Prologue: The Dead Land
Another day, another game of war. Duncan squeezed through the tiny gap in the fence and pushed past the danger sign. The other boys would never expect him to go into the Dead Land, but then, that was the secret of victory: take bold actions to surprise your enemy.
‘Duncan, you’re the German sniper and we’re the British soldiers hunting you down.’ As ever, the older kids made him the enemy, the target. That was the only reason they let him bunk off school with them. ‘You get a ten-minute start, then we’re coming after you to blow you to bits.’ And when they found him, they would really let him have it with the stones they threw for ‘bullets’ – by the handful for machine guns, or one at a time for carefully aimed revolvers. Either way, it hurt like hell.
Not this time, thought Duncan. This time he would sneak up behind them and throw his stones first, ‘shoot’ them in the back and win some respect for once; not just for his victory, but for braving the Dead Land, and at only thirteen years of age!
The place was full of stories: strange lights in the sky over- head . . . fields full of dead animals . . . a rotting stink that carried clear across the Highlands . . . ghost soldiers marching through the woods at night . . .
Duncan moved as silently as he could through the wild landscape. Rocks of every shape and size peeped through the shrubs and trees, and the towering Binean, the ‘Mountain of Birds’, reared its lofty head above everything. He could hear no birdsong now, despite the fair summer weather. Once, this land had been part of a general’s estate and well-tended, but that general had never returned from the Great War. No gamekeepers watched the woods now, of that Duncan was certain – there were no pheasants or partridge, no vermin boards, no snares for stoats or weasels. Fifty yards in from the fence, the weeping birches with their pendulous branches and waving ringlets had given way to bare mud and the sharp charcoal scratch of skeletal trees.
It seemed that the Dead Land was so named with good reason.
Duncan felt spooked in the unnatural stillness. It was as if the soil had been poisoned and the landscape with it; birds and animals stayed away, as if they sensed that this place meant danger.
Maybe once, Duncan told himself. There’s nothing here now.
He soon realized that cutting through the fringes of the Dead Land was impossible; the wood was too dense. The branches and brambles grabbed at his limbs, scoring them with scratches. He could either turn back, or he could go deeper into this unknown territory before trying to cut round behind his schoolmates.
Duncan pictured possible triumph – his stones bouncing off the backs of the boys’ heads; new respect on their faces. He pushed on for several minutes, his progress marked by the snap of brittle branches.
But when he stopped, sore and sweating, the sounds of struggle continued behind him.
Chilled to the bone, Duncan heard the crash of trampled undergrowth. It sounded like a small army advancing quickly through the dead wood. And beneath it, a noise that sounded out of place in the still forest: a hissing, whirring, bubbling noise that Duncan couldn’t place.
‘The ghost soldiers . . .’ he breathed.
Terrified now, Duncan hurled himself forward, branches striking and snapping against his body. Stealth was unnecessary – whatever pursued him was making an unholy racket. And now, to Duncan’s ears, it sounded not like a group of soldiers, but like one enormous mechanical giant, moving at a relentless clockwork pace.
Duncan charged into a fence, climbed it automatically. The rusted barbed wire at the top snagged on his clothing as he tipped over onto the other side. Teeth gritted, he scram- bled up and ran on through a field of long grass, the stalks blackened and browned, poisoned with a chemical tang. The stories are true, he realized, tears stinging his eyes, bloody hands clasped together in fervent prayer. Everything’s dead here. Please, let me get out. Please.
He dropped down onto the bed of dry grass, and listened. The unearthly crashing of the thing in the woods was fainter now. It was moving away, and in the quiet of its passing Duncan could hear the distant babble of a stream. He heaved a sigh of relief, but as he did so, he realized just how much he was hurting. The barbed wire had cut him badly, and his shirt was soaked with blood.
Gritting his teeth, Duncan got up and stumbled on towards the sound of the stream. How deep inside the Dead Land was he now? You’ll find a way back, he told himself as a brook came curling into sight. Water first. Drink. Bathe these cuts. Water.
But the water here ran dark and smelled foul, its surface oily. Duncan didn’t dare touch the stuff, let alone taste it.
He jumped across to the far bank and waded through the desiccated brush towards what looked like the mouth of a ravine. I have to get out of here. Huge blocks of stone blocked his way; debris from a rock fall, most likely. Perhaps if he climbed up one, he would be able to spy the best path out of here.
Before he could even try, he heard a thud of compressed air, the sizzling rush of a projectile. Then Duncan was hurled to the ground in a storm of rock and dust. He curled up, eyes closed, his breath coming in rapid gasps, as stone chips rained down.
A strong, commanding voice, thickened by a lisp, emerged from the explosion’s last echoes. ‘The BR-12 mortar fires a special high-explosive projectile, Generalleutnant.’ It was coming from the other side of the rocks. ‘You see, the shell uses a tiny rocket motor to “bounce” off the ground of the target area. Fragmentation thus occurs in mid-air, causing far greater damage . . .’
As the dust cleared, Duncan made out a group of figures standing in the ravine. A tall, suited, weatherbeaten man was surveying the damage to the boulder, while waiting beside him . . .
Duncan shivered as he took in the hunched apparition, still speaking about the mortar like a proud parent. Despite the warmth of the day, the man wore a heavy black cloak. A hood hid his features, and he gripped a cane with a gloved hand. Two large men hovered behind as if ready to catch him should he fall.
‘It is a most satisfactory weapon, Mr Blade. If a little con- ventional.’ The suited man spoke stilted English; he must be the Generalleutnant, a German officer, Duncan thought. What was he doing here in the middle of the Scottish country- side? ‘The minimum order, now – remind me . . . ?’
‘Shall we say thirty thousand?’
Duncan closed his eyes . . . 30,000 mortars? These were not ghosts of war. These men were preparing for one, by the sound of it; here, in the heart of the Dead Land.
‘First, tell me . . .’ the German replied. ‘This clever pro- jectile of yours – it is enough to destroy the Steel Shadow?’
‘It would barely scratch it.’ The hunched man wheezed with laughter. ‘We are committed to pushing the Steel Shadow technology to its limits. When my operator returns from the speed trial, Generalleutnant, you may fire the mortar point blank and see how it fares for yourself.’
Still crouching on the stony ground, Duncan looked round suddenly. Was that his imagination, or . . . ?
No. That was the same crashing noise, all right; he heard the heavy splash as whatever it was strode across the dark brook, the rumble and wheeze of strange engines. The thing he’d heard before was on its way here, ready to be tested further.
Panicking, Duncan broke cover and ran as fast as his aching legs could manage.
‘Schiessen Sie den Eindringling!’
Gunfire followed the officer’s bellow, and bullets whined and ricocheted all around. They’re going to kill me! Duncan raced to his left, away from the ravine. He had to find a way to circle back round to the fence, to get clear, to find the others. They’d never believe what had happened here. There really was a German sniper, and he had a mortar, and there was a— Skidding to a stop, Duncan realized that the hissing, bub- bling thing was somewhere to his right, approaching through a swathe of forest. He glimpsed metal gleaming through dead branches.
Faster. Go faster. Duncan swiped at the dense undergrowth ahead of him with bloodied hands, forcing his way through the wild tangle on a haphazard course. Finally, lungs burning, he emerged into an open field. Hope flared: further woodland fringed the far side, offering good cover, and he ran for it, barely registering a toppled signpost close by. If he could only hide out in the undergrowth and evade whatever was coming after—
The blast engulfed him in a roar of fire and heat, hurling him into the air. Duncan landed on his back, shocked and blood-soaked, eyes drawn to the faded letters on the sign:
keep out! minefield.
For a moment his biggest fear was that the noise of the explosion would lead his pursuers straight to him. Duncan made to get up, but nothing happened. He stared uncomprehending at the rubble of flesh about him. Shock and adrenalin must be sparing him the pain.
But nothing could save him from the lumbering, hissing thing fast approaching through the smoke. Its bulky shadow fell over him, and finally an agonized scream tore from Duncan’s throat.
The ghostly echoes rang out across the ravine.
‘Was ist los?’ The German Generalleutnant looked trou- bled. ‘Blade, that intruder . . .’
‘Damned local children.’ Hunched and muttering, Blade pulled back his hood to reveal hawkish features in a warped, deformed face. ‘They hear the stories of our testing ground and make dares to come here. Little fools.’
‘A most regrettable incident. What will you do?’ ‘Regrettable, yes, but we can’t allow it to hinder our work.
We must dispose of the body where it won’t be found . . .’ Blade snorted. ‘And then build a higher fence.’
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