Granite foothills inched over tundra. A crescent, enveloped by a smattering of pines. Error one: right climate, wrong soil. Permafrost left native shrubs stunted and inbred—why should it spare anything taller? Taiga forests began blanketing the landscape about three hundred klicks due south. Tempests began weighing down the horizon with brows of sleet. An hour off, maybe less.
Error two. Corn stalks whistled in the oncoming Arctic gale.
An ancient, glass-topped Diameter dome curled into the lee of the foothill's northern tip, somehow unscalped by the winds and the frost and the howling. The trunk-shattering cold of the deep winter hadn't destroyed a grey-timbered shed hunkered down a stone's throw from the dome. An autotrak's corpse rusted.
Last one of the day.
Jagg swung the 'bay doors open with a grunt. Waggling pine fronds disappeared without her scopes. Fine. She always got the last glimpse of the fields with naked eyes, before infrared and graphics objectified her view. Before the soot smudged out everything.
One tap: affirmative.
Static acknowledgments, fuzzy through cannibalized headphones.
Four purgeskins hopped off the manta-sleek shuttle's exit ramp, shook the pyro-gel caking their spigot burners with dainty flicks. Flat cloud-grey forearms, blank face-visors, naked cables contracting and loosing across the clunky suggestion of digits. All hammered. Boxy and dented and utterly interchangeable. No logos. Fuel-copias strapped to their rears (backs?) regurgitated constantly.
A wrinkled, ageless face slithered under a knotted archway of roots without making a sound or dropping the pipe between its teeth. Tar smoke followed, a double-barreled cloud, chasing the rotting furs on its back. Slipping down Venn's throat as his finger tapped the rifle's safety.
"Shuttle not slipped away." Soot caked dreadlocks and a beard swayed in the knife-chill. Lime-green corn husks woven into his hair bounced , all sixteen of them. Bandoleer belts rasped against his parka. Green Man, soft and still.
"I got em nailed—"
"—so pilot watch the scopes. Anything past the patrol, he notice." As if Venn hadn't spoken. Green Man only interrupted to fill dead air. Or correct dead words. Never forcefully, never harshly. Young wood bends.
"Pilot notice movement, it gone. You gone. We gone. All this out before it begin."
Ash flipped into the scrub and died.
Dozens of other smokerolls hissed out a second later—between roots, nestled in canopies, behind their agri-dome. Venn hefted the rifle's heavy butt into his shoulder. Blinked.
Shoulder seals popped out of optical haziness.
His headphones squawked.
—Jagg called. The arrowhead bunched. Spigots flared. Wind caught at the barrages of sparks shooting from the clumps they'd already burned. An oval-shaped patch at the crescent's southern tip had already caught, exploding into an inferno greased by old husks. Just three percent of the field was ablaze, but the oncoming storm would drag the flames north and into the pines.
Eight Patrol only needed to trim the corners and guide the bulk of the inferno. Then run a final mop-up to catch every last seed, stalk, and bunch. Routine purge. She'd been running them since the feeding camps spat her out for uncooperative behaviour. In her duffel bag was a textbook, an old CD with archaic indoctrination videos. Scissors, for her hair.
She joined Eight Patrol the next morning.
<Anyone want to ignite—?>
<All yours, Mora>
A single purgesuit broke from the arrow's left flank, lumbering towards the agri-dome with a utiliclaw scrabbling at the stock mag-strapped to its back. Danger sigils blinked in the dying light. Grenade launcher.
Yeg's mob didn't twitch. They couldn't see, crouched behind the shed with antique shotguns hefted between frostbitten fingers.
Venn give the orders: Green Man's words.
Static sputtered in his ears—auditory refuse. Clicks from the other six mobs encircling the fields, pressing their bare mouths into snow to leave no trace on any scanners.
"Can't expect me to wait."
One HE round per support: accurate and quick. Bass rumbles pummelled Venn's eardrums, overlapping as the supports cracked and steel pieces sprayed for dozens of yards in every direction. Decapitated branches fell all around, the Green Man nodding with his charcoal-painted eyelids closed in a slow sad rhymn of weariness. The closest to acceptance their pitiful tribe was ever allowed to witness.
No beans, no potatoes. Tomatoes, leeks, onions, celery—all of it broiled in a stew of fyceline and nitrogen and cordite as the acrid powder spiced it and bleached the ground for good. A final dish, flavoured with Yegg's blood. Fortified with the marrow of his bones and the flesh of his mob: three men, six women, two boys.
Half the field was aflame, spitting corncobs like landmines in great arcing pinwheels. The purgesuit lowered its launcher, tapped a symbol on its forearm terminal, turned on its heels to trot back to the descration team pushing deeper into their harvest.
Venn buried the stock into his shoulder. Clicked the safety off.
<Sleep well, freak garden—>
Mora muttered. Jagg grunted, rolling shoulders numbed by monotony. Nineteen hours in-suit. Forteen targets today, the dispatcher icon at her brow buzzing endlesslly until she'd broken protocol and hit the mute button. Eight Patrol took the brunt of the cleanup calls in the Northern Division. Thousands of acres evapourated under their spigots each week: corn roots, squash patches, glistening pink seas of wheat. All the symptoms of an aggressively, sickly, tainted Gaia. Freak ecology.
Seals hissed. The superheated air kept detonating the corncobs: sharp pops to punctuate the Diameter Dome rejoining the foothills in a puddle of glass. Mora thumbed her triggers, send another two rounds into the remains. Cackled as a fuel tank cracked somewhere inside, blindsided her suit's gyros, chucked her into the dirt.
Dirt geysers traced around Mora's sprawled suit, took a chip off her left shoulderpad. She jolted once, lay limp. A magnesium-white explosion perforated her temple. Ground down the daisy decal on her temple into carbon scoring as Jagg was—
—crushed by disbelief and a hypersonic round to her midsection.
She tumbled, numb. A gash in the cornrows to her right added three feet to her fall, broke bones in her shoulders. Embers fluttered in the wake of antique bullets, crossbow bolts—the streak of a modern railrifle—populating the sky above her head.
Mora. Her laugh forever grating on the ears.
Red needlepoints pricked her eyes, followed her optical nerves straight down to the mess of her ribs. Seals held: her blood and spilled lymph puddled under the arch of her ruined back. Static assaulted her, squealing and shrieking. Inbound atmospherics.
They'd be buried. Ashes mixed with snow.
Venn wrenched the bolt. Dabbed crosshairs gently past the mound of the grenadier, launcher sticking up crooked over one shoulder. Past the puddled limbs of the second purgesuit, taken by Kigali's sternum shot. Marking the pumping arm segments of the third one (with an X. Red paint on an albatross).
"Dead, ken? Nay broken. They flesh, they living."
Shot eight bruised his shoulder and punctuated the statement: a lethal period that caught the fleeing 'suit under its left actuator, tossed Kevlar plating fifteen feet in all directions. A short-lived exclamation point. Moe's mob, inching into the cornfields on their stomachs, clenched their triggers and tore the last suit to pieces. It toppled over its own heels. Hands raised.
"Them and the ones that sent 'em."
Out. Venn's bony fingers pried a mag from his boot. Clicked it home, worked the bolt. All automatic and totally futile against the withering of their livelihood in the blazing cornrows beyond. Cracks bridged the soundscape between reloads, a background hum to the whooping of the reserves slipping cautiously from cover and flipping their safeties off. Victory rounds boomed into the tumultuous skies: a few punched fresh dents in Kevlar heads.
"Those sensors be helms. Wi' heads 'neath them."
"Was helms, Green Man," Venn snapped. "Was. Then-tense. They's dead. Now-tense."
"Team. One team fall, aye. About the rest? Ones in shuttlecraft and groundriders? The many thousands livin' in th' Fertile South? Shielded behind twisted orchards and husks of cities and zap-wires?"
"We killed a team, Green Man!" Venn yelled, twisting out of cover to spit his wrath into the hooded eyes and crouched posture of their de-facto chief for all to hear. "We, the Corn Folk, killed a purgesuit team!"
"Aye," Green Man murmured, slathering at the pigment running near the corners of his eyes. The glare, or the heat. Their fields became an oven just a few dozen paces from where the two stood. Couldn't be tears? Green Man wore his own fingernails to the marrow planting crops. Crunched his molars into dust sucking the lichen from granite. Starved for the Corn Folk's sick.
Couldn't be tears.
Her neck tingled. A pyre danced into the blackening skies, leaving aftermarks on her retinas. The glarevisors were melting. Only proofed to last an hour's inferno conditions, tops, and the mission clock was running 01:12:55.
Static rinsed out her ears against all human voices. There were just spurts, half-syllables, garbled utterances more machine-code than spoken. No hails from the shuttle. They shared with Nine and Seventeen Patrol. Both waited on pickup a thousand miles east.
Serenity endued her remaining seconds. Adrenaline, or inevitability. Blood caked her sides, sticking to her hips where Ulda last kissed them. Ages ago—eleven hours—nestled into a foldbunk. Eastblock-22. She'd slammed her shin on the etching last night.
It stung. Required a fitness report from a night medic to prove that despite recklessness in the pursuit of a midnight fuck, she was in fact still capable of performing her duties. Plenty tried taking themselves out of commission after four ops. She'd been team leader on eight.
All routine. His words and hers.
Black dots crashed at her pupils. Her helm was someone's cymbal. Glass spidercracked.
Tink TINK. Tink TINK TINK.
Twin iron nibs tapped a crater into her visor. Fixed to a quavering tube. A barrel; ancient. Assault rifle. Green all-weather boots consumed the midground, ankles hewn by hungry mouths.
Tink TINK TINK TINK CRACK
No fury. It simply dribbled out the gashes of her broken back.
Crackling masked the boot's retreat. Her helm had been wrenched irrepairably left into a divot driven through a molehill. Flames clawed at a sapling pine. Severed the cones and chiseled them apart. Inked itself onto her retinas. Deeper.
A wrinkled face filled her visor. Ageless, sooty-black. Dreadlocks died with lime-green corn husks swayed above a rough satchel. No rifles, no bandoleers, not even a bush knife strapped through the thongs on his shoulder.
Barely a whisper.
"I—" she coughed. "—not armed. None of us—"
A compulsion; to let the breath escape her collapsing lungs, external speakers or no.
"I be Green Man. You purgesuit. Starvation-drone. Hunger-banshee."
He stared at her neck-seal. Guessed at a gaze. Continued.
"—fields are condemned. You heard the bulletins—"
"We be planting here."
"Corn Folk got needs. Cancers, hungers. You got designs. You impress 'em on the fullness o' our bellies. Shape it. Curb it."
"I demanded peace."
Yellowed teeth flashed.
"But I's alive. I prune and shape and cull. I got designs too."
Pine cones hissed. Split. Fizzled under the first pinches of snow.
<Quota call: Eight Patrol. Quota call.>