Authors: Gavin G. Smith
To Dyanne & Tobias Heason and the Saturday Club who taught me some of the things within these pages.
Airfield, CELL cobalt mining support depot, upper Podkamennaya Tunguska River, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia, Russian Federation, 2025
Walker tried to blink away the tears. Many of the other CELL “security personnel” wouldn’t make the call to their partners before a big op. They felt it was
bad luck. Before CELL Walker had been in 2 Para, running patrols into the LCZ during some of the worst of the London troubles. He had seen the people who made the calls and the people who
didn’t get killed in equal number. He wanted it fixed and strong in his mind why he had to survive each op.
‘I know I shouldn’t, I know you just need to hear that we love you and miss you. I know anything else just messes with your head, but we need you back.’ Carlotta was crying
and, sensing her mother’s distress Elsa, just six months old, started crying as well.
Walker squeezed his eyes closed, a tear running down his cheek. Outside the comms booth there was a long queue of hard men and women waiting their turn to use the Macronet portal, despite the
shitty reception and the constantly frizzing images. That didn’t matter, this was his two minutes, nobody would get in his face about that. Just like nobody would comment on the tears. It was
the unspoken rule. They’d all be the same.
Walker’s eyes opened as his girlfriend and child shimmered momentarily and then solidified.
‘I’m due leave soon and I’ll be back . . .’ his Birmingham accent was still thick, despite years away from the West Midlands of Britain.
‘Do you know when your tenure’s up?’ Carlotta asked. Walker had effectively been drafted into CELL for non-payment of their energy bill. He’d been labouring when they
invited him to “work debt free”, but they certainly had uses for a skill set learnt in the British army. His biggest fear had been that he’d end up fighting the Ceph in New York
or some other infection area, but at least that seemed to be all over bar the clean up now.
‘I don’t know,’ he answered truthfully. His superiors acted cagey every time he asked about it. How much debt had they run up, he wondered? Walker had thought that they had
always lived a reasonably frugal existence.
There was a discreet tap on the door. The red counter above the booth had run down to zero, but nobody was going to be a dick about it unless he really took the piss.
‘Baby, I’ve got to go . . .’ he started.
‘You’re scared . . .’
‘I’m always scared, I miss you, both of you, but they give us drugs for the fear . . .’
‘I don’t want to hear that. This one’s different, isn’t it?’
The Macronet link cut. The words: Predicted Operational Security Breach appeared in red floating letters where the poor quality image of his wife and child had been moments before.
‘It’s just routine, baby,’ Walker lied to the warning message.
Why’s that a high-resolution image but my girlfriend and kid aren’t?
inanely, unable to process anything else. There was another more urgent knock at the plastic door of the booth. Walker took a moment to wipe away the tears and then, red-eyed, head down, he stepped
out of the booth.
‘Sorry man,’ he mumbled and made his way through the queue towards the exit.
He pulled down the patch on the arm of his fatigues between the straps for his body armour. He took the first syringe, let the smart needle guide itself to a vein, and he injected the good stuff
in. He thought of it as getting his game face on. GABA, trycilics, the military grade stims that he had sworn off when he left the paras. He started to experience the artificial feeling of power
coursing through his veins. He knew it was artificial because he knew the contrast between being up on the combat drugs one moment and then coming back down to Earth the hard way a moment later.
When you found yourself wearing your squadmate’s internal organs as outerwear. He still embraced the high. Locked the final flickering image of Carlotta and Elsa away. That image was for when
he needed to fight harder, just to live.
He pulled his glove off with his teeth. Pressed his thumb against the needle. The weapons rack accepted his DNA and released the Scarab assault rifle to him. He checked the weapon and took as
much spare ammunition as he felt he could get away with and headed out onto the airstrip to join his squad.
Outside, under the harsh sodium glare of the floodlights, the second heavy-lift aircraft was unloading APCs. More heavily armed and armoured CELL security personnel filed down the aircraft
loading ramp into the freezing Siberian night. Whatever it was, CELL were going in heavy.
Maybe it is another Ceph incursion after all
, Walker thought. His fear of the aliens was
suppressed under a sheen of narcotic courage as he joined his squad.
‘Your head in this game?’ his squad’s new CO asked as she checked her Jackal combat shotgun. The African-American woman had a strong New York accent. She wore a helmet, and a
fleece cap under that, but Walker knew that her head was shaved down to the bone and he’d noticed that her ears and noses had holes in them from multiple piercings that had clearly been
‘Locked and loaded, LT,’ Walker said, with a confidence the drugs were almost making him feel.
‘Outstanding,’ his new lieutenant said.
Rovesky Township, upper Podkamennaya Tunguska River, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Siberia, Russian Federation, 2025
‘I hate it when it gets in your eye,’ Eda said in her native German.
‘You’re just going to have to woman up, I’m afraid,’ Klaus told her, and then he sighed theatrically and mimed wiping his eye clean.
There was giggling from some of the other prostitutes present who spoke German. It wasn’t voyeurism, Prophet told himself as he listened to the translation of their conversation. No, it
, he admitted, but it had nothing to do with the sex in the brothel below his attic hidey-hole. He just about knew all the prostitutes’ stock responses now. It was their lives. He
knew that Klaus was jealous of Vladimir’s cheekbones. He knew that Eda was still young enough to dream of a Pygmalion scenario. He knew who was secretly pregnant. Who were lovers. He heard
their Macronet calls to their friends and family back home, the lies they told them, the tears after.
It wasn’t the bad old days of the slaving sex trafficking rings. Natasha’s House of Pleasure was registered and unionised and Prophet wouldn’t be surprised if he could trace
ownership of the brothel back to CELL. They seemed to own everything else these days and the township existed to service their cobalt mine. Though Prophet was convinced that it was a front to
continue their scientific investigation of the Tunguska Crater. However, thousands of years of social stigma against those who rented their bodies out for the enjoyment of others wasn’t going
to be wiped away in a moment.
It was life that he listened to, spied on. It was something that the nanosuit had effectively cut him off from.
He didn’t think that conditions were great for the workers in the brothel, but what he found was that no matter how bad things got, even if a miner went “thatch” on one of them
due to too many productivity enhancing drugs, there was always humour present. In that they were like soldiers. He had almost intervened the last time a client had gone “thatch” –
fortunately the security had got there before the John had cut the guy too badly.
Still, he knew this was a distraction. The brothel, the coming down off the roofs to walk the frozen streets late-at-night. Looking through windows at people having lives, scraping by in this
brave new economy. Somehow, when he saw people huddled around the glow of the Macronet feeds, like they would give warmth, all the stories seemed to be about the CELL Corporation these days. Crynet
Enforcement & Local Logistics. Somehow the security consultant company – or mercenaries, to give them their older name – that had so badly bungled the Ceph incursion in New York had
managed to pretend competence long enough to re-invent itself as an energy company. It was a rebirth worthy of a particularly corrupt phoenix, he mused.
‘I know what you’re doing,’ Psycho said from his corner of the loft. The other nanosuited soldier had been watching a feed from the Macronet on a portable screen. Something
about CELL launching a satellite network to complement the work they had been doing to turn the ruins of New York into a vast facility for energy generation.
There was only Psycho left of his nanosuited team, Prophet mused. They’d all left him now. All gone their own way, died or been captured by CELL. Or just lost faith in the mission.
Cupcake, Bandit, Fire Dragon and Lazy Dane, who had been getting weirder and weirder. Eighteen months of hitting Ceph incursion sites. Auckland, Wuhan, Tokyo, then, on his own, the last one beneath
St. Petersburg. That was when even he had to admit he was forgetting what he was.
What I once was
, he corrected himself. And now only loyal Michael Sykes remained with him. Psycho,
who’d rather nail his left bollock to the ground and crawl away from it than let a “mate” down. But Psycho didn’t understand, none of them had, it wasn’t a job, it
wasn’t mercenary work, it wasn’t about loyalty to friends, and, sadly, it wasn’t about fucking over CELL.
It’s about survival, pure and simple, us versus them, a very
, Prophet thought.
‘You’re listening in on your little whore-house soap opera, aren’t you?’ Psycho said. The tone in his voice said that he was out to needle Prophet. Prophet tried to
‘What? You don’t want to talk to me? I’m pretty much the only other carbon-based life form you’ve got any contact with these days!’ Prophet continued trying to
ignore him and Psycho lapsed into silence. And then let out a short, humourless laugh. ‘I’m sorry that you can’t nip downstairs for a quickie.’
‘I don’t want to be wasting time here either,’ Prophet all but growled. ‘Did you think this would be easy?’ He stood up and looked around the room. It was a large
spacious attic, with exposed wooden beams. The building that contained the brothel had been built from locally quarried stone during one of Siberia’s gold rushes. It sat on the corner of a
junction in the township. Nobody had ever quite got around to laying down a proper road and currently the streets were frozen mud. Prophet glanced out the window. He could see the glow of the
garish neon sign reflected in the gently falling snow.
‘You’re not just wasting time, mate, you’ve lost the plot.’
This is where he brings up St. Petersburg
, Prophet thought. He’d heard this song before.
‘You were out of control in St. Petersburg, you know you were. It was the last straw for Fire Dragon.’
Prophet knew that Psycho was right. The thing was, he had only realised it in retrospect. At the time it had all seemed to make sense. They were the bad guys. He had needed access to the Ceph
tech. He needed information and he needed to upgrade the armour. He had to be strong enough for when they finally found what he was looking for.
‘And what’s with the Ceph tech? I know it won the day in New York but it’s changing you, mate. Turning you into . . .’
‘One of them?’
‘I was going to say something else.’
‘When did you get so soft?’
Psycho’s eyes narrowed dangerously.
‘Careful,’ the British soldier said quietly.
‘We’re fighting a war. I’m not human now. I am something else. You need to get used to that. If becoming one of them is what it takes . . .’ Psycho was just staring at
him. ‘What do you want from me, Psycho?’ Prophet asked.
‘Something to say that we’re on the right track. Any evidence at all that it’s actually real.’
‘Tunguska was where Hargreave and Rasch originally encountered . . .’
‘It has to be here.’
Psycho sighed and leant back against the wall, the top half of his nanosuited body disappearing into shadow.