“Want to toggle aroma on?” asks Sean-off. He's my partner, across the road covering me. He can see the corpses in his chat window. The two flyblown heaps of ex-combatant in my doorway look all too fragrant.

   “No bloody way, mate,” I retort, “and sod orders, by the way.” I haven't missed being able to smell the roses on this tour. I probe the corpses with the sensor-bayonet. Their flesh gives sickeningly little resistance but their staring eyes make me hesitate. A thermobaric cluster bomb subdued the village, including a couple of decisively subdued PCCs lying where they had waited to cross the road. Sean-off's camera lingers on them.He can play the cheeky bugger all he likes. He doesn't like it here.

    There are no sign of sensors or explosives my end. I flash a clear signal and move on into the house. The follow-up attack has left the room strangely eroded, as though something has smoothed off all of the surfaces with a sandblaster. The walls show where the long hyphae of penetrating aero-formed explosive attached themselves before exploding.

    “Snaked to buggery in here.” 

    Snake forms long strings which stick to everything: people, glass, furniture like silly-string. It was designed to cut wires and remove obstacles to free passage in confined spaces, but once it was used in combat, well then there was a new love-me hate-me superstar in the military firmament. The detonation has filled the floor with shattered debris and dealt with one survivor who lies slumped against an interior door, hands raised against the scarred wood.

    “She looks like something from one of those Tiranawood slasher downloads.”

    “You watch those? She's bled too much from the snake to have been killed in the first attack.”

    “So where's she been?”

    "There must be a cellar here."

    The officer channel flickers, the response is sluggish and bored: "check it out.”

    No really? Should I? I would never have thought of that on my own. Don't get me wrong. My lieutenant is better than most, but he's old-school. He hasn't fully adapted to the new world and its professional soldier.

    "Acknowledged. Checking for cellar."

    There it is. At the base of the stairs. A dusty door in the floor. She'd come out and closed it tight, so there was something down there. I flip into sensory-enhancement and open the hatch. Nothing moves. It is silent except for the creaky wanderings of beetles and spiders.

    “Old life-signs: elevated carbon dioxide; no heat; decay components from mouldy food, they are all dead, almost certainly.” I jump down and stop dead. "Yup. Nothing here expect some ex-PCCs,” I look back at the trapdoor, “the cellar has a home-made pressure lock. It saved them from the bombing, but then they asphyxiated when she didn't come back.”

    “Perhaps she was a child-minder,” says Sean-off.

    “Or a terrorist trainer,” adds the Lieutenant, hopefully. I'm not really listening, I'm staring at the dead face in the corner. I'm stone cold. I'll be here forever now. Shit.

    “No. No weapons. No explosives. No accouterments of any sort. It's a clean one." There were bottles of wine in racks, tantalisingly, cruelly close at hand.

    "Damn. You sure."

    "Yes, sir." Of course I'm damn sure, just like all the others.

    "Look closer. You know the drill."

    For God's sake. I move back to up the kitchen. Rummage through some cupboards. The snake has cracked open a few tins of meat and fish.

    "There are damaged food containers."

    "Acknowledged. Botulinum manufactory."

    "Query botulinum manufactory, sir."

    "Uh huh. Egress then soldier.”

    "Acknowledged." Egress indeed. Fancy words, ugly job. I egressionalise the farmhouse and a bullet, probably from a Somalian copy of a high-velocity sniper's rifle smacks into my head.

    “On it,” spits Sean-off, “and nailed.” I track an anti-perp missile crossing behind me. It flies into an old plum tree a kilometre down the road and turns it into a squealing fireball edged with a smoky purple fringe, like a fancy firework.

    “That stung. Nine millimetre, probably tungsten-nickel-cobolt by the feel of it.”

    “Lucky you, not DU.”

    “Nah, uranium is too politically incorrect, even if TNC is more carcinogenic.”

    “Probably a nimby.”

    I sympathise with the people of this landscape, an ancient highway for foreign armies. This time it's open-source against PatentCorp, free-access against big-bio, sino-slavic pert-toddlers against The Atlantic Firewall, the infalability of The Book against wiki-truth, NAJTO against the NEU. An echo of a hundred years ago, except now it's intellectual property and vetos that the old guard have carved up amongst themselves, not chunks of Africa and Asia, and the newcomers want more than the leftovers as always.

    Now there's a twist. Locals have always objected to the proxy wars which wash over them. Now they are organised and fight back: neo-pacifists, post-nationalists, ultrarchists, counter-cheneyites, unsurrectionists, survivalistas, take your pick. Every war now has two fronts. Military strategists talk about membranes now: permeable, semi-permeable, meme-permeable. They don't have suits or bots yet, so they hide in trees and dent our spidersilk armour hoping we'll spare the tree if not the shooter. Sometimes it even works. Non-combatants are a quaint anachronism now like cavalry or duels.

Among the scattered dry blues of walking guns, drones and sabobots hunting anything with an infra-red signature, one of the sats picks up a wet, relaying it as a glowing golden ring three kilometres wide. That's as close as it's likely to get. The rest is up to us.

    “Wet,” snaps Sean-off. Something moves. I sense it before I see it in my peripheral vision. Bots we can deal with – civilians can't of course, not usually – but suit-to-wet combat is a harder problem, even two to one.

    "Contact. Take a look," the Lieutenant buzzes in my ear, catching up. We are already down. Well, Sean-off is down.

    “Damnation.” The Lieutenant is riding me, co-opting control of the suit, monitoring and correcting my every move as though I'm the one who is new to this, leaving me in a bad position. Sean-off sighs.

    "Wait one, lieutenant."

    "Contact. Look"

    He takes over the suit. He actually takes over the suit. I hear a series of faint hisses. A bad approximation of the stench of the battlefield assaults me. So, Tyson is a sniffer which means that I loose a fifty quid bet to Sean-off. Worst than that, he moves me. He moves my head - the wrong way.

    "It's a PCC, sir," I protest.

    "Close in and clean up."

    "Lieutenant, wait, that's not it-"


    The kid is sitting splay legged in the dust against a signpost, perhaps seven years old, stuffing some unthinkable crap into his mouth. His arms and legs are sticks. His belly is distended. The smell of cooking plums has brought him out.

    "Just a kid."

    “Potential Child Combatant." he snaps, “clean up."

    The kid hasn't registered as a threat.


    "I gave you an order."

     What the hell. It's almost the end of my rotation anyway. Nice timing. No really, it's nice timing for me. Perfect in fact. If you get spooked, you need out. The wet is behind us, well stealthed and shedding screeds of countermeasures. The RPG hits me in the back as soon as I move toward the kid. The child looms as I'm blown towards it, its face wide, growing a silent scream. I hit the signpost, demolishing it, the suit crackles. The Lieutenant squeals in my ear. Placenames drop grotesquely past my visual field as it breaks up. Dunkerque bounces off my foot. Calais smacks me on the head. I feel nothing as I blink out of existence, not even regret. Not even relief that the kid managed to scuttle into a hole in the wall before Sean brings down walk-mortar hell into the village. Not even satisfaction that the lieutenant will be written-up for flushing a million quid's worth of suit.


    “This guild is going to hell,” moans Sean-off, “see you tomorrow, mate.”

    I can only grunt. It hurts, coming out the hard way. No-one wants their expensive suits put at risk by bored squaddies who want out. The haptics reflect hits pretty hard.

    I pull the helmet off and step out of the chair. Nausea flickers over me as the room resolves. I toss the glasses and start to peel the gloves. Part of me is still in the cellar.

    "Daddy!" When I don't immediately respond, Sam peers at the seat, listening to the rumble-packs creaking to neutral as though he is listening to Rice Crispies. A small round dome in the leather in the middle of the back sinks slowly back until it's flush with the material.

    "One second son." He concentrates on the chair as only a five year old can, then runs to the doorway.

    "Daddy's home!"

    Disorientation fades, focus returns, the war growls and goes back into its mental compartment. Most of it. "Happy birthday you little rascal." Whether I was hacked are flaked out, it's all the same in the end, bit it was Sam's face. In the cellar.

    "Look what I got." Pudgy fingers wave in front of my face. "Look."

    "Alright." Phantom pain creaks in my back from the RPG. My body will echo the hit for a while.

    "Evening dear. We thought you weren't coming home."

    "I had a bad day. Our lieutenant will probably get fired. He'll have to re-enlist with a regular regiment.”

    "Me too, Lucy had an ear infection." Jenny puts a cup of coffee down on top of my News of the World, she stops and snifs the helmet: “God, what is that smell?”

    “You don’t want to know,” I grunt, "are the kids here?"

    "Oh yes. They started the party without you. They need a little military discipline."

    "Do they really. Let's hope not," I look out of the window at the trees and the rolling downs, where thunder rolls in from the ancient barrier of the channel.

   I'm still in the cellar, two hours running and swimming away for a suit, “Not for a while.”