We are the Odd Couple, Gould and I. We move side by side up the hallway, guns in our faces, guns at our backs: one of us built like Atlas, one like Charlie Brown; one of us probably good as dead, one dead already.
Only one of us is silent. Gould mutters as we move forward—I catch snatches of Tara, her father, lousy career choices, but after one abortive attempt to strike up a dialogue with Strickland—
“You think you’re so smart, Tara? You realize this isn’t even Prophet, it’s just some grun—”
“Jesus, Nathan, give it a fucking rest.”
—he stops talking to anyone but himself.
I’m still unsteady on my feet. The floor seems to shift under me with every step, and it’s only when Strickland hisses “Seismic tremor!” that I realize this is bigger than me. We move into a broad lobby just in time to see a ceiling full of decorative masonry shake loose eight meters overhead.
That speeds things up.
Suddenly the goons are bursting with really useful information like The fucking ceiling! and It’s coming down! and Strickland’s ordering everyone out now as if we needed the encouragement. One of the decorative coliseum-style pillars flanking the door craaacks down the middle like a split log and I’m outside again, Lockhart still holding the suit-sapper against my skull, a squad of mercs lighting me up with little red dots, the whole pack of us moving in a clump toward an Apache spinning up across the street. Gould’s disappeared—no, there he is, they’ve bundled him into a double-parked Humvee down the street. Bye-bye Gould. Sorry it didn’t work out. Glad you found some balls there at the end.
The whole street’s vibrating. They bundle me into the chopper. Lockhart hands the suit-sapper to the nearest merc, yells “Get him to Prism!” and exits stage left. The chopper climbs into the air.
And the very fucking ground reaches out after it to smash us back to earth.
I don’t know what I’m seeing in those moments. Suddenly the building we’ve just left is shedding windowpanes like fish scales. Earthquake, I think, but in the next second something explodes out of it, just punches through all that steel and concrete like it was cardboard and keeps coming and it’s after us, I could swear it’s reaching right for the chopper and no matter how high we go it just keeps coming. And then it’s past us, I can see the sides of the fucking thing sliding by like one of those antique moon rockets from the museums, you know, the Saturn V’s. Except it’s not all shiny and white and tricked out with stars-and-stripes. It’s black, it’s black as fucking coal and it’s bony, I don’t know how else to describe it, it’s like ammo belts and the tire treads off a strip-mine harvester all twisted into a tight spiral. Something glows deep inside, shining through the cracks and seams like lava. And it’s still spearing up out of that building, out of the ground, it’s streaking up so fast you’d swear it wasn’t moving at all, that we were falling down past it. Something bitch-slaps us hard to port and it’s no fucking illusion anymore: We’re falling. The engine’s deader than I am, the blades are still beating the air but it’s all just wishes and inertia now. Pilot’s doing his best. He’s in full autorotation mode and it must be doing some good because the ground comes spinning up and the tail rotor snaps like a twig and the cabin spins and bounces along the ground—but when I’m thrown clear I’m still in one piece, man. I’m shaken and stirred but I’m still breathing—
You know what I mean.
So I’m flat on my back looking up at this spire, this giant twisted tower of backbones and machinery that’s just rammed its way out of the earth and I do not know what to make of this at all. These are supposed to be space aliens, right? Not Mole Men. Because seriously, you want me to believe that aliens from out past Mars have been planting these goddamn things under Manhattan and nobody ever noticed . . .?
And that’s when I hear it.
It sounds like the spear’s revving up: that special creepy hiss that only Cephtech seems to make. There’s a kind of grillwork assembly around the base, these flaps or fins or something that fold up and you can see something behind, starting to glow like the coils of a space heater, but that’s not where the sound is coming from. It’s coming from higher up. I try to get back on my feet but the haptics are fratzing out, must be an aftereffect of the suit-sapper; I can stand but when I try to put one foot ahead of the other it’s all staggers and error icons. Mercs are pouring from the skewered building and I’m looking around for a bazooka or semiautomatic or a goddamn rock to throw, if and when my joints reboot; but CELL isn’t paying much attention to me anyway. They’re all looking up at that big ugly earth-raping spear, they’re looking up trying to get a fix on that sound, and suddenly I realize it isn’t coming from the spear at all. It’s coming from way higher up, from this little flock of beetles dropping down from the sky. They’re dropping fast: It’s only about two seconds before they’re big enough to not be beetles anymore. Now they’re big fucking dragonflies with glowing crescent scythes for wings. They’re flying wedges of metal shot through with pipes and armatures and big honking cement mixers. And those cement mixers might have been slop-full of digested human remains in the ship that came down this morning but I’m betting that’s not all the Ceph use them for. I’d bet Lockhart’s miserable life that these are dropships.
They are. They’re still ten meters off the ground when they drop those pods like giant eggs, and the things that come out of them are a lot nastier than any newborn hatchling has any right to be. The bogeymen I’ve seen before, but some of these fuckers are huge: three times the size of a man, like—like tanks on legs. Their arms don’t hold guns and don’t end in guns: their arms are guns, big fucking cannons bolted to the torso, bores the size of manholes. The ground shivers with every step they take.
I gotta hand it to CELL. They stand their ground, they fight back. I don’t know if I’d call it courage. Maybe. But by the time my joints unlock I’m in the middle of another massacre and the only decision I’ve got to make is whether to die with my fellow backbones or just fade to black and hope the Ceph forget about me while they kick the shit out of black ops over there.
And then the spear starts hooting. Something snaps, way overhead. I look up and the tip of the spire has opened like the petals of a big black flower; and the thing those petals have folded back to expose is full of vents.
I take half a second to scoop up a carbine from a mall cop who won’t be needing it anymore. Then I run like hell.
Before I’ve even turned tail I can see the smoke belching out overhead, black stuff, darker than oil and coarser, somehow. It reaches for me. That’s not a metaphor. This shit doesn’t disperse, it hunts. I can see cords of it, big ropy tentacles of smoke thick as telephone poles, reaching around in huge sweeping arcs and circles. It looks a lot like what they always said battlefield nanotech would look like, if we could ever get it to work.
These aliens, they’ve got it working just fine. The suit’s finally back up to full strength and I’m driving it as fast as I can, don’t even dare look back, but I can feel the sky going dark behind me. I can see my shadow fading against the pavement and just like that it’s got me, it’s like being caught in a goddamn tornado. It lifts me right off my feet; it slams me onto the pavement. I can see little black particles sleeting across my faceplate. It’s like being sandblasted with pepper. I try to get back up but my joints are seizing again, tactical’s sprouting error icons like hyperherpes and just dies. BUD disappears; the world follows a moment later. I’m blind, my motor systems are spazzing out, and the last thing I hear is False Prophet telling me there’s been a systems breach, that the N2 is infested—that’s the word he uses, infested—and that we’re initiating a total core-systems downboot to protect life support.
He’s still calculating the odds of pulling that off when I black out.