skulked at the wispy margins of the lenticular Hubris galaxy in
the Nyx system, home to the descendants of a long-abolished penal
colony whose convicts had been shipped from human-populated planets
across the sector. The Nyx system's pygmy-star was only capable
of supporting life on three planetsand then barelynamely
Scelestus, Talpid and Crepuscule, all tenebrous by nature. Scelestus'
arms were open to all-comers, as long as they obeyed the rules
of the Éclat who were currently focusing their attention
on Dimidiãta: Talpid's solitary ploon (much larger than
an average moon, but still locked in orbit around the planet).
The conflict should have been short-lived but the talpidurans
were a tenacious race, and much of the struggle took place underground
in the tunnels and mines that riddled a specific region of Dimidiãta.
* * *
in the corner of the med-cell the latest wreck let the aftermath
wash over him, his fears dissolving in tender pools of melancholy,
drooling in careless rapture, locked in idiot stasis. Only the
occasional twitch of an eye muscle gave away the maelstrom raging
in his fried brain.
Éclat's boffs had unsuccessfully tried a bunch of mercs
and a couple of murderers; next step was some really basic raw
material, a malleable scuzzer lab-rat, diametrically opposed to
their goal. What the gunkstas dragged back was a wash-up, some
twenty-year-old, gangly alleybat who'd been hugging a fire-drum
to warm his sorry bones. The gunkstas didn't operate on a sale-or-return
basis, so the boffs kept the kid on ice until the first two phases
* * *
peeled-open between cool ivory sheets, on a real soft 'n' cosy
bed, in a lush condo with a zazz-projector dancing vibulent swirls
on the ceiling. There was no sign of the street plankton he'd
been jostling with to suck some meagre heat from the fire-drumas he tried to figure how his life'd gone to flittershitters
since he'd turned draft-dodger.
rolled over and almost squawked.
right next to him, was a fifth-generation chicklickone of the
most sought after group of escorts on Scelestus. She oozed über-pheromones
from her neck's eccrine sweat glands which, once in Gabryel's
system, would intensify the endorphin rush of sex a hundred-fold.
ached to kiss those rubies, dab her tan and stroke that fox's
he tentatively reached out a hand, there was a splintering crash
and the door to their nest exploded inwards. The short golden-brown
pelagecoloured from the creature's staple diet of titian molluscsshone in the phosphoglow of the concealed lighting, while the
fleshy, pink, star-shaped snout writhed in a blur of motion as
it tasted the air and tentacle-appendages stretched forward, identifying
the now-screaming girl. A heavily-built forearm swung the weapon
up and the talpiduran blasted her into silence, pumping out a
rapid succession of plasma microshells, turning the sheets crimson.
Gabryel flung himself onto the floor, but the beast lurched towards
him, fumbling the gun in its broad paw. It bounced across the
carpet and Gabryel instinctively snatched it up, leapt to his
feet and levelled the weapon at the approaching alien. The talpiduran
snorted derisively and kept coming. Gabryel backed-off, stumbled,
and fell against the wall, accidentally loosing a round of microshells,
blowing a gaping, smouldering hole through the wheezing brute.
Grunting and moaning, lungs rapidly filling with fluid, it collapsed
onto the floor and the ragged edges of the smouldering cavity
bled acidic bowel contents, which dribbled and hissed onto the
rapidly melting carpet. Gabryel tried to dodge past the beast
and make for the door, but it grabbed his leg, pulled him down,
grasped his gun-hand, briefly pointed it straight at him, then
swung it to face its own wriggling snout and crushed the young
human's trigger finger. The discharge sent wads of fur and sticky
globs of yellow brain tissue splattering up into Gabryel's face
and he instantly ralphed, then, still dry-retching and shuddering
uncontrollably, overwhelmed by terror, shock, guilt and the carnage
all around him, he passed out.
* * *
street plankton had ousted him from prime position next to the
fire-drum, while he was out for the count, and he was shivering
from the cold, with a rank taste in his mouth. He quickly related
the bitter flavour to a half-empty bottle of rotgut sitting in
his right hand, which an incoming down-and-out promptly yoinked.
That must've been the source of the fantasy-cum-nightmare I've
just had, some hallucinogenic hooch that head-tripped me out,
he thought. He was in his tattered, skanky clothes, but his hair
felt fresh. Then he felt the prickly patches on his face, where
the talp's brain jelly had hit him.
rising sense of panic was heightened by a shuffling, wheezing,
snorting sound; the chimera was corporeal once again. At first
his fellow vagrants tried to fight it off, but as bits of their
compadres erupted in a barrage of plasma microshells they turned
and fled. Gabryel rolled over to the fire-drum, tugged out a flaming
chair leg and wielded it at the talpiduran. Accompanied by a deep,
crackling whoosh, the blazing flare dazzled the nocturnal fiend
and Gabryel jumped out of the way of a random discharge from its
weapon. He bolted behind it, clutched the makeshift cudgel in
both hands anddevoid of qualms this timebrought it roaring
down on the creature's skull. Gabryel was running before it even
hit the ground and sped down a dank, dark passageway headlong
into a cloud of noxious gas and gasping blackout.
* * *
lids flickered and he tried to focus bleary peepers in the pitch
black. Gabryel could hear voices, but they weren't the crunked
slurs of street plankton, they sounded more like his old homeslices.
am I?' he called out.
ratpack unit, front line, 'mongst friends, brah,' came the reply.
he repeated. 'The ploon in orbit around Talpid?'
the very same.'
How did I get here? I'm a draft dodger. I shouldn't be here.'
by a pressgang gas-trap, like the rest of us. None of us brahs
it so dark?'
The goons've got twenty-twenty night vision.'
' Gabryel hesitated. 'There was this chicklick and
a talpiduran, like I've seen on the posters, then I was back on
Scelestus and then I was here
' He sounded faintly ridiculous
thing happened to all of us, brah.'
no, it's not actually. We're fightin' a war, right?'
There was a general murmuring of agreement from the other bunks.
Duke. We gotta do this jive all over?' a deep voice complained.
we have, Flea, "The Brah's gotta know 'case we go",
we all agreed, right?'
yeah, yeah.' There was a sound of saliva being sucked through
you seen action?' Gabryel pressed Duke.
it's like this. Some nights there's newbs like you and then other
times one of us is missin' when we come round. Most of us get
bruised, battered or burnt by plasma grazes, so we know we've
been somewhere, just don't remember it.'
it's possible alright,' remarked yet another voice in the dark.
'We've all been through accelerated absence-training, overheard
the sergeant talking about it a few nights back.'
absence-training?' Gabryel wasn't sure if he wanted to hear the
know how a computer can run two operating systems, so that when
one's in use the other dumps into the background?'
of, I guess.'
that's us. Drilled 'n' pumped-up, regular Mr. Hydes, ya dig?'
don't get it. Who's Mr. Hyde?'
and Hyde, alter egos, split personality
oh, just test ya
stomach muscles, brah. You come in with a six-pack?'
did as he was bid and flinched as he nervously explored his bulging
biceps and abs, as well as running his hand over his head and
discovering a harsh buzz cut. Two months of living raw, in and
around the dives of Scelestus' ghettos, had left him gaunt, pallid
and emaciated, but that had all changed abruptly.
happened to me?' There was fear in his voice, swiftly exchanged
for anger. 'Look, I'd know if I'd been trained and been in combat
the whole point, your mind's somewhere else, no questions, just
action, a split personality, flippin' between operating systems.'
schizo,' Flea's deep voice confirmed and gave a hollow laugh.
the temporary barracks of the Forward Operating Base shook violently
and as the men leapt from their beds, pulling on combat camo-kit
and grabbing weapons, the attack flip-triggered their identity
swaps. Gabryel II was knocked unconscious by an ear-shattering
* * *
a sharp intake of breath, still wearing camos, Gabryel called
out to the others in the dark.
he heard that all-too-familiar sound, the shambling, snuffling,
wheezing approach of a talp', and the sound of a heavy door being
opened. He lay still and pretended to be asleep.
thing he knew he was standing over a dead talp', its neck expertly
broken from a single twist of his beefy arms, but with no recollection
of having done it. He dashed for the open door, hurled himself
through it and felt his way down a clammy, dripping tunnel exuding
a peaty, earthy sweetness, with squelching slimy mud underfoot
and tree roots dangling from the ceiling, escaping the anoxic
soil. Having clambered through a network of steep passages Gabryel
came to what might have been a service shaft at their summit.
was a faint light up ahead and he made his way towards it, cautiously.
Despite the stygian murk he could make out the form of several
talps in chambers leading off from the shaft. He edged along one
of them. Two goons leant over something
it was a human male
on a slab of some kind, wires and tubes connected up to some humming,
buzzing, gurgling apparatus. He'd seen enough and, as quickly
and quietly as he could, made his way back into the wide shaft
and towards the steadily growing light source as the ground rose
up towards the surface. He spotted more talps arriving, silhouetted
against the exit, and managed to hide in an unfinished chamber
entrance as they practically galloped past him.
on the surface, at the top of a hill, he was in for another shock.
The source of light was Dimidiãta, and the ploon shone
a dull glow across the surface of an unfamiliar planet. He ran
down the slope, almost falling over the enormous body of a dead
ratpacker, and off into the night, across a dewy meadow and into
the cover of some trees with giant leaves (having evolved an enormous
surface area to absorb every available photon from the pygmy-star's
scant daytime radiation).
familiar voice hissed, 'Hey, Gabryel, over here.' It was Duke.
He'd got out, too.
brah,' he confirmed, stepping from behind a tree, and Gabryel
saw his angular, rugged face for the first time in the ploonlight.
we doin' on Talpid?'
Duke hushed him. 'Talp HQ is only just over there.' He gestured
towards the hill that Gabryel had just run from. 'We gotta get
outa here, no dawdlin', Flea took a crit defending my ass.'
remembered the humungous dead guy on the hill and dipped after
they ran deeper into the woods, Gabryel panted, 'So, how'd we
been captured by the talp's 'n' brought to their planetary HQ
for analysis, tryin' to get the upper hand and the measure of
us, I guess'
were they doin' to those guys, all those tubes and shit?' He shuddered
at the memory.
and I don't wanna know.'
gotta go back, get 'em outta there,' Gabryel declared, coming
to a halt.
crazy? We're lucky to be alive. Flea was one tuff son-of-a-bitch,
look what happened to him! We got no chance. Plus, we get into
a combat situation then we flip out, no tellin' what this nutter'd
do.' Duke tapped his head sharply, indicating the alter ego that
another thirty minutes they came to a small low-lying clearing
with a small pond at one edge.
am seriously hungry,' Gabryel announced. 'Dunno when I last ate,
totally lost track of time.'
well, we'll have to wait and see 'bout food, but meanwhile fill
ya can.' He pointed to the pond, knelt down, unclipped the water
canister from his belt and leant towards the water.
surface erupted as a talpiduran launched itself at Duke and tore
into him with a vicious-looking blade. (The creatures were semi-aquatic
and water-filled tunnels linked back to the main burrow.) Gabryel
II leapt at the talp', wrestled the knife from its grasp and,
like a later-day Van Helsing, calmly ventilated its ventricles,
as a grizzly thrill tingled through him.
a grey dawn broke, Gabryel II spotted another talp' heading for
the cover of its burrow in a hillock, escaping the discomfort
of what passed for daylight on Talpid. It turned as a twig snapped
under the berserker's foot and the creature cowered, holding its
paws palm-out, terrified, pleading in high-pitched squeals as
its nemesis approached, unhurriedly. Gabryel II gripped a handful
of fur and tugged its head back, quickly and efficiently slitting
its throat. Using dry tinder from a survival pack in his camos,
he set a fire and methodically sliced the flesh from the dead
talp'. The cooked meat was sweet and juicy but every scrap of
protein was just fuel to him and, as shards of bone fell on an
empty conscience, he set off again, satedwith a taste for talp'.
* * *
truth, the talpidurans were a relatively peaceable race. They
had recently discovered rich deposits of plutonium (IV) oxide
(for their thermoelectric generators) on Dimidiãta and
mining had commenced immediately. A concealed scoutship from Scelestus
observed the heightened space traffic and ploonar surface activity,
so it landed, obtained a sample of the radioisotope and returned
home to analyse it. The Éclat coveted the valuable resource
and set about ousting the competition. But the talpidurans weren't
the pushover that the Éclat had assumed they would be and
vehemently defended their assets, clinging on by weight of numbers,
forcing the Éclat's troops into disadvantageous engagements
and ambushes in the network of underground mine shafts and tunnels.
It represented a major source of irritation and time-wasting inconvenience
to the Éclat, so they decided to expedite matters by taking
the hostilities to Talpid. Their plan revolved around an enduringly
detached genocide, which even the Éclat's most hardened
mercs could never achieve, let alone wish to volunteer for such
an overt suicide mission.
* * *
Head of Éclat Intelligence, Garrett Vespidon, watched approvingly
as the boffs sealed the super-obsidian sphere that was Capsule
1containing the sedated subject of their first successand
started to apply the peripheral impact-barrier material, inside
the belly of the combat ship.
he permanently flipped?' he inquired. Five black rattails, with
antique copper-jacketed bullets platted into their tips, swung
wildly as he turned his head. He was a tall, thickset character
made even more authoritative by his sharp magenta suit (one of
the myriad forms which its composite pleofabric could take).
sir, phase five of the procedure flip-triggered a fixed personality,'
a white-coated boff confirmed. 'There will be no passive indulgence,
the corners of his once-familiar environment have shifted out
of recognition and the bioelectric implant should be jammed to
the secondary personality. It will automatically resurface when
the sedative wears off.'
Vespidon opened a visual comms-link to the secret research unit.
'How're the next wave of subjects coming along?'
boff appeared, with an artificial talp' head tucked under his
arm. 'Things are proceeding well, sir. The chicklick droid is
reset for another blood-burst, the next gunksta capture-site simulator
is ready, the aggressive talp' droids are fully functional and
updated for the interactive phases, the ratpack voice-actors are
primed and we are about to proceed with the bioelectric implant
and absence-training on Subject Three. A release into the talpiduran
HQ holo-environment is due shortly and the next talpiduran POW
is in position to cement Subject Two's secondary personality attack
and survival status, so if you will excuse me, sir?'
course, well done.'
boff slid the talp' head over his own and joined his colleagues
in a darkened chamber containing a naked human male punctured
with wires and tubes, a force-field separating them from the holo-tunnel
down which Subject Two would shortly stumble upon their activities.
turned to address his companions. 'In a few hours' time Capsule
1 will unleash the Avenging Angel, Gabryel II.' He laughed
at his own joke. 'We shall begin to deliver a ferocious, relentless
reign of terror upon their loved-ones and the males will be forced
to abandon Dimidiãta to our safe-keeping.'
* * *
Seagull (a Daggertooth-class combat ship) undertook a Horanblat
manoeuvre and sent the huge ball spinning towards the surface
of Talpid. Buried within it was a potentially ambivalent killer,
secured in the midst of a panoply of knives, axes, clubs, plasma
guns, grenades, rifles and missile-launchers. Capsule 1's target
was the edge of a small warren, home to the females and their
combination of orientation gyros, layered cushioning orbs and
peripheral impact-barrier materialfor Blixo splat-deploymentmade the construction of the capsule a highly complex operation.
The Éclat's boffs had done well, but the original design
had involved some of the finest astroengineers in the sector.
When it struck the surface the splat-bond held, but a small amount
of the force remained undamped. A control panel fizzed and sparked.
A small, but powerful explosion flung out tiny shards of metal,
most of which met with ineffectual collisions. The unconscious
human's upgraded armour-microweave combat-camos shielded him from
the sparking projectiles, until one found the slit of a tiny opening
in his visor. The shard entered the helmet at terrific velocity,
penetrated a closed lid and the eye beyond, ricocheted off the
bone of the socket and, in a freak accident, embedded itself in
the bioelectric implant, disrupting the flip-trigger interface.
the sedative wore off, Gabryel would stagger from the capsule,
blind in one eye, and the absence-training would remain buried
with his alter ego. He would have to rely on the innate generosity
of the talpiduran families, and their mates would, in return,
gain access to a fully stocked armoury for the war effort.