Approaching 60,000 words. Still looking at a release early next year. Here's an unedited sample to whet your appetite!
They drove north west, through the razorgrass savannahs that covered much of northern Tria, and then into the Han’Goa basin. Either side of them, huge hills and mountains of emerald rainforest stretched into the sky, blanketed by curtains of mist. Everything seemed to steam in the morning sun, as if the whole country were being slowly broiled.
The jeep laboured up the west bank of the Kanda river, its variable-tread tyres ploughing through thick, gelatinous mud and tangles of brush with the same inexorable motion, like an icebreaker smashing through a glacier. Elise found herself dozing with the constant rocking motion, despite the kiln-like heat, and woke after a few hours to find they had cut west away from Han’Goa city and had found a compacted dirt path of red mud. They were rolling along at forty klicks.
‘Good sleep?’ Conrad asked with a grin.
Elise nodded, and took a long draw from her canteen. She had undergone UV treatment on her skin before she’d come to the Reach, rendering her almost impervious to sun burn, but her face still felt like leather across her cheekbones.
‘We’re a long way from home,’ she remarked. According to the satellite map on her IHD, UNAF Tria was ninety klicks south east and getting further away each passing minute. Now she understood why Winter had told her to pack an overnight bag.
‘We are,’ Winter said, smiling again. ‘Not long now. We’ll follow this path for another twenty klicks, then turn north for the last five. The village is called Bay’Ran.’
‘Ottokan?’ Elise asked.
‘Not this far north,’ Winter said, shaking his head. ‘Most of the kaygryn up here are Kervan. From here to the Kanda Delta.’
Elise nodded, jealous of the man’s local knowledge. Sometimes she wished she was a lower rank, actually doing the ops rather than running them. Her grade would always ensure she took an oversight role—she had scored too highly on command ability.
They travelled the remaining twenty-five klicks more or less in silence. The heat made Elise torpid, and Winter didn’t seem too bothered about starting a conversation. As they approached Bay’Ran, more kaygryn started to appear, dressed in the various brightly-coloured sarongs that marked out village, milita and tribal loyalties. Elise knew that the UN only really vaguely understood how kaygryn society worked. Even people like Winter, who had a long and impressive career history of ops like Jade, admitted that he could only scratch the surface.
They reached the village. Most of the houses were basic. Some were as rudimentary as wattle and daub, while the wealthier kaygryn had brick or concrete dwellings. The communal spaces were either haphazardly paved or laid with sole-roasting metal grill, and fronted by souk-like stalls and shops. Advertising holos and drones floated incongruously, a few of the more visible examples of Tier Three-level tech. Most of the kaygryn Elise could see had physical-interface terminals in lieu of an IHD, too. Everything else, though, was rudimentary, the kind of life that a human might have lived five hundred years ago.
They drew less attention than Elise had anticipated, mainly because Winter had been to Bay’Ran a few times. A couple of kaygyrn children immediately ran up to him. He smiled and spoke in a brash, clumsy dialect of Argish which was audibly less accomplished than Moses’s. They tittered at his efforts and grabbed at his pistols—he carried two—and he slapped them away good naturedly. Under EFFECT tactical doctrine, he would have been within his rights to shoot them stone dead.
‘All right, commander,’ he said. Elise heard it in her eardrum implant; Winter was facing away from her, a good ten metres away. She watched him wave and nod to an ash-coloured kaygryn shading under a guntham tree on the other side of the square. ‘That’s your man.’
Elise took a breath, and found she was suddenly very nervous. Sweat dribbled down her face. She drained her canteen and chucked it in the back of the jeep—itself being fussed over by a number of locals.
She crossed the square, aware of a number of kaygryn watching her. Some made a chest-deep clucking sound, a sign of mistrust or sometimes outright aggression.
‘Ignore them,’ Winter said. ‘Militiamen. They’re just posturing.’
His easy manner calmed her somewhat. She caught up with Winter just as he was greeting the ash-coloured kaygryn.
‘This is Yunus,’ Winter said.
‘Tell him I said it’s a pleasure to meet him.’
Winter conversed with the kaygryn for a few seconds. Yunus then turned his milky eyes to Elise and nodded.
‘He wants to know what he can do for you,’ Winter said.
‘Ask him if he’s heard anything about children going missing, in Han’Goa’ Elise said.
‘Goa the city or the country?’
Another brash conversation that, again, lasted considerably longer than the eventual debrief Winter gave her.
‘He says no,’ Winter said.
Elise couldn’t help but snort, partly at the pithiness of the precis, partly out of irritation that she was being kept in the dark. ‘I fear I might have wasted your time, Conrad,’ she said with a hint of acid.
He laughed. ‘I wouldn’t worry about it. We were always going to have to come back a few times. Did you bring the guns?’
Elise looked uneasily back to the jeep. The crate was still in the back.
‘Yeah,’ she said. She had suspected the weapons were going to be used as a bargaining chip of some description—after all, this was EFFECT’s bread and butter—but she still didn’t like the idea of arming the militias with UN weaponry while she was planetside.
‘All right,’ Winter said, and went and fetched them. Elise stood uncomfortably opposite Yunus for a few seconds while Winter opened the crate and distributed the pristine, un-fired railguns to the eager hands of the males who had earlier clucked and hooted at her.
‘Gorash vanna fey,’ Yunus muttered.
‘I’m sorry?’ Elise asked, but then Winter was back.
‘We’ll come back tomorrow,’ Winter said, and spoke to Yunus, evidently trading farewells. Then he turned back to Elise. ‘Come on; let’s go.’
When they were back in the jeep and a few klicks away from Bay’Ran, she turned to Winter.
‘Yunus said something to me,’ she said. ‘Gorash vanna fey.’
‘When?’ Winter asked.
‘When you were giving out the guns. I can speak federal Argish but I didn’t recognise the dialect.’
Winter mused for a moment. ‘Sounds like he was saying we aren’t welcome here,’ he said slowly. ‘Or rather, you aren’t welcome here. Fey would suggest you specifically, rather than me and you. Or you as in, humanity.’ His frown deepened. ‘He’s not said anything like that to me before.’
‘Great,’ Elise said, trying to laugh it off, but was put off my Winter’s perturbation.
‘I’ll see—shit!’ he shouted. The jeep’s automatic evasion program kicked in. They braked and swerved sharply around a kaygryn female who had just erupted from the bush. The jeep, which had already scanned the jungle ahead, picked an evasion vector that saw them come to a stop harmlessly in a tangle of undergrowth. By the time Elise had had a chance to react, Winter was out the door, pistol up, aimed at the kaygryn’s head. He was barking orders in Argish.
Elise fumbled her pistol out of her duffel and jumped out of the jeep. The grip was hot in her hands. The kaygryn was weeping and babbling insensibly. Winter had lowered his pistol. Now he reholstered it, and spent a few minutes calming the kaygryn down.
Elise watched the road nervously, and her sense of foreboding was rewarded with an alarm from her IHD. Satcom had picked up armed kaygryn males approaching in a technical. She investigated, and grimaced; they were the same ones she and Winter had just bloody armed.
‘Conrad, we’ve got potential hostiles approaching,’ she said, keeping her pistol in her hands but aimed at the dirt.
‘I know,’ he said. ‘They won’t do anything.’
She was not reassured. She raised the pistol an inch. Sweat trickled down her neck. Adrenaline pulsed through her guts.
Winter had calmed the female enough to get some words out of her. They had only been speaking for perhaps ten seconds when the technical—a flatbed truck—hummed around the corner. The female saw the approaching kaygryn, and, visibly frightened, moved behind Winter.
‘What are we doing here, Conrad?’ Elise asked, mouth dry. She hated how quickly she had deferred to him. She was his commanding officer. He should have been asking her what to do.
‘It’s OK,’ he said, watching the kaygryn approach. They stopped a few metres short of them. They held the UN pattern railguns with a lazy familiarity. One jumped out and babbled angrily at the female. She babbled, terrified, back. Winter stood aside as the male grabbed the female and dragged her into the jeep.
‘Shit,’ Elise hissed. ‘Hey!’ she shouted to the male.
‘Easy, commander,’ Winter said. ‘Trust me, you don’t want to get involved in this.’
‘What did she say to you?’ Elise demanded. The armed kaygryn eyed her warily. Fat leathery curled unprofessionally around triggers.
‘I’ll tell you when they’re gone,’ he murmured. He and the kidnapper spoke quickly in Argish. Elise couldn’t follow some of the dialect, but it was clear that Winter was telling them that the female hadn’t told them anything.
Elise bit her tongue, furiously impotent. After a tense minute, the kaygryn packed up and left. She could hear the female screaming as the jeep rounded the corner, and was swallowed by the jungle.
‘Hey, Conrad,’ she said, angrily shoving her pistol back into her duffel. ‘What the fuck was that?’
‘I’m sorry, commander,’ he said, taking a long draw from his canteen. His bald head gleamed in the sunlight like polished obsidian. ‘It was the right thing to do. There was no time.’
Elise forced herself to feel calm. It was harder to utilise the mind-focussing techniques they had taught her in forty-degree heat. ‘OK; I’m all ears.’
‘She said that the commune skarls took her children away from her. Two children.’
Elise’s eyes widened. ‘And you let them take her!’ But already she could see the logic in it, the operational value. First, they knew they were looking in the right place, rattling the right cages; but it was also important not to tip their hand. Better that the kaygryn didn’t know that they knew. The price was steep, though. The female would almost certainly be murdered.
‘Do you think they bought it?’
Winter shrugged. ‘I hope so. They will probably get it out of her, though. What she told us.’
Elise sighed. ‘Shit,’ she muttered. She pulled a stim from her pocked and ripped the ignition tab off, and sucked vapour into the pits of her lungs. ‘I didn’t think we would find anything this concrete, this early.’
Winter shook his head, and climbed back into the jeep. ‘Neither did I.’
They spent the night in the jungle, in a sealed-nanofibre lean-to. Winter provided a couple of palatable ration bars, which they munched on in the oppressive darkness. Then Elise slept, while Winter grabbed a rail carbine from the rack in the back of the jeep and walked a loose perimeter.
In the morning they returned to the village, but Yunus was not there. There was no sign of the female. Quietly, Elise fed one of the screaming, laughing kaygryn children a ration bar implanted with a few microbot trackers. Then the armed males returned and gabbled away at Winter angrily, and they headed back to UNAF Tria.