Heart of Granite - James Barclay

Chapter 1

I don’t remember getting the tap on the shoulder at school or the walk to the Principal’s office alongside the recruitment agents in their ERC uniforms. But I do remember the dripping jealousy in the faces of everyone I passed and I will never forget how cool that was.

Maximus Halloran

Max was woken by an insistent nagging at the back of his mind.

It probably wasn’t important.

He let his head drop back to the pillow and stared at the ceiling where the dim ridge lights flickered in time with the whirr of the increasingly inefficient air-circulation system. Outside his pod, the squad rack was quiet. No one else was even awake, let alone up.

‘Not like me to wake up early,’ muttered Max.

‘Don’t you read your pings?’

Anna-Beth was lying on her stomach with her head turned away and the sheet clinging to the lines of her body. Max drew a finger down her spine and she rose on her elbows, her long black hair falling either side of her face. He grinned, sliding down next to her and leaning in for a kiss.

‘Not if I can avoid it.’

‘Are you kidding me?’ Anna-Beth put a hand on his face and pushed him away. ‘You were at the briefing last night, right? I wondered why you were still here.’

‘Because—’

‘You know, the amount of shit you’re in makes you completely undesirable right now,’ she said, with a twinkle in her eye.

‘Oh really?’ he said and began to push the sheet down, his fingertips tracing her silky skin.

‘Really.’ Anna-Beth slid a little closer to him, enjoying herself. Her hand cupped his balls. ‘You really don’t know why you’re in the shit?’

‘Don’t know, don’t care.’

‘You’re not bothered about skippering the escort for the Marshal General’s cortege, then?’

Max froze, colour draining from his face.

‘That’s tomorrow,’ he said, stomach lurching.

‘Uh-uh. Today.’ She leaned into his ear and whispered. ‘Right now.’

‘Shit,’ said Max, scrambling out of bed. ‘Shitshitshit. Why didn’t they wake me? What happened to—?’

His sweats struck him in the face. He grabbed for them, missed, stumbled against the door and trod on the corner of a belt buckle.

‘Ow, bloodyfuckbollocks! Thanks a lot.’

‘Any time,’ said Anna-Beth, following up with some well aimed boots.

Max pulled his joggers on and jammed his feet into his boots. He gave Anna-Beth a lop-sided smile.

‘Be here when I get back.’

‘In your dreams, drake bitch.’

Anna-Beth’s delicate blown kiss chased him from his room. He paused in the act of sprinting past the squad rec to take in the absurdly neat arrangement of sofas, chairs, screens and consoles. Every coffee- and teacup had been washed, dried and stacked by the gleamingly clean beverage machines — to which a note was attached. Max ran over and read it.

Did your chores for you. We heard it was a late one last night and didn’t want to wake you. Set the alarm to give you just enough time to get to the most important flight of your so-far worthless life. But only just. Love, Inferno-X

‘Very bloody funny. Bastards.’ An alarm began to sound and he glanced up at the mission countdown timer. Lots of red numbers there. ‘Shit.’

Max burst out of the squad dorm and powered along the spine, dodging from side to side to evade the masses dawdling to wherever it was they had loads of time to get. He sprinted through the echoing ‘tenways’ spine-link space that would become Gargan’s bar later, wrinkling his nose at the stale smells of alcohol and sweat that clung to every surface.

He hurdled an auto-vac and raced off to the right down an access corridor, battering open the ‘Emergency Access Only’ door at the end. It stank of burnt toast out here within the flank armour. Water poured down the inside, catching a joint above his head and covering the ringing metal stairway, and him, in its fetid warmth.

Max grabbed the rail and swung over, letting go and turning in the air before catching the rails a storey below. He pushed himself back with his feet and dropped again, grabbing the base of the rail and swinging to land on his feet on the walkway.

‘Nailed it,’ he grinned and ran.

Outside the open door to the vast retractable flight deck, he could hear the competing cries and roars of drakes, geckos, chameleons, basilisks and komodos. Once inside, he slowed to a saunter and fought to control his breathing. He had to walk past the cages holding the ground-based lizards on the way to the drake pens, so he made sure he caught the