I didn’t think it was possible to like a book as much as Erin Kahn over at The Wood Between the Worlds seems to have enjoyed The Blackbird and the Ghost – but her review of it is absolutely wonderful!
Very much chuffed by this. Thank you, Erin!
Chapter 3 time. Let’s go.
They disabled the tank with surprising efficiency; on the rare occasion that the members of Salvage 7 worked together without remembering their petty squabbles and disagreements they were a damn fine team. While Collins’ drones continued scanning the tank’s internal power lines, watching for any spike from the backup battery to one of the tank’s many energy weapons, Gideon, under Petra’s direction, systematically disabled as many of the tank’s visual sensors and external weapons as possible. Some of the sensors were inaccessible – the backups, sheathed in armour-plated clamshells that only opened if the main cameras were knocked out – but Petra’s encyclopaedic knowledge of the tank’s design let Gideon short out all the tank’s main eyes, largely blinding it. That alone wasn’t especially reassuring, so they moved onto the external guns.
“Power diverted from main cannon… now,” Collins called, one of his drones holding position over the tank’s back, an invisible beam piercing the armoured shell. Gideon nodded and bent to his work, insulated wire-cutters snipping carefully at the relevant cables through the hold Petra had carved with her plasma cutter. Within a few moments he had disabled every feed to the big pulse cannon save the one to its auxiliary plasma reservoir.
“Collins,” Petra called, “can you drain the aux tank?”
“Working,” the technician replied. He was still up on the ridge, hunched over his laptop and tapping furiously at its keyboard. Awkward he might look, but there was nothing awkward about the smooth flight of his three drones, circling balletically around the buried Talos. The nearest – Gamma, Gideon thought – stopped jamming the cut power feeds and shifted position.
“There,” Petra pointed, to a spot beneath the armour that was identical to all the rest. Gamma held position, shuddering as it began to emit invisible radiation again. It would have been impossible to tell, had the unseen beam not vaporised every raindrop that it touched, sending them hissing into steam.
“Fifty percent, thirty…” Collins called, “ten, empty!”
“Cut it,” Petra ordered, but Gideon was already working, Petra’s plasma cutter in his hand. There was a hiss as ozone forced its way out of the pipe and Gideon almost threw himself backwards, but Petra waved her hand.
“It’s fine. Empty.”
Gideon leaned back and saw that she was right; the pipeline was empty. He cut through the rest, just to be sure.
“Main cannon disabled,” he called for Collins’ benefit.
“Nice job,” came Handel’s voice over the radio. “Now, get to the other hardpoints. Some nasty shit mounted on these things.” Gideon nodded; he didn’t want to tangle with any of the tank’s munitions if he could help it.
“No,” Petra countered, and Gideon’s heart sank, “we kill the backup battery. We’ve a way in now. Let’s kill this thing for good, and we can haul it out intact.”
“After my own heart,” Handel replied with an audible grin. “Alright. Backup on a Talos is a 50MW output. Fry you out of your skin. But it’s an older model. Capacitors were pieces of shit, used to bleed out into nothing if you looked at them funny.”
“We can use that,” Petra decided. “Gideon?”
“We’ll need something to bleed them into,” Gideon replied, burying his nerves as best he could, “if we don’t want to get fried.” And I don’t. He thought back to the old shop and all the ancient vehicles and ancient capacitors that had come through day after day. In the shop, they’d had a big industrial capacitor buried underneath the workshop floor, which had come in handy during their frequent powercuts. Here, in a muddy field in the middle of nowhere…
“Another vehicle would do it,” he decided finally. “Big enough frame to take the charge, and if we earth it properly it’ll flow straight through.”
“Could use that four-wheel you found,” Collins called to Petra, clearly eager to redeem himself a little, “if it runs!” Petra shrugged.
“Let’s go and find out.”
It took all three of them, all their strength and some clever leverage to get the jeep on its wheels again, heaving it out of the mud. Gideon knew the type immediately; a popular civilian model modified for combat use, simple and rugged and one he’d mended dozens of back in the day. Once he’d reconnected the leads for the hydrogen fuel cell the engine started with barely a splutter. The four-wheel had become a two-wheel drive, and its gearbox was shot to hell, but Petra still managed to coax it up and over the ridge and back to the tank. Collins was sent back to their own flatbed and stumbled into view a few minutes later with a reel of insulated cable slung around his shoulders. He busied himself attaching one end to the jeep’s heavy chassis. Gideon took the other.
“There,” Petra pointed, and Gideon squeezed the trigger of his soldering iron, sticking the frayed cable end to the exposed terminal with a hiss of flash-boiling drizzle. “Collins, let’s try this!”
They all scrambled well clear of the tank. Two of Collins’ drones kept monitoring the power flow to the tank’s many weapons and sensors; the third moved into position above the backup battery. The technician was glued to his laptop screen, but Petra beckoned Gideon into cover in a shell-hole. Worryingly, she had unshipped her marksman’s rifle – decidedly non-standard even for the unregulated Salvage crews. Gideon checked the load of his shotgun, for all the good it would do. If the tank woke up, he’d be paste and vapour before he could so much as aim, cover be damned.
He breathed in deeply, then out, slowly. It didn’t help at all.
“Hope this works,” commented Handel unhelpfully. Gideon saw Petra scowl.
“Collins, when you’re ready,” she called. The skinny tech replied over the radio.
“Ok. Opening the taps in three, two, one…”
Gideon felt the air crackle with static as the backup battery emptied itself down the cable and into the frame of the four-wheel-drive, the backwash standing his hair on end. Four sharp cracks, a burst of gunfire, made him cringe into the mud, almost foetal, as Petra instinctively snapped her rifle up to return fire. He tasted copper – but it wasn’t blood, and though his ears were ringing he couldn’t hear Collins screaming, the whine of bullets, barked orders and rumbling engines. Cautiously, Gideon poked his head above the lip of the foxhole, shotgun in a death-grip. The four-wheel was a blackened ruin, its chassis warped and buckled by the sheer heat of the discharge, and all four tyres had burst – in rapid succession Gideon realised, flushing with embarrassment under his coating of filth. The mud surrounding the wrecked jeep was bubbling with heat, giving off a deeply unpleasant, worryingly organic smell – but a few yards away Collins sat happily with a big smile on his face.
“It’s dead!” he called, waving at Gideon. “Not a watt left!” His three drones swirled over the Talos, beeping merrily. Beside Gideon, Petra lowered her rifle with a sigh of relief, and for a moment Gideon felt a new solidarity, a reassurance that, for once, he hadn’t been the only one scared. But then he saw Petra’s expression of utter indifference; the look of a woman who’d seen all this before a hundred times and never once flinched, never once faltered; and the feeling faded.
“Alright. Good job. Now let’s get it out and go home.”
She shouldered her gun and strode towards the tank, leaving Gideon in the foxhole, wet, and tired, and alone.
The Jeroboam’s Deck Three mess hall was packed, as it always was. The grounded frigate was home to thousands – besides the five thousand Union soldiers and salvage operators who packed its hastily converted barrack-rooms, the ship had two thousand in its crew, from bridge officers to mechanics, and another several hundred assorted hangers-on and camp followers who plied trades sweet and sordid in the lower decks. The Jeroboam had not been designed as a troop carrier. It was a warship, an escort vessel, meant for the simultaneously lightning-fast and achingly slow dance that was space combat. With the war against the Republic officially over, however, and the cleanup operation only widening in scope, Union Command – and indeed the Republic’s own Council – had pressed the Jeroboam and dozens of other ships like it into service as improvised ground bases. It was, Gideon reflected as he shuffled another few inches forward in the heaving queue, trying not to jostle the big infantrymen who surrounded him, a good idea in theory. Capital ships had communications equipment, powerful sensors, defensive weapons and the manufacturing and recycling capacity necessary to work very well as bases. They also, on paper, had plenty of room in their cargo holds and other big spaces to fit the region’s assigned ground forces. On paper, the Jeroboam was a perfect ground base. In reality, it was an overcrowded hellhole. The Navy men and women of the ship’s crew resented the Army for cluttering their ship and forcing them to spend months on the ground; the Army resented the Navy for being stuck-up arseholes who wouldn’t allow them free reign aboard ship; and everyone resented the Salvage squads for being the reason they were there at all. Gideon, therefore, as he shuffled towards the mess hall’s food counter for dinner, kept his head down and his mouth shut.
After what felt like hours he finally reached the counter, taking a tray of the evening’s nutritionally balanced rations. The best thing anyone, Army or Navy or Salvage, could say about the supposedly perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and vitamins was that it was sometimes hot and usually didn’t taste like vomit – no matter how much it looked like it. Gideon took his tray and slipped back through the crowd to a long table in the corner, where the rest of Seven and some other Salvage people picked at their slop with varying levels of enthusiasm. He slid onto the end of the bench, next to Handel, who alone among the group was attacking his slop with a smile on his face, metal arm moving slowly. He actually liked the stuff, Gideon knew; apparently standard rations had been much worse once upon a time. It was difficult to believe, Gideon reflected as he took his first bland, faintly acrid spoonful, that such a thing was possible. Next to Handel was Collins, barely paying attention to his food as he leafed through some technical manual, utterly absorbed. Just once Gideon wanted to see the volunteer in some kind of discomfort – but the day still had not come.
Donoghue sat down across from Gideon, nodding curtly but saying nothing to him. Handel smiled at her and cracked a joke that cracked her dour expression just a little, and the two began chatting amiably. They had been thick as thieves as long as Gideon had known them, the kind of genuine friendship that only came, at least for soldiers, from months spent under fire together, trapped in foxholes with nothing but each other’s company. It was the kind of friendship Gideon had never had. He didn’t expect to ever find it. Next to Donoghue loomed Yaxley, twice as broad and almost a foot taller than any of them. Yaxley Gideon barely knew at all, even after half a year spent working with the big man. He was good with explosives, even better to have around when the heavy lifting needed doing as it so often did… and that was just about all Gideon knew about him. He’d been, according to Handel, in the Ordnance Corps before being seconded to Salvage; an artilleryman. What he’d done to end up digging unexploded shells out of the Arcadian mud instead of putting them there was anyone’s guess.
Dawson sat next to Yaxley, and, at the far end of the table with another half-dozen people separating them, sat Petra, eating silently. Surrounded by people she might be, but she was unmistakeably alone. Even Gideon, ignored as he was, seemed part of the squad – but no matter what Petra did she would never escape the fact that she was the enemy. Gideon would have felt sorry for her if he’d not felt so sorry for himself. The salvage operation might nominally be a joint effort, but the Union and Republic commands had been sensible enough to realise that mixing squads of soldiers who’d only just stopped trying to kill each other wasn’t a good idea – except in Petra’s case, and a few other unfortunates like her. At least, he reflected as he ate, trying not to concentrate on taste or texture, she was separated from Dawson. Gideon knew from experience what would happen if the two were forced into the same space for longer than a few minutes. It was never pretty.
He suddenly realised that he was out of slop, spoon clattering against his bowl. The others, too, were just finishing up, and Gideon waited quietly for them. He wanted sleep, knew he was unlikely to actually get it. Something, as it always did, would come up. One by one, Salvage Seven finished eating.
“Well, that was awful,” sighed Donoghue, stretching and wincing as something that shouldn’t have cracked did. “But we’re done. Nothing more tonight, everyone, so do what you want.”
They all stood, gathering trays and bowls.
“I’m going for some real food,” Dawson grumbled. “Can’t stand this shit. Yax, coming?”
“Sure,” rumbled the big man. Gideon wasn’t surprised; standard rations were designed for humans of ordinary size – Yaxley had to need twice as much just to not starve.
“Collins?” Dawson asked, barely disguising her relief when the technician shook his head.
“Had a few gyro issues earlier,” he said. “Might go down to the workshop and have a proper look before tomorrow. Always maintain your kit, right?” He smiled. Only Handel offered a weak smile in response.
“Well, I might have a tasty little deal going down for those flechette pistols,” he said with a predatory grin. Gideon shuddered. Those guns were nasty little things, normally banned by at least two conventions he could think of – compact, easily concealed and horribly efficient. No wonder Handel stood to make good money off them.
“You want backup?” Donoghue asked. Handel shrugged.
“Couldn’t hurt. Get the feeling a sergeant isn’t exactly inconspicuous though. I’ll be fine alone.”
“Never said I’d show my face,” Donoghue countered. “Besides, you can’t afford to get anything else cut off.” The quartermaster scowled, making an obscene gesture with his prosthetic fingers that was all the more insulting for how slowly it came together.
“What about you, Gid?” Handel asked, unexpectedly. For a too-long moment, Gideon struggled with an answer he hadn’t expected to have to give.
“I’m shattered,” he finally said, lamely. “Need to sleep for a week.” He shrugged. “I’ll settle for eight hours.” In truth he’d settle for six.
“Alright then,” Donoghue said, dismissing him with a wave of her hand. “Whatever you do, don’t start a fight you can’t win and don’t get so drunk you can’t stand. Briefing at oh-seven. Piss off.”
The less-than-formal dismissal was met with a series of less-than-formal salutes, as Salvage Seven made its way out of the mess-hall and, splitting, out into the bowels of the Jeroboam. Gideon spared half a glance for Petra as they passed. She’d heard Donoghue, but didn’t look up as the rest of the squad filed out – she just ate her gruel in silence, alone save for whatever dark thoughts she carried. Gideon knew there were some. They were the only commodity not in short supply on the muddy hell that was Arcadia.
He, Handel, Donoghue and Collins went back to the squad’s cramped quarters, Yaxley and Dawson splitting off for the sub-decks together. As Handel retrieved his contraband from whichever hidden compartment he’d stashed it in, and Collins gathered up his drone kit, Gideon once again rinsed the mud from his body armour, his boots, all his outdoor gear from earlier, hanging them up in a vague semblance of cleanliness. He took another shower – all too brief, their hot water allowance running out almost immediately. By the time he emerged, he was alone in the suite of rooms. In less than nine hours, he would be on duty again.
He killed the lights, climbed into his bunk and buried himself in the thin blankets, and tried to relax. In the dark, the bloody face of Corporal Atwell waited, and she was not alone.
He did not sleep for some time.
Once you’ve started, why stop? There’s a lot more where this came from.
All too soon, Gideon was following Petra and Collins back through the motor pool to the waiting flatbed. They were all fully kitted out: fresh fatigues and less-than-fresh body armour, bucket helmets and knee-high boots, with webbing belted over it all to hold their own specialist tools. Collins was carrying the big plastic case that held his drones, while Petra had a compact plasma cutter that, Gideon knew, could scythe through armour-plate like a knife through butter. Gideon had his full suite of electrician’s tools. They were probably the most important things he owned – some he’d brought from the shop, what felt like a lifetime ago. He still got regular updates from David on how it was doing. He hadn’t replied to one in months.
They made their way through the fuel-haze and hubbub to the flatbed; still covered in mud and grime but sitting a little more comfortably on its heavy suspension, its chunky tyres reinflated. Dawson was tinkering with something above the rear wheel, looking up when the three scavengers drew near. When she saw Petra, her eyes hardened.
“All ready for you, Corporal.”
“Good,” Petra replied, and walked straight past Dawson to the driver’s seat, climbing into the cab without another word. Gideon muttered vague thanks as he passed Dawson, and Collins tried a smile, but the engineer ignored them both. As Petra started the engine and rolled the flatbed out of its bay, Gideon glimpsed her in the rear-view mirror, staring a thousand blades into Petra’s back as she shrank into the crowd. That can’t last forever. The only way Gideon could see that particular feud settled was with at least one death – and not necessarily on the battlefield.
They waited for a long few minutes in the queue of vehicles; more flatbeds, a couple of armoured personnel carriers ready to go on patrol; until the duty corporal finally waved them through. Petra slipped smoothly into gear, and they rolled down the colossal ramp and out into the mud. It was getting dark now, but light from a thousand sources flowed out of the hangar bay and showed them the latest form of the ever-shifting landscape, the new shape of the flowing mud and earth. It was still raining. Gideon wasn’t sure that it had ever stopped. Petra found some tracks that hadn’t oozed back into the ground yet, flipping on the floodlights as Collins, riding shotgun, called up the navigation display and plotted a route. Gideon, useless, turned back and watched as the light from the hangar slowly dimmed, as the almost impossibly vast shape that was the grounded UNS Jeroboam, home and operating base for five thousand soldiers of the Union army, slowly faded into the gloom and was gone, leaving nothing but the mud and rain.
All too soon, they reached their assigned sector. Gideon donned his helmet, took one last breath of warm air, and then opened his door and dropped into ankle-deep mud, the chill immediately finding his bones and biting deep. This, apparently, was what passed for springtime on Arcadia, a world famed for its vast forests and their thousand-year-old trees – not that Gideon had ever seen them. Until the war came it had still been a wild world, recently settled and barely tamed by its colonists; ending up right between the seceding Republic and the reeling Union had sealed its fate. If there were still trees on Arcadia, they were far, far away – the war had chewed up the forests, sucked down the crisp, clear air, eaten the dream of utopia alive and left nothing behind but smoke and mud.
“Alright,” said Petra, closing the truck’s door behind her. Her dark fatigues, carefully divested of most of their insignia, made her blend far too well with the mud. “The scans picked up some heavy machinery. Corpse wagons haven’t been round yet. Focus on the big stuff, but pick up whatever you can.” She pulled up the map on her wrist-mounted PDA, a few taps synchronising it with Collins and Gideon’s. “Here, here and here. Spread out, take it slow, and keep in touch. If they’re Republic, let me know and I’ll be right over.”
“Got it, Corp,” said Collins. Gideon just nodded. Petra fiddled with her radio, cursing quietly as it crackled with static.
“Seven-Two to Seven-Actual. Comm check.”
“Copy, Seven.” Handel’s voice; given the man was already stuck back on the Jeroboam it was only logical that he run their comms and support. “Happy hunting. And if you find any fusion cells, let me know. Bounty just went up.”
“Will do.” Petra looked up and nodded curtly at Collins and Gideon. “Off we go.” Without another word she turned, snapping on her helmet torch, and stalked off through the mud.
“Would you hold this?” Collins asked, passing Gideon his gun. He took it, as the technician squelched around to the back of the flatbed and set down his heavy case, popping it open.
“Alpha, close support,” he muttered, tapping at the screen of his PDA and linking it to the crude AIs, “Beta, wide scan, Gamma, focus standby.” He pressed a button with a flourish, and from the case three silver spheres popped up, springing into the air on miniature repulsors to hover around Collins’ head. Lights flickered in a wide array of patterns, and Collins smiled, satisfied.
“Good boys.” He flicked back to the map. “I’ll take the west mark, you the east?”
“Fine,” Gideon said, handing the submachine gun back. “Shout when you know what it is.”
“Got it.” Collins turned on his own head-torch and squelched away, his drones following, taking up their assigned patterns. Gideon shook his head, flipping on his own light. His bunkmate spent far more time than was healthy with his little friends – but he had to admit that they were useful bits of kit. None of that for him, though. If he wasn’t working with his own hands, he wasn’t working. He checked his map, found his waypoint, and set off, leaving the floodlights of the flatbed behind.
He’d barely gone twenty steps before he found his first body. Once he would have been squeamish about it, but now the sight of the corpse barely shook him. Because, he reflected as he turned the body over, its flesh pallid, bloated by the endless rain, it’s not fresh. Someone days, even hours dead was no concern of his – it was the thought of the dying that made him shudder, of fresh blood on living skin. He pushed the memory away, scanned the body. It was a Union infantryman, armed with a kinetic rifle soaked through by mud. Gideon pulled it free of the corpse’s hands, cleared the firing chamber with a jerk, examined it. Properly cleaned, it ought to work again. He disassembled it and stuffed the pieces in his pack, before finding the dead man’s dogtags, flat above the entry wound of the shot that had killed him. A few taps on his PDA logged the serial number and name for the corpse wagons that would sweep the sector after Salvage was done – or at least after they had disarmed the really dangerous stuff. Gideon knew that this blasted waste would never truly be free of the remnants of battle. He had read about the Iron Harvest back on Earth during his training, of how farmers had dug up shell-casings and helmets for centuries after the big old wars were done. In years to come, Arcadian farmers would dig up shards of steel, plastic cartridges and ballistic polymers. If any ever come. Gideon couldn’t say Arcadia would be at the top of his list for settling down.
Four more corpses delayed him on his slow, sticky journey to the pulsing signature on his PDA map. He checked each one, relieving them of their weapons, armour if he could easily get it off – and if it was remotely intact. By the time he drew near the energy signature his pack was already heavy with broken-down rifles; nothing special, but finding the special things wasn’t actually his job, much to the chagrin of Handel. The official mission statement of the Salvage Corps was to clear up the battlefields of the Uncivil War (as the satirists had long since called it), to make a half-dozen planets safe again for human habitation, a grand gesture of a joint venture between two armies who very much still wanted to go for each other’s throats. The actual role of the Salvage Corps, as Gideon perceived it, was for the Union and the Republic to scavenge as much scrap and still-functional materiel as they could, so that when the uneasy truce inevitably shattered they could get right back to shooting at each other like nothing had ever interrupted.
Regardless of how idealistic you were, Gideon’s job remained the same: find anything remotely usable or dangerous – and a lot of stuff that wasn’t – and bring it back to the Jeroboam to be used and reused again. As he brushed the worst of the mud off a pistol, he wondered idly how many hands would wield it – and how many hands would pluck it from the mud on a dozen different worlds so it could be wielded again. He wondered if anyone he knew had held it, would hold it. Maybe he would. He hoped he wouldn’t.
The mud formed a low rise, up which he slid and squelched, his high combat boots providing as much grip as possible – which was to say none at all. The beam of his helmet torch jerked around like a half-dead moth as he struggled over the lip of the rise, almost falling more than once, but he got a grip on some half-buried chunk or rock or metal and straightened. Looking down at the shallow dip in the field, he didn’t need to consult his PDA to see what the orbital scanners had picked up – and really wished that he did. Crouched in the bottom of the dip, what little of it that wasn’t covered in mud blackened and warped by energy weapon impacts, but still brutally, terrifyingly intact, was a Talos-pattern Automated Weapons Platform, big and brooding and bristling with guns. Gideon instinctively dropped into what little cover there was, drawing his woefully useless shotgun. His heart was pounding. Fucking auto-tank! It looked intact, too, or mostly so; half-buried in the mud of the battlefield it might be, but he could see no obvious damage beyond scorching. It was also, he realised, his heart slowing a little, completely still. He slipped a compact scope from his webbing and scanned the mass of metal slowly, looking for the telltale crimson glint of active sensors. He found none. Forcing himself to breathe out, he keyed his comm.
“Go ahead, Four,” replied Handel from the tiny corner of the operations centre that Donoghue had been able to scavenge to run the team’s support.
“Reached scan reference… whatever it is,” Gideon said, “and it’s a Talos.”
“You’ve either got the best or worst luck in the world today, my son. How’s it look?”
“Intact. Half-buried, but in one piece.”
“Shitting hell,” Handel breathed. “That’s one hell of a find.”
“Seven-Actual,” came another voice on the comm, “we are on duty.”
“Sorry, Two,” Handel said, without a trace of embarrassment. “Four, can you handle it?”
Gideon considered the seemingly dead machine. The many patterns of auto-tank were surprisingly cheap and horrifyingly effective murder machines of a kind both sides had thrown enthusiastically into the fray throughout the war. “Automation,” the press statements had said time and again, “will increase efficiency and save lives. Fewer soldiers on the battlefield means fewer soldiers in the infirmary.” There might have been fewer soldiers on the battlefield at a time, but the efficiency of death-machines like the Talos and the T-27 meant that those soldiers died just as fast as before. The Talos, Gideon remembered, flipping through hazy images of old technical manuals, was a multi-purpose assault vehicle, pointed in the general direction of the enemy and then unleashed, spitting fire and lead from its many mouths. If its slaved AI were still active, Gideon would be pulped as soon as he got within five yards – and if they woke up, he’d be just as screwed. He could take the thing apart and fry its brain like he had the drone earlier – but he couldn’t do it alone. Or at least he really, really didn’t want to.
“Could use a hand, Actual,” he said, trying to keep the relief out of his voice. “This one’ll be hard to crack.”
“Gotcha. Two, Six, can you assist?” If Handel knew how scared Gideon was, it didn’t show in his voice.
“On my way over,” came Petra’s voice, brusquely. “Mine’s just a four-wheel. Can get it later.”
“I can come too,” said Collins with a static edge. “Flatbed over here. Civilian model. Barely worth our time.”
Petra didn’t reply, but Gideon almost flinched away from the daggers she would be staring at Collins – dear, naïve Collins, whose tactless appraisal of the Republic’s improvised vehicles could not have been delivered to a less appropriate person.
“So we’re all on their way, then,” Handel said, filling the silence. “Lovely. Gid, sit tight.”
Gideon did so, and a few minutes later he heard Collins scrambling and squelching up his ridge, even less elegantly than Gideon himself. He didn’t offer a hand until Collins was almost at the top, pity overriding the vindictive pleasure of watching the struggle.
“Oh, lovely,” Collins breathed, settling into the mud next to Gideon. His three drones settled into formation above and behind his head, many lights flickering. “The targeting software on those things set a new standard.”
“And that new standard got a lot of people killed,” said Petra, and Gideon almost jumped out of his skin. He hadn’t heard her approaching at all, which in this sucking mud should have been impossible – yet there she was, standing behind them, her fatigues barely muddy at all.
“Collins, deep scan,” Petra ordered, her eyes fixed on the auto-tank. “Residual power output, anything that’s still charged. These things are tough; might just be dormant.”
“Yes, Corporal,” the skinny man replied, tapping at his PDA. Two of his three drones gained height and then floated forwards, stopping a few feet from the tank’s shell. The pattern of lights changed, and then Gideon saw the infrared beams flicker out, playing over every exposed inch of the dead – or sleeping – machine.
“Some residual power,” Collins muttered, eyes locked on his screen, the drones feeding him information in real-time. “Looks like the backup fusion battery’s still active. Main couplings are fried.” One of the drones was hovering over the mud-covered half of the tank, scanning through the muck.
“Any idea,” Gideon asked carefully, “what took it out?”
“Switching Alpha to external scan,” Collins replied, and one of the drones changed its pattern at his touch. “Armour mostly intact. Under the mud… ah. Rocket impact at the rear.”
“Engine block,” Petra said confidently. “Armour’s thinner there for heat dissipation. A good shot cripples them. It’s Union.” Gideon nodded, but he was unable to stop Collins asking the stupid question.
“How do you know?”
Petra turned, fixing Collins with a dark glare.
“Because that’s how we used to kill these things back on Karapoor,” she replied. “When the Union sent half a brigade into the suburbs and killed two thousand civilians. Auto-tanks, against noncombatants. Against children.”
She looked up at the tank again, and Gideon’s eyes were drawn to her collar, and the darker patch on the worn fabric where the insignia of the Republic had once been sewn.
“an exciting review that promises more for the characters”
Paul of Paul’s Picks just posted a lovely review of The Blackbird and the Ghost!
Might as well let you all finish the first chapter of Salvage Seven, eh? There’s one more member of the team to meet. Enjoy.
Collins was tinkering with his drones when Gideon walked in, dumping his pack on his narrow bunk and then pulling off his boots. The skinny technician jumped at the noise, pulling off his boxy, modified VR goggles.
“You’re back!” He powered down the drone he’d been modifying, letting the compact sphere, the size of a grapefruit, drop into his waiting hands. Their tiny table was covered in bits of circuitry and Collins’ laptop, wires spiralling out in all directions towards the goggles, a few strange metal boxes covered in blinking lights, into the power sockets. The man never wired the place the same way twice – which led to an interesting variety of trip hazards.
“Yeah,” Gideon grunted. He tossed his helmet onto the bunk, stepping over one thick table to do so.
“Sorry, I’ll tidy up,” Collins said, already darting around the cramped room for the wires and tools he’d left everywhere.
“It’s alright,” Gideon sighed, unstrapping his meagre weapons and laying them carefully on the bunk. “Need to clean up.” For all the good it’ll do.
“Ok,” said Collins, as Gideon squeezed into their little bathroom. In this one regard they’d lucked out; the Salvage squads had been assigned quarters as an afterthought, separate to the big barrack-rooms where the bigger regiments lived, and so Unit 7 had ended up with a cramped suite of rooms that had once been quarters for merchant passengers. They’d been quarters for three merchant passengers, not seven soldiers, so every room was doubled up, but it was an unexpected bit of privacy. The bathroom was small, spartan, but the shower was big enough for Gideon to bring his filthy fatigues, boots and flak jacket in with him. He rinsed everything of the worst of the battlefield mud, then luxuriated in the lukewarm water for a whole five minutes, scrubbing himself as clean as he could and then wrapping himself in a grubby towel. Emerging, he pulled on (relatively) fresh fatigues, then grabbed his wet clothes and dumped them in the laundry basket. Yaxley would wash them later; it was his turn. Collins wordlessly helped him hang up his body armour in front of the noisy, rattling air-vent that kept them up half the night but was great for drying clothes. The software-man had cleared away a lot of his tech – or at least moved it to his own bunk –and didn’t comment for a while as Gideon sat heavily down on his bed and began stripping down his shotgun and pistol. As ever, mud had somehow found its way into their very innermost workings, and though Gideon barely ever had cause to fire the things he paid them their proper share of attention. One never knew.
Once Gideon was reassembling the light shotgun, screwing its slide back into place, Collins cleared his throat.
“How was it?”
“Wet,” Gideon grunted. “Wet and miserable, same as always.”
“Find anything interesting?”
“No.” He didn’t mention the T-27; Collins loved technology, and few things on the battlefield piqued that interest more than drones and other auto-hardware. The last thing Gideon wanted was another excited lecture on the development of anti-infiltration software in military vehicles. Collins could wax lyrical about the death machine with Handel later. “Yax found some mines,” he said, aware of the awkward silence, “a few rifles. Nothing special.” He finished the gun, leaned over and clipped it into place on the wall rack that held their weapons, next to Collins’ submachine gun – with the war officially ‘over’, nobody really cared how the Salvage units chose to arm themselves. It wasn’t, in the less-than-quiet opinion of most officers, like they were real soldiers, after all. Gideon started cleaning his pistol – somehow wet despite having spent the whole day sealed inside a supposedly waterproof holster – as Collins nodded, settling back in their one rickety chair.
“That’s not so bad then. We’re making progress.” Gideon grunted again, not dignifying the blindly optimistic statement with a response. Collins was far too positive for his liking – for anyone’s liking, really. As Salvage 7 crawled across their assigned segment of the Polaris battlefield, yard by sodden yard, it seemed to Gideon, Donoghue and the rest that they would be stuck forever in this blasted hellscape, digging up mines until they died of old age or – far more likely – making one mistake too many. But Collins – bright-eyed, idealistic Collins, the only volunteer in all of Salvage, the one man mad enough genuinely believe that cleaning up the battlefield was a public service – Collins smiled and nodded, and slept soundly every night believing that he’d made a difference. That wasn’t the only reason Gideon often hated the man – but it was definitely high on the list.
A high-pitched beep cut through the air, followed by Donoghue’s voice.
“Seven, briefing, now.” The speaker crackled, then was silent. Gideon hastily snapped his sidearm back together, grabbed his belt – still muddy – pulled on his boots, as Collins did the same. The technician followed Gideon out of their berth into the little hub room that connected Salvage 7’s quarters. It was just barely big enough for all seven of them to assemble, now that almost all the furnishings had been stripped out, replaced by a lectern and a big monitor screen. Donoghue was at the podium already. Gideon and Collins filed in and stood to attention, as Yaxley slid in quietly, taking up the space of two people. Donoghue waited, silently, pointedly; Handel was still in the forges, Dawson repairing the flatbed, but there was one more person missing. Finally, another door slid open, and a slender woman in fatigues a shade darker than the rest of the squad’s stepped in. She walked slowly over to the rest of the squad, standing beside Yaxley, and looked at Donoghue for a long moment before finally snapping to crisp attention.
“Thanks for joining us, Corporal,” Donoghue growled. Gideon could still see traces of battlefield mud on her neck, though she looked cleaner than he’d felt in months.
“Reporting for duty, Sergeant,” replied Corporal Petra, saluting languidly. She held Donoghue’s gaze without the slightest flinch. The sergeant nodded curtly.
“Alright. Second shift in an hour. Collins, Petra, you’re up.” Collins nodded happily, Petra slowly.
“Where are we heading, Sergeant?” she asked.
“A klick north of this morning’s trawl,” Donoghue replied, fiddling with something on the lectern. The monitor came to life, displaying a map of the battlefield, bright white lines splitting the ruined grey terrain into ruined grey squares. Some of them were tinted blue – ones that Seven, or another squad, had already swept for salvage – some red; areas deemed too dangerous for either army to patrol. Donoghue pointed at one of the red ones.
“We sweep here,” she said. “Initial scans show us a couple of tanks, or similar, some minor radiation spikes. Collins, prep your drones for cracking. AIs might be dormant.”
“Dawson’s almost done with the truck,” Donoghue continued, “so we just need to decide who’s the third.” She pulled three battered plastic straws out of her fatigue pocket; two long, one short. She stepped down and passed them to Petra. “If you would, Corporal?”
Petra shuffled the straws behind her back, then held out her hand. Yaxley, Gideon and Donoghue clustered around her. Gideon was already feeling sick. Not me. Not again. He’d been out on both shifts twice already this week. Not me.
Donoghue drew her straw. It was long. She nodded to Yaxley.
The big man reached down delicately, his massive fingers twice the size of Petra’s, and plucked out the fragile straw. Against his huge hand it was impossible to tell if it was long or short – but when Gideon drew his, his heart dropped through the deck and deep into the sucking mud below.
“Petra, Collins, Gideon,” Donoghue confirmed. “Alright. Petra, all yours. Collins, Gid, get prepped; Petra, stay here for briefing.”
Yaxley disappeared back into his quarters, and Gideon followed Collins back into their room. As the technician began gathering up his many wires, plugging in blocks of metal and plastic and tapping at his keyboard, Gideon sank heavily to his bunk. His flak jacket was still damp, his boots still muddy. He wanted nothing more than to just bury himself in his thin blankets and never come out.
With a heavy sigh, he levered himself to his feet, and began checking the contents of his pack.
I promise I’ll get better at posting regularly, honest. For now, a brief update on what’s actually happening in my corner of the world.
After many weeks of wrangling, I’ve finally moved house… at least, I’ve moved out of my old place. While I’m physically transported to my new place (with my wonderful sister), I won’t officially move in until her current housemate has moved out – so I’ve managed to compact myself into their… let’s say ‘snug’ spare room. Lovely place though. It’s nice to feel rooted again.
The Blackbird and the Ghost continues to sell slowly (obtain it here!), and I’ve entered it into the Kindle Storyteller contest, because why not? I still await the verdict of the Qwillery in the SPFBO, but as soon as I hear it it’ll be on here.
Once I’m properly settled in the new place I can get down to some very overdue editing of a certain Arthurian epic…
For now, expect more Salvage Seven soon – it’s chugging along and I’ve got about 80,000 words of material ready to post on here!
Next post won’t take so long. Probably.
It’s going slowly, but it’s going. I’ve been working on Salvage Seven for a good five months now (frighteningly), and though I’m nowhere near done I’ve made a lot of progress. I figured I’d share some of it with you!
There are some things I don’t want to spoil, so this extract follows directly on from the prologue (which I posted back in April). We’ve been introduced to Gideon, so let’s meet some of the rest of the team.
The six-wheeled flatbed jerked to a stop, mud-caked brakes biting first not at all, then hard. Gideon smacked his head on the back of the seat in front, cursing quietly and wishing he hadn’t taken off his helmet. He leaned down and grabbed the strap of his pack, heavy with all manner of objects, some strange and others so mundane that he yawned just thinking about them. Through the door’s imperfect seal, he could already smell the stench of fuel and hot metal. Good to be home.
“Off your arses,” called Donoghue from the driver’s seat, unbuckling her belt and kicking open the stiff door. “Let’s get this shit sorted. I need a drink.” Gideon joined the desultory chorus of “Yes, Sarge”s and followed Yaxley out of their door, the huge man opening the heavy door with one hand and no visible effort. His sodden boots hit the concrete with a wet slap, but it was inaudible over the cacophony of the motor pool; of rumbling engines and shouting mechanics, backed by the atonal shrieks of twisting metal, the irregular drumbeat of a hundred hammers. The first few times Gideon had entered the colossal hangar he had been utterly overwhelmed – as he cast his eyes around he could see a few younger men and women who clearly still were, wincing at the noise, squinting at the blinding light from the vast neon strips that stretched all the way across the high ceiling of the hangar bay. Now, however, he barely noticed it.
He shouldered his pack and walked around to the back of the flatbed, joining Yaxley, Petra and Donoghue; some bright spark in Logistics had decided that they would be working split shifts this week as an ‘efficiency trial’ – rather than the whole squad of seven going out together, they would go forth in two groups of three or four. What Logistics had conveniently failed to take into account was the fact that only five of the squad was actually able to take to the field at a time – Handel hadn’t been in the field for months, and at least one engineer had to stay behind in the motor pool for repairs – and so, regardless of how they drew straws, someone was pulling a double every day. Because she was nothing if not ‘fair’, Donoghue had ordered that everyone take their share of extra shifts until Logistics moved onto its next bright idea, so everyone was losing sleep. The trial was, at least, doing a marvellously efficient job of reducing Salvage’s average life expectancy.
“Get them down,” Donoghue ordered, gesturing vaguely at the big crates of scrap metal and defused ordnance, all jumbled together. Gideon knew it had all been made safe, but he and Yaxley were still very careful as they heaved the big crates down and onto a collapsible four-wheeled dolly. They’d seen enough careless salvagemen to know they didn’t want to be among their number. Yaxley took one dolly by himself without complaint, and Donoghue and Gideon took the other, Gideon pushing from the back while Donoghue pulled, and they heaved their bounty up the ramp and out of the little vehicle bay that was the squad’s very own slice of the vast.
“All yours, Dawson!” Donoghue shouted. A broad-shouldered woman with round glasses and hair that was blonde under a thick layer of engine grease looked up from where she sat, perched on a big metal toolbox.
“When are we out again?”
Dawson swore and stood, hefting the toolbox and jogging down to their flatbed. Even over the roar of noise from the rest of the motor pool, Gideon could hear her cursing Donoghue, Gideon and every deity under the suns as she inspected the damage they’d doubtless done to the unreliable rustbucket. Donoghue ignored the engineer diplomatically. They’d all learned early on that it didn’t matter whether you were a grease-monkey or the Grand Marshal herself – if you hurt one of Dawson’s biodiesel-guzzling babies, you were in for one hell of a dressing-down. As the engineer knelt down and pulled out a socket wrench, Donoghue ushered them on. They crossed the hangar floor as quickly as they could, dodging squads of infantry jogging to their transports, ducking under mobile gantries hung with rebuilt engines and bits of armour plating, almost getting run over several times by the little electric runabouts that lazy officers favoured – and barely knew how to drive. At last, they reached one of the many exits, where they were stopped by a burly guardsman in the blue-grey fatigues of Internal Security.
“Sergeant Donoghue, Salvage Unit 7,” Donoghue said wearily, pulling her ID out of her fatigues and flashing it, “going to Redistribution.” Yaxley and Gideon pulled out their own IDs, and the InSec man let them through onto the treadplate floor of the cargo lift. The guard pressed the appropriate button, and the lift jerked into life, descending into the bowels of the earth, where the forges burned eternal.
“Bloody security theatre,” Donoghue growled to no-one in particular. “Nothing I’d like to steal more than a crate of scrap metal and a damn Salvage uniform.” Gideon grunted assent, knowing it was the safest thing to do no matter how he felt. Donoghue’s mood didn’t need to get fouler. He did agree that it was irritating; InSec’s insistence on guarding every lift and major entranceway slowed everything down interminably; but he knew there was good reason for it. Trust was in short supply these days, and the Great Cooperation really wasn’t helping. The lift ground downwards for what felt like an age, until the steel doors juddered open, revealing another, familiar hell. Gideon breathed in sweat and molten metal and sighed. It was, he supposed, the smell of home.
Great conveyors stretched the length of the big room, covered in scrap metal of all kinds, rolling inexorably towards the gaping mouths of the smelters, from which waves of heat pulsed constantly, the merest hint of the white-hot glow that bubbled in their bellies. Spindle-armed drones lined the belts, scanning the scrap with cunning sensors and plucking out any errant alloys or valuables that had slipped the net. Donoghue, Yaxley and Gideon ignored the dumb machines, trundling their heavy crates past the conveyors to those worthy of their time; their cousins, the quartermasters. Dozens of them strolled around heaps of scrap, sorting through broken weapons, leaking power cells, keen eyes plucking out anything worth using and tossing the rest aside. Some had drones following them, organising the discarded scrap into boxes to be poured onto the conveyors; some had human aides, many of whom were far too young to be in a place like this but were here anyway, building up their portfolios of lung diseases and hunched backs. There were piles of muddy rifles, heaps of power cells, stacks of tyres and bits of armour-plating – and, in a dark corner Gideon tried not to look at, the body-parts and whole corpses that were still occasionally missed by the medics and undertakers who swept the battlefields for the dead and dying. He shuddered, and looked away, pushing Atwell’s face to the back of his mind.
“Afternoon Sarge!” called a familiar voice, and even Gideon couldn’t help but smile. It was a warm voice, a welcoming voice, a voice so utterly out of place in the smoky, forge-lit room that for a moment Gideon thought he was somewhere else entirely; in some busy, oak-panelled pub, the voice that of a kindly landlord pulling pints.
“Piss off, Handel,” shouted Donoghue good-naturedly, and the illusion was broken, as Petty Officer Handel stomped out from behind a heap of rifles, trailed by a gaggle of soot-blackened teenagers.
“What’ve you got for us?” the older man asked, his hair silvering beneath the patina of oil and smoke that tarnished him head to foot.
“Scrap, mostly,” Donoghue replied, indicating the two big containers they’d dragged up from the flatbed. “Few rifles, bit of body armour. Yaxley found a bundle of mines. How many were working, Yax?”
“A few,” the big man rumbled, his voice sonorous. Handel nodded.
“Go on then,” he said, ushering his crew forward, and the half-dozen boys and girls made for the crates, upending them and beginning to sort through the mixed scrap metal. Their eagerness surprised Gideon, as it always did – unlike the rest of the quartermasters’ monkeys Handel’s crew actually seemed to want to be there. He treated them a damn sight better than most, that was for sure. Gideon saw an almost paternal smile on the older man’s face as he turned back to the squad.
“And what have you got for me?” he murmured, nodding slightly at their packs. Donoghue smiled.
“A few things.” She nodded, and Yaxley and Gideon unshipped their packs, followed by Donoghue herself, hefting them onto a nearby workbench – Handel didn’t bend too well these days. The squad’s quartermaster stumped across and pulled the first pack open with clumsy fingers, cursing as the alloy fingertips on his right hand struggled with the buckles. Gideon knew better than to offer help. The former infantryman managed it, and, after pulling out a few broken sidearms and a couple of helmets, slid out a gently glowing plasma reservoir from an AT rifle, muddy but undamaged.
“Very nice,” he muttered, and the canister disappeared into some hidden pocket. He might be missing both legs and half an arm, might be slow and clumsy in his movements most of the time, but Handel could pull off some impressive sleight of hand when he needed to. The rest of Yaxley’s pack was junk. Donoghue’s pack yielded a couple of exotic handguns, battered but clearly an officer’s matched set, which Handel tucked inside a flak jacket that was barely holed and slid into a satchel of his own.
“And this,” Donoghue said, opening Gideon’s pack herself, “is a little something from Gid here.” She pulled out a few bits of scrap, then carefully unfolded a spindly, blade-tipped arm. Handel whistled quietly.
“Bloody hell. That’s one for the bounty.” He took the blade in his artificial hand, metal fingers heedless of the razor-edge, tugged the T-27 a little further out of the rucksack. “Damaged?”
“Plasma fire,” Gideon replied, uncomfortable rather than proud. Just seeing one of the many blades again made him nervous. “I fried the brain, lower quadrant slagged, but otherwise it’s in good nick.”
“Then it’s one for the bounty for sure,” Handel repeated, a greedy smile splitting his face. Weapons like the lethal combat drones were difficult to get hold of, and thus highly prized by Union command, no matter which side they belonged to. Republic drones were held up as examples of how the rebels were willing to deploy weapons of terror on a legitimate battlefield – Union drones were quietly refitted for later reuse. In the spirit of cooperation that the ceasefire and reluctant truce was largely failing to foster, however, the Republic had been doing exactly the same thing with whatever drones they found – so Gideon supposed it would balance out.
Handel dragged the pack off the table and over to another workbench, where another skinny young man guarded jealously the quartermaster’s special stock. Gideon could see a few fusion mines there, half a suit of power armour – rare wargear, in other words, the kind of thing that the Union would pay Handel a bonus for once he handed it in. The quartermaster was cannier than that, of course – some men would sell off all their stock immediately, but Handel kept his back, waiting for the minor fluctuations in demand that would make his pieces worth that little bit more to the high command. In another life the man would have made a killing on the inter-systems stock market alone – and that was without his less obvious dealings.
“Cheers, Gid,” Handel said, stumping back over on his metal lower legs, crude and heavy. “I’ll ping your share once I get it.” Gideon nodded thanks. Even with Gideon’s larger portion as the finder, Handel’s bonus didn’t go far when split seven ways – but every little helped make life on the base that little bit more tolerable. Good thing he’s generous. What would make a difference would be their shares from Handel’s private supply, which, while rarer, were almost always much bigger.
“I’ll get these squared away,” Handel was saying to Donoghue, “before your next one. Who’s going out?”
“Not me,” Donoghue growled. “I need a shower. A long one.”
“You really do,” Handel replied, and Donoghue punched him on the shoulder lightly – and not only because she didn’t mean it. Gideon knew how much it hurt to hit metal like that.
“Piss off and make us some money, you old sod. I’ll see you later.” Handel gave Donoghue the finger as they walked away, but he was smiling. Old friendships die hard. Donoghue and Handel’s was an old one indeed; at least twenty years from what Gideon had been able to figure from scraps of conversation. She respected the old infantryman more than anyone else she knew – that much Gideon knew all too well.
They left the forge-room behind, Gideon breathing a little more easily when the oppressive heat was cut off by the closing doors. The Union had adapted it well, but it was always obvious to Gideon that humans weren’t really meant to be so close to the slumbering infernos of the vast fusion drives that, even banked to a fraction of their normal output, melted down scrap metal without the slightest effort. The lift slid smoothly upwards, unencumbered by their weight of scrap, deck after deck disappearing beneath them. Gideon let himself breath out, relax. With a little luck, he was done for the day. Their barracks beckoned; hot food, lukewarm showers, a hard bed; everything soldier or scavenger needed. If I’m lucky. He couldn’t shake the sinking feeling that his work wasn’t done yet. It was that kind of day.
The lift rose up, as Gideon’s spirits sank.