You can now read the first chapter of The Fall of Deadworld: Red Mosquito, the first in a new series based in the world of the Dark Judges!

Published in ebook on 18th September, the limited print edition of this new novella by Matthew Smith is now available to order from the 2000 AD webshop.

Deadworld was once a planet similar to Earth, until Judge Death and his lieutenants Fear, Fire and Mortis deemed that as only the living could break the law, life itself should be a crime. In The Fall of Deadworld, writer Kek-W and artist Dave Kendall explored the origins of the four Dark Judges and the destruction of their homeworld. Now, in Red Mosquito, Matthew Smith plunges readers into a world falling apart…

Something is rotten in the Hall of Justice … although I don’t really follow politics, myself. You could say I ‘work with my hands.’ I’m a head-breaker for the Mob; I come for you if you owe the Bushman money. Or whatever other reason he gives.

But today’s job just can’t go right. Supposed to be beating up a loser with a bad habit, but I picked the wrong guy and now I’m babysitting some lab nerd babbling about Judges and bioagents, and it turns out I’m following politics after all…

Pre-order print edition from 2000 AD >>

CHAPTER ONE

I was never a believer in predestination. Hell, if pushed I’d struggle to spell it. It seemed an unlikely state of affairs, your life attached to these rails that lead to one inevitable conclusion. It’s a comforting school of thought, I have to admit, to consider that every shitty choice you ever made was fated to happen, that every bum deal you were handed you were never going to escape. Kinda takes the sting out of the guilt. Que sera sera, and all that—whatever will be will be, so fuck it, there’s nothing I could’ve done to change it.

But I can’t avoid accepting the responsibility, however attractive that sounds at the time. The trains I take are mine alone to board, and where they take me is a journey of my own making. I am the master of my own destiny, even if that destiny is to be a washed-up asshole with no prospects. I got myself to here through every bad decision and crummy situation I found myself in, and no matter how much I’d like to drink that knowledge into oblivion, the fact is that it’s no less true. Nothing is fated; the future is yours to mould and shape as you see fit. Your life is in your hands, not the mysterious whim of the cosmos. Sure, I could blame a lot on the arbitrary roll of the dice, and the fact that Lady Luck’s been mainly smacking me in the face lately rather than softly nibbling the nape of my neck, but I feel it’s better to own your screw-ups rather than rant about outside forces you’ve got no control over. No one likes a whiner, after all.

So, yeah, I’m well aware of who’s at fault for putting me in my current predicament, and I’m cool with it—in the sense that I’m not bitter as opposed to unwilling to change it, because I would be quite happy for the chance to climb out of this pit. But that would require commitment, sobriety and drive—attributes that I don’t necessarily possess in abundance; and money too, and it’s the lack of folding that’s possibly the root of everything. Does my pursuit of the green get me into these scrapes? Probably. Does it plunge me further into debt, in an ever-tightening downward spiral of self-loathing, thereby necessitating me to take jobs that I would otherwise baulk at? Oh, most definitely.

Anyway—predestination. Not a believer. Or I wasn’t. But sometimes I guess a moment comes along where you feel it’s a turning point; it’s setting your life on a path that you’re not going to be getting off. It’s got nothing to do with choice; the event’s been handed to you as a fait accompli. Or what’s that other Frenchie phrase? Force majeure. This is the universe taking that big old junction lever with both hands and giving it a wrench, tugging you onto a whole other set of tracks entirely, and you get no say in the matter: you just have to respond accordingly, which is mostly by barrelling along headfirst towards the new end-point. Now, you may disagree—you might reckon I could’ve done things differently at any time; taken a way out, a side exit, picked another route. But I suppose we’ll have to not see eye to eye on that, ’cause as far as I’m concerned I’m sure—sure as eggs are cluckers—that my future was mapped out that night. Fate took a guiding hand, and swept me along a road I couldn’t turn back on.

Fact is, the bottom crapped out of the world the evening I beat up the wrong guy. I mean on a global scale, not just in some localised woe-is-me way: the whole actual planet went down the shitter. I’m not naïve enough to think that what I did was the catalyst—I’m sure this stuff had been building for a while, and I only became aware of it in the slow, dim, dawning realisation of a man who’s just been alerted to the fact that he’s on fire—but it felt like a through-the-looking-glass episode. Everything was changed, both within and without.

Now, I don’t make a habit of beating up guys, wrong or not. Or at least I don’t do it for pleasure. But unfortunately it’s something my somewhat sorry state of affairs has dragged me to, and efficient acts of moderate violence are one of the few skills I can legitimately lay claim to. Thirty years ago I was a boxer of reasonable standing—welterweight, semi-pro—and had the potential to make a name for myself in the ring. I was fit—frighteningly fit—and had ambition to burn; I used to spar with Thad Dewberry, if you remember him? This was before he became four times national champion, naturally. Knocked him on his ass on more than one occasion too. Freddy, my trainer, said I had raw, natural talent, and at the risk of blowing my own trumpet I knew I was good: I was fast, nimble, with enough aggression to power a decent right hook, and an obstinate streak that meant I never knew when to quit. So, of course, I took all that aptitude and ability and threw it all out the window in exchange for a serious gambling addiction. Cards, dice, roulette: I was a sucker for everything, and the more it took hold, the bigger my debts grew, and the faster that physical discipline drained right out of me. All I could think about was the next game, and where I could secure the funds to enable it, and with that my concentration was shot.

Organised crime circles the sport like sharks round a stricken dinghy, and outliers on the fringes of the Mob were more than willing to lend me the cash with an interest rate scarier than some head injuries I’ve received. I took a dive a few times, I’m ashamed to admit, and ploughed the payoffs I got from those straight into my next poker session. I did some bare-knuckle fights—cracked my eye socket, was hospitalised for a spell with bleeding on the brain (which may or may not have had more of a permanent effect than the quacks let on). I backed out of those pretty quick. By this point I was in my mid thirties and starting to feel gravity’s sag. I wasn’t the dancer on the canvas anymore; I was lumbering, and threatening to do myself wheelchair-worthy damage.

I retired from the ring while I could still see and speak without a slur, and got a job at an automobile plant. Picked up a nice little alcohol problem too, which made sure the ship sailed on the last of my fitness: pants got that much tighter, breath got a shade shorter, heart palpitated more times than I cared for. But I… Listen, I don’t know why I’m telling you this, or why I think you would want to have all this personal info frontloaded onto my tale. Like, you didn’t ask my life story, right? I guess the point I was making was that I wasn’t always a bum, and that current fiscal circumstances are the reason I agreed to rough up a complete stranger. Once I abandoned the boxing, my income plummeted but unfortunately my love affair with the cards didn’t lose any of its ardour. Next thing I know, I’m being informed that my debts that I’d spread around town had been consolidated into one big chunk of change that I owed a guy who called himself the Bushman.

I’d never met this dude, and still haven’t; the reasons for his moniker are as shrouded in mystery as his facial features. I didn’t know anything about him, but he sure as shit knew plenty about me. His intermediaries informed me of his preferred repayment plan, but made sure to point out that if I was willing to do him what they called ‘favours’, then he would see about shaving off a few kay. This sounded voluntary, but I never considered refusal was ever an option, and frankly a couple thousand off my tab looked better on the balance sheet than the inevitable broken limbs that were heading my way if I didn’t start returning my loans. The Bushman was well aware of my former sporting prowess, and figured to exploit it, even though it had been a good half decade since the last time the old Jackson McGill piledriver had been called into use. It was still there, that jab, even if time had not been kind to the body that it was an extension of.

So I became de facto Mob-boss muscle, directed as required. I threw up after the first time I beat someone to a pulp, disgusted with what I’d become, and haunted by the look of fear on their faces just before I slammed my fist into them. They were squirrelly little saps for the most part—losers like me who thought they could take the money and run—and nothing like my opponents in the ring, who had come out of their corners snarling with the intention of delivering equal amounts of hurt. These submissive pricks, on the other hand, snivelled and blew snot-bubbles and apologised profusely, and sometimes I hit them more than was necessary just to get them to shut up. I didn’t need to hear it—my own head was filled with doubts and regrets and broken glass, and I didn’t want it to get too crowded in there. Block it all out, I told myself. Give the bozo some bruises to remember the Bushman by, and skedaddle. The drinking came into its own there, I have to admit; it was great for blurring memories. I embraced the bottle even more.

I know how all this sounds, and I’m not expecting you to like me. As I say, how I got here is through my own choices, and no one else’s. If I was smart, if I truly wanted to get out of this life, then I’d knock the gambling on the head, stop racking up the debts. But I’m well aware that’s not going to happen any time soon—and most pertinently, so does the Bushman. He’s got no desire to lose me, I’m too much of an asset. Thus, here I find myself, trapped in a role of my own making.

I got the call just after five on my way home from work. I live a little outside of town in a two-storey shitpile on the edge of a derelict street just before the suburbs gives way to scrubland and the woods, and it’s a good half-hour drive past the factory stacks and abandoned car lots. I saw my cell chirrup on the passenger seat of my Pontiac as I edged it through the rush-hour traffic, rain splodging the windscreen. I knew who it’d be—they always texted from the same number and at the same time. I found a public callbox and pulled over, hitching my jacket collar up and ducking through the fat, warm drops to the kiosk.

I don’t know if this is the benefit of hindsight colouring my recollection, but something felt off even then: more people seemed to be out in the weather than you’d expect, and they appeared agitated, restless. Sirens blared several blocks over. The radio said something about tailbacks across the river. There was an edgy vibe, as if tensions were going to spill over any second, but I didn’t know for what reason. A guy slammed his palm against the callbox window and shouted something indecipherable, then tried to yank open the door; I told him to fuck off and he took the hint, but his eyes told me he was barely aware of what was going on. A few more just like him stomped past, and I remember pausing to watch them, this herd of crazies surging down the street, demented in their terror. That should’ve been the first sign, I guess, but I must’ve passed it off as random loons—the city wasn’t short of them. Even the Judges weren’t exactly stable, at the best of times.

I punched in the number and got the message: gimp staying at the RestEazy motel on Rothman, near the airport. He’d booked himself onto the 7.30 flight to Hugersfield, way up north. I was to stop him getting on that plane and gently remind him that he owed fifty kay in unpaid debts, a commitment he was freely welching on. Don’t cripple him, they said, just make him piss blood for a week. They gave me a brief description, and I could picture him instantly, since he was virtually identical to every other sadsack that I’d put the frightners on—tubby middle-management drone drowning in a wretched coke habit, and not even embezzlement to the tune of a quarter of a mil could keep him supplied in snow and ensure his girlfriend was happy and sufficiently far enough away from his wife. Dabney Krinkle was his name, like it mattered—I whale on one of them, I’ve whaled on them all.

I had to book if I was to make to the RestEazy before he checked out, so I ran and slid back into the car, burning rubber towards the freeway. The news broadcasts weren’t kidding about the traffic; the filter lanes were rammed nose to tail, and several of the drivers had given up entirely, abandoning their vehicles and fleeing along the hard shoulder. I still didn’t have clear idea what had put a bug up so many people’s asses, and the pundits on the radio weren’t clarifying anything—I heard the word ‘coup’ several times, and listening between the lines it sounded like some kind of military takeover at the heart of  Justice Department. A damn quiet one if it was, since there hadn’t been any suggestion of small arms’ fire from what I’d seen.. but who knew what was going on in the Grand Hall? Something was certainly scaring the locals, unless it was mass hysteria: I’d seen pack mentality in action before. If I’d had the time, I could’ve stopped someone and asked if they knew what the hell they were running from, but I suspected I would’ve got little sense in reply.

Madness, I thought. I assumed it’d blow itself out by morning.

I got off the freeway first chance I could and tore down the back roads instead. The newsreader was now listing areas of the city that were either off-limits or impassable, and it seemed like they were radiating out from the centre, sectors being shut down systematically. No wonder so many cits were bolting; they were being forced out towards the edges. Static crackled from the speakers, and before I could retune the radio it went dead. Nothing was audible on any station other than a low hiss. That was disconcerting. Even the twenty-four-hour evangelist guy had been silenced, and not even the revelations about him and the fifteen-year-old had managed that. The car felt uncomfortably quiet and empty, and darkness was falling fast beyond the glass.

I was driving parallel to the airport, I realised, but on the other side of the chainlink fence nothing was stirring. No planes taking off or landing, no lights, no signs of life. It occurred to me that maybe all flights had been cancelled—grounding the aircraft sounded like the first sort of thing the military would do in the event of a governmental overthrow—and that I wouldn’t have to worry about catching the mark before he departed. The counter-argument in my head reasoned that Dabney possibly wouldn’t know that, and could still try to scurry away. I spotted the RestEazy and swung in to the kerb opposite the entrance, turned off the engine and leaned forward in my seat, arms on the wheel, confident I had a decent enough view.

A family were throwing their suitcases in the back of a taxi while the dad was shouting at the harassed-looking driver. They eventually drove off in a cloud of exhaust fumes, destination who-knew-where. Beyond the doors, I could see further consternation in the lobby as arm-waving dweebs berated the receptionist, luggage piled around them. It seemed like everyone was getting the shit out of Dodge; or at least they wanted to and were being frustrated by the lack of transport options. I looked up at the motel façade and saw a few lights on in the windows, indicating some residents at least were staying put, then thumbed the number for the place into my cell, gleaned from the buzzing neon sign hanging off the corner. It took several unanswered calls and a couple of redials before a female voice finally responded with a barked expletive.

I asked to be connected to Dabney’s room and the line hummed, then rang. I remained optimistic: she hadn’t said he’d checked out. The receiver was picked up after the sixth ring, though no one offered a greeting other than short, quiet breathing. I listened for a moment, waiting.

“Dabney Krinkle?” I asked.

No confirmation or denial, other than the breaths hitching up a notch. Then the line went dead. I scanned the front of the building again, watching the few illuminated squares that were the occupied rooms, and sure enough one blinked out seconds later. The spooked Mr Krinkle was on the move. I pocketed the cell and resumed my study of the main entrance, running his distinguishing characteristics through my head as I awaited his appearance.

People were threading out now into the street, bags gripped tightly in fists, glancing around, wondering where the hell they were going to go. A trickle became a crowd and I sat up, worried I was going to miss him. My eyes roved over the sweaty, concerned faces, trying to zero in on my target. Seconds later I spotted him—tubby, white balding dweeb, glasses perched on his conk, snap!—and I wrenched open the car door, tracking him as he stumble-tripped along the sidewalk, away from the bulk of the others, briefcase clutched to chest, head turning left and right as if hoping to catch sight of another cab. I followed discreetly, the others paying me no heed, more important things evidently playing on their minds.

I picked my moment just as he was well separated from the throng and crossing the shadowy junction with the RestEazy’s underground car park. I closed the distance in a matter of seconds, wrapped my arm around his neck, and pulled him further into the gloom; he was surprisingly light, and shock meant he offered little resistance. I pushed him up against a wall, satisfied we were alone, and hit him hard on the bridge of the nose, just enough to make the stars dance before his eyes. I always lead with a good pop to the face, gets them disorientated. He gasped, glasses went flying, and his legs buckled. I caught him and propped him back up. He didn’t let go of his briefcase though, I noticed. I gave him a couple of quick slaps to get him to focus.

Now I had his attention, I could go to work.