GEARS OF WAR: THE SLAB
We’re surrounded on land and we’ve got our backs to the sea. We might as well be on an island.
(Lieutenant Meredith, Hammer of Dawn fire support team, assessing the situation in Ephyra, last defended area of the Coalition of Ordered Governments: 10 A.E.)
KING RAVEN KR-96, ON PATROL OVER CRESSY ESCARPMENT, EPHYRA: END OF REAP, 10 A.E.
The Coalition of Ordered Governments had bought time. But like time, everything—luck, patience, hope—ran out sooner or later.
Dom Santiago hung on to hope as tightly as he clung to the Raven’s safety rail. Rothesay banked the helicopter to get a better look at what had been Estana, then let out a long breath. “Shit. Will you look at that . . .”
Dom knew what he was going to see. So did everyone else, and nobody said a word—not Marcus, not Tai, and not Jace. Even Castilla, Rothesay’s crew chief, kept her mouth shut and just hunched over the door gun, chewing mechanically. Dom wondered where she’d managed to find some gum. He hadn’t seen any in years.
Estana had been a nice town a couple of hours down the highway from Jacinto, the kind of place to take the kids for the day. Now black palls of smoke hung over it like skeins of filthy wool and the skyline wasn’t the way Dom remembered it. The place had been burning for two days.
All he could think right then was that Maria couldn’t possibly have been there when the grubs attacked. She was alive. He knew it. He could feelit. He’d keep looking, like he’d looked every day for the last eight years, and he’d search every Stranded camp until he found her.
Jace finally broke the silence. “We’re fucked, man. They’ll be up our asses inside a week.”
“Been here before,” Marcus said. “Nine years ago. And we’re still here now.”
“Yeah, because Prescott fried the goddamn planet. But we’ve run out of places to fry now. It’s just us. Just Ephyra. And the grubs keep changin’ the rules.”
Tai got up from the bench seat and stood at the edge of the crew bay, gazing out. The stiff crest of black hair across his shaven scalp didn’t move as the slipstream hit it, but that summed up the South Islander: the world didn’t touch him. He moved in it, but seemed somehow to be above it all, cocooned in some weird kind of spiritual separateness.
“Then we must change our ways, too,” he murmured.
From anyone else, that kind of mystic shit would have got right up Dom’s nose. But Tai made it through the grind of each day by keeping part of his brain in another place, and Dom envied him. Everyone had their talisman, some place or idea they clung to simply to justify trying to stay alive one more day. For Dom, it was looking for Maria. For Tai—well, wherever he went in his mind, it left him serene. There was no other word for it.
Jace was anything but serene. He was angry. Dom decided it was healthier to let rip like that than bottle it up like Marcus.
“In case you ain’t noticed, Tai, we’ve tried it all,” Jace said.
Rothesay came back on the cockpit radio. “Don’t underestimate the sappers. They’ll do it.”
“How many cubic meters of sewer have they got to block, though?” Dom asked. “I mean, do the math.”
Locust tunneled. Beneath the ten-meter layer of rich soil, Ephyra was a granite plateau, a big lump of dead volcano, too hard for even grubs to dig through, and that was part of the reason Ephyra was still largely intact. If the assholes wanted a piece of it, they had to come up to the surface and face the COG on its own terms, or find a fissure. Dom had bought that impregnable Ephyra crap that Prescott peddled right up to the moment when he realized how much tunneling humans had done here over the centuries.
The plateau wasn’t airtight. Tyran engineers had excavated sewers, installed underground cable conduits, and built subways. Any one of those was now a back door for the grub army to exploit.
And if we can tunnel through granite . . . maybe the grubs will learn to as well.
The 3rd Ephyran Engineers—3EE—and what was left of the civilian construction industry were now trying to infill what they could to barricade the plateau. A loud, rumbling explosion shook the air, followed by two more in quick succession. It wasn’t artillery and it didn’t sound like Locust. It had to be the engineers out there, blowing up bridges and cratering roads to block the grubs’ route.
“That’s the sappers,” Marcus said. “They’re cutting it fine. There’ll be scouts ahead of the main grub force.”
Even from this distance, Dom could see the forward edge of the grub advance. South of the plateau, the vast granite plug that made Ephyra an island in the sandstone and clay sea of central Tyrus, the terrain was a mix of city and forest. Or at least it had been: a swathe of conifers and Tyre oaks had been mowed down like a lawn along with the high-rise buildings. Dom had a clear view—one that hadn’t been there before—right down the river.
3EE were out there somewhere, digging and laying charges. Crazy bastards. Fucking heroes. They didn’t just dig ditches and drive trucks. Rothesay said some of them were undermining the grub positions, actually tunneling under the grubs’ own tunnels, which struck Dom as the most insane thing he’d ever heard, and he was commando-trained. He knew what impossible looked like.
“Better check on them,” Rothesay said. “I make that grub line about twenty klicks from the edge of the plateau. Anyone mind if we’re late back? I know you’ve got a weekend pass, Fenix.”
“Let’s get it done,” Marcus said. “It’s not like I’ve booked a table at the Segarra.”
The Segarra had been a pile of rubble for years, not that Dom had ever earned the kind of salary to eat there. It had become a watchword for all the nice civilized things the Locust had destroyed, all those comforts Sera had lost and might never have again. Marcus was supposed to be spending a couple of days with his father, though, and Dom got the feeling he was looking for an excuse to make the visit even shorter. It wasn’t a hostile relationship. It was just an awkward, silent one.
Rothesay took the Raven down again, dropping below the tree line. There was no flurry of birds disturbed by the deafening noise this time. Everything in the path of the grubs that could make a run for it had already left town. Branches whipped in the rotor wash, scattering a blizzard of leaves.
“See anything?” Rothesay’s voice dropped off the intercom for a couple of seconds as he switched to the open channel. “KR-Nine-Six to Red-Three—I need a position check, people. I hear you but I don’t see you.”
Right on cue, another explosion shook the air. Dom caught a glimpse of dust billowing up from the highway like smoke.
“Red-Three to Nine-Six, we’re at grid zero-seven-eight-three-three-five.” Dom could hear a grinding noise in the background. “You getting anxious?”
“Yes, and so should you.”
“We’ve still got a lot of concrete to pour.”
Marcus leaned out of the crew bay, holding on to the rail one-handed to check below. “Not before the grubs get here.”
“And it ain’t gonna set in time anyway,” Jace said.
Castilla stopped chewing. “So much for the granite keeping the assholes at bay. They’re doing just fine on the surface. Anyway, they can tunnel through bedrock, so how much is concrete going to slow them down?”
“Yeah, I give it a week before they’re in Ephyra,” Jace said.
“Like I said, we’ve been here before, people.” Marcus looked as if he was going to turn and give Jace one of his don’t-even-think-about-it stares, but he seemed to change his mind. Maybe he agreed with the estimate. Dom certainly did. “We stopped them then, and we’ll stop them now.”
“It’s gonna take more than blocking the john to do it, Marcus.”
Dom decided to put a stop to the defeatist talk, even if Jace was damn right. “They’re collapsing and infilling sewers.” He shot Jace a glance. Don’t. Don’t mention the fucking hammer. He knew the kid was going to say that it was the Hammer of Dawn that stopped the Locust advance last time. Nobody needed reminding, least of all Marcus. “No point leaving ready-made tunnels for them.”
“But even if they get into the main sewer, they’ll have to dig through ten klicks of backed-up human shit,” Rothesay said. “Which is kind of satisfying.”
“I’ll do an extra dump for them, then,” Castilla said. “Maybe two.”
“Yeah, crap for victory, Charlie. The COG expects every Gear to do his lavatorial duty. Or hers. Don’t take hours about it, though. Why the hell do women take so long in the bathroom anyway?”
“We meditate,” she said. “Or do calculus. Are you meditating, Tai?”
The South Islander was just gazing out of the door with that look on his face, that weird half-smile. Serenity. That was it. Dom envied him. How did anyone find serenity in a world that was going to hell in a handbasket? But none of it seemed to touch him. He turned his head slowly.
“I was communing with my ancestors,” he said.
“We may draw on their wisdom without joining them.”
“Glad to hear it. Did they have any suggestions?”
Tai cocked his head to one side. Dom was never sure if he was having a joke at their expense—taking the piss, as Pad Salton used to say—or not. He seemed to have taken a shine to Castilla, though. The smile broadened a little.
“They taught me that the best weapon is the will to survive.”
“No, that’d be a door gun with a nine-meter ammo belt,” Rothesay said. He changed course and Dom’s view of the world was suddenly wide-open sky, a rare patch of blue that made the world look normal and unspoiled for a few moments. “Get on it, Charlie.”
Castilla went back to chewing again. Maybe it was jerky, not gum. As the Raven zigzagged to evade targeting, the black silhouette of another Raven tracked across the smoke-filled skyline.
“KR-Eight-Zero to all call signs, grubs on the move.” That was Gill Gettner. She’d clocked more flying hours than any other chopper puke and spent most of her free time tinkering with her Raven, as if she couldn’t bear to be parted from the thing. “Column of about forty drones heading northeast—about five klicks from the escarpment.”
“Nine-Six here, Gettner. We’re south of Shenko Falls, hanging around for the sappers. And how are you today, my divine flower?”
“Need some help, Nine-Six, or can you manage it without Mom’s assistance?”
“We’ll keep an eye on them. I’ll flash you if we hit problems. Nine-Six out.” Rothesay turned back toward the Falls. “Think I’m in with a chance there, Charlie?”
“She’ll tear you up for ass-paper, Lieutenant.”
“I like ’em sassy.”
“Yeah, but not homicidal.”
“Ah, just semantics.” Rothesay’s whole conversation went on over the radio, piped down Dom’s earpiece whether he wanted to listen or not. “Okay . . . Nine-Six to Red-Three, we’ve got grubs heading your way. Time to down tools and move out, people.”
The radio crackled in Dom’s earpiece. “Red-Three to Nine-Six, we didn’t come down here for a picnic. Got a job to finish.”
Marcus’s attention was still fixed on the ground as the Raven circled over the escarpment that marked the boundary between life and death. The plateau had been the only place to escape incineration when Prescott turned the Hammer of Dawn on Sera’s own cities. Dom relived the day in occasional nightmares, wading through the frantic rush of refugees trying to get to this one safe haven when Prescott had given the rest of Sera three days to get to the granite high ground or kiss its ass goodbye. Over the years, Dom had swung between horror and relief—the billions dead, humanity split into those who unleashed the Hammer and those poor bastards who were the collateral damage—but now he understood that Prescott had succeeded in a situation where the choice was between bad and worse. He’d bought a handful of people nine more years. The grubs had been weeks away from overrunning the COG, and nobody would have been around now to argue if Prescott hadn’t made one of those brutal decisions he was so good at.
He saved his own. The granite barrier that had been his convenient excuse had held out for far longer than Dom had expected. But he had the feeling they’d now come full circle. The grubs were still there, armies of them, Ephyra was under siege again, and there was still nowhere to run.
“Red-Three, the grubs are only a few klicks from you, so better make your way to the fire exits,” Rothesay said. “Not a suggestion. An order.”
“KR-Nine-Six, this is Captain Shaw, and you’re not hearing me, Lieutenant. Two more detonations and a couple of pours to go. We’re not done.”
Rothesay didn’t back down. “Sir, just leave the machine and get to the extraction point.”
“If we don’t block that sewer, half of Ephyra’s wide open. Red-Three out.”
The radio went dead. Dom heard Rothesay shut his mike for a couple of seconds, probably effing and blinding about dumb engineers with a death wish. Marcus moved to the cockpit hatch and stuck his head through the opening.
“Get us down there and we’ll drag them out if we have to.” He sounded more weary than anything. “That goddamn cement won’t even set in time anyway.”
“You got it, Sergeant.”
Rothesay swung the Raven south again. Another couple of explosions boomed. It was hard to hear what the ambient noise levels were like from inside a Raven with its doors open, but Dom got a sense of a silent landscape, all the birds and animals long gone. Castilla leaned back from the door gun and pulled out her field glasses.
“Brumaks,” she said. “Moving up fast.”
“Okay, captain or no captain, we’re getting them out.” Rothesay circled. “I don’t know if those concrete trucks can outrun Brumaks.”
Dom craned his neck to check out what Rothesay could see. A couple of camo-painted trucks were parked under the trees a few meters away from a crater like an emergence hole. It was only when the Raven hovered almost overhead that Dom could see a churn of bricks, the bright terracotta edges of broken pipes, and the glitter of water. Six sappers in a weird mix of hard hats, helmets, armor, and overalls were guiding a massive chute into the hole while two others jogged around with reels of cable, apparently laying more charges.
“I see them,” Jace said. “Wow, that’s one big fuck-off hole.”
“Nine-Six, you’re stopping us blasting.” Captain Shaw sounded breathless over the radio. “I heard you. Brumaks. So what’s new?”
“Just listen, sir. You’ve got to get everyone out now.”
“Good. Because I’m coming in.”
Rothesay hadn’t even set down fully in the clearing when Marcus jumped down from the crew bay and started jogging toward the hole. Dom chased after him with Jace. The sappers looked up, two of them wrestling with the chute that was spewing concrete into the hole, one of them a big scruffy guy with a captain’s rank tab on the front of his filthy overalls. Shaw was definitely a hands-on kind of officer.
Marcus gestured toward the Raven. “Come on, sir, you’re not going to make it. All aboard.”
“Can’t leave it now, Sergeant,” said Shaw. “We’ve collapsed the sewer in three places and now we’re sealing it with a special mix. That’ll give them a few thousand cubic meters of trouble to chew through.”
The concrete glittered. Dom thought it was just the larger pieces of gravel catching the light until he ventured in for a closer look and realized it was small chunks of jagged metal. “What’s that for?”
“Corpsers don’t like digging through it,” Shaw said. “Too sharp for the poor little assholes. It won’t stop them, but it’ll slow them down.”
The Corpsers were big bastards, spider-like animals up to five or six meters tall that the grubs used for excavation, but maybe they weren’t as tough as they looked. “You can leave this truck to pour the rest, can’t you?”
“And leave it for the grubs? We’re short enough of kit as it is.”
“We’re short of Gears, too, sir,” Marcus said. “Let’s go.”
“Ahhh, shit.” Shaw paused for a second and looked around. It was just two massive concrete trucks that had seen better days, but they were like priceless limos in a world where almost everything had been destroyed and wasn’t going to be replaced anytime soon. “Okay, everybody bang out. You heard the man.”
They didn’t exactly jump to it. The engineers paused for a full five seconds before following orders, really reluctant to go, and Dom found himself chivvying one of the corporals to get her to move. She was only a little scrap of a kid, no more than eighteen. He jerked his head in the direction of the helicopter and herded her.
“Is that stuff going to set?” he asked.
“Well, they’re not going to dig it out in time to stop it, are they?” She ducked under the rotors and climbed into the crew bay. “We’ve got to buy whatever time we can.”
“Hey, Captain.” Marcus turned and called out to Shaw. “Come on, sir. Move it.”
Dom looked back. Shaw was still messing around with the concrete chute, reluctant to leave the truck until the very last minute. Captain or not, he wasn’t going to get much patient deference from Marcus.
“Two seconds,” Shaw called. The crater was ragged, and soil and bricks were crumbling into it under the weight of the truck’s rear wheels. Shaw was balanced right on the edge as the thick, gravelly gray mass bulged out of the pipe and pumped slowly into the hole. “Where are they now?”
“I think we’ve got a hundred meters on them.” Marcus started walking back to him, shaking his head slowly. “You’ve really got to shift your ass now.”
Dom wondered whether to go back him up. Marcus wasn’t above physically dragging an officer out of a tight spot if the guy didn’t cooperate without him, and Dom could already hear the grubs crashing through the woods. Rothesay wound up the throttle. Castilla aimed the door gun into the trees, ready to suppress ground fire. Marcus started jogging.
“Down!” Castilla yelled. “Everybody down!”
She opened up on the trees with the door gun, sending wood splinters flying everywhere. Dom’s first thought was to give Marcus and Shaw some covering fire. He jumped down and ducked under the rotors and Marcus went to grab Shaw, but then the edge of the crater collapsed. Shaw fell, sliding a couple of meters at first and grabbing for the concrete pipe. But there was nothing to grab hold of and his helmet vanished below the edge. Marcus dropped down onto his belly and held out his arm, yelling.
“Captain, come on—I got you. Come on. Grab my hand.”
Dom couldn’t see how far Shaw had fallen. He ran for the crater as Castilla squeezed off a few more bursts into the trees. The grubs couldn’t have been far away now. Shit, this was cutting it fine. Dom reached the edge of the crater expecting to see Shaw standing on a pile of debris and just needing a hand out, but when he got his first look down there, the poor bastard was in real trouble. Shaw was up to his waist in concrete, struggling to get any purchase on whatever was holding him up. There was no way Marcus was going to reach him from the edge.
And the grubs were now right on top of them. Shots ricocheted off the trucks.
Dom crouched on one knee and returned fire. He could see the gray shapes about fifty meters away now. “Marcus, you can’t reach him.”
“We need a damn rope. He can’t pull free on his own.”
“Just get out,” Shaw yelled. “Go on, get out.”
Rothesay cut in on the radio. “Winch,” he said. “The only way you’re going to get him out is with the damn winch. Fenix, get over here!”
“I’ll cover him,” Dom said. “Get it.”
“No, come on.” Marcus grabbed his shoulder. “We need to lift. The goddamn cable’s only seventy meters. Captain? You hang on. We’ll get the Raven to winch you out.”
Marcus got up and ran for the Raven, shoving Dom ahead of him as the door gun hammered sporadically. Once they scrambled into the crew bay, Rothesay lifted and positioned the Raven at a hover over the crater. They were taking fire and there wasn’t a worse possible situation in which to extract someone. All Dom could do was hose the approaching grubs while Castilla burned through belt after belt of ammo. It was about more than covering the extraction. It was about protecting the Raven from ground fire. Marcus grabbed the lifting strop and paid out the cable on the winch. It hit the surface of the concrete a little way from Shaw but he grabbed it and managed to get it around his neck and then slip one arm through it.
“Both arms,” Marcus yelled. “Come on, Captain. Under your arms, okay? You know the drill.”
Dom broke off from the defense and slid across the deck to give Marcus a hand. Shaw was chest deep in the mix now, the rotor wash plastering his overall sleeves to his arms. He was covered in the concrete but he managed to get the strop under both arms.
“Okay, bring him up,” Marcus said.
Dom hit the winch control and the cable started cranking in. It was only fifteen meters, no height at all, but the guy was completely helpless on a winch with rounds flying past him. It seemed to take forever. Dom was expecting Shaw to be hit by grub fire any second despite Castilla’s efforts on the door gun. Marcus reached down just as Shaw came up to the two-meter mark, fingers almost touching, and then the nightmarish worst happened.
Shaw started to slip.
“Hang on, Shaw, hang on!”
Rothesay cut in. “Fenix, what’s happening?”
“We’re losing him.”
“You get him inboard, Fenix. Any way you can.”
“Shaw, arms! Tight at your side!”
“Don’t you think I frigging know that, Sergeant? Shit—”
The orange plastic strop slid and Shaw’s arms flew up for a second, then he dropped like a stone into the concrete below. He didn’t even scream. It wasn’t like hitting water: he went in completely upright, straight up to his waist, then seemed to go down sharply, like he’d hit a pocket of water or air.
“Lieutenant, we’ve lost him,” Marcus said. Shaw was up to his armpits now with one arm free, and Marcus started paying out the cable again. Rounds were now pinging off the Raven. If they hung around much longer, the grubs were going to bring the bird down in the crater. “Bring her down again. Fifteen meters.”
“God Almighty, Fenix, you better get that strop on this time.”
“Yeah. I know that.”
It was unbearable. All Dom could do was watch. The strop hit the wet concrete again. Shaw struggled to reach it with his one free arm, but he was sinking faster as he struggled. Marcus leaned right over the side, as if that would make any damn difference. The engineers huddled in the crew bay said nothing. There wasn’t a damn thing they could do either.
“Lower, Lieutenant,” Marcus said. “Come on.”
Shaw was now up to his neck, then his chin, and Dom could see it was too damn late and that there was no way the guy was going to get a strop around his body again. Castilla was yelling for a fresh ammo belt. Dom waited for a grub round to finally puncture a fuel tank. They had seconds left but Marcus wasn’t giving up on Shaw any more than Rothesay was. He reached out and tried to flick the cable closer to Shaw. If he got one arm free, they might stand a chance.
“Grab it!” Marcus yelled. Shit, Shaw’s head was going under. “Come on! Just get your arm up. The helmet’s going to keep your mouth and nose clear for long enough.”
Shaw couldn’t hear him now. Marcus had to know that. But he kept trying, and suddenly all there was above the level of the concrete was Shaw’s right hand. The strop was maybe ten, fifteen centimeters from it.
And then he was gone.
“Lieutenant?” Marcus started winching in the line as fast as he could, eyes fixed on the point where Shaw had gone under, because the second he looked away he’d never be able to find the spot again. The motor squealed. “I’m going down to get him. Hang on.”
No, Marcus. You’re not.
Dom did what he’d had to do too many times with Marcus. He grabbed him by his belt and yanked him back. Marcus turned to push him off, but Rothesay began lifting clear and Dom shoved Marcus down onto the tilting deck. He landed with a thud. Dom sat on him for a few moments. He’d calm down sooner or later.
“What the fuck, Dom, we can’t—”
“Leave it, Marcus. Nothing you can do. You hear me? Leave it.”
One day, Marcus was going to explode. He nailed down everything so hard and tight that even Dom was afraid of him finally letting rip. For a second their eyes locked. Anyone who thought Marcus was all ice-cold control had no idea, because they’d never seen that look, those few moments of complete anguish that exposed the raw core of loss and pain inside. Then it snapped off again like a light. He scrambled to his feet and the little girl-corporal grabbed his arm.
“I’m sorry.” Marcus didn’t brush her off. “I am so damn sorry.”
Nobody spoke all the way back to base. Marcus leaned against the bulkhead, looking out but obviously not seeing anything. Dom watched his jaw working, like he was arguing with himself, and from time to time he’d glance away and screw his eyes shut for a moment. He thought Dom couldn’t see. Oh, Dom could see, all right: he could imagine every thought going through Marcus’s mind, and they were all about what it must have been like to drown in concrete seconds from being rescued. In water, you stood a chance. In thick liquid cement—the reality seeped into Dom’s mind unbidden and it took all his effort to stop himself from dwelling on it.
It was a fucking awful way to go.
“Fenix,” Rothesay said quietly. “We’ve got to overfly your old man’s place anyway. Want me to drop you off? I’ll file the reports.”
“No thanks, Lieutenant.”
“Let me put it another way. I’m going to land there and shove you out the frigging door. I’m the officer and I can do that shit. Got it, Sergeant? Go have a stiff drink with your old man.”
“Sir,” Marcus grunted. It was his way of saying fuck you. Rothesay had the measure of him, though, that he needed a break whether he wanted it or not, and especially now. But he won’t talk it over with his dad. He’ll never talk it over with anyone, not even Anya. Dom watched Marcus edge into the comms compartment in the Raven’s tail section and pretended he wasn’t keeping an eye on him. A few minutes later, he heard a thud that was all but drowned out by the Raven’s noise. Marcus emerged from the compartment and took a few steps across the deck, making a pretty convincing attempt to look deep in thought about anything other than the man they’d just lost, but flexing his right fist slowly.
He’d punched the shit out of the bulkhead. He did that sometimes when he saw one death too many. Dom never mentioned it when he did, but they both knew, just as Dom knew exactly what was playing out in his mind at that moment.
Marcus was watching a Gear’s hand being swallowed into a slow-churning sea of cement, blaming himself for not being able to save the world.
HALDANE HALL, EAST BARRICADE, JACINTO—THE FENIX ESTATE.
Fifteen years was a long silence, and the longer it went on, the harder it was to break.
Adam Fenix rehearsed his confession again as he stepped out of the car and stood at the doors of the mansion. The maintenance company had been tidying up the grounds, war or no war; the smell of cut grass and fresh creosote wafted on the breeze. It was the perfume of carefree childhood summers that he would never know again.
“You okay, sir?” The driver lowered the staff car’s window and leaned out. “Lost your keys?”
Adam wasn’t sure how to tell him he was afraid to walk into his own house and face his son. He made a show of casually inspecting the doors. The deep green gloss paint hadn’t been manufactured for centuries, and had to be mixed specially for the estate by restoration experts from the National Museum of Ephyra. Countless layers applied like geological strata over the ages gave the wood the slightly rippled appearance of old glass.
This is what the Fenixes are. History. A museum curiosity. The pretense of stable continuity in a world that’s falling apart.
“Could do with a coat of paint,” Adam said. “See you next week, Hendry.”
“Have a good break, sir.”
The tires spat gravel as the car turned around the fountain in the courtyard and headed out of the gates. Adam found himself still plucking up courage to push open the doors. They were never locked. A few billion dollars’ worth of art treasures inside, with the enemy nearly at the gates, and still he couldn’t find it in himself to give a damn about objects. Who would venture in here? Who would risk scaling the walls?
Locust don’t loot. Not art, anyway. Got to admire their pragmatism.
He took a breath, lowered his head, and pushed the door. Marcus should have been home by now. He was such a rare visitor to the house these days that Adam could tell if he was here just by inhaling. It was that once-familiar blend of army soap and rifle lubricant, something he’d once been so steeped in himself that he hadn’t noticed it until Elain pointed it out. Now Elain was long dead, his son was a stranger, and the nostalgic scent of army life was more painful than bittersweet.
But Adam couldn’t smell anything now except coffee. The noises echoing down the hall were coming from the kitchen.
“Mrs. Ross?” He laid his briefcase on the priceless Furlin lacquer table in the hall. “I wasn’t expecting you to stay this late.”
The housekeeper stuck her head out of the kitchen door. The corridor was so long that Adam felt like a locomotive approaching a station, boots clattering on the inlaid floor like wheels rattling over rails. The light slanted from the open door behind her, catching a fragment of goldstone set in the marble.
“I wanted to make sure you didn’t have to cook for yourself, Professor.” She stood back and ushered him into her territory. The two of them had rules; one was that he never entered the kitchen without her permission while she was working, just as she never entered his study or the laboratory in the cellars. It was hardly a crowded environment, but somehow the sheer emptiness of the mansion seemed to demand territorial agreements. “Marcus is doing an extra patrol and he’ll be late. Lieutenant Stroud called.”
She didn’t even raise an eyebrow. A lesser woman would have asked for the hundredth time—quite reasonably—when Marcus was going to settle down, and comment on the extraordinary patience of Anya Stroud. Mrs. Ross just paused.
“Glad we can rely on CIC to keep us updated on his movements,” Adam said. “Shouldn’t you be home by now? Your grandson’s on leave too.”
“I have my professional pride, sir . . .” She opened the fridge to reveal rows of wrapped, labelled packages laid out with military precision. Cold air rolled out into Adam’s face like a frosty morning. “I’ve prepared the ingredients and all you have to do is follow the instructions. And I got steak. I know you don’t like me using your influence to bypass rationing, but . . . well, how often does Marcus make it home?”
It was only a fifty-two-hour pass but the brief visit had taken on the magnitude of a triumphal homecoming. Mrs. Ross, patient and non-judgmental, had laid on a spread fit for a prodigal son. Adam inspected the packs of meat and prepared vegetables. He’d never needed to cook in his life, not with his wealth and privilege, not with his rank, but it was a matter of pride that he could. When he’d finally accepted that Elain was dead and that he had to bring up a thirteen-year-old boy on his own, he’d taken to cooking Marcus’s meals as an act of paternal devotion, nourishing him with food as a proxy for the affection that Marcus already seemed to shrink from. Now, nearly twenty years on, he found himself driven to do it again.
It’s contrition. Apology. Except this time, I really do have something to apologize for.
Mrs. Ross was staring into his face. He must have looked like a terrified rabbit.
“It’s no trouble for me to stay,” she said. No, he couldn’t do that to her. She was an employee, not a servant. And with the war almost at the Ephyran boundary, there was always the chance that this would be the last time she ever saw her grandson alive. “Just say the word.”
“Go home to your family,” Adam said quietly. “If I incinerate this, I can take him out for dinner instead.”
“Of course you can,” she said. “You’re Professor Fenix.”
There were few restaurants left in Ephyra ten years after the Locust invasion. A man needed some pull to get a table, and Adam had that in spades. He’d never felt less deserving of it than now.
“Take the steak for your grandson.”
“Please. We won’t starve.” Adam pulled a cold, heavy packet from the fridge. The steaks must have been six or seven centimeters thick. “And take a couple of the bottles of the vintage Ostri red. Make an occasion of it.”
Mrs. Ross paused, expression fixed, then nodded. “Thank you. You’ve always been very good to me and my family, sir.”
“You’ve stood by us during some very tough times.” I might have avoided those, too. “It’s the least I can do. I’ll get you a pool car. No point waiting for public transport.”
Adam wanted her to go. He would have welcomed the company at any other time, but not now. He had to prepare for the hardest conversation of his life, harder even than telling Marcus that his mother wasn’t coming home. He called the office and ordered a car before taking refuge in his study.
He’d grown up in this mansion, Haldane Hall, like generations of Fenix men before him, but he’d never truly grown used to it. It had always felt empty even when Elain was around. When Marcus left home to join the army, it had become an echoing void. The study was as near to a comforting space as he had these days, a smaller room than most of the others in the house, free of the accusing gaze of ancestral portraits that reminded him he’d fallen far, far short of the standards set for Fenix men, and that not even the Octus Medal and lavish donations to the Royal Tyran Infantry Benevolent Fund would atone for that now. His forefathers had been infantry officers to a man. They wouldn’t have understood why he’d resigned his commission, and they certainly wouldn’t have understood any of his decisions over the years.
And I’m not sure that I understand them myself now.
Adam leaned against the wood paneling, tracing his fingertip over the map of Sera that covered almost an entire wall, waiting for the sound of the car. Gravel rumbled somewhere in the muffled distance, followed by the faintest clonk of the heavy front doors closing. Adam was alone now: alone with his guilt, and alone with his research—the project he couldn’t pursue at the Defense Research Agency, director or not. He straightened up and took out a pencil to update the extent of the latest Locust incursions on the map.
They were awfully close now.
And I’ve looked them in the eye. Can I do that with Marcus?
The heavy paper was covered in scribbled notes, some on scraps of paper tacked to it, some written on the surface itself, many of them decades old, an untidy history of a military career and a war that had claimed the lives of billions. On every city that had been targeted by the Hammer of Dawn, Adam had drawn a red circle. Millions had died in each. He never wanted to lose sight of that.
I made that possible. My vision. My work. My responsibility.
If he stood close enough to the map, he couldn’t see the scale of it. Sometimes, though, when he reached the door and turned to look back, the enormity of it caught him off guard. The whole map, the whole world, was a mass of red circles.
I might have stopped it if I hadn’t been such a naive bastard. I should have told Dalyell what I knew.
He’d lived with this knowledge for fifteen years and now it was starting to choke the life out of him. Even when he was working on the Hammer in the closing years of the Pendulum Wars, it had played on his mind, and now he wondered why the hell he hadn’t just come clean with Chairman Dalyell and told him that the Indies, the UIR, were the very least of the Coalition’s worries.
And if I’d told him . . . he would have thought I was insane. No. That’s an excuse. He trusted me. He believed me. I just thought I could handle it myself, but God, I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Adam couldn’t look at the accusing map with its indelible record of his failure and slaughter any longer. He turned his back on it and walked out along the balustraded landing, heading for the stairs. He still had a couple of hours.
The basement laboratory was kept locked, but the cleaning company would never have ventured in there anyway, not with Mrs. Ross on duty. She never asked why. She seemed to take it as read, as everyone did, that whatever he worked on was classified. It was, but what went on in here was a secret even from Chairman Prescott; Adam could honestly say that no other human being knew anything about his work down here. He booted up the computer and sat staring at the screen, wondering if he should simply bring Marcus down here, sit him at the terminal, and show him.
Marcus would ask why and what, as he always did, and that would invite the more important questions: how and when.
The screen began building a three-dimensional model like a structure made of irregular pipes. It could have been anything. A geologist might have seen it as voids left by lava. A mining engineer might have seen it as the shafts and galleries of a pit. A biologist might have thought it was a nest, a warren of some kind.
It was all those things, perhaps, and Adam realized there was no easy way to deal with the most difficult detail of all—not what it was, but when he’d discovered that it existed, and how much it had told him about how little he understood about his wife.
Marcus will despise me. How can he possibly respect me again after what I’ve got to tell him? What kind of relationship can I have with him after he knows what I really am?
Adam rehearsed every possible outcome, every question and answer, every reaction that he might get from his son, but in the end he knew his only option was to look him in the eye and blurt it out. He stared at the screen for far too long. The shapes began to dance in front of his eyes and he thought he could hear the phone ringing a long way away. Damn it: he could. He realized that he’d unplugged the extension in the laboratory, and scrambled to reach the socket before the caller rang off. By the time he shoved the plug in and picked up the receiver, though, it was too late.
Damn. Well, if it was important, they’d call back. He switched off the computer, locked the laboratory, and climbed the stairs back to the ground floor. There was plenty of time to prepare the meal—to heat it, anyway—but he decided to leave nothing to chance that might interrupt a difficult conversation, and put a prepared casserole in the oven on the temperature setting that Mrs. Ross had written on the wrapping.
Marcus, there’s no easy way to tell you this, but . . .
Adam sat at the kitchen table, reading a rare item of mail that had been delivered that morning, a handwritten message scribbled on the back of an old tax demand. There was nobody left to write to him at home now except Marcus and The Engineering Digest, and and both happened once in a blue moon. A charity—a private effort by some citizens, nothing to do with the refugee administration—was asking him to donate blankets for the Stranded. Adam’s urge these days was to give until he bled, but it still wouldn’t have been enough to scour his conscience clean.
The sound of a helicopter made him look out the window. King Ravens were an almost unnoticed part of the city’s background noise now, but to Adam they still sounded of rescue and triggered a reflex of relief. This one had to be flying very low indeed for him to hear it inside the fortress-thick walls at all. He craned his neck, but he couldn’t see the Raven and for a moment he couldn’t hear it. It was only when the front doors slammed and he heard heavy boots that he realized Marcus had arrived.
Adam tried not to run down the passage. Marcus was in the hall, Lancer in one hand and looking uncomfortable. He was still in full armor, still wearing that damn do-rag instead of a proper helmet, and he smelled of smoke.
“Didn’t have time to change, Dad,” he said. “One of the KR pilots dropped me off. Mind if I grab a shower first?”
It was his home. He didn’t have to ask. “Go ahead, Marcus,” Adam said. “You want a drink standing by?”
“Good idea,” Marcus muttered, and thudded up the stairs.
There was still some of the decent brandy left in the cellar. It demanded the best crystal tumblers. Adam poured a decent shot into each under the reproachful gaze of his grandfather, Brigadier Roland Fenix, immortalized in full Royal Tyran Infantry dress uniform by the foremost artist of his day. Adam was still trying to avoid those eyes when Marcus came downstairs again.
Young men usually looked even younger out of uniform. But not Marcus: he looked older than he deserved to be, exhausted, resigned. Adam could see more gray in his hair than he’d noticed before. Marcus rarely smiled, but today he looked absolutely stricken. His face betrayed nothing, but his eyes said it all.
He’s thirty-two. He’s not a boy anymore. But I wanted better for him than this.
“How’s it going, then?” Adam asked cautiously, handing him a glass.
“Lost a guy today.”
“Damn, I’m sorry.” Adam knew how that felt. But he hadn’t coped with it at all. It had driven him from the army on a crusade to build weapons that would end wars forever. He’d failed in that, too. “It’s not your fault. You know that.”
“I had his hand. I should have saved him.”
“Marcus, don’t do this to yourself.”
Marcus drained the glass in two pulls without even blinking. He seemed to be focused on a point on the far wall behind Adam. “The grubs are going to break through any day now. I think you should get out, Dad. Seriously.”
“I’ve got work to do.” And it’s all my fault. I have to stand and take it. “Where would I run to, anyway?”
“There’s an evacuation plan. There always is.”
“We’ll hold Ephyra.”
Adam didn’t know how the hell he was going to break his news now. How many comrades had Marcus lost to the Locust? But it had to be done. He couldn’t leave it a moment longer, and perhaps if he showed Marcus how close he was to finding a way to stop the Locust, then his son might judge him a little less harshly.
“Dinner’s going to be a while,” Adam said. Marcus was still looking at the wall behind him. “What is it?”
Marcus pointed, still nursing his empty glass in one hand. “Why did you take it off the wall?”
Adam glanced over his shoulder. There was an outline on the red brocade panel, a rectangle less faded than the rest. He’d finally taken down a picture that troubled him.
“I got fed up seeing Dalyell every time I came in here.” The picture had been taken at the Octus Medal ceremony, the highest civilian honor the COG could bestow, a formal shot of the late Chairman Dalyell presenting the award for Adam’s services to humanity in ending the Pendulum Wars. Services to humanity? I invented a weapon of mass destruction. It killed as many of our own citizens as it did UIR ones. And then I went ahead and let something even worse happen. “Brought back too many memories.”
“Dad, you need to stop beating yourself up about the Hammer strikes.”
No, poor Marcus didn’t understand at all. When he did, though, Adam knew he would never forgive him. “It’s not that simple. There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“Let’s eat first.” Marcus wasn’t a talker, and Adam knew how hard he found it to discuss anything personal. He clutched at the first diversion he could find. “Then you can tell me.”
It was sobering to realize how long an hour and a half at 180 degrees actually felt when it was spent in near silence, sitting at the kitchen table and trying to work out the best time to make a confession.
“So. Anya.” Adam forced himself to look away from the oven’s glass door. “How are things with her? On? Off?”
Adam wondered if Marcus was a different man with Anya and poured his heart out to her. He doubted it somehow. “And is Dom okay?”
“Still searching every Stranded camp we come across.”
“You think Maria’s still alive?”
“He’s sure she is, and that’s good enough for me.” Marcus’s accent shifted a little. Sometimes he seemed almost bilingual, moving from sounding like any other regular working-class Gear to the educated, patrician tones of his childhood, depending on who he was addressing. He was what Dom called Posh Marcusnow. He looked Adam right in the eye. “You wanted to tell me something. Looks like it’s bad news.”
“Yes.” Oh God. Here we go. Don’t hate me, Marcus. Please don’t hate me. Try to understand. Try to forgive me. “There’s something . . . that I didn’t tell you. I’ve never told anybody.”
Marcus just tilted his head back a fraction, that I-don’t-believe-you look just like Elain’s. “It’s about Mom, then.”
It was the last thing Adam expected. But yes, in a way, it was: Elain had found the tunnels long before Adam had imagined what might be within them, and it had cost her her life. He couldn’t admit to Marcus that she’d even been down there until years later. And here he was again, doing the same thing, clutching information to himself because he didn’t have the guts to tell his son why she’d been down there.
“Not entirely.” Damn, it was even harder than he’d expected. He thought it would come out in a cathartic rush, but guilt choked it all back. “I’m sorry. Do you think about her much?”
Marcus looked away for a moment as if he was trying to remember. “No,” he said. “Sometimes I can’t even recall her face. Look, just tell me. Is it your project? You know I never ask about any of that. Classified means classified.”
It was an opening of sorts. Adam tried to seize it, to make himself do the right thing and finally tell Marcus the whole shameful story, but he looked into his son’s face—battle-weary, old before his time, robbed of the life he could have had, robbed even of his closest friends—and simply couldn’t force the words out.
Is it about burdening him? Or is it about me, because I can’t bear to lose his respect?
If I tell anyone, I have to tell him first. And it’s getting so very, very hard to live with it.
“Yes, it’s the project,” Adam said. He’d try to find his courage again later. “I thought I might be getting closer to a way of stopping the Locust.”
Marcus defocused a little and glanced at the oven. He’d been told that so many times before. He might have been a relative stranger to his father these days, but Adam could still read him well enough to know when he was embarrassed.
“That’s great, Dad,” Marcus said, slipping back into his ordinary Gear voice again. “You sure you should be telling me this?”
Adam couldn’t blame him. But how did a man break this kind of news?
How could he explain to Marcus that he’d known the Locust were massing underground, years before E-Day, but that he’d warned no one?
How did he tell him that he’d actually been in contact with the Locust, pleaded with them, and knew what was driving them to colonize the surface?
And still he’d warned no one, because he was sure he could build an alliance rather than create an extra enemy in a trigger-happy, warring world where nobody had yet learned to handle peace.
After fifteen years of silence, it was impossible—just as it would be impossible to explain that the Locust weren’t now the biggest threat to all life on Sera.
“You’re right, Marcus,” he said at last, understanding that he would never be the man his son thought he was. “Classified is classified.”