadcasting the correct codes for a mission override from the Admiralty’s Special Operations command.
The stealth boat had contained Josephine Bran and orders for the HMS Vicious, orders that Captain Akhtar had struggled to take seriously but, due to their classified nature, hadn’t been able to rant about to her Executive Officer. Ranting to the Grey Lady seemed to be a waste of time. She only seemed to animate when it was time to discuss something mission specific.
‘Are you comfortable there?’ Captain Akhtar asked bitterly. ‘Perhaps I could get you a coffee or something.’ She couldn’t shake the feeling that all hundred thousand tonnes of the Vicious and its crew of just over four thousand people, herself included, had been put under the command of a lowly private in the SBS.
Balor and his three Fomorians further irritated the Captain by dripping water into her clean dry briefing room as they straggled in. They didn’t salute and Balor actually waved as they found seats that struggled with their ridiculous, to Captain Akhtar’s mind, monstrous forms. Though even she had to admit the three males and the female Fomorian looked intimidating. Josephine Bran’s plain human form looked incongruous in comparison.
‘Will you kill us this day, Komali?’ Balor asked, angering her further with the informality of using her first name.
‘I wish,’ she muttered as she sent a signal to the room’s white-noise generator and other counter surveillance systems. Two of the Fomorians flinched; they hadn’t dialled down the sensitivity on their cybernetic ears, their sound filters not quite good enough to protect against the burst of static. ‘Though this nonsense has little to do with me.’
Bran’s head shifted position slightly at this and the Captain cursed herself for her lack of professionalism. The surveillance systems finished their initial sweep. With a thought Akhtar activated the holographic projector in the table. She was disappointed by the distinct lack of response the image that appeared elicited in her audience. They were all far too busy being practised hard-arses, she decided. The holograph showed an aquaculture farm hanging anchored to the bottom of the ice shelf that encased the water planet. Long tendrils of thick, genetically modified kelp swayed in the sub-marine currents. The farm itself was a long, thin tube-like habitat. Such farms tended to be mostly automated, with a small maintenance crew, but the added life-support modules displayed suggested that this particular farm was one of the many that was being used as emergency shelter for refugees displaced by the recent Them-fleet actions.
The farm was dwarfed by a massive sleek, dark, biological-looking craft that had always reminded Akhtar of the media she’d seen of crocodiles, except more streamlined, and thickly armoured. Like all Themtech there was a liquid-like quality to the black, oily material it was made from, despite its apparent solidity. The craft’s various weapon emplacements resembled wart-like growths. Balor frowned.
‘Is that a Kraken?’ he asked. The Kraken was the largest sub They fielded. This one, however, did not look right.
‘Are those tentacles?’ Conand asked. Long, thin cilia-like tentacles covered normal Kraken class boats. Little was known about the mysterious and genocidal Them or their technology, but the tentacles were thought to have multiple uses – working a little like whiskers for negotiating the submerged ice caverns of the ice sheet, as well as for defence and as part of the Kraken’s sensor systems. These tentacles, however, appeared very different. Unlike the normally smooth wedge-shaped head of a Kraken, this one’s head split into several huge, thick, powerful-looking tentacles that had a lot more in common with the tentacles of the cybernetically modified Architeuthis – giant squid or Archies, as their handlers insisted on calling them – that were used to help with maintenance on the Vicious. It made the Themtech craft look more like its namesake.
‘This is a composite image taken from picket ROVs …’
‘No footage?’ Conand asked.
Akhtar tried to suppress her mounting frustration at being interrupted. Instead of responding, she just triggered play on the holographic projector. Had not everyone in the briefing room had augmented reactions, much of which was down to the speed of perception, they probably wouldn’t have been able to see the flick of the long, thin, whip-like cilia tentacles as they took out the Remotely Operated Vehicles. There were also a series of rapid black flashes, which suggested that some of the ROVs had been destroyed by black light weapons. Akhtar brought up the static image again, then went and leant against the wall wishing that she hadn’t quit smoking.
Balor stood up and leant over the table, his massive frame looming close to the three dimensional image. The thick tentacles had pierced the superstructure of the farm, but there was some sort of resinous looking material that had sealed the breach.
‘Where was this?’ he asked.
‘Campbell Farm, it’s more than twenty leagues behind our fleet screen,’ the Captain answered sharply, wondering why Bran wasn’t giving this briefing.
‘This is the rogue Kraken there’s been rumours about? Support and factory boats going missing, settlements destroyed, that sort of thing?’ Tethra asked. Even the monstrous modulation of his speech couldn’t quite hide the railgunner and heavy weapons expert’s cockney accent. He’d grown up in the Roaring Boys, one of the river Thames’ most feared pirate gangs. Akhtar’s family back in London had had dealings with the Roaring Boys. In many ways the Fomorians seemed a logical progression for his particular brand of psychotic. ‘Let me guess, no people were found?’
‘They found a few pieces and some red smears,’ Akhtar said, looking at her nails.
‘How’d they get past the screen?’ Balor asked, his low voice reverberating around the room.
‘They came from coreward,’ Akhtar told them, pleased to finally get their attention. Material limitations meant that most submarine operations were restricted to the top three miles of water under the ice shelf. Deep diving subs could go down as far as seven miles, but combat operations at those depths were a zero sum game, as the smallest breach would mean a loss of structural integrity and implosion due to the extreme crushing pressure. It was known that some of the Their craft could dive a little deeper, but this was guarded against by solid state ROVs – often little more than intelligent torpedoes – and deep diving augmented guard and attack fauna.
‘What about internal footage?’ Conand asked. Akhtar shook her head. ‘What? Nothing from the security lenses?’ Akhtar glanced over at Bran before responding.
‘Well, nothing that has been shared with us. Though there is a moment of sense footage from some lenshead embedded with the refugees.’
The four Fomorians reached for the jacks at the base of the media suite that contained the holographic projector.
It suddenly went dark. The external lights on the farm had gone out. No, something had blocked them out, covered the port. The floor shook. There was a jarring impact followed by the sound of metal, composite carbon fibre and hardened plastics under extreme duress. Then another more powerful impact and they were flung across the room and into the wall, hard. There was nausea from the force of the blow, the taste of blood in their collective mouth. Then they heard the sound of metal being torn open, followed by the sound of rushing water. Fear turned to terror. The rushing sound lessened but the sounds of screaming intensified. The floor was ripped open, toothed tentacles uncurled, rising up over them. All of them recognised the strangely lopsided physiology of the aquatic Berserks climbing up the tentacles. The Berserks were made up of the same solidified liquid flesh that all of the aliens and their tech were formed from. The liquid flesh was covered in chitin-like armoured plate. Their lack of any discernible features on their heads only added to their alien appearance. Overwhelming terror now, even through the soft-sense link, as one of the Berserk’s raised its weapon gauntlet …
… And then a painfully hard disconnect. The Fomorians removed the plugs laughing, despite the lancing pain from such a harsh loss of signal.
‘What a pussy,’ Conand said, psychosomatically massaging the plugs in his scaled armoured skin.
‘Yeah, I got that distinct slimy pants feel from him quite early on,’ Balor agreed, before turning to Captain Akhtar. ‘So, a new class of deep-diving Kraken that’s harvesting people? What’s this got to do with us?’
‘Oh, can I continue with my briefing now? Well, for some reason the Admiralty has decided to go along with a recommendation from Special Forces Command.’ From the tone of her voice it was obvious that Captain Akhtar thought that this was clear evidence of insanity on the Admiralty’s part. ‘The HMS Vicious is to hunt this new Kraken.’
‘Cool,’ Balor said.
‘A Leviathan class is no match for a Kraken,’ the Fomorian cybertech pointed out.
‘Funnily enough, that’s what I said,’ Captain Akhtar replied, with mock cheerfulness. ‘They told me it’s not a Kraken, and cited its apparently erratic behaviour as evidence that it would not be so great a challenge for a Leviathan that doesn’t have deep dive capabilities or great big fucking tentacles.’
‘Still cool though,’ Balor said. ‘This will make us famous. Tell me, Captain, have you ever read Moby Dick?’
Have you ever been plugged into a torture machine for the better part of a month? the Captain managed not to ask with a silent cry, god I miss the East End.
‘Yes, I have. I particularly enjoyed the references to keel hauling and wished it were still relevant today.’
Balor appeared to be giving this some serious thought.
‘Perhaps a sense program? I volunteer to try it first,’ Balor said, apparently earnestly.
‘What’s this got to do with us?’ Eithne returned the group to the matter at hand.
Captain Akhtar smiled.
‘When we find this Kraken, you four, along with Private Bran here, will be boarding her.’
There was silence.
‘I didn’t think that was even possible,’ Eithne said. Between the sophisticated voice modulation and peer group pressure it was difficult to tell if the Fomorians were afraid of anything, but Akhtar was sure that she picked up on something in Eithne’s voice. The other two Fomorians were impassive but again, they’d made themselves look so inhuman it was difficult to gauge their response. All except Balor, he had a massive smile on his face.
‘Awesome,’ Balor said.
Moron, Captain Akhtar thought.
‘Why?’ Tethra asked.
‘Because we think we have a way of dealing with it from the inside,’ Private Bran said quietly. Balor’s massive head turned to look at the small nondescript woman.
‘I like you. You’re fun. You can stay.’
And that was it. They were prepared to go. Intel was sparse, though it was obvious that Bran knew more than she was telling. As far as Akhtar could tell, Balor and the other three were to act as a fire team – security for whatever the Grey Lady thought she was going to do when she got there. Bran told them next to nothing about what to expect inside, all she told them was the whereabouts of the breach point. She also told them and Akhtar where to find the rogue Kraken. Akhtar would have been very interested in how she knew that particular nugget of information. She was also wondering why, if the Kraken had deep dive capabilities that outstripped the human fleet’s, it hadn’t run deep.
Captain Akhtar had watched the team accept the lack of intelligence. Special Forces operators were certainly the best trained, and they often had the best augmentations and gear – Balor and his crew particularly so, as they stole a lot of it or bought it with cash earned from stealing and other nefarious activities. Whilst Special Forces were expected to act on their own and to be able to adapt to unknown situations, their high success rates used to have a lot to do with planning. Akhtar had come to the conclusion that nowadays, after nearly fifty years of this seemingly never-ending war with Them, Special Forces were just soldiers psychotic enough to not give a fuck about what their chances of staying alive were. She just didn’t understand why they had to take the Vicious with them.
Dagon had awoken in the cradle before they had managed to get her into one of the forward Moon pools. The shark had started thrashing about and Conand had to hack the winch controls, hitting the quick release on the cradle, dumping the shark into the dark, near-freezing water of the Moon pool. The ensuing panic had seen cybrid mers and squids breach themselves on the side of the pool as the angry cyber bull shark destroyed two ROVs. Balor had watched, chuckling proudly.
Balor and the other Fomorians had kitted up. Most of what they needed to survive in the near freezing water below the ice shelf was built into their extensively modified cybernetic bodies. They were adding personal weapon systems, more armour that clipped to their already armoured bodies, lots of ammunition and the bare minimum of survival gear and food.
The Vicious was running silent, so most of the lights in the Moon pool were off, the few that were on cast only a faint red illumination. This was little problem for personnel with cybernetic eyes. To them it was clear as day. In one of the darkened corners Bran worked readying the power armour suit she was going to use. None of the Fomorian had ever seen anything like it before. It reminded Balor of one of Their Berserks, but symmetrical, made of metal and with stubby little wings for stability in the water when using its near silent caterpillar propulsion system. Balor wondered if it was purposefully meant to look like one of Them, to confuse the aliens in limited vision environments like the Proxima ocean.
Balor, deciding that he wanted a closer look, stood up and headed over towards the armour. He could see that it was armed with a 20mm Retributor railgun modified for use as a steel gun. It would fire hydrodynamic rounds down a pressurised barrel protected by a one-way membrane at the end of the barrel. In this, the Retributor was like most of the weapons the Fomorians used. Balor was surprised to see that the unknown model of power armour was not carrying any form of torpedoes. Instead, it had some kind of shoulder-mounted ordinance launchers of a type he didn’t recognise.
He felt a hand against his chest. Balor looked down to see Bran with her hand out. The Grey Lady was about five foot six. Balor was nearly two feet taller than her. She was not looking up at him.
‘I’m going to look at the armour,’ he said and then, using a degree of restraint by his own standards, reached down to brush her out of the way.
Just one word. Balor had no idea why he hesitated. She hadn’t even looked up.
‘Little girl, I think you’re fast, capable, but I’ll tear your head off,’ Balor growled.
The Grey Lady looked up at him. Her eyes were grey, emotionless – practically lifeless. There was something wrong with them. It took Balor a moment to realise what it was. It wasn’t just the eyes. It was her facial expression, her body language. There was no trace of fear whatsoever. Balor let out a little grunt of humour. He liked this. It was different. He felt something stirring lower than his waist.
‘Alright,’ he said and gave her his best shark’s grin. Behind him, Dagon’s dorsal fin broke the surface of the Moon pool. Balor turned and headed back towards Conand, Tethra and Eithne who were watching their boss with some surprise.
It was only later that he realised her grey eyes had to be sophisticated implants.
Dagon understood things in thermal shades of red, orange and yellow. She’d seen the touch, the heat in the prey’s fingers. Its strange lack of fear. Then she’d noticed her mate’s heat lower down. Heat meant for her when she’d tasted the foul meat and made the water black.
The Fomorians stepped into the water as one, dropping past the armoured plate of the Leviathan class sub’s hull and out into the darkness of open water. Bran, in the submarine-operations-modified power armour, was a moment behind them. The Fomorians controlled their buoyancy perfectly as they stopped their descent, each of them looking in a different direction, weapons ready. Bran wobbled slightly but dropped in with them, only to be knocked hard as Dagon “nudged” her. The power armour’s caterpillar drive sucked in water and transferred it to various nozzles to act as stabilising jets and Bran steadied herself. Balor sent a control order to Dagon.
The Vicious, with its running lights off, was a huge dark shape hovering ominously above them. The sub had a hull of thick armoured plate. Though pitted in places the hull was mostly smooth, with no right angles, to maximise its stealth capabilities. All of them knew that in combat situations it would look as if the hull had exploded as hatches opened to reveal anti-personnel and point defence steel gun batteries, torpedo batteries, sensor systems and weaponised ROV racks, as well as manoeuvring screws. They knew that hatches would open for the massive King Crab class, skin-walking mechs to head out onto the hull looking for enemy targets.
Currently the Vicious was using its nearly silent caterpillar drive, which moved the sub by sucking in water and then jetting it out at higher pressures. With a large piece of armoured plate lowered down to close up the Moon pool, cutting off its faint red illumination, the massive sub’s thermal signature was now minimised.
With a command thought from Balor, Dagon swam past, extruding grips from her armoured hide. Each of the five grabbed a grip.
Water displaced as the Vicious began to move ahead, climbing very slowly towards the pitted underside of the ice sheet. To the five divers being pulled by the shark, out ahead of the sub, in their night vision, the bottom of the ice sheet looked like a dark, inverted mountain range of colossal proportions.
As Dagon moved them through the water, the ropey, seaweed-like dreadlocks that hung down from Balor’s head spread out. They formed part of a passive sensor-receiver network that worked to pick up echolocation and water movements.
Dagon took them up past the Vicious. The cold, the darkness, the pressure of the water pushing in all around them were old friends to the four Fomorians. If the conditions gave Bran pause, then there was no indication of it. As a member of the SBS she would have been trained for deep ops.
The mouth of the cave looked dark. Even their internally illuminated light intensification provided them with little more visual information. Switching from this to thermographics, they found no heat sources. When the only planet in the Proxima Centauri system had been colonised there was initial thinking that it might have indigenous life, particularly coreward, close to some of the smokers. In the event, no such life had ever been found. Some of the initial contact with Them tech or organisms had been thought to be indigenous, but proved not to be. Before they were interrupted by the war, the terraformers had started to seed the ocean with life, but that hadn’t had time to take. There was nothing but darkness to see in the mouth of the cave, which was large enough to dwarf even the Vicious.
As the cavern swallowed them Balor glanced back through the water. Perspective played tricks on him and for a moment it looked as if the massive dark shape of the Vicious in the water below them was falling towards the mouth of the cavern to be consumed.
No Captain liked it. Using active sensors, with lights on, as she would if she were running the tunnels into Ultima Thule or Njordheim escorted by guard fauna and fast attack subs, would have revealed smooth walls of ice of a breath-taking white and blue colour. In the dark, relying on passive sensors and three dimensional topographical maps overlaid on her vision – maps that could easily be out of date as the ice shelf constantly shifted – looking for a Them sub that outclassed her own, that was less fun.
On the bridge, thinscreen and holographic displays ran through reams of pertinent information, showing sensor data, the projected topography and visual data from the hull lenses, but few paid attention to it. Like Captain Akhtar, they were all jacked in, and the information pertinent to their role was available to them in their vision or already in their mind.
‘Captain, we’re nearing the coordinates you provided,’ the navigator said on the command net.
‘Anything?’ she said it across the command net but emphasised it to the sensor operators.
‘We’re picking up suggestions of differences to the topography from the last survey, but that could be pressure ridges from tidal flexing,’ the commander in charge of the sensor team responded. It could be tidal flexing … or any number of other things, Akhtar thought.
‘Heat? Motion?’ Akhtar asked, hoping she didn’t sound as desperate as she felt. There was a slight pause that she took as surprise before the commander answered.
‘Full stop,’ she told the crew. The caterpillar down-powered until it held them still in the water. Strictly speaking, this was against her orders. She was supposed to go to the coordinates and wait. That sounded too much like acting as bait. She wished she could have used Balor and the Fomorians as point scouts and forward observers. She had done so before, the Fomorians playing hide and seek in the ice caverns with Them forces.
‘Launch four of the sensor ROVs, tethered, no transmissions, passive scans and lens feed unless I say otherwise.’
They didn’t even acknowledge the order. Information on her Internal Visual Display showed it being done. Moments later, windows appeared in her IVD showing lens and sensor feed from the ROVs. This information would be being repeated in the IVDs of the nav, weapons, pilot and sensor teams. So far all it was showing was more of the long, dark ice tunnel with the jagged stalactite and mite teeth above and below that made for much less clearance than Akhtar would have liked.
The approach to the coordinates had been slow. One of the most difficult parts of training and programming Dagon had been getting the bull shark to act against instinct, to be stealthy in the context of human and Them technology. Most of the time it meant Balor partially slaving the shark.
They had kept in close to the massive stalactites that hung from the roof of the cavern tunnel. Dagon towed them, weaving sinuously between the great pillars of ice. Balor found himself getting unusually excited. This was the unknown. They were running blind here. He glanced across the armoured carapace of the bull shark to the strange power armour worn by Bran. He was interested in seeing what the armour could do. He was interested in seeing what the Grey Lady could do.
Her mate’s grip on her mind loosened. He was distracted just for a moment. He was as much part of her as she was of him when they hunted, and she knew the source of the distraction. She would kill her competition.
Dagon flexed and jerked so suddenly that all but Tethra and Balor lost hold of the extruded grips. Tethra almost immediately let go, seeing little point in riding the bucking shark. Balor held on, realising what he’d done, trying to re-establish the slaving link as Dagon swung round to dart at Bran, the shark’s massive, segmented maw opening to reveal rows of serrated, acid-formed, titanium teeth. Bran did not move; she let the shark get closer and closer in the dark water as Balor tried to hold on and re-establish the wireless slave link. Just as the shark was about to bite down with a force that Balor had seen tear the limbs off aquatic Them Walkers, Bran triggered the manoeuvring nozzles on the power armour’s caterpillar drive and shot upwards. She hadn’t fired or panicked, or broken comms silence. Balor established control. Dagon was still anything but docile, but she was manageable.
Conand and Eithne swam down from where they had taken cover in nooks of one of the stalactites. They’d seen Dagon go berserk before. As Tethra joined them, Conand used a tool to prise up one of Dagon’s armour plates. He drew out a jack-ended cable and handed it to Balor. Balor took it reluctantly, but pushed the jack into one of the plugs in the back of his head. Only then did Bran join them. She gave no sign that anything unusual had even happened.
Nearly dead on the coordinates they found a suitable series of small cracks in the ice near the tip of one of the stalactites. The three Fomorians and Bran manoeuvred themselves into the crevices, clawed hands biting into ice. They took icepaks from clipped-on pouches which deflated slightly as the paks were removed. They transmitted visual information to the paks from the palm links they usually used to connect to their weapons smartlink targeting systems. The clear paks started sucking in water and expanding to cover the Fomorians and Bran, connecting to the wall of the crevices and then freezing solid, forming a thin sheet of ice over the Special Forces operators that disguised them, but could easily be broken through.
Dagon and Balor had patrolled whilst his people had hidden themselves in with the ice. Now comes the hard part, the self-styled sea demon thought. He found a crevice that would fit them both and sent the suspended animation command to Dagon’s neuralware. An animal that was never supposed to stop moving did so. Dagon’s internal cybernetic systems worked overtime to keep the shark alive, even as they pumped soporific drugs through her system. Balor hated doing it to the magnificent beast but the mission, on this occasion, called for it. He towed the limp shark into position, removed and activated an icepak, then held her tight as ice grew over them both.
Balor had no idea what Bran would be doing but he knew that the other three Fomorians would be powering down their systems. Their breathing would slow, as would their hearts, their core body temperature would drop as they approached a state not unlike Dagon’s, designed to allow them to wait for long periods of time in cold water. He was doing the same.
He had toyed with the idea of leaving stealthed, tethered, micro-sensor buoys outside the icepak’s covering, but he had come to the conclusion that whatever was going to happen here was predestined. He felt there was some mystical coalescing of events coming to pass. On the other hand, he reflected, he had redesigned his mind to be extensively, but functionally, delusional.
Captain Akhtar would never be able to prove it in the log, but there were centuries of naval tradition that pointed to officers and ratings making the right decision acting on gut. Akhtar maintained the Vicious hanging there almost entirely still, except for tiny corrections made by the manoeuvring nozzles on the caterpillar drive. She knew there was something there. She didn’t think she was the only one on the bridge that felt the same way.
‘What have we got?’ she asked the bridge crew across the command net. Silence. ‘Anything. I don’t care how ridiculous or inconsequential you think it is.’
‘Ma’am,’ a junior rating in the sensor team piped up.
‘Rawlings?’ she queried, as the rating sent the information across. Grainy, poor resolution lens footage appeared from two of the ROVs. It was overlaid on the three dimensional topography provided by the last survey in the tunnel.
‘This section appears to have been damaged recently by the flexing, a lot of new pressure ridges.’
‘Yes?’ Akhtar asked, hoping for something unusual.
‘If I was going to hide something …’ Rawlings tailed off, as some of the sensor team, including the section’s commander, turned to look at him.
‘Good work,’ Akhtar told the sailor, as she sent the imagery and topographical information to the geophysics department, telling them to run the information through an AI simulation. She wanted to know if the formations they were seeing matched with how they thought ice worked and she needed it done now. She shared what she was doing with the other departments, while taking a moment to note in her log Rawlings’ sound thinking and ability to overcome fear of a superior officer and of making a fool of himself in front of his peers. Geophysics sent back the results of their simulation. Akhtar took a moment to study the results herself before forwarding them to the pertinent sections. There was some uneasy shifting and quiet muttering from the crew.
Just under four hundred years of submarine warfare, all the improvements made in stealth technology, passive and active sensors – it was funny how often it still seemed to come down to this, Akhtar mused.
‘Ping it,’ she told the sensor team. They’d still not invented anything better than sonar for finding things under water. There was a moment’s hesitation; submarine combat was a duel of nerves – whoever broke first and pinged the other one revealed their position first, and often lost. The ping echoed loud through the water; the topographic map suddenly filled out with information from the sonar. Almost dead ahead of them something enormous shifted, uncoiling from around a huge pillar of ice that ran from the ceiling to almost the floor of the ice tunnel. Ice cracked off it and began floating upwards as tentacles let go of the massive ice stalactite. There was a moment of silence from the crew. Akhtar downloaded the classified fields of fire information that she had been given by Bran.
‘Full active scans, bring up all running lights. Weps, I have just sent you field of fire parameters. You may fire at will within those parameters.’ This was a dream come true to the weapons team in a normally frugal navy. ‘Pilot, full reverse. That thing does not touch my boat. Ladies and gentleman, burn the water and melt the ice.’
The ping nearly deafened him. Balor almost screamed. Dagon twitched in her sleep due to feedback, and cracks appeared in the icepak covering. The problem wasn’t so much the noise of the ping, though the volume had been deafening, it was the overloading of Balor’s dreadlock sensor net. Then Balor’s flash compensation kicked in as everything outside the crevice became harsh bright white light. With a thought, chemicals surged through his body, waking the shark from its partially suspended state.
‘Captain, red through blue wings requesting permission to launch,’ Commander Polski, her executive officer, asked on a private link. Akhtar had thought about it, but hesitated; she hadn’t wanted the super-cavitation fast attack boats out there with that monster if she could help it. However, the Kraken was launching Sea Spores so she had little choice.
‘Red to blue wings cleared to launch, target their point defence systems.’ Akhtar said over the command net. ‘Slave your transponders to weps and make some noise. Launch the attack ROVs and I want all crabs walking the skin.’ She sent the field of fire parameters to the fast attack boats, and the six-legged, King Crab class heavy mechs that would walk the hull of the sub. Weps would add the parameters to the automated and telepresence-operated attack ROVs. ‘All call signs are weapons free within provided fields of fire parameters,’ she added. The parameters were pretty loose. Balor, Bran and their team were going to find themselves dangerously close to an awful lot of firepower.
Balor crouched, ready to propel himself up through the already cracked thin sheet of ice that had been covering him. He brought up the squad’s tacnet. He heard the sound of multiple screws in the water – judging by speed, they were fish torpedoes, not the slower ROVs. Through the ice he’d seen the telltale phosphorescent glow from tracer-tipped rounds fired from steel gun batteries. Then came the thunder. Fast attack boats using super-cavitation to create air pockets in the water that they fell through; the explosive noise would have been deafening, amplified as it was by the water, but for his audio filters.
Then came the first orange and white blossoms of plasma fire. It burnt in the water, making steam and bubbles that shot upwards. Even in the crevice some of the ice started to run. Balor prepared to send the command that would inject adrenalin into Dagon’s slowly rousing system and wake her up completely.
Then something long, thin and whip like played across the cracked surface of the thin sheet of ice that hid him. He smiled and sent the command. Dagon awoke thrashing. The ice broke. The others did the same. All five of them kicked off from the stalactite after the shark and into light and noise.
They registered flashes and brief images as their powerful legs, ending in long toed webbed feet, kicked towards the seemingly organic monstrosity below them.
Water burned in an ever-blossoming line between the massive form of the Vicious and the front of the Kraken, as repeated plasma torpedoes were destroyed by hydrodynamic shard rounds from the Kraken’s blister-like point defence batteries. The Kraken’s returning torpedoes looked more like fast-moving, thin, spiky barracuda than ordinance. They exploded in crackling black energy as steel gun point defence batteries targeted them. The Vicious had its massive fan-like screws unfolded and they were powering it backwards at a speed that looked positively dangerous in the narrow confines of the tunnel of ice. The Kraken’s huge tentacles reached for the Leviathan class sub through plasma fire and burning water. Balor’s face was full of wonder. This looked like a battle between ancient sea monsters. A Titanomachy. It was beautiful.
They swam down through a forest of the whipping, cilia-like small tentacles towards the black liquid-looking material of the massive Them craft. They hadn’t been spotted yet. Balor had always favoured the strength part of the SBS motto “By Guile and Strength” but he wanted to savour this. Around him water boiled, above him ice started to sweat. He could see Their light mech equivalents, Walkers, patrolling the thick chitinous armour plate of the Kraken. Berserks were growing from the enemy sub’s skin. The water looked blue now, the bright white light from the Vicious’ running lights reflecting off the ice. The blue of the water was shot through with lines of darkness as Berserks and Walkers fired their black light weapons at incoming ROVs and the fast attack subs. A thick line of black pierced the wreath of fire as the entropy cannon in the Kraken’s maw fired and some of the Vicious’ fore-mounted armoured plate buckled and cracked, its structural integrity significantly reduced.
Then They noticed Balor’s team. A Walker kicked off, shooting water from a sphincter-like orifice, while firing shards and launching an organic, almost fish-like mini-torpedo at them. Balor brought the Spectre gauss carbine up to bear. It was loaded with hydrodynamic rounds and set to fire hyper rather than subsonic. The small carbine looked tiny in Balor’s massive hands. It had an over-barrel, magazine-fed, semi-automatic grenade launcher mounted on it. The grenade launcher’s magazine was loaded with mini-torpedoes. The smart link provided numerous targeting solutions. Balor picked one he liked and triggered two short bursts. Two clouds of seething, black energy obscured his vision as both the Walker’s mini-torpedoes were hit and detonated by the carbine’s needles. The shockwave hit him, battering him as the water acted as a force multiplier. His vision cleared, and the Walker had gone. Balor took a moment to find it. Dagon had it in her massive, power-assisted jaws and was crushing it, ignoring the Walker’s frenzied strikes with tentacles and spiked weapon gauntlets.
Balor’s audio filter kicked in again, cutting out the thunder of a fast attack boat’s super-cavitation. The brave pilot, falling through the air bubble created by the screws at the fore and aft of his sub, was targeting the Kraken’s point defence systems to enable the Vicious’ bigger torpedoes to get through. The boat was stopped suddenly as one of the cilia-like defensive tentacles caught it. Other tentacles whipped around it and suddenly the thunder was silenced; the fast attack sub became little more than crushed wreckage.
Dagon’s jaws met and the Walker became a patch of black liquid for the shark to swim through. Balor’s internal nav systems superimposed a route to their breach point on his image. It was busy in that area.
‘Concentrate fire,’ he subvocalized over the tacnet. He used his targeting software to lock in an overlapping saturation pattern for the eight micro torpedoes in the grenade launcher and made the information available to the rest of the team. Eithne and Conand also fired eight mini torpedoes from their grenade launchers. All of them reloaded in unison as they continued swimming down toward the Kraken. Bran provided support fire from the Retributor. Tethra had his railgun hanging underneath him as he fired down at targets on the Kraken’s skin. Ahead of them the water was filled with the wake of ordinance. The hydrodynamic rounds set up ripples in the Berserks’ and Walkers’ liquid-like flesh, tearing them into tendrils of black liquid.
There was a series of staggered explosions as black light point defence weapons detonated some of the mini torpedoes, and then the rest hit, their concentrated explosive warheads detonating. Berserks and Walkers were torn apart or blown clear of the Kraken’s hull/skin. The shockwave battered them around.
A tentacle grabbed Eithne and crushed her, leaving a cloud of components and precious little blood hanging momentarily in the water. Another tentacle grabbed for Bran. Strangely bone-like spurs slid from her power armour’s forearms and she cut at the tentacle, using her water jet propulsion system to push her away from it. Balor felt something wrap around his ankle and squeeze, hard. He felt the armour on his leg crack and then a sharp tug. He looked back. The tentacle was gone, whipping in the water, spraying black ichor as Dagon swam away from him, her massive jaws opening and then closing on a Berserk.
They were just over the hull of the Kraken. The breach point was a massive sphincter-like gill orifice. Balor couldn’t understand the reason for the gill-like organ’s existence and had never seen one before on any other Them craft. He sent the signal to Dagon to leave, along with primary, secondary and tertiary rendezvous coordinates and swam into the orifice, pushing against the curtains of thick seaweed-like material that stretched vertically across the sphincter’s opening. It felt like he was pushing up against oily vinyl. Balor couldn’t shake the feeling that he was making his way into an enormous arsehole. The thick curtain-like strips seemed to be some kind of filter system.
Balor felt a sharp pain in his arm as he pushed his way through the curtain forest. Looking down, he saw a faintly oblong shaped creature, roughly fish-like in form, and made from the same strange substance as the rest of Them were. The creature mostly seemed to consist of one large mouth. Balor wasn’t sure whether it was a parasite, a component of the filter system or guard fauna, but he tore it off, leaving a trail of blood in the water. It had powerful jaws and had bitten straight through both his clip-on armour and his armoured skin. He crushed the thing, turning it into a small black cloud. He clipped the Spectre/grenade launcher combo to his back as more of the things swam at him. He grabbed them, crushing them with clawed, webbed hands, even bit at them, tearing into them with rows of shark like teeth. He’d killed Them with his teeth before; he hated it, it left an oily, chemical taste in his mouth that took weeks to get rid of. He tore them off his body as they bit through his armour.
Balor pushed through the last of the curtains and was surprised to find himself looking up at the surface of a pool. Bran was ahead of him, finishing off a few of the biting armoured fish creatures with the bone spurs on her power armour. The others joined them. Conand was struggling, with a number of the creatures all over him. Seeing them attached, Balor decided they looked like armoured leeches.
‘Sort your shit out,’ Balor subvocalized over a private link to Conand. He reached behind him for the Spectre and unclipped it, pointing the weapon up at the surface of the pool. Tethra and Bran were doing likewise with their weapons. Finally Conand managed to kill the last of the biting things and join in. Balor realised that now they were inside, he could barely feel the multiple impacts from the Vicious’ ordinance hitting the Kraken.
Focusing his attention above the pool Balor spotted what seemed to be some sort of non-liquid atmosphere. This didn’t make sense. They could operate in vacuum, They didn’t require air, so why would They pressurise a sub when They could fill it with water, which couldn’t be compressed and would thus allow Them to dive deeper.
‘Fire in the hole,’ Bran subvocalized over the tacnet, and went down on one knee in the power armour. The others did likewise, covering their ears and opening their mouths. One of the launchers on Bran’s armour popped open and an egg-like piece of ordinance was ejected from the water.
Above the pool Berserks and two Walkers watched as the egg-like device split open like a flower. Nano fuels scattered as far and wide as they could before the small explosive charge ignited.
Above the pool everything became fire and, moments later, force, as a horrific shockwave drove Balor and the others down face first into the bottom of the pool. Then, as the explosion fed on the oxygen above, further shockwaves hit them. As the air disappeared water rushed to fill the gap, entering through the orifice the team had originally come through, battering them further and washing them up and into the chamber, then out through a tunnel, bouncing them off walls.
Another impact, this time from hitting the roof of the ice tunnel. She knew that they had knocked huge chunks of ice and even entire towers of ice stalactites free. Captain Akhtar gritted her teeth. Her pilots were better than this, even under pressure, but they’d been hit so many times that manoeuvring was just one of many damaged systems. There was little for her to do. The command decisions had been made. Her crew knew what they were doing, how to respond. Her input at this juncture would only slow them. There was another jarring impact; it felt like the entropy cannon again. It was quite rapidly destroying the molecular cohesion of their fore-armour. Yes, with the command decisions made, all she could really do was watch the rapid destruction of her ship and the death of her people in the fast attack boats outside. Her IVD was full of windows showing damage to the Vicious or the death of its personnel.
The front of the Kraken was still wreathed in plasma fire and most of the water in the cavern around it was on fire, but the Vicious was going to run out of plasma warheads in the very near future. That would leave them just the less effective concentrated explosive warheads. The entire front of the Kraken looked melted. At heavy cost, the fast attack subs had taken out the enemy sub’s point defence systems so the torpedoes could reach it, but still the Kraken kept coming. Still the massive burning tentacles reached for her boat.
Akhtar checked their position on the topographical map in her IVD, updated from their journey into the ice tunnel. If they could just make open water then they would run. Orders, the Grey Lady and Balor be damned. More than seven hundred people were dead for no appreciable gain that she could see. The Admiralty could court martial her if they wanted.
It was less a moment of recovery than a moment of reorientation. The water had filled the tunnel they found themselves in. The walls of the tunnel looked like an extruded and ribbed version of the same dark material that the rest of Themtech was constructed from. Information from transponders and feed from the team’s guncams in the windows of his IDV told Balor where the rest of the Fomorians and Bran were.
The level of the water in the tunnel was starting to lower. Balor had managed to hold onto the Spectre and stood up with the weapon at the ready. His head and the gun broke the surface of the water. The environmental sensors in his nasal passage were telling him that the pressurised air that was replacing the water was breathable by humans with no harmful toxins or pollutants. He switched off his internal air supply to conserve it. The air tasted damp and had an unpleasant chemical taste to it, though it occurred to Balor that may have had as much to do with him biting those leech things in the gill organ. The strong wind blowing through the partially submerged corridor, Balor thought, was probably due to the air being replenished.
‘On me,’ Bran said over the tacnet. Balor didn’t like her taking command, but only she knew the way now. He turned and swam towards her power armour’s transponder location. When the water level became too shallow, he stood up and moved rapidly towards Bran, his weapon sweeping left, right, up and down looking for targets.
‘That was a Fuel Air Explosive wasn’t it?’ Bran said over a private comms link to Bran. He saw Tethra ahead. The railgunner was limping slightly. The other Fomorian raised his railgun and started firing past Balor. Balor’s audio filters kicked in, protecting his hearing from the staccato hypersonic bangs that ran in together. The overlapping shockwaves rattled his teeth. On the window that was receiving feed from Tethra’s guncam Balor saw the Berserks that had just emerged from a corridor behind him. The railgun tore them up as if they were paper. Balor turned and knelt down, giving Tethra a slightly better field of fire, then fired two mini torpedoes from his grenade launcher into the shallow water, giving them target instructions. The torpedoes shot round the corner and exploded. Tethra swung into the entrance of another corridor on the opposite side of the tunnel. Balor followed him. As the water became shallower, he swapped out the grenade launcher’s bullpup magazine of mini-torpedoes, replacing them with more conventional grenades. Ahead of them they could hear the unmistakeable sound of a Retributor firing short but rapid bursts.
Looking down the corridor they had turned into and magnifying his vision Balor could just about make out Bran standing central in a corridor some way ahead. Conand was just behind her. She was moving slightly as she fired, readjusting her aim and then firing again. The footage from her Retributor’s guncam showed a corridor full of alien shapes.
‘Fire in the hole,’ Bran said again, over the tacnet. Tethra shook his head but then crouched covering his head, mouth open. Balor did the same.
Fire lit up the corridor ahead. Shockwaves buffeted Bran’s power armour, making her sway, but she’d somehow anchored herself to the floor. The overlapping shockwaves battered Tethra and Balor. Conand’s guncam started tumbling in the window on Balor’s IVD as Conand was blown off his feet. There was a sucking noise accompanied by a fierce wind, and Balor switched to his internal air supply as the Fuel Air Explosive fed on the available air. The explosion didn’t last as long this time; presumably They had learned to seal the corridors where it was happening. There was no repeat of the flooding.
‘How’d she know there’d be air?’ Tethra asked irritably over a private comms link. FAE’s were useless underwater. They required oxygen to fuel the thermobaric reaction.
‘They were harvesting humans from the boats and settlements they raided,’ Balor said, shrugging. He was enjoying watching Bran work. ‘C’mon.’
They advanced down the tunnel, Tethra covering the rear. Reaching Bran’s power armour they saw the tunnel ahead was dripping black liquid. Balor noticed that there were only two sealed launch tubes left on the power armour.
With the multiple detonations of conventional warheads and the constant barrage of steel gun fire, the front of the Kraken looked as if it were made of rippling black liquid as, still burning, it filled the feed from the Vicious’ fore-cameras. Parts of the Vicious were on fire from contact with the burning Kraken. Its tentacles were wide open for embrace. A sudden jarring impact. A full stop, as the two of the huge screws were simply sheared off, and then the sound that all submariners fear: the sound of metal creaking under too much pressure. Not from the water, though the water would finish the job, but from the massive tentacles constricting the craft.
Akhtar felt the horror but she had to compartmentalise it, lock it away. Her people were staring at her now, fear on their faces, the stink of it thick on the bridge.
‘Weps set all remaining ordinance to blow, link it to the scuttling charges command.’ She would trigger it when they had got as many out as possible. She switched from the command net to the shipwide comms net with a thought. ‘This is the Captain speaking, all hands abandon boat. I repeat, all hands abandon boat. Use the escape vehicles to the aft of the boat only.’ Then switching back to the command net: ‘This is the Captain to all fast attack boats, we are abandoning and scuttling the boat. I want you to move to the aft of the Vicious and cover the escape vehicles.’ She repeated the order to the remaining King Crab mechs and told weps to use the few remaining combat capable ROVs to do the same.
Then she sagged in her chair. Just for a second. A momentary acknowledgement of the scale of their defeat, her defeat, the loss. But she allowed herself only a moment. She still had people to try to get off the Vicious.
They were deep in the ship now. If the battle was still going on outside, then they couldn’t feel the impacts. But none of this made sense to Balor. Where were the internal automated weapons emplacements? Why hadn’t they just been overwhelmed? The Vicious had a crew complement of over four thousand. The Kraken was much bigger. The two remaining FAEs had done a lot to clear their path. The fighting had been tough, and all the remaining team were injured, damaged, but Balor had fought much tougher actions.
They had come to another sphincter-like doorway, closed tight shut. Tethra and Bran were covering them, firing their railguns back down the corridor they had just come through. A stray shard caught Balor in the arm, breaching his clipped-on armour but not getting through his body’s own thick scales.
‘Any ideas?’ Balor asked over the tacnet. There was no answer from Bran. Then the sphincter, for no apparent reason, just opened. Balor turned to step through but felt a power-armoured hand grab him by the shoulder and pull him back. There was a moment of fury, which he suppressed, as Bran stepped past him. He followed with Conand as Tethra held the rear, firing burst after burst from the railgun.
Balor had a moment to take in the chamber. It looked like an intersection of four tunnels. The tunnels to the left and right of them stretched out into the distance on either side. The tunnel ahead of them, however, was a short corridor ending in an opening. Beyond the end of the short tunnel was what looked like a large open area. Balor could make out shapes that almost looked like buildings, though they seemed to be moving, as if swaying in a gentle breeze. The whole area was lit by a bioluminescent glow.
Balor started to check above them, but it was too late. From a corridor directly above, a Walker landed on Bran’s power armour. Their light mech’s weapon gauntlet slammed the much smaller power armour into the ground. It extruded claws that slowly pierced the suit’s armour. The Walker’s other weapons gauntlet became spiked pincers that pushed into the power armour and then widened, peeling the armour open. One of the flailing tentacles on its back whipped out and tore a gaping rent in Balor’s armour, cutting down to his internal components and what little was left of his flesh. His internal medicalware flooded his system with painkillers as they did what they could to repair the damage. Another tentacle knocked Conand off his feet.
There were Berserks flooding the chamber from the left, the right, the corridor ahead and crawling down the corridor directly above them. The feed from Tethra’s guncam showed that the railgunner had a target rich environment, and hypsersonic rounds tore apart Berserk after Berserk.
‘Conand, above and right,’ Balor snapped over the tacnet, with a large grin on his face. This was more like it. He fired a flechette grenade into the left corridor to clear some space. Hundreds of razor sharp needles spread out from the barrel of the grenade launcher, turning charging Berserks into black mist. Then Balor fired a fragmentation grenade deeper into the same corridor. He’d already turned to the corridor in front and done the same, moving to the side so he could fire past the Walker on top of Bran’s struggling power armour. The first fragmentation grenade exploded as he fired a flechette and frag into the corridor ahead of them.
Conand was doing the same. Firing upwards, he programmed the frag to explode at the apex of its flight so it didn’t fall back on them. Fragments and black liquid rained down on them.
Balor was only aware of multiple hits from shard rounds and black light beams as information on his IVD and, occasionally, little long-forgotten sensations from nerve endings. His armour was a mess of scores, gouges, craters and burns.
There was no communication from Bran as she struggled beneath the Walker. She had her spurs extended, repeatedly gouging at the mech’s skin. Balor calmly replaced his grenade launcher’s magazine, changing from his room-clearing mix to High Explosive Armour Piercing grenades. He staggered as more shard rounds hit him, then levelled the grenade launcher and fired two of the 30mm HEAP grenades into the Walker at point blank range. The Walker shook with impacts. Balor moved away, firing the Spectre. The grenades exploded inside the Walker. Suddenly part of it was missing. A huge crater in its flesh. The light mech flailed around almost piteously. Bran managed to get the leg of the power armour under the light mech and then pushed it up off her, slamming it against the wall, holding it there with her foot whilst she brought the Retributor to bear. The burst was long and ragged as it tore the damaged Walker to pieces.
‘Incoming transmission,’ Conand said over the tacnet.
‘Don’t answer it!’ Bran shouted.
Conand turned and fired a flechette grenade into Tethra’s back. Needles embedded in armour, some of them making through both layers. Tethra would have seen his fellow Fomorian raise the weapon to point at him in the feed from Conand’s guncam. Conand pulled the trigger again. The frag grenade was programmed to explode as it reached Tethra. The force of the explosion staggered Balor and knocked Conand off his feet. Tethra was a mangled mess on the ground, but somehow his badly damaged armoured form was still moving. Conand was sitting up, again aiming the Spectre at Tethra when Balor levelled the Benelli shotgun pistol at the other Fomorian’s head and put two armour piercing sabot 12.5mm rounds into the back of Conand’s skull. Brain, bone, blood, laced carbon fibre and fragments of metal plate hit the wall or flew into the air as a spray. Balor had no idea what had happened and couldn’t care less. Turning on another Fomorian meant death. He tossed a fragmentation grenade down the corridor to finish Tethra off – he was too injured to save.
‘B …’ Tethra managed over the tacnet before he exploded.
Bran’s power armour was too heavily damaged to be of practical use. Explosive bolts blew the chest piece into the air as the faceplate, leg and arm armoured panels opened. Balor turned back to see Bran on her feet. She was lightly armoured and grabbing some kind of canister from a storage compartment on the mangled power armour’s leg. She clipped it to her belt and started running for the open space. The corridor between them and the open space was full of Berserks, and a Walker rose above them.
Bran slid between the legs of a Berserk and threw two discs at the wall. Balor ran after her. He fired the shotgun pistol into the head of the Berserk until it dropped to the ground in a rain of black liquid.
The first disc exploded. The force of the explosion blew Berserks sideways before the high velocity fragments from the claymore-like device tore them apart. Bran kept running, drawing pistols and firing short bursts into the featureless heads of Berserks until they liquefied. She threw herself forwards into a roll as the second disc went off, red laser light strobing from the disc at waist height in a ninety-degree arc. The black flesh of those Berserks caught in the beams was turned to greasy black steam. Bran rolled under the arc of the pulsed laser light.
Balor fired his pistol until it was empty, aware that he was getting more and more hits from the front and the rear. Bran by comparison seemed to be fast enough to dance through the black beams and shards, skipping over the Walker’s flailing tentacles. He’d never seen anyone move as fast or as gracefully. One of the Walker’s tentacles caught him, ramming him into the wall, tearing his remaining armour open, down to endoskeleton and flesh. A grin split his face. This was the only thing that made the rest of boring existence worthwhile.
Bran was still on her feet. The pistols gone now. Shurikens spun from each hand, hitting two Berserks, biting into their flesh. She did a sideways somersault to avoid both their blows. Both Berserks’ torsos exploded in a spray of black liquid, leaving only two pairs of teetering legs before they, too, liquefied. Bran put a hand on the ground and did a one handed cartwheel, bringing her hand up just in time to avoid one of the Walker’s whipping back tentacles.
Balor gritted his teeth. Dropping the empty shotgun pistol he brought the Spectre/grenade launcher combination weapon to bear and fired two of the 30mm HEAP grenades into the Walker. The Walker staggered from the impact of the grenades. Balor dropped the Spectre and grabbed the cylinder clipped to his leg. With a signal from Balor’s palm link the cylinder extended into a longspear with a laser sharpened titanium tip. Screaming, he charged the Walker as parts of it exploded from within, showering him in black liquid. Balor leapt high into the air and drove the spear into the staggering Walker. The momentum drove the Walker back before making it topple over. Balor landed, pushing the spear in deeper, sending the signal for the spearhead to grow into a trident and then twisting it in the wound.
Bran had pistols in her hands again, firing burst after burst of armour-piercing hydro shock rounds, always into the Berserk’s heads, the culminating hydrostatic shock setting off a chain reaction that shook them apart. She leapt onto the Walker and threw herself into a somersault just before it liquefied. The pistols gone now, she landed on the lopsided shoulders of one of the Berserks. Black carbon fibre blades extended from her fingers and, in a series of lightning fast strikes, she drove the blades into the Berserk’s featureless face. It liquefied and she landed, rolling forward onto her feet, simultaneously throwing what looked like a small piece of line around a nearby Berserk. The line wrapped itself around the alien. Bran ran up the wall, dodging a blow from a Berserk’s weapon gauntlet. She sprung off the wall and grabbed the back of its head. She swung herself around it, the momentum dragging it to the ground. Balor strode after her as the programmed monofilament line tightened through the Berserk bisecting it, causing it to liquefy. Bran rapidly stuck yet another Berserk in the head. The carbon fibre blades pierced its flesh until it turned into black liquid, soaking her.
It was a moment of epiphany. Balor watched Bran with awe, realising he must be in love. This was the woman he wanted to die with here and now. He thrust the trident forward into the chest of a Berserk as it rounded the corner. He twisted the trident inside it, lifting it off its feet before it turned into a shower of black liquid. Suddenly they were alone in the tunnel. He stepped forwards and looked out over the large chamber. Bran came to stand next to him, unclipping the canister from her belt.
‘Oh,’ said Balor.
It was quieter now. There were fewer explosions. The sound of metal collapsing under pressure was less frequent. The sound of screaming was no longer a constant. Akhtar made her way through the flickering red lights of the partially submerged corridor in the aft section of what had once been the HMS Vicious. The front of the sub had been crushed, pure and simple. They had sealed the aft quarter of the sub. Everyone forward of that had either escaped or was dead. Akhtar kept the butcher’s bill in the corner of her IVD. Every time someone flatlined, the red number climbed. At one point it had been rising very swiftly. Now it had levelled out at two thousand four hundred thirty seven. Thirty eight. Thirty nine. Forty.
She had felt a thump earlier on. It had shaken the boat. She had assumed that it had been the Vicious hitting the bottom of the ice tunnel. She had prayed to Allah that the tunnel wouldn’t collapse under the weight of the Leviathan class sub. The creaking of the superstructure all around her was sounding more and more ominous, but it was the sound of the slithering noise of the tentacles across the armoured hull of her beautiful boat that was really making her grind her teeth in impotent rage.
The only other people left behind her were the search and rescue teams. Polski was waiting with Akhtar’s Royal Marine security detail at the end of the corridor.
‘We need to go …’ the other woman started. The superstructure collapsed above them.
There was a large cavern in the middle of the Kraken. Balor and Bran stood on a long, sloping outcrop half way up one of the walls of the cavern, looking down on a black and grey landscape illuminated with faint bioluminescence. Their position gave Balor the feeling that he was looking down on a valley, a valley from some sort of psychotic fairy tale.
Towers seemed to grow out of the landscape, not exactly human but definitely not Themtech. The towers’ warped angles and impossible architecture were both surreal and somehow hellish at the same time. They swayed in some unfelt breeze.
The floor of the valley seemed to writhe. At first it reminded Balor of maggots but as he, almost reluctantly, magnified his vision, he saw it was human flesh. It took him a while to work this out, because they were not normal human bodies. Instead, segmented torsos fused together formed blind senseless worms. Networks of limbs with multiple heads crawled over a living carpet of skin that had been sewn together. There were no Berserks, Walkers or any other Them here. But further down the rocky ledge they were on Balor saw a creature that reminded him of a cybrid centaur. The steed was two fused together torsos with six arms protruding out of it. It clambered over the rock with ease. A third torso stuck out of it with a head whose mouth and eyes had been sewn shut. Behind it, following the horrific centaur, was a torso with legs where arms should be and what looked like a sphincter on its neck stump, with eyes sitting either side of the sphincter.
‘I don’t understand,’ Balor said, desperate for meaning. Josephine Bran took the canister from the clip on her belt and extended it. Balor looked behind him. Anger was the best way for him to process what he couldn’t possibly understand. They had done this. The aliens. It was the only explanation. The corridor that they had just come through was once more full of Berserks and Walkers again, but they stood completely still. It was as if their featureless faces were watching him. Balor couldn’t swear to it but he thought there was something more demonic looking about these Berserks and Walkers than those he had fought before. Panic was a mostly long-forgotten emotion for Balor – the closer he was to death, the more exhilarated he felt, but just for a second, some ancient instinct kicked in, and he thought that he had died and the Grey Lady had been there to guide him to hell. He shook it off. His hell wouldn’t look like this.
Josephine put the launcher to her shoulder and fired. The projectile flew out high over the valley and exploded. To Balor it looked as if exactly nothing had happened. A moment’s distraction, nothing more.
‘It’s over,’ Bran said quietly. Balor turned around to look at her, appalled. He took a step back and was surprised to find her looking up at him. ‘We can go now.’
‘But … but …’ Balor managed only that before closing his mouth. What was the point in asking the question? There couldn’t be an explanation for this.
Bran took him by the hand and led him back down the passageway. The Berserks and Walkers stood aside for them. Balor noticed that they all seemed to be sweating black liquid. As he watched, one of them slumped against a wall. It looked as if it were drunk, which made it seem somehow more human. It slumped to the ground, slowly dissipating into a puddle of black liquid.
Pressurised water is used to blast rock in strip mining. When water is forced through a tiny breach in a thick hull it comes out under pressure. When water sprays into the inside of submarine it doesn’t just make people wet.
Akhtar didn’t think breathing bubbles of blood was a good sign. She tried to move her arm to move the wreckage off of her. No matter how hard she tried the arm wouldn’t budge. Perhaps, she calmly reflected, it was because her arm was separated from her body and lying about three feet away. It was a clean cut. She assumed it was from a pressurised jet of water. The water was rising. Polski’s head was bobbing along on top of it. As blackness rose to claim her, Akhtar could have sworn that Polski’s eyes were blinking.
Somali Search & Rescue Vessel: Queen of the South
Balor sat on one of the benches next to the Queen of the South’s Moon pool. The only illumination was the dim red emergency lighting. The search and rescue craft was running stealthily, looking for any remaining survivors from the Vicious. Balor could have told them not to bother. They were all dead. The Kraken was dead. Everything was dead. He took another long pull from his second bottle of Bushmills.
They had swum out of the Kraken as it had started its slow transformation into a huge cloud of black liquid in the water of the ice cave. Bran had her own internal oxygen supply, but had let Balor tow her as he was the much stronger swimmer. They had found the Queen of the South’s emergency beacon and followed it. Balor had dropped Bran off and then headed out into dark water with a handheld propulsion module and two slaved ROVs. He’d checked the rendezvous points for Dagon but not found her. He’d broadcast recall signals but nothing. She’d turned up more than three hours after he’d gotten back, her armour battered and in need of repair, her jaw was wounded but otherwise she’d been in reasonably good shape. Seeing Dagon’s dorsal fin break the surface of the quiet Moon pool had only brightened Balor’s mood marginally, however.
‘Yaah!’ Balor shouted and shot to his feet. Bran was standing next to the bench. He looked around wildly, his dreadlocks flailing around his head. ‘You shouldn’t be able to do that.’ He noticed that Dagon’s dorsal fin had gone again. Bran shook her head as he offered her the “whisky”.
‘Whatever that was, it could end the war?’ he asked. Balor was surprised by Bran looking up at him towering over her, making eye contact again. She nodded. There was a long silence. ‘I don’t want the war to end.’ Balor said quietly. This time it was him who wouldn’t make eye contact. Bran swallowed hard.
‘Kiss me,’ she said. Balor stared at her. He would have been less surprised if a Berserk or even Captain Akhtar had said that. But there was something there in the face looking up at him. Vulnerability looked alien and lost in her expression.
He opened his mouth. She all but climbed up him as her lips parted and their mouths met.
From the water she saw the heat of the touch. Their maws were touching, joining, seeming to fuse. She could not understand what they were doing but in her simple, ancient, predatory brain she understood the significance. She knew what a competitor was.
Balor felt the jack slide into the plug in the back of his neck. In his heart he knew it was a slave jack.
Dagon burst out of the water, breaching as she slid across the metal deck. The extensively modified bull shark’s power-assisted jaws closed around Bran, even as the massive shark started to slide back into the water.
It was Balor’s third surprise of the day. Even Bran looked surprised for a moment as she slid backwards into the cold dark water. Balor reached behind him and took out the jack that Bran had slid into one of his plugs and examined it. It certainly looked like a slave jack, but it hadn’t locked in place and he felt fine.
No panic, just surprise. There was a lot of pain, but she was used to that. Bran watched the dim red glow of the Moon pool become distant, the Queen of the South a black indeterminate shape above her. The light armour she wore gave her mobility and was the best money could buy, in terms of combat protection in its class, the same could be said for her subcutaneous armour, but the multiple rows of serrated titanium teeth had gone straight through the lot. To her augmented vision, her blood looked like dark tendrils in the water. She switched to her replenished internal air supply. Her IVD was full of flashing red warning icons telling of damage and blood loss, but her biggest worry was the cold. Could she get back to the Queen of the South and get warm quickly enough?
Dagon was taking her down at speed. Either the integrity of her subcutaneous armour was holding up, or the shark knew enough to hold Bran in her mouth rather than bite clean through, though Bran reflected that would probably kill her just as successfully.
Dagon had the left side of Bran’s torso in her mouth and had trapped her left arm. This was unfortunate because what Bran wanted was in a pouch on the left side of her webbing. She had already sent a command to the weapon. Without hesitation, she unstrapped the armour from her right arm, using her teeth to pull open quick-release clasps. She reached across herself and pushed her right arm into the shark’s mouth. It took every bit of boosted strength she possessed. More blood clouded the water as forcing her arm past serrated rows of teeth ripped through her subcutaneous armour and deep into flesh.
The pouch was in an awkward position, seeming just out of reach. Carbon fibre blades slid out of her fingers as she tore into the pouch. The programmable monomolecular line slithered out of the pouch like a snake. The line wrapped itself around the upper jaw of the shark and started to squeeze. Dagon thrashed. There was more blood in the water. Bran felt bitterly cold. Felt herself starting to lose consciousness as everything became numb. Dagon’s upper jaw was cut away. Bran, now freed, knew the shark, though probably dying, was still dangerous. She found purchase on its thrashing form by gripping one of its eyes. Carbon fibre blades broke through the hardened plastic lens as the Grey Lady held on for grim life. She braced herself with her feet and then with her right hand she started pushing her bladed fingers into the soft internal flesh of the shark’s bisected head. Even when she reached the brain and long after the shark was dead, Dagon did not stop thrashing.
Bran drifted away. Sleepy. Falling through water. The Queen of the South was nowhere in view. She felt a hand on her arm.
The thermal blanket was slowly putting heat back in her body. Balor sat next to where she lay on the deck of the Moon pool. He looked as despondent as it was possible for someone who had sculpted themselves to look like an ancient sea demon to look. He looked down, noticing that she was awake. He reached behind his neck and claws tapped his plugs.
‘I can’t remember,’ he said. She looked up at him.
‘It’s better that way,’ she said quietly. ‘I’m sorry I killed your shark.’
The virtual construct was modelled on a tasteful, understated study that would not have been out of place in one of rural England’s country homes. Though Bran felt that the rendered reproduction of Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights was a bit much. She suspected that the countryside she could see out the window was a reproduction of rural Buckinghamshire’s protected green belt back on Earth.
‘The Black Worm virus?’ he asked from the other side of the desk.
‘It worked, they died. Even the Kraken.’
‘The Red Worm virus?’
‘As far as I could tell you had control.’
‘The beta test of Project Demiurge?’
‘You used that on Corporal Conand?’ He nodded. ‘Then it worked, although I’m not sure it was necessary.’ He studied her. It was as close as she got to criticism. ‘The reversing of the meatware interface certainly worked with Balor. What happened on the mission was completely wiped.’
‘The psychological aspect?’ he asked, paying much closer attention to her answer. Bran glanced up at the triptych on the wall behind him.
‘Ineffective,’ she lied. ‘You were dealing with me and someone who’d had themselves surgically altered to live in a high functioning delusion where he was a demon. Veterans are not going to be moved by that kind of thing.’
The Major narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t liked that.
‘Dismissed.’ Bran turned and headed for the door. ‘One more thing, Josephine.’ She stopped. ‘Balor?’ She turned to look at him.
‘He is of no use to us. Too noisy, too interested in glory and fame. He is the wrong kind of monster.’ After all, she had liked him.