Granite foothills inched over tundra. A crescent, enveloped by a smattering of pines. Error one: right climate, wrong soil. Permafrost left native shrubs stunted and inbred—why should it spare anything taller? Taiga forests began blanketing the landscape about three hundred klicks due south. Tempests began weighing down the horizon with brows of sleet. An hour off, maybe less.
Error two. Corn stalks whistled in the oncoming Arctic gale.
ancient, glass-topped Diameter dome curled into the lee of the
foothill's northern tip, somehow unscalped by the winds and the frost
and the howling. The trunk-shattering cold of the deep winter hadn't
destroyed a grey-timbered shed hunkered down a stone's throw from the
dome. An autotrak's corpse rusted.
Last one of the day.
swung the 'bay doors open with a grunt. Waggling pine fronds
disappeared without her scopes. Fine. She always got the last glimpse of
the fields with naked eyes, before infrared and graphics objectified
her view. Before the soot smudged out everything.
One tap: affirmative.
Static acknowledgments, fuzzy through cannibalized headphones.
purgeskins hopped off the manta-sleek shuttle's exit ramp, shook the
pyro-gel caking their spigot burners with dainty flicks. Flat cloud-grey
forearms, blank face-visors, naked cables contracting and loosing
across the clunky suggestion of digits. All hammered. Boxy and dented
and utterly interchangeable. No logos. Fuel-copias strapped to their
rears (backs?) regurgitated constantly.
wrinkled, ageless face slithered under a knotted archway of roots
without making a sound or dropping the pipe between its teeth. Tar smoke
followed, a double-barreled cloud, chasing the rotting furs on its
back. Slipping down Venn's throat as his finger tapped the rifle's
"Shuttle not slipped away." Soot caked dreadlocks and a
beard swayed in the knife-chill. Lime-green corn husks woven into his
hair bounced , all sixteen of them. Bandoleer belts rasped against his
parka. Green Man, soft and still.
"I got em nailed—"
pilot watch the scopes. Anything past the patrol, he notice." As if
Venn hadn't spoken. Green Man only interrupted to fill dead air. Or
correct dead words. Never forcefully, never harshly. Young wood bends.
"Pilot notice movement, it gone. You gone. We gone. All this out before it begin."
Ash flipped into the scrub and died.
of other smokerolls hissed out a second later—between roots, nestled in
canopies, behind their agri-dome. Venn hefted the rifle's heavy butt
into his shoulder. Blinked.
Shoulder seals popped out of optical haziness.
His headphones squawked.
called. The arrowhead bunched. Spigots flared. Wind caught at the
barrages of sparks shooting from the clumps they'd already burned. An
oval-shaped patch at the crescent's southern tip had already caught,
exploding into an inferno greased by old husks. Just three percent of
the field was ablaze, but the oncoming storm would drag the flames north
and into the pines.
Eight Patrol only needed to trim the
corners and guide the bulk of the inferno. Then run a final mop-up to
catch every last seed, stalk, and bunch. Routine purge. She'd been
running them since the feeding camps spat her out for uncooperative
behaviour. In her duffel bag was a textbook, an old CD with archaic
indoctrination videos. Scissors, for her hair.
She joined Eight Patrol the next morning.
<Anyone want to ignite—?>
<All yours, Mora>
single purgesuit broke from the arrow's left flank, lumbering towards
the agri-dome with a utiliclaw scrabbling at the stock mag-strapped to
its back. Danger sigils blinked in the dying light. Grenade launcher.
Yeg's mob didn't twitch. They couldn't see, crouched behind the shed with antique shotguns hefted between frostbitten fingers.
Venn give the orders: Green Man's words.
sputtered in his ears—auditory refuse. Clicks from the other six mobs
encircling the fields, pressing their bare mouths into snow to leave no
trace on any scanners.
"Can't expect me to wait."
HE round per support: accurate and quick. Bass rumbles pummelled Venn's
eardrums, overlapping as the supports cracked and steel pieces sprayed
for dozens of yards in every direction. Decapitated branches fell all
around, the Green Man nodding with his charcoal-painted eyelids closed
in a slow sad rhymn of weariness. The closest to acceptance their
pitiful tribe was ever allowed to witness.
No beans, no
potatoes. Tomatoes, leeks, onions, celery—all of it broiled in a stew of
fyceline and nitrogen and cordite as the acrid powder spiced it and
bleached the ground for good. A final dish, flavoured with Yegg's blood.
Fortified with the marrow of his bones and the flesh of his mob: three
men, six women, two boys.
Half the field was aflame, spitting
corncobs like landmines in great arcing pinwheels. The purgesuit lowered
its launcher, tapped a symbol on its forearm terminal, turned on its
heels to trot back to the descration team pushing deeper into their
Venn buried the stock into his shoulder. Clicked the safety off.
<Sleep well, freak garden—>
muttered. Jagg grunted, rolling shoulders numbed by monotony. Nineteen
hours in-suit. Forteen targets today, the dispatcher icon at her brow
buzzing endlesslly until she'd broken protocol and hit the mute button.
Eight Patrol took the brunt of the cleanup calls in the Northern
Division. Thousands of acres evapourated under their spigots each week:
corn roots, squash patches, glistening pink seas of wheat. All the
symptoms of an aggressively, sickly, tainted Gaia. Freak ecology.
hissed. The superheated air kept detonating the corncobs: sharp pops to
punctuate the Diameter Dome rejoining the foothills in a puddle of
glass. Mora thumbed her triggers, send another two rounds into the
remains. Cackled as a fuel tank cracked somewhere inside, blindsided her
suit's gyros, chucked her into the dirt.
geysers traced around Mora's sprawled suit, took a chip off her left
shoulderpad. She jolted once, lay limp. A magnesium-white explosion
perforated her temple. Ground down the daisy decal on her temple into
carbon scoring as Jagg was—
—crushed by disbelief and a hypersonic round to her midsection.
tumbled, numb. A gash in the cornrows to her right added three feet to
her fall, broke bones in her shoulders. Embers fluttered in the wake of
antique bullets, crossbow bolts—the streak of a modern
railrifle—populating the sky above her head.
Mora. Her laugh forever grating on the ears.
needlepoints pricked her eyes, followed her optical nerves straight
down to the mess of her ribs. Seals held: her blood and spilled lymph
puddled under the arch of her ruined back. Static assaulted her,
squealing and shrieking. Inbound atmospherics.
They'd be buried. Ashes mixed with snow.
wrenched the bolt. Dabbed crosshairs gently past the mound of the
grenadier, launcher sticking up crooked over one shoulder. Past the
puddled limbs of the second purgesuit, taken by Kigali's sternum shot.
Marking the pumping arm segments of the third one (with an X. Red paint
on an albatross).
"Dead, ken? Nay broken. They flesh, they living."
eight bruised his shoulder and punctuated the statement: a lethal
period that caught the fleeing 'suit under its left actuator, tossed
Kevlar plating fifteen feet in all directions. A short-lived exclamation
point. Moe's mob, inching into the cornfields on their stomachs,
clenched their triggers and tore the last suit to pieces. It toppled
over its own heels. Hands raised.
"Them and the ones that sent 'em."
Venn's bony fingers pried a mag from his boot. Clicked it home, worked
the bolt. All automatic and totally futile against the withering of
their livelihood in the blazing cornrows beyond. Cracks bridged the
soundscape between reloads, a background hum to the whooping of the
reserves slipping cautiously from cover and flipping their safeties off.
Victory rounds boomed into the tumultuous skies: a few punched fresh
dents in Kevlar heads.
"Those sensors be helms. Wi' heads 'neath them."
"Was helms, Green Man," Venn snapped. "Was. Then-tense. They's dead. Now-tense."
One team fall, aye. About the rest? Ones in shuttlecraft and
groundriders? The many thousands livin' in th' Fertile South? Shielded
behind twisted orchards and husks of cities and zap-wires?"
killed a team, Green Man!" Venn yelled, twisting out of cover to spit
his wrath into the hooded eyes and crouched posture of their de-facto
chief for all to hear. "We, the Corn Folk, killed a purgesuit team!"
Green Man murmured, slathering at the pigment running near the corners
of his eyes. The glare, or the heat. Their fields became an oven just a
few dozen paces from where the two stood. Couldn't be tears? Green Man
wore his own fingernails to the marrow planting crops. Crunched his
molars into dust sucking the lichen from granite. Starved for the Corn
Couldn't be tears.
neck tingled. A pyre danced into the blackening skies, leaving
aftermarks on her retinas. The glarevisors were melting. Only proofed to
last an hour's inferno conditions, tops, and the mission clock was
Static rinsed out her ears against all human
voices. There were just spurts, half-syllables, garbled utterances more
machine-code than spoken. No hails from the shuttle. They shared with
Nine and Seventeen Patrol. Both waited on pickup a thousand miles east.
endued her remaining seconds. Adrenaline, or inevitability. Blood caked
her sides, sticking to her hips where Ulda last kissed them. Ages
ago—eleven hours—nestled into a foldbunk. Eastblock-22. She'd slammed
her shin on the etching last night.
It stung. Required a
fitness report from a night medic to prove that despite recklessness in
the pursuit of a midnight fuck, she was in fact still capable of
performing her duties. Plenty tried taking themselves out of commission
after four ops. She'd been team leader on eight.
All routine. His words and hers.
Black dots crashed at her pupils. Her helm was someone's cymbal. Glass spidercracked.
Tink TINK. Tink TINK TINK.
iron nibs tapped a crater into her visor. Fixed to a quavering tube. A
barrel; ancient. Assault rifle. Green all-weather boots consumed the
midground, ankles hewn by hungry mouths.
Tink TINK TINK TINK CRACK
No fury. It simply dribbled out the gashes of her broken back.
masked the boot's retreat. Her helm had been wrenched irrepairably left
into a divot driven through a molehill. Flames clawed at a sapling
pine. Severed the cones and chiseled them apart. Inked itself onto her
A wrinkled face filled her visor. Ageless,
sooty-black. Dreadlocks died with lime-green corn husks swayed above a
rough satchel. No rifles, no bandoleers, not even a bush knife strapped
through the thongs on his shoulder.
Barely a whisper.
"I—" she coughed. "—not armed. None of us—"
A compulsion; to let the breath escape her collapsing lungs, external speakers or no.
"I be Green Man. You purgesuit. Starvation-drone. Hunger-banshee."
He stared at her neck-seal. Guessed at a gaze. Continued.
"—fields are condemned. You heard the bulletins—"
"We be planting here."
"Corn Folk got needs. Cancers, hungers. You got designs. You impress 'em on the fullness o' our bellies. Shape it. Curb it."
"I demanded peace."
Yellowed teeth flashed.
"But I's alive. I prune and shape and cull. I got designs too."
Pine cones hissed. Split. Fizzled under the first pinches of snow.
<Quota call: Eight Patrol. Quota call.>