‘We’re going to Hell for this.’

It is one of the soldiers who speaks, talking almost under his breath to the similarly sculpted muscular redoubt standing beside him. Their arms are bare from the shoulders down, dark green sleeveless slips the only clothing between the skin of their chests and sweat-streaked grey tabards of body armour. Their biceps are taut from the weight of their weapons, or maybe that’s just how it looks, because Merrick knows what those things feel like to hold; knows a weight in them that derives from more than simply mass and gravity. Those muscles are US military: built, trained and maintained. You could sling a feather duster across those forearms and the musculature would look just as pronounced, just as swollen and primed.Merrick recalls a detached fragment he glimpsed surfing the digital channels, showing a poster from the Weimar Republic. It depicted an Aryan god of an athlete above the slogan: ‘A healthy body houses a healthy mind’. To which some seditionary artist had added: ‘but often a very small one’.

All of the soldiers in here look like gay porn. So much muscle on show, all of it glistening with moisture, fresh beads of sweat pooling for a moment, then suddenly swooping in rivulets in response to a slight movement, a shift in stance, and not infrequently a nervous shudder. It’s the heat: that’s why they’re dressed that way. It’s so hot in this place, so infernally hot, always. No amount of venting seems to make a difference. He’s stood right next to the giant fans at the base of the intake regulation shaft, walked beneath the coolant transit vessels in the heat-exchange orbital, several miles of insulated alloys thrusting through a circular tubeway engirthing the primary accelerator chase. You can put your left hand next to the vent outlet, or up close to the transit vessel, remind your fingers what cool air feels like; but if you place your right hand a few inches further back, then they might as well be in any other room in the facility, as they’ll feel no change. It’s like the principles of conductivity have been suspended, or some inexhaustible energy supply keeps pumping more warm air in to replace every atom that gets cooled.

Merrick’s going through tubs of Vaseline trying to reduce the chafing of his thighs and where his arms brush his sides, and that’s just wearing trousers and a shirt, sometimes a lab coat. What must it be like for these guys, strapped, clipped, belted and burdened until they look like cyborgs and gladiators?

Not that the soldiers would be complaining. They didn’t complain, they didn’t argue, they didn’t question. But that didn’t mean they weren’t sweltering, didn’t mean they weren’t blistered worse than Merrick, and most certainly didn’t mean they weren’t scared.

‘Going to Hell?’ replies the second soldier. ‘We ain’t going. We’re standing down all border patrols and letting Hell come to us.’

They don’t know he can hear them. They’re talking in whispers and the sound of the machine - the incessant sound of the machine - would make it hard enough to catch anything below a shout from the other side of the chamber. Merrick, however, is picking them up through his headphones from one of the directional laser-mikes he’s deployed, monitoring a range of sound frequencies calibrated far outwith the spectrum of human hearing. He’s also running all pick-ups through a counter-frequency interference filter, which cancels most of the frequencies coming from the tooth-rattling, pulsatile hum that is as unresting a constant of this place as the stifling heat. It’s only with his headphones on