Colm slid into the shadow of the byre, taking care not to step on the dead Ghosts sprawled against the wall. Lacking a battlesuit, he was vulnerable to enemy fire, so careful, careful, and remember that when you’re away from your ship you haven’t got eyes in the back of your head.
With a hurried glance, he took in the other buildings huddled at the cliff’s foot. He had grown up around farms, although his father was an entertainer and his mother a nurse. They had crofters for neighbors, so he was fairly familiar with the workings of mixed crop and livestock operations. Drumlin Farm was just a big croft on a distant moon. Cows here, chickens over there, that’d be the hay barn where they also kept the horses if they had any. Sad little heaps of feathers lay among the dead Ghosts. A gut-shot dog had dragged its own intestines halfway across the farmyard before dying. Colm’s heart twisted at the sight. What a desperate waste.
Movement beyond the hay barn. He flattened his back against the stone wall, gripping his machine pistol. But it was just plastic rippling in the night breeze: a row of polytunnels shredded by machine-gun fire. A truly ferocious battle had raged here.
“Vike?” he whispered. “Smythe?”
She’d said, I’m going inside.
Cursing under his breath, Colm skittered from shadow to shadow until he reached the cliff.
He knew exactly what he should do, having seen this shambles of a battlefield.
The same thing Smythe and Holmundsen should’ve done.
Return to the gunship and call for reinforcements.
But he also knew that they were the reinforcements.
Colm had been the only pilot in the ready room tonight.
The Fleet was stretched so thin on Upsandra d2, they were coming apart.
Oh, sure, the Unsinkable would send another gunship eventually. Maybe at first light, three sols from now. By that time, the two half-baked kids Colm had the pleasure of calling his crew might be dead.
He ducked under a garage door into, surprise, a garage. It was as dark as the devil’s arsehole but the smell of machine oil and biodiesel fumes gave it away. He stumbled against a tractor and got his back against a wheel taller than he was. Let his mouth hang open, listening.
There were certain advantages to operating without a battlesuit, apart from the obvious one that you didn’t need a fuel cell to move your arms and legs. For instance, you could hear better without a tangle of electronics in the way. It made no sense, but you just could.
Now Colm heard a faint rumbling noise from deeper within the cave complex.
Or just machinery?
Survivors operating machinery?
Surely not even colonists could be that dumb.
Colm could guess easily enough how this disaster had come about. As everyone knew, the Ghosts had been probing this archipelago for years. When they were Stage One, you just had to be vigilant: stamp them out before they had a chance to multiply, and for Christ’s sake don’t leave the battery in your car overnight. All powered equipment had to be carefully protected when Ghosts were about. But time and again that simple directive had proved to be too much for civilians. They forgot, they slipped up, they left a combine harvester sitting out in the back field with half a kilowatt of juice in it, and that was what must’ve happened here. Hello, Stage Two Ghosts, with rifles and shotguns and a strong enough grasp of guerrilla tactics to capture another power source, and another one, multiplying their numbers every time. Soon there’d have been enough of them to lay siege to the farm. At that point the colonists would have swallowed their pride and begged the Marines to come save them, but it had already been too late.
Two platoons of Marines could hold off any number of Ghosts … but only until they ran out of ammo.
Ritualistically, Colm cursed the duty officer who had denied the first medevac request from Drumlin Farm, and the OIC who had not appreciated how much danger his troopers were in, and everyone in the whole chain of command stretching all the way back to Earth. They’d all failed. Now it was up to him to not fail, too.
Sweating, he thumbed off the safety of his machine pistol. Twelve rounds in the magazine, another twelve in the spare. What a joke. He should’ve taken a Ghost gun from outside, but like everyone, he instinctively loathed the idea of touching Ghost stuff. Who knew where it came from?
He edged away from the tractor, only to bump into something else. Tines stuck up at thigh level. A rotary tiller. Without having to check, he knew it would be out of juice. The very fact that the lights were off proved that Ghosts had got in here and drained the power out of the whole farm.
So where were the Ghosts now?
And where were Smythe and Holmundsen?
He fumbled his way to a door in the back of the garage. Following the rumbling noise, he tiptoed down a narrow passage. His boots kept meeting soft obstacles. The floor was tacky. He was almost grateful for the darkness.
Outside, the night had been warm, but in here it was cold. Gooseflesh-cold. See-your-breath cold, if it weren’t so dark. The cold and the dark and the smell of death combined into a poisonous brew of fear. He stopped walking, slumped on the wall, eyes straining wide in the darkness.
28 months to go.
I don’t want to die.
He flogged himself with the names of his crew, but fear dulled his concern for them, made him selfish.
He’d have turned around and made a dash for freedom if he had not, at that moment, seen a door faintly outlined in the wall opposite him. The light seeping between the hinges was very dim. Had his eyes not been dark-adapted, he wouldn’t have been able to see it at all.
He crossed the passage. Laid his bare left hand on the steel. Vibrations tickled his palm.
The noise was coming from behind this door. Maybe someone was alive in there.
He did not give himself any more time to be afraid. Stupid bloody swing door had no handle, so he couldn’t pull it towards himself. He mule-kicked the door open and flinched back to the side of the doorway—
—just in time.
A shot roared, pulverizing the silence. The bullet ricocheted off the far wall of the passage. Stone chips flew in the dim light from the door, which was swinging shut again.
“Stay the fuck back!” roared a voice from inside the room.
“S-sir?” Holmundsen’s voice shifted from furious defiance to childlike hope.
“I’m coming in.” Colm slid around the door as it closed.
The light came from machinery mounted atop a concrete platform. It gleamed red and green on the side of an enormous steel tank, on the belt buckles and buttons of Ghost corpses littering the floor, and on the face of Holmundsen, who sat at the bottom of the platform, legs sticking out in front of him, pistol in his lap.
In here, the noise was factory-floor loud. A smell of sulfur masked the odor of death.
Colm hurried to Holmundsen, avoiding the dead Ghosts. “You OK?”
“Nope.” Holmundsen gave a strained smile. A hand fluttered to his hip. Blood glistened on his leathers. “Fucking Ghosts. Know what they were doing?”
“Feeding the grinder—” Holmundsen jerked a thumb at the big tank— “with bodies. Their own dead. And ours.”
“That’s new,” Colm said, playing down his revulsion. “I’ve heard of dropping in the odd sheep, if you don’t want the health inspectors to get a look at it.”
He knew what this towering cluster of pipes and tanks was. A farm like this got most or all of its power from biowaste. The juice in the fuel cells of the tractors, rotary tillers, and so on? Generated by the vehicles’ biodiesel engines, which fed front-end reforming hydrogen cells. The lights, the fridges, the computers, heating in winter, AC in summer, dairy processing machinery, whatever else the colonists had? Same deal. They’d either be powered by a biodiesel generator, or by process heat from biodiesel production.
And how do you make biodiesel?
With a thermal depolymerization plant.
Like this one.
In goes biowaste, out comes green gold.
Dead bodies, though.
“Was this all of them?” Colm said.
“I think so,” Holmundsen said. “Turn it off, sir. I can’t reach.” Meaning that he was too hurt to move.
Colm was already climbing the steps onto the platform. He wanted to have a look at Holmundsen’s wound, but shutting down the TDP plant came first. He had no idea how long it would take for it to draw more Ghosts, didn’t even know how that worked. If the eggheads had theories about how and why Stage Two invasion occurred, they didn’t share them with lowly first lieutenants. All Colm knew was—turn off the power. He frowned at the displays, threw switches. The intake tank stopped grinding. The vibrations lessened.
But did not stop.
The generator was still running. Some quantity of biodiesel had already been produced, and it was fueling the genny, which had to be around here somewhere.
He ducked under pipes, said to Holmundsen, “Didn’t know you were a farm boy,” less because he cared than to hear Holmundsen’s voice, keep him talking.
“Not,” Holmundsen said, from the far side of the platform. “Forestry management. My parents. In Norway, they clear-cut the forest on a rotation. Put the unusable wood into massive TDP plants. We used to follow the clear-cutters all spring and summer, making sure that no rare plants get shredded. I was home-schooled.”
“That explains your lack of social skills,” Colm said, still talking just to talk. Generator, generator. “Jesus, it’s cold in here.”
“It’s colder in Norway.”
“Why do they clear-cut the forest?”
“We had to do something after the oil ran out.”
“Ha, ha.” Here it was. He’d been looking for a squat steel cabinet. Instead the generator was an anodized red torpedo, mounted on shocks, with its own set of computer controls. These colonists had had everything. Except the common sense it would have taken to save their own lives. As he bent over the display, it lit the fog of his breath green. Why was it so cold? He could scarcely feel his fingers …
“I’m just kidding,” Holmundsen said. “The clear-cutting is to eliminate sitka spruce. An invasive species. After they finish, it looks like a bombed-out whorehouse. But it’s not like they cut down everything. They have to leave enough trees for the woodpeckers.”
“There’s twenty-five kilowatts coming out of here,” Colm said. “But where’s it going?”
He felt like a complete idiot. If the generator was running, the lights should be on, at a bare minimum. So why were they still in the dark?
“Oh,” Holmundsen said. Colm whipped around.
A wave of cold washed over his face.
Sparks wriggled from the generator. Colm drew back sharply. It looked like the generator had turned into a Tesla coil, but instead of one large streamer, fifteen or twenty little streamers snaked through the air, spitting off fractal spikes.
When you lay your hand on the outside of a vacuum chamber with a Tesla coil in it, the streamers jump to your hand.
But these streamers were not jumping to Colm. They converged on a point between him and the biodiesel intake pipe feeding the generator. He stared, trying to make sense of the weird phenomenon.
The intake pipe rippled.
No, the air was rippling, as if he were looking at jet engine exhaust, but it wasn’t hot. It was icy cold.
The rippling turned into shimmering, and the shimmering got denser, sucking up the streamers of electricity. And this dense shimmer, this cold hole in the air, this impossibility, congealed into a shape.
The shape of a person.
The streamers died, leaving a faint glow that outlined a ghostly man.
Six feet tall, give or take an inch.
Except for a jaunty forage cap with the earflaps hanging down.
Brown hair stuck out under the forage cap. Gold insignia glinted on the cap, too blurry to read.
Not so the eyes in the knobbly-chinned, big-nosed face. Colm had never seen such lively eyes, sparkling with humor and curiosity.
Frozen, terrified, he stared … and the man smiled at him.
Solidity spread outwards from that smile, ghostly extremities resolving into pale flesh, arms and neck marked by farmer’s tan lines.
“Sir,” Holmundsen gasped.
His voice broke the spell.
This was not a man.
It was a Ghost.
Colm lunged to the generator controls, slapped the power switch.
The Ghost moved. Colm ducked—pure reflex. A steel blade crunched into the computer display, shattering the screen into pixelated mud. The Ghost had a sword, where there had been nothing in his hands before, and he was lunging at Colm, raising the blade overhand to stab—
Colm threw himself backwards off the platform. It was not a planned move, just panic. He managed to twist in the air so he struck the floor with his left hand and knee. His other hand was already reaching for his holstered pistol.
The Ghost jumped off the platform. By the time he hit the floor, he was no longer naked. He wore a short-sleeved khaki shirt and trousers, lace-up boots covered with dust. The sole of one boot flapped like a tongue. An undecorated leather scabbard slapped his thigh. Colm noticed these irrelevant details as he made the split-second judgement that he didn’t have time to draw and fire. He sprinted away, around the platform.
The Ghost pursued him, the loose sole of his boot slapping on the floor: thud-slap, thud-slap.
Holmundsen was trying to push himself to his feet. He brought his pistol up, his eyes like saucers.
Colm tripped on a corpse, fell, rolled. Holmundsen’s rounds passed over his head, eviscerating the air. Echoes piled on top of each other.
The sword whistled down, through the space Colm had vacated a micro-second before. The long, deathly-sharp blade bit into the Ghost corpse Colm had tripped on.
More shots from Holmundsen, and then a curse and a shout, “I’m out!” Colm raised his head to see Holmundsen frantically ejecting his magazine.
Colm rolled onto his back, drawing his pistol in the same motion. He fired and missed. Yes, you can miss at point-blank range, when the target is moving, when the target is a Ghost with a freaking longsword, a new twist on the madness that’s scrambled humanity’s understanding of the universe. We thought we finally had it all figured out, and then the Ghosts show up.
No one understood where they came from, much less how. Colm knew that they came out of nowhere, but this was the first time he’d ever seen it happen. It had undermined his confidence and dulled his reflexes. He fired again. Missed again, and then had time to scramble to his feet, because the Ghost was charging past him
Heading for Holmundsen.
“No, you fucker,” Colm screamed. He levelled his pistol, but he was scared of hitting his co-pilot.
The sword rose and fell.
It met Holmundsen’s neck. Holmundsen’s head fell off. it bounced on his thigh and rolled across the floor. Blood gouted from the stump of his neck, spraying the Ghost, turning his homely face into a horror mask.
Colm howled like an animal. He emptied his magazine at the Ghost, then bounded to Holmundsen’s body. The last he saw of the Ghost, it was crawling away on hands and knees, taking cover behind the platform of the TDP plant. Colm hoped he’d fatally wounded the fucker but he did not have time to chase it down and make sure. He had the idea that he might be able to save Holmundsen if he reattached his head right away. You could do that with limbs, provided you had a dose of regrowth accelerator on you, which Colm did, a single-use syringe in his belt pouch. It took him a couple of seconds to realize that of course that wouldn’t work with someone’s head.
Holding the gory, slack-jawed thing in his hands, he let out a scream of rage and despair.
A long, fluffy length of carpet wriggled out from behind Holmundsen’s seated body and dragged itself onto Colm’s knees.
“What the mortal fuck?” Colm said. He dropped Holmundsen’s head.
“Help,” the carpet murmured.
“Now I know I’m going mad,” Colm said.
In that surreal moment, when the whole world seemed to have lost its marbles in one epic implosion of gore, his training took over. His hands reached for Holmundsen’s body, lifted the dogtags from around Holmundsen’s neck stump, stuffed them in his pocket. He checked Holmundsen’s belt for spare magazines and dropped them into his own ammo pouch. Then he stood up and started for the door.
The talking carpet had wrapped itself around his hips. It was awkward, so he uncoiled it and hung it around his neck like a scarf.
As he reached the door, the grinder started up again behind him.
The Chemical Mage will be published on October 1st, 2017.