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Against Gravity

an extract from the novel
by Gary Gibson


April 21st, 2093, Venezuela

Against Gravity by Gary GibsonKendrick 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 it went.

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?"

"He's outside."

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 money.

"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 we talk."

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 fascination.

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.

"That's reassuring."

"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 for?"

"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 in it."

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 see."

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 too close."

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 them.

"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 2005.

Gary Gibson's Against Gravity was published in 2005 by Tor UK.

Against Gravity by Gary Gibson
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