A slice of action from the latest novel (unedited, not proofed):
They plunged back into the jungle with visors dialed up to maximum night vision. Their drones, with the benefit of a few hours of intensive scanning, had started to pick through some of the deadzones, but the data was still far from complete. To make matters worse, the interference was starting to interrupt their comms.
‘There’s a bridge over that ravine,’ Zhang told Jag as they picked through the last few hundred metres of trees ahead of the gorge. They could hear the river now, a distant roar of hot foamy water that the drone optics had not done justice.
‘Yes, sir. Looks like it’s been there a while. Just a simple wooden structure, three metres wide.’
Jag brought up the map of the surrounding area. The ravine was thirteen klicks long, and mostly enveloped in deadzone. It made sense that someone had bridged it.
‘All right. Thanks,’ he said, cancelling the feed and keying in Stok-kon. ‘There’s a bridge over the ravine,’ he said, transmitting her a HUD marker.
‘Yes,’ she replied. She was already at the rainforest edge with her brood. ‘We are just reconnoitring the area. We cannot see beyond.’
‘All right,’ Jag replied. ‘We’ll hold back here.’ He dialled in Ram. ‘Five minutes, sergeant. Let’s check weapons and water.’ He checked the time. ‘And everyone get some chow. It’s going to be a long night.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Ram replied.
Around him, the platoon slowed to a halt, and men and women started pulling out high-energy bars of food and packets of instant coffee. Ahead, the quorl, who would have been lost in the rain and profound darkness were it not for Jag’s night vision, approached the bridge and its environs with caution.
‘Hey, you OK?’ Hex asked him after a few minutes. ‘You’ve been quiet today.’
‘I’m fine,’ Jag said, though Hex’s question, innocently asked, had reminded him of his underlying emotional malaise. Plain, by-the-numbers soldiering had taken his mind off it, and the near-altercation with the kaygryn and quorl had given him something to dwell on. But now all he could think of was the lashes, and that feeling of numb anger that felt like it was going to be a permanent feature of his psyche.
‘Well, if you want to—’
She didn’t finish. Jag’s earpiece crackled with untranslated Quorl as the aliens shrieked and clicked and hooted.
Then his HUD lit up with warning alarms.
Then the forest began to explode.
‘Incoming!’ several people roared over the comlink. Rations were thrown away and traded for railguns. Everyone hit the floor. Jag tried desperately to locate the source of the fire.
‘Zhang!’ he roared. Concussive booms rippled through the trees, smashing them to pulp and sending vicious clouds of bark through the air. Lasers, pink, green, thread-thin beams, sliced through the air, silent and terrifying.
‘East, over the bridge!’ Zhang shouted.
Drone feeds, satellite images, corrupted by electronic interference and now actively jammed by electronic warfare pods, populated Jag’s HUD. Red alert markers pulsed discordantly a few hundred metres from their position. Railgun fire spat and hissed overhead, slapping and thumping into the rainsoaked trees.
The comlink jammed up with queries. The platoon, soft and lazy from months of nothing, had forgotten how to fight a war.
Jag squinted, as if that would assist his enhanced optics. The treeline was a haze of darkness and rain. His Mantix struggled to keep his night vision steady amidst the constant flashes of detonating ordnance.
He felt himself begin to panic. They had been ambushed. Physiology indicators flashed on his tac screen; members of the platoon were being hit—worse, wounded. Shit, shit shit—
Ram. Sergeant Ram. The man was squatting in front of Jag, unfazed by the incoming. The butt of his railgun was pressed into the carpet of plants.
Jag took a breath.
‘Perimeter,’ Jag said. Saying the word was like uncorking a barrel. Unblocked, he snapped into combat mode. ‘Heavy weapons teams to deploy on the ridge. Let’s get some suppressing fire down.’
‘Yes, sir,’ Ram replied, and was gone.
Jag sat, his back against the tree. The air was alive with crackling, hissing, whining fire. Flickers of red ENEMY icons appeared on his tac screen. The drones above struggled to get a solid read.
He watched as the heavy weapons teams from the three squads moved up to the ravine and set up their weapons. In seconds the air was alive with light assault lasers and the banshee-keen of plasma rifles.
‘Up! Move up!’ Jag shouted to the rest of the platoon. ‘Squads read markers! Keep your spacing and keep moving! Watch for the quorl!’
He watched as Mantix-clad men and women dashed through the thick foliage, railguns in hand.
The railgun. The humble SIR. Manufactured by Gorman-Valstar, the UN’s sovereign arms dealer. He gripped his. He never thought he would fire it in anger. Now its basic, boxy shape was all the comfort in the universe.
He moved up, dodging as laser fire scythed overhead. Much of it was too high and cut the rainforest canopy to pieces. Branches rained down on the platoon and shattered against armour designed to stop bullets.
‘There,’ Ram said as Jag reached him. The sergeant was crouched behind a rock, pointing to the other side of the ravine. ‘You see?’
‘Kaygryn,’ Jag said. ‘Militia.’
He had not expected it. He hadn’t known what to expect. He had been terrified it might have been the provar. But he could see them now, their muscular, furred-bodies soaked with rainwater. They manned rotary railguns and assault lasers, and hoisted grenades and satchel charges across the gorge. They were well equipped—too well equipped for some backwater provincial irregulars.
‘Where the hell did they get all the gear from?’ Jag asked.
‘Good question,’ Ram replied, then directed Jag’s attention to the bridge. There were at least four dead quorl on it. More of the aliens had probably gone into the river far below. The bridge structure was minutes from failing entirely.
‘We need to get across,’ Jag said.