In the far future, after the Loss of Earth, war has begun and an unknowable alien race has awakened, intent on the destruction of everything. Here and now, the end of the world has come. And the only way our species will survive is if two augmented humans can fight their way through apocalypse to a faint glimmer of hope. Long ago, the seeds of that apocalypse were resisted by the warrior tribes of Britain, with devastating consequences for them and their lands. And all three of these times will meet on another world . . .
Release date: February 7, 2017
Print pages: 576
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The Beauty of Destruction
Gavin G. Smith
The twisting, multi-storey bridge had uselessly violated the rock of the ridgeline. The Walker was almost used to the nonsensical angles, the shadowy corners that stretched away from the eye, the optical illusions that weren’t actually illusionary. He clambered through an irregular arch, only banging his head twice, and made his way across the bridge, high over terraced spore fields that weren’t what they had once been.
The city was the last bastion of life. The remnants of humanity had flocked here when there had been nothing else left, though they were little more than animals now. They had separated into subspecies – herd, predator, parasite humanity – but they remained in the city. Urban living, it seemed, was part of some shared race memory; the fleeting pretence of something approaching civilisation.
The Empty Bridge was still one of the main thoroughfares into the city, though it saw little use these days. The Immortal Mr Jenkins was still there, however. He was something between a rat and a monkey, with a narrow, buck-toothed, but undeniably human face. Sometimes he claimed to be a witch’s familiar, or a particularly wilful homunculus, and at other times he claimed to be the King of the Rats. Mr Jenkins was standing on the bench that ran down the deceptively crooked bridge in one of the more low-ceilinged areas. He was absently turning the bodies of a number of spitted, blackened, rat-like bodies over a small rubbish burner while looking towards the living tombs at the centre of the city.
‘Mr Jenkins?’ the Walker said cautiously. Mr Jenkins turned and ran an appraising eye over him before a smile appeared on his face.
‘I’m pleased to see you. Such a day for visitors. I don’t think the stones themselves can remember the last time that happened.’ He was eyeing the skull shells that the Walker was carrying. ‘Now, what can I do for you on such an auspicious day?’
‘Food and screaming demons,’ the Walker said.
Mr Jenkins narrowed his eyes. ‘I see. The skulls bonded?’ the grotesque little creature asked.
The Walker nodded.
‘One will get you something to eat and two more will get you the bound service of a demon.’
‘I need more than one,’ the Walker said irritably.
‘I don’t doubt it, I don’t doubt it at all. Well yes, I ‘spect we’d all like an army of screaming demons for a hardened skull-shell or two, but that’s not the way economics works, is it? With the emphasis on economy, and don’t you go thinking you can negotiate with a sword, you know there’s more of me where I came from. Besides,’ he waved at two of the cooking rat-like things, their faces deceptively human, ‘these are fresh. Me wife, queen of my harem and my heart mind you, just popped them out last week.’
The Walker tried to remember a time when this would have disgusted him, but frankly he needed to eat.
The centre of the city was bathed in hard destructive light from the red heavens. Twisted spires, which had reached for the blood-coloured sky, started to fall. Mr Jenkins watched, appalled. The skull shells clattered onto the bench next to the creature.
‘Now,’ the Walker said.
‘Right you are.’ Mr Jenkins turned and ran into the inky blackness of one of the bridge’s oddly angled corners. The Walker watched the spires fall as he chewed on one of the cooked creatures. Moments later Mr Jenkins reappeared from the darkness. The lines around his small grotesque eyes had deepened, there was more white in his fur.
‘They don’t like what’s happening,’ Mr Jenkins said, between grunts of exertion. He seemed to be tugging on the corner’s inky darkness. ‘They know the city’s sleep has been disturbed.’ Slowly the darkness started to coalesce into a form.
Tangwen stumbled through wasteland that had once been dense forest, before collapsing to her knees in a cloud of grey dust that defied the weather. Tears ran from her eyes as she vomited.
There was a dividing line. Just to the north of her the forest started. Everything south was a grey wasteland that the driving rain was turning to mud. All along the demarcation line were the crumbling remains of the creatures that Crom Dhubh, the Dark Man, had drawn from Andraste’s poisoned womb. The warped forms created from the beasts, plants and even the rocks of Ynys Prydain, the Isle of the Mighty, were returning to their original state, robbed of the animated life the goddess’s magics had provided.
She touched her neck. It itched painfully as the mouth that had grown there during the battle with Andraste’s spawn started to heal over with new skin. When the goddess’s magic, her seeds, had tried to transform Tangwen into one of her brood.
She drew a painful breath as sobs wracked her body. A shadow fell across her. She wiped the vomit from the corner of her mouth with the back of her hand and looked over her shoulder. Britha was standing there holding the little girl from her village. The one who had survived the wicker man, the march north, and Andraste’s spawn. Neither the girl nor Britha looked like they were ever going to let go of each other. The girl was quiet. She had seen too much to cry. Britha grimaced in obvious pain; some of her flesh still had a life of its own.
‘I remembered her name,’ Britha said quietly. ‘It’s Caithna.’
Tangwen nodded. She tried to speak but could form no words.
‘I’ve killed too much …’ Tangwen finally managed. Britha looked down at the younger woman and nodded. She gripped Tangwen’s shoulder with her free hand. The skin looked pink and raw, new, almost as if it was still in flux. ‘What now?’
‘Now? Now we start to fight each other.’
Tangwen nodded again and looked down. A small flower had grown through the mud.
There was little of the gwyll’s fortress left. Whatever the Muileartach’s spawn hadn’t pulled down had collapsed into the crater created by the Red Chalice. All that was left was one of the watchtowers and part of the rear wall. Despite the rainwater trickling down the side of the crater the chalice was still where they had left it, in a growing pool at the bottom. Britha was sure she could make out the raindrops that hit the red metal turning to steam.
They had wasted no time. The warriors and the survivors were regrouping in the woods to the north of the ruined fortress. Those who wanted the chalice, who wanted the power it offered, were all here regardless of their fatigue.
Britha was disappointed to see that Ysgawyn, rhi of the Corpse People, was still alive. His warband had burned and murdered in Crom Dhubh’s name, back when they had thought it meant power. They had changed sides when their master had abandoned them. Now that his retinue numbered only two warriors the rhi was looking for any opportunity to increase his fortunes. Of all of them Ysgawyn looked the least weary from his exertions in the recent battle.
Guidgen was the dryw and leader in all but name of the gwyllion, the forest tribe whose land they were on. He looked ready to collapse into the crater, despite being one of those who had drunk of Britha’s blood to receive the gifts of the chalice’s magic. The bearded, wizened old man may have been imbued with the powers of speed, strength, vitality and healing that the cup offered, but it was obvious the battle had taken its toll.
Germelqart, the short, once portly, Carthaginian trader was tugging at his beard, a worried expression on his face. He was looking anywhere but down into the crater at the chalice. It had been Germelqart and Britha who had spoken with Goibhniu, the god in the chalice who had claimed to be the servant of other greater gods long since gone.
Anharad, the highborn Trinovantes woman who was friend to Tangwen and had helped lead the survivors to eventual safety, was trying not to glare at Britha. The Pecht dryw knew that the older women hated her for siding with the Lochlannach, the Otherworldly raiders. They had slain Anharad’s family and imprisoned her in the wicker man as part of the sacrifice to the Llwglyd Diddymder, the Hungry Nothingness, the dark god that Crom had tried to summon to eat the sky.
Mabon, Anharad’s grandson, the only surviving member of her family, remained close to his grandmother. Britha saw that he had a shortsword now and had clothed himself in a patchwork of boiled leather armour. Despite the raggedness of his attire he held himself as a warrior, though Britha knew he had not said a word since his parents had been killed and he had been taken as prisoner from the boys’ camp.
Britha noticed that Anharad was standing quite close to Bladud, known as the Witch King. The heavy-set, bearded bald man wore the black robes of a dryw once more, despite having been cast out. Britha knew that Bladud, rhi of the Brigante, had ambitions to be the bannog rhi, the high king of the Pretani. He wanted the chalice for himself.
Finally there was Tangwen. The younger woman, a small, wiry warrior and hunter with spiked hair from the Pobl Neidr, the People of the Snake, swayed on her feet as if she was about to pitch forwards into the crater. This was despite the fact that she had drunk of her blood as well. Britha could see the ravages of the magic on Tangwen’s wiry form. It had fed on her flesh – she looked emaciated and would have to eat soon. Warriors and landsfolk alike had decreed Tangwen should be guardian of the chalice.
Along with Britha, still holding onto Caithna, they formed a rough circle standing around the edge of the crater. Britha had no illusions about why Caithna would not be parted from her. The girl had been frightened of her but terrified of the spawn of the Muileartach. In such times it made sense to seek the protection of someone as frightening as the Pecht dryw.
There were so many of them missing. Kush, the Numidian warrior, had been killed by Crom Dhubh in Oeth, the Place of Bones. Sadhbh, the Iceni scout, and Nerthach, Bladud’s right hand, had fallen in the same place. Teardrop had been killed by the Ettin in the wicker man. She herself had helped Bress kill Fachtna, her lover and the father of her daughter – now taken from her by the dryw of the Ubh Blaosc. She touched her stomach as she thought of her stolen daughter. She knew that Bress, Crom Dhubh’s champion and warleader, held the control rod that would allow her to open a trod back to the Otherworld where the dryw of the Fair Folk kept her unborn child. She would take the rod from Bress if she could. From his corpse if need be, as they had both done with Fachtna. Old lore and newer magic, however, told her that she was once again with child. The dread she felt at this was because the father was Bress.
Her people were gone. Cruibne, her mormaer, Feroth, the war leader and all but a father to her, Talorcan, the quiet tracker. And Cliodna. So many in such a short period of time.
‘The blood of our fallen hasn’t yet cooled. This is unseemly,’ Guidgen started. The dryw was right but Britha had respect for his cunning. Guidgen knew he was fatigued. He would want more time to recover so he could bring all his wits to bear on the coming argument. Bladud, however, was as much warrior as he was dryw. He thought to strike while his enemy was weakened.
‘And yet you are here,’ Ysgawyn pointed out in a tone less courteous than one would expect when speaking to a dryw, even for a rhi.
‘If this isn’t resolved quickly then it will cause trouble among us, and we still have a greater threat,’ Bladud said. Britha could hear the fatigue in his voice as well, but something told her that he had planned this before the battle.
‘It has already been resolved,’ Guidgen said. ‘Tangwen has guardianship of the chalice until the threat has passed.’
‘Tangwen did an admirable job in safeguarding the chalice and protecting Germelqart and Britha while they worked their magics; we owe them much, but the agreement held until we had dealt with Andraste’s Brood. This we have done. We need to decide what happens with the Red Chalice now,’ Bladud told them.
‘You said it yourself,’ Guidgen muttered. ‘Tangwen was a worthy guardian, let’s leave her as such.’
Britha glanced at Tangwen’s face. She did not think the younger woman was listening to them. Britha had seen the same look on warriors before. She was locked in a prison of fatigue and the memory of her experiences. This would have been the first time she would have had the luxury to reflect on everything that she had seen, everything she had done, since the wicker man, if not before.
‘I notice this time we are not having this discussion in front of everyone,’ Britha said.
Bladud looked over the crater at the black-robed ban draoi, meeting her gaze easily. ‘Nor do I have my warriors at my back,’ he pointed out.
Britha noticed Anharad and Ysgawyn nodding. No, but you brought allies, she thought.
‘There is still the matter of the Lochlannach and Crom Dhubh. Let us leave things as they are until we have dealt with them and then we can fall on each other.’ Guidgen’s tiredness was telling in his lack of subtlety. There was no trace of his normal wry smile.
‘Some of us are strong enough to keep going even after the exertions of battle,’ Ysgawyn said.
Bladud glanced over at the rhi of the Corpse People. He did not look pleased. Guidgen closed his eyes. For the first time since Britha had met him he looked his age, his normal vitality gone.
‘I did not see you in the battle, rhi of two,’ Guidgen said, then he opened his eyes, bloodshot. He stared at the bristling Ysgawyn.
‘Enough of this,’ Bladud growled, raising his voice enough to be heard across the crater, over the rain. ‘I am well aware of the threat that Bress, the Lochlannach and this Crom Dhubh pose …’
‘Are you?’ Britha asked. Normally she would not interrupt a rhi in such a way. It wasn’t that she lacked the authority to do so. It was just that it showed a lack of respect to their station. ‘You have not fought them. They raided little of your land, as far as I can tell. You were not at the wicker man. I think you know little but what you’ve been told.’ Caithna was growing restless in her arms. Presumably cold and hungry, but the young girl showed no sign of wanting to be put down yet.
‘If we are to fight them then more of us will have to drink from the chalice,’ Ysgawyn said, almost managing to keep the eagerness from his voice. Britha glanced at Tangwen. Normally the young hunter would counter anything said by Ysgawyn; she had borne witness to the depredations of the Corpse People, she hated them and their rhi. Instead she just swayed on the edge of the crater, looking up into the sky, the rain falling on her face.
‘We will certainly need the magic of the chalice to fight the Dark Man,’ Bladud said, and then spat to avert evil. ‘Magic that must be shared.’
‘And controlled,’ Guidgen said. He pointed at the chalice. From their position on the lip of the crater they could see its bubbling, liquid, red metal contents. ‘We have the means of our own destruction here if we are not careful.’
‘Control requires strength,’ Bladud said. ‘We have proven time and time again that we are the strongest.’
‘Bladud has our support,’ Ysgawyn said. Again it was a sign of Guidgen’s tiredness that he laughed in the so-called rhi’s face.
‘All three of you? That’s an impressive warband.’ Britha could not hide the contempt in her voice.
‘And where are the people you swore to serve?’ Ysgawyn asked. ‘Is that the only survivor there in your arms?’
Britha opened her mouth to retort, but no angry words came. He was right, after all.
‘The Iceni are with me,’ Bladud told them. This was significant. After the Brigante, the Iceni were the largest tribe that had answered Bladud’s summons to fight the monsters. They were powerful and warlike.
‘And the Trinovantes,’ Anharad said. Mabon nodded at his grandmother’s words.
‘And you can speak for them?’ Guidgen said.
‘I have some influence,’ Anharad said.
‘We are to be wed,’ Bladud told them, and suddenly he had the attention of all but Tangwen. Britha guessed that Anharad had underplayed just how important she was to her tribe.
‘Congratulations,’ Britha said.
Guidgen laughed bitterly. The old dryw turned and looked to the south at the plain of mud that used to be his people’s wooded land.
‘After we have dealt with the Lochlannach you will need strong allies,’ Bladud told the old man. ‘All the southern tribes will.’
‘Allies yes, rulers no, tyrants certainly not,’ Guidgen said. ‘And we have already had this discussion. The chalice was given to Tangwen to safeguard because we would have fallen on each other with sword and spear if we did not. Nothing has changed. We still have a threat that we need to deal with.’
‘So you see war between us when we have dealt with the Lochlannach?’ Bladud asked. Britha sensed a trap in his words.
‘There will be war if you insist on ruling all,’ Guidgen said angrily. ‘There is always war when a rhi wants to own more than they can see from the highest point of their land. We should use the chalice and then throw it into the deepest part of the sea.’
‘Things like the chalice have a way of finding their way back into the hands of mortals,’ Germelqart said quietly.
‘We need its power to defeat the Lochlannach,’ Bladud told them.
Britha laughed bitterly. ‘You are assuming that you can defeat the Lochlannach,’ she said.
‘Andraste’s spawn and the Lochlannach have proven that we need to be united …’ Bladud said as if Britha hadn’t spoken.
‘But not ruled—’ Guidgen started.
‘I understand the danger of the chalice’s power,’ the Witch King continued. Ysgawyn turned to look at Bladud, distrust written all over his face. Bladud ignored him. ‘Can we come to an accord?’
Guidgen peered through the rain at the Witch King. ‘An accord that will benefit you, no doubt,’ he said.
‘I don’t mind an agreement that benefits you and yours; I object when it is to the detriment of all else.’
‘Bladud may have forgotten that your people crept into our camp as we slept, slit throats and stole the blood of many, including children,’ Anharad started. Bladud was making calming motions with his hand. ‘I have not. You need to remember that he can take the chalice whenever he wants.’
Britha saw Germelqart sigh. She understood how he felt.
‘We would murder him and flee with the chalice.’ Britha was surprised at just how strong Tangwen’s voice sounded. She was staring straight at the Witch King. She was more surprised when she looked up and saw Bladud smiling.
‘At best it would bring dissension in your forces before you face the Lochlannach,’ Britha added.
‘Indeed,’ Bladud said. ‘Before the battle we sent messengers out to all the tribes asking them to meet us in the valley of the Mother Hill where the entrance to Annwn and the Place of Bones is. We could also send a message to Ynys Dywyll. I am assuming that you will abide by the judgement of the council of dryw?’ Bladud asked. Britha knew Ynys Dywyll, or the Island of Shadows, was a place far to the west where the southern dryw were trained. It was also home to their council and arch dryw.
Guidgen did not answer. Britha could tell by the firm expression on his wizened face that the old dryw was less than pleased. Britha wasn’t sure what Bladud hoped to gain from this. He had betrayed the dryw when he had pursued power as a warrior, leader, and ultimately rhi. She had heard that he had been satirised, censured and then cast out, though he still wore the robes and used the influence. She could not see the council on Ynys Dywyll ruling in his favour if they were anything like the dryw in her homeland to the north.
‘And you will accept the council’s judgement in this matter?’ Guidgen asked.
‘Of course,’ Bladud said. Britha knew that if Guidgen refused then Bladud would have reason to turn on him and the gwyllion for rebelling against the council. The Red Chalice was a thing of power; magic and the Otherworld should be their responsibility anyway.
‘I’m surprised you would seek their guidance,’ Guidgen said suspiciously.
‘I do not have to,’ Bladud said.
‘We all had a part in retrieving it,’ Britha pointed out.
‘Aye, while you tried to betray us,’ Ysgawyn spat.
Britha looked down to hide the look of shame on her face. She had tried to bargain for the rod she needed to return to the Ubh Blaosc and her stolen, unborn daughter.
‘And you weren’t there,’ Tangwen said, staring at the rhi of the Corpse People.
‘We could claim it as a spoil of war from you,’ Bladud said evenly. Suddenly everyone went very still. The only sound was the rain in the trees just to the north of the ruined fort and the constant drip of water as Bladud’s threat settled in. Britha noticed Tangwen’s hand go to the hatchet pushed through her belt. She felt Caithna grip her more tightly.
‘Or?’ Guidgen managed between gritted teeth.
‘Or we seek the guidance of the dryw and we leave the chalice in the hands of Tangwen and Germelqart until they send someone to make judgement.’
‘Britha as well,’ Tangwen said, slurring the words slightly in her tiredness.
‘She cannot be trusted,’ Bladud said. He sounded almost sad. Tangwen opened her mouth to protest.
‘He’s right,’ Britha said. I would give the chalice back to Bress if I thought it would mean I could see my daughter.
‘The Red Chalice is the responsibility of the dryw,’ Bladud said, glancing over at Britha as he did so.
‘I grow tired of this; speak plainly,’ Guidgen told Bladud. ‘What do you want?’
‘Your support,’ Bladud said.
‘Against the Lochlannach? Gladly.’
‘I mean your oath of loyalty.’
Guidgen stared at Bladud. Britha had never seen the old dryw so angry before. She suspected that he would have struck the Witch King, had it not been for the muddy crater in the way.
‘False tongue! Deceiver! Liar!’ the old dryw spat. Bladud narrowed his eyes but controlled himself with great restraint. They weren’t words you called a warrior lightly. ‘You swore—’
‘That we would not conquer you. We are negotiating over the Red Chalice. Have the events of the last moon taught you nothing? Show me a stronger leader and I will step aside. Or he may challenge me and kill me in single combat.’
‘We will aid and follow your leadership for—’
‘No!’ Now Bladud became angry. ‘This does not work! You know this does not work! If everyone wants one rule for themselves we are divided.’ He pointed at Guidgen. ‘That is just you putting your arrogance and the arrogance of your people before the good of all!’
Guidgen stared at Bladud. The old man was shaking with rage. Britha had to give Bladud his credit. Guidgen was wily but Bladud had completely outmanoeuvred him.
‘I will take this to my people,’ Guidgen muttered with little grace before turning and stalking out of the ruins.
Bladud watched the old dryw walk away before turning and nodding to Britha and then starting to walk back to camp himself. Britha wondered how much it cost him to leave the chalice at the bottom of the muddy crater. That said, it would not be seemly for him to scrabble around in the mud. Ysgawyn smiled and then followed the Witch King.
‘The child,’ Anharad said, nodding towards Caithna.
‘I will look to her,’ Britha told the other woman. Anharad looked less than sure but started back towards the temporary camp. Mabon followed. ‘Her name is Caithna!’ Britha called. Anharad stopped. Something in the set of her shoulders told Britha that the other woman was feeling her age. The highborn Trinovantes woman did not turn around, and after a moment or two she continued on her way.
Britha sagged, overcome by a sudden wave of fatigue, and she realised just how hungry she was. She looked to Caithna. The girl had fallen asleep.
‘I do not mislike Bladud …’ Germelqart started.
‘But you would not trust him with the chalice,’ Britha supplied.
The Carthaginian navigator nodded. ‘I do not think I would trust anyone with it.’
Germelqart looked up at her. ‘I would not trust myself with such a thing.’
Britha noticed that Tangwen was staring down into the crater at the chalice with a look of loathing on her face.
‘I had better go and get it then,’ she muttered quietly to herself. She started to climb down into the crater and almost immediately slipped. By the time she had made her way through the mud to the chalice she was covered in filth from head to foot. Her fingers curled around the red metal and she lifted it out of the mud.
He felt heavier with each step up the bone spiral staircase. It had been several days since the Dark Man’s last summons had crawled into the back of his head like a sickness. Bress hoped each time that it was the last. That his master would finally let him go, but he knew that it would not be the case this time – if indeed it ever would be.
Crom Dhubh was standing on the top of the tower looking out over the boneless, drifting bodies in the huge subterranean lake. There were no carrion eaters here, and little current to carry them away from the isle of rock that the skeletal tower grew from, deep in the huge cavern.
‘They did it, didn’t they?’ said the pale warrior with the long silver hair. He held his master’s gaze when the Dark Man turned back to look at him. ‘They defeated the Muileartach’s Brood?’
‘I was as much their father as that slug was their mother,’ Crom Dhubh said, his voice a silk corruption. ‘Does my children’s destruction please you?’
‘They will come for you,’ Bress said.
‘It does not matter, they can do nothing to me. Your Lochlannach can distract them until I am ready. The war will not be fought here.’
‘You will travel to the Ubh Blaosc?’ Bress asked.
‘Me? No, they could destroy me. You will travel there. You will die there, but you will make the Ubh Blaosc’s location known to the Naga.’
‘How?’ Bress asked, showing no reaction to the news of his imminent death. If anything, he found himself struggling not to show excitement at the prospect.
Crom’s expression of consternation looked alien on his face. ‘That is the question.’
‘You called them before.’
‘Relics from this world. The Ubh Blaosc is too far.’
‘What of the one in the cave, to the south and east?’
‘A frightened old creature, if it still exists, if my children did not consume or transform him. I have not heard his mindsong again. No. I think the answer lies in the body of the dragon.’
Six Months Ago
The trees had been sucked towards the portal and some residual energy still played over the stones as lightning. They were standing there in what were thought to be period-appropriate clothes, all of which were armoured, though to Crabber they didn’t feel right without an energy dissipation grid woven into their fabric. His neunonics reached out and found a painfully slow connection to a painfully primitive communications network. He started to assimilate information on this world. Search routines filtered through the masses of information. They knew what he liked.
‘I think there’s a habitation nearby,’ his attractive, if dead-eyed ‘partner’ said.
Crabber just smiled, and let the hybrid assault weapon hang horizontally on its sling down his front.
‘I guess we’ll have to kill them, then,’ Crabber said.
‘It will be cleaner just to rewrite their memories.’
‘You’re being well behaved. That’s not your reputation.’
His ‘partner’ turned to look at him.‘You know as well as I do, the job’s all that matters.’
Crabber nodded. ‘You ever think about what we could do here? Just with what we have in our heads, in our bodies? We could live like kings, like gods. After all, we’ve been sacrificed; we’re just betas, clones – the real us are living large with the money they were paid for us doing this pre-programmed work. I say fuck ‘em.’ His ‘partner’ looked down at him. Programmed or not, Crabber could still detect the slightest trace of contempt for him. ‘Couldn’t break free, huh?’ Crabber said quietly.
‘What’s that suppos—’
If anything his ‘partner’ was faster, but Crabber had the drop on him. The shorter, squat, unnaturally broad-shouldered bounty killer with the offset head had his sidearm out of its holster and fired first. He’d changed the magazine in the pistol for the nano-tipped bullets he was supposed to use on the target. He put two in his ‘partner’s’ head while the taller human was still stepping back and bringing his hybrid weapon to bear. The bullets beat hardening skin and armoured bone. Their nanite payload started eating grey matter. His ‘partner’ spasmed, staggered backwards a few more steps and then hit the ground, shaking. Crabber was standing over him and put another two rounds in his head. He reached down and took the taller human’s magazine of nanite-tipped bullets and his grenade magazines – those would be hard to come by. Then he set the self-destruct code for the neunonics and liquid hardware, dropped an incendiary grenade on the corpse, and walked away.
Alpha Crabber and Patron had made one mistake. They had let him say goodbye. His reconstructed man-plus body had a second hard-tech neck on it. It contained some very illegal corpse-hacking hard- and nano-ware. If
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