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Poor People Part II- An Exclusive Short Story from Gavin G. Smith

Gollancz is delighted to share with you the second part of Poor People the exclusive short story by Gavin G. Smith, author of Veteran and War in HeavenGavin’s brand never novel The Age of Scorpio is out now where all good books are sold. We posted the first part of Poor People on Wednesday and you can read it here.

Today, we are thrilled to bring you the epic conclusion. Happy Reading!

Poor People

Part II

 

We stood at the bottom of the skeletal twisted needle that pointed up at the faintly greenish sky.  It stretched out of our sight.  We couldn’t see its top.  It was another stripped down old starscraper building.  The fire burnt through every floor as if the steel around it was a cage.  Scab lit a cigarette.

“You don’t think you overreacted, do you?” I asked him.  He just took another drag on his ridiculous drug.

 

She’d been a young human, nearly female, quite pretty though facial-mutilation really isn’t my thing.  We’d gone in there guns blazing.

The almost-she hadn’t stood a chance despite enhanced reflexes and obviously a bit of street smarts and fighting skills.  Scab had administered an unnecessary coupe de grace and was about to inject her with the DNA scrambler.   The P Sat was sanitising the room with microwaves, which is hot, prickly, and not at all a comfortable feeling even for a heavily shielded and largely mechanical guy like me.  It itches.

After the DNA scrambler he would interrogate her neunonics and junk them.

What we didn’t know, and we would have, had we been bothered to take some precautions, maybe research a bit, do a bit of investigation, was that the almost-she had enslaved a local Wheelie gang leader.  When I say enslaved, I mean relationship wise, not with software or a specifically coded designer virus.  I like to think they had a healthy natural relationship.

They, of course, turned up before Scab had finished doing his thing.  I fucking hate Wheelies.  Of all the dumb things you could do to yourself they look the dumbest.  They were voluntary amputees who had replaced their legs with a trike, or less commonly, a quad assembly.  If they were really rich then they had just the one multi-directional rotating ball as a wheel.  That’s what this young nearly-female’s half-male, wheelie slave had.

They’ve all got very powerful suspension that is neurally controlled like the drive and steering.  So you see them all over the place giving it the bounce.  They get kudos for the most air.  Of course it was mostly the more male-oriented sexes that went for this kind of shit.  The leader had overridden the security on the almost-female’s habitation box.  This was presumably so he could simultaneously show how he wasn’t afraid of his owner to his gang cronies and so he could be punished later on.

He was bouncing over the lip of the habi-box’s door when shots from all three barrels of my pistol shotgun caught him centre mass.   The three barrels slid back on their recoil absorbers.  My aural enhancements activated their filters to drown out the deafening noise echoing around the tiny habitation box.  The Wheelie flew backwards through the door he had been trying to bounce through.  The door then slid shut, presumably at a neural demand from Scab.

My laser pistols were in my lower arms and I brought them to bear on Scab but the message had already been neunonically transmitted. Presumably at the same time the physiological control routine had broken through what I had previously thought to be impossible-to-hack security and isolation protocols.  Scab had just taken control of my body and had me shoot someone.  The message played in my head.

“Unwise to point a gun at someone who’s just overridden the control of your body.”

Holes began to appear in the habi-box and shots began to ricochet off my armoured exoskeleton and bleed off from my dissipation grid.

Smart explosive and programmable acid took us through the floors of the gutted high rise.  As we fell, supported by our P Sats, Scab sowed the last of our thermal seeds.  The whole building went up.  Seeders know how many were in there as the flame twisted through it.

As I dropped, the inferno burning prettily overhead, I began to feel empathy for my P Sat as I realised how slaved to Scab I now was.  Scab must have been at it for ages, probably when I was immersed, slowly burrowing into my software, possibly even installing his own hard and liquid ware to build bridges to the isolated parts of my brain.  Now I was just another extension of him, a slave, like an indentured automaton or his P Sat.  I didn’t say a word on the way down.

 

“It’s nice,” Scab said, exhaling smoke towards the burning tower.  I watched a still-living guy on fire plummet past us on his long decent to what passed for the ground on New Coventry.

“And thorough,” I said.  “I don’t know what you’re trying to keep hidden and I don’t care.” All right, that was all a lie.  I was as curious as hell.  “But it seems that someone knows about it and is flaunting it at you.  Whatever this secret is, it’s out.”  Scab just smiled.

“How thorough are you going to be?  Mind-kill me and use my body?”  Scab shook his head.

“You know that never works out well, reactions drop.  It’s not as quick or as smooth as you driving and never can be.  No, I’d use core personality virals and some memory-wipe software, get rid of the essence of you but keep the hardwired stuff.  Know what I mean?”   Yeah I did, soul killer routine, nice.  Whether you believed in the soul or not, and you pretty much had to be a Cat, Reptile or street sect member to do so these days, it was still an apt name.  Get it used on you and bye, bye, you, or in this case – and far more worrying – bye, bye, me.

“You try any of that shit or anything like what you did up there and I’ll fucking kill you and you know I’m the only one who could,” I told him.  Scab seemed to consider this and then he nodded.  Yeah right.  I would have liked to be angry with Scab, perhaps you think I should’ve been furious.  Sadly I was too scared shitless to be angry.  Scab knew this and he was just helping me with my fragile and quite newly developed human-style ego by letting me get away with talking to him like this.  He was good that way, was Scab.  The knowledge that he was “allowing” me to try and make myself feel better with this outburst made it worse, and he knew it.

 

I felt, rather than heard, the military surplus hopper come into hover a foot or so above the ground behind us.  No, no, no, what a load of bollocks.  I’ve just found this old human prose-writing programme and I thought I’d give it a go.  Felt rather than heard, what the fuck’s that all about?  When it had been five miles away I had sort of been aware of it through the buildings.  The surrounding biomass, and the ensuing electromagnetic and other spectrum shit that goes with said biomass, was making the feeling a bit vague.  By the time it came in to land, I had its make, signature, identification codes, schematics, what ordinance it carried, how many personnel on board etc.

Some freshly shorn eyeless fuck in eveningwear leant out of the hopper.

“Hat would wish to see you both,” he transmitted neunonically.  Scab considered this for a second and then climbed into the hopper.  I followed him, downloading what info I could find on “Hat” into my memory.  Excellent, a Lizard who called himself Hat without a trace of irony.

The eyeless gentleman somehow managed to stare at us in the back of the hopper, which was new.  The activeness of his scans were beginning to make my largely synthetic skin itch, and that was damn rude.  I scanned him back, as much out of pettiness as a wish for information.  He inclined his head sharply as I did so.

“You’re an automaton,” I said, doing it the courtesy of talking out loud.  It ignored me.

Eyeless was an older model but still highly effective and packing lots of tech that would have been totally illegal on many other worlds that still had some kind of law.  I hated fighting automatons.  There was no psychology there.

I turned my attention to watching the cityscape fly by beneath, and around, us as we flew through the skeletal city.  The technology required to transform this planet from what it was to what it is had been extraordinary, yet below me and for as far as the eye could see were camp fires.  I’d smile if it weren’t so difficult an expression to pull off with mandibles.

 

Lazarus Hat, or just Hat to his friends, automatons and presumably people who had trouble with the name Lazarus, was the closest thing to law enforcement that New Coventry could manage.  He was a freelance investigator/enforcer working for one of the best-organised, best-resourced and largest vigilante organisations.  What had probably started off as a lynch mob hundreds, maybe thousands, of years ago had turned into a kind of quasi-legal institution.  They policed the laws decided by their members or often made them up on the spot.  Apparently it was these Vigilante organisations that differentiated the organised anarchy of New Coventry from the out and out evolutionary chaos of, say, a place like the Cyst.  Seemed a fine line to me, but then again I’d rather go to New Coventry than the Cyst any day.

Hat was an anomaly.  Like me he (Lizards tend to stick to binary sexes, personally I think it’s so they don’t get confused, mind you they do change those sexes with bewildering frequency) wasn’t human on a predominantly human planet, and like me he seemed to be a humanophile.  I was always jealous of lizards for some reason.  It was a lot easier to get laid by humans if you were a lizard or even some lazy, shiftless feline, than if you were a ‘Sect.

His reputation was built on the usual ruthlessness and adherence to atrocity required in his line of work.  His background was largely unknown, perhaps tribal police?  He was certainly dangerous enough.

There was also the question of how he came about his small following of extremely potent automatons like Eyeless here.  Of course there were the usual whispered allegations, suggestions the automatons’ cult-like worship of Hat was due to illegal deification programmes (and he was short enough for his ego to require this), and jaded attempts to induce scandal about sexual practices with the automatons.  Yawn, so what, it’s already been done, nothing was original and anybody with the sensibilities to get upset about it lived a very sheltered life and had never been anywhere near New Coventry.

The hopper took us through the primitive hi-tech canyons of steel and composite towards the Tent.  The Tent was one of those places that every planet had, some kind of attempted individualistic architecture to make them stick out from every other sentient slum in known space.  It was also the reason that the Vigilante Society that Hat belonged to was so well respected.

The Tent was another starscraper stripped down to its skeletal remains.  Its roots were dug so far into the crust of the planet and were so interconnected that the framework of the building had to be left unsalvaged.  At some point in the past a  gang leader had decided to give his tribe a unique selling point in the desperate search for reputation by stringing out flayed skin across the outside of the building to create new walls.

Now obviously he didn’t do the whole thing, but the idea caught on and the society grew in power.  Several hundred years later about a quarter of the building has been badly protected from the elements by the addition of flayed, mostly human skin.  This is why if you’re caught doing something illegal, which means anything the Society or its members don’t like, you get flayed.

This was pretty much the most famous thing about New Coventry, in fact there were even trips to see it  for Extreme Tourism groups.  The Tent had been discussed in various art and architecture circles.  The Post Infinitists had done a number of studies on it but for me it seemed like genocide for curtains.  But then what do I know about art?

It was also one of the reasons I liked being a ‘Sect – exoskeletons make us difficult to flay.  I was just thinking this as we circled the Tent and passed the ‘Sect part of the building, presumably in an attempt to intimidate me.  A number of ‘Sect carcasses had been hollowed out, split and then sealed in some kind of resin material.  It was funny looking at bits of what used to be members of my own race like that.  Such familiar shapes suddenly becoming so alien looking.  It was cool!  Much better than boring flayed skin bits.

The Flyer took us in through a gap in the skins and dropped down several stories between the girders of the superstructure before settling on what felt like a precarious landing pad of scrap metal.  Eyeless gestured for us to climb out of the craft.

We followed Eyeless through the building.  Most of it was open plan.  This was presumably because you had to flay a lot of people to get your own cubicle.  The floor was made of scavenged material and I didn’t like the way it rocked under my feet.  There was a cry as one of the floors above gave way partially and someone plummeted a few stories before landing near us with an unpleasant sounding crack.  We ignored him, hey, we were cool, and followed Eyeless a few floors up and into a large partitioned office.  Various high altitude drafts, human skin not being the most practical draft excluder, caused the walls to flex and wobble.

The office was supposed to be anachronistic, from some ancient human period that I wasn’t even going to attempt to pin down.  There was even some real wood in here, which presumably meant that Hat had the full respect of, and was feared by, his colleagues, as it hadn’t been nicked.  Whatever hardware there was in the office was concealed, or more likely Hat just relied on his hat.

The man, or rather, the lizard himself was waiting for us.  He was sitting in an impossibly anachronistic bathchair made out of wicker.  You, like I did, will have to go and look both things up to find out what they are.  I had to use an external data library to discover this and didn’t find out what it was until after I left New Coventry.  Basically it looked like an odd three-wheeled chair made out of a fragile wood/cereal like substance.  He had a blanket covering his legs, though why he bothered I don’t know.

He was one of the smallest lizards I’ve ever seen.  He couldn’t have been taller than four feet.  This was presumably the result of some kind of severe glandular disorder.

His hat, on the other hand, was a fully-three-foot tall monstrosity in the style of an ancient human stovepipe, or so the same data library reliably informed me.  I tried scanning it, but merely caught Hat’s attention – and that was a passive scan.  WTF?  What data I had was that the hat had impressive processing power, impressive sensory equipment (proven), possibly its own AG drive (unlikely) and some serious high-end offensive/defensive systems.

Eyeless went to stand behind his master. There was another automaton behind the bath chair, again human in form, again eyeless, wearing some long skirted, black lace dress from times of yore.  I decided to call her Nurse.

“Mr Scab, Mr. Matto,” Was that a sneer or am I still too sensitive about the lack of originality of my name?  “Do please sit down.”  There was almost no trace of the normal emphasised sibilance of a Lizard speaking in the human language.  The odd thing about this request was that the only chair in the room had wheels and he was sitting on it.  I was tempted to go and perch my cybernetic arse on it but I was pretty sure it would just collapse.  I was pondering what to do when Scab just sat down cross-legged.  I crouched down, folding myself up a bit.  It was comfortable and I know that some non ‘Sects find it a scary and predatory position for us to adopt.

“Presumably you feel that you may do as you wish on New Coventry?”  Hat began.  He was, of course, talking to Scab.  I no longer had anything to do with the conversation.  Scab nodded in the affirmative to Hat’s question.  “You feel this because of how you perceive the nature of our society?”  Again Scab nodded. He was being quite patient really.  “You feel that we lack law and order.  Whereas I feel that we merely lack organisation.”

“You seem quite organised,” Scab said, speaking in his normal, even monotone. “Delusory spin aside, what you have is sufficient muscle to allow you to do more of what you want to do to larger amounts of people.  I expect the same courtesy to be extended to my confederate and myself whilst we are here.  Any attempt to act discourteously by you or your organisation will result in immediate and irrevocable violence,” Scab finished.  Whilst it’s difficult to read anything into one of Scab’s monologues in monotone, I really did get the feeling he was genuinely upset that his “right” to cause mayhem and suffering was being questioned.

“And you feel that over a thousand people dying in the fire you just set is reasonable?” Hat asked.

“I lack the criteria to judge.  Though that criteria would seem meaningless here.”  Hat shrugged, conceding the point.  This was wasting everyone’s time.  Presumably what Hat wanted was for Scab not to rock the boat too much whilst he was here, so his presence would not threaten Hat and his organisation’s interests.  Understandable.

“What will it take to curtail your excesses?” Hat asked.  I sniggered.  I don’t care how good your human accent is, the word excesses is difficult if you’re a Lizard.

“Completing my business.”

“Which is?”  Hat asked.  Scab’s brow wrinkled in what I took to be either consternation or concentration, I wasn’t sure which.  He ignored the question.  Hat let out a sighing hiss, his tongue flickering out of his mouth in a very Lizard mannerism.

“You are aware that I could cause you an extreme inconvenience?” Hat asked.

“No.”  There was a long silence after that.  Hat was obviously either considering his chances, which were better than most but still slim, or what tack to take next.  I doubt Scab was paying much attention.

“You used S tech,” Hat said.  I snorted.  Well, sort of clattered my mandibles together, but I assure you it best translated as a derisory snort.

“Is that the best you can do?  Behave or we’ll call the Church?” I asked.  The two eyeless automatons turned to stare at me.  This was a little bit off putting and since it was pointless staring at them I lapsed back into silence, a somewhat sulky silence at that.

“The Church will know by now.  Isn’t that the case?”  Scab asked Hat.  There was another silence, but this time I think there was some kind of heavily coded transmission going on between the two of them.

“Do you know what this is about?” Scab suddenly asked.  Considering he could have transmitted this, speaking it out loud seemed unnecessarily dramatic.

“Not at all,” Hat answered.  I guessed he had worked out that was the answer which would keep him alive the longest.  “I’m just acting as the middle lizard.”

“Then why the threats?” I asked.

“A degree of stability is important for business.  Mr. Scab does not engender stability.”

“Deal, don’t threaten.  Threatening him just makes him want to do what you’ve told him not to do,” I said.  Scab gave a sort of thin half smile.  “It’s kind of childish,” I added somewhat peevishly.  Scab’s smile disappeared.

“Some people just want to be seen speaking to me,” Scab said.  According to my lizard facial expression recognition programme (More useful than it sounds, and believe it or not they do have more than the two expressions that most humans seem to think they do, those of sunbathing and tearing limbs off.) Hat was actually pissed off.

“I wish to make a purchase,” Scab said.  There was barely a moment between the statement and Hat’s reply but I knew Scab had transmitted something.

“Strange, you’re not known for a sense of humour,” Hat said.  He seemed unimpressed with Scab’s “purchase” request.  Scab looked confused momentarily.

“I do have one,” he said after some consideration.

“It’s out of the question,” Hat said.  Then a look of surprise (so my programme told me anyway) crossed his face.  “Oh my, that is a lot of money.”  Greed and common sense were wrestling within the Lizard.  Okay, I’m lying; the programme isn’t that good and Hat isn’t that open.  I’m just assuming that was what was going on.  “We don’t want any trouble with the church,” Hat said.

“Something small will suffice.  I’ll take care of any compensation claims. Besides, I happen to know this isn’t sanctioned.”

Hat gave this some thought.  Suddenly he looked up sharply at Scab.  Both the Automatons shifted.  Scab smiled.  Presumably that had been the threat transmitted.  Nobody threatened like Scab.  His threats were so factual, so well researched, so obviously likely and on such a grand scale, despite the subdued nature of their delivery.  I suspected this one had probably included images.

“This is over.”  Scab stood up and walked out of the office. I straightened up.  I had the odd sensation of the eyeless automatons watching me.  I followed Scab out of the office.  At the doorway I turned to look at the diminutive Lizard.

“Love the hat.”

 

“What we got?” I asked.  Most of the negotiations had been via coded neunonic transmission.

“A list and an arrangement,” he answered, barely.

 

We had a list now.  We did some murders.  I’m not dwelling.

 

Fuck it, yes I am.  Someone had conveniently put all these people that Scab wanted to kill into his way.  Scab said it was like following breadcrumbs but he’s not the sanest of individuals.  He was being led.  Perhaps tested, perhaps measured, quantified.  Someone wanted to see whether or not the stories where true.  Each time we went after someone the challenge was that little bit harder.  I was spending more and more time having to repair and replace damaged components.  Worryingly, some of the weapons being used were biological in nature.  Not good.

 

The penultimate confrontation was down amongst the bases of the starscrapers where the degenerate remnants of what may as well have been an ancient, forgotten civilisation lived.  We’d fought a Cyst trained underground fighter, presumably engineered by one of the heretical street sects.  Difficult to categorise or recognise as human but I’m willing to bet that underneath all the engineering it shared the same general characteristics as the others.

It tore a limb off me, battered the majority of my armour and overloaded my energy-bleed grid, giving me some nasty burns.  It even drew some blood from Scab.  The blood practically smoked when it hit the ground as the nanite DNA scramblers that permeated every inch of Scab’s body turned the genetic material into so much useless chemical soup.  Scab was nothing if not careful about his genetic privacy.

I leant back heavily against the wall of a disused ore conduit, holding my severed arm as it pissed hydraulic fluid.  Scab leant over his latest corpse and data raped the body.  In the distance I could still see the burning sub-primitives shantytown.

“We’ve got him,” Scab said, simply.

“How?”  I asked.  Actually, I had to transmit the question on account of most of my face being a smoking ruin.  It was only due to shutting down much of my nervous system and pumping huge amounts of painkillers into myself that I was capable of doing anything other than screaming.  Scab turned to look at me.  I let my face smoke in his general direction.  It didn’t seem to bother him.

“What do you mean ‘how’?” he asked.  He didn’t need to add the unspoken question –  had I been paying attention?  Of course I had.

“Whoever’s doing this is just guiding you, leading you bit by bit to them, seeing just what’s true and what’s bullshit, measuring your capabilities.  Hardly our greatest detective work is it?”

Scab straightened up suddenly.

“I’m a murderer, not a fucking detective,” he said, a definite tension in his voice.  I kind of groaned internally and let off some rude pheromones that he was probably capable of picking up.

“All I’m saying is that they’ll be ready for you.”

“Maybe they’ll even kill me,” Scab said before turning away and walking off.

“It’s more me I’m worried about,” I transmitted after him.  I tried to stagger to my feet but my left leg buckled as the motors refused to work.  “I suppose getting a little help here is out of the question?”  I transmitted but was again ignored.  I managed to use my lower left arm as a leg, dragging the busted limb behind me.  It was not very dignified.

 

“You must be fucking kidding!” I said.

“You didn’t see this coming?” Scab asked.

“No, because you haven’t said shit to me, just made the odd cryptic fucking comment.  Little less image, little more exposition would make for a better working relationship.  Know what I mean?”

We were stood several hundred meters away from a church in a little counter-surveillance bubble provided by Scab’s P Sat.  Scab turned to me.  I involuntarily took a step back.  His expression was, as usual, unreadable but there was something a little scarier than normal there.

“This is important to me,” he said

“Okay, calm down,” I said, patting down the air with all four limbs.  We’d been back to the ship and I’d done what work I could on myself.  Got my arm back on, straightened out the armour, replaced the fused components on my energy dissipation grid and covered my face with packets of nanites and artificial growth stimulants so they could rebuild the ruin.  Then more ammo, pick up our P Sats and our top line black market antivirals and away we went.

“Why didn’t we bring more of the heavy ordinance?” I asked.  Scab shrugged. Doubtless the next time we go to have a “quiet word” with someone on a high security world he’ll want me to pack the strobe gun.

“So what’s your plan on dealing with this church ambush?” I asked.  Scab turned to me, a trace of a smile on his lips.

“We’re going to walk in there,” he said and began walking openly towards the church.  It was odd, on a planet with such an omnipresent crush of humanity, that the area around the church was utterly devoid of people.  All I could see was debris blown by the warm winds of the twisted steel canyons.

“We’re not sneaking in then?” I asked hopefully, only to be ignored.  I followed him with a slight limp, my left leg still not fully up to spec.  I watched as he put two small incredibly ancient audio crystals into his ears.  My enhanced hearing picked up the slightly tinny sound of even more ancient music.  I tried transmitting to him.  It was blocked.  He liked to appreciate his audio.  Fuck it.  I stopped.  This was suicide.

“I’ll just puppet you in,” Scab said without breaking stride.  I was shaking.  It wasn’t fear.  It was the tension of the helplessness.  It felt like someone else walking towards the door of the huge xeno-orgothic edifice that was the church.  It had been carved from the corpse of a colonial carrier.  The carcass of the carrier was on the one hand too huge to cope with in scale, but on the other still dwarfed by the twisted metal fingers pathetically reaching for the night sky that surrounded it.

I didn’t like churches.  They were modelled from Seeder ruins.  Somehow they were as distant and alien to me as I would be to a human, lizard, or feline on a purity colony. As creators of the four (possibly more, depending on your brand of heresy) sentient races, they had designed and built us.  Fine, but then they devolved, it’s over now, we owe them thanks for the ability to walk upright and enjoy Vic Matto immersions, but why dwell on anything further?  On the other hand, if you wanted to cross space you had to deal with the Church.  Bridge drives, as they were inappropriately called, weren’t actually drives at all but rather barrier breakers, allowing us entrance into Red Space. They were a human derivate of Seeder tech and only the church knew how to make them.  The drives were pretty secure and reverse engineering usually ended up in catastrophe or a visit from a church militia strike team.  Nobody else had ever found the secret of the drives, so everyone dealt with the church and a lot of lip service was given to the Seeders.  Nice monopoly. I blamed the humans myself, since their various gods had been disproved. I think they needed something for them to hold on to.  It’s good for them.

The huge composite double door had injection-moulded sculptures of the faces of each of the original colonists protruding from it.  The door swung open at Scab’s approach.  The enormous interior was the shiny, sterile, stainless steel of surgical equipment.  Our steps reverberated off the twisted and oddly pitted steel that made up the pews and balconies.  Echoes of our steps returned to us changed, different sounding.

We moved in. Scab headed down the central aisle between the long lines of pews.  I headed up the right side more cautiously.  My sensors and the P Sat’s were sending me back shadows, ghost readings; they were being fucked up by the off-centre electromagnetic acoustics of the place.  My tactical software was finding it difficult to model the environment. Visually it wasn’t much better.  Everywhere you looked the gleaming steel architecture met at a disorientating angle.  The whole place was an optical illusion so complex that it confused even the most sophisticated sensor packages.

I’d only fought in a church once before and that had been in the ruins of a city on one of the Conflict Resolution worlds.  I hadn’t liked it then and I didn’t like it now.  I flanked Scab as he managed to casually amble with purpose towards the chapel.

We entered the recess.  Sensors struggled to stay active as they were attacked.  Our countermeasures kicked in and the invisible war began.  My body automatically saturated itself with potent anti-virals as the sniffers detected church virals.  A duel was fought in biochemistry and the electromagnetic spectrum.  A magical war of nothing.  This kind of stuff caught out the poor and the dumb, it didn’t catch out operators who knew what they were doing.  Any pro will tell you that, at the end of the day, it comes down to bullets and beams, rupturing and burning.  ‘Cause if you can’t see the results of what you did, then chances are you didn’t do anything.  This was the first attack and nobody had moved yet.

The chapel was a kind of an angled semi-circle.  It reached up to the distant ceiling.  About six feet above our heads a twisted metal catwalk ran round the walls, supported by thick, pitted, black stone pillars presumably mined from the ruins of a Seeder asteroid base.

Above the catwalk was a stained glass window.  The window was backlit to form odd visual patterns that moved of their own accord.   The window illuminated the cruciform, tipped forward at an angle as if it was about to collapse on to us.  Hanging from the cruciform was the preserved corpse of a degenerate Seeder.

The devolved Seeder had a sleek wedge shaped head, which so many humans found disconcerting, and a predatory lean build.  It had the skeletal armour and vicious looking, hooked natural weaponry of a hunter from a harsh environment.  The ancestors of this corpse had engineered all the sentient races.  Then they had fallen so far into a state of bestial cunning and savagery that not even humans in the Cyst could equal them.  Some of the heresies suggested that the fall had been a conscious choice.

This thing looked down on us, its four arms nailed on the X of a cross made of razor wire and DNA symbolism, because humans like their iconography.  With its tail hanging down, it looked more fetishist than religious, though Scab would say there was no difference.  It was an animal god, a revered fallen creator.

It was no longer capable of creating bridge drives, or sculptures that immediately reduced the viewer to tears or insanity, or coherent energy field weapons.  The Seeders were now the most dangerous, predatory animal-life in known space.  They stalked the ruins of their ancient places.  They were the reason that Industrial Xeno Archaeologists were so well armed.  Scab took a moment to gaze at it.  I wondered if he’d prefer to be one of them.

I wasn’t sure where they came from.  I couldn’t trust my scans.  Suddenly they were just there on the catwalk.  Two armoured monks, all composite impact armour, animated images of creation playing across their visors.  They held ACRs casually as they took up positions near the pillars, their P Sats bobbing in the air like a children’s toy just above their shoulders.

I recognised “him” immediately – there was no resemblance, but there was something in the way the churchman moved that gave it away.  The almost lazy movement of total self-assurance, the sort of thing that many people try to copy but never quite pull off.

The churchman was just that, a man, very male, almost unusually so.  He was taller than Scab, a kind of traditional handsome, a bit like Vic Matto.  Of course he could’ve been ugly.  I’m second-guessing human tastes here.  He had an unblemished face that must have been sculpted, especially if he’d grown up on the Cyst.  The Church tonsure was present but looked like it had been done in an expensive salon.  The tailored black button-up, two-piece suit had trousers that looked like they could have been the skin of some animal, once.  His crystalline blue eyes were incredibly deep but utterly vacant of feeling.  Maybe if you looked hard enough you could see the madness that had to be in there.

He carried no visible weapons but he had both his hands behind his back.  If he was mechanically enhanced then it was so good that I couldn’t see it and that didn’t bear thinking about.  More likely, most of his enhancements would be biological, like Scab’s.  This Churchman was an elegant young killer.  That worried me, because in gun fighting there’s always going to be someone younger and faster who knows a new trick.

“Well?” he asked.  His tone cultured, clipped, trained, presumably for the oratory part of his work.

“You have my attention,” Scab said.  “On the proviso this is neither about redemption nor sentimentality.”

The Churchman shook his head.

“Not at all, were they what you expected?” the Churchman asked.

“I had no expectations,” Scab answered.  I watched him clench his hand and then shake it slightly.

“But your creations?”

“I was unrestrainedly mad then.”  Scab sounded almost agitated.  He seemed to be searching for the right words.  He shook his head.  “It seemed like a good idea at the time.”

“Seemed like a good idea?  Contraceptive hackers?  Viral semen?  Anchored in feedback killer pregnancies?”

“That’s fucking charming,” I muttered to myself.  Scab glanced around at me, but hey, I was dead anyway.  The Churchman paid no attention to me.  Well, wasn’t he a chip off the old block.  I was looking between the Monks.  I hoped they’d brought their mates.

“Toxic births.  Monsters born.”  Curiously, the Churchman didn’t even seem that angry.

“Like you?” Scab asked.

“You can always improve yourself.”  The Churchman smiled.  “I joined the church.”

“That’s limiting yourself. Abrogating responsibility.”

“It’s about knowledge.  Did you even try and talk to any of them?”

“I notice you’re not including yourself with the rest of them.”

“We had little in common,” the Churchman said.  Scab thought about this.  His face screwed up in concentration as if he was really trying to work something through.

“What, what is this?  I…I…” Scab said. He sounded confused.  I took a step forward, eyes widening as I received many fractal images of Scab working his way through an emotion.  “I’m angry. Why are you speaking to me like this?  What do you want?  We’re not equals.  There’s no connection here.  There’s no comeback or revenge on whomever or whatever birthed you.  What I did to them can’t be calculated.  There’s no prize for survival of the fittest.  I wasn’t waiting for one of the litter to rise above the rest to adopt as my own.  It was a phase.  That’s all, an adolescent phase.  I wanted my own dynasty.”  He shrugged.  “I was young.”

And then I saw it.  Scab wasn’t angry at all.  He was disappointed.  Someone had played him, made him dance a merry game and he’d thought that perhaps this would break him from his ennui, but in the end it was just another needy soul.  The monks shifted nervously.  The Churchman’s smile got wider but even through his church training I could see this was bravado.  This was a clever, violent child utterly out of his depth.

“But then why talk to me?”  The Churchman asked.  “All the others you just killed.”  His fantasy of acceptance was unravelling in front of him.  As subtly as possible I began shifting my hands closer to my weapons.  The monks were on to me straight away.  I smiled and nodded at them.  When I say I smiled, I mean I opened my mandibles wide.  This may not have made them all that comfortable, as moments later their visor animations shut down.

“You did me a service.  You reminded me of some genetic material that needed destroying,” Scab said.  This would explain the DNA scramblers he had injected the bodies with.  Scab fought hard to leave as little genetic trace of himself as possible.

“That’s paranoid superstition,” the Churchman snapped.  Scab shrugged.  Really I had to agree with the Churchman there.

“I had hoped that since you’d gone to such an effort to get all your siblings in harm’s way that you might have had something interesting or original to say, but you’re just another victim like everyone else,” Scab told his son.  And here it came.  The Churchman’s face became a mask of barely controlled fury.  Personally, had I been in the same situation as Scab I’d maybe have just gone for a drink with the lad.

“Is that all you have to say?” the churchman asked through gritted teeth.  Weirdly, it looked like he was having a hard time keeping his hands behind his back.  Information from the sniffers suggested the viral cold war was heating up.  Four P Sats jockeyed around on their AG drives looking for the best position.

“You didn’t even ask me my name,” the Churchman said.  Scab wasn’t listening.  My audio sensors became aware of the tinny sound from Scab’s audio crystals.  Then Scab started to sing.  It was an old pre-Exodus human song about dancing and crying at the same time.

Weapons appeared in hands and were brought to bear.  Everything seemed to slow down as biochemistry and hard-tech enhanced reactions kicked in.

“Motherfucker!” the Churchman screamed and brought his hands from behind his back.  Motherfucker?  What was that?  Irony?  Anger?  A simple statement of fact?  Of course I didn’t have time to think of that at the time.  And we’ll hold it there.

 

Okay, there now follows a brief violent and musical interlude.  This is probably only going to be of interest to gun porn fanciers and students of (very) small unit, street fighting tactics, which, as we all know, is just a way of legitimising gun porn fancying.  Maybe this is your kind of thing, I don’t know.  Maybe you get hard/bud/exude/whatever when you think of fully automatic weapons but if that isn’t you kind of thing just ignore it, don’t subject yourself to it, just zip down a couple of paragraphs to my swan song (which is good).

 

Scab began to dance as he sang.  It was called bullet dancing.   It was a series of random moves designed to avoid being shot.  Apparently it’s not about dodging bullets – you can enhance your reactions until you’re as fast as a god on a caffeine high, but a well-aimed bullet or beam will still hit you.  It’s about not being where the bullet is.  You need to be fast, well-trained, have good enhancements, good scanning capability and excellent analysis ware and it all needs to be well integrated.  The most important thing, however, and what people seem to forget these days, is training, practice, a lot of hard work and something of a talent for fighting.  Bullet Dancing was an Elite thing.  As an ex-member of the Squads I’d always assumed it was a myth until I saw Scab do it.

The Churchman’s hands were morphing.  Two ACRs were brought up to shoulders, electronically triggered to fire whilst they rose.  I ducked behind a pillar.  Scab was in the air, as orange flame licked out of the barrel of the nearly silent spit pistol. Small calibre rounds flattened themselves against one of the monks’ battle armour.  He held his massive tumbler pistol in the other hand but it was silent.  Instead, from the sleeve of his suit, hundreds of tiny discs flew at the Churchman.   A mini-discer, each tiny, silver, monomolecular circle was impossibly sharp and sought out the electromagnetic energy given off by sentient races.

The air in front of the Churchman was filled with flechettes from the biomechanical guns his lower arms had become.  Running at enhanced combat speed, it looked like the flechettes hung in the air in a strangely regular grid.  The needles and the discs looked like some retro rendering of an epic space battle.  Scab landed, the flechettes missing him but perforating the ground and the pillar he slid behind. The micro charges in each of the impossibly sharp darts detonated, causing small puffs of smoke and shrapnel, like a tiny meteorite shower.

The Monk’s P Sats filled the air with a grid of lasers in the infrared spectrum as they tried to intercept the mini-discs.  They largely failed, though ECM from the Monks armour and the P Sats proved more effective, sending the guidance system of the discs haywire.  A few of them managed to maintain their course towards the Churchman.  Light bent oddly around him and the discs stopped millimetres away from his skin.  He was using an S-tech coherent energy protective field.  The discs caught in the field continued to spin.  This was bad.

Scab sang from behind the pillar as it was chewed up by sustained fire from flechettes and the Monks’ ACRs.

“I hate the Church,” I muttered to myself.   In my bottom two hands I held my twin LP10s, double-barrelled, precision laser pistols.  In my top hands I held my triple-barrelled shotgun pistol and the much larger Lizard-made power disc.  I launched the disc at one of the Monks.

I heard the repeated dull thuds of grenades being launched from underslung grenade launchers on the ACRs.  The first two grenades exploded in an airburst, filling the air with chaff designed to confuse our sensors.  It was the turn of our P Sats to fill the infrared spectrum with laser fire as they shot at the chaff and the four real grenades.  I bent my bottom limbs back around the pillar and used the sensor scan from the P Sat to get an old fashioned optical lock (aided by a lot of image enhancement software and mechanically enhanced reactions) on the remaining live grenades flying towards us.  Locked in, my limbs moved independently of me, controlled by the targeting computer.  Both pistols fired so rapidly that the four beams seemed constant.  The remaining grenades blew up in the air, the concussion blasts shaking the chapel as my sound dampeners kicked in.

My power disc was now sweeping around the chapel, its guidance system confused by the Monks’ P Sats’ ECM.  Scab strode out from behind the bullet-ridden pillar.  There were four rapid and intensely loud booms from his Tumbler pistol.  The first shot was at the Churchman, the other three at one of the Monks.  The first round stopped and was held in the field.  The other three hit the Monk, staggering him.  He recovered and continued trying to track Scab.  The bullets from the tumbler pistol would be lodged in the Monk’s armour, slowly drilling through.

Still singing about a man on something called a wireless Scab rolled forward, coming up in a crouch below the catwalk where the Churchman was standing.  I swung round the pillar and fired all three barrels of my shotgun pistol at one of the Monks.  I hit him in his centre of gravity.   The concussive force of the explosive shot blew him off his feet.  I reloaded my shotgun pistol whilst concentrating laser fire on his P Sat.  The Monk fired his ACR.   An explosive armour-piercing round staggered me.  My armoured plate bent and buckled under the unrelenting attack.  I engaged the Monk’s P Sat again and it turned its defensive laser towards me.  My personal energy dissipation grid lit up and immediately began smoking as it vented the energy.  The energy dissipation grid on the Monk’s P Sat finally overheated and the P Sat exploded.

With the P-Sat no longer jamming it, my power disc regained its guidance system and flew past the Monk at head height.  The visor slid off the Monk’s helmet, I could see the face of the pious young warrior underneath.  His ACR was still firing as his face slid off.  The Monk toppled forward.  Deadman controls on the gun and armour kept pouring fire down on me.   I tried to hide behind the now largely useless pillar but it wasn’t happening.  Finally, the Monk’s gun ran dry as he collapsed onto the catwalk.

Scab was firing, seemingly randomly, at the steel catwalk above him.  Three more shots echoed out from the Tumbler pistol, all aimed at the last remaining Monk.  Two of them hit, staggering the Monk as he tried to draw a bead on me.  Scab dropped the empty revolver and started firing more of the expensive mini discs at the Churchman.  The discs were tearing through the catwalk but just going haywire when they bounced off the Churchman’s protective field.  The Churchman was pouring flechettes down on Scab.  Scab danced out of the way of many of them but some of them were hitting, blowing out parts of the light armour tailored into his suit.  Other needles were hitting unprotected parts of Scab and fragmenting deep in his flesh.   The needles were doubtless coated in some horrible virus or toxin.  Scab’s superb nanite self-repairing systems would be going into action, shutting down infected parts of his body.

It didn’t stop him singing.  His spit pistol ran dry and then exploded as his arm glowed and he extended the energy javelin from its sheaf in his forearm.  He leapt upwards, enhanced muscles carrying him to just below the catwalk.  Chunks were torn from him in mid air by ACR fire and flechettes.  He lashed twice at the catwalk and the Churchman tumbled through the hole made by the energy javelin.

As they fell, I leapt.  Well, it was more of a hop.  My left leg still wasn’t quite pulling its weight.  I holstered both my LP10s in mid air as my power-assisted limbs carried me easily over the railing and on to the catwalk.

Scab and the Churchman landed in a heap.  The catwalk shook as I landed on it.  The remaining Monk swung his weapon round towards me, and his P Sat began firing at me as well.

Scab was half singing and half grunting the lyrics to the old song he was listening to as he slid off the Churchman’s protective energy field.  The Churchman’s hands morphed back to normal as he extruded two blades from the field itself and stabbed at Scab.  Scab scuttled out of the way as the energy blades effortlessly cut through the floor of the church.  Scab did a kind of crouching one-handed back flip, getting out of the way of the slashing blades.  He was covered in blood and he seemed to be missing parts of his body.  It was like watching an acrobatic corpse.  Scab came to his feet a bloody mess and grinned.  He was staring intently at the Churchman who advanced on him.

“It’s time but I don’t think we really care,” Scab sang, breathing hard.  I, on the other hand, was not singing, or having a “special moment”.  I scooped up the dead Monk’s ACR and ran towards the final Monk firing all three barrels of my shotgun pistol.

Due to excellent optics and superlative processing power I was able to watch the shots leaving the three barrels of the shotgun pistol.  I saw the sabot splitting off from the fin-stabilised rounds.  The rounds’ semi-smart guidance system, aided by my targeting ware, guided them to hit the Monk’s armour at three points in a near perfect triangle.  I hacked the security system on the ACR almost simultaneously and triggered the remaining grenades at the final Monk’s P Sat.  The shaped explosive heads from my shotgun were designed to do one thing.  They blew out a near perfect triangle of armour.  I guided my still flying power disc at the Monk’s P Sat and exerted the full jamming capacity of my own and my P Sat’s systems at it as well.  The monk’s P Sat fought valiantly.  It took out three of the grenades and jammed the guidance on my power disc before it was overwhelmed and the final grenade destroyed it.  The explosion shook the catwalk.

I dropped the ACR and drew both my LP10s.  The catwalk shook with every armoured footstep as I bore down on the Monk.  This is the bit where I love being a huge cybernetic insect.  I knew I fucking terrified this human monk.  I transmitted a change in frequency to my lasers, from pierce to cook, and fired as my upper right arm holstered my empty but still smoking shotgun pistol.  The beams instantly linked the pistols and the targeted hole in the monk’s armour.  Super heated flesh exploded out of the hole in a red steam.  The Monk staggered back.  I leapt.  The integrity of the Monk’s armour gave in and Scab’s five driller rounds finally penetrated the armour and tore through his flesh, making tunnels in the human meat.  I landed just in front of the Monk.  The catwalk lurched violently and there was the sound of highly distressed metal.  I picked the Monk up with my upper left arm and drove my right hand through his visor.  The hand came out red.  Sometimes you’ve just got to be a big scary insect.  I dropped the Monk’s limp body on to the catwalk.  The catwalk juddered, lurched and then gave way.  I shrieked in a way that wasn’t very much like a big scary insect and fell to the ground.

Scab was backing away from the Churchman’s twin blades.  He was still singing softly to himself.  He leant backwards so sharply he had to use his free hand for support as one of the blades swept over his torso.  He straightened up again and the air crackled as Scab parried the other blade with his energy javelin.  I tried to figure out what Scab was up to as I attempted to untangle myself from the mess of twisted steel I was lying in.  He seemed to be fighting a defensive battle, which was very unlike him.  It was as if he was playing for time.

Scab lashed out at his opponent, the javelin creating a strange ripple effect that thoroughly distorted the Churchman’s image.  Whilst this looked spectacular it didn’t seem to have any real effect.  Scab was waiting for something.  Then the waiting was over.  Scab kicked out at the Churchman, contacting with the field and knocking him back.  He raked his javelin rapidly back and forth across the Churchman’s field, sweeping his opponent’s blades away from him.  Scab forced the Churchman back against the wall.   Scab used the energy field of his own S-Tech weapon to lock and force the Churchman’s two blades down.  Then he braced himself against the Churchman, holding him against the wall.

Scab was practically spitting out the lyrics of the ancient song as he strained with the exertion of holding the Churchman against the wall.  I was still trying to free myself from the wreckage.  My legs were tangled in such a way that I wasn’t sure if they, or the remains of the catwalk superstructure, were going to give way if I just stood up.

Scab’s shoulder exploded in a spray of blood and his arm fell away from his shoulder.  At first I thought the Churchman had freed himself and sliced the arm off but as Scab stepped back I saw what happens when an almost unstoppable force meets an almost immovable object.

Around the Churchman’s chest area the field was distorted, as if it had been pushed through.  As if it had the consistency of gum.  The Churchman staggered forward and I could see in the steel behind him there was an imprint roughly the shape of his body.  Scab looked down at his violently twitching severed arm.  The Churchman’s blood trickled to the ground behind him.  The field seemed to right itself, as if it had bounced back.  Something impossibly hard, white hot and crumpled fell to the floor as the Churchman’s field went down.  With his remaining hand Scab drew his metal-forma knife and stabbed the blade into his son’s throat.  At transmitted commands from Scab, the programmable, liquid, smart metal of the blade split into many sharp tendrils, all of which surged through the Churchman’s body.  The Churchman began to sink to the ground.  Scab was whispering in his ear.

The Churchman slumped to the ground and Scab recalled the blade.  He looked down at the body of the Churchman, then up at the crucified Seeder, something unreadable in his expression.  I think he wanted to crucify the Churchman but felt it was too clichéd or something.

 

(OKAY IF YOU’RE GUN PORN DODGING YOU CAN START READING AGAIN NOW.)

 

Fuck it, I thought and stood up.  Metal snapped and splintered as I burst out of the ruins of the catwalk.  Fortunately none of the metal was mine.  I looked up at the roof.  My optics divided it into search grids as I looked for what I knew must be there.  I found it, a tiny hole.  I walked over to where the Churchman lay and looked around the floor.  I found the small, crumpled, super hard piece of metal, and picked it up.  According to my tactile sensors it was still very hot.  It would have seared flesh.

“The mass driver?” I asked.  Scab nodded.  “That’s what you paid Hat for.  To keep the Vigilante Society’s orbital weapons off your back.”  Scab nodded.  “What did you do?  Have the ship skim over the atmosphere and fire?”  Scab nodded again.  “Pretty fancy flying for an automated ship.”

“I downloaded part of my liquid-ware as me into the ships systems.”

“Oh good, the ship will have a wonderful attitude now.”

“Don’t be facetious, I’ll remove it.”  He was still staring at the Churchman’s body.

“What about the Church orbitals?”  I asked, despite myself.  I was starting to become angry but then I knew what was coming.  I think being called facetious in this situation had finally made me snap.

“They put up quite a fight, the ship’s been damaged.”

“Badly?”

“Yes, but it’s repairable.”

“Expensively?”  Scab just nodded.  What the hell, he was going to kill me anyway, I figured.  I wasn’t sure why then and I’m not sure why now.  Whether it was because he didn’t want people to know he’d had kids or he didn’t want people to know he’d killed them.  Maybe the whole thing was just too private and personal for him.  However, if I was going to die I thought I might as well get it off my chest.

“That’s good, that’s just fine.  This is for the money.  Remember?  That’s why I put up with your psychotic shit.  Now we’ve wasted a shit load of expensive munitions, you need a graft, I need a total fucking refit and the ship’s fucked.  All because you and your equally twisted brood decided to have a domestic!  And not even a fucking bounty!  All of it wasted!  No reason whatsoever!”  I shouted.  I had stopped short of amplifying my voice.  My cries echoed through the metallic church.  I could hear other Church people moving around in the building now the shooting seemed to have died down.  I reckoned they’d stay well away, however.  Scab turned round to look at me.

“Your reason is me,” he said softly.

“Why?  Because we’re such good fucking friends?”

“What are you talking about?”

“And what’s your reason?  They were your fucking kids.  I’ve seen warriors show eggs sacs more compassion.”

“I had to kill them,” he said, even more quietly.

“Why?”  I was exasperated, genuinely frustrated and totally at odds with a situation even more fucked up than the ones this fucking monster normally got me into.  Scab turned to look at me.  He was examining me like he’d found something new in a familiar place and he didn’t like it.

“What if one of them ended up like me?” he asked.  That stopped me dead.   He had a point.  Scab pointed at the Churchman’s corpse.  “There are similarities.”  It seemed like he wanted to say more but he just looked at me, searching for my understanding.

“What? You felt threatened?”  It was a cheap shot.  This time I’d disappointed him and he turned away.  My anger subsided and was slowly replaced by dread, and that was ridiculous.  My armour was screwed, yes, but I still had two partially charged lasers and a mechanical body several time more powerful in magnitude than Scab’s.  He, on the other hand, was down to one arm and no weapons other than the Javelin.  Fuck it, no, I wasn’t going down without a fight.  Scab turned and walked towards me.  The javelin was sucked back up into its sheaf in his remaining arm.  I could see the glow through his flesh and skin.  I sagged, and all urge to fight just seemed to evaporate.  I turned my back on him, though I had to limp round dragging the wreckage of the catwalk with me.  It was less dignified than I’d hoped for.  I felt Scab’s fingers searching for exposed skin and then the prick of the derm.

 

This was weird.  After I’d collapsed dead, my sensors kept on recording.  Somehow these electronic recollections downloaded to the dead grey matter of my memory and were with me when I awoke.  It was Scab talking to himself.

“To kill yourself, to really die, you’d need to wipe out every trace of your existence, all of it.  Do you know what the worse thing is?  Even if you could track down everyone you’ve ever met and who had ever heard of you and kill them; wipe out every bit of recorded data about yourself, even then, all your death would be is the transformation of flesh to rumour.  Isn’t that sordid?  How can it ever be enough?”  It wasn’t so much a fade to black as a fading transmission.

 

So I’ve set the virus, it’s going through my systems wiping out any knowledge of these events.  A bit of nano-surgery for the wet bits that are still ‘Sect.  Isn’t technology grand?  The text file I’m burying deep, very deep.  It’ll be a serious skull fuck that finds it and I’ll be dead anyway.  Though it’ll probably trigger another murder spree for Scab but then what’s one more and fuck it, I won’t care.  It’s not that I want to cover for him any more than he wants to cover for himself.

I just don’t think knowing any of this will add to my peace of mind.