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Belfast burning

A prologue to Inish Carraig eBook: http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B012782E0G

Shouts from the streets of Belfast curled up the Cave Hill, ebbing and flowing with the wind. The air smelt of burning vehicles, dense and oily, the fragrant scent of wood behind; the residents were burning anything they could get their hands on.

“Down there,” said Nugent, in a quiet voice, and Carter followed his gaze. On the hill below, shapes separated from the dark tree-line. Carter’s breath hung in the air like wisps of white dust. He tightened his fingers around his handgun. The figures’ armour glinted in the moonlight: Zelotyr. He counted the shapes – four – and glanced at the army captain. Nugent’s eyes, wide and panicked, met his.

“Retreat,” said Carter. It was the only option – the pack had been hunting them for an hour and they were quicker, determined and organised. He led the way into the shrubbery lining the side of the pathway, and scrambled through it until he reached the wall of the castle’s estate. Hunched against the cold stone, making sure he could see the path through the bushes, he tried to steady his breathing. There was a soft rustle as Nugent brought his assault rifle around. Carter gave him a sharp glance and the captain returned it as if to say, well, what else is there?

Nothing. Carter unholstered his handgun, envying Nugent; his own Glock would be little use against the Zelotyr – at best, he’d go down fighting. The aliens came closer, their guttural clicks and clacks setting his teeth on edge. They passed the floodlit gate of the estate and he saw their armour wasn’t the burnished bronze of adults, nor the shimmering silver of their young, but gold. Teenagers. And by the way they moved – loping, in a pack – teenagers out for fun.

The pack climbed to within a couple of feet of the shrubbery and stopped. One raised its head, its maw a sinister hole lined with two rows of sharp, cat-like teeth. It was stooped with the effect of Earth’s gravity, but still stood a full head taller than either man. Flat, silvered eyes looked directly at Carter.

Steady. They couldn’t know where he was. A trickle of sweat ran into his right eye and he fought not to blink, sure the alien would notice even that small movement. The Zelotyr moved closer. Carter held his breath. Could it smell fear? Hear his heart beating? It was so loud, half of Belfast should be able to. Beside him, Nugent trembled; the young captain had done well to hold together so far, but he wouldn't last much longer. No one could – he was pretty unnerved himself, even after the last year in Belfast and night after night of Zelo raids. He tightened his hand around his gun, fighting his nerves. He should have stayed at the station tonight, not agreed to work as liaison for the army. They’d found no survivors of the previous nights’ bloody work, anyway.

The Zelotyr moved away. Carter loosened his grip, taking a shaking breath. It had worked. Another moment and the aliens would go further up the hill towards the zoo, and they’d have the chance to get away –
An explosion dented the air above the city, building to an enveloping thud. Nugent startled. The alien pivoted, mouth open, teeth bared. It pushed back the bushes, its arms reaching farther than should be possible, and a guttural call went up, carrying through the still air. Nugent scrambled to his feet, rifle ready, and fired at the alien’s lower abdomen. Carter stood and raised his pistol, hands amazingly steady.

"Back off," he said.

An alien arm extended, its elbow unfolding like an accordion, and snatched his pistol. Carter turned, ready to run, but the Zelotyr grabbed him and pulled him close. Its flesh stank. Carter tried to push the arm away, but his hand slipped on the mucus oozing through the living armour. His stomach turned over in terror and disgust.

“He’s first,” said the artificial voice of the translator unit, sending ice down Carter's spine. “Then you.”

“Let me go.” Carter pulled at the arm, trying to tug it away from his throat. Rock would have been easier to shift. “Jesus...”

“No, not quite.”

Funny; the bastard was trying to be funny. Carter clawed at its arm, his hand slipping. Opposite, Nugent struggled against another of the aliens, any semblance of control gone.

“Fire at me, would you?” The creature holding Nugent unfurled a talon and set it against his neck.

"No!" Carter strained, trying to reach the soldier.

A dark stain spread across Nugent’s trousers. He shook his head, blond hair whipping in the moonlight. The claw drew across his neck, a line of dark blood behind, and Nugent gave a brief shout.

“Captain!” yelled Carter. Nugent’s body slumped to the ground, his eyes wide and lifeless. The alien stepped back and turned in a slow circle, as if welcoming the group’s admiration.

Carter pulled in a breath, rasping against the arm holding him. He'd never known the Zelo to act like this. They were ruthless, yes, but they'd never seemed to take such enjoyment. The alien holding him shifted its grip and he closed his eyes, waiting for the claw on his neck, the tearing pain. His left leg jittered, shaking, and wouldn’t stop. The still night ebbed around him. Christ, get it over with. Nothing happened, and the moment stretched on.

He opened his eyes and glanced down at Nugent, whose gaze met his, his eyes moving, mutely pleading, his hand clenching and unclenching, as if grasping for something.

No. Carter tried to shake his head. He’d heard the rumours – who hadn’t – without believing them: the Zelotyr could revive their victims to kill them again.

Nugent drew in a long, rasping breath. An alien picked him up, its claws tightening on the captain’s throat until slumped.

"Stop!" Carter swallowed bile. Nugent's chest was unmoving. Definitely dead.

More clicks and clacks. Two of the Zelo turned their attention to Carter and he pulled at the arm around his neck; it made no difference. He tried to bite back his moan of fear, but it escaped, like a cat’s mew.

Nugent’s eyes moved, wide with desperation. Christ. Carter wrenched his shoulders, almost getting the alien off balance. It swatted his head, and a dull ache settled across the back of it.

“Don’t,” it said, breath hot against Carter’s neck. “Or I’ll start now.”

Carter swallowed his fear, determined not to give the bastard satisfaction. Nugent was trying to crawl down the hill. Carter scrabbled at the alien, keeping its attention from the young captain, but another alien's arm shot out, its wrist dislocating, pulling Nugent back like a cotton reel. The Zelotyr lifted him into the air, bending him into an arch. Nugent’s screams cut through the still air.

A whisper of breath caressed the back of Carter’s neck. “Remember, you’re next.”

“Fuck you,” Carter croaked, and twisted to slip under the arm. The Zelotyr’s grip tightened. Opposite, the captain’s legs beat against empty air, his spine hopelessly arched. A claw drew across his stomach. He howled, innards spilling, and fell silent. Poor bastard. There was no way back from that death, surely. Nugent’s killer turned towards Carter.

He tried to twist, to duck, but nothing worked. “Don’t,” said Carter, hating himself for it. “Please, don’t.”
The Zelotyr reached for him and he wrenched free, fear giving him strength. He stumbled a few steps to the side. Something stopped him: dark armour, the now-familiar smell. He tilted his head back and saw it was a full-grown Zelotyr, the stench of battle frenzy heavy on it.

“Your name?”

“Carter.” He paused, swallowed, and steadied his voice. Let him try to go down, if not fighting, at least bravely. “Inspector Henry Carter, North Belfast division.”

The alien looked at the Zelotyr youth. They were hunched together, looking like any teenagers in trouble. None of them met Carter’s eyes.

“We are sorry, Inspector Henry Carter, North Belfast division,” said the adult, his metallic voice flat.

Carter frowned, trying to make sense of the words. “S – sorry?”

“Our young will be dealt with; they will face what your friend did. Three deaths.”

Carter stepped back, shaking, his chest rising and falling in shallow breaths.

“Go." The Zelo's words made no sense – they didn't let anyone go. They were ruthless in battle, taking out squad after squad of human fighters, bringing a forced surrender closer every day. "You have your freedom. Tonight we did not behave as soldiers should.”

Carter paused, glancing at Nugent’s body. He wanted to take him, to honour him, not leave him on a hillside for the foxes. "Can I...."

“Go. We will attend to him.”

The Zelo could change its mind. Mouthing sorry, Carter backed away and ran down the hill, his feet scrabbling for purchase. He had to report in to the colonel. He had to make sure the message got back, that the aliens could kill a person more than once. More than that – he had to tell the colonel they had a code of honour, that they could be reached out to. Earth should try to negotiate and see if they could come out of this war even half intact. He stopped at the bottom and sank to the ground, shivering with stunned relief. The smell of smoke swirled around him: Belfast was still burning.

Inish carraig wiil be out August 2015. More info at www.jozebedee.com or facebook - Inish Carraig - Jo Zebedee. I'm also on twitter as joz1812

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