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War is Oscar Wendell’s ticket to greatness. A reporter for The Stars and Stripes, he has the only one way pass to the front lines of a brutal war over natural resources buried underneath the icy, mineral rich mountains of Kazakhstan.
But war is nothing like he expected. Heavily armored soldiers battle genetically engineered troops hundreds of meters below the surface. The genetics-the germline soldiers-are the key to winning this war, but some inventions can’t be un-done. Some technologies can’t be put back in the box.
Kaz will change everything, not least Oscar himself. Hooked on a dangerous cocktail of adrenaline and drugs, Oscar doesn’t find the war, the war finds him.
Table of Contents
I'll never forget the smell: human waste, the dead, and rubbing alcohol—the smell of a Pulitzer.
The sergeant looked jumpy as he glanced at my ticket. "Stars and Stripes?" I couldn't place the accent. New York, maybe. "You'll be the first."
He laughed as if I had made a joke. "The first civilian reporter wiped on the front line. Nobody from the press has ever been allowed up here, not even you guys. We got plenty of armor, rube. Draw some on your way out and button up." He gestured to a pile of used suits, next to which lay a mountain of undersuits, and on my way over, the sergeant shouted to a corporal who had been relaxing against the wall. "Wake up, Chappy. We got a reporter needin' some."
Tired. Empty. I'd seen it before in Shymkent, in frontline troops rotating back for a week or two, barely able to walk, with dark circles under their eyes so they looked like nervous raccoons. Chappy had that look too.
He opened one eye. "Reporter?"
"Where's your camera?"
I shrugged. "Not allowed one. Security. It's gonna be an audio-only piece."
Chappy frowned, as if I couldn't be a real reporter, since I didn't have a holo unit, thought for a moment, and then stood. "If you're going to be the first reporter on the line, I guess we oughta give you something special. What size?"
I knew my size and told him. I'd been through Rube-Hack back in the States; all of us had. The Pentagon called it Basic Battlefield Training, but every grunt I'd met had just laughed at me, and not behind my back. Rube. Babe. Another civilian too stupid to realize that anything was better than Kaz because Kazakhstan was another world, purgatory for those who least deserved it, a vacation for the suicidal, and a novelty for those whose brain chemistry was messed up enough to make them think it would be a cool place to visit. To see firsthand. Only graduates of Rube-Hack thought that last way, actually wanted Kaz.
"Real special," he said. Chappy lifted a suit from the pile and dropped it at my feet, then handed me a helmet. Across the back someone had scrawled forget me not or I'll blow your punk-ass away. "That guy doesn't need it anymore, got killed before he could suit up, so it's in decent shape."
I tried not to think about it and grabbed an undersuit. "Where's the APC hangar?"
He didn't answer. The man had already slumped against the wall again and didn't bother to open his eyes this time, not even the one.
It took me a few minutes to remember. Sardines. Lips and guts stuffed into a sausage casing. Getting into a suit was hard, like over-packing a suitcase and then trying to close it from the inside. First came the undersuit, a network of hoses and cables. There was one tube that ended in a stretchy latex hood, to be snapped over the end of your you-know-what, and one that ended in a hollow plug (they issued antibacterial lube for that), and the plug had a funny belt to keep it from coming out. The alternative was sloshing around in a suit filled with your own waste, and we had been told that on the line you lived in a suit for weeks at a time.
I laughed when it occurred to me that somewhere, you could almost bet on it, there was a certain class of people who didn't mind the plug at all.
Underground meant the jitters. A klick of rock hung overhead so that even though I couldn't see it, I felt its weight crushing down, making the hair on my neck stand straight. These guys partied subterrene, prayed for it. You'd recognize it in Shymkent, when you met up with other reporters at the hotel bar and saw Marines—fresh off the line—looking for booze and chicks. Grunts would come in and the waiter would move to seat them on the ground floor and they'd look at him like he was trying to get them killed. They didn't have armor on—it wasn't allowed in Shymkent—so the guys had no defense against heat sensors or motion tracking, and instinct kicked in, reminding them that nothing lived long aboveground. Suddenly they had eyes in the backs of their heads. Line Marines, who until that moment had thought R & R meant safety, began shaking and one or two of them would back against the wall to make sure they couldn't get it from that direction. How about downstairs? Got anything underground? A basement? The waiter would realize his mistake then and usher them into the back room to a spiral staircase, into the deep.
The Marines would smile and breathe easy as they pushed to be the first one underground. Not me, though. The underworld was where you buried corpses, and where tunnel collapses guaranteed you'd be dead, sometimes slowly, so I didn't think I could hack it, claustrophobia and all, but didn't have much choice. I wanted the line. Begged for a last chance to prove I could write despite my habit. I even threw a party at the hotel when I found out that I was the only reporter selected for the front, but there was one problem: at the line, everything was down—down and über-tight.
The APC bounced over something on the tunnel floor, and the vehicle's other passenger, a corpsman, grinned. "No shit?" he asked. "A reporter for real?"
"Hell yeah. Check it." I couldn't remember his name but for some reason the corpsman decided to unlock his suit and slip his arm out—what remained of it. Much of the flesh had been replaced by scar tissue so that it looked as though he had been partially eaten by a shark. "Fléchettes. You should do a story on that. Got a holo unit?"
"Nah. Not allowed." He gave me the same look as Chappy—what kind of a reporter are you?—and it annoyed me because I hadn't been lit lately and was starting to feel a kind of withdrawal, rough. I pointed to his arm. "Fléchettes did that? I thought they were like needles, porcupine stickers."
"Nah. Pops doesn't use regular fléchettes. Coats 'em with dog shit sometimes, and it's nasty. Hell, a guy can take a couple of fléchette hits and walk away. But not when they've got 'em coated in Baba-Yaga's magic grease. Pops almost cost me the whole thing."
"Popov. Victor Popovich. The Russians."
He looked about nineteen, but he spoke like he was eighty. You couldn't get used to that, seeing kids half your age, speaking to them, and realizing that in one year, God and war had somehow crammed in decades. Always giving advice as if they knew. They did know. Anyone who survived at the line learned more about death than I had ever wanted to know, and as I sat there, the corpsman got that look on his face. Let me give you some advice…
"Don't get shot, rube," he said, "and if you do, there's only one option."
The whine of the APC's turbines swelled as it angled downward, and I had to shout. "Yeah? What?"
"Treat yourself." He pointed his fingers like a pistol and placed them against his temple. The corpsman grinned, as if it was the funniest thing he had ever heard.
Marines in green armor rested against the curved walls of the tunnel and everything seemed slippery. Slick. Their ceramic armor was slick, and the tunnel walls had been melted by a fusion borer so that they shone like the inside of an empty soda can, slick, slick, and double slick. My helmet hung from a strap against my hip and banged with every step, so I felt as though it were a cowbell, calling everyone's attention.
First thing I noticed on the line? Everyone had a beard except me. The Marines stared as though I were a movie star, something out of place, and even though I wore the armor of a subterrener—one of Vulcan's apostles—mine didn't fit quite right, hadn't been scuffed in the right places or buckled just so because they all knew the best way, the way a veteran would have suited up. I asked once, in Shymkent, "Hey, Marine, how come you guys all wear beards?" He smiled and reached for his, his smile fading when he realized it had been shaved. The guy even looked around for it, like it fell off or something. " 'Cause it keeps the chafing down," he said. "Ever try sleeping and eating with a bucket strapped around your face twenty-four seven?" I hadn't. Early in the war, the Third required their Marines to shave their heads and faces before going on leave—to keep lice from getting it on behind the lines—but here in the underworld the Marines' hair was theirs, a cushion between them and the vision hood that clung tightly but never fit quite right, leaving blisters on anyone bald.
Not having a beard made me unique.
A captain grabbed my arm. "Who the hell are you?"
"Wendell. Stars and Stripes, civilian DOD."
"No shit?" The captain looked surprised at first but then smiled. "Who are you hooking up with?"
"Second Battalion, Baker."
"That's us." He slapped me on the back and turned to his men. "Listen up. This here is Wendell, a reporter from the Western world. He'll be joining us on the line, so if you're nice, he might put you in the news vids."
I didn't have the heart to say it again, to tell them that I didn't have a camera and, oh, by the way, I spent most of my time so high that I could barely piece a story together.
"Captain," I said. "Where are we headed?"
"Straight into boredom. You came at the right time. Rumor is that Popov is too tired to push, and we're not going to push him. We'll be taking a siesta just west of Pavlodar, about three klicks north of here, Z minus four klicks. Plenty of rock between us and the plasma."
I had seen a collection of civilian mining equipment in the APC hangar, looking out of place, and wondered. Fusion borers, piping, and conveyors, all of it painted orange with black stripes. Someone had tried to hide it under layers of camouflage netting, like a teenager would hide his stash, just in case Mom didn't buy the I-don't-do-drugs, you-don't-need-to-search-my-room argument.
"What about the gear in the hangar—the mining rigs?" I asked.
A few of the closest Marines had been bantering and fell silent while the captain glared at me. "What rigs?"
"The stuff back in the hangar. Looked like civilian mining stuff."
He turned and headed toward the front of his column. "Keep up, rube. We're not coming back if you get lost."
Land mines. Words were land mines. I wasn't part of the family, wasn't even close to being one of them, and my exposure to the war had so far been limited to jerking off Marines when they stepped off the transport pad in Shymkent, hoping to get a money shot interview, the real deal. Hey, Lieutenant, what's it like? Got anyone back home you wanna say hi to? Their looks said it all. Total confusion, like, Where am I? We came from two different worlds, and in Shymkent they stepped into mine, where plasma artillery and autonomous ground attack drones were things to be talked about openly—irreverently and without fear so you could prove to the hot AP betty, just arrived in Kaz, that you knew more than she did, and if she let you in those cotton panties, you'd share everything. You would, too. But now I was in their world, land of the learn-or-get-out-of-the-way-or-die tribe, and didn't know the language.
A Marine corporal explained it to me, or I never would have figured it out.
"Hey, reporter-guy." He fell in beside me as we walked. "Don't ever mention that shit again."
"What'd I say?"
"Mining gear. They don't bring that crap in unless we're making another push, to try and retake the mines. If we recapture them, the engineers come in and dig as much ore as they can before the Russians hit us to grab it back. Back and forth, it's how the world churns."
There were mines of all kinds in Kaz, trace-metal mines and land mines. The trace mines were the worst, because they never blew up; they just spun in place like a buzz saw, chewing, and too tempting to let go. Metal. We'd get it from space someday, but bringing it in was still so expensive that whenever someone stumbled across an earth source, usually deep underground, everyone scrambled. Metal was worth fighting over, bartered for with blood and fléchettes. Kaz proved it. Metals, especially rhenium and all the traces, were all the rage, which was the whole reason for our being there in the first place.
I saw an old movie once, in one of those art houses. It was animated, a cartoon, but I can't remember what it was called. There was a song in it that I'll never forget and one line said it all. "Put your trust in Heavy Metal." Whoever wrote that song must have seen Kaz, must have looked far into the beyond.
I needed to get high. The line assignment had come from an old friend, someone corporate who'd taken pity and thought he'd give me one last chance to get out the old Oscar, not the one who used to show promise but couldn't even write a sentence now unless he'd just mainlined a cool bing. Somehow, I knew I'd screw this one up too, but I didn't want to die doing it.
My first barrage lasted three days. I was so scared that I forgot about my job, never even turning on my voice recorder, the word "Pulitzer" a mirage. Three days of sitting around and trying to watch them, to learn something that might keep me from getting wiped—or at least explain why it was I had wanted this assignment in the first place—and always wondering what would drive me crazy first: the rocks pelting my helmet, not having any drugs, or claustrophobia. Living in a can. The suits had speakers and audio pickups so you could talk without using radio, but I'd never realized before how important it was to see someone else. Read his face. You couldn't even nod; it got lost in a suit, same as a shrug. Meaningless.
Ox, the corporal who had educated me about mining gear, was a huge guy from Georgia. Tank big.
"I friggin' hate curried chicken," he said. Ox pulled the feeding tube from a tiny membrane in his helmet and threw a pouch to the ground. "Anyone wanna trade?"
I had some ration packs that I'd gotten off a couple of French guys in Shymkent, and threw one to him.
"What the hell is this? I can't read it."
"It's French. That one is wine-poached salmon."
Ox broke the heat pack at the pouch's bottom. When it was warm, he stuck the tube through and squeezed. I swore I could almost see his eyes go wide, the no-friggin'-way expression on his face.
"Where'd you get this?"
He squeezed the pouch again and didn't stop until it was a wad, all wringed out. "Un-fucking-real. The French get to eat this every day?"
I nodded and then remembered he couldn't see it. "Yeah. And they get booze in their rations. Wine."
"That's it," Ox said. "I'm going AWOL, join up with the Legion. You, rube, are welcome in my tunnel."
And just like that, I was in the fold.
Occasionally the Russians lobbed in deep penetrators, and near the end of the second day, one of them detonated, breaking free a massive slab that crushed two Marines instantly. One of their buddies, a private who sat next to them, got splattered with bits of flesh and bone that popped from their armor, like someone had just popped a huge zit. The man screamed and wouldn't stop until a corpsman sedated him, but he kept rocking back and forth, repeating, "I can't find my face." Finally the captain ordered the corpsman to sedate him further, tie him up, and drag the Marine into the rear-area tunnel, where they could pick him up later.
"Good thing they did that," said Ox.
I pulled my knees up to my chest. "Why?"
"I was about to wipe him."
Things returned to normal for a while. Muffled thumps of plasma still shook the ceiling, and suit waste pouches opened automatically to dump human filth on the floor—because someone had been too scared or too lazy to jack into a wall port. That was normal for subterrene.
The only flaw in the captain's plan was that eventually the guy who had been sedated came to and picked up where he had left off. Over the coms net, his voice screamed in our ears that he still couldn't find his face, every once in a while adding "the shitheads left me."
Ox picked up his carbine and muttered, "He's dead," but fortunately for both Ox and the crazy guy, a corpsman was close to the tunnel exit and sped off to deactivate the man's communications.
I knew what the crazy guy meant. Ox did too, and that was the problem: nobody wanted to hear it; nobody needed to be reminded that none of us could find our faces. Without being able to touch it, I had begun to wonder if maybe I didn't have one anymore, like it got left behind in my Shymkent hotel so that some half-Mongolian puke could steal it for himself because I had forgotten to leave a big enough tip on the pillow to make stealing not worth it. I needed to find my face, knew that it had to be around there somewhere, if I could just take off my helmet for a second.
By the end of the third day, the barrage lifted, and I sat quietly, watching the Marines and feeling like I was the uninvited guest who didn't know what fork to use at dinner, too scared to say anything because my stupidity would show. I'd left my rig in the hotel too, hadn't thought I'd have to go this long without juice, and now I felt the shakes, got that chill, a warning that if I didn't get lit soon, it'd be bad. Even so, nobody moved. Everyone soaked in that stillness, and only an occasional click as the armorer went down the line, checking weapons and suits, broke it. Then the captain slapped the four men closest to him. They stood and moved slowly to a ladder before disappearing through a hole in the ceiling.
"Where they going?" I asked.
Ox checked his carbine for about the hundredth time. "Topside watch."
" 'Cause Pops is shifty. Sometimes, when neither of us has a barrage on, he'll try and move in topside."
I shivered, a mental wind that preceded whacked-out thoughts. No way I could deal with all this shit; I wasn't ready. It wasn't what I signed up for; someone else could cover the line, get the first story. My next question proved to me, to everybody, that I was terrified, a rube.
"What about the sentry fields? The bots. Won't they deal with anything topside?"
Ox laughed. "Pops can make magic in his land, and Kaz is his land. Sentry bots don't always work."
"Come on, reporter-guy," Ox said. "You want a story, this'll give you a story."
It was Ox's turn on watch, so he and two of his buddies, Burger and Snyder, moved toward the ladder, motioning for me to follow. I had no saliva. I don't even remember willing my legs to work, yet there I was, heading to the ladder, and in that instant I knew exactly how the Marines had felt—the ones who had wanted to eat dinner in the basement of my hotel. You didn't go up; it was all wrong. Anything could happen up there, and the rest of your unit would be far below, unable to help and just glad that it wasn't them. My legs seemed to have grown a mind of their own, refusing to work the way they should have, almost detached from the rest of my body as they resisted efforts to move them toward danger. This was tangled. I knew it was tangled, Ox knew it, the captain knew it, and even the guy who had lost his face knew it, but everyone except that guy managed to pretend it was all cool, all smooth. Normal.
"Come on," said Ox.
When I got to the base of the ladder, the captain stopped me.
"Hold a sec." He grabbed a Maxwell carbine from the closest Marine, snapped the hopper from the kid's armor, and then rigged me with it. The carbine felt heavy and I slung it over my shoulder.
"Anyone who goes topside is a cranker," the captain explained.
"Sir, I'm a reporter. I didn't think I'd even be allowed to carry a Maxwell on the line."
He had taken off his helmet during the lull in shelling, and smiled. "You're DOD—a civilian who wanted this crap, right?"
"Well, you got it. Here… He lifted my helmet and placed it over my head, sliding the locking ring into place. "You're going topside, you button up. Period."
When I caught up to the others, they had stepped off the ladder into a tiny mining elevator, about a hundred feet up from the main tunnel. Ox laughed and pointed toward my carbine.
"You know how to shoot one of those?"
I could barely talk, realizing for the first time how important spit was. "Yeah. I fired one in Rube-Hack."
"Going up," said Snyder, and our elevator jerked.
The car rattled. I wondered how often the thing had been used, recognizing what it was from some of my earliest stories on deep-mining operations in Nevada, where collapses and explosions had made mine rescues something boring, not even newsworthy anymore. It was ironic. The elevator was a modified rescue rig, two cages welded together to fit four men, but it wasn't doing its job anymore; it wasn't taking men out of danger but throwing them in. You can hate an inanimate object on the line. Every bump and shake made me want to throw up, rip the yellow wire cage apart and scream, because it wasn't supposed to move people to their deaths, and I just knew that the thing was laughing at our expense, that the elevator had clearly lost its way, been corrupted. It was an orphan. A street kid that had learned to make the best of it and survive any way it knew how—at our expense.
It took us a little under an hour to make the trip topside and we had to switch into three different shafts to do it. When we got to the top, the other watch was waiting and didn't say anything as they fought to get on the elevator, to get back inside Mother Earth, while we tried to dismount as slowly as possible. We still had one more ladder to climb, another hundred feet up to the observation post, and when we got there, I had to blink from the sudden light, a bright bluish glow that made me remember everything, including that there was a world aboveground and that it rested under a thing called the sun. There was snow. Fall had made its escape while I had been tunnel-bound, and winter claimed the land with its pale blanket.
I had never seen a battlefield and hadn't expected it to be so… clean. You sensed the rubble but couldn't see it under what looked like about two feet of fresh snow, and the land was flat, vacant except for wind. The war had vanished. But at the same time there was a thrill, an undercurrent of danger, because you knew that no matter how peaceful it looked, here, exposed, you had reason to be scared. The position allowed us to see in three-sixty, from a concrete bunker that just barely protruded from the rubble fields and had four narrow windows, their glass three feet thick.
My face pressed against the nearest window, looking north, and I stared, hypnotized. Somewhere out there was Pops, looking back at us, and I just wanted to see him. I knew there was a word for my type, but my brain hadn't been working since getting on the line. Choked up. It had clogged with ass puckering, with the sound of my own breathing inside the helmet, and with dreams of getting wired again, plugged in. Words started coming to me as I stared out across the rubble field, words that described me to a T. "Voyeur." "Spectator." "Pulitzer-fanboy." "Coward."
Ox yanked his helmet off and I nearly choked in surprise. "What are you doing?"
He laughed and the others took their helmets off too. Vision hoods came next, and Ox and Snyder carefully disconnected the series of cables that connected coms and goggle units to the suit. Burger kept his hood on. The goggles made him look funny, like a bug with big green bottled eyes, and he grinned at me.
"Rube, you're about to get initiated into the brotherhood. First reporter on the line, first reporter to get zipped!" He took a seat near the north window and stared out.
"Get down here," Ox said. When I sat next to him, he popped my helmet and helped me out of the hood.
"What about Russian sensors?" I asked.
"We're tight." Ox pointed to two lights on the floor next to us, one green, the other red, and I saw the green one glowing dimly. "Green means go. A good seal, so they can't see our therms, even if we unbutton, and we don't need the chameleon skin in this domicile."
Snyder pulled a small tin from a belt pouch and began flicking it, his finger snapping against the lid. His teeth were unbelievably yellow. "The good life," he said.
- On Sale
- Aug 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 384 pages