an extract from the novel
April 21st, 2093, Venezuela
woke again a little while before darkness fell, his mind still half-full
of scattered dream-images, to feel a hand brush against his shoulder
like the caress of a ghost.
"Jesus," he yelled, jumping up, suddenly wide awake. Dull red
lines of text glowed faintly on his databand, a weather feed detailing
the hurricane skirting St Lucia and moving south-west, scattering fishing
boats across the Latin American coast and tearing through villages as
Finding a secure landing spot, before the winds really hit, hadn't
been easy. Then came a lot of waiting, and a growing certainty that
João wasn't ever going to appear, that they were on some kind of a wild
goose chase that just might get them killed if they weren't careful.
"Sssh, it's me, João." He crouched at the entrance to the tent, favouring
Kendrick with a wide grin.
Kendrick pulled himself upright and groaned, "Where's Buddy? Have you
spoken to him yet?"
Kendrick stumbled out of the tent and blinked himself awake, while
fading sunlight skimmed the treetops around them. The skin of Buddy's
helicopter flickered with a constantly shifting mirror-image of the
surrounding trees and bushes, providing it with an effective camouflage.
Kendrick heard the distant sound of monkeys shrieking in the jungle.
Maybe it was more romantic this way, he thought; more like how a movie
director would portray the life of an investigative journalist -- hiding
out in the jungle, trying to avoid satellite detection while hunting
down a remnant of the old US army.
But that wasn't how it felt, far from it. They were risking their lives,
and if anything bad happened to them, it was unlikely anyone would ever
know about it. They were within a hundred miles or so of the Maze, and
the very knowledge that it was so close left Kendrick with a permanent
vague feeling of unease and dread.
This was as close to returning to the Maze as he ever wanted to get.
Buddy was leaning against the 'copter's shrouded carapace, talking
quietly with a boy who couldn't have been more than twelve or thirteen,
whom Kendrick realised must have come with João. The boy's English was
heavily accented and occasionally fractured.
A thirteen-year old with an automatic rifle and a bandana, he noted.
He wondered what this boy might have grown up to be in other circumstances,
in some other place. An image of his own young daughter rose unbidden
in his mind. She'd have been just a little younger than ...
No, don't think about that. He forced the mental image away. The boy
here had to be one of Mayor Sobrino's mercenary army, and it was debatable
if they or Los Muertos were the worse. Supposedly they protected the
townships in this part of the country against Los Muertos' incursions,
but with the amount of drug trafficking that went on in the area, it
was more likely a half-hearted cover for making themselves a lot of
"This is Louie," Buddy announced on his approach. He glanced back down
at the boy. "Louie, this is my friend Kendrick. He's the one who wants
to find out about the Los Muertos guy."
Old man's eyes gazed out at him from a child's face. Kendrick flinched,
despite himself, under that appraising gaze.
"You brought it?" the boy asked.
Kendrick looked back up at Buddy, and their eyes met knowingly. This
was something they'd talked about: what if the kid hadn't come alone?
What if he had compatriots hiding out in the jungle somewhere, ready
to jump them? Out of sight of Louie, Buddy shook his head from side
to side, slowly and carefully. Everything's okay. He emphasised
his point by giving Kendrick a discreet thumbs-up. Buddy would have
already had his instruments scanning the surrounding hills, in case
Louie had brought unwanted company.
Kendrick studied João out of the corner of his eye. It was he who made
the initial contact with the boy-mercenary. Kendrick could not rid himself
of the idea that João was digging himself deep into something he might
not be able to get out of. Buddy appeared to have faith in him, however.
Maybe that was good enough, and everything would be fine, but of course
there were never guarantees.
"Sure, Louie. We've got it."
Still gripping onto his rifle, the boy nodded. "Show me first, then
Kendrick climbed on board the helicopter. He emerged several seconds
later carrying a suitcase. With his free hand, Louie made an imperious
gesture towards the ground. Buddy glanced at Kendrick, and shrugged.
João looked on, from the edge of the clearing, his expression one of
Buddy put the case down and opened it. Tightly wrapped bundles of Yen
flapped in a sudden breeze that was warm and heavy against the approaching
chill of the night. Louie put his rifle down and leaned over the case,
leafing rapidly through the notes. Kendrick could just make out the
boy's voice as he talked under his breath while counting the money.
When Louie looked up, his face was filled with ugly greed.
"Okay, I'll show you."
A long time ago, Los Muertos -- meaning the dead
in Spanish -- had been a part of the United States army. Then the famines
had come, and then the LA Nuke, and things had really started to fall
apart. A couple of divisions of soldiers judged to be absolutely loyal
to Wilber had been posted at the Maze, before things went to pieces
in Washington. When the end came for Wilber himself, some of those soldiers
had started to head for home. But there were others who believed more
deeply in Wilber's messianic visions, who believed the Endtime was upon
them. Out here, lost in the jungle and leaderless, they had transformed
themselves into Los Muertos. If Wilber remained their Arthur, then the
old United States had been their Camelot, now lost forever.
"Just tell me you really know what the hell you're doing," Kendrick
whispered to Buddy, as they walked. João and Louie were a little ways
ahead of them, dark shapes in the night-time jungle. There was no way
they could fly their 'copter any closer to where Louie was leading them:
too much chance that either Los Muertos or one of Sobrino's wandering
patrols of mercenaries would take them out with a ground-to-air missile,
on a general principle of shoot first and worry later.
"I really know what the hell I'm doing," Buddy replied, as Louie led
them on a long and circuitous path through the jungle, back to the road
he and João had taken to meet them.
"No, listen to me, I set things up myself. I put out some feelers,
I found you a story."
"Buddy, it's not about getting just any story. What I want is
to find the people who put us in that place." He didn't need
to say which place.
"Yeah, I know that. But if even a fraction of what I've been hearing
is true, this is going to be worth it."
They walked on, frequently passing through wide patches where the jungle
had been burned away, presumably during fire fights. Their nostrils
were filled with the lingering, oil-tinged scent of destruction.
"Exactly how dangerous is this?" Kendrick demanded. "What happens if
we run into a Los Muertos patrol?"
"What happens is, we run. Besides, we're only skirting their territory
here. They don't normally bother with small groups like us." Buddy saw
his alarm and shrugged. "Look, sometimes people do get kidnapped for
their ransom value, but that isn't really their style. If they want
supplies, they raid a town, maybe kidnap a couple of people, sometimes
even give them back if they're in a good mood and they've been paid
up. They're mainly trying to take over the black market operations south
of Mexico. That's why Sobrino uses kids like Louie, says they help him
maintain his profit margin."
"Buddy, that kid gives me the creeps."
"Me too, me too," he muttered. "What're you looking at me like that
"He's just a kid. Don't you care what happens to him?"
"He's not a kid any more, Ken. Life is very hard around these parts.
I told you that. Now c'mon."
Buddy called after João and Louie, who waited while the other two caught
up again. They were moving down a slope now, the black strip of the
road visible just a few metres ahead.
João grinned at Kendrick, his teeth gleaming in the depth of
the night. "Hey, João," said Buddy. "Tell Kendrick here about
what you know. About the soldiers."
João shrugged. "They glow in the dark."
Kendrick frowned. "How?"
"Some of them, they eat the flesh of the old gods out in the jungle,
and in return the gods fill 'em with light."
"But not literally glowing, right?"
João nodded emphatically. "I heard this, they glow. Dance and
yell about eating God, all kinds of crazy shit. For real." He shook
his head now. "Nobody lie to me. Took this job 'cause wanted to see
it myself, maybe."
"You are shitting me," said Kendrick to Buddy.
"I've heard this story so many times," Buddy replied, "has to be something
Kendrick kept his gaze fixed on Buddy. "So just exactly where is it,
then, that this kid is taking us?"
"Two kilometres," said Louie, his eyes bright and sharp. He gestured
forwards along the road they had just reached. "Two more kilometres,
and I'll show you."
"Two kilometres? And show us what?"
"Patience, Kendrick," Buddy reassured him. "Let's just go look and
They made far better progress now they had the road to walk
on. Kendrick had imagined they would have to keep leaping back into
the jungle if anyone drove by, but he'd underestimated the vastness
of the landscape through which he now wandered. They were alone there,
absolutely alone. It was easy to imagine that this road could go on
forever, never varying, always perfectly straight.
Within an hour of walking further, they arrived at the perimeter of
another burned-out clearing. An irregular shape in the centre resolved
itself into a tank pushed over on its side. At first Kendrick thought
it must have been destroyed during the recent months of fighting, but
as they got closer his augmented eyes picked up its shattered carapace
in more detail. It was crumbling and rusted enough to have been there
for some time.
Kendrick became aware of a faint flickering to one side of it, perhaps
a campfire. He stopped, gripped by sudden fear they had stumbled across
an encampment of Los Muertos, but Louie beckoned them all forward with
a casual wave. Buddy stepped forward but, judging by the grim expression
on his face, Kendrick wondered if he was finally having his own doubts
about how much they could trust this boy.
Kendrick watched as Buddy drew out his gun, the action casual, holding
it close by his side as he stepped closer to the burnt-out tank. He
then kept his fist wrapped around it, concealing it from Louie. As Kendrick
came forward, the faint light they had seen resolved itself into a figure.
The man was dressed in the ragtag uniform of Los Muertos, and some
instinct told Kendrick that the soldier was dying. Fine threads of something
criss-crossed his skin, his flesh hanging loosely from his skeletal
form. The threads glowed with an uncanny luminescence that sent a deep
chill running down Kendrick's spine.
It was impossible to gauge the soldier's age: he might have been thirty,
he might have been sixty. His lips moved in a constant soundless litany,
and he showed no awareness of their presence.
"What happened to him?" Kendrick breathed.
"Ate God, now he's got God all inside him," muttered Louie by way of
explanation. "God is in those things you see on his skin." Kendrick
caught Buddy's eye, but Buddy just grinned back. Kendrick next glanced
over at João, who just gaped at the emaciated figure before them with
an appalled expression. João, he saw, was unconsciously fingering a
tiny cross hanging around his neck. Kendrick clearly saw his lips form
the words Madre de Dios.
Kendrick looked back at the Los Muertos soldier. "Buddy, what the hell's
happening to him?"
"He's a walking nanite factory, is what's happening to him. Don't get
The Maze?" He must have gone down into the Maze," said Kendrick.
"That's what I figure. Crazy fuckers really think Wilber had a way
to talk to God, so they go down in there, get themselves infected with
this stuff, speak in tongues or whatever, then they die. But while they're
still alive, they're like holy men to the rest of 'em."
Kendrick shook his head. "In some way, this is the same kind of thing
that's inside us, isn't it?"
"And they're dying for their efforts, just like most of us did. It's
a kind of justice, I suppose."
"João, that light in him -- what the hell is that?"
João shrugged without looking ever away from the slumped form before
"Maybe the nanite threads absorb sunlight for energy, then release
it at night." Kendrick cast a sceptical look at him, but Buddy just
grinned in return. "It'd be interesting to know just what's happening
inside his head. But no way I'm getting near enough to find out."
It was growing lighter, and Kendrick knew they'd have to find their
way back soon. Unintelligible phrases, perhaps visions of angels and
demons, perhaps something far stranger, continued to spill from the
dying man's lips.
...continues in the print edition
© Gary Gibson
Gary Gibson's Against Gravity was published in 2005 by Tor UK.
Order online using these links and infinity plus
... Gary Gibson's Against Gravity at Amazon.com
Elsewhere in infinity plus:
Elsewhere on the web: