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New War: Final Minutes
In the last moments of the New War, the enemy Archos R-14 resorted to ruthless tactics. As exhausted allied soldiers finally reached the Ragnorak Intelligence Fields where Archos R-14 had buried itself, they were met with a nasty counterattack: scuttling, crablike machines that mounted the bodies of fallen soldiers. With titanium limbs buried in dead or dying flesh, soldier corpses rose again. These parasites dealt terrible damage to the bodies and minds of the living . . . but what was left behind when the battle ended was Archos R-14’s most horrific contribution to the True War.
NEURONAL ID: LARK IRON CLOUD
There was no way to win this war and we all knew it, but we marched anyway.
I shove my checkerboard scarf deeper into my parka and hold my breath. Kneeling on the ice-kissed turf, I brace against a tree and press the cold rims of binocular-enhanced goggles against my face. The situation has well and truly gone to shit here in the godforsaken woods of western Alaska.
The New War started when a thinking machine we call Big Rob turned our tools against us. In the madness of Zero Hour, some of us in Oklahoma found refuge with the Osage Nation. We survivors fell back to the rural town of Gray Horse and counted our lucky stars. But the machines evolved. Over months and years they crossed the Great Plains, slithered through the waving grass, and climbed our stone bluffs.
So we fought then. And we fight now.
Our bullets are chasing each other through black tree branches, tracers streaking like falling stars. The last lines of our walking tanks are arrayed defensively, spotlights glowing bright in the twilight, each four-legged hulk a pool of light spaced a half klick from its brothers and hunkered down to provide cover for ground forces. Dark enemy fire is whining out of the woods like mosquitoes. Most of their rounds are a flesh-burrowing variety called pluggers, but waves of exploding crawlers called stumpers are also skittering toward us.
Letting the goggles flop on my neck, I get moving. My collar radio is hissing with cavalry calls from squads scattered over the rough countryside. Scrambling low through the trees, I ignore the clipped cries for help and head toward Beta squad. There are no reinforcements. There is nothing left now but metal and snow and blood.
“Come in, Lonnie,” I pant into my radio. “You there?”
“Go ahead,” comes the reply.
The voice is measured and calm. It belongs to Lonnie Wayne Blanton, an old cowboy who happens to be our general. The man is important to me. He saved my life and put me on the right path and now I’m trying to figure out how in the hell to tell him that it was all for nothing.
“All squads pinned down. Things are royally fucked. Moving to support Beta.”
“Roger,” says Lonnie. A pause. “Hold on. Long as you can.”
“Thank you,” I radio back. “Thank you for everything.”
We made it this far only by reverse-engineering the enemy’s weapons. Gray Horse Army was able to march to within a thousand-mile perimeter of Big Rob. We left our blood splashed in the woods and we kept on marching. We broke the five-hundred-mile perimeter over the screaming of fallen soldiers. And here at the one-hundred-mile perimeter our force has splintered and broken and now we have lost everything.
All we have left to fight for now is each other.
Ducking stray fire, I close in on Beta squad’s position. The soldiers are back-to-back at the edge of a clearing. Most are lost in the dusky light, but I see right away that my brainboy Carl is on his ass. The engineer is whimpering and clawing and kicking his way backward through the snow.
“Carl,” I shout. “On your feet.”
I lean for him and he keeps moaning and struggling. He is under my command, but my soldier won’t look at me and he won’t take my hand and I can’t figure out why until I notice his eyes.
Not where he’s looking. But where he won’t look.
Something black crawling low and fast on too many legs. And another one. They’re starting to come up from under the snow by the dozens.
I don’t feel the pincers at first. Just this strong pressure on the base of my neck. I’m in a hydraulic-powered bear hug. I spin around in the slushy snow but there’s nobody behind me.
Whatever-it-is has climbed up my back and got a good hold. My knees sag with the lurching weight of it. Crooked black feelers reach around my chest and my spine is on fire as the thing decides to dig in, a bundle of squirming razor blades. This is a whole new hell I’ve never felt before.
Shit shit shit--what is this that it hurts so damn much?
Carl’s got his frost-plated rifle up, training it on me. The gun strap hangs stiff and crusty in the arctic breeze. Around us, my soldiers are screaming and dancing in tight, panicked circles, trying to shake off their own monsters. Some are running. But me and the engineer are having our own little moment here.
“Carl,” I wheeze. “No.”
My voice sounds hollow from the pain of whatever has gotten between my shoulder blades. Judging from Carl’s blank face, I figure that I’m not in a very happy spot. No, sir. That is a full-on nega-tory.
Carl lets go of his rifle entirely and the strap catches on his forearm. He stumbles away, gun dangling. Wipes his eyes with shaking fingers, tendons streaking the backs of his hands. His complicated engineering helmet falls off and thunks into the snow, just an empty bowl.
“Lark,” he says. “Ah, Lark, I’m sorry.”
He’s crying. I could give a shit.
I’m being flayed alive, straining and groaning against black spider legs gripping my body, doing drunken pirouettes in the slush. Knotty black arms are slicing into the meat of my thighs, sprouting smaller feelers like barbs. Others grip my biceps, elbows, forearms, and even my fingers.
I am in command but I am most definitely not in control. Some of my soldiers are still thrashing in the shadows. Some aren’t. The wounded are crawling and hobbling away as fast as they can, coiled black shapes slicing toward them like scorpions.
Dammit, I’m sorry, Lonnie.
Carl has hightailed it. Left his ostrich-legged tall walker behind--the scavenged two-legged mount is collapsed on its side, its jerry-rigged saddle nosed into the snow and long legs splayed out awkwardly. The soldier has gone and left all of us unlucky dancers behind.
My legs are wrapped too tight now to struggle. A motor grinds as I push against it, reaching back with my arm. I feel a freezing fist-sized plate of metal hunkered in the soft spot at the base of my neck. Not good.
The machine snaps my arm back into place.
Can’t say I’m real sure of what happens next. I got a lot of experience breaking down whatever hardware Big Rob left on the battlefield, though. After a while, you get a feel for how the machines think. How they use and reuse all those bits and pieces.
So I imagine my guess is pretty accurate.
I hear a neat click and feel a sharp sting at the base of my neck. Watch the vapor of my last breath evaporate as the parasite on my back jerks and severs my spinal column with a flat, sharpened piece of metal mounted to its head region. My arms and legs go numb, so much dead meat. But I don’t fall, because the machine’s arms and legs are there to hold me up.
And I don’t die.
Some kind of cap must fit over the nub of my spine, interfacing with the bundle of nerves there. This is a mobile surgery station leeched onto my neck and digging into my brain. Humming and throbbing and exploring, it’s clipping veins and nerves and whatever else. Keeping oxygen in my blood, circulating it.
I’m spitting cherry syrup into the snow.
Lonnie Wayne Blanton, my commander, says that this late in the war you can’t let anything the enemy does surprise you. He says Big Rob cooks up a brand-new nightmare every day and he’s one hell of a chef. Yet here I am. Surprised, again.
The machine is really digging in now. As it works, my eyes and ears start blurring and ringing. I wonder if the scorpion can see what I see. Hear what I hear.
I’m hallucinating in the snow.
A god-sized orange line of smoke roils across the pale sky. It’s real pretty. Smaller streams fall from it, pouring down like water from drain spouts. Some of the streams disappear behind the trees, others are even farther away. But one of them twists down and drops straight at me. Into my head.
A line of communication.
Big Rob has got me. The thinking machine called Archos R-14 is driving the pulsing thing on my back. A few dozen klicks from here, the architect of the New War has dug itself into a hole where that fat orange column of radio transmission starts. It’s pulling all our strings.
I watch as my dead arms unsling my rifle. Tendons in my neck creak as the machine twists my head, sweeps my vision across the clearing. I’m alone now and I think I’m hunting.
In the growing twilight, I spot dozens of other orange umbilical cords just like mine. They fall out of the sky and through grasping branches. As I lurch forward out of the clearing, the other lines drift alongside me and keep pace.
All of us are being dragged in the same direction.
We’re a ragged front line of dark shapes, hundreds strong, shambling through the woods toward the remnants of Gray Horse Army. The world begins to fade in and out as my cooling body slogs between the trees. The last thing I remember thinking is that I hope Lonnie Wayne doesn’t see me like this. And if he does, well, I hope he puts me down quick.
I don’t hear the gunshot itself, just a dry echo in the trees. It’s something, though. Enough to wake me up.
I dreamed I was breathing.
Focus, Lark. Don’t panic. As I think, the wires of my parasite start to move my legs. Carry me in the direction of the gunshot in slow, dragging steps. Over the charred earth of a battlefield. I pass by a titanic spider tank, leaning still and cold and heavy against a snowbank. Its armor is pocked with sooty craters, intention light shattered, joints cracked open like lobster claws. The word Houdini is scrawled on it.
And the bodies.
Frozen bodies are melded with the snow. Stiff uniforms and frostbitten metal. The occasional alabaster patch of exposed frozen flesh. I recognize most of the corpses as Gray Horse Army, but pieces of some other army are here, too. Bodies of the ones who came and fought before we ever knew Archos R-14 existed. From the state of the bodies and wreckage, I gather that two or three weeks have gone by since I lost my squad.
That impossible orange smoke in the sky is gone. Now I’m in control of the parasite on my back, telling it to move my arms and legs instead of the other way around. I can think of only one explanation: Big Rob is dead.
The New War is over and we must have won, for what it’s worth.
Remnants of battle are imprinted on the land. Starbursts of scorched rock streak from the husks of bunkered spider tanks--walking weapons that once stalked the battlefield, spewing fire. Wind-eaten corpses are frozen solid and left in clumps where squads of brother soldiers made their final stands. Welts in the ice glimmer, carved by the men with flamers who clung to the shelter of the tree line while swarms of stumpers crawled in from the blizzard.
And among the trees at the edge of the clearing, I see the others. A cluster of a dozen or so walking corpses that stand huddled, shoulder to shoulder. Silent. Some are still in full uniform, normal-looking save for the clockwork parasites clinging to their backs. Others are worse off: A woman is missing her leg, yet she stands steadily on the narrow black limb of the parasite. One man is shirtless in the cold, skin wind-blasted to a marbled corpse-sheen. All of them are riddled with puckered bullet holes. Cratered exit wounds, frozen flaps of skin and torn armor.
And I see another, freshly killed.
A still form lying in the snow. Its head is missing, pieces scattered. A parasite lies on its back nearby, coated in rusty blood, slowly flexing its mouthpieces like a squashed bug. The thing is dying, without a host.
That gunshot I heard served a purpose.
The survivors have one combat shotgun left between them. A big man, stooped over from his own size, has got the gun now. Most of his face is hidden in an overgrown beard, but I can see his mouth is round and open--a rotten hole. He’s moving slow because frostbite has taken all his fingers, but I figure out pretty quick where he’s going with that barrel.
They’re taking turns killing themselves.
“No,” I try to shout, but it comes out a shapeless sob. “No, this is wrong.”
I shuffle faster, weaving between shredded bodies trapped in permafrost like quick-set concrete. None of the survivors pays me much attention. They’re keeping their faces aimed away from the big man, even as they edge close enough to grab the shotgun when it falls.
The bearded man is looking up at the sky. So he doesn’t understand what’s happening when I nudge the butt of his gun. His blackened nub of a thumb presses the trigger and the gun thunders and leaps out of his hands. Pieces of bark and a puff of snow drift down from the trees overhead. The slug missed.
Those great black eyes turn to me, mottled with frost, and understanding sets in. With an angry moan, the big man swings at me. His frozen forearm hits like an aluminum baseball bat, propelled by black robotic musculature. It chips off a piece of my elbow, knocks me off balance. Now I see I’m missing part of my torso. My guts are gone and my center of gravity is off. Guess I’m not the steadiest corpse alive.
I drop hard into the snow.
The guy lifts his leg, his long tendons snapping like frozen tree branches, and drops a boot into my stomach cavity. Rib fragments scatter in the snow among shreds of my clothing and flesh. The beard keeps stomping and moaning, destroying my already ruined body in a slow-motion rage.
And I can’t feel a damn thing.