science fiction and fantasy writer

Driving the Nail

The metal gantry rattled as Turtle bounded up the stairs to the Control Centre. He turned sideways to navigate the sharp angle where the gantry reached the cliff. The carapace plates of his forearms brushed against the gantry rail as he hurried along.

From a defensive point of view, the semi-circular facility was absurdly exposed, halfway up the open-cut face, the easiest and most obvious air strike target in the whole mine complex. But then, it was the miners, rather than any external threat, that were the focus of both Control and the majority of the security systems at its disposal.

Turtle found Curly standing duty in the shadows of the cliffside entrance. Curly was of the same basic body template as Turtle, a hulking, armour-shelled humanoid. Between the two of them, they filled the alcove. Curly and his two batch brothers, Larry and Moe, were an older type than Turtle – their heads smaller, flatter, nestled between their shoulders, their intelligence less than fully human. Like Turtle, Curly affected a covering of black tattoos over the plates of his exoskeletion.

Turtle nodded. “G’day.”

Curly stared at him with bright, black eyes. There was the usual moment’s pause before he unstuck his jaw to speak. “G’day.”

Turtle waited before speaking again, in case there was any more. There was.

“Hear about them killings?”

“Nope. Something’s up with comms. What killings?” One of the indentured miners flipping out and killing a few of his mates, was Turtle’s immediate thought. He scanned the open parts of the mine below. There were a few off-shift diggers loitering in the shade around the Pakistani barracks. A man hanging washing out back of the Chinese blocks. No sign of upset.

“In town.”

A juiced-up Aboriginal kid flipping out and killing a few of his mates, then. “Oh yeah?”

“Yeah.” Then, “Someone’s been bleeding folk.”

Turtle’s interest sharpened. “Bleeding them?”

“Yeah.” Curly hefted his gun, a cut-down 50-calibre sniper rifle with an oversized grip and trigger. “Cutting on them, I think.”

Turtle let out his breath slowly. Jumping at shadows, he told himself. Just some crackhead raskol-wannabe with a machete. He waited again, but Curly seemed to have run himself out of words. “A.B. know?”

“Reckon.”

Perhaps that was the reason for the urgent summons.

Turtle gave Curly a nod and stooped to the retina scan to unlock the door. His eyes adjusted almost instantly to the dimness inside. Hurrying along, he fiddled with his comm headset, trying to call Juju down in town. Nothing.

He jogged up the spiral stair to the operations room. Abu Bashir was standing alone at his habitual post on the central podium, surrounded by the ops crew in their pits, all jacked into the mine’s various surveillance and response systems.

The tall, curved windows afforded a long view over the mine and beyond, out over the flat expanse of the ancient floodplain, where red-orange dirt flouresced beneath its sparse cover of olive green scrub and pale grey boab trees. The town was a criss-cross of geometric lines out in the middle, the highway a black ribbon, pointing north to the coast, and south into the red heart of the West Australian desert. The rusted domes of the next range of rock hills humped across the horizon.

“A.B., you sent for me? You know about these killings down in town?”

Abu Bashir glanced down at him. He was a stocky, moustachioed Pakistani, elegant streaks of grey just beginning to appear in his black hair.

“I sent Juju a couple of your idiot brothers and a few other boys to deal with it. Get down to town and check on them after this, would you?”

“After this?”

Abu Bashir didn’t respond for a time, his eyes roaming the view beyond the windows. Suddenly he frowned at Turtle, as though just remembering he was there. “Do you know what Abu Bashir means?”

Turtle nodded, familiar enough with the boss’s quirks to be unsurprised by the sudden switch in topic. “Father of Bashir.”

“That’s right. I had a son, once.”

Turtle had heard the story, but never from Abu Bashir himself. “What happened?”

“He thought he was a martyr.” Abu Bashir spun on his heel and jogged down the podium’s steps. Turtle fell in beside him. “You remind me of him.”

“A martyr?”

“Big and ugly. He looked like his mother.”

Turtle grunted in lieu of a laugh. He asked, “What’s up with comms?”

Abu Bashir’s expression was tight. “Shut down. We’re blacked out. We have visitors. An overseer from headquarters called Nghiem.” He herded Turtle back to the spiral staircase, and up. “He wants to talk to you.”

At the top of the stair, Abu Bashir keyed the door to his private suite and ushered Turtle through ahead of him. Half a dozen company men in dark suits dotted the room. Turtle picked three straight away for Made Men. They’d posted themselves to the corners of the room – human standard, on the surface at least, designed for prettiness as much as effectiveness.

The other three were company execs, all East Asian. Two sat primly on Abu Bashir’s couches. The third, a diminutive whip of a man, stood at the window gazing out over the same view as the ops room. This would be Nghiem. Vietnamese, by the name – a surprise given the Sino-centricity of the company’s central bureaucracy.

Abu Bashir stepped around Turtle. “This is him.”

Nghiem turned. He sauntered over to Turtle and Abu Bashir, hands clasped behind his back, to peer up into Turtle’s face, then walked slowly around him.

“You were decanted, where?”

“Puckapunyal.”

“Military. You were in government service, yes?”

That history wasn’t in his company records, but even if A.B. hadn’t backgrounded Nghiem, Turtle’s recent body type was enough to mark him as a military deserter. “Yes.”

Nghiem completed his circuit and stopped. “Your purpose?”

“Designed for physical security and civil order.”

Nghiem lifted his chin, lips puckering, and looked at Turtle through slitted eyes. “A guard, yes. To guard what?”

Turtle flicked a glance at Abu Bashir. Who was this clown? “Whatever I’m told to.”

Nghiem sniffed, then raised a hand and snapped his fingers. One of the company men on the couches leapt up and hurried over to hand Nghiem a hardcopy photographic print. Nghiem held it up in front of Turtle.

“You have seen these, yes?”

Turtle’s pulse jumped. The photo was of a heavy locking plate, atop a squat, rectangular sarcophagus of dull brown metal alloy. The surface of the locking plate was embossed with a complex array of warning symbols.

There was no point lying. They’d be scanning him and know the answer already. “I have.”

“It is a coffin,” said Nghiem.

It’s a seal, thought Turtle. The coffin was inside. The sarcophagus was the receptacle for a lead box that some unfortunate wretch had been dumped into, the tear in the Veil between this universe and the next – the tear in their mind – shut in with them.

Sometimes, if the conduit wasn’t dead when they were sealed up, the cold that lay on the other side of the Veil would continue to leak through. Turtle had seen frost on the outside of those seals, before they were buried in concrete. If you touched one of those, you’d hear the faint whisper of the Interlopers’ voices. He had nightmares, sometimes, about the poor bastards locked up inside, kept alive somehow by the things that wanted into this world.

His mind raced. Where the hell had the company dug up a seal? And how, without triggering its last-line security systems and the tactical nuke inside?

Watching him closely, Nghiem continued, “The sarcophagus is resistant to most conventional methods of breaching it.”

“You’ve tried to open it?” Turtle blurted, and gave himself a mental slap as soon as the words were out.

“You know what is inside?”

Turtle chose his next words more carefully. “I know that whenever one’s been opened, whoever did it didn’t live to tell. Never seen one with the lid off and I don’t want to.”

He wondered if he might’ve laid the sincerity on too thick.

After a moment, Nghiem nodded. He lowered the photograph and, with a sharp look at Abu Bashir, turned to walk back to the window.

Abu Bashir jabbed a thumb at the door. “Go check on Juju.”

#

Turtle went home first, thinking to let Rhone, Brig and Wal know about Nghiem. The house was at the far end of the executive compound, up on top of the ridge that the mine was cut into the end of, one of thirty or so identical concrete pillbox units. Turtle felt the wave of anger emanating from his own house before he reached it. Oh no, not again. He pushed the door open, ducking to squeeze his bulk inside.

Rhone and Brigita were yelling at each other so furiously that he couldn’t make out a word they were saying. He didn’t need to. His daughter Midge was sprawled behind Rhone. Her maternal grandfather, Wallace, knelt beside her. Wal stroked her mousy hair away from her face while his wife spat insults at Rhone. Midge’s eyes were open, but glazed.

Turtle strode into the middle of it, putting his thick, tattooed arms between Rhone and Brig. “Whoa. Whoa, enough!”

They rounded on him. Rhone crossed her arms sullenly. Brig was snarling with anger. Both of their faces were crimson. Rhone’s network of scars, tracing the nerves beneath her skin, stood out white.

“She bloody knocked Midge out again,” Brigita spat. She still kept her hair cropped military-short, although it was more silver now than red. Military tattoos marked her still-muscular shoulders. She had none of the stooped softness that age had brought to her husband.

“She was drifting again,” said Rhone, wearily. The anger that she’d been broadcasting was replaced by exhaustion. Turtle felt it dragging at him like a physical weight.

“Again?” He swore under his breath. “Shouldn’t she be making more progress by now?”

Rhone shrugged, one-shouldered. “If she was going to.”

“If you were any use as a teacher,” Brigita growled.

“Enough!” snapped Turtle, at the same time as Wallace protested, “Brig, please!”

Wal rose with Midge in his arms. He gave Turtle a tight smile, passing her over. Turtle heard Rhone follow him down to the bedrooms, heard Wallace begin speaking to his wife in low tones, Brigita grumbling and hissing in response.

Midge was small for her age, and skinny. Turtle barely noticed her weight. He laid her gently on her bed and stroked the side of her face with a thick finger. Damn, but she looked like her mother. He wondered if the small differences – the shape of her hairline, her nose, her chin – came from him, if they were pointers to what he might’ve looked like without all the gunk that had been added to his human genes, that didn’t breed true. The twinge when he thought of her mother, dead since before he even knew about Midge, was so familiar he barely noticed it.

Midge’s eyes focused slowly. “Dad?”

“Shh. Lie still. Get some rest.”

She nodded fractionally. Her eyelids drooped.

Rhone leaned in the doorway. She looked as spent as Midge. Turtle stood and pulled her against him.

“I’m exhausted, Turtle,” she said. “If she keeps drifting like this, she’s going to breach the Veil.”

“I know, I know.”

“Perhaps this isn’t the right way.”

“Don’t say that!” Turtle felt her flinch in his arms. Her feelings washed over him, a turmoil of doubt, resentment and fear. He hadn’t intended the snap in his voice. “I’m sorry.”

“Brig’s right, I wasn’t made for this,” she said. “I was made to hunt candidates like Midge, not teach them to protect themselves.”

“You said you could do it. I still believe you.” He kissed the top of her hair. “I’m not turning her in. I’m not going to let the government do to her what they did to you.”

She stepped back. He kept his hands on her shoulders. “I survived,” she said. “And you don’t know that they will.”

He shook his head. “They always try. And if she can’t take it, they’ll lock her away what’s left of her in a shielded prison for the rest of her life. Rhone, don’t give up on her. On us. Please?”

She turned her face away and closed her eyes. Her lips were pressed white. In profile, her face looked as childlike as Midge’s. Except for the scars, where they’d cut her apart and remade her. Turtle couldn’t bear the thought of that torture being inflicted on his daughter. He could stay ahead of the government hunters – he had been one, after all, before they ran – but he needed Rhone to keep the Midge safe from the Interlopers.

When she opened her eyes, Rhone’s lashes were moist. She nodded. As her emotional broadcast settled, Turtle’s mind jumped to the company men up at Control. Now wasn’t the time to mention it. He didn’t guard his feelings closely enough.

“Tell me,” she said.

He kicked himself mentally. “Company men here, from headquarters.”

“And?”

Turtle let out his breath between his teeth. “And they were asking me about the seals.”

“Turtle!”

“I think I put them off,” he said, raising his palms.

“You think?”

“Look, they’ve got no reason to be interested in you…”

“Bullshit, Turtle!” She held up her bare forearms, showing the web of scars. “I’m not all that much less obvious than you. People have seen me without my chador.”

He backed out of the room. “Look, I’ll deal with it, okay?”

Rhone watched him retreat, her arms folded again. Her emotions were shuttered now, but disappointment was plain on her face.

Turtle stopped. “I need to go. There’s been some killings down in town.”

She nodded, already turning away.

#

He found Juju and his crew hunkered down outside the town’s sprawling service station and general store. Juju captained the mine security detachment that provided a basic police service for the town and surrounds – the only law available to the local people. Since the secession and subsequent collapse of the Western Australian state, this part of the country had been under the control of the various Chinese mining cartels. Government activity here tended to be rare and deniable.

Juju was a tall, lean Aboriginal with pale grey eyes and his hair worn as a cap of short dreadlocks. The rest of the police detachment and a dozen or so of Abu Bashir’s reinforcements were crouched with weapons ready behind the loose ring of vehicles that surrounded the servo. There were two civilian cars parked at the station’s filling pumps, but no sign of movement from within. Aboriginal kids from the town perched on a wrecked road-train tractor to watch.

Turtle pulled up his quad bike, keeping Juju’s troopie between him and the servo, and duck-walked over to join him.

“What you got?”

Juju spoke habitually out of one side of his mouth, twisting his features into a semi-permanent sneer. “Hey, brutha. Got us some killers holed up inside. Coupla sistas found some bodies up a flood gully, buncha bruthas supposed to be off walkabout. Was takin these bruthas here to check it out, then this kid brutha comes, tells us he looks in at the servo and sees some fellas doin violence. Was quiet when we get here. Sent Larry and Moe inside not one minute back with a few bruthas for back-up.”

Turtle grunted, raising his head to eyeball the building. “Any idea what they’re walking into?”

Juju shook his head cheerfully. He stabbed a thumb at a surveillance van parked along the makeshift perimeter. “Nup,” he said. “Comms is down, yeah? Waitin on the bruthas to finish a sweep.” He shrugged. “Or the shootin to start. Scan showed movement inside, but no life signs. Reckon our killers got a shield.”

Turtle felt a stir of unease. Bleeding folk. No life signs. Surely the government wouldn’t have let those things loose.

“Oh hey,” Juju added, tapping him on the arm. “We got a fella and a sheila in the tank, askin for you, brutha.”

Turtle looked at him blankly. “What?”

“Woman and a dwarf. Brutha, if the devil ever built himself a woman to tempt a brutha to sin, she be the one. Pair of them tore up the pub last night. She done most of it. Starts askin for you, soon as we arrest em.”

Turtle’s stomach knotted. Woman and a dwarf. Dammit, damn them, they’d said they were going to let Midge go!

Even with Turtle’s tattooed shell of a face, Juju noticed his reaction. “You right, brutha?”

Turtle nodded. “Reckon I know who they are,” he said, trying to sound offhanded. “Not people I ever wanted to see again. Leave them where they are. I might get around to them.” His mind raced. Murph and Barnestable here meant it was time to run, again. He had to get back to Rhone and Midge. With an effort, he focused on the matter immediately at hand. Damn, he hoped he was wrong. “Curly said something about these guys bleeding people.”

Juju spat in the dirt. “Yeah brutha, bleedin them dry, sistas said.”

Turtle stared. Bleeding them dry. “Oh, no.”

“What?”

“Get them out of there!” Turtle didn’t wait for Juju to act. He leapt to his feet and bellowed, “Larry! Moe! Get the hell out!”

Too late. The side wall of the building exploded outwards. Turtle had a rapid impression of angular limbs and cloaks that shimmered and bent the light around them. He lunged for the spare tyre on the side of the troopie as a hail of small arms fire surrounded the leaping figures. Disregarding the bullets, the figures bounced off the top of a pursuit car and high into the air again. Turtle wrenched the tyre, bracket and all, off the troopie and flung it with all his strength and weight. The world’s largest discus intersected with a jumper’s downward trajectory, hitting it square in the chest and sending it crashing into the dirt.

The others bounded away across the desert scrub. The kids on the wrecked truck whooped and cheered.

Turtle charged towards the fallen figure, drawing his sidearm. “That one! That one!” he bawled at a trooper manning a jeep-mounted machine gun. The gunner turned his weapon and pumped heavy shells into the rising figure.

The figure fell again. The gunner ceased fire as Turtle closed in. It had one of its blades out as it flailed around on its back. Turtle landed his whole bodyweight on top of it, pinned the sword arm with one hand and its other arm with a knee. He put the whole clip of bullets into the creature’s face at point blank range. Even then, the first two magnum shells didn’t penetrate, one ricocheting off Turtle’s shoulder plate, before its skull cracked and the rest pulverised its brain.

Turtle was up quickly, ejecting the spent clip and slotting a new one home. He scanned the surrounding scrub. The rest were gone.

Juju ran up. He stared at the fallen figure, its puckered, leech-like mouth still intact. “What the hell?”

Turtle put a thick fingertip against Juju’s chest and spoke urgently, “You need to lock the town down. Get everyone together inside and put your boys in with them. Nobody stays alone, nobody stays without armed guards. This needs to happen by nightfall. No-one goes outside at night. Explosives and heavy weapons are what will worry them.” Juju nodded, wide-eyed.

A growing rumble had caught Turtle’s attention. Now what? The rumble grew quickly, then a pair of scramjets boomed overhead. They were old-model fighters and unmarked – company planes flying out of Kununurra, escorts in case of interference from the company’s competitors. Coming in low behind them was a gigantic VTOL cargo lifter.

“Ain’t a plane due for a week,” Juju said.

Turtle watched the monstrous aircraft descend towards the mine’s landing pad. He had a bad feeling that he knew what its cargo was. He propelled Juju away. “Move!”

Juju dug in his heels and pointed towards the servo. “Wait, what about the bruthas inside?”

Turtle shook his head.

“Damn, brutha. Larry and Moe?”

He felt a twinge. “Them too.”

Damn.” Juju’s finger jabbed at the dead creature at Turtle’s feet. “What is that?”

“They’re called Bloodless Men,” Turtle said. “They’re a weapon that shouldn’t be loose.”

#

Turtle burst into the police station and hurried through to the lock-up at the back. He flipped open the viewing hatch in the door of the first cell.

Murph was sitting on the fold-down bunk, her feet up. Her dark mop of hair was gone, replaced by a stubbled crew cut. She was dressed in desert boots and tight-fitting but practical fatigues – as low-key as it was possible for Murph to look. A wide-brimmed straw hat was hooked over the corner of the bunk, that she wore to protect her pale, freckled skin from the sun.

Barnestable squatted on the floor beside her. He looked rough – a barefoot, filthy little troll of a man. Bright eyes stared up at Turtle out of a haystack of hair and beard.

“Come on in, big boy,” said Murph.

He was tempted. If he was sure he could take her down he would have, but even if he could, he wouldn’t manage it without getting hurt, and he couldn’t afford that luxury right now.

“What the hell are the Bloodless Men doing out?” he said.

Barnestable cranked his head around to look at Murph. He cackled, playing his new character to the hilt. “Ain’t he just too sharp, eh? Told yous if we come up ere to warn him smart boy’d already know, didn’t I, eh?”

“They’re here now, Barnes,” Turtle snapped. “They shouldn’t be loose. Those things are not a controllable asset. They’re killing people in town.” He knew his fear was in his voice, but he didn’t care. The Bloodless Men were a terror weapon, designed to quell a population while they carried out their purpose of exterminating people like Midge, those susceptible to the Interlopers’ constant pressure on the Veil. Hunters capable of more discretion – like himself, Rhone, Barnestable and Murph – had been successful enough that the Bloodless Men had rarely been used.

Barnestable dropped the act. “It’s why we’re here, Turtle. To get Rhone and your kid out first.”

Turtle realised he was still holding onto the metal hatch cover, had bent it hopelessly out of shape with the tightness of his grip. “I told you before, Barnes, you’re not taking Midge in.”

Murph swung her legs off the bunk and sauntered over to the door. It took Turtle an effort of will not to lean back from the viewing hatch.

“Over your dead body can be arranged,” she drawled, and blew him a kiss.

Turtle let out his breath slowly as she swaggered back to the bunk. “Has it got that bad?”

Barnestable smirked lopsidedly. “Bad? Hell, no. We got the Interlopers smoked, on the run. Government’s found the gene that makes a candidate’s mind the way it is. Found the switch to turn it off, stuck the vaccine into mosquitoes. Soon there won’t be any more candidates born. No more conduits for the Interlopers to tear the Veil. This is the end game, Turtle. We’re driving the last nails into the coffin.”

Turtle stared at him. “What about those that are already born? What about Midge?”

“Midge? That your daughter?” Barnestable’s eyes glittered, but his voice was soft. “Can’t fix them once they’re born, big guy. We gotta take her in – her and Rhone. You can’t keep her safe anymore.”

“No!”

“Turtle!” A flicker of frustration crossed Barnstable’s face. “We only got partial sanction for this. The condition was that we leave you dead. Don’t make us do it that way.”

Turtle pushed himself away from the door. He slammed his fist into the wall opposite, leaving a crater in the cement.

“Screw you, Barnes!” he bellowed, storming out of the building.

He stopped outside, his muscles shaking with adrenalin, thoughts scattered by the pummelling of accumulated crises: Midge drifting closer to succumbing to the Interlopers. The company sniffing after the seals that kept the Interlopers out, looking for secrets they could profit from. The government setting the Bloodless Men loose after Midge, Barnes and Murph come to take Midge in – to be cut apart and broken or remade.

Calm, he told himself.

The cell wouldn’t hold Murph for long, he thought, thumbing the quad bike’s ignition. But he had the advantage that they didn’t know exactly where Rhone and Midge were. If they did, they wouldn’t have pulled the stunt they had to get his attention.

#

Inside the cell, Murph stood up again and stretched. “Well, so much for submitting quietly.”

“‘Over your dead body can be arranged’?” Barnestable mimicked. “That helped a lot.”

Murph smirked. “You got him?”

Still squatting on the floor, Barnestable convulsed like a cat bringing up a furball. With an extended gargle, he spat out a tiny GPS tracker. He wiped the screen with his thumb. The tracking dust that Murph had blown onto Turtle through the viewing hatch marked his position. “Yep.”

“How’s your stomach?”

Barnestable grimaced. “Good enough. Shall we?”

“Let’s.”

Murph cast her eye over the cell’s external wall, set her feet side-on to it, bent her knees, lowered her shoulder, and ran full-tilt at the prefabricated panel.

Waving concrete dust away from his face, Barnestable clambered through the hole she’d made. He offered Murph her straw hat. She brushed bits of rubble off her scalp and set it on her head.

“Now, transport…” Barnestable began. His brows lowered suspiciously, seeing Murph squint up at the clear sky, a beatific smile spreading across her face.

She said, “It’s a lovely day for a run.”

Barnestable folded his arms. “There is a certain urgency to the moment.”

She chuckled, stepped nimbly around him and scooped him up on her booted foot. Barnestable had time for a yelp of protest before she tossed him a few metres ahead of her. He landed on hands and feet, then sprang into a run.

Murph spied a pair of round little faces peering at her from the corner of a nearby house. She poked her tongue out. The kids grinned and showed her their middle fingers.

“Faster, piggy!” Murph exhorted, loping after Barnstable.

#

Turtle roared up to the mine’s gate. The boom was down. Troops in slick company colours outnumbered the faded uniforms of mine security. Hell with it, he thought, accelerating, I don’t have time for this. The small arms they were carrying would barely put a chip in his hide. The quad bike’s armoured tyres and cowling would last long enough.

He ducked low over the bike. Men scattered to either side of the gate. Bullets flicked off his arms and shoulders as Nghiem’s men opened fire. One hit him squarely in the forehead, causing his vision to flash for a second.

Too late, he saw the tripod-mounted recoilless rifle, sandbagged off to the left of the guardhouse.

He was already pushing himself upwards when the first shot ripped through the bike’s undercarriage, flipping it. Turtle flew like a missile towards the gate. He hit just in front of the boom, bounced underneath it and rolled, skittling a squad of reinforcements. He put out a hand to pop himself upright and his feet hit the ground running.

One of Nghiem’s Made Men was on him before he’d gone five paces. The guy was good enough to interrupt his escape – better than Turtle had expected. But not good enough to beat me, he thought, delivering an uppercut that punched through his opponent’s defences and lifted him off his feet.

Pain exploded through his right leg. Turtle looked down in surprise and saw neat entry and messy exit wounds in the carapace of his thigh. The shot had passed through the meat of his leg.

“Damn.”

His opponent kicked the injured leg, then hooked his left ankle, toppling him like a tree. Quick as a snake, the Made Man had Turtle’s own gun out of his holster and pointed at Turtle’s face.

The Made Man spat out a bloody tooth. “Executive Nghiem has requested that you join him in the Control Centre.”

Curly approached, cradling his cut-down 50-cal.

“Dammit, Curly,” Turtle said. He let the back of his head hit the dirt, pushing down a rising sense of panic.

Curly peered down at him. “Sorry, brother. Orders said.”

Turtle held out a hand. “Help me up.” Curly hauled him upright. Turtle tested his weight gingerly on his injured leg. The bleeding had stopped already. The muscle screamed pain, but supported him. He wasn’t going to be running anywhere right away, though.

He put his hands on Curly’s shoulders. “Some fellas took down Larry and Moe.” He felt a tremor under his palms. Curly watched his face intently. “Those same fellas will be coming after Rhone and Midge. I need you to keep them safe until I get there. Can you do that for me?”

Curly’s black eyes gleamed. “You going with these boys?” he asked. “Orders said.”

Turtle nodded. “I’ll go.” Not that he had much choice. The Made Man relaxed visibly and gestured for his troops to lower their weapons.

Curly rumbled deep in his chest. His grip on the 50-cal firmed. “I’m on it.”

He shrugged off Turtle’s hands and, without sparing a glance at Nghiem’s man, set off at a rolling run towards the switchback road that led to the top of the red stone hill.

Turtle didn’t know how long Curly would last against a pack of Bloodless Men. Or Murph. Best I can do, he thought to Rhone and Midge. I’m coming.

The Made Man watched Curly’s receding bulk, lips pursed.

“Stay out of it,” Turtle said. “Let’s go.”

#

“Guess Turtle won’t be showing us where they are,” said Murph.

“This is better,” said Barnestable, between gasps for air. “Reckon he’ll be out of the way. Follow the other big unit. Just the small matter of getting inside.”

Murph snorted.

“You may be bullet-proof,” Barnstable pointed out, “but I’m not.”

“I can toss you over the fence.”

“There’s gun towers all along the wire.”

Murph considered. “You notice that only the ones in the pretty uniforms fired on Turtle?”

“Others’ll be mine security. Turtle’s crew,” said Barnestable. “Pretty ones would’ve been on that cargo lifter.”

“Mm. I wonder what else is going on in there?” Murph mused. Her eyes flickered past him, and she grinned. Barnestable turned to see what had caught her attention. A pair of troop-carriers were speeding up from the town at the head of a cloud of red dust.

“A diversion, Barnes,” she declared, standing up and brushing off her pants. “That’s what we need. How’s your ventriloquism?”

#

The operations room was darkened, the panoramic windows activated to display images from the stations in the pits. Nghiem had Abu Bashir’s accustomed position on the central podium. Abu Bashir stood by the foot of the steps with Nghiem’s flunkies. The other two bodyguards had taken positions at opposite ends of the room. The crew in the pits were Abu Bashir’s men.

The outermost windows were divided into various small displays, showing the miners’ barracks, the main gate, the miners emerging, mid-shift and in evident confusion, from the deep shaft entrances. Nghiem’s big VTOL lifter squatted on the landing pad on the far side of the complex.

Turtle squinted at the display spread across the central windows as he hobbled across the room. A team in sealed environment suits worked around a complex mess of heavy equipment under stark overhead lighting. The glare from the lights partly obscured their activities. They were down in one of the deep shafts, Turtle realised, but they weren’t mining. The knot in the pit of his belly got tighter.

Abu Bashir frowned at him. “What the hell happened to you?”

Turtle winced. “Tried to ram the gate. Curly shot me.” He lowered his voice. “A.B., I got to get to my family.”

“They are in danger?”

Turtle nodded. “I need to get them out.”

“Government?”

He nodded again.

Abu Bashir looked at him intently, then nodded. “Ok. As soon as we can. Nghiem wants you here for this.”

On the central display, the sudden bright jet of a heavy plasma cutter rendered everything else invisible, before the camera adjusted.

Nghiem turned his head. “Perhaps you will tell us now what is inside, yes?”

The question confirmed Turtle’s worst fear. He watched members of the work crew push aside a cart loaded with what looked like analytic equipment, revealing a shape he knew too well. A forklift was driven in to take the heavy lid of the sarcophagus, the severed edges of its seal still glowing dull red. The plasma cutter at the end of a long robotic arm started down the sides of the box.

“You really don’t want to do that,” Turtle said.

“We have already disarmed the nuclear device,” said Nghiem, dismissively.

The side of the sarcophagus fell away, blowing up a cloud of dust. Workers moved in to gingerly remove the dark case that contained the tactical nuke, leaving only the lead coffin inside the sarcophagus. Turtle looked on in horror. Midge. Her mind would be like a beacon for the Interlopers. Was she far enough clear, up on top of the hill? He didn’t think so, and he didn’t know if Rhone could keep the Interlopers off her if not.

“Stop them,” he said. “Don’t touch that coffin.”

“The crew are disposable,” said Nghiem.

“There is half a kilometre of rock between there and the surface,” added Abu Bashir. “The shaft entrances have been rigged to detonate in an emergency.”

Turtle shook his head. “You don’t understand.”

Nghiem slapped the podium rail with the flat of his hand. “Then enlighten us! What is inside that box?”

“Nothing of value to the company. Nothing anyone can use.” Turtle ground his teeth. He needed to not be here. “Dammit.” He drew a deep breath. “It’s a tear in the fabric between this universe and the next. Pull your team out now, seal the shafts, and blow that nuke.”

Nghiem’s lip curled and he gave a disbelieving laugh. He turned back to the display. “Proceed.”

On-screen, a team moved in with a conventional precision drill and monitor rig.

Turtle caught hold of Abu Bashir’s arm. “We’re leaving.”

“What are you talking about?” Abu Bashir hissed back, having little choice but to follow. “A tear in the fabric between universes?”

The bodyguard who had escorted Turtle looked uncertainly from him to Nghiem, whose attention was still on the screens. Turtle gave a slight shake of his head.

“That’s how it was explained to me,” he said, gritting his teeth against the protests of his injured leg. “What I know is, if those screens stay live, everyone who’s in this room when that box is opened is dead. Everyone they come near is dead.” Midge and Rhone are dead. He pushed the thought down as he reached the door and palmed the control.

Then the voice started, that didn’t belong on this side of the Veil, that no human throat could ever produce. Turtle shoved Abu Bashir through the door and lunged after, slapping the control on the outside. With the door shut, he punched in the override lock code. Already the temperature was dropping.

Abu Bashir sprawled on the decking, his eyes like saucers. “What was that?”

Interloper. “A sound you never want to hear again.” Turtle picked him up and propelled him forward. “We need to clear the mine site, get everyone out. If we can seal them up in here, the distance will be enough to keep everyone else safe.” The knot in his stomach twisted further. Except for Midge. A few hundred metres wouldn’t be enough for her. “I got to see to my family.”

#

A soft footstep sounded at the kitchen doorway. Rhone and Wallace looked up from their go board. Midge didn’t quite meet their eyes. She hugged herself, gaunt and pale, her eyes ringed by dark bruises.

Wallace jumped up from his seat and ushered her into it, holding her shoulders to set her gently down. “Have a seat, love. Kettle’s still hot. Would you like a cuppa?”

She nodded mutely. Her grandfather stroked her hair, then bustled about making tea. Midge’s gaze flickered up to Rhone’s. “It happened again didn’t it?” she whispered.

Rhone nodded. “Yes.”

Midge’s expression crumpled, just for an instant, then she controlled herself. “I’m tired.”

Rhone reached out to squeeze her fingers. “Yeah. Me too.”

Wallace set a mug of milky tea in front of Midge and pulled out a third chair for himself. She picked the mug up in both hands, but didn’t drink.

Brigita ducked her head around the doorframe. “One of Turtle’s idiot brothers has just showed up outside, packing for war.”

Rhone stared at her. “What?”

“He reckons Turtle told him to keep you and Midge safe.”

Rhone was out of the kitchen a step ahead of Wallace. The front door stood open. A hulking armoured figure blocked the view beyond.

“Curly?”

He turned, stooping to look through the door. Rhone saw that he was carrying a rifle large enough not to look small in his oversized hands. His jaw chewed around some before he spoke, “Turtle said to keep you safe. Said some fellas killed Larry and Moe. Said they might come for you. Said keep you safe.”

With a terse nod, he turned back to his appointed duty. Rhone felt herself shrivel inside. It took some doing to take out two of Turtle’s kind. She knew the kind of people who could. Turtle, where are you?

“Killed Larry and Moe?” Wallace repeated in dumb disbelief.

“What’s going on?” Midge said from the kitchen door.

Brigita was already heading for the gun cabinet at the back of the room, keys jingling in her hand. She pulled out an assault rifle and deftly inserted a magazine before tossing it to Wallace. He stared at it in his hands like it was a poisonous snake.

“Granddad?”

Rhone answered for him, “We don’t know, honey.”

“Where’s Dad?”

“We don’t know that, either,” her grandmother growled.

Brigita had a second assault rifle out, this one with an underslung grenade launcher, into which she was shoving incendiary shells. Rhone’s gaze drifted back to the front door. Turtle, why aren’t you here? Curly had moved a few paces away from the house. He turned a slow circle as he scanned the surrounds.

She heard a gasp from behind her, turned in time to see Midge’s teacup slip from her fingers and smash on the tiles. Midge’s eyes rolled up and she slumped limply to the ground. Rhone had barely taken a step towards her when the voices hit her brain like a hammer blow. With a yell, she flung herself at Midge. She pressed her forehead against the girl’s. Desperately she pushed the voices back, away from Midge.

#

Turtle and Abu Bashir hurried for the cliff-side entrance. Once again, Turtle punched the override code for the door lock. He was about to step out onto the gantry when the flat crump of a grenade echoed up from the complex below.

“What the hell…”

Small arms fire rattled among the barracks. Another grenade exploded against the roof of the gatehouse. A squad of mine security raced along the gantry towards Control, with Juju at their head.

“What the hell is going on down there?” Abu Bashir shrieked, his already tattered composure shredding completely.

Juju skidded to a halt. He gave them a pained looked. “Me and some bruthas come up to get some floods and a coupla generators to take back to town. Figure if we’re gunna hole up for the night, we wanna see what’s comin. Anyway, we pick up that devil-woman and the dwarf on the road. How they busted out…” He swallowed at their impatient scowls. “Prick from headquarters don’t wanna let us through. Someone says somethin about someone’s mutha, someone pushes and shoves. Someone pulls a gun.” He grimaced again. “Someone gets shot.”

Abu Bashir’s eyes bulged. Juju flinched at another detonation from below, this one larger than a grenade – mining charges improvised for combat.

Turtle grabbed the front of his flack jacket. “Where are Murph and Barnes now? The woman and the dwarf?”

Juju cringed. “Lit out when the shootin started, brutha.”

The decking was getting cold underfoot. Turtle grabbed Abu Bashir with his other hand and propelled the two of them ahead of him, herding Juju’s whole squad back down the gantry.

“You need to shut that down,” he said to Juju. “Get all our crew off the site, all the miners too.”

“Can’t do it, brutha,” Juju protested. “They got the gatehouse and the perimeter systems. That’s why we’re comin up to Control, for override.”

“Shit,” said Turtle, with feeling. He’d heard enough stories of Interlopers breaking their slaves out of contained breaches to know the locked door wouldn’t hold them for long.

He reached past Juju and Abu Bashir and appropriated a shotgun from one of Juju’s men, that had a trigger guard big enough for him to get his finger through. He plucked a pair of grenades from another man’s bandolier.

“Talk those guys in the gatehouse into standing down if you can,” he said. “Or blow them up, I don’t care, but you need to clear the site now.”

Abu Bashir caught his arm. “Don’t be like my son. Don’t be a martyr.”

“It’s my family,” Turtle said.

He watched them clatter away down the steps, then looked up at the steep ladder bolted to the cliffside. Casting a last glance back at the door of the Control Centre, its outer surface now coated in frost, he launched himself upward. The weathered metal squealed in protest under his weight.

His right leg gave out three-quarters of the way up. With a yell of frustration, he hauled himself the rest of the way on his arms and left leg. The ladder topped out partway up the zigzag access road to the top of the ridge.

Puffing, Turtle jammed the grenades under the top of the ladder, beside the anchor bolts on each side. He pulled the pins and skip-hopped away. The explosion made him stumble. Shrapnel pattered against his back. The twin blast had blown apart the left side bolts and half-destroyed the right-hand set. Turtle hurried back to rip the ladder the rest of the way clear and push it out into the void. It bent away from the cliff with an extended creak of protesting metal.

“Turtle.”

His head snapped around. Barnestable squatted a few metres away. Too late, Turtle sensed the whisper of motion behind him.

Something cracked against the side of his skull.

#

Murph sucked a split knuckle. “Christ, he’s got a hard head.”

Barnestable squatted beside the prone figure and patted Turtle’s tattooed cheek. “I don’t expect you to thank us, big guy, but at least you’ll be alive to curse us.”

An enormous explosion rattled off the cliff. A fireball rose from the gatehouse, below.

Murph whistled. “You really outdid yourself this time, Barnes.”

He grinned sourly. “Come on.”

#

Brigita and Wallace gaped at Rhone and Midge.

“What the hell?” Brigita exclaimed.

Rhone cried out again between gritted teeth. The pressure against her mind was intolerable, like her skull was being crushed in a vice. She gasped, “Veil’s breached. Interlopers.”

Gunfire boomed outside. Curly had the huge rifle up at his shoulder. Rhone glimpsed bounding, shimmering figures. One of them was slapped backwards, mid-leap, as Curly found his target. Bloodless Men, she thought, in horror. Turtle! She broadcast the cry for help with all the strength she could spare.

Then the mental assault intensified and she had to squeeze her eyes shut. Cold enveloped her. Midge was still with her, but barely. Fight, she willed her. Fight, damn you!

“Stay with them,” she heard Brigita shout at Wallace.

A heartbeat later, the rapid whirr of Brigita’s assault rifle joined the boom of Curly’s gun.

There was a crash, and a cry from Wallace. Rhone’s eyes snapped open. Rubble from the ceiling rained down. A Bloodless Man dropped through the hole. Rhone glimpsed sticklike limbs and the flash of its blades as its shimmer cloak billowed around it. Wallace’s assault rifle whirred. Bits of the Bloodless Man splintered in the hail of bullets. Then its blades flashed and Wallace’s face froze in an expression of astonishment. His head and one arm slid away from the top of his torso, then the rest of his body split apart at the hips and toppled over.

Rhone screamed in horror and frustration as the hooded figure turned towards her, helpless to do anything but fight desperately to hold her mental defences against the Interlopers. She could see the Bloodless Man’s inside the hood of its shimmering cloak human eyes above the puckered, leech-like mouth.

Damn you, Turtle, where are you?

Something hit the Bloodless Man from above. There was a flurry of limbs too fast for Rhone to follow, and then Murph grinned down at her, breathing hard, one foot on the flattened head of the Bloodless Man. Its own fighting blades stood upright in its chest. For a heartbeat, Rhone’s defences wavered in plain shock.

The voices surged and once again she beat them away. It was harder this time. Sharp points of pressure pierced her shield, stabbing at her mind like claws. Her strength was fading.

Brigita back-pedalled through the front door. Three Bloodless Men bore Curly to the ground. Bright blades slashed. Then the slaughter was lost behind an expanding wall of flames as Brigita pumped incendiary grenades through the doorway.

Murph dropped her hat on the ground beside Rhone and plucked the twin blades from the dead Bloodless Man. With a howl, she launched herself towards the dissipating fireball.

#

With a groan, Turtle rolled over onto his back.

An aircraft flashed overhead, stealthed engines humming. New model fighter-bomber. Government plane, but unmarked. Abruptly alert, he twisted to follow its path. There was an explosion on the clifftop.

Taking out the air defences, he thought. Not that they needed to. His memory snapped back with a jolt that sat him up. Shit! Barnes! Murph must have knocked him out.

He leapt to his feet, wavering as his right leg threatened collapse. His heart skipped a beat. The shadowed door of the Control Centre stood open. Turtle watched as the first frozen figures appeared, moving stiffly but with alarming speed.

Last resort in the case of an Interloper break out was a nuclear strike. Barnes would know about the breach as soon as he got to Midge and Rhone.

He turned and ran, limping, up the road.

#

Rhone felt her barriers fraying. The voices pummelled her thoughts. Midge! Fight! At last, the girl’s presence flared. The pressure in Rhone’s brain receded as Midge put up her own defences.

There was another thump close by. Barnestable poised catlike on hands and feet, his broad grin splitting a tangle of beard. “Hallo, sweetcakes. You hurt?”

Rhone spat out the word, “Breach.”

Barnestable’s face fell. “Crap.” His eyes flickered to Midge.

“Not her,” Rhone grated. “Down deep. The mine.”

Barnestable nodded. “I’m calling it in.” He put a hand over hers, where she gripped Midge’s t-shirt, squeezed her fingers. “Keep fighting. We’re getting you out of here.”

Outside, Murph was dancing in a circle of flickering blades with the Bloodless Men. Beside Rhone, Barnestable heaved and hacked. His eyes turned red, veins standing out on his forehead. With a final gargle, he spat out a remarkably large metal cylinder.

Panting, he flipped the cap from the cylinder’s end and pressed down a detonator button. He flashed a grin at Rhone.

“Murph! Incoming!”

With the gusto of a ten-pin bowler, he rolled the grenade along the ground and through the front door. Brigita, still poised just inside, watched it go past. Her eyes widened and she flung herself full length to one side.

Outside, Murph sprang straight up. The heads of the Bloodless Men snapped up to follow her flight. They didn’t see the grenade arrive at their feet. Barnestable threw himself on top of Rhone and Midge.

There was a detonation, more a deafening buzz and a great sucking of air than an explosion. The world seemed to lurch. Nausea flooded over Rhone. She held frantically to her mental defences and to her contact with Midge.

Barnestable groaned and rolled off them. He’d absorbed most of the blast effects that had reached them. He crawled away and was noisily sick on top of the dead Bloodless Man.

Murph had come back to earth and was carving up the remaining hunters. One was already down. The other two jerked spastically as they tried to defend themselves.

Brigita gave a wail, seeing Wallace’s dismembered corpse for the first time. Barnestable pushed himself upright. His eyes glazed for a second, then he blinked. “Airlift’s here. Murph!”

She looked up from beating the last Bloodless Man with its own arm.

Barnestable jabbed a stubby finger at Rhone and Midge. “Grab these two.”

Murph tossed aside the severed limb and hurried inside. She didn’t need any further explanation. The last time she’d seen Rhone, Murph had crouched over a sniper rifle, picking off Interloper slaves while Rhone pressed her forehead to the back of Murph’s skull and kept the Interlopers off her.

Rhone pulled Midge’s arms and legs around herself while Murph hurried over. Midge clung on fiercely. Murph scooped both of them up in her arms.

“Barnes, bring her,” Rhone said to Barnestable as they were carried past. He hesitated. “Barnes!”

Swearing, Barnestable hauled Brigita up off her knees and dragged her after him.

Dust whirled outside in the downdraft of VTOL turbofans. A stealth gunship lowered itself to hover a couple of feet off the ground. Helmeted crew leaned out of its open door.

Gloved hands took Rhone and Midge from Murph and dumped them on the gunship’s deck. Murph, Barnes and Brigita piled in after.

“Go!” Barnestable bellowed over the roar of the engines.

“Turtle!” Rhone cried.

“No time,” Barnes said. “Strike’s on its way, and you two can’t hold on much longer anyway.” He thumped the panel between the hold and the cockpit.

Rhone squeezed her eyes shut against tears. She felt the deck press against her side as the gunship powered upwards. The pressure in her mind lessened as they rose, the Interlopers losing their grip. Midge gave a small sigh as the alien touch vanished altogether.

“Damn,” Murph said, to no-one in particular. “I forgot my hat.”

Gingerly, Rhone sat up.

Barnestable said, “If Turtle had been there, he would’ve tried to stop us.”

“And I would’ve had to kill him,” added Murph.

“You know we had to bring her in,” Barnestable continued. “It’s the only way to keep her safe.”

Rhone felt her chin tremble. She nodded.

Midge was watching them with clear eyes.

“Oh, Midge.”

She flinched away from Rhone’s hand and buried her face against her grandmother’s side. Brigita looked from Rhone, to Barnestable, to Murph, her eyes puffy but in control of herself. She nodded.

Barnestable crouched at the edge of the deck, by the open door. He pointed. “There.”

Rhone crawled over to see. Far below, a thickset figure stared after the departing aircraft. She felt a hand grip hers.

Barnestable looked at her gravely. “Our orders were to kill him, love. He knows the drill, knows a strike’s coming. He’ll get clear.”

The tears came then.

Barnestable drew her back from the lip, and a crewman slammed shut the door.

~END~

(c) Ian McHugh, 2011

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