Here’s the opening from my new book, Volunteers. The piece contains around 4,500 words. Anyone from Writers Anon is welcome to read and comment on it. Your views would be much appreciated.
Thanks in advance, Martine.
Smart-glass shards were scattered underfoot, which made crossing the room not unlike crossing a mini-minefield, if less deadly. The blue and green sparks spewing off and fizzing round my knees were apt to deliver a serious jolt which, on the whole, I didn’t much enjoy.
I flicked a glance over the chewed-up desk, overturned and rammed against the wall. Tattered paper hung from the ceiling. Plaster, brick and splintered beams littered the floor.
There was a crunch and tinkle behind me.
I glanced round, to where Beck was stooping, rubbing his calf.
‘Yeah,’ I said. ‘Don’t step on the glass.’
The big guy gave me a glare. Shook off the sparks clinging to his prosthetic hand. He straightened up.
‘Come on, Nix, you’re the detective. Fucking detect!’
I crouched over one of the half-dozen bodies lying amidst the wreckage and touched my fingers to what was left of his throat. ‘I’d say he’s dead.’
They all were. Didn’t need to be much of a detective to figure that one out. I’d need a coroner to tell me for sure but, considering the blood was still pretty red, I’d say we’d only just missed this shit.
I twisted to look at the hole in the ceiling. Whoever had killed these men had apparently made their entrance from above.
‘Nah.’ Beck shook his head, followed my gaze to the hole above us, then behind, to where the missing north wall had once stood. ‘They’d have made more mess.’
Well, he should know. Shame, though. Would’ve made our job that much easier.
One thing the military, whatever country, was good at was leaving a trail back to whoever gave orders like, ‘Go in there, tear the place up and kill everything you find’. Which is what someone had done here. And, by the look of it, without much resistance, despite all the now-dead suits having weapons of their own. Since only two had managed to clear their holsters before they died, things must have happened fast.
Whoever had survived the first barrage had managed to use the desk as cover, for as long as it remained in one piece, at least. Judging by the spatter-pattern and concentration of pock marks on the wall over there, they hadn’t lasted much longer than the others.
‘Weapons are your field,’ I said, jutting my chin at the shredded desk. ‘What the hell could’ve done that? And that.’ Up at the ceiling this time. ‘And that.’ The missing two thirds of the north wall, which was currently letting fat snowflakes wander into the room to flop wetly on the torn-up carpet.
Beck took another glance around, shrugged. He pointed at the guy whose throat I’d checked.
‘Whatever did that was a different calibre to what did that.’ The hole in the wall.
I stared at the wreckage in disbelief. ‘They shot that out?’
Beck clicked his tongue, glanced round again. ‘He. One guy. A team would have hit this place from two directions.’
‘One guy? Beck. One man did not do all this.’
‘One centre of fire,’ he said. ‘One man.’
‘And the different calibres?’
Beck shrugged. ‘Off and on-hand weapons. Or a single weapon with swappable mods.’
I picked my way round the disk of fallen ceiling boards and over to the ragged hole – the one with the swirling flakes, the grey sky beyond. Took a closer look at the powdered brick.
Beck knew weapons way better than me. If he said the wall had been shot out, not blown out, then it had been. Besides, it was starting to look like he was right. No blast damage.
I gripped the broken wall, leaned forward. More bricks and plaster were heaped on the ground way below. Hadn’t been there long enough for the wet snow to cluster on them, but the rubble from the wall looked to have fallen out, not in.
‘Escape route?’ I asked. It was a long way down. Further than I’d’ve chanced.
‘Maybe. There’s no damage downstairs.’
And we’d had to shut down the alarm system.
Beck was on the far side of the opening, scanning the business estate beyond. Bank holiday, so no surprise the area was deserted. Just as well or the casualty rate might be a whole lot higher.
‘Tell me that infra-red of yours can still pick out footprints.’
You couldn’t tell by looking at him, but Beck’s right eye was cybernetic. Full of tech I could only guess at because he wasn’t the sort you just ask straight out. But he’d admitted to the infra-red. And night-vision. And I’d seen the targeting laser when it synced with his prosthetic arm, giving him flawless aim.
‘Trail’s too cold,’ Beck said. ‘And given what went down here, you really want to follow him?’
Yeah. Good point. But then again…
‘Tread and shoe-size. Narrow down the list of possibles.’
Beck snorted. ‘List of possibles? You reckon this guy’s on record somewhere? Anywhere?’
‘A little optimism, buddy.’
A closer look at the damage overhead showed a ring of eruptions alongside one another, which had eaten a circle into the ceiling from above. The holes had weakened it, allowed the assailant to jump onto it and drop through, open fire on anyone not taken out by the opening burst.
‘Okay.’ Maybe Beck’s lone hit-man theory held some water.
And I thought I was the detective.
But I was getting that sinking feeling. The one I got in situations like this, when I began to suspect I was being kept out of the loop. Let’s face it. Wouldn’t be the first time and, well… Fool me once and all that.
I’d put money on Beck knowing more than he was saying because he was still staring out there, into the snow. Christ knows what he could see that us regular schmucks couldn’t but he sure as hell wasn’t waiting for Santa. Whether he got a kick from keeping me in the dark or whether he was following Tyler’s orders… Who knew? Trouble is, if it was the latter, it spelt bad news.
I sighed. ‘Are you going to tell me what this is about, or am I going to end up dead again?’
Upstairs, where the killer had begun his short, brutal spree, turned out to be attic space given over to storage. The roof’s angle meant I didn’t have to duck. I’d been told the steep roofs in this part of the world were designed to let the snow slide off. Yeah. Snow. Guess global warming was still only a theory all the way up here. I’d let the police check for cobwebs, when they eventually turned up. Instead, I concentrated on what the killer had been up to.
No sign he’d been staked out up here, so he hadn’t been hanging around – or at least not for long – for the guys below to turn up.
The joists on this level were boarded over, creaked when I moved to the gaping hole cut into them. Whoever had done this would have had to contend with them while he got into position. Possible the people below had been talking, covered any sounds he made.
I leaned out, got a face-full of warm air as it wafted from below. Beck was crouched down, directly below me, searching a body. Light beam playing over the corpse told me he was recording what he found. Footage for Tyler to analyse, once we got back to the UK.
One thing I knew, Tyler wouldn’t want the police to know we’d been here. With his prosthetic hand, Beck could get away with touching stuff. I couldn’t. I tugged the silicon glove from my jacket pocket, wriggled my fingers into it. I crouched, picked up a fistful of empty shells lying near the edge of the hole. Large calibre. I opened my fist, let the casings clatter to the boards.
‘Hey, don’t touch anything up there!’
Beck’s voice from below. I rolled my eyes.
‘I’m wearing a glove,’ I reached for the ammo box lying nearby, discarded.
‘I’m not talking about, prints. He might have rigged the place.’
I froze, one corner of the ammo box an inch off the floor. Lowered it down. Slowly. Started breathing again when nothing went boom.
In the distance the first murmur of police sirens drifted our way. Someone had finally reported the gunshots. Either that, or the AIs monitoring the dead guys’ bracers had had a confab. Realised all their life signs had gone down at the same time, same location. That or we’d parked the hire car in an illegal zone.
‘Seriously? You think he’d booby trap this place?’
‘Okay, Beck. Who the heck are we dealing with?’
He looked up at me through the hole. ‘I don’t know.’
‘I really don’t.’
Trouble is, I could never tell with him. Maybe he really didn’t. But he sure as hell wasn’t telling me everything.
‘So who were they?’ I jutted my chin at the dead guys sprawled around where he stood.
‘Hard to tell.’ Beck used his black, prosthetic hand to pick up a nearby vic’s arm. ‘Bracers are gone.’
‘All of them?’ Guess it wasn’t such a big surprise, looking at the other evidence. ‘This has to be a pro job.’
I pulled a face. ‘So who would hire this much firepower to take these guys out? And why?’
And why bother taking their bracers?
Propping my arm on the rim of the hole, I dropped through it. Expected the landing to be harder. Something lying under the disk of ceiling gave as I hit. Just a little. Something which, if it had still been alive, would have complained, considering I’d just dropped onto its chest.
‘Give me a hand.’
I already had hold of one side of the chewed up boarding. It lifted easily, underlying plaster crumbling away where I gripped. Beck caught the opposite side and we hoisted it clear.
The body beneath was caked in dust, but from what I could see, he hadn’t had a decent meal in weeks. Skinny as hell. Or sick. His clothes were way too big for a guy his size. Stolen or hand-me-downs. Or he’d been wearing them since before he got ill. They were old. Shabby. Like his shoes. So worn he had holes in the sole of one and the toes of both were scuffed down to threads. Young guy, old clothes. Seen that a few times among Port Towners. But not so thin. Not emaciated. Not like this.
It was obvious this guy had been the focus of everyone else’s attention, though. Including, possibly, the hitman’s. He’d been the first to die when the ceiling – along with the assassin and his weapon – had dropped onto his head. The only one here who hadn’t died of a bullet wound. But dead is dead. The man’s neck was twisted too far round and part of his skull was distorted – caved in.
‘His bracer’s gone too,’ Beck said.
I shook my head. ‘This guy didn’t have one.’
Beck looked up and I flinched from the light his false eye shone into mine.
‘What makes you say that?’
I blinked the glare away, glanced out through the swirling snowflakes as the sirens sounded again. Closer now. They were definitely headed this way. We had to be gone before they got here.
I checked both vic’s hands, just to make sure.
‘Yeah. No calluses.’
The ones everyone gets at the base of their fingers and thumb, from having the kinetic bands secured across the back of their hand, keeping the bracer charged by each minute twitch of their fingers. If the calluses were absent, then the rings keeping those bands in place hadn’t been there, at least not for a long time. And neither had a bracer. But there was something on his wrist.
Beck frowned when he saw it, too. ‘Tattoo?’
‘Magnetic ink,’ I said, turning the guy’s wrist so the grim daylight coming from outside caught on the metallic filaments. ‘It’s some kind of scan code.’
I scanned it with my own bracer, just to prove it. Checked my screen to see what came up. It wasn’t an item I’d find on my shopping list, that was for sure. Had to figure what later, though, since the information my bracer came back with was deeply encrypted.
‘This is bullshit,’ Beck said, peering over my shoulder. ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’
‘Mr Beck. Mr Nixon.’
The voice came through my aural implant. By the way Beck reacted, he received it, too. Bit rude, not telling us. See, that’s why I hate anyone touching my bracer. They say they’re doing one thing to it, and six other things happen at the same time. Seemed Tyler, thanks to our latest ‘upgrade’, had been listening in to everything we said, via an unannounced bracer link.
The synthetic guy who was boss to both Beck and me didn’t wait for us to acknowledge.
‘I’ve intercepted a transmission from the North German Border Guard reporting an infraction. Airborne vehicle moving at mach five. I managed a stealth link with whatever it is, but only a partial – stonewall security, multi-layered encryption. Whoever that is, they want to remain incognito. The target appears to be your location. ETA forty-five seconds. With that kind of encryption, I predict heavy weapons. I suggest you leave, gentlemen. Now!’
Beck was already heading for the door, but I’d spotted something else on the skinny guy’s forearm. A small scar, recent. The area beneath it was raised – something embedded under the skin. Lozenge-shaped. I flashed my bracer at it, got a reading, which was also encoded.
Beck paused at the door when I stooped for a closer look.
‘Nix. Move it!’
‘Just a second.’
He was suddenly back again, in my face.
‘I mean it! If they’re travelling supersonic, we won’t hear them ‘til they’re already here. And if they’re ready to risk an international incident, you can bet they’re not selling Girl Scout Cookies.’
I nodded, ducked towards the dead guy. The penknife from my jeans pocket was already in my paw. Fleeting regret I hadn’t done like Beck advised when I’d first decided to carry it, and sharpened the blade to a razor. Made a mess of the man’s forearm as a result, but he didn’t complain. The implant, whatever it was, was buried among sinew and muscle. Hard to reach. Slippery. I tried to grab it with my fingers. It escaped.
‘Thirty seconds to your location,’ Tyler’s voice thrummed down my aural nerve, calm as ever. But then, he was hundreds of miles away, back in the UK. Plus he was an artificial. They don’t tend to fluster easy.
Behind me, Beck growled my name. I dug the knifepoint into flesh again, eased the nut-sized object closer to the surface.
‘Fuck you, then!’ Beck’s booted feet on the stairs, heading down. He swore again. Headed back up.
‘Nix!’ Loud with frustration.
Behind me, something was stirring up wind, sending snowflakes further into the room and lifting ceiling dust off the floor.
Wriggling the knifepoint under the tab, I found a gap in muscle fibre – a cut I’d made. The implant looked to be some kind of datacube. I wormed my fingers in, grasped it, pulling shreds of torn flesh along with it. Then I was moving, closing the knife against my hip. I shoved it, and the implant, into my jeans pocket.
I collided with the doorpost on my way through. Took the stairs in bounds, trying to keep up with the ex-soldier, who, instead, braced his hands on the twin banisters, lifted his boots and slid down.
From somewhere beyond the building the sudden shriek of engines slamming into reverse was enough to deafen, even at this distance. A downwash of air, dust and debris chased us down the stairs. Over it all, the demonic scream of something powerful charging up, the weapon’s pitch building to resemble a billion mosquitoes, headed our way. I reached the bottom, followed Beck, who was already threading his way through the open plan office laid out ahead.
Above and behind came the deafening roar of an explosion, so loud my ears were overwhelmed. Splintered brick flew and dust billowed around us, channelled down the enclosed staircase. I braced for the wash of heat, smoke and flame that would follow, but it didn’t come. Must have been directed elsewhere. Lucky. I’d heard the wave could kill you as sure as the explosion, cooking your skin, your lungs, your brain. Leaving you to die slower, but just as certain.
The equipment in the ground floor office was still in one piece. For now. But as another blast shook the rear of the building, several of the smart-screens shattered. Chunks of ceiling pattered down, sprinkling the carpet with powder.
There was an exit at the front of the building. Beck opened it remotely – with his machine pistol. Shot the glass so it fractured into multiple spider webs. Beck didn’t pause, used the barrel of his weapon to collapse the fragile glass, leaving the way out clear.
Instead of sprinting straight ahead, through the empty car park, Beck hugged the building till we reached the right-hand corner. The jet – or whatever the hell it was – had moved round to the left. The building was between as we sprinted across snow-covered flower-beds, leapt an ornamental chain fence and dived under the cover of the next building.
‘Who the fuck are they?’ I gasped, on my ass in slush, my back against the entrance doors. I risked a glance, to see what was trying to blow the hell out of us, but my view was blocked by the building we’d just escaped.
By the time we reached the edge of the commercial estate there wasn’t much left of the building’s upper floor. Beck halted under a group of short pine trees, threw himself on the ground beneath them and indicated I do the same. He checked his bracer. I used the time to catch some breaths, raised my head to look as another explosion chewed more from the ruined building behind us.
That’s when I finally saw it.
A VTOL aircraft hovered over the wreckage, outline blurred by the smoke and particles blown up by its propellers. Guess it was dark green, maybe black, but in the fog it raised and with snow coming down thick between, it looked grey. It turned slowly on its axis showing first the body-mounted weapons located under the cockpit, then the glowing stub of flame heating the air behind it. The root of the flame was a disk of radiating fins, glowing orange – its supersonic propulsion. The scramjet was idling. Instead, it used its VTOL system to hover there, over the destruction it had caused. The stubby wings with their wide, adjustable props churned up more debris, sent it swirling at the neighbouring buildings.
The mosquito-swarm sound built again and the air roared. A black beam spat from beneath the hovering monster, carved a track across the ruin below it.
‘What the fuck?’
My aural implant crackled.
‘Tyler,’ I heard Beck say. ‘What’s the word?’
‘This is an eraser mission,’ Tyler said over the link. ‘Obliterate the target. Whatever they’re hunting, it’s in that building and they want it destroyed.’
‘So they don’t know about us?’
I was still staring at the airplane, frowning in disbelief. ‘What the fuck was that?’
Beck ignored me, listened for Tyler’s reply.
‘It would seem not, but I suggest you don’t make your presence known. I doubt they’d appreciate witnesses.’
Beck snorted at that. ‘Understatement,’ he said to me. ‘You can tell a Brit programmed him.’
From our vantage point, I had a good view of the business estate our intel had led us to – a proportion of which was evidently given over to administration and was now being demolished. The sirens we’d heard earlier, and which had been overwhelmed by the sheer volume of the VTOL craft when it arrived, sounded again – feeble under the bellow of twin props.
Two green-and-whites – German cops – showed up together, wheels spinning on grit and slush as they turned off the main road at high speed, one a second behind the other. The driver in the first car spotted the devastation ahead, the insectile demon hovering over it, and swerved both ways as he skidded and came to a sideways halt, a dozen yards from the brand new rubble. The second car was still braking when it slammed into him, shunting him three feet sideways. That driver got it together. Although its front end was crumpled and leaking coolant, his car was still functioning. He hit reverse. Twisted round in his seat to see out the rear view and accelerated back the way he’d come. His partner, sat beside him, looked to be using his bracer to call in.
The first car had stalled. The passenger door was dented inwards – no sign of anyone in the seat – but it was way less damaged than the car which had hit it. I spotted the driver frantically stabbing his bracer screen, trying to input the code to start the engine. He glanced up at the aircraft, which, when he’d arrived, had been facing the opposite direction. Now it was rotating towards him, bringing its ugly front end, and its weapons, round to confront him. The driver turned to his bracer again, stabbed the pad half a dozen times.
‘Doesn’t he have a verbal link?’ I said out loud.
But it wasn’t his bracer at fault. Even from this distance, I could see the man’s problem. It wasn’t technical. It was panic.
As the aircraft settled into its new position, facing him, I heard that fast-rising pitch, the whine like mosquitoes or speaker feedback, at a level that made my ears feel like they were bleeding. The police officer dove out of his vehicle, just as the black beam raked the width of his car. The vehicle parted company with itself at the point where the front seats used to be. It missed the German cop by a foot. He rolled to his feet, sprinted back the way he’d come, following the other car, which had now reached the main road.
‘Get under cover, you moron!’ That was Beck, beside me.
The guy couldn’t hear him. Obviously enough. But even I’d have had more sense than to just run from that thing. He tried weaving, shoes slipping on wet snow as the weapon powered up again.
The black beam traced a foot-deep trench in the asphalt behind him, sending slush, grit, and the underlying dirt ten metres into the air. The groove zigzagged, as the beam trailed its target, closed on it. The man’s tactic worked, though – the beam faltered and died before it caught him. But now the VTOL was after him.
Swinging sideways to avoid the nearest building, the craft lowered its nose and powered forward. The cop was flagging – the second car he’d been chasing was out of sight and he’d used up all his stamina. He staggered, lunged forward again as, behind him, the VTOL charged its weapon. This time, whoever, whatever, was doing the targeting fired further ahead, anticipated the stricken cop’s dodges more accurately. The guy’s luck ran out. He vanished in a puff of pink air.
I’d forgotten my part in this. I’d forgotten about me altogether and had stood up, horrified by what I’d just seen happen. Mostly, I’d forgotten the fact I might get spotted by the same fliers who’d just vaporised that poor, sad sack who was just trying to do his job. Beck grabbed my coat sleeve, pulled me flat again.
I was about to protest, then noticed his nose was buried in pine needles. The VTOL was turning again. In our direction. I ducked my head, settled with peering over a hummock of rotting vegetation to see what the damned thing had in mind next. The aircraft paused, facing us, just for a second. Then it leaned sideways, took itself on an arc that matched the turn onto the main road, and thundered after the fleeing police car.
‘Beck,’ I said, once the sound of props and idling jet engines had faded with distance. ‘What the fuck was that thing?’
Beck picked himself up, goose-walked out from under the low branches then brushed bits of tree off his smart suit. Went without saying, every trace of grime brushed off with the vegetation.
‘Terminator light attack craft,’ he said.
‘No, I mean that death ray. That black beam. What was it?’
Way he looked at me, all guarded and puzzled at the same time, put a creepy inkling into my skull.
‘Hey. No, wait! You’re shitting me. Are you serious? Was that some kind of alien tech?’
This time Beck’s eyebrows shot up. He laughed.
‘Amazing what someone can infer from absolutely nothing,’ he said. He headed back to what was left of the building.
I followed, brushing less effectively at the dirt on my clothes.
‘Are you going to tell me, or what?’
‘I will when you get back to planet Earth. Death ray? Aliens? Have you been sniffing something?’
‘Only my armpits.’
‘Well, that explains it.’ Beck stopped, turned to look at me. ‘It was a rail gun. What you just called a death ray was a stream of bullets. Lots of them. Flying ten times faster than they should.’ He gestured at the mound of dust that used to be the corporate headquarters of some medium-powered logistics firm. ‘This was a precision job. There’s nothing left. Forensics might be able to trace a smear or two of DNA, if they can find it, but everything else – absolutely everything – is gone.’