‘History will record that the discovery of alien technology and DNA on asteroid X345–102–401 brought us to a predictable catastrophe. Governments perverted our greatest gift to synthesise vehicles of annihilation. Global conflict was inevitable.’
Doctor David Wong, The Destruction of Humanity.
I don’t remember getting the tap on the shoulder at school or the walk to the Principal’s office alongside the recruitment agents in their ERC uniforms. But I do remember the dripping jealousy in the faces of everyone I passed and I will never forget how cool that was. Maximus Halloran
Max was woken by an insistent nagging at the back of his mind.
It probably wasn’t important.
He let his head drop back to the pillow and stared at the ceiling where the dim ridge lights flickered in time with the whirr of the increasingly inefficient air-circulation system. Outside his pod, the squad rack was quiet. No one else was even awake, let alone up.
‘Not like me to wake up early,’ muttered Max.
‘Don’t you read your pings?’
Anna-Beth was lying on her stomach with her head turned away and the sheet clinging to the lines of her body. Max drew a finger down her spine and she rose on her elbows, her long black hair falling either side of her face. He grinned, sliding down next to her and leaning in for a kiss.
‘Not if I can avoid it.’
‘Are you kidding me?’ Anna-Beth put a hand on his face and pushed him away. ‘You were at the briefing last night, right? I wondered why you were still here.’
‘You know, the amount of shit you’re in makes you completely undesirable right now,’ she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
‘Oh really?’ he said and began to push the sheet down, his fingertips tracing her silky skin.
‘Really.’ Anna-Beth slid a little closer to him, enjoying herself. Her hand cupped his balls. ‘You really don’t know why you’re in the shit?’
‘Don’t know, don’t care.’
‘You’re not bothered about skippering the escort for the Marshal General’s cortege, then?’
Max froze, colour draining from his face.
‘That’s tomorrow,’ he said, stomach lurching.
‘Uh-uh. Today.’ She leaned into his ear and whispered. ‘Right now.’
‘Shit,’ said Max, scrambling out of bed. ‘Shitshitshit. Why didn’t they wake me? What happened to—?’
His sweats struck him in the face. He grabbed for them, missed, stumbled against the door and trod on the corner of a belt buckle.
‘Ow, bloodyfuckbollocks! Thanks a lot.’
‘Any time,’ said Anna-Beth, following up with some well-aimed boots.
Max pulled his joggers on and jammed his feet into his boots. He gave Anna-Beth a lop-sided smile.
‘Be here when I get back.’
‘In your dreams, drake bitch.’
Anna-Beth’s delicate blown kiss chased him from his room. He paused in the act of sprinting past the squad rec to take in the absurdly neat arrangement of sofas, chairs, screens and consoles. Every coffee- and teacup had been washed, dried and stacked by the gleamingly clean beverage machines — to which a note was attached. Max ran over and read it.
Did your chores for you. We heard it was a late one last night and didn’t want to wake you. Set the alarm to give you just enough time to get to the most important flight of your so-far worthless life. But only just. Love, Inferno-X
‘Very bloody funny. Bastards.’ An alarm began to sound and he glanced up at the mission countdown timer. Lots of red numbers there. ‘Shit.’
Max burst out of the squad dorm and powered along the spine, dodging from side to side to evade the masses dawdling to wherever it was they had loads of time to get. He sprinted through the echoing ‘tenways’ spine-link space that would become Gargan’s bar later, wrinkling his nose at the stale smells of alcohol and sweat that clung to every surface.
He hurdled an auto-vac and raced off to the right down an access corridor, battering open the ‘Emergency Access Only’ door at the end. It stank of burnt toast out here within the flank armour. Water poured down the inside, catching a joint above his head and covering the ringing metal stairway, and him, in its fetid warmth.
Max grabbed the rail and swung over, letting go and turning in the air before catching the rails a storey below. He pushed himself back with his feet and dropped again, grabbing the base of the rail and swinging to land on his feet on the walkway.
‘Nailed it,’ he grinned and ran.
Outside the open door to the vast retractable flight deck, he could hear the competing cries and roars of drakes, geckos, chameleons, basilisks and komodos. Once inside, he slowed to a saunter and fought to control his breathing. He had to walk past the cages holding the ground-based lizards on the way to the drake pens, so he made sure he caught the eye of a jockey. He sniffed extravagantly.
‘Wow, that’s some powerful stench you’re developing. New aftershave is it? Eau de Slime-Sucker; for the face-down, sand-eating, lizard-jock in your life.’
‘Drop dead, dragon-shagger.’ A gecko driver made a move towards him. ‘Hey, let’s compare IQs in a year’s time, slop-head.’
Max blew a kiss and walked away. ‘I’m going to look for you out there today. Gonna need a target for my drake to shit on.’
The drakes were calling, the sound echoing from the walls, drowning out the Flight Com orders coming over the PA. The beautiful white Inferno-X drakes were already moving onto the runway. Max broke into a run again, aching to be with them.
Thirty metres of drake moved serenely out of its pen and blocked his way. For about the millionth time, Max wondered why they didn’t just call them dragons because that was sure as shit what they looked like. The drake’s eyes were on him, and so were those of its pilot, Squadron Leader Valera Orin, going through her pre-flight routine.
The drake’s mouth yawned to reveal its rows of bone-crushing teeth. Its five-metre neck flexed, the scales meshing and moving in a sinuous dance. Along its broad back, bone spurs rotated out to defensive position and then back flush to the armoured scales. And the tail, fully six metres long and run with thorns, whipped up into the scorpion position, its needle-sharp tip glistening.
‘What time do you call this?’
‘Why didn’t anyone wake me? Too busy tidying up really quietly and leaving sarcastic notes?’
‘That was Stepanek’s idea. Good one, eh? It’s almost a shame you’ve just squeaked in this time. But you’d better run and you’d better learn to take responsibility. There’s two minutes on the countdown then I’m giving Stepanek the escort lead honour cap just to piss you off.’
‘You’d give it to Stepanek?’
The drake’s wings twitched in a shrug.
‘Clock’s ticking. Grim’s got your suit already.’
Max ran down the line of drake pens, hearing cat-calls and jibes all the way. He played up to it as he went, even taking a bow as he slid to a halt by his pen and Grimaldi, his flight tech.
‘Ah, it’s call sign dickhead. Hardly worth almost getting dressed, was it?’
‘Very funny, Grim.’
Max stripped off his joggers. Grimaldi glowered at him with her trademark disdain and held out his suit, her hands filthy with drake dirt, her face and yellow overalls freckled with soot and dust.
Every time he forced his body into the rubberised, bio-plastic body sheath he wished there was a way to link with his drake without the clumsy mass of neuro-organic receptors. The suit squeezed his body like a too-tight wetsuit and itched like a bastard until it warmed up and expanded a fraction. He dragged it up his legs, over his torso and chest, and forced his arms into the sleeves.
Grimaldi zipped it up as he hauled the hood over his head, and felt the tightness around the sides of his face and the back of his skull. He pushed gently at his throat with forefinger and thumb, positioning the com controls to pick up his sub-vocalised commands. Moments later, he felt the warmth he longed for through his body and mind.
‘There you are, gorgeous,’ he said. ‘Ready to play?’
Taloned feet slammed against the drake pen and an armoured head reared up. Hawk-keen reptilian eyes stared through the broad window at him and the drake’s mouth opened in what Max maintained was a smile — a hideously toothy smile but a smile nonetheless — despite the Tweakers’ denials that drakes experienced emotion.
‘How’s she doing?’ asked Max, reaching to slap the warm glass by the drake’s muzzle. The creature shook her head and spittle flew in all directions. ‘Good to see you too, Martha.’
‘One day,’ said Grimaldi. ‘I will beat out of you why you gave her that name. Anyway, she’s peak, of course. Take a look.’
Grimaldi unlatched the pen door and slid it back. A wash of warm air rushed out of the enclosure, which was lit with hot lamps and backed by infra-red heat and light. Max’s smile broadened and the warmth in his mind and body intensified.
Max held up a hand and Martha dipped her head so he could run his fingers over her fangs and the eight fuel ducts pulsating at the sides of her mouth. They were full and healthy, the openings pink and clear.
There was a rustling sensation in Max’s left ear.
‘This is Heart of Granite Flight Commander Moeller. Call sign Hal-X, confirm reception.’
‘Loud and clear, sir. Good to hear you.’
‘Nice of you to join us. Slime up. Sky-high in sixty seconds.’
‘Right, close your eyes,’ said Grimaldi. She was holding a thin hosepipe. Barely waiting for him to comply, she pulled the trigger. A fine spray misted out, smelling of oil and sweat. Max held his arms out and turned slowly, letting the liquid settle on every stitch of his suit. ‘All done. Should stop you getting stuck halfway in.’
‘Always the same joke,’ said Max.
‘Gets funnier each time I tell it.’
‘In your flawed opinion.’ Max cocked his head then turned to the faulty fan that wobbled in its brackets up in the roof structure, venting condensation inefficiently. ‘Can you get on to those lazy arses in maintenance? That thing’ll fall on Martha’s head one day. Tell them when it does, I’ll point them out to her.’
‘Sure thing, Max,’ said Grim.
Max raised his hands in front of Martha and the stunning white drake rose up to sit on her powerful hind legs. The front of her chest opened to reveal the receptor pouch within. The lubricant on Max’s suit would mix with the pouch’s secretions to ensure maximum connectivity.
Max climbed quickly up the chest scales, turned and slid into the bespoke pouch, feeling the mind-touch of the drake intensify and a soul-deep thrill course through him. He moved his feet into their bays and his arms into the receptor sleeves, keeping them close to his sides. He stretched out his gloved fingers.
Martha’s chest closed and Max felt a gentle pressure across his body and thick, shock-absorbent fluid fill the pouch, expelling any air within. A layer of skin moved to cover his scalp and he placed his chin on the moulded rest, feeling the pouch tighten minutely against his throat and com controls. His visor, with heads-up display, slid down over his face. The drake shuddered, opened her mouth and roared her pleasure or, as the Tweakers who made her would have it, confirmed her state of readiness.
‘You and me, baby,’ he said. ‘Let’s walk.’
Max curled his toes and the drake rattled her rear talons on the bone floor. The rush of the receptors picking up and relaying his movements to Martha never lessened. He directed her to surge upright, move out of the pen and onto the runway. It was a gloomy day outside. The air was thick with dust and the Heart of Granite had thrown up huge clouds in her wake.
Max looked to his left to where Grimaldi stood proffering a water bottle with a long straw. He took a sip.
‘Not today, not ever,’ said Max, reciting the drake pilot mantra.
‘Look after my Risa.’
Max looked forwards. He moved his leg again and Martha walked past the twenty-three waiting drakes and their pilots that made up Squadron Inferno-X. Radio chatter filled his ears and he laughed.
‘Hal-X on the stand, Flight Command,’ he said. ‘Requesting permission to run.’
‘Stand by, Hal-X.’ A pause. ‘Skin of your teeth, boy. Report to me on landing. You don’t get off that easily.’
Hoots and howls ricocheted over the open com-link. ‘Copy, sir.’
‘Depart left, climb to circle above flak range. Hal-X, you are clear to run.’
‘Tail up, Martha, let’s fly.’
Max nodded his head. Martha opened her mouth and bellowed. She stamped her feet and powered down the runway and Max’s mind was filled with the promise of imminent freedom. Every footfall reverberated through the pouch, shock-absorbent fluid reducing the shuddering impacts to gentle ripples.
Max opened his mouth and breathed in the acceleration. His arms were tight to his sides keeping Martha’s wings folded hard against her body while she gathered pace, rocking gently from side to side, tail balancing her lateral movement. Flight crews and ground jocks turned to watch. Strip lights flashed, red pulsing bulbs blurred and alarms Dopplered as he sped by.
In front, the distance markings on the pitted runway began to merge. The retractor stays at the end of the sprint zone glared yellow. Max moved his arms away from his body exactly thirty centimetres. Martha snapped her wings out and with a gasp from Max they were airborne, shooting out of the flight deck and sweeping left. He turned his wrists out a fraction as he cleared the tail. Martha flared her wings and swept into a steep climb, high into the early morning skies of the Mid-Af warzone.
‘This is Hal-X clear of the flight deck, the HoG in my wake and up-wings skywards. Not a cloud up here so it’s gonna be a hot one later. Who’d be a grunt in a dust cloud?’
‘Copy, Hal-X, circle on station,’ said Moeller. ‘And cut the chatter.’
Martha climbed hard and fast, lazy sweeps of her wings driving her on. Their current air speed and altitude were displayed above Max’s right eye. He flattened his hands and canted his body slightly left. Martha cruised in a wide circle, levelling out and giving him a breath-taking view of the Heart of Granite.
‘Look, Martha, there’s your mum.’
And damn him if Martha’s body didn’t ripple in response. Max wondered if it was laughter or love.