This is an extract from a section close to the start of the book, ‘Day One‘
“Helmets off, I would suggest,” said Professor Helms, after completing his inspection of the shredded and scattered remnants of the bloomed Flesh-Web. He retracted his helmet, and the cold wind sheared his skin.
The air was disgusting, of course. Breathing it was like drinking treacle with embedded broken glass. But Helms needed to feel the breeze on his cheeks, and he loved to hear the singing of the birds and lizardflies and howling insects, the sighing and moaning of the overhead branches with his own ears, not via the helmet amp.
Major Sorcha Molloy followed his lead, sliding her helmet back into its casing, then running one hand through her closecropped blonde hair. Hugo Baal, absent-mindedly, also retracted his helmet, and then he began blinking, surprised at the sun’s raw beams. Then Django, Mia, Tonii and Ben all followed suit, savouring on their faces the bizarre blend of baking heat and icy wind that was so typical of this planet.
Behind them, the wagon train of Scientists and Soldiers – housed in three AmRovers and a cargo truck – waited patiently, indulging Helms’s eccentricity. They had plenty of bloomed- Web samples already. His true reason for stopping was just to “take the air”.
And all around them, like bloodied petals, a sprawling mass of suppurating flesh that was all that remained of a Flesh-Web that had experienced its characteristic violent, quasi-orgasmic blooming.
Helms took a sip of water, and passed the bottle to Sorcha. She skied it, pouring the water into her open mouth, then wiped her mouth with her soft glove. She was, he mused, magnificent, and terrifying, just like this planet.
Sorcha sensed his thoughts; she glared at Helms, for staring.
He hid a smile.
“Let’s go,” said Professor Helms, and they boarded the AmRover and headed back into the jungle.
The lead AmRover low-hovered, and its plasma cannons roared in a slow rhythm, burning a path through the densest patches of unbloomed Flesh-Web – the luridly multicoloured animal flesh that constituted the undergrowth of this alien jungle.
The other two AmRovers, huge armoured vehicles with silver and red livery, and the even vaster and uglier cargo truck swept behind in stately cortège. They moved without noise, supported on pillars of air, hovering like vast frogs over knotted grasses, shrubs and sessile animals that struggled to survive amidst the swiftly growing Webs. And all around them the thick impermeable trunks of the Aldiss trees loomed high, creating a cathedral-like effect amidst the bleeding leaves.
Three Soldiers flew beside and above the four vehicles, plasma weapons at the ready. Their job was to protect the two Scientists, Hugo Baal and David Go, who flew one each side of AmRover 1. And their job was to film every plant and animal and patch of ground with versatile cameras that could “see” in the visual, ultraviolet and infrared spectra, and also functioned as microscopes and, if necessary, telescopes.
Hugo and David flew erratically, zipping across to capture close-ups of interesting wildlife, constantly forgetting they had a zoom lens on the camera of exceptional power and pixel-quality. The three Soldiers felt like sheepdogs cursed with lively and inquisitive sheep.
To make their task even harder, the expedition’s docu-director and camerawoman, Mia Nightingale, was constantly hovering and darting around amongst them all, capturing wonderful shots of the imperious wagon train crashing through the jungle, the flying Scientists filming wildlife, and their brave Soldier escorts swooping along beside them.
Hugo soared fast and low, captivated by the sheer variety of small birds which flew along with him, attempting to mate with his body armour.
Sorcha, meanwhile, was piloting AmRover 1, with Professor Helms and Dr Django Llorente with her in the cockpit.
From time to time Helms looked up at the vast canopies of purple leaves above as they shimmered in the mist, and at the varied flocks of birds that patchily filled the air above them, like ants marching in file through the sky.
“Hugo, can you catch me a couple of those little green birds?”
“Yes of course, Professor.”
Hugo soared up high, and hurled a nanonet that caught the flock in flight. Then he dragged the net behind him and deposited it in the AmRover’s roof hopper.
“Thank you, Professor.”
The cockpit of the AmRover was spacious, with hardglass surrounds offering a vivid view of the surrounding jungle. And the air in front of each of them was filled with vast virtual screens, which allowed Helms and Sorcha and Django to check their data and their emails obsessively, as the AmRover continued its hovering flight through dense alien forest.
“Did you catch that, Django?”
“I did. Five-legged creature, the same colour as the Flesh-Web.”
Sorcha narrowed her eyes. She hadn’t seen anything.
Django was a handsome dark-skinned man, with eerily staring eyes. Helms had never warmed to him, but no one could doubt his intelligence, or blazing ambition.
Professor Helms himself was less than handsome, skinnily slender, not tall, not especially good-looking, and had oncemyopic eyes that now were blessed with 20/20 vision but had left him with a tendency to squint. He had a gentle, mellifluous voice, and rarely spoke louder than a murmur.
Beside him, on the curving front couch of the cockpit, sat Major Sorcha Molloy. As always, Sorcha was scowling and anxious, anticipating potential disasters. She’d lost thirteen Soldiers in two years to the New Amazonian habitat, through a variety of terrible mishaps:
- shaken to death by predators (6)
- blown up and brain-damaged by the blast of Exploding-Trees (2)
- boiled alive in their body armour by forest fires of impossible heat (2)
- consumed by pollen (1)
- eaten alive by insects that had nested in their body armour (2)
She had come to regard the planet as an enemy of appalling duplicity and malice.
Sorcha was tall, at least a head taller than Helms, and muscular, with close-cropped blond hair and pale blue eyes. She steered with one hand on a virtual wheel, occasionally flicking a virtual joystick with her other hand to control height and speed, and treating the notion of small talk with the contempt she felt it deserved.
Django sat in the brooding silence, longing for chit-chat.
Helms sighed, but didn’t dare risk embarking upon a conversation, so instead listened to a concerto on his mobile implant.
And Sorcha sat, and worried, and scowled. She hated this planet; she despised Scientists; she hated science in totality; and she loathed all aliens.
Her scorn followed her like a familiar.
Helms felt his stomach lurch.
The AmRover was meant to be gyroscopically controlled, but it juddered and plunged every time there was an obstacle or a leaping predator or a scary-looking plant form. And whenever they passed close to the Flesh-Webs, tendrils leaped out and clung to the hull and cockpit of the vehicle. It made him feel as if spiders were weaving webs over his eyes.
And now, with his visor on full magnification, Helms could see how the Webs were constantly oozing red pus down on to the soil, propagating and forming rivers and ponds of scarlet excrement, from which new Webs would eventually emerge.
He considered it to be a wondrous sight; like watching blood give birth.
“Target dead ahead,” said Dr Ben Kirkham over his MI, and Helms’s spirits soared.
The wagon train emerged into a jungle oasis. This was a vast, eerie clearing fringed by more huge tree trunks, where the Flesh-Webs were unable to thrive because of the poisonous soil. The soil also exhaled a methane-based smog, creating a grey miasma of vileness all around them.
Helms debarked from the AmRover, and hovered in his body armour above the deadly soil. Light shone through the purple leaves of the Canopy in thick beams, bouncing off the mirrorleafed plants that thrived in soil that was too barren for almost any other living thing.
And there, grazing on mirrored bushes and shrubs in the fog-infested oasis, lurked the Godzilla. It was sixty feet high, scarlet-scaled, reptilian in appearance, with no eyes, and a barbed tongue that could be expelled like a sword being ripped from a scabbard.
“Start filming,” Professor Helms subvoced into his MI.
Mia flew forward with her camera on its bodymount, capturing the Godzilla in full panoramic 3D glory. She circled around it, then flew above to get the aerial view, and the Godzilla became aware of her and turned its head to face her. Mia kept her distance, using her zoom to capture glorious close-ups of the monster’s spittle and slime.
“Ultrasound, please,” said Professor Helms.
From AmRover 1, Django fired an ultrasound pulse at the Godzilla, which troubled it visibly. A full interior image of the beast appeared on their helmet screens, revealing two hearts, a complex lung structure, and the usual abundance of Butterfly-Bird symbiotes.
“It’s very different,” David Go subvocalised cautiously to the others on their MIs.
“One heart more than it ought to have,” said Hugo.
“If those are hearts,” mused Professor Helms, judiciously.
Beside him, Sorcha subvoced to her team: “Alpha, move closer, Beta, prepare for covering fire, Gamma, wait for my command.” The body-armoured Soldiers moved into position.
Django completed a spectrometer scan. “I’m getting clear traces of chlorophyll.”
“Perhaps it’s a different species which mimics the Godzilla form,” suggested Hugo.
“Or a later stage in the creature’s life cycle.”
“Or just different.”
“Let’s take it down,” Professor Helms suggested.
“Let’s take it down,” Sorcha ordered, and the Soldiers moved into firing positions.