Authors: Will McIntosh
I don’t have to pluck. Your minds are all laid out in front of me.
The door was locked. The room was comfortable, replete with a well-stocked kitchen and an entertainment system that was so up-to-date it contained movies yet to be released. But the door was locked.
You’re considered a risk. They don’t know the extent of my power to influence you.
Oliver turned in his rotating chair to face Five, whose accommodations were less plush. Behind the carbon alloy mesh that separated them, Five’s room was empty except for a water dispensation device that resembled a giant hamster lick. Five was lying flat, his appendages splayed like the spokes of an elephant-sized wheel. His skin had a stony, mottled texture, and there were bristles protruding at evenly spaced intervals across it. The cilia protruding from the tips were as thick as nautical rope, and transparent.
“Because you were able to win over a thirteen-year-old boy, they think you might be able to convince me that I’m fighting on the wrong side? That’s absurd.”
But they don’t know that
, Five said.
They think you’ve become too familiar with me. Too friendly.
Love Minus Eighty
Published by Orbit
All characters and events in this publication, other than those clearly in the public domain, are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Copyright © 2014 by Will McIntosh
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, without the prior permission in writing of the publisher.
The publisher is not responsible for websites (or their content) that are not owned by the publisher.
Little, Brown Book Group
100 Victoria Embankment
London, EC4Y 0DY
Table of Contents
To James Pugh
It was a quaint Pennsylvania town, many of the buildings well over fifty years old, with green canopies shading narrow doorways. Even the town’s name was quaint: Morris Run. If not for the abandoned vehicles, filthy and faded by two years of exposure to the elements, and the trash stacked along the sidewalk, Quinto might have expected someone to step out of the Bullfrog Brewhouse and wave hello.
“Lieutenant Lucky?” Quinto turned to see Macalena, his platoon sergeant, making his way to the front of the carrier. Quinto wished he’d said something the first time someone called him Lucky, but it was far too late now. Most of the troops he was leading today probably didn’t know his real name.
“One of the new guys shit his pants,” Macalena said when he drew close, his voice low, giving Quinto a whiff of his sour breath.
Quinto sighed heavily. “Oh, hell.”
“The kid’s scared to death. He hasn’t been out of Philadelphia since this started.”
“No, I don’t blame him.” Quinto looked over Macalena’s shoulder, saw the kid perched on the side of the carrier, head down. He was about fourteen. The poor kid didn’t belong out here. Not that Quinto couldn’t use him; they called raw recruits “fish food,” but sometimes they were surprisingly effective in a firefight, because they were too scared to think. The starfish could get less of a read on what they were going to do, which way they were going to point their rifles. Usually the newbies didn’t shit their pants until the shooting started, though. “Does he have a spare pair?”
Macalena shook his head. “That’s the only pair he owns.”
Quinto reached into his pack, pulled out a pair of fatigue pants, and handed them to Macalena. “I hope he’s got a belt.”
Macalena laughed, stuck the pants under his armpit, and headed toward the kid.
What an awful thing, to be out here at fourteen, fifteen. When Quinto was fourteen, he’d spent his days playing video games, shooting bad guys in his room while Mom fetched fruit juice and chocolate chip cookies and told him when to go to bed.
They reached the end of the little downtown, which was composed of that single road, and the landscape opened up, revealing pine forest, the occasional house, mountains rising up on all horizons. There was little reason for any Luyten to be within eight miles of this abandoned backwater town, but they were all out there somewhere, so there was always a chance they’d be detected.
Quinto tried to access his helmet’s topographical maps, but the signal still wasn’t coming through. He pulled the old hard copy from his pack, unfolded it.
The carrier slowed; Quinto looked up from the map to see what was going on. There was a visual-recognition drone stuck in a drainage ditch along the side of the road. As they approached, the VRA drone—little more than a machine gun on treads—spun and trained its gun on each of the soldiers in turn. When it got to Quinto, it paused.
” Quinto shouted, engaging the thing’s vocal-recognition failsafe. It went on to the next soldier.
It was always an uncomfortable moment, having a VRA drone point a weapon at you. You’d think it would be hard to mistake a human for a Luyten.
Failing to identify anything that resembled a starfish, the gun spun away.
“Get a few guys to pull it out of the ditch,” Quinto said. Four troops hopped out of the transport and wrestled the thing back onto the road. It headed off down the road, continuing on its randomly determined route.
Pleasant Street dead-ended close to the mouth of the mine, about half a mile past an old hotel that should be coming up on their left. When they got to the mine they’d have to unseal it using the critical blast points indicated on the topo map, then a 2.5-mile ride on the maglev flats into the mine, to the storage facility.
If someone had told Quinto two years ago that he’d be going into an abandoned mine to retrieve seventy-year-old weapons and ammo, he would have laughed out loud.
It wasn’t funny now.
The locomotive and five boxcars were parked right where they were supposed to be—as close to the mouth of the mine as the track would allow. They were late-twentieth-century vintage, the locomotive orange and shaped like a stretched Mack truck. Quinto called Macalena and his squad leaders, instructed them to set the big recognition-targeting gun they’d brought along in the weeds on the far side of the road, and place two gunners near the entrance with interlocking fire. When that was done, they got the rest of the squads moving down the tunnel. The quicker they moved, the sooner they’d be out of hostile territory and back in Philly.
Quinto took up the rear of the last carrier for the ride down into the mine. He was not a fan of deep holes with black walls, and when his CO had first laid out the mission Quinto had nearly crapped his own pants.
Macalena climbed in and took the seat beside him.
“So what are we looking for? I cannot for the life of me guess what we’re doing in here.”
Quinto smiled. It must seem an odd destination to the rest of the men, but they were used to being kept in the dark about missions. The fewer people who knew, the less likely the starfish were to get the information. Or so the logic went.
“The feds have been sealing huge caches of weapons in old mines for the past two centuries, waiting for the day when Argentina or India or whoever took out our more visible weapons depots. They coat them in Cosmoline and pretty much forget about them.”
Macalena frowned, sticking out his big lower lip. “You mean, old hand grenades and machine guns and shit?”
“More or less. Flamethrowers with a pathetically limited effectiveness range, eighty-one-millimeter mortars, LAW rockets, fifty-cal MGs.” Most were outdated weapons, but simple, easy to operate.
Macalena shook his head. “So we’re that desperate.”
In the seat in front of them a private who was at least seventy was clinging to the bar in front of her seat. She was tall—at least six feet. The slight jostling of the carrier was clearly causing her old body discomfort. It was true what they said: There were no civilians anymore, only soldiers and children.
“Yup. We’re that desperate,” Quinto said. “They’ve destroyed or seized so much of our hardware that we have more soldiers than guns.”
“What’s Cosmoline?” Macalena asked.
“I didn’t know, either; I had to look it up. It’s a grease they used back in the day to preserve weapons. Once you chip away the hardened Cosmoline, the weapons are supposed to be like new.”
Macalena grunted, spit off the side. “Dusty as hell in here. And cold.”
“Let’s be glad we’re not staying.”
Macalena’s comm erupted, a panicked voice calling his name.