Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
Be yourself; Everyone else is already taken.— Oscar Wilde.
This is the first post on my new blog. I’m just getting this new blog going, so stay tuned for more. Subscribe below to get notified when I post new updates.
As I approached the short jetty from beneath, moonlight glinting through the spaces between the boards to paint me in zebra stripes, I made an effort to calm my ragged breath, and move slowly.
The boathouse had a lower deck, a short set of wooden steps leading down to a wooden platform. Firelight was flickering in the windows as I braced myself against the rocking mass of Shaw’s fishing launch. I could smell diesel and cigarette smoke. I could hear music playing on the deck above me. Bob Dylan singing The Times They Are A Changin’, interrupted by a faint crackle of static. I times my movements in the bursts of harmonica, steering myself around the wooden support poles in the half-light. Slowly, maddeningly, with my hands flexing in the torn latex gloves, I inched around the left side of the jetty, and swam for the platform leading into the boathouse. The painted walls passed over my head, Bob Dylan grew louder. I heard a sigh above me, and a shuffle of feet on boards. I could jump up now, haul myself from the depths like a creature from the swamp and rush him. But my muscles might seize up from the water, and he might get to the door and run for the house before the cramps let up. I had to do this right.
I was in the boathouse now, the radio echoing off the white-painted boards, three metres above me. The upper platform was solid dark wood. I couldn’t see him through the floor. I paused with my hand on the lower platform, taking in the covered shapes of fuel drums, a barrel of firewood and kindling. Several plastic containers, contents obscure in the firelight flickering from above. There was a pop and crackle, as if he’d just thrown something on the flames. The track changed and I held my breath in the silence.
When the music started again, I hauled myself silently out of the waves, biting my tongue as my body screamed again at the temperature change. My flesh was raised in goose pimples wide enough to tee off with. But when I moved into a low crouch against the tarpaulin cover of the fuel drums, my muscles moved with life I didn’t feel. My body never betrayed me, when it mattered.
I padded slowly across the boards to the sound of “Hurt” by Johnny Cash. I crossed the platform as the old man began to croon, and took the stairs two at a time, walking on the sides of my feet. The red-painted door to the jetty outside was directly in front of me. A bundle of nets sat in a small alcove to its left. The door was ajar, and a faint flash of lighting shone off the doorknob. The smell of tobacco was stronger now.
I turned to my right, the interior of the boathouse inching gradually into view. A low ceiling, a dark, bare bulb hanging off a chain. Four crossbeams, a dry trout hanging from one, swaying gently in the breeze. A roaring fire, blazing from the depths of a steel drum in the centre of the floor, equidistant from the walls. A coffee table sat next to it, the transistor radio sitting next to the stuffed bunny and a loaded ashtray. A half-empty bottle of Glenlivet sat with them. And Shaw, facing the flames in a flimsy white deckchair, looking across the fire to the small window in the far wall, and the night beyond. A fag hung from one ringed hand, smoking gently into the rafters. He was short enough that his head was out of sight behind the chair’s back. I could smell a faint cologne. Hugo Boss maybe. It would be easy enough from here. Lunge across the room in two large steps. Hands around his throat, cutting off his air. Hold the squirming body against me until he fell asleep like a child in his mother’s lap. Then take him below. And get the fuck out of here. I took my first step about the same time the radio lost reception, and the cabin grew as silent as a morgue.
The creak as my foot met the floor sounded like the tomb of a corrupted Pharaoh cracking open with plague and malice. My heart froze in my chest. There was a long, protracted pause. The lawyer coughed.
“I’d offer you a chair, but something tells me you won’t be stopping.” The Scots accents had been diluted a little by his time in the states, but he wasn’t slurring his words.
I remained silent, but my hands flexed again in the filthy gloves. Time appeared to have stopped.
“You don’t need to worry.” Shaw continued, and sighed. “It’s just you and me.”
I licked my lips. My throat was dry. My plan was unravelling as wildly as the faded yellow fabric of the deckchair, a metre away.
Shaw stretched out both his hands. One held the stub of the fag, the other an empty glass. A pair of melting ice cubes clinked against the glass. “Come out into the light. I deserve to see you, at least.”
My legs moved on autopilot, and I circled the chair like a lioness stalking a wildebeest. Except he’d declawed me. The little man in the chair grinned at me as if he’d read my thoughts as I stood with my back to the fire. The heat should have been delicious on my shivering skin, but I could barely feel it.
Dominic Shaw looked tired. He was clad in a thick red jumper and blue nylon trousers, feet ending in tartan slippers. His eyes were bloodshot in his pink face. A pair of steel-rimmed specs perched on his forehead. A brown stain sat in the crease of his mouth, as if he’d rushed dinner. There was a glimmer of grey chest hair at his neck.
He raised the empty glass to me as if in a toast. There was no weapon on the chair, and the man was the size of a fourteen-year-old girl. I could have reached out and broken his neck like a toothpick. But his eyes were steely and grey, and made him seem ten feet tall. Courtroom eyes. And he was smiling. “The man on the camera.” He said.
I grunted. It was the best I could do. If he knew that, why was he still here? The radio burst to life again with a shower of static. I recoiled against the steel, and gave Shaw enough to time to tut, reach out, and flick it off. The fire’s crackling was suddenly loud enough to raise hell.
“In shower wear, no less. I apologise.” He gave a short yawn. “I didn’t mean to interrupt you on the job.”
I touched trembling fingers to the dampness of the cap.
“Forensics, of course.” He gestured at the bottle with his empty glass, and looked a question at me. I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a bowling ball on my neck.
Shaw poured himself a generous triple. He took a long swig and sighed. “No trace then?” He looked back at me. We might have been talking about plumbing.
I nodded again.
He returned my nod. “It makes sense. Looks better that way.”
“It does?” I finally ground out. My voice sounded like it had died ten years ago.
“Mmm…” Said Shaw, looking appreciatively at his whiskey. He gestured at the bottle again, then at me. I shook my head. “Pity.” He said. “A condemned man shouldn’t have to drink alone.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.” I said. I wasn’t sure who I was talking to.
Shaw reclined in the chair with a groan of abused springs. “I imagine not.” He said. “But I wanted to meet it head on.”
“You knew?” I asked. Maybe the scotch would have helped. My eyes must have asked my next question.
“I think it was when that woman looked me in the eye.” Shaw mused. “The youngest on the jury.” He swilled the whiskey in his glass. “She was a care worker, worked with the elderly. Hell.” He snorted. “Maybe in ten years she would have changed my bedpan and told me my name twice a day.”
The jury…Jackson’s jury? How could he possibly have-
“She had a history with domestic abuse. Raped by her brother, beaten by the man she married to block it out. I wasn’t supposed to know these things. But I have a way of finding out.” He looked suddenly disgusted with himself. He gestured with the burnt-out fag. “Maybe the prosecution planted her. Watered her, fed her the right things. She was probably supposed to blossom during his testimony. Break down at just the right time to turn the case.” He sighed again.
“Why are you telling me this?” I asked. It seemed all there was to say.
“Because he was guilty!” Shaw suddenly roared, and threw the glass. It blew past my shoulder and struck the wall of the cabin, spattering me with warm liquid. It hit the water below with a series of plops. I squared my shoulders automatically, but he didn’t run.
Shaw was red in the face, teeth clamped down on his lower lip. His eyes blazed like binary stars. A muscle twitched in his temple. I wondered for a second if his heart would do my job for me. But he subsided after a moment, falling back into the chair with a groan.
“Guilty.” He managed only a cracked whisper this time.
“It was unanimous…” I pointed out, bizarrely afraid for a moment of the little man.
He favoured me with a look of singular hatred. “I was his fucking lawyer, do you not think I know what he did?”
I stayed silent.
He fell back again and spoke to his slippers. “He told me on the third day I took his case. Brazen as you fucking like. Flew me over for caviar and plantain, of all things.” He shook his head. “And told me I could retire if I got him off.”
“He did it?” I asked.
“Absolutely.” Shaw nodded. At least I knew this conversation wasn’t being recorded. “Blames the coke, of course. The steroids. Bad combination. But he chose them.”
“And the juror?” I prodded. I felt less like a killer, and more a therapist. He’d turned me like-
“I turned her.” He whispered, and a solitary tear ran his fat cheek. “I turned their plant. Got in her head, made her doubt him. Made her doubt herself. I took it as a fucking challenge. Do you know what that’s like?” He looked up at me, beseeching.
I shook my head again.
“It takes a little piece of your soul. Each and every time.” He rubbed his forehead roughly. “You look in the mirror, but you’re not there. Your family only reach out when they need a loan, and your wife can’t look at you from the other side of the pillow. You’re just doing a job, but that job takes people’s lives. And some part of you is proud of that.”
I felt something in my chest give. “My wife couldn’t look at me either.” I could almost see the words leaving my mouth, see them stretch invisible wings I thought I’d clipped, and vanish into the ether.
Shaw, incredibly, smiled and gestured at me. “And that’s what I mean. I can’t do that anymore.”
I opened my mouth, but he waved a hand at me. “You came here, hired to kill me by any number of people. You probably never heard of me outside of The Times or the bloody Mail on Sunday. I don’t know you from Adam. And I broke you like a fucking twig.”
I bristled in my wet clothes, but he was right. He’d got in my head as if it had been as soft as jelly. Which it was starting to feel like.
He cast a critical eye over me. “Caucasian, male, about six foot two, late thirties. Married once but no longer. You take no pleasure in your work, indeed, it disgusts you. Therefore, you did not volunteer for the role. You were manipulated, no doubt. They have something over you, something you can’t run away from. You no longer have your wife, but you care about something. About someone. Why else would you continue to work? Unless you’re a coward. And I don’t think you are.” He smiled again. “Stop me, when I make a mistake.”
My expression must have been almost comical, but he didn’t laugh.
“Two things.” I shook my head. I was sweating, but it was cold.
He raised an eyebrow.
“I’m closer to 6’1.” I said. “And I am a coward.” I felt ridiculous all of a sudden, standing there in my shower cap and gloves, being dressed down like a child. Part of me fought a desire to run home and cuddle with my mother and have her bake me my favourite cookies.
Shaw inclined his head and smiled again. “We all make mistakes.”
“My daughter.” I croaked out in the same flat tone. “I can’t stop. Because they’ll hurt her.”
Shaw looked down at his slippers again. “That isn’t sustainable.”
“Don’t you fucking tell me that!” I roared at him, the wooden floor trembling at my shout, But he didn’t flinch. I came close to reaching over and caving in his forehead, just to get him out of my mind. My heart was racing and I was covered in sweat. I couldn’t believe where I was. Baring all to a dead man who knew and welcomed it. Some kind of terminal confession.
“It isn’t my business.” He said.
“Damned fucking right.” I muttered.
“Might I give you a piece of advice?” He didn’t sound afraid of my reaction.
“Fine.” I spat. “Then I’m going to kill you.”
Shaw nodded as if I’d told him the time of day. “Get out, as soon as you can. For her.”
“That’s it?” I heard petulance and sarcasm mixing to produce an ugly child.
“But this isn’t something you can do quickly, or do alone. You’ll need help.”
“And let me guess, you’ll help me, if I spare you.” I sighed.
Shaw just shook his head. “I didn’t come out here just for a nice evening. I’ve had this coming for years. I don’t want to complicate your job.”
“Could have fooled me.” I said.
“Find the people that can help you. And accept their help. Sooner rather than later.”
“Do they have little fairy wings and golden trumpets?” I sounded childish, even to myself.
“You know who they are, I suspect. If you want to avoid meeting someone like yourself late one night, just think about it.”
He yawned and stretched, planted his feet on the decking and made as if to get up. The thunder rattled again, distant now. I heard his dogs baying again in the house. For the first time that evening, a flicker of worry crossed his face. “Will you…” He gestured back at the house.
I nodded stiffly. “Least I can do, I suppose.”
“They’ll find me soon?”
“Tomorrow, maybe.” I said. “They won’t starve.”
He nodded with some relief.
“You’ve given me a lot to think about.” I grated. My head was spinning from the heat of the flames and his words. Was it possible? Even now?
“One last good deed, maybe. Or as good as a man like me deserves.” He said.
He rose to his feet, seemed about to turn away, and then stuck out his hand. All of a sudden I didn’t want to do it. I wanted to leave him hanging, turn and walk out of the shack. Leave him to his booze and his regrets. And then what? I couldn’t even get back to London before Barney tripped the alarm, and my master cracked the whip over the smiling girl I’d left in the cottage. My eyes misted over as I took his hand and pumped it once, quickly. He felt like coiled steel.
We regarded each other for a moment, almost a foot in height between us, but I felt a child in his shadow.
“Well…shall we do this?” He finally said.
I nodded stiffly, my head feeling like a block of granite, and followed his lead as he turned for the stairs.
He walked slowly, steadily, with the careful dignity of a man to the noose. The fire was dying behind us, and our shadows were long against the wooden planking. I half-expected him even now to turn and run, try to push past me for the door and run for the house. His slippers shuffled on the wood, like whispers from the grave. The walk took ten seconds at most, but felt a lot longer.
Shaw turned to me on the lower level of the boathouse, thin shoulders against the covered oil drums. His perfect teeth glittered in the low light. I could smell his sweat on the gentle breeze. The dock rocked gently beneath our feet.
“Accident or suicide?” Shaw asked me, as casually as my preference of soft drink.
My reactions were still muddy and slow. I didn’t want to be here, and he must have known. I didn’t want to kill him. He’d done something to me, and I didn’t know whether I needed to curse or thank him.
“Either.” I finally grated. “They’re not fussed.”
“Suicide, then.” Shaw decided after a moment. “That way Nicki gets half.”
“Nicki?” I whispered. I felt my hand clutch at my wrist.
“Nicola.” Said Shaw. “My wife.”
Of course it was. How could it be anything else?
“Complicated Will.” I managed.
Shaw gave a humourless chuckle. “Naturally. I was a damned good lawyer.”
“Those full?” I nudged the barrels with my foot. There was a gentle slosh from inside. Pragmatism beat self-reflection.
“Ah…” said Shaw after a moment. “Yes, I suppose they’ll get the job done.” He didn’t sound regretful of that.
“Turn around, walk to the edge.” I told him. But I could hear her in my mind. First laughing at me as I finally told her how I paid the bills. Unbelieving, incredulous. Then the silence…that deathly silence in which I poured out a broken lifetime. And finally the screaming when the words sank in. And the slam of the door as she left. Maybe I’d sounded as I did now. Cold, efficient. Alien.
Shaw walked to the edge of the platform, gasping as the water lapped at his slippers. I fumbled in the dark, found the knots of heavy cord holding the tarp and worked them loose. I threw it over the plastic containers beside the barrels, and dug my hands into the steel drum. It was heavy, probably about a hundred kilos. It would do. I shuffled it across the wood towards the old man, who was staring at an unseen horizon. The jetty groaned with the shift in weight. He stepped back, leaning into it like a lover’s embrace.
“Hold still.” I told him, and wondered if he would. It took a brave man to face his death like this. He might even now bolt for the stairs, or the waters beneath. He couldn’t outpace me in the water, but guilt might weigh me down, hold me back. I had never felt like this on a hit before. But then, I’d never confessed to one of my target’s either. I bent down to snatch up the rope in my latex gloves, and half-expected to hear the splash.
But he stayed. I threw the loops of yellow cord over him in thick bands, and he pulled them against his chest. I could smell the fumes of the diesel in the drum and his aftershave again as I yanked the cords tight around the barrel, making him cry out as they cut into his sternum.
“You okay?” I asked, bizarrely.
“Just fine.” He laughed shakily. “May I ask you two favours?”
“Two?” I grunted in the thick silence that followed. The water lapped gently against the jetty, and I could hear the wind howling out there in the dark, along with the distant cry of disturbed gulls.
“Firstly, you need to tie the knots from the front. Not a very good suicide if I have to dislocate my arms to do it.”
I froze for a moment. Of course, he was right. And I would have seen it too. If I’d been inside my own head instead of miles away. I moved around him silently, thankful for the dying light. It meant I wouldn’t have to look in his eyes as I killed him. I yanked the cord tight again, almost nose to nose with him in the dark. His breath was on my cheeks, warm and heavy with alcohol. He groaned as I knotted the cord securely beneath his ribcage. I tested the weight of the barrel with a shove, and made sure he wasn’t going to slip out. It wasn’t much of a favour.
“And the second one?” I asked.
“The toy, upstairs. Please.” He sounded almost ashamed, child-like. I felt my cheeks burn with shame for him and myself.
“Okay.” I said.
I held the pink rabbit for a second in the half-light. It was missing one eye, fabric faded with time and washes. Its short dress was an indeterminate shade of grey. It smelled clean and faintly like lemon. Too threadbare for my daughter. I’d have thrown it out once she’d stopped paying attention to it. But it meant something to him, and it was the least I could do.
Shaw snatched at it hastily in the dark, drawing it against the knot around his chest. He was quiet for several minutes.
“For a child?” I asked, hoping, praying he would tell me no. I didn’t know if I could do it, right here and now, if there was another Ellie I was orphaning. No matter what he’d done.
I thought for a moment he wasn’t going to answer me, but he did, voice shaky with tears. “For one that never came. Perhaps that was a blessing.”
“Some of us aren’t meant to have children.” I said. He didn’t reply.
I walked the barrel the rest of the way in occasional shoves. Shaw didn’t complain as he faced over the edge into the water.
“Will my death mean something?” He asked me suddenly as I planted my foot against the cold metal and drew back. “Besides a victory for justice.”
I thought of Ellie, lying asleep by now across the lap of my neighbour, three hundred miles away. Of Nicole, if she was still alive, curling up in some filthy mattress and jonesing for the needle. How I’d failed them. How with just a twitch of my leg, I was continuing to fail them. Could the last ten minutes change the course of a lifetime?
“I don’t know.” I told him. “I honestly don’t know.”
“You know something?” Shaw sniffed and gave a short laugh. “I’d take your case. And I’d find a way to win. I think you’re very much like me. Even if you don’t know it yet.”
I couldn’t make my mouth work. I settled for my foot.
“Good luck.” said Dominic Shaw as he faced his end.
“You too.” I managed. It wasn’t much of an epitaph, but it would have to do. I nudged the teetering barrel, and the lawyer plunged into the depths without another word. A ring of dark ripples became the last sign he had ever lived. And after a moment, not even that.
The ship dropped out of hyperspace on the edge of the Sylrene nebula. Sixteen hadn’t wanted to push it. He’d boasted to the crew heartily over dinner that it was undetectable by the Coalition blockade, but he hadn’t answered her when she’d asked if he had any proof of that.
Two million kilometres away, the great ring of ships was barely a radar glimmer in Tobias’s display. He gestured in the air, and the stars stopped their crawl past the viewer.
Eldred was holding Bril again. The small bridge was packed, the entire crew up here to watch Sixteen’s magic. Or meet their end the other way. She was in a swivel chair at the rear of the bridge, watching the stars over Tobias’s shoulder. Occasionally Shen would pace across her view like some malevolent cloud, muttering to himself.
“Will you sit down?” Decker barked after a while of this. He was sprawled across the central chair, foot restlessly taping over the arm. Sixteen stood at his shoulder, motionless and watchful. The back of his head twitched occasionally, like he was nodding to himself.
Shen glared at Decker and shot him the finger, but he marched across the bridge and slumped into a seat adjacent to Eldred’s. He pulled up a schematic on his wrist terminal as the ship’s lighting dimmed to an emergency setting. Soft green light glowed faintly through the bridge, exposing shadow and hiding faces. The air smelled tense and hot, like they were waiting for the birth of something ugly.
“Display please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen whispered. So softly that if there had been any background hum, it would have been lost. But the ship was dead and silent around them, the only sounds their laboured breathing and Bril’s soft purring vibrating her thighs. Sixteen was back in his tux, with the addition of an ancient duelling sword in a scabbard on his hip. It glittered in the jade light like the tooth of a demon.
Eldred had never seen a Trogg ship up close. Typically, if she saw one of their drive signatures, she was moving as rapidly as possible in the other direction. The Trogg were the unofficial warrior arm of the Coalition. One of the founding species, along with Greater Humanity, Herminoids and the mercurial Flendarians. Herminoid strategy might have won the war with the Slir, and humanity the cannon fodder that enabled the plans to succeed, but it was the Trogg who held the line long enough to give them that chance. And it wasn’t hard to see why, as the pair of ships filled the curved viewscreen.
“Big fuckers.” Tobias said.
Minor understatement sent Bril.
The pair of dreadnoughts stood out like slabs of carved ice against the backdrop of the Sylrene nebula, an expanse of rust-coloured cloud and gas two hundred light years across. It was dotted with sparse patches of green, as if space was rusting and rotting at the same time. The image made her shiver.
Each Trogg ship was roughly four kilometres long, a fat drive section tapering gradually to a wicked curved point, like a bird’s beak. The brilliant white paintjobs glittered in the dark like bone, spoiled by dark spots standing out like bristles. Recessed torpedo bays, stubs of hull-mounted railguns, and the long, reflective strips which concealed four particle cannons, each one longer than Sixteen’s vessel.
They hung in space like the giant tusks of some monstrous pachyderm, one with a belly open to space, spilling out smaller ships like a spray of parasites. Tributary vessels, one-man fighters, human destroyers and the occasional Flendarian bio-ship, tendrils glinting darkly, swam in the sea surrounding the monsters.
“We can take them” muttered Shen. Eldred heard Bril roll his eyes.
“We won’t need to.” Said Sixteen. But was she imagining a hint of panic in his tone? She hadn’t seen the blockade in a good five years, when she’d skirted it with Bril as they’d lain low from a deal he’d been rumbled on. It made sense. No-one came within ten light years of the quarantine zone if they could help it. They’d muted the alarms on day two, blaring constantly as multiple ships target-locked them to remind them of their place.
“Subroutine 276.4 please, Mr Jensen.” Sixteen said, and Eldred heard his knuckles sink into the back of Decker’s chair.
“Yes. Uh. Do that.” Decker spluttered. Eldred grinned to herself.
The ship lurched under her feet, and for a moment she was weightless. The lights dimmed further, until she could barely see the viewscreen shimmer and clear, as if rubbed over with a giant eraser. It was now the same opaque grey steel as the deck.
Won’t we need to see where we’re going? She shot at Bril, nestling down into her lap, as if seating himself for a show. His musk was weaker today, but he still smelt of damp earth and horny male.
It’s some pretty advanced stealth tech. Bril replied. 93 percent probability the toads won’t notice a thing. He sounded smug, as if he’d invented it.
“93?” Eldred hissed aloud. “What if-“
It’s simple really. Bril continued. Light is refracted around the-
They might refract you, when I throw you out the fucking airlock.
They won’t see us, in plain moron. Bril sent. She squeezed him and received a squeal.
You seem very nonchalant about all this.
Curious. Bril corrected. These people have tech light years beyond us. When I bring this back, it’ll- He seemed to stop, as if he’d said too much.
Bring it back to that no-balled craven, I believe I heard you refer to him as? Eldred enjoyed gloating. It helped with the fear. There was the barest perception of motion in the decking. The crew were silent around her, but she could hear Decker chewing his nails, the soft clicks like gunshots in the dark. Where were they? Had they reached the blockade already? Maybe they were within centimetres of one of the hulls of those behemoths, and the faintest sneeze would see the Trogg blow them to atoms. She realised she was holding her breath.
The Premier. Bril made sure to inject the title of the preeminent Herminoid leader with as much sarcasm as text allowed, is a- But Eldred never found out what he was.
“We’re clear.” Tobias said, with obvious relief. He even gave a faint laugh, but it was shaky.
“Excellent.” Smiled Sixteen, as the bridge lighting dialled back up to full, and Shen rose from his seat with a sticky sound.
Tobias threw up a holo-screen of the blockade, receding now behind them, the Trogg ships already the size of her fingernail.
Decker was in over his head. This was nothing novel, or even particularly new. As a result, he was almost comfortable as he watched Shen scurry like a termite beneath his boots. He tapped his foot against the deck as he looked through the one-way transparent decking of the chamber above the engineering deck. The sound echoed off the plastic, coming back as thin echoes off the opaque dome of the sim suite.
“Doesn’t he ever sleep?” Sixteen asked with a wry smile. The old man was draped in a floral-printed apron, and wore a white bonnet tied around his chin. His thigh-high leather boots rapped on the floor as he paced around Decker in a sort of lazy orbit. He smelled hotly metallic, as if Tobias had set fire to the kitchen again.
“Not when he has a new toy.” Decker said. The mechanic had been up for a solid seventeen hours, and as far as Decker knew, hadn’t eaten in that time. Shen flitted about below them like a bat shot up with amphetamines, pausing occasionally to fiddle with a holo-panel or touchscreen, hand twitching automatically for tools he didn’t need. The big man was not much for speeches, but Decker had had to mute the audio once Shen had discovered he could actually TALK to the machines. He looked up and fixed the old man with a tired gaze. “Do you?”
Sixteen inclined his head. “If required.” He gave a faint chuckle, which didn’t make it to the walls, roughly ten metres equidistant. The ceiling to the sim suite was another ten above their heads and studded with fist-sized black sensor nodules. “Shall we run it again?”
Decker sighed and tapped his temple. His new implants hastily accepted Sixteen’s program, filtering down from the sensors above. A red countdown began in the corner of his left eye. In the five seconds, he tried once again to focus on Sixteen, the way he had on Tobias’s mark on Hades. Tried to see what was underneath those clothes in a way he hadn’t been brave enough to try on Eldred. Maybe look inside that gleaming pink skull and show faint surprise at the cogs and gears inside. But the harder he looked, the mistier the picture became, as if he was trying to read through the bottom of a glass. Maybe it would come once he got over the headaches and the soreness in the mornings. He had no further time to ruminate on this before the sim sucked him back in.
Decker’ breath fogged the screen of his helmet. He could even imagine he was cold. He was holding a rifle, the moulded plastic light in his hands. It was dark, but his implants had kicked in with night vision, and the ground before him lit up a grainy green. The stone was covered in a thin layer of dirt and innumerable small bones. It shifted around his boots like disturbed soup as he started walking.
He was standing in a narrow chamber, wading through a shallow pit dug into the floor. Ahead of him was a raised dais, the type a tyrannical preacher might have cursed from. Beyond that, a dark doorway, laced with a wreathe of overgrown creepers. There was a faint dripping of something thick and viscous, far away. Dust motes glittered in a thin lance of sunlight from a crack running the length of the chamber’s ceiling.
A tall, faceless figure was on his right side, cradling a formless silver shape, the same colour as itself. Silver snakes danced on a light breeze. Decker had guessed on the first run that it was supposed to be Eldred. He sub-vocalised a command into his throat mic, and not-Eldred flowed smoothly up the steps to the right of the dais. A squat silver shape already at the doorway could only be Shen. Despite himself, Decker’s heart was palpitating in his virtual suit. A faint moaning sound crept down the tunnel ahead, and made his gut squirm. Just the wind.
The unit moved as one into the tunnel ahead. Not-Eldred had to duck her head to deal with the low ceiling. Decker took point, the rifle dancing in his hands in time with his pulse. There was a brief pulse of light around the gentle curve ahead, and Decker threw himself into a narrow alcove just in time as the dull moan built into a scream. Not-Eldred squashed in beside him, the thin bulk of the avatar making his flesh crawl. Not-Shen wasn’t fast enough. Decker just remembered to kill his NV before the entity burst around the bend in the corridor.
The light was blinding, a roaring wave of sound, like a supernova might sound down a gravity well. Decker saw the insides of his eyelids, hot pink for half a second. The utter blackness after the entity passed was almost as terrifying as the sonic boom that trembled the walls of the tomb around him. Decker held onto a pillar and his virtual lunch. When he looked up again, Not-Shen was gone.
“Don’t need him anyway, right babe?” Decker grinned shakily at Not-Eldred. The silver-skinned avatar turned a hollow face towards him, and he lost the smile.
They proceeded along the curved hallway, took a right at a T-junction, and crossed a narrow stone bridge over a yawning chasm, a dark liquid bubbling thirty metres below. The bridge creaked as they walked, and dust cascaded from the underside of the bridge into the depths. Decker disliked this almost as much as the way Not-Eldred held his shoulders with her not-hands. A sour, rank smell crept from the pit, like liquifying mushroom.
They passed the second lake, skirting the thin rim around the circumference of the chamber, sunlight glinting through a peppered ceiling. Decker had lost his footing on his fourth run. Apparently, the water was as deadly as the ghosts because it had ended there.
By the time he passed the sunken squares he’d designated the swimming baths, his hands were shaking again. He’d never made it this far. Not-Eldred was gone, taken three turns back by two entities that appeared to have been on a collision course. Decker had tripped in his fright and cracked his helmet open on the tiles. He hadn’t seen Not-Eldred go above him.
His helmet hissed away as his atmosphere gently escaped through a narrow spider-web in the right corner of his visor. His implants were still functioning, but he was becoming light-headed. The laser rifle was gone. He’d left it behind after he’d lost Not-Eldred, crawling on his elbows with his heart in his ears. The fucking things didn’t touch the entities anyhow.
He appeared to be in some sort of communal area. Rows of stone benches sat in a circle, around a dark obelisk that rose to meet the high ceiling. Recesses in the tower might have been windows. Perhaps some bizarre concert hall, where the performers could hide in their central building if they felt particularly shy. Decker’s footsteps echoed on the stone as he walked down the crumbling concentric platforms to the centre. Was it his imagination, or was there some kind of glow higher up? He held his breath and listened. Nothing but the faint susurrus of the subterranean winds, and the hiss of escaping air. Decker focused on the light, perhaps ten metres ahead and above him, and cautiously jerked his head to kill the NV.
A faint green light lit up the upper works of the tower, the only glimmer in the pitch dark. His heart leapt in his chest. Sixteen had said it would be green. “At least in-Sim.” Whatever what meant. He might only be virtual steps away, and logically, very solid ones towards his bed and a boast at breakfast. Not to mention a confidence boost for the genuine article. He felt his manufactured anxiety disperse as rapidly as his air as he flicked his NV back on and broke into a trot for the steps leading into the tower.
He immediately realised his mistake. The Sim wights were blind, apparently. They reacted to sound, smell, changes in air density. “In-Sim, of course.” Decker had the disturbing feeling Sixteen was guessing at this. But it was his program, and Decker’s footsteps were as loud as thunderclaps in the musty hall.
They seemed to burst from everywhere. Wispy trails of brilliant white, dripping from solid masses, like miniature suns. At least five of them, swirling around the tower, filling the hall with that maddening moan that shook his teeth. His NV cut out to save his eyes. He had time to raise his hands against the combined glare before they flew at him as one screaming fireball, and the shockwave obliterated Not-Decker.
Decker collapsed with a strangled yell, the motion of the attack seeming to translate for a second into reality. His boots squealed on the deck as he slid half a metre backwards. He landed on his elbow. Again.
He pulled himself to his feet in stages, taking breaks to hug his knees and give himself a whispered pep talk. He’d torn his shin and warm liquid pooled in his sock. He couldn’t see the far edge of the cavern, only a few glittering rocks far below. The pounding of the waterfall was like the scream of a giant. His ears rang as he pulled back from the edge.
Ames turned away from the waterfall as he got to his feet, anxious hands checking if the earpiece was still in place. It flashed a cool, comforting blue against his fingers. He wished he still had the rum, but it was good enough. He pulled the strap of his pack down from his neck, where it was half-choking him, and fumbled out another flare. He broke it over his knee and the green light painted his futures.
The tunnel ahead forked off in two branches, both yawning expanses of dark rock and ice crystals that glittered like teeth in the flickering light. Which had it been? He halted at the junction, feet twisting first one way then the other. He remembered the mad charge through one of them, heart tearing at his throat and terror on his heels. The gathering roar of the waterfall ahead of him. The smell of sweat and vinegary slime. The screams at his back. That maddening pulse, pulse of warm flesh. Like the rock was an artery in a monstrous heart. How was he supposed to know? Which led up, and which led down? If it even mattered.
His earpiece crackled as he was making his decision, and his heart met his throat.
A harsh buzz of static made Ames curse and fumble at the volume switch. He hadn’t heard from the speaker in a long time. Enough time for him to conduct a rudimentary funeral. Two ration packs and a bigger ration of rum. The guilt ate at his gut along with his nerves as he whispered in the dark.
“Hey,” His voice came out cracked, hollow. Like it had died already and was waiting for him to catch up. “Hey, is that you?”
There was another burst of static, and then a heavy, ragged breath. “John?” He sounded sicker than before.
“Ames.” Ames replied, although he wasn’t altogether sure anymore. “Ames, remember?”
“John.” The speaker insisted, and coughed wetly. “It hurts, John.”
“I know it hurts.” Ames groaned. “But I can help us.”
He’d already established the speaker was in the camp. Even now, he could hear the harsh whistle of the surface winds forcing their way underground in any icy stream through a hole no wider than his finger. The sound was like a screaming child, impossible to pacify. Sometimes there was a rustle of heavy cloth, as if the speaker was lying mortally wounded underneath a collapsed tent or tarpaulin cover. How was he eating? What was he eating? Maybe it was best not to know.
“Guide me back.” Ames pleaded for the hundredth time. “Get me back and I’ll help you. I’ve got water.” There wasn’t enough for two. But the speaker couldn’t know that. Ames sipped as he waited, and his cheeks burned with shame.
“So much water.” The speaker laughed and coughed. His voice was a dull, dead drone. “But we can’t drink any.”
“You’re wrong.” Ames lied to the dying man. “We’ll get to the surface, melt the ice, hold out for Columbo.”
The GCE Columbus, in orbit of the ice moon. Half a million tonnes of blocky grey steel, yellow paint chipped from countless meteor fragments along its generations-spanning haul. Half the holds already filled with lithium and water-ice. Enough raw material to buy a small nation. If nations still existed.
“Water is nice.” Said the speaker.
Ames punched the wall ahead of him and his knuckles split. He sucked the wounds to avoid screaming down the mic.
“All the water you want.” He hissed between clenched teeth. “Just tell me how to get back.”
“Follow your nose.” The speaker laughed again and then groaned in deep pain. “Good boy. Good boy.”
Ames bellowed in frustration, a hoarse shout that he clamped down on within half a second. It echoed around the walls like a demented choir. He shivered as he willed the voices silent, regretting his mistake. It might not even have ears. But it could feel. He hugged his knees and cried.
When he had recovered, the speaker was gone. There was no static, no sound at all. He checked the headset, terrified the battery had given out. The blue light winked slowly at him, taunting him with its silence. He thought the light was weaker than before.
He stopped to consider the speaker’s words. The man was obviously far gone. Dehydrated as well as starved. His blood was probably thick enough to bottle and sell for fuel. Which might be what was stopping him bleeding out. He had no idea who “John” was supposed to be, or if it was what the marines called him. A hundred John Doe’s, faceless men in masks and welding goggles. Meat for the grinder. It probably made it easier when one of the miners met with an untimely end. Another tally on a sheet. Ames sniffed petulantly.
He COULD smell something. It was faint, an undercurrent of an undercurrent. If he hadn’t cried like his son when he’d taken the deal, he might never have smelt it. His sinuses had a way of clearing after a good cry, exposing the background scents he took for granted. Like the smell of the methylated spirits in the steel drum at Alpha site that they washed the hand drills in. And suddenly, there it was.
A warm, damp scent. Faintly vinegary, with a hint of decay. Like vegetables left outside too long. It had been two centuries since Ames had last seen a vegetable.
He walked to the mouths of both tunnels, taking a deep inhale, letting it out slowly. His nose was one of his best features. In an age where worker drones had taken over most of the mining jobs in Sol system, his skillset was outmoded. Drones worked harder, cheaper, longer. And they didn’t form unions. But they didn’t have that fifth sense. The way a man could scent the air, like a mole, and tell if there was gold or shit in the walls. The heavy, hot, pregnant air that might signal a cave-in, and a lot of broken robots.
The right tunnel smelt bad. Like one or several somethings had crawled into hidden nooks and died quietly. He could hear the soft plinking of dripping water around a sharp bend in the rock.
The left tunnel smelt relatively clean. A thin stream of water trickled down a gentle incline, into the shallow pool behind Ames that fed the waterfall. Occasional pebbles of rock and assorted detritus drifted down the thick water. Glittering stalactites hung from a low ceiling. But the smell…was it stronger here? He took another big gulp of air. Yes, definitely.
His hand wandered to the back of his neck and the filthy matted hair that hung down it. There was a bald patch just under his right ear. Where something had torn a chunk of flesh and hair on his escape. The wound had clotted into a mushy black scab that felt hot to the touch. Ames would have bet the last flare that it had been torn from him by one of those stalactites. But if he was wrong…
He couldn’t think about that.
We were both up with the cockerel. The invisible bird’s cry rolled gently through the valley, joined by an early sheep. I rolled out of bed, pulled a heavy jacket over last night’s clothes and went downstairs to make a coffee.
It was still dark outside, but there was already a light on in Shaw’s bungalow, half a mile away. I flicked off the night vision setting on the binoculars, took a sip of steaming coffee, and pressed the lenses against the window.
Shaw was still in his pyjamas. The powerful binoculars made the red and white stripes jump into focus. I could see the gleam of his head in the bathroom light, and his reflection in the mirror as he carefully shaved with an engraved straight razor. The purple birthmark over his left eyebrow. I felt as if I was close enough to touch him. Reach out, crush the little hand in mine and draw the razor across his throat. Spin him away from me so the blood didn’t spatter my clothing. I dropped the binoculars, feeling something akin to shame. Luckily for my conscience, it couldn’t be that way.
Shaw pottered about the cottage for another two hours. I ate a breakfast of stale cornflakes in water and watched him cook a fry up, which he ate in the garage, door open to the elements to vent the smells of cooking and oil as he jacked up his BMW and changed the rear tyre. If it had fallen on him, it would have saved me the job. But this was a careful, methodical man. He kicked his new tyre as I watched, stripped off his filthy overalls and bunged them into an outdoor washing machine. He replaced the jack and tools and stepped out of his boots before closing the shutter and heading back into the house. A man who didn’t make mistakes. Evident enough from the dossier sitting on my bedside table. I would just have to make one for him.
He headed out at 8:30 sharp. Shaw’s cottage looked onto the loch, the rear of the property an untamed four acres of bare earth, spotted with hardy weeds and occasional pools of standing water. I watched from a chair in the porch as the little man receded across his grounds, wrapped up like a sardine in a dark green jacket, flat cap and wellies. A fishing rod swung over one shoulder.
I watched him cross the grounds, stopping to inspect something under his boot, and finally come to his short wooden jetty. From this distance, I could no longer see the feathers on the hook of his rod, but the magnification was still enough to see him pull a key from a chain and unlock the door of the little boathouse on the jetty. He disappeared inside for several minutes, finally emerging with a Tupperware box, a transistor radio, and bizarrely, a stuffed pink bunny. I looked away as he settled himself into a small red launch, gunned the motor, and cut the grey waters of loch Lomond, a slowly receding dot against the valley walls. It was time for my own exercise.
The morning air was crisp and cool, and the ground damp with last night’s rain. A two-seater plane glittered faintly in a ray of cold sunlight and the drone of the engine filled the valley as I walked the muddy half-mile to Shaw’s in four and a half minutes. The road was all mud and cobbles, and stunk of invisible manure. In the distance, I could see a small hamlet, with smoke rising from a chimney into the clear sky. A dark brown tractor moved in a field a mile away to my right, but otherwise the air was still.
Shaw’s estate was ringed by a waist-high stone wall that seemed to have been assembled by hand from a hodgepodge of slate and dull brick. Thin wires ran through the layers, holding it together. A small humped bridge forded a thin stream, and beyond that sat the black iron gates leading to the long gravel drive to the cottage. I turned away before I came to the winking control box set into a high brick arch holding the gates. I noticed there was no intercom.
I circled the estate at a more leisurely pace, keeping to the far side of the road from the wall, and occasionally snapping a picture off the phone nudged into my breast pocket. The wall disappeared after a hundred metres into a small thicket of pine, tips glistening like Christmas angels with the evening’s frost. I entered on a dirt track spotted with needles and rabbit droppings, the white paint of the cottage lost for moments at a time in the forest. It was as good an entry point as any. The grounds around the house were mostly bare earth, but the woodland offered approach cover, and the distance once I’d vaulted the wall would be less than ten metres.
I could see a small outhouse at the rear of the garage, a woodpile twice the size of mine and an axe resting in a stump. A side door into the house sat next to this. The lock looked new, but the wood locked old. I could force it easily with my shoulder. But that wasn’t the mandate.
I checked the time. 8:46. Shaw typically liked to fish until noon, and cook up his catch for lunch. The smell of steaming bream, cooked in garlic and basil suddenly blasted away my senses, sharp enough to taste. The way Rob had fried it up in his cabin in Norfolk, after we’d just come back off Homersfield lake. I was a useless fisherman, but my brother-in-law’s blundering nature ceased when he had a worm on his hook. Nicole had told us not to have too much fun with our rods. Rob said whatever happened at sea stayed at sea. She’d been pregnant with Ellie the last time we’d been out to the cabin. I’d been told it was a boy’s trip, no phones and no drama. After Rob had passed out by the fire, I snuck to the bedroom and had a clandestine call with my wife. The Scottish cold stung at my eyes and I had to wipe them clean.
I cursed under my breath and tried to focus on the cottage. The white walls swam briefly and then sharpened. I couldn’t think about her now.
I had three hours, at least. Enough time for a reconnoitre. I approached the wall and prepared to vault it. And stopped, one foot between the wet bricks when I saw the camera.
It was small, maybe no wider than the palm of my hand, tucked under the red brick gable of the roof in a handy recess. Small, grey and stationery, with a thin wire leading into the wall. It was set in one corner of the house, and there was no question it hadn’t seen me. I slowly lowered my foot, heart pounding in my ears. I forced myself to act as naturally as possible, when I’d been a breath away from hurdling the wall and sprinting at the house.
I rested trembling elbows on the brick wall, and leant into them. The path I’d walked was well worn by boot and hoof, and twisted up a gentle incline into a deeper thicket. A discarded dog collar lay nearby, torn off perhaps as its owner had lunged into a rabbit warren. It was a public footpath. Very luckily. I affected a gentle whistle which cracked on dry lips.
How often would he check the tapes? I imagined a basement room, a bank of monochrome monitors. Maybe a potted plant. Or did the footage go to an unmarked white van in a layby, bored private security eating croissants over a live feed?
I forced myself to count to thirty, then stifled a false yawn and turned my back on the estate, strolling slowly back to the path, when every instinct screamed at me to run like the flicker of white tail that bolted at my approach. I was dressed in rambling gear under my own flat cap, and prayed that I looked the part. If I hadn’t, I figured I would know about it sooner rather than later.
I took a walk I didn’t need, on legs that protested every step. Retuning back the way I had come might look unnatural, so I wandered damp hillsides for an hour before turning back, every flutter of bird or rabbit spiking my adrenaline.
I re-emerged from the thicket at 10:30, forcing myself to keep my eyes on the path rather than the estate. All the same, I clocked two further cameras I had missed the first time round. The estate was covered from all angles. Shaw might have left the city, but the city had not left him. It was no longer the simple job I had been promised.
Customs took longer the second time through. But Eldred barely noticed. She was trembling, holding Bril against her heaving chest like a comfort blanket. Decker led the procession through the Berellian guards, who’d taken the opportunity to tool up with pulse rifles. Coalition drones hovered in the corridors, flechette guns pointing at nobody in particular. The air stank of hot lizard and panic.
“Look,” Decker hung back as they cleared customs and walked onto the metal decking of the docks. “If you want to get off somewhere, just let me know.”
She heard the words but couldn’t seem to think up a reply. After a moment Decker sniffed and strode forward again.
The docks were in pandemonium. Armed guards stood at each berth, forcing travellers into lines. A coalition dreadnought was putting down in the military dock, four hundred metres of black steel studded like a porcupine with railgun towers and torpedo bays. Heavy drones jetted overhead and made her hair flutter. A large Trogg that reeked of poor-quality fish was remonstrating loudly with a pair of Berellians, looking decidedly cowed by the amphibian. Sparks rained from the high ceiling, welding flares winking like stars in the black. And everyone was shouting.
Bril’s musk filled her nostrils, a warm, earthy smell that made her think of hydroponics bays after watering. Like the kind she’d broken into as a kid, to try to get an idea of what a planet was like. She realised after a moment that she was nibbling Bril’s fur like a radish.
His dignity wouldn’t permit her that much. He wriggled out of her grasp and hit the deck with a thump.
? Bril shot her a message.
Later Eldred replied on their private channel. Got to do some thinking.
Please do. We’re dry on that about now. Bril scampered ahead of her towards the docked shuttle.
Bril knew her well enough to know this didn’t have anything to do with Decker’s urge to flee Hades, like a flea from a doomed dog. It was the right call. On that, everyone agreed. It had to do with something impossible. Someone dead a long time. Someone she didn’t know she could talk to Bril about. She hadn’t even told Jeremiah. Until the moment in Shen’s jungle, she hadn’t thought about it all day. And that was rare enough. Eldred trotted after Bril before she could think harder on it.
Decker was in furious conversation with Shen as they climbed the ramp towards the off-white cargo shuttle, so mundane that Tobias hadn’t worked up the energy to name her. None of them had noticed that the Berellian guard was conspicuously absent from the landing pad, and Coalition drones appeared to be nervously avoiding the airspace. Bril might have, but he was doing some thinking of his own.
Eldred was tired from even the gentle incline of the docking ramp, and didn’t notice the crew ahead of her flicker out of existence as if they were as holographic as Jeremiah. By the time she registered the landing pad as empty but for the shuttle, she was passing through the field.
There was the briefest humming, and a gentle resistance, like she’d walked through a shower curtain. The air seemed to almost bounce against her skin, before she broke the surface tension and passed through.
The crew faded back in about the time she was processing the fact that air rarely shimmered. But by then she had bigger concerns.
Like the ship.
“What the fuck?” Said Decker.
The stubby cargo shuttle had elongated to three times its length, a hundred metres of a black so dark it made her eyes ache to look at. Green glass glittered from angular portholes, and it appeared to be hovering on the pad with no sound or sign of propulsion. The stealth ship tapered to a triangular point, a giant delta wing looming above them. Eldred could see nodules dotted through the underbelly that could have been weapons, or sensors. It was hovering roughly ten metres above their heads, and every head was looking up.
Eldred was the first to smell it. An expensive aftershave, of the style Jeremiah might wear when he hadn’t seen her in three months and wanted to remind her that he might appeal to other women if he chose. But it felt artificial. Somehow less real than holographic scent on a holographic man. She took a deep breath as she took in the ship’s pilot.
Decker caught up a moment later. “You!” He shouted at the little old man standing on the pad.
The new arrival was half her height, and the hunch in his back didn’t help. He was leaning on a cane, head bald as an egg. A monocle sat in one watery eye, and he had a wispy moustache that he really didn’t need. His mouth was smiling, but his eyes had a hint of steel that made her back up a step. The air caught her again, and shoved her forward. Shen caught her as she stumbled.
“Mr Decker.” The old man’s voice was inflectionless. Like it had run through a voice bank indecisively before settling on all of them. Somehow that bothered her less than the eyes. But Tobias was shivering to her left. The man looked around at them all, his smile growing wider. “Are you going to introduce me to your crew?”
“Why bother?” Decker muttered. “You probably know how many skids are in Shen’s underwear.”
The old man laughed humourlessly. He was exquisitely dressed, in a burgundy suit and waistcoat. “Crude, but accurate enough.”
Eldred tried to access local net, image search the man’s face. It was down. If he could hide the ship, that was little surprise. She inclined her head minutely, tapped twice on her left canine. Into her warren. The tunnels that changed course and consistency depending on the agents hunting her signature. The kind that knew every firewall could be jumped. And each and every one had been filled in. Eldred gasped as if the man had struck her. She was cut off. She staggered again and caught herself. The old man gave her a quick wink.
“Who are you?” She heard herself ask. Her voice shook.
The old man gave a little bow. He didn’t move as his appearance should suggest. “I am Sixteen.”
“Look more like sixteen hundred to me.” Shen muttered.
“That’s not a name.” Decker pointed out.
The old man smiled as if this hadn’t occurred to him. “Nonetheless, it is mine. And besides, it is irrelevant.”
“What do you want?” Eldred asked. Bril was curled around her shins, tapping his rear paw in the way he had when he was deep in conversation. With net down, he could only be talking to one person.
“I would have thought that was obvious.” The man smiled and straightened. The hump in his back vanished as if it had been no more than a crease in a duvet. It simultaneously fascinated and disgusted her. A whiff of tobacco drifted across the pad. Holograms didn’t smell outside of immersion suites. “Unless Mr Decker has been remiss in his tale?”
“You’ve been remiss in yours.” Decker said and crossed his arms. “And you just slaughtered a fucking planet.”
Eldred worried about his raised voice. But the moment they’d stepped into the visitor’s projection, the roar of machinery and people had been abruptly cut off. As if they were in their own vacuum. She had no doubt it extended both ways.
“Accidents happen, Mr Decker.” He brushed invisible dust off his jacket. “To everyone.” He grinned again at the crew and Eldred shivered.
“Do you like the ship, Mr Black?” The man directed at Shen, who’d lost interest in the conversation. A strand of drool was visible in his stubble as he fiddled his hands and looked up into the ship’s belly. Eldred wondered if he would rip his pants.
“Get me up there.” Shen replied. He had little care for safety protocols, or background checks. He also had little care for formal address, but he didn’t seem to notice.
The man laughed. “Fine spirit.” He looked around. “And the rest of you?”
“I’ll go.” Decker sounded like he was trying to convince himself it was his decision. “Tobias and Shen, I guess.” He turned to look at her then, and she saw a plea in his eyes. “Eldred will-“
“Eldred will go.” She finished for him.
Decker turned a deep purple. “You can’t, you don’t even know-“
“Neither do you, captain.” She made sure to inject the irony. “I’m not yours to protect.”
Decker looked hurt, but she was thinking too quickly to feel guilty. She hadn’t been aware she was going to make the decision before she did. But after what she’d seen in Shen’s jungle…
Think about this, Eldred. Bril tapped her shin again. There’s no sense in you going off half-cocked-
Why not? She shot back. You are.
Bril’s silence was deafening. He liked to think he was inscrutable, beyond humanoid predictability. But from the moment he’d hired her on as an external consultant on a scam he was running on a prominent Herminoid lecturer, she’d noted his need to wriggle into tight holes for scraps he wasn’t supposed to scrounge. If it smelled like a fish, Bril would eat until his belly burst.
“Wonderful.” The man clapped his hands as if they’d done him a favour. She doubted whether no was an option as much as Decker. Despite her words, she could feel herself trembling. She wished she could hold Jeremiah. She could almost feel his warmth. But that didn’t explain the humming, or the green light. Eldred was treated to a vision of Shen without clothes for a quarter of a second. She opened her mouth to shout.
It remained open when she rematerialised. She was standing in a soft carpet, the white fibres tickling her ankles. The lounge around her was formed of a low central basin, with a raised platform circling it. It was spacious, roughly sixty square metres, walls panelled in what looked like genuine wood. A hatchway stood at either end, behind and ahead of her. A faint perfumed smoke lay in the air, and the leather couch encircling the holo-table in the centre creaked as she staggered and fell into it. The lighting was unobtrusive, and seemed to radiate from the floor and ceiling without any obvious sign of power.
She could see Decker on the far side of the lounge. He didn’t appear to have her racing heart, but he was looking around frantically.
“What…was that?” She asked no-one.
Tobias answered her. He was curled underneath the glass table in the foetal position. “Magic.”
“Not quite, Mr Jensen.” The old man walked down a short staircase towards them, now dressed in a bright orange jumpsuit with extensive tattoos spider-webbing over his wrinkled brow.
Tobias hit his head on the table as he jumped and shuffled backwards on all fours like a guilty dog.
Eldred became aware she was lying on Bril when he bit her. She shuffled upright and he scrambled out from under her, jumping awkwardly across the lounge to land on the table in front of the man. Shen was nowhere to be seen.
Sixteen ignored them briefly as he focused on the trembling Herminoid. Bril’s claws tapped on the table as they carried on a brief but frantic silent dialogue. When it was over, Bril slumped on the table like he’d just ingested a large meal. Which she supposed he had.
“We’re on the ship.” Eldred hoped the uncertainty didn’t show in her voice.
“Indeed.” Sixteen nodded.
“Want to explain how we got there?” She asked.
Sixteen flashed her a grin. “Little time.” His eyes slid to the side of the lounge as he said it.
Eldred felt her heart skip a beat as she scrambled up the couch and hauled herself like an impossibly thin ape over the raised platform. The angular porthole ahead of her was dark, but as her boots squealed on wooden floor, the glass brightened. Some kind of motion sensor? It was the least of the wonders.
Hades station was the size of her fingernail. It had been less than two minutes since Sixteen had done…whatever he’d done. Stars glittered mercilessly in the dark. It wasn’t possible. She realised with a sudden lurch in her chest that she hadn’t said goodbye to Jeremiah. Hadn’t even though to check on him since the program imploded on her. Decker’s black hole had swallowed her up. Like Jeremiah had feared it might.
I didn’t have a hangover. There was probably something to be said about that. Judging by the crushed cans that crunched under the wheels of the morning traffic, and the shattered bottles of vodka and puddles of puke, I might be in a minority.
I sat in a small square in an intersection between two roads full of stuttering silver traffic, rolling a cooling Greggs sausage roll between my hands to warm them up. The morning air stung my nose as I stared into the windows of a shuttered JD sports. Someone had puked into the bin next to my bench, and there was a used condom hanging from the bare branches of the tree across the square, swaying in the light breeze like a pendulum filled with a slowly-dying civilisation.
I pulled out my new phone. I’d managed to find an early Samsung where you could still remove the battery. Not that it ever helped. 8:32. He was late. Maybe he’d been out partying the night before. The text identified itself only as “Barney”. Somehow I doubted he was as filled with cheer as the dinosaur my daughter cried at whenever he came on the TV. I wondered if she was a prophet, not for the first time.
He announced himself by mounting the kerb behind me in a grubby Fiat Punto, potentially silver underneath the thin layer of dust and caked-on mud. He also threw a filthy wave of water over my shoes. That more than anything got me on my feet.
I turned for the car as he laid on the horn, more for the benefit of the crawl behind him, who were already winding down windows.
I folded myself into the seat as he pulled off into the traffic. The Punto rattled alarmingly as he ran a red light into a blaze of horns.
“Easy.” I grunted across at him, struggling into my seatbelt. There was a pizza box at my feet that looked like it might have been there since the nineties. The car smelt of stale sweat and mould. I edged down the window. It squealed. The Killers played on low volume: “Mr Brightside”. I couldn’t identify.
“Hunter?” The kid asked. He wasn’t looking at me, eyes on the road as they should have been. His hands trembled slightly on the wheel. I felt a sigh die in my throat. He couldn’t have been more than nineteen. He still had acne scars in the cleft of his chin.
“Logan.” I corrected. I’d dealt with kids like this before.
“Hunter.” He insisted. I took a closer look at him. He was long and lanky, mixed race, with a mop of dark curls pulled back into a severe bun. The beginnings of a moustache sprouted from his upper lip like new shoots of grass. It wasn’t a good look. He wore driving glasses, steel-rimmed saucers of glass that probably would have got him liberated of his lunch money. For some bizarre reason, he was wearing motorbike leathers, and a thick brown overcoat. A gold stud gleamed in his ear. “You can walk if you’re not.”
I felt a sudden surge of anger. I hadn’t left my daughter to be talked down to by someone half my age. “People who know my name tend to end up in the ground.” I growled.
“Oh, I know.” He nodded vigorously. “I’ll take that as a yes.”
“Take it how you want.” I looked out of the window. It was starting to rain again, grey streets melting under a thin curtain of water.
There was an uncomfortable two-minute silence, broken only by the squeal of tyres and an early argument, drunken catcalling under flimsy umbrellas.
“He gets in tonight?” I found myself breaking it.
Barney nodded. “He’ll spend a night at the Hilton, then drive out to the lodge.”
“This a regular thing?” I asked.
“When he’s in country, sure.”
I knew all this already. I was doing what Rob referred to as sinking the Titanic. Nicole had gentler metaphors. And this appeared to be a hell of an iceberg.
Barney was sweating as we drove North out of the city, the terrain beginning to dip and undulate in valleys, hillocks and glimpses of distant lochs teasing us through the windscreen. I could smell sheep and wet grass. I took a deep breath.
“Everything in place?” I asked the kid.
“Everything you need.” He confirmed. We took a left turn and he had to meet my eyes for the first time. Deep, dark eyes that shied away from me like a rabbit from a fox. But they didn’t look afraid.
“Staying for the show?” I wasn’t sure why I kept trying to reanimate the conversation.
He shook his head. “Seen enough of your work.”
I had no idea what that was supposed to mean. I was aware that I had a following, of a sort. Like some sort of morbid twitter account. People who paid the big money that I never saw for my services. But I tried not to think about it.
The rain let off as we approached Loch Lomond, and the sun glinted through a faint rainbow between valleys. Neither of us smiled.
The cottage was a half-mile back from the lake, at the head of a muddy field where potatoes peered hopefully from the slush. We drove up a long winding drive, like a snake whose sides were made of waist-high breezeblock. I could hear cows in the distance, and a dog barking. But there was nothing on either side of the white-walled, two-storey thatch-roof job for a mile in any direction. A long low red farmhouse was the closest building, and judging by the caved-in roof, it wasn’t in operation.
Barney pulled up outside the front door, splattering the front of the house with a spray of mud. It could have been avoided.
“No central heating.” He said as he pulled a key from his pocket and thrust it at me. “Have to stoke the fire.”
“Very Dickensian.” I muttered. There was a woodpile leaning against the side of the house. Soaked through, no doubt.
“I’ll be back when it’s done.” The kid said by way of goodbye. I’d given up trying to make eye contact.
“And if I need anything else?” I slowly sank into the churned mud of the drive as I leant down towards the driver’s window.
“You’ll manage.” Barney sniffed, not sounding as if he cared either way. “Men like you always do.”
He splashed me with another mud shower as he left, my jeans soaking coolly into my shins as I tried to decipher the meaning behind his words. It was the strangest interaction I’d had since I’d retired Forbes. The new year could have gotten off to a better start.
The scream burst around Jensen as he exploded from the mouth of the corridor. Even in the muffled heat of his sweat-slicked suit, it was loud enough to make his ears ring. The scream had sounded as it had come from a woman. But the only one besides the unit commander left alive was Terrance, the demolition specialist. And Jensen dreaded whatever could make the seven-foot behemoth shriek like that.
He stumbled over his boots as a shockwave of air hit him from behind. Terrance’s last thermite charge. The depleted pulse rifle flew from his hands, end over end in the flickering lights of the red beacons before they shattered in their brackets. The crimson scene plunged into thick darkness. He heard the clatter of the weapon, and then a long fall before it impacted with something watery. Like a coin down a well. But it wasn’t water down there.
The suit cushioned the fall, but he came down on his faceplate, and the toughened glass spider-webbed as he impacted something hard and unyielding with his head. Alarms screamed for his attention, and he felt the suit inject him with enough stim to regain his feet. But instead, he rolled onto his back and lay still, as the rumble of the blast echoed through the dark labyrinth. Dust shook invisibly from the foundations and lent a stale scent through the air filters. His heart rate spiked, and the suit hit him again. He jerked his head at the dying brain of the helmet and shut off its higher functions. They couldn’t serve him now.
His natural night vision was fogged by the sudden condensation of his breath in the helmet. He dealt with this by removing it.
The air in the chamber was stale and warm. There was a faint undertone of something long rotten. But it was breathable. And a man had the right to a last breath before it was stolen from him.
He felt in the leg of the suit for his sidearm. It was depleted too, the holographic readout in the hilt of the pistol reading double zero. But he felt the better for holding it.
He sighted down the weapon through his legs, down the corridor he’d come running from. The pistol wavered in his grip. Jinn was the best shot in the unit. Her hands wouldn’t have shaken. And she’d never missed. Even at the end, she’d made every shot count, blasting holes in the entities that filled as soon as they were punched. For the first time, he’d seen fear cross the face of his best soldier, before they’d fallen on her like a fog.
There was a flash of dim light down the end of the corridor, twenty metres distant. Jensen let himself believe for a moment that it was Taylor, the pilot, dropping in ahead of schedule after his team’s comms went dark. But if the boy had any sense, he’d be halfway to Regula by now. It was the first time he’d have been glad of cowardice.
The light flickered again. Jensen knew he should move. Before they found him. Before the whispers began, before the sensation that you were running under twelve G’s with a battleship on your back. Before that ghostly blueness, vibrant enough to glow off the backs of your eyes. But with the death of the lights came the death of hope. They were three klicks deep in the maze of ruins, and the concussive blast had fried any of the beacons in reachable distance. They’d mapped as they’d gone, but the place had a way of fooling the scanners. Where once was a wall, suddenly a drop a kilometre deep. Into something green, boiling and angry. He didn’t think he could face that kind of death.
The walls were silent, the only sound in the darkness his own laboured breathing. Sweat trickled into his eye and stung, blurring what little vision he had. A soldier never knew when his last mission was coming. But he always knew he would go down fighting, with his teeth and nails if necessary, to the last. Even that last comfort had been stolen by the alien world, that had only existed after he’d been told of its existence. And the goal of the men in the dark suits and faces that flickered in and out of phase, as if nervous of the light. Augments like that should have told him something. But he was a poor listener.
He felt them before he heard them. The lightweight suit seemed to press down upon him, to swallow him down into the temple floor. The pistol hand sank into the harsh stone like it had been struck by a jealous God. His chest tightened and constricted, and he heard his bones creak. Breath came with difficulty.
Then the whispers. Low, mournful sounds. Echoing softly down the corridor walls. There was almost a rhythm, if he concentrated. Like drumbeats on some vast hollow crystal. They sounded sad.
Jensen felt a wild laugh at this irony escape him as the form began to slowly coalesce before his eyes. The small chamber was lit by a soft blue light that seemed to creep from the stone as if summoned. For a moment, it became blinding, focussed on a gleaming indigo orb, and then muted as wisps and tendrils of a lighter shade sprouted from its heart, wrapping the orb in a thick blanket, and then blossoming out again around it. There was a sound like a low hum.
Jensen managed to raise his head against the suffocating pressure as one thin tendril reached for his face. But he couldn’t turn away, and he couldn’t fight it. He shivered at the touch, cool and airy, like a breeze in a cloud city.
For a moment, the pressure lifted, and he tried to bat the tendril away, but only succeeded in slapping his own cheek. The explosion of pain inside his skull was disproportionate to the force. He heard the sounds of someone screaming, far away as his mind lit on fire, and realised it was him. But just before his brain shut down from the sensory overload, he heard the words in his own voice. “I’m so sorry.” There was no time to think about the words before Jensen never thought again.
Eldred Maxwell was a creature of simple tastes. As long as she was floating a metre off the floor, a drinking bulb in her hand, and wired tightly into a network like the queen spider at the centre of a vast and complicated web, she was a happy woman.
Which was precisely how she found herself, ten minutes after Decker had stomped off in a legendary mood. She could hardly blame him, she supposed. He was carrying the wrath of a vengeful empire on his scrawny shoulders.
But right now, it didn’t seem to matter. The sensory booth on level 211 was one of several, built around a stationary ring in the station’s lattice of layers, spin gravity mercifully a distant thought. It wasn’t much more than a broom closet, three by three meters, steel walls swimming with complex blue lighting and shifting symbols that painted its occupant in a ghostly light. The room was bare of furniture, a squat black cube embedded in the ceiling the only decoration. Two thick black cables protruded from this, into the visored helmet she was wearing. It pumped the station’s networks directly into her implants, and she navigated with her subdermal finger interfaces. Many had to pay the extra for manipulator gloves. Eldred was more heavily kitted out than most.
The drink was cooling against the bulb’s surface, and it drifted away from her, forgotten, as she lost herself.
Inside her head, he was with her. Pleasure before business was Eldred’s style.
Jeremiah Zakale was a hologram. That didn’t stop the ebony-skinned gilled humanoid being the most attractive male she had ever encountered. But then, she had programmed him.
He was lean, athletic, and bald. All of these elements assisted in making him the system champion in underwater jet-slingshotting. Eldred didn’t know the name of the genuine champion, and didn’t care. He could also breathe on land, despite the race he’d been based on living without oxygen. The gills rippled against her hand as she caressed his neck, fresh with sweat from their lovemaking. He had other useful humanoid features.
“Do you have to go?” His deep timbre tickled her ears deliciously as he reached across the bed, suspended on a hover-cushion above a gently waving pink sea that stretched to each horizon. She could smell the salt water, and the cooling remains of the meal of noodles and real beef that lay between them on the rumpled sheets.
“Eventually.” She smiled back at him, and brushed her sweaty dreads out of her face. He helped her with this, as always.
“I was thinking…” He began.
“Oh?” She laughed lightly. “Special occasion?”
He slapped her arm. “There’s a ceremony tomorrow night, in the city.”
“I don’t see a city.” She made a show of looking around her, at soft cumulus clouds, discharging a light rain that turned to mist before it reached the ocean.
“I want you there.” He said.
“I’m your trophy now?” She picked a crumb from the crease of his lip and ate it.
Jeremiah shook his head. “The opposite.” He patted his broad hairless chest, where his medals sat on a chain around his neck. They jangled like wind chimes on the gentle breeze. He sighed. “But I can’t help feeling that’s all I am to you, sometimes.”
The comment stung more than it should have. “I’ve been busy, Jer.” She came across harsher than she’d intended. “You just have to be patient.”
“There’s patient, and then there’s four months, elder.” His use of the pet name meant he wasn’t that angry. Yet.
“Space travel takes time.” She sighed. Perhaps she shouldn’t have programmed him quite so well. “Do you think I don’t miss you?”
“Not enough to visit me between stops…”
It was something she’d considered, once. But it was hard enough handling Decker’s clumsy overtures without bringing up the fact her boyfriend was made of photons. Jeremiah didn’t plan to use her for a notch on his bedpost, and she appreciated that. But she wasn’t ready to introduce him to the masculine hotpot of the crew. Bril was the only one that may have understood. It wasn’t unheard of, merely highly unusual.
“Look, the next one won’t be as long.” She said and curled in against him. “I think my crew-“
“Decker is a dead weight.” Jeremiah rolled away, presenting his back to her. The bed rocked gently. “And a liability.”
“What do you know about Decker?” Eldred asked, faintly amused.
“More than you think.” He sighed. “I have a lot of time in here. When the tournaments aren’t rolling, and the fans get bored.”
She was taken aback again at her programming skills. If Jeremiah was accessing local net, she’d taught him more than she thought.
“You’re jealous.” She realised.
He sighed again. “I’m-“
“You are!” She laughed and rolled on top of him, reaching down to tickle him. He made a token effort to fight her. He lost.
Half an hour later, with a pleasant burning across her thighs, she tried to reach him again.
“Things need to change, El.” Jeremiah ran a meaty thumb across her forehead. “I have needs too.”
She felt a jab of fear below her sternum. Her crew would have said it was ridiculous, a hologram hinting that it wanted to break up. Shen was of the mind that anything synthetic had no rights. They usually kept him below deck as a result. But he’d filled a great void in her life when she’d created him in a long stopover on a salvage hauler, a year and a half ago. And her heart ached as no-one corporeal had managed. Not since-
“Was there meant to be a storm?” She said, flinching as hard droplets of rain the size of pinheads stung her bare chest. The rosy sky had begun to darken to a deep crimson, and dark clouds were bunching above them, laced with jets of yellow lightning, like angry veins.
“Who cares?” Jeremiah pouted, waving a large hand at the clouds. “We were talking about-“
But now she was afraid. This was her program. Eldred hated storms. Always had, since that night. Her dynamic weather program didn’t encompass the extremes.
“This isn’t right.” He voice was wavering as she leant in towards Jeremiah. The bed was starting to rock violently on violent swells, making her stomach lurch. The bed between them was already soaked.
“You’re telling me,” Jeremiah grumbled. He hadn’t moved, despite waves breaking over his legs. She had the uneasy suggestion this wasn’t happening in his world, as if it was a dimension only she could see. As she watched, his skin began to flicker in and out of phase. She saw a long jagged spear of lightning strike the surf, two kilometres away, through the place his head had occupied a second earlier. She clutched at him as the boom of the thunder rocked her teeth, but her fingers closed on air.
A wind leapt up suddenly, tearing at her throat as she cried out to him. Tiny grains of salt blasted against her skin, and her hair blew about her face as she tried to gather him up in her arms. He looked at her once, before he finally disappeared, and the sorrow in his eyes made her shudder even as the chilled air screamed around her naked body.
“364 Abort!” Eldred screamed the name of her booth into the storm’s air. If a worm had gotten into her software, she’d have to be fast. A hacker with half her talent could do irreparable damage if she couldn’t fight them off in time. Jeremiah may not survive. Inside her helmet, the floating figure’s mouth opened in a wordless shout. Her legs kicked uselessly in the null gravity. The room stayed silent.
“Abort!” She yelled again, battering at her head in the virtual environment in a vain effort to remove the helmet. The bed rocked under her again, and she had to grip the edge to avoid being tossed into the waves. She could smell burning, and the thin layer of salt had fallen across her body in a shower. It felt hard and gritty, more akin to sand than anything. She might have stumbled over these incongruities, but she was suddenly distracted.
By a monstrous wall of water, forty metres high, approaching from the far horizon. She could already hear its roar. There were supposed to be safety redundancies in the suites, safeguards against physical or psychological damage. But it had already gone wrong once. And it wasn’t shutting down.
She scrambled on the bed, legs twisting in the sodden bedsheets that had ensnared them into a mermaid’s tail. Her throat was sore from shouting, and she couldn’t hear herself anymore.
She told herself she wouldn’t look. Her lips still moved in the requested abort code, but she screwed her eyes tightly shut as the wave bore down on her. The smell of burning was overpowering now, and the wind was howling in her ears. She failed at the last second.
She looked into the swell when it was just a few metres away, blotting out the angry sky in a deep curve. She could feel its power. There were chunks of metal and concrete in the swell, something that may have been a ship. It was as if an asteroid had holed her virtual planet and she was witnessing the apocalypse. She held her breath, as if that would make a difference. Then the bed was hit by a titanic fist, and she felt her breath punched out of her. Her mind disconnected.
Inside the booth, the suspended figure stopped its jerking. Eldred’s heart rate flatlined for a fraction of a second, almost enough to trip the automatic alarm and bring in a medical team. But just before the immersion cables, flexing with power they weren’t designed for, cut away from her and sent the signal, she opened her eyes.
She was falling. The wind was still shrieking, tearing at her with icy fingers. It stung her eyes and battered at her limbs as she plunged through clouds of water vapour, particles of ice hitting her skin like tiny meteorites. She couldn’t get her breath to scream. Her ears popped as the clouds thinned around her, deep purple-black faded to a dismal grey. She could see lights through them.
Eldred fell with the rain through alien skies. There was a massive red sun, out there beyond the storm, but it was covered by thick layers of black smoke, reaching for the heavens from monstrous cities, steel skyscrapers and palatial complexes kilometres tall. A hive of industrial activity sprawled beneath her, the muddy brown ground covered horizon to horizon in vast building complexes, cities the size of large countries grouped in a torus shape around a roiling black sea. And each and every one of them was burning. Mushroom clouds bloomed over the smaller cities, whereas a larger one appeared to be melting. Plastic and metal boiled off into the sea in steaming masses. A glittering fat skyscraper was gripped in tendrils of green electricity, that appeared to be peeling like a banana, metal warping back on itself and crumpling like paper into the streets below.
Innumerable ships burst from ports, like flies fleeing a corpse, darkening the skies further as they sought the atmosphere she was plummeting through. None of them made it.
Lances of fire blazed past the falling figure, searing her pink with their heat, from kilometres distant. Orbital cannons, directing the sun’s heat into energy that speared the fleeing civilisation, even as the glitter of railgun fire from the doomed cities struck back at the unseen aggressors.
A thick black cable reaching from the largest of the remaining cities pulsed like something alive. The orbital cannons seemed to be trying to protect it, melting any ship that turned its guns on the giant space elevator. But one capital ship, struck a glancing blow, made it past the grid, blue fire streaming out of it as it hit the elevator on a suicide run.
From half a world away, with the wind beating at her, and smoke that was more plastic than ash clogging her lungs, she shouldn’t have been able to hear the impact, or watch the cable sway on its foundations, hear the snap of bolts and the screams of the people in the cars as the cable snapped in two. Couldn’t have watched the children cut in half by debris, watched them boil in their parent’s arms. Or seen the impact of the severed cable as it plunged into the ocean, throwing up waves half a kilometre tall, to turn to steam on the heat of the inferno of the burning world. But she saw everything. Heard everything. The last desperate assurances of mothers to sons, of children to parents trapped in cocoons of rubble. Saw a lover torn from another by a railgun round, nothing left but the atoms that had once been a life.
Finally, even nature had enough. Great gouts of volcanic material, disturbed from the shocks to the world’s crust spewed into the poisoned air, turning everything black and molten orange. A crack thirty kilometres long yawned open in the ocean and sucked the war down into it like a black hole. Eldred added her scream to billions, as she fell into the end of the world.
The same scream echoed off the walls of the sensory booth as she regained consciousness, coming back hollow and tinny. It felt a pale tribute to the massacre.
She dug frantically at her helmet, tearing it from her sweat-matted hair and throwing it across the room. She wanted it to hit the wall and shatter, in the place of her mind. But it just floated across the lounge at a steady speed and rebounded off the wall with a soft click. Her cheeks were wet with tears.
She remained where she was for a long time, aftershocks of the trip blasting through her system and making her tremble as she floated in a tight ball, hands around her knees, as she had as a little girl. After a time, as it always did, it brought her some peace.
At first, she was surprised she hadn’t been woken by a socially awkward tech who she’d summoned from his virtual porn fantasy. But they only intruded if the program malfunctioned, deviated from the guidelines of its occupant wildly enough to approach safety guidelines. On Hades, such treatment was rare. But Eldred was a high-paying customer. That left one possibility. The program was not at fault.
It was something she’d known for a while. It was something of a taboo subject, even these days. But like her captain, she was stubborn as a sun’s gravity. And effortlessly good at burying her problems. But if it was going to interfere with her time with Jeremiah, and ruin the very thing it stemmed from, she had to do something about it. The one person she could truly have opened up to was no longer here for her. And in some awful, broken way, that person had caused it. Eldred choked down her considerable pride as she swam for the exit that had finally yielded to her and asked the station’s tracking systems where she might find her second best.
“Your Eminence, I really think-“ the young man spluttered on the other side of the heavy oak desk. His mop of thick dark curls was in disarray, and his plump face was crimson with his entreaty. Cardinal Claudio Vivaldi thought it lent him the hue of an overripe tomato.
“Thankfully, the Lord did not put you on Earth to think.” Vivaldi waved a ringed hand at the boy over the top of his briefcase, which he closed with a sharp snap. His hip clicked as he rose to his considerable height, and the late afternoon sunset momentarily blinded him, as the evening crept over St. Peter’s Square, sprawling out from beneath the window in the Basilica, where Vivaldi kept his apartments.
“His Holiness personally requested your presence-“ The boy, Rodrigo, was it? Vivaldi wasn’t sure, but he decided it would do.
“His Holiness requests many things.” Vivaldi smiled, and smoothed down his flowing red robes. He would have to change into something less conspicuous. If both of them had been younger, and Rodrigo less doughy around the face, he might have considered letting him stay for the show. But there was no time for pleasure. If his suspicions were on the money. They usually were. “And not even he has his every whim granted.”
Rodrigo looked as if he had had holy water poured up his rectum. The slack mouth gaped onto the brown robes, and he may even have drooled. But Vivaldi was no longer watching. His hands were busy in the top drawer of his desk, fumbling past a tin of snuff, and several rolls of Euros, secured with rubber bands. For a moment, in the afternoon glare pouring into the high-ceilinged office, he couldn’t find it. And for a moment, he relaxed. Perhaps it had been his imagination, after all. One was an accident. Two coincidence. Coincidence had died with the third. By his count, two remained. And one was in the heart of the Vatican, wearing his robes, and rooting past the detritus to the neatly folded newspapers beneath. His fingers trembled with tension and adrenaline as he pulled the sheet onto the desk. He looked up sharply as he remembered the boy, but there was no need. He was alone. It was shocking disrespect. But it hardly mattered now. The world had narrowed to a pinhead, as he pushed his reading glasses up his prominent nose.
Bishop Santino Rizziano had been a personal friend. Vivaldi often made the trip when he was in Rome up to the shady Tuscany vineyards and sprawling farmstead Rizziano called home. They had shared wine, ridden horses down the river, sometimes at the same time. He was the only man Vivaldi would see for his own confession. And vice versa. Their secrets were not the typical Sunday fare. Rizziano had loved his horses more than his congregation, more than wine, more than the altar boys who never seemed to grow older than twelve. Which was why the monochrome picture of his grinning friend, printed disgracefully on the third page of Il Tempo was an insult as well as a tragedy. Rizziano might have died a thousand different ways. He would not have fallen whilst in the saddle and broken his thick neck.
Vivaldi’s shaking hand crushed the paper as his breath came out in a hiss. His heart galloped like those fine brown horses, and then skipped a beat. He felt a faint dizziness. He fumbled in his robe with sweaty fingers, extracted two pills, and swallowed them dry. His doctor had advised against stress and fine living. Perhaps he could omit one of these. If he could stay ahead of whoever was out there. He turned to the window and looked over the square, where a bell was tolling hollowly, and he could hear the deep rumble of a plane high overhead. Tourists gathered in clotted clumps, far below him. Children raced across the tiles, chasing dogs and uncaring parents. Traders attempted to ply their wares, before discreetly armed security moved them along. And a steady stream of red, black and white robes billowed in and out of the Basilica. Here was the heart, here lay the eyes of the world. And Vivaldi had no intention of being their next target.
He dropped the crumpled newspaper to the floor, made to shut the drawer, and thought better of it. He snatched up the bundles of money, reopened his briefcase, and shoved them inside. He had plenty of experience with scraps of paper turning eyes blind and ears deaf. And if his instincts were right, he would need more than the usual.
There was a high wardrobe set against one wall of the office, and Vivaldi stripped quickly, shedding the scarlet plumage like the bird of his namesake, and pulled on a plain brown cassock. He smoothed his grey combover against his skull in the mirror, and slipped his glasses into his pocket, where they clicked like insect’s leg up against the buffed Roman coin that never left his side. There was a plain white skullcap on the top shelf, covered in a layer of dust. Vivaldi smiled as an image of an American spy in a film jumped into his head, pulling a red baseball cap down over his face. He approximated the action.
He looked around one last time at the apartments. Not enough gold for his tastes, and the bedroom was one of his few that had seen little but prayer and nightmare. He looked across the square, to the chimney above the enclave. Where once he had hoped white smoke would flow with his essence, and his Papal name would ring through the square. Hopes dashed by the morning’s news. He fancied a tear came to his eye, but that may have been the afternoon glare. Cardinal Vivaldi picked up his briefcase and turned his back on his dream.