Sky City One is ten years old. For Taylor, one of the first recruits up there, it’s home. Everything he has is there; his boyfriend, his job, everything. But the secret they keep from the Earth below won’t keep much longer. The swarm is moving, and time is running out…
The wind gets big up here, gusts of 300 and 400 kph rushing and racing through the long corridors. If everything wasn’t already magged down, it would be swept away in moments. I remember when the recruits first landed and one made the mistake of leaving the briefing room with her tablet in her hand. One moment she’s clutching it like a baby, the next it’s a tiny spot as it soars out of the city and into the blue.
Lessons learned. That was, ironically, the title of the presentation I’ve just finished giving. It’s the same one I’ve given for five years, now, but it works, so why screw with it? It’s important they know. Most of the landies don’t have a clue what really goes on up here. They don’t know about the deaths or the doubt. They just know someone’s up here looking out for them.
But the recruits, the ones that make it this far, need to know. The more they know before they begin, the less chance they have of making the same screw ups we did when we first came up.
I remember it like it was yesterday, though it’s been ten years. I remember stepping off the shuttle and glancing down. I imagined, for a moment, I was getting off a tube train and seeing the tracks through the gap between train and platform. Only, this time, I saw blue sky and the tiny dots of the countryside far below. My heart lurched along with my head and I grabbed the pole that ran alongside the docking board.
I could hear the commander chuckling behind me, so I straightened up, took a deep breath, and kept walking. The docking platform wasn’t much larger than a tube platform, but the wind made it feel ten times the size. I leant into it, suddenly glad for the oxygen tube poking over my shoulder. Not that it lasted too long. It only took a month for the challenges to begin. Who can make it from the shuttle to the door without using the oxygen tube? Stupid games, stupid, dangerous games. Fun, though.
But on my first landing, I used it every step of the way, battling through the wind to the door. Stepping inside was blessed relief, as the temperature soared and I straightened up.
There were 12 of us, that first time. The city felt pristine, virgin, despite the two years of builders and engineers climbing all over it. They were gone, now, waiting for the maintenance crew to take over, but for a few precious weeks, we were alone.
We needed to be. None of us knew it, then, none except the commander, but the things we were told in that first week could never, and have never, been shared with anyone who goes back down. I’m surprised they don’t trust anyone, but then, I’m not sure I would, either.
We shuffled in, stripping off our shuttle suits and heading for the briefing room. In those days, I was given the briefings instead of handing them out, so I sat down with the other 11 and we watched Commander Tarril stomp up to the podium and clear his throat.
‘Recruits, welcome to Sky City One. You’ve come here as pioneers of a new way of policing. Whilst the world drifts by below us, we’ll scan every last person down there. And when we see something happening, something serious, we’ll pounce.’
We all nod, grinning and fist-bumping. This was the same speech he gave us down below, after we’d made it through the endless trials and contests. We knew what was coming next. Except, of course, we didn’t.
His face shifts and he coughs again. ‘Recruits, you’ve been lied to.’
The room falls utterly silent. He makes eye contact with every one of us, nodding as we wait, eyes wide, for the truth.
‘I’ve lied to you and so has your government. We are a police force, that much is true. But there’s a different reason for us being up here.’ He turns and clicks a remote control he has in one hand. The screen behind him flashes into life. On it is a picture of what looks like a giant fly. There’s a chance it looks giant just because it’s on the screen, but I have the feeling we’re seeing it life size.
He steps to one side and jabs a finger at it. ‘Study it, carefully.’
We wait for more, but there isn’t any, so we just stare. It’s not quite the same as a fly. Its wing span is wider and its wings, narrower. Its legs are just as furry and gross, but its head has a jaw beneath it instead of the nasty sucker thing. Everything else is the same. Except for the size.
‘What is it?’ The guy beside me calls out. Jackson. A nice guy, not the sharpest, but stronger than anyone I’ve ever met, and brutally cold. He destroyed everyone in the tests, me included. Except for the thinking ones, I beat him on those. But sometimes you need someone who hits first and asks questions later. That’s what I assumed, anyway. I’m guessing most of my assumptions are going to be a load of rubbish.
‘We’re calling it a Space Fly.’ The commander holds up both hands, grinning ruefully. ‘I know, it’s a shitty name. But it doesn’t look like anything else. And before you ask, we know jack shit about it.’
He strolls back to his podium and jabs at his tablet. ‘What we do know. They appeared about three years ago. One of the long range satellites picked them up as they entered the solar system. As you can imagine, they aren’t exactly easy to see in space, but the sheer numbers made them stand out.’
‘What kind of numbers, sir?’
‘Have a look at this.’ Another click of the remote. We’re looking at a planet. I should recognise it, but I’ve never been hot on those sorts of things. It looks like it’s covered in dark clouds, but as he clicks the remote again, we zoom in and I see what the clouds really are. My throat fills with bile and I cover my mouth.
‘They swarm. They aren’t like locusts, or not so far as we’ve figured it out. But they swarm, by the billion. The temperature of Uranus has risen significantly, despite the massive drop in sunlight reaching the planet’s surface. The colony was cleared out two years ago.’
‘Where did they go?’
The commander blushes. I didn’t think he was capable of even feeling those sorts of emotions, but there’s no doubting he’s ashamed of something.
‘There are some hard truths you’re all going to have to come to terms with, and fast. I’m sure the quickest amongst you’ – his eyes flick over me and I half squirm, half sit up straighter – ‘are wondering why this is all so secret. Let me tell you why now, so there aren’t any doubts. The space flies are swarming. Uranus is gone and Saturn will be next. We have a decade, maybe two at most, to find the solution. Until we do, you guys are the first line of defence.’
That was ten years ago. We’ve not found a solution and the ‘maybe two’ was optimistic. But the population of Sky City One’s gone from 13 to well over a 1000, every one of us hardened by months of fighting. It’s disgusting, close-up, hard fighting, the kind that either builds muscle or tears you apart. I’ve seen more than my fair share of tearing, far more than I ever wanted to.
So now we have the new recruits. 12 green as grass newbies to whom I’ve just had to tell the truth, the same truth Commander Tarril told us. They’re my recruits. It’s my turn. It should have been Jackson’s, but we swapped. He’s having a bad month. He’s been having a bad month for a while now, but anything I can do to make it less bad, I do.
Partially, I do it because I love him. Partially I do it because I hate waking up in the morning and having him lie next to me, bitching and moaning about the day ahead. I love him, more than anything in the world, but I’d be happier if he just dealt with his shit instead of unloading it onto me.
Not that I’ll ever tell him. I don’t think that would be good for our relationship, not at all.
‘Recruits. Form up, eyes front, mouths closed.’
They do it, faster than we ever did. But then, the training’s got harder. They’ve stopped pretending it’s for the police, now. Apparently, the world policing situation is better suited to special forces types, which is absolutely true, though none of them know quite what world policing means until they get here. But it means the 12 kids standing in front of me are stronger, faster and smarter than anyone else on the station.
They’ve been getting smarter the last six months. I’m still waiting for one to realise they’re better at everything than we are and call me on it. Hasn’t happened yet. I’ve a feeling it’s because when they first meet the flies, I’m the one shooting them and they’re the ones puking into their suits or screaming like little children.
I stroll along the line, making eye contact with every one of them, making sure they know I’m seeing them. We’ll be making first contact in five days. So I’ve got five days to take them from the state of shock in which they currently find themselves, to battle ready. It’s as laughable as it’s always been.
‘Anyone have any questions?’
‘Sir, why weren’t we told, sir?’ It comes from the girl on the end. I clocked her when she came in. Five nothing, shortest recruit we’ve had in a long time, and slim with it. There’s not much there, though I’m sure she’ll soon prove otherwise.
‘Why do you think, recruit?’
‘Widespread panic and everything that goes along with it, terrorism, wars, mass exodus.’
‘That just about covers it.’
‘Why aren’t we evacuating?’
‘Evacuating to where? Did you see the moon?’
She did see it. It’s why she’s biting her lip instead of asking another question. The moon looks like it’s wrapped in smoke. The colonies there have been emptied, same as the rest, the bodies of the colonists used to slow the approaching army.
They’re doing an excellent job, as well. For every dead human floating around in space, we buy an extra day or two before the flies grow tired of the moon and head further in, to Earth. Of course, before they do that, they’ve gotta come through us.
I swallow and blink away my thoughts. I wish I believed coming through us meant something. 1000 humans against billions of flies, each the size of a car.
‘We begin training in 20 minutes. That’s how long you’ve got to find your room, get your stuff in, and take a shit.’
I’m walking before they dash past me, scrambling for the lifts. I should be heading straight for the combat room, prepping it for the first session, but my assistant will have already done it. So instead I amble to the end of the long tunnel, to where it empties out into the near dark of the upper atmosphere.
The city rose late last year. We took it up several 1000 metres, further into the darkness of space. And away from Earth. Before then, we were experiencing attacks maybe once a week. Then, as the flies swarmed the moon, it became an attack every day, then several attacks every day. Now they’re almost constant. The faint thud and hum of blaster shots is so background I no longer notice it. The recruits winced, though, when they first arrived. They didn’t know what they were hearing, or why, but they recognised gunfire. They knew the sound of combat.
I sit myself on the lip of the tunnel, legs dangling over the Earth. One little push, turn off the mags, and I’d be flying. I’ve sat here too many times, and imagined the push too often. Every day, there’s less that keeps me here. Jackson, obviously, and the struggle. But the struggle’s not going to last much longer and there’s no way I’m going down like that.
I’ve seen it happen, up close. Just last month, a couple of the flies got through the cordon and into this very tunnel. A new recruit, on the city less than a week, came charging out with his blaster. But it malfunctioned. These things happen, of course they happen, but I was too slow to stop what came next. The flies landed on her, their weight slamming her to the floor.
Those jaws, that look so tiny compared to their eyes, bit and tore open her suit. The vomit came next, spewing from their mouths to melt into her skin and flesh. I can still hear her screaming. Once she was suitably soft inside, the flies started to suck it all back out, her liquidized organs disappearing down their throats.
By then others had arrived and, moment’s later, both flies were torn apart. But by then, the recruit was jellified from the inside out. I shudder and shake my head. I’m not dying like that. So why not end it with the long drop, the one way journey to Earth more than one new recruit takes after their first encounter?
Because I’m not a coward. Because of Jackson. And because the 12 men and women I’ve just told the truth to are waiting for me to keep them alive. Bloody fools.
The next five days go slow. It’s rare that they do, but I’ll take what I can get. These 12 are good, not one weak spot amongst them. The girl, Dixie, is faster than anyone else up here. She’ll be useful, assuming she’s heavy enough to wing ride. I’ve already got tech support making her up a pair of extra heavy mag boots.
There’s another, a Nigerian called Weller, who’s beyond capable with guns. He fires like he’s been doing it since he was born, which he may well have been, considering the political shit going on there. But he belongs up here. He’s a natural. Damned funny, too.
I like this lot. They want to be here and, now they know why they are, they’re rising to the occasion. We had a group, a few months back, who should never have come. Not one strong one amongst them. Smith was given them, which was maybe the first mistake, but I’m not sure anyone else would have fared better. In the end, they all held hands and took the long drop together. 12 guardians of the Earth, all going back to her, guarding nothing.
But not these ones, not my ones. They’re ready. And today’s the day.
We’re taking out two buzzards, six in each. I’ll be riding with squad one. Jackson would normally accompany squad two, but his recruits have arrived today. There’s no time to waste these days, none of that one-wave-a-month bullshit. So they’re on their own, but I’m confident that between the intercom and Weller, who’ll be taking the lead, we can keep it together.
Tarril trusts me. He’s right to. More of my recruits are alive than any other squad leader. I work them harder than anyone else and I promise them I’ll do everything I can to keep them alive. Anything. I mean it, too. I think they know that. It’s why they fight so hard and why they do what I tell them, when I tell them.
We’ve got one on each wing. Dixie’s boots came through this morning and they’re working just fine, so she’s strapped out on my left wing, hunkered down. Her short stature actually makes her perfect. She’s a smaller target for the flies. We’ve got another two in each on the weapons turrets, manning the thud guns.
I love buzzards. We’ve got bigger ships up here, but the buzzards fly like nothing else, and the wing riders are near enough the doors to get in quick if something happens. That right there’s another reason they trust me. I’m not letting anyone get killed over something stupid. Wing riding’s as tough as it gets, a baptism of fire on your first time out, but that doesn’t mean you have to stick it the whole hour.
I love how they look, too. The name’s no accident, though I haven’t seen a real buzzard since I was a kid. Not much left in the skies back on Earth, save the smog and the shit. But we hang in the narrow cockpit beneath a pair of wings that carry engines powerful enough to jump from zero to mach two in a couple of seconds. Not that we’ll be doing anything like that out there.
I check the monitors, power up, and give the orders. The bird jumps, then charges from the pad like it’s as eager as we are to kill something. Not that I’m really eager. I’m telling the recruits I am. I’m telling them there’s nothing better than killing flies on a Monday, but I’d much rather be back in bed, with Jackson’s arm over my chest and his breath against my neck.
He was struggling this morning. ‘What if I can’t do it, Tay?’
‘You can.’ I’m biting my lip already. He needs support today, not anger. It’s difficult when we’ve had this conversation a 100 times before, but that’s just who he is. ‘Of course you can. You’ve got one of the highest survival rates of all the squad leaders.’
‘Rubbish. It’s because you care and because you’re an excellent teacher. Better than me.’
‘Then why do more of yours make it?’
‘I offer them blowjobs if they get through the first month.’
He swats me but laughs anyway. His hand cups my penis and for the next half hour, we forget all about his new recruits. After that, we don’t have time to talk. When I leave to take my squads for their first assault, we kiss and whisper the usual nothings. They felt heavier today, more important, somehow, but they didn’t matter, no more than usual. We both know how we feel and no words will ever come close to expressing it.
I blink and check the screens. The city lies below us as we circle higher. We don’t have far to go, though. Every day, the journey is shorter. The sky around us is still blue when we spot our first fly. The recruits stop talking and go into that scary focus mode they all do when they realise this isn’t a simulation.
You’d think I’d be used to it by now, but my hands still get sweaty and my gorge still rises. I don’t think I’ll ever be able to look at the flies without feeling sick.
‘Attack run one. Keep it simple and keep it steady. Riders, you ready?’
Grunts and mutters are my only responses, so I give the order and the bird speeds up. We hurtle towards the swarm, then peel away at the last moment. The thud guns fire, at just the right moment, I’m pleased to note, and huge balls of explosive roll away from the ship. Long blasts of laser come from the wing riders and tear through dark, furred bodies and pale translucent wings.
Then the explosives go. Four thuds, like a mountain falling, rattle the ships as we’re thrown sideways. The cameras are covered in the black viscous liquid that count as blood amongst those horrible things, then washed away just as quickly by the sprays. As they clear, we see what we’ve done. Dozens of fly corpses hang in space, bodies torn open and wings shredded.
The recruits holler and cheer. There’s still the final test to go, though they don’t know it. They think that’s it, but they couldn’t be more wrong.
First comes the screaming.
The cockpit goes silent as they start up. It could, I guess, sound like a fly buzzing, only it’s about ten octaves higher and comes from not just one or two, but millions of them. It builds in volume and my hands tighten on the arms of the seat. It’s a little like having a knife shoved into your ear. I’m used to it, which basically means I’ve lost part of my hearing. The recruits aren’t. The moans comes first, followed by vomiting and crying in equal measure.
The second test is easier, in some ways. The flies turn away from us, not interested in revenge, not yet. Because first they have to feast. They land on the ruined bodies of their companions and begin to spew their vile sick into the wounds, putrefying and liquidizing what remains so they can suck it up.
‘Holy God, what are they doing?’ Dixie asks.
I can’t help chuckling. ‘They’re eating, Dix, what does it look like? We’ve just provided breakfast.’
After that, it’s the same as usual. The thud guns are empty, but the riders keep shooting. The rest of us suit up and head out, magged to the outside of the ship as we fire laser after laser into the swarm, picking our targets more effectively than we ever could from inside.
The hour’s nearly done when I call them in. The swarm was quiet to start with, but they’re getting agitated now. In some sick role reversal, we’re a fly buzzing around the head of some massive beast and it’s finally noticing our presence. The airlock clicks shut just as they begin dive bombing.
The bird rocks back and forth, every thump as a fly hits it amplified so it sounds like we’re caught in an avalanche. I’m happy with today’s progress, so I give the order to take us down and out of the swarm. We drop far faster than we went up and soon we’re left alone, save for the occasional persistent fly that the turrets take out.
‘Taylor, you reading?’ The sound of Tarril’s voice makes me jump and it takes me a minute to find the right button to respond. I’m not quick enough.
‘Taylor, dammit, you there?’
‘Here commander, sorry, not heard from base out here in a while. What can I do for you?’
‘Sending it through to front screen.’ He sounds bad. When the front screen changes, I realise why. We’re on the long angle satellite that rides between the moon and the Earth. From here, the swarm looks like one vast cloud, but it’s shifting and I’ve seen this before.
Slowly but surely, it breaks clear of the moon, travelling in a vast snake through space.
Time’s up. They’re coming and they’re coming now. ‘Give me all up facing cameras.’
The screen changes in time for me to see the swarm come plunging down towards us. It’s not just a few persistent ones, or even dozens. It’s thousands and thousands, hurtling towards Sky City One. We’re a speck in the way, a nothing.
The first flies hit us and we’re tossed from side to side, battered lower by the sheer force of their descent.
‘Squad two, take evasive action.’
‘Trying to, sir, control’s tough.’
‘Go down, head down.’
We point the nose down and blast towards the city. We’re faster than the flies for the first few seconds, then they overtake, black streaks charging towards our home. Within moments, the city’s all but obscured by the cloud.
Seconds later, Tarril’s voice comes back through the intercom. ‘We’re finished. Head out into deep. There’s emergency aide on the satellites, take what you can then head out. Best of luck, Taylor, it’s been a pleasure.’
The intercom goes dead and, for once, I don’t have a clue what to say. But I know who I want to talk to. I bash buttons until the combat room comes on line.
‘Jackson, you have to get out of there.’
‘Too late. I can hear them.’ He sounds so small, so alone. ‘Love you, Tay.’
I can’t answer. My breath’s caught in my throat. The sound of screaming comes through the intercom and I blurt ‘I love you too,’ before I have to cut it off.
They’re all staring at me. My pilot’s clinging to the sticks, just about keeping it steady. ‘Sir?’
‘You heard the man, we head for deep.’
‘Circle the planet, get around the swarm. Go, now.’
The ship jumps and now we do hit mach two. There’s space out there, vast, empty space. We can collect oxygen and everything else we need. After that, I don’t know. The ship hurtles away from the swarm and the screaming and I cling tight to my arm rests. We can do mach four in a buzzard. I only hope it’s fast enough.