What feels like ten million years back I posted the opening scenes of a scifi novel called, at the time, Project Goma. I’ve now taken that novel through four complete redrafts and the finished manuscript, God Factory (AKA Hacker Sapper Soldier AI), is pretty damn tight.
I’m now looking for test readers. If you’re up for 120k worth of scifi shenanigans set on a machine planet, full of pewpew and explosions and deep thoughts, sound off! I’ll get you the MS in whatever format you prefer. The first chapter is attached below. Hope you like it!
Note – this story isn’t going to be self published. I’m taking this one to traditional agents and publishers. I think it has those sorts of legs.
Thanks in advance!
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The church at the roof of the world is protected by four-factor authentication, starting with keycodes and ending in biometrics. Abel and Wren cut through the first three layers no problem, but the severed finger they bought from the dockside chop-shop won’t scan.
“I think we got screwed.” Wren Bristow – slim, flame-haired, the shadow of a moustache dusting his upper lip – thumps the controls. “Easier to blow the doors.”
“Didn’t bring you this far just so you could throw a tantrum.” Abel Dei snatches the finger. The ragged end is leather-dry, so she breaks it in half with a chicken-bone snap and presses the raw meat to the pad. “It’s not a fingerprint scan. It needs sweat, fluids.”
The controls flash three green lights. The doors slide open on silent bearings. “You’re one disgusting old lady,” says Wren, and waves their hired help into the church. Their faces are hidden, silhouettes bulky with armour, homebrew weaponry in their fists.
Wren shudders as Abel tosses the finger aside. “Who was that, anyway?”
“Some corporate priest. Does it matter? Time to exchange private keys, people. We work silent from here.”
Her crew – the Raven twins, who work for percentage, and her protege-in-crime Wren Bristow, who works because Abel asked nice – exchange login information. Wetware shakes hands with wetware. Messages flash across Abel’s vision. HAVE WE HEARD FROM THE EUREKA CREW? I DON’T LIKE RELYING ON THEM FOR OUR EXIT.
She can’t tell which of the Raven twins sent the message. Identical in height, bulk, and surliness. Chemically wired for wetwork, she heard. Now private contractors. Professional enough to get the job done, amateur enough to pick holes in the plan. THE EUREKAS OWE ME A FAVOUR. THEY’LL BE THERE.
The twin on the left smirks. Impossible to read his eyes, hidden behind a shimmering visor. The twins like to affect an air of mystery. WHO DOESN’T OWE YOU A FAVOUR, DEI? A pause. WE WANT A BIGGER SPLIT. TWELVE PERCENT ISN’T ENOUGH.
TWELVE PERCENT OF A HALF BILLION. YOU’RE ONLY THE MUSCLE, REMEMBER. DON’T ARGUE WITH THE QUEEN BITCH OF CODE.
The twins look at each other, unsmiling. BELIEVING YOUR OWN LEGEND? THAT’LL GET YOU KILLED.
The vestibule at the mouth of the church is empty. No guards this time of night, no alarms tripped. Abel slips into the security code, erases her crew from the feeds. They’re just four vague presences now, heat-signatures in the black, ready to do bad things.
Wren still ducks his head as they pass beneath the cameras. Old habits persist. His pupils are huge, dilated by adrenaline. His coat – fuligin weave, threaded from carbon, so dark it drinks the light and turns him into a wavering outline – bulges around his torso. He’s strapped with high-yield explosives of his own manufacture, chemical sedatives, neural claymores, aerosol hallucinogens.
Wren and Abel have been working together two years, but the gutter-punk still can’t hide his opening night jitters. His bandanna is pulled low over the bright tangles of his strawberry curls, hands stuffed in his pockets to mask the shakes.
She messages him privately. I NEED YOU FOCUSED.
Wren forces a grin. One hand caresses the bunker-buster strapped to his hip. Explosives are Wren’s comfort blanket. ME? I’M LASER-SHARP. I’M WIRED. I’M A WEAPON. WHATEVER YOU WANT, I’M READY.
WHAT I WANT IS FOR YOU TO BE READY TO RUN. IF THINGS GO BAD, CLEAR OUT. NOBODY KNOWS ANYBODY OR ANYTHING, SAME AS ALWAYS.
AND LEAVE YOUR WRINKLED ASS SWINGING IN THE WIND?
I MEAN IT, WREN. DON’T BE A HERO.
SAME TO YOU.
ME, A HERO? YOU KNOW I’M NOT THAT SORT OF LADY. Abel’s cheeks are flushed with excitement, lips dry, pulse thumping behind her eyes. This is it. Fifteen years of fighting and plotting and back-alley theft, and they’re finally inside the church. The Archbishop’s Forgiveness is almost in her hands. All the answers she needs on one chip.
The twins are only in this for the ransom, and the ransom will be sweet. But only after she’s stripped the Forgiveness clean. COME ON. She pats Wren on the ass, ushers him onward. LET’S GO GET RICH.
The vestibule opens onto the nave, almost a kilometre long and half that wide again, hard-backed pews in silent rows, enough to seat two hundred and fifty thousand per service. The church squats atop a colossal arcology, the largest structure on Massung – three klicks tall, population point-seven-five million. Apartments, desal plants, algae tanks, factories, penthouse offices. A city-state beholden to no-one but God, God’s chosen, and God’s preferred shareholders.
The ceiling rises eight, maybe nine stories overhead, so far the arched beams vanish into the gloom. The windows are machine-fabricated stained glass, depicting the first landings on Massung, the territorial wars, the Junta troops who cleansed the fields and secured the oceans. Halos orbit their helmets. The walls are hung with orange and black banners – Stradbroke & Levinson colours, Massung’s ruling corporation.
The church likes to pretend it’s independent, but Abel’s seen the paperwork. In the files of Stradbroke & Levinson, the Diocese is labelled Human Resources: Emotional Wellness Division. The communion wafers are stamped with the S&L letterhead.
Everyone’s got an owner, after all.
The Raven twins check the corners, scan for security. Both boys are eight foot tall on combat-chassis legs, bristling with ablative armour. If they get caught by private security halfway through the heist-of-the-millenia, the Ravens will soak up the flak and hurl it right back.
One twin crouches behind a pew. AUTO-TURRETS AHEAD. HIT HARD OR REROUTE?
Wren’s already pulling something blunt and nasty looking from inside his jacket. Chemical genius, Wren. Assembles all his own tools on the molecular level. Fabricates bomblets and incapacitants Abel doesn’t even have names for. He rolls two black tubes down the nave, steps back and plugs his ears.
A low thud of detonation. Electricity arcs high, a scribbled line of light across Abel’s vision.
The turrets shut down. Wren shoots Abel a thumbs-up.
They move on.
Recruitment slogans colour the halls. BREATHE WITH THE UNIVERSE, they shout. SHARE THE HEARTBEAT OF CREATION. Orange and black, black and orange. Stradbroke & Levinson more than souls: they own Massung, the moon itself, the local Junta division, and a percentage of every blink-ship that breaks atmosphere.
Most importantly, they own information.
The tip-off came from Frankie D, one of a thousand low-level operators working off the Massung docks. Hot news – a Junta purge in progress, disobedient generals and majors up against the wall. All high-level officials in the system ordered to report to Massung and confess directly to the Archbishop.
The Junta’s a hard-line bureaucracy. They keep meticulous records. Which means, for the first time in years, the Archbishop’s Forgiveness – a backup drive containing every military confession, from on-base fraternization all the way up to friendly-fire incidents and accidental treason – will be housed in the central diocese for three days and three days only.
Estimated ransom for the encrypted secrets of every Diocese Cardinal and Junta General? Too many zeroes to count. But it’s not the money Abel’s after, or the underworld notoriety. Fame only makes you a target. Info, on the other hand? The dirty laundry of the ruling corps stretching back half a century?
Information is a bullet that pierces class, cuts past bodyguards. You just have to aim right. And hell, she she doesn’t need much. A single name will do.
Abel rips fistfuls out of the church’s security code as they inch through the halls. Somewhere, in a bunker below the arcology, alarms are sounding. Up here, three kilometres above the surface of Massung, all is silent. But, just in case, she sends one of the Ravens to watch the rear. Each twin is a a walking warehouse of murder tools: targeted acids that eat through carbon fibre like styrofoam, telescoping plasma cutters, automated lasers hovering above their shoulders.
The Massung rumour mill would have Abel believe the twins both married the same high-ranking priest, years back. That the relationship ended poorly. Double the broken hearts.
Explains why the Ravens took the job.
They reach the back of the cathedral, the altar where the Archbishop promises hellfire and entropy for unbelievers. Behind that is the sacristy, the priest’s private chambers. Frankie’s info says the Forgiveness is in a room above the sacristy, a secure chamber with a single entrance, guarded by every gun the Diocese has spare. But the sacristy itself? That’s hallowed ground. No guns allowed.
Abel’s algorithms cut through the security. The sacristy doors swing open.
The sacristy is a glass-lined chamber, affording Abel a view out over the bay as Wren gets to work. He begins by setting neural claymores at the doors for protection, keeping only one in reserve – a palm-sized bomb clipped to his belt, a personal failsafe in case of capture. Next step: tight burn explosives and detonators. He tosses them underhand, each charge snapping into place as it contacts the ceiling, forming a neat ring around the point where the Forgiveness is kept. GOING TO BLOW A HOLE ABOUT TWO METERS ACROSS AND DROP IT RIGHT THROUGH. IT’LL MAKE A BIG BANG, SO BE READY FOR COMPANY.
One twin unslings a flechette cannon: squat, big-bore, with a heatsink the size of Abel’s head. The other has a microwave pistol in each hand, ready to fry anyone walking in. It’s the only way to tell them apart – Big-boom and Fry-job, she labels the pair.
They know their roles. Wouldn’t still be working the streets if they didn’t. Abel even trusts them enough to turn her back and take in the view.
Far below, Massung is a labyrinth of lights, slant-roofed prefabs growing like mould in the shadow of the arcologies. Colonist housing glued together from steel cast-offs and plastic sheet pressed against the boundaries of the megastructures, cowering in the wash of acid runoff. Hundreds of thousands of settlers in each arcology. Ten times that many sweltering, fighting and dying in the gutters.
Beyond that, the ports. Blinkships biting deep into the fabric of time and space as they leap the distance between planets, popping out of existence in one system and arriving in another with nothing to show for the effort besides a rippling band of heat and toe-curling radiation. Sometimes ten a day, sometimes hundreds. Mining platforms, trading barges, Junta battlecruisers ten klicks wide.
On the far side of the bay, the clouds part to reveal the blunt prow of a Junta resupply ship descending toward the docks, ugly and squat with a bulldog’s pushed-in face. Servicing some battlecruiser in orbit above, no doubt. Junta command craft never descend into atmosphere. They’re born in the black, fly in the black, die in the black. Just a smudge in an already murky sky.
The resupply ship is scarred across one flank, steel peeled back to reveal a gunmetal interior. The pimpling along the prow suggest rail-cannon fire, in one side and out the other.
The war’s getting closer.
That doesn’t bother Abel. She was born from war.
Wren Bristow secures the final detonator. READY. EUREKAS READY FOR EVAC?
THEY PROMISED. AND IF THEY AREN’T, I HAVE THE TYCOON BROTHERHOOD AS BACKUP.
HOW COME SO MANY PEOPLE OWE YOU FAVOURS?
MAYBE I’M JUST A REALLY NICE PERSON.
Wren snorts. SO IT’S BLACKMAIL.
DOES IT MATTER? TRUST ME. WE’RE SOLID.
A pause. I’M GONNA MISS YOU AFTER THIS, ABEL.
The unspoken truth that’s been hanging over their heads for weeks: if the job goes right, Abel won’t be seeing Wren for a long time. She’ll hide somewhere distant and quiet. Pick over the data pulled from the Archbishop’s Forgiveness and locate the butcher of Greenspur.
She’s never planned that far ahead, but she knows it’ll be dramatic.
NO REGRETS, she tells Wren.
I KNOW. IT’S JUST… WE’VE BEEN CHASING THIS SO LONG IT DOESN’T FEEL REAL.
SO MAKE IT REAL.
Wren grins. TEN SECONDS. GET IN POSITION.
Abel retreats to a safe distance, fingers in her ears. The Ravens are tensed behind the wall of claymores, weapons trained on the ceiling, ready to tear shreds from anyone who drops through.
Almost there. The name so close she can touch it.
The charges are a series of firecrackers, pop-pop-pop echoing through the sacristy, and the sting of smoke curls in Abel’s nostrils, and the heat burns her cheeks, and for a moment she’s somewhere else.
Greenspur, the colony she once called home. She’s a child again, standing in the wheat fields, grass tickling her bare arms, watching Junta bombers emerge from banks of cloud. Swooping low now, so low she can read the numbers stenciled on the underside of their wings.
The horizon’s a tumult of smoke already, has been since the first attack hit the pinnacle plants that morning, but her parent’s farm is twenty klicks away from the action. They promised her she’d be safe, so far from the core of the rebellion.
But the bombers open their bay doors, vomiting black pucks of explosive across the sky, and Abel turns to see her family home – a prefab bucky-dome on the edge of the wheat field, struts painted the pink of kissing lips, the Greenspur flag hung from the pole at the peak, twitching in a faint wind – vanish in a line of fire.
A long time ago. Still vivid. Some things never fade.
It’s why Abel’s here, violating the sanctity of a corp-owned church. She’s been chasing a name for more than a decade. The identity of the Junta official who gave the order to bomb the farms of Greenspur, to immolate her parents, to leave her planet in cinders.
There are other ways to find a name. Bribery. Social engineering. Broken fingers.
The Forgiveness is faster.
Abel blinks back tears as the chamber floods with dust. Stone chips score thin red lines across her cheeks. Somewhere above, people scream for backup, voices muted by plascrete.
The ceiling holds. Wren swears, breaking protocol. “No way did they reinforce-“
He dances back as a section of ceiling crashes down. Abel darts into the dust cloud without waiting for it to clear, grasping blind until slick glass squeaks against her skin.
The Forgiveness chip is mounted in the centre of a decorative shrine, a transparent cube built to withstand acids, ablation or the heat of a dwarf star. But not code.
Her implants search for open networks, the triggers that’ll open the cube. Shouting overhead – church security staring at the hole newly opened in their floor, demanding answers and orders. She has ten seconds, maybe less, before they start firing blind.
One: her wetware engages. Filaments in her fingertips vibrate in sympathy with the circuitry woven through the shrine and she sees, written across the dark space behind her eyelids, the code that keeps the chip sealed away.
Muffled curses from above. Confusion. Wren at her shoulder. She pushes the world away and concentrates on the code.
Four seconds. Her programs go to work. Algorithms spliced from stolen architecture. Snippets of AI subroutines. They cut and rearrange slabs of code as Abel watches.
Wren touches her elbow, panic once again overriding their policy of silence. “They’re coming down!”
Seven seconds. She guides her algorithms with practised hands. Security is only a complicated lock, and code is a key that never stops adapting…
An electric hum vibrates in her back teeth. Big-boom Raven’s weapon winding up. A throaty cough as flechettes tear the air. A cry from above. Panicked messages fill her vision: MOVE MOVE MOVE.
Eleven seconds. Overtime. The cube is resisting. She needs more, needs the old code. Chunks gifted to her by a friend long dead. She throws them at the security and grins as it gives way beneath the weight of algorithms, opening like origami-
A hand on her shoulder. Big-boom jerking her back to attention. I SAID, MOVE!
The security buckles. The glass cube peels back. The Archbishop’s Forgiveness is in her hands.
The Ravens rake the opening in the ceiling as they sprint from the sacristy, back through the pews. Abel’s already throwing code at the vestibule elevators, but they locked down the moment the charges went off. She could cut through, but not in the time they have.
Good thing the church has emergency stairs.
They move in bursts, Wren taking the lead while Fry-job watches the rear, microwave pistols steaming. The pop pop of Wren’s neural claymores echoes up the stairwell, followed by hopeless screams. Better than ordinance; you can build armour strong enough to turn back an anti-tank shell, but there isn’t a helmet on the market that’ll block nightmares. The guards will be insensible for days, maybe weeks.
They only need long enough to get to the roof.
Abel’s already in contact with the Eurekas, her local go-to crew for mischief and larceny. Wren was right when he said blackmail – Abel tunnelled into the Eurekas’ private networks months before and stripped their most confidential data. She knows who they’re claiming protection money from, which politicians and priests are in their pockets. Enough to make them dance.
APPROACHING THE ROOF NOW. EVAC READY?
The reply is immediate. READY WHEN YOU ARE.
The crew comes off the last flight of stairs when Abel hears the whine of slam-pups closing in, the high-pitched hunting hum of echolocation. It’s her turn to break protocol. “Move, move, move!” She shoves Wren ahead of her as they burst out on to the rooftop of the Diocese arcology.
Acid rain burns her eyes. The rooftop is a kilometre long, wide concrete striped with landing beacons and parking bays where church officials set down in time for mass. A hundred or more skimmers line the rooftop, clamped in place, charging batteries.
No sign of the Eurekas, or the cargo craft they promised. She spins, panic rising in her throat. WHERE ARE YOU?
There’s a painful pause. HAVE FUN, QUEEN BITCH.
WE HAD A DEAL! YOU KNOW WHAT I HAVE ON YOU?
The connection cuts. She’s blocked. Already messaging the Tycoon Brotherhood. NEED BACKUP. YOU KNOW WHO I AM. SEND EVERYONE.
Her nails dig into her palms. Then: SORRY, ABEL. WORD ON THE STREET IS TO LET YOU SWING.
The connection cuts.
One breath. Calm. Panic never helps anyone. Wren’s fumbling his explosives, detonators slipping from shaking hands. The twins watch the stairway door, weapons drawn, ready to incinerate anything that steps through.
Wren whispers, “Not coming, are they?”
Too late for protocol now. “We’ll find our own way.” Abel runs to the nearest skimmer, throwing out code, trying to open their doors just as she opened the glass cube.
Big-boom’s cannon spins up, hissing in the rain. TEN SECONDS, he warns, MAYBE LESS.
Ten seconds is generous. The access door shudders, bends, and smashes open as the first slam-pup comes through.
Pups are hunter-killer machines, anti-personnel, cheap and disposable. It moves so fast Abel only gets a glimpse: two-feet tall, black carbon-fibre torso, six legs skittering for purchase, its skull a mass of spindly sensors. It fixes on Big-boom and leaps.
Flechettes shred the pup and the doorway behind it, scattering ruins of steel and circuitry across the rooftop. MORE COMING MORE COMING GET US OUT OF HERE
Two slam-pups scramble through side by side, leaping for Big-boom’s knees. He smashes the first out of the air with a single squeeze of the trigger but the second gets beneath his firing arc, latches on to his knee.
Abel has just enough time to turn her head before the slam-pup detonates.
“Fuck this!” The remaining Raven runs for the skimmers as his twin rains down around their heads. He bashes on the doors, shattering glass with the butt of his pistol, and climbs in one leg after another. Over his shoulder he shouts, “And fuck you, Abel!”
The sonic howls of more slam-pups echo up the stairwell. Abel spins on her heel. Skimmers are too slow. Tycoon Brotherhood and the Eurekas have abandoned her.
For the first time in years, Abel doesn’t have a plan. “Wren, I’m sorry-”
Lips drawn back over his teeth, Wren reaches for his belt. For a moment she thinks he’s about to use his failsafe. Instead he pulls a wad of tight-burn explosive from his hip pocket. “Shut up and plug your ears!”
He throws it at his own feet and dances back. An electric sizzle, then the thunk of focused charges drilling down. No flames, no debris. Just a crunch as the concrete caves in, busting a hole two meters across in the arcology’s rooftop.
Wren tosses aluminium charges no larger than his pinkie finger at the open stairwell behind them. “I’m not dying up here!” Another slam-pup scrabbles up the stairwell. Fry-job is still trying to get a skimmer off the ground; he sees the slam-pup coming and fires wildly out the busted window. Rounds spark off steel. “Hurry up and jump!”
Electricity licks between the miniature charges as the slam-pup runs through and the stairwell erupts in fire. Abel reels back, heat broiling her eyeballs. She throws a hand over her face as one foot skids on the crumbled concrete around the hole.
Wren reaches for her as she falls, but it’s all too slow, too late. All she sees is rain and code, stars and algorithms, as she rotates end over end, falling, falling, falling.
It’s a long, bone-shattering drop to the nave. If Wren had opened the hole even a meter to the left, Abel would be dead. Instead she hits the galleries above the vestry, where choirs sing hymns of supplication.
A heavy landing: shoulder-first, bouncing off a stone balustrade, face mashed against cool tile. A burst of light behind her eyes. Pain, dull and deep. Blood on her tongue. The shattered stump of a tooth ragged in her gums.
The church swims around her. All she can hear is a high-pitched tinnitus whine. Above is a hole framed in broken rebar; beyond it, Wren, wide-eyed, screaming soundlessly. To her right, behind stained glass, the wide bright plains of Massung arcologies, lit by the flares of dropships and the chemical glow of portside wash.
She reaches inside her armoured jacket, clenches the Forgiveness tight, and casts around for exits. Stairs at her back lead down to the nave, but the pews are full of soldiers now, Junta hit-squads zeroing on her position.
Above, Wren’s scream is a blur through the ringing in her ears. “Abel! Abel I’m coming down!” He drops, lands in a heap, hisses in pain. “We’re getting out of here, okay? Back way, whatever. There’s always an exit-”
A clatter from the winding stairwell. The low whine of servos.
The slam-pup leaps, lenses whirring in its blunt black skull. Abel pushes the pain away, forces the wiring in her fingertips to seek out networks. They burn through the slam-pup’s firewalls, chew up security protocols.
The pup hangs in mid-air. She’s inside it now, peeling its programming apart, trying to find the off switch. Almost…
Not fast enough.
It detonates. All is light, all is fire. Abel and Wren are flying, lifted off their feet by the explosion, thrown towards the glass.
The window gives way.
Abel spins through cirrus clouds of glass and shrapnel. The rain is hot on her cheeks. Far below are the acid-yellow smears of lamps strung throughout the slums, distant but coming up fast, impossibly fast, ready to smash her to paste.
Programs flutter behind her eyes. She’s still connected to the arcology. She sees its systems as chunks of code, broadcast halos, thudding rivers of data. Bones laid bare.
Something she can use. A sub-system tucked away, labelled anti-suicide measures.
It’s all she has.
For a moment she’s inside the arcology’s lenses, tracking her and Wren’s fall through the rain. Then a whap, a sudden jerk that almost squeezes her eyeballs out of her skull. Whiplash folds her in two. The world below vanishes behind a haze of black as deceleration forces blood from her brain.
She fights it. Same routine as leaving atmosphere: clench the thighs, keep breathing. She’s encased in a shimmering net of energy, a lasso-cum-safety-harness tethering her to the Diocese arcology, the same tech they use to shift heavy cargo at the Massung docks. Extremely expensive and highly dangerous; her skin is blistering, soaked through with ionising radiation.
They’re a last resort for a reason. Better than impacting the pavement.
The anti-suicide devices lower them to street level. Rain sizzles and steams against the protective net. Abel cuts the program and she and Wren fall to the pavement.
Wren isn’t moving. She tries to stand, slips in the rain, crawls on knees and elbows to his side. “Get up! Get up, asshole!”
He blinks weakly, eyes netted with red, capillaries burst by sudden deceleration. Waves one hand before his face. “Can’t see. Why can’t I see?”
“I’m right here.” She tries to haul Wren to his feet, can’t find the strength. Dumps him on the pavement. Far overheard, the roar of security skimmers combing the streets.
“You should go.” He reaches out blind, pats Abel’s shoulder. “Don’t be a hero, remember?” He grasps for the neural claymore at his waist. “I won’t tell them anything.”
The midnight streets are ablaze with spotlights, drone beams, Church kill-squads on the hunt. They would’ve seen the anti-suicide nets. Simple to track. Less than a minute before they close.
There’s one rule in this business. No loyalty. Every man and woman for themselves. Smart thing to do is to take the Forgiveness, get the hell off Massung. Never stop running. There are always other partners in crime.
She breaks it.
Wren’s fuligin jacket falls over both their faces as she finds her balance and tosses him over her shoulders, turns them into spectres amidst the storm.
By the time the soldiers close, Abel and Wren are gone.