Extract / Preview: Steeple by Jon Wallace

CBP - Steeple The van shakes and tips, rushing over speed humps. We are heading for the exit, the great gates where Effra Road meets Brixton Wall. I am finally leaving home.
A hood is drawn tight over my face. I taste detergent and sweat. The Diorama guard pulled this thing over my head, drawing it tight with a yank of a white cord. He bound my hands behind my back, guided me into the van and shackled my feet to the floor. He is back here with me. I can hear his fingers drumming on a rifle stock.
Strange. I could snap the bonds and punch through the van doors, so why these prison measures? Have my owners not read my specifications? What is it they think I want to escape?

*
I hear the protesters beyond the wall, chanting as we near the gates. A megaphone voice interrupts the beat of their song: pleas to disperse. We slow to a stop, wait, lurch forward again. The gears grind with every shuffle.

Today is distribution day. There will be other Engineered in other queuing vans. There will be miner models, mechanic models, surgeon models and programmer models, all setting out to play a part in the great mission of augmentation.

‘Come on, come on . . .’

The guard, speaking for the first time, though not to me. I hear the soldiers on the gate, scanning the driver’s palm and yelling instructions. Then we roll down a ramp and into the crowd.

The van becomes an enormous drum, hundreds of fists beating on the panels. Screaming voices too, so many I can barely pick out words. We bump through the turbulence, until the van turns, finds space, and picks up speed.

The guard whistles and barks a laugh. He leans over, taps my knee, and speaks into my ear.

‘Welcome to the real world.’

 

AMBUSCADE

You wait all day for a bus, then three come along at once. They appeared at the crest of the bridge, rumbling under the pylon, a diesel trio playing loud enough to wake the dead. This was trouble. I had only prepared for one.

The bridge moaned as  they  crossed.  Maybe  it  was  the thought of hosting another battle. It had always been ugly – a stark, cable- stayed tongue built to drool traffic over the Thames – but it had withstood a thermonuclear blast, and doubtless felt it deserved to rot in peace.

Clive, King of Kent, thought differently. He’d dispatched me to raid the Thurrock convoy, take what prizes I could, and generally spread the word of his glory. Six of his shivering, miserable species were mine to command. Our feeble mob might have been enough to take one bus, but three would be challenging, even under cover of the constant, frozen night.

I tucked away my binoculars and slithered through the mud, down the ramp to the scorched husks that had once been tollbooths. My Reals huddled where I’d left them, sharing something hot from a battered thermos. I told them to be ready. Their eyes said they never would be.

I crept away to my position, reflecting again on my situation. Losing membership of a bio-engineered super species, it turned out, was hard to accept. Nuclear winter was no picnic without the near- invulnerability afforded by Pander-brand nanotech. Survival had become a full-time job. My body, once a peak of regenerating perfection, was a sack of disease and decay. A single bullet could maim, infect or kill. My brain was  a  wreck,  incapable  of  focus.  Worst of all, I’d been forced to accept employment from an amateur tyrant, starvation certain without King Clive’s patronage. It sure was despicable being Real.

I would have brooded some more, but I heard something struggle in the mud behind me. Fingers gripped my  shoulder.

‘Ken!’

It was Bridget, one of my crew. Even in the gloom I recognised her. It was hard not to. Her complexion was raw with red spots. She scratched her face impatiently, like it was a lottery card.

‘Get to your position, Bridget.’

‘Listen, Ken, this  is  completely  booloo. We  can’t  fight  that  many. Stop me if I’m wrong.’

‘Find somewhere to hide,’ I said. ‘I’ll let you know when it’s over.’ She shook her head.

‘Don’t take that tone, Kenneth.We prepared for one double-decker, not a flaming fleet. There’s brave and there’s bone-headed.’

I considered for a moment. Was she right? Why insist on a fight? I wasn’t Ficial any more and the odds weren’t with us. We could still withdraw unseen, the convoy taking its time to inch over the crossing. I was jolted from my thoughts by a great metallic crash, down by the tollbooths. It seemed one of my stealthy squad had blundered into a road sign.

Almost immediately there was shouting up the bridge. The buses lurched to a halt, cut engines and  slumped  into  silence. Well, that was it. No point leaving now. It was a fight. I checked my rifle. Got to my feet.

I took four paces before a machine gun opened up. It was the usual inaccurate stuff, but enough to make me pick up the pace. Bridget followed, quite a sprinter when the mood took her. I found cover   by a wrecked goods vehicle, Bridget skidding down next to me.

The Thurrock’s machine gun clattered away  for  a  solid minute. My squad didn’t return fire, apparently content to muse on the tracer cutting through the night. It wasn’t such a bad plan. Soon enough the Thurrock gun spluttered out of ammunition. Silence for a moment. Then, voices: foreign tongues, too close for comfort. Bridget peeked around the wreck at the speakers, then whipped back, holding up two fingers.

I had to remind myself that standing up and running through a cloud of bullets was no longer in the options mix. Then I saw the cable, a loose black snake hanging from the pylon, thrashing in the wind over the swollen river.

I crouched on my numb feet, pulled my rifle over my shoulder, edged past Bridget. She mouthed something at me. Something about being insane.

‘Don’t worry.’ I said that a lot these days.‘This won’t take a minute.’ I ran clear, headed up the bridge. The night lit up, shots popping in wrecks as I ducked and dived. I fell to my belly, mildly surprised to note the fire was coming from my own  people.

At least the skirmishers had taken cover too. This was the only chance I’d get. I broke for the railing and jumped right off the bridge. I reached for the cable, but it caught the wind and blew almost clear. I snatched at the ragged  tip,  gripped,  and  swung  out  over the black river like a baited line. Then the swing slowed, stopped, and propelled me back at the bridge, slapping me hard against the caisson.

I gasped for breath, grip slipping, the icy black Thames awfully close. I found the strength to seize the cable in my other hand, climbed a little way, then kicked off the caisson, swaying in a pendulum towards the far shore. Four more kicks and I travelled high enough to grab the deck railing. I released the cable, watched it clatter back the way it came.

I climbed onto the deck and dropped behind the rear bus, apparently unobserved. The Thurrocks must have thought me lost to the river. Most were further down the bridge, busy shooting blind in the gloom.

I edged along the bus, head below the window line, pausing at the middle doors and peeking inside. The driver’s seat was empty. No voices. No footsteps. The seating had been ripped out. In its place were strap-packed metal barrels, liquid pooling on the lids.

I crept inside, up the gum-stained stairs. There were no seats or cargo on the upper deck, only a carpet of Real trash and a fixed gun poking from the rear window. It was in good condition, but too big to lift. I was tired just looking at  it.

I slunk downstairs and out, taking the knife from my boot and slashing punctures in each front tyre. I squatted, listened to them hiss, and planned my next move.

Then I heard growling. I looked around. A very presentable black terrier was baring its teeth at me. I took a moment to identify it as Ficial. It had a good coat, vital eyes, and a tail darting at the cloud. Must have been some- thing special if the Reals were keeping it alive. Most of man’s best friends had been barbecued long ago.

I tried smiling at it, but it didn’t like that. It took a couple of powerful steps in my direction and snarled.

‘OK,’ said a voice. ‘Get up and turn around slow.’ I didn’t turn. The dog had my attention.

‘I said turn around.’

Worn boots, in the corner of my eye. I whipped around and plunged the knife into the nearest foot. The owner shrieked and crumpled. I went for his rifle, but was way too slow.

The terrier sunk its teeth into my ankle. I cried out and staggered, trying to shake its clamped jaws loose, but it held tight, growling in a satisfied way. I thought about shooting it, but that seemed wrong. After all, it was my closest relative for miles.

The Thurrocks must have overheard the disagreement. Gunfire raked the bus, showering glass. I punched the dog hard behind the head, stunning it. Then I prised its jaws loose and tossed it into the bus, where it rolled and lay still.

I picked up the dead man’s rifle and headed for the Thurrock pack, limping and shooting. The Thurrocks panicked, caught between my fire and my squad’s.

The first bus shook and rolled, Thurrocks scrabbling  on board. The second gunned its engine and jerked forward, trying to overtake the leader, but found its way blocked by wrecks. It blared its horn, about as useful a gesture as it was in pre-war traffic. I took a grenade from my belt and pursued.

A bald Real stuck his head out the top deck and pointed a pistol my way. He would have had me, but the bus thumped into reverse and tried for a three-point turn, unbalancing Baldy. I tossed the grenade through the lower back window, briefly wondering what precious cargo I might destroy, then dropped and  rolled. The  engine  blew out the back of the double-decker, lighting up the world in a brief, tantalising flare. The blast propelled the mangled bus on its front wheels, dragging its shrieking behind, until it slammed into the central reservation.

 

Two survivors crawled from the wreckage. I shot them down and boarded the bus, hacking in the hot, black  smoke.

A Real lay slumped over the wheel. Boxes littered the lower deck, burning quietly. I tore the lid from the nearest and found books inside.

Cookbooks. I tossed the box aside, opened the rest. All the same.

I hobbled up the stairs. Baldy was crawling between the seats, a wound in his back pumping blood. I knelt, took the pistol from his hand, and turned him over. His belly spilled its contents. I retched, covering my face. Another useless Real reflex to add to my gather- ing collection. He said a few words to himself in a language I didn’t know. Then he noticed me.

‘Hurts,’ he said.

‘Of course it hurts.’ I showed off the seeping dog bite. ‘That’s being Real for you. Do you have any food on board?’

He began to cry, suddenly looking very young. ‘Want to live.’

I stood and levelled the pistol at him. ‘You’re better off out of it.’

There was a tin of tomato soup on one of the seats. I knifed it open and drank. I ripped a strip off the dead Real’s coat to bandage my wound, took his boots and a sodden pack of cigarettes. Looting Real corpses. What would the lads in Edinburgh  say?

I clambered down the stairs, stepped out onto the bridge and listened. No voices: only warm, peaceful flames and the wind in the cables.

‘Ken! I don’t believe it!’

Bridget waved her arms, running through the  smoke.

‘I thought you were done for after that high dive act. Are you OK?

Have they got anything to   eat?’

I ignored her, treading carefully back to the rear bus. I peered inside and found the terrier gone. Bridget joined me, noticed the barrels, pushed me out the way.

‘Thurrock beer! What a find!’

She pressed her lips to the barrel tops, slurped the excess fluid. I left her, limped across the deck to the guardrail, slumped and wheezed.

Up the bridge something jumped onto a wreck. The terrier. It barked defiantly, pointing its nose high, as if it could see the moon through  the cloudbank.

Bridget jumped out the bus, eyes wild. ‘A  dog! I love the taste of  dog!’

She made to run after it, but I held her back. ‘No  time.’

‘Let go! I’m starving!’

She kept on struggling, until the dog jumped down and ran out of sight. Bridget relented, slumping against the bus. She took a long look at me.

‘You know what, Ken?’ she said. ‘I don’t get you sometimes.’

She headed down the bridge to gather the squad. I slouched on the railing and gazed at the tarry river. For a moment I thought I saw a pattern, ripples on the surface spelling out a message. A strange urge seized me.

Then a cheer knocked me out my trance. Bridget must have told the squad about the beer. I stepped back from the railing and made for the shore.

 

CBP - Steeple
Jun-15
Steeple
Jon Wallace
9780575118447
TPB
£14.99
Gollancz
TBC
2
Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep meets The Raid in this high action SF thriller.
Another high action SF dystopia perfect for fans of Richard Morgan and Alfred Bester alike. The follow-up to the acclaimed Barricade this another short, sharp and kinetic SF thriller
Kenstibec is a Ficial – a genetically engineered artificial life form; tough, skilled, hard to kill. Or at least he was. He’s lost the nanotech that constantly repaired him. Life just got real. Just like it is for the few remaining humans in this blighted world – the Reals; locked in a fight over a ruined world with the Ficials they created to make Utopia.
And now Kestibec must take a trip to the pinnicle of our failed civilisation. The Steeple is a one thousand storey tower that looms over the wreckage of London. It is worshipped, feared and haunted by attack droids and cannibals. And the location of a secret that just might save Kenstibec’s life.The only way is up.

*

* See our AUTHOR PROFILE OF JON WALLACE including book 1 in the series, BARRICADE.

* Click here for MORE JAN-JUN TITLES FROM GOLLANCZ

* Click here for MORE TOP RECOMMENDS COMING IN JUNE!

* And there’s more extracts from our pick of titles – you can see in order of most recent in our EXTRACTS ARTICLES CATEGORY,  and below in order that we put them out!

DAVE VS THE MONSTERS: EMERGENCE – John Birmingham
SKY PIRATES – Liesel Schwarz
BLOOD RED CITY – Justin Richards
RADIANT STATE – Peter Higgins
THE SUMMONER – Taran Matharu
MARKED – Sue Tingey
BETE – Adam Roberts
FOUL TIDES TURNING – Stephen Hunt
STEEPLE – John Wallace
CRASHING HEAVEN – Al Robertson
BENEATH LONDON – James Blaylock
OUR LADY OF THE STREETS – Tom Pollock
CAUSAL ANGEL – Hannu Rajaniemi
YOUR SERVANTS AND YOUR PEOPLE – David Towsey
THE SEVENTH MISS HADFIELD – Anna Caltabiano
DETECTIVE STRONGOAK AND THE CASE OF THE DEAD ELF – Terry Newman
THE RELIC GUILD – Edward Cox
FOXGLOVE SUMMER – Ben Aaronovitch
THE MOON AND THE SUN – Vonda McIntyre
PATH OF GODS – Snorri Kristjansson
TIME SALVAGER – Wesley Chu
REGENERATION – Stephanie Saulter
THE SUPERNATURAL ENHANCEMENTS – Edgar Cantero
THE RETURN OF THE DISCONTINUED MAN – Mark Hodder
THE MARTIAN – Andy Weir
KOKO THE MIGHTY – Kieran Shea
THE UNNOTICEABLES – Robert Brockway
IF/THEN – Matthew de Abaitua
THE SAND MEN – Christopher Fowler
THE DRAGON ENGINE – Andy Remic
YOUR RESTING PLACE – David Towsey
THE NIGHT CLOCK – Paul Meloy
MYTHMAKER – Marianne de Pierres
THE RETURN OF THE ARINN – Frank P Ryan
WAY DOWN DARK – J P Smythe
LIMIT – Frank Schatzing
DREAMLAND – Robert L Anderson
THE ARK – Patrick S Tomlinson