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Meteorites fell through the night sky like a gentle sleet of icefire, their sharp scintillations slashing ebony overload streaks across the image Greg Mandel’s photon amp was feeding into his optic nerves.
He was hanging below a Westland ghost wing, five hundred metres above the Purser’s Hills, due west of Kettering. Spiralling down. Wind strummed the membrane, producing near-subliminal bass harmonics.
Ground zero was a small crofter’s cottage; walls of badly laid raw stone swamped with some olive-green creeper, big scarlet flowers. It had a thatched roof, reeds rotting and congealing, caked in tidemark ripples of blue-green fungal growths. A two-metre-square solar-cell strip had been pinned on top.
Greg landed a hundred metres downslope from the cottage, propeller spinning furiously to kill his forward speed. He stopped inside three metres. The Westland was one of the best military microlights ever built – lightweight, highly manoeuvrable, silent, with a low radar-visibility profile. Greg had flown them on fifteen missions in Turkey, and their reliability had been one hundred per cent. All British Army covert tactical squads had been equipped with them. He’d hate to use anything else. They’d gone out of production when the People’s Socialism Party came to power, twelve years previously. A victim of the demilitarization realignment programme, the Credit Crash, the Warming, nationalization, industrial collapse. This one was fifteen years old, and still functioned like a dream.
A time display flashed in the bottom right corner of the photon amp image, spectral yellow digits: 21:17:08. Greg twisted the Westland’s retraction catch, and the translucent wing folded with a graceful rustle. He anchored it with a skewer harpoon. There’d be no danger of it blowing away now. The hills suffered frequent twister-gusts, and this was March, England’s rainy season: squalls abounded. Gabriel hadn’t cautioned him about the wing in her briefing: but Greg always followed routine, engrained by sergeant majors, and way too much experience.
He studied the terrain, the amp image grey and blue, smoky. There were no surprises; the Earth-resource satellite pictures Royan had pirated for him were three months old, but nothing had changed. The area was isolated, grazing land, marginally viable. Nobody spent money on barns and roads up here. It was perfect for someone who wanted to drop out of sight, a nonentity wasteland.
Greg heard a bell tinkling from the direction of the cottage, high-pitched and faint. He keyed the amp to infrared, and upped the magnification. A big rosy blob resolved into a goat with a broad collar dangling a bell below its neck.
He began to walk towards the cottage. The meteorites had gone, sweeping away to the east. Not proper shooting stars after all, then. Some space station’s waste dump; or an old rocket stage, dragged down from its previously stable discard-orbit by Earth’s hot expanded atmosphere.
“At twenty-one nineteen GMT the dog will start its run towards you,’ Gabriel had said when she briefed him. ‘You will see it first when it comes around the end of the wall on the left of the cottage.’
Greg looked at the wall; the ablative decay which ruled the rest of the croft had encroached here as well, reducing it to a low moss-covered ridge ringing a small muddy yard.
A yellow blink: 21:19:00.
The dog was a Rottweiler, heavily modified for police riot-assault duty, which was expensive. A crofter with a herd of twenty-five llamas couldn’t afford one, and certainly had no right owning one. Its front teeth had been replaced by mono-lattice silicon fangs, eight centimetres long; the jaw had been reprofiled to a blunt hammerhead to accommodate them; both eyes were implants, retinas beefed up for night sight. One aspect Gabriel hadn’t mentioned was the speed of the bloody thing.
Greg brought his Walther eight-shot up, the sighting laser glaring like a rigid lightning bolt in the photon amp’s image. He got off two fast shots, maser pulses that drilled the Rottweiler’s brain. The steely legs collapsed, sending it tumbling, momentum skidding it across the nettle-clumped grass. In death it snarled at him, jaws open, eyes wide, crying blood.
He walked past, uncaring. The Walther’s condensers whined away on the threshold of audibility, recharging.
‘At twenty-one twenty and thirteen seconds GMT, the cottage door will open. Edwards will look both ways before coming out. He will be carrying a pump-action shot-gun – only three cartridges, though.’
Greg flattened himself against the cottage wall, feeling the leathery creeper leaves compress against his back. The scarlet flowers had a scent similar to honeysuckle, strong sugar.
The weather-bleached wooden door creaked.
Greg’s espersense perceived Edwards hovering indecisively on the step, his mind a weak ruby glow, thought currents flowing slowly, concern and suspicion rising.
“He’ll turn right, away from you.’
Edwards boot squelched in the mud of the yard, two steps. The shot-gun was held out in front, his finger pressed lightly on the trigger.
Greg came away from the wall, flicking the Walther to longburn, lining it up. Edwards was a bulky figure dressed in filthy denim trousers and a laddered chunky-knit sweater; neck craning forwards, peering through the moonlit gloom. He’d aimed the shot-gun at the ramshackle stone shed at the bottom of the yard.
The goat bleated, tugging at its leash.
Edwards was somehow aware of the presence behind him. His back stiffened, mind betraying a hot burst of alarm and fear to Greg’s espersense. He tightened his grip on the shotgun, ready to spin round and blast away wildly.
‘Drop it,’ Greg said softly.
Edwards sighed, his shoulders relaxing. He bent to put the shot-gun down, resting its barrel on a stone, saving it from the mud. A man who knew weapons.
‘OK, you can turn now.’
His face was thin, bearded, hazel eyes yellowed. He looked at Greg, taking in the matt-black combat leathers, slim metallic-silver band bisecting his face, unwavering Walther. Edwards knew he was going to die, but the terrified acceptance was flecked with puzzlement. ‘Why?’ he asked.
He didn’t get it, they never did. His death was a duty, ordered by guilt.
Greg had learnt all about duty from the Army, relying on his squad mates, their equal dependence on him. It was a bond closer than family, overriding everything – laws, conventions, morals.
Civvies like Edwards never understood. When all other human values had gone, shattered by violence, there was still duty. The implicit trust of life. And Greg had failed Royan. Miserably.
Greg fired. Edwards’ mouth gaped as the maser beam struck his temple, his eyes rolling up as he fell forwards. He splashed into the thin layer of mud. Dead before he hit.
Greg holstered the Walther, breath hissing out between clenched teeth. He walked back down the hill to the Westland without giving the body another glance. Behind him, the goat’s bell began to clang.
He refused to think about the kill while the Westland cruised over the countryside, his mind an extension of the guido, iced silicon, confirming landmarks, telling his body when to shift balance. It would’ve been too easy to brood in the ghost wing’s isolated segment of the universe, guilt and depression inevitable.
Rutland Water was in front of him, a Y-shaped reservoir six and a half kilometres long nestling in the snug dark valleys of the county’s turbulent rolling landscape. A pale oyster flame of jejune moonlight shone across the surface. Greg came in over the broad grass-slope dam at the western end. He kept low, skimming the water. Straight ahead was the floating village; thirty-odd log rafts, each supporting a plain wooden cabin, like something out of a Western frontier settlement. They were lashed together by a spiderweb of cables, forming a loose circle around the old limnological tower, a thick concrete shaft built before the reservoir was filled.
He angled towards the biggest cabin, compensating for the light gusts with automatic skill. At five metres out he flared the wing sharply. Surging air plucked at his combat leathers; his feet touched the coarse overlapping planks which made up the roof, legs running, carrying him up towards the apex as the propeller blurred. He stopped with a metre to spare. The tan, scrumpy-like odour of drying water-fruit permeated the air, reassuring in its familiarity.
The Westland’s membrane folded.
He watched Nicole’s bald head rise above the gable end. ‘Here.’ He shrugged out of the harness.
She came up the ladder on to the roof, a black ex-Navy marine-adept dressed in a functional mauve diving bikini. He couldn’t remember her ever wearing anything else. Even in the moonlight her water-resilient skin glistened from head to toe; she looked tubby, but not overweight, her shape dictated by an all-over insulating layer of subcutaneous fat, protecting her from the cold of deep water.
‘How did it go?’
‘All sorted, no messing,’ he replied curtly.
Two more marine-adepts swarmed briskly up the ladder and took charge of the Westland. Greg appreciated that, no fuss, no chatter. Most of the floating village’s marine-adepts were ex-Navy, they understood.
They’d colonized the reservoir around the time Greg moved into his chalet on the shore, seeding and harvesting their gene-tailored water-fruit. Their only concession to the convulsions of the PSP years was to store Greg’s military gear for him, and, very occasionally, provide sanctuary for an activist on the run from the People’s Constables.
‘I’ll be back tomorrow,’ Greg told Nicole as he climbed into his ancient rowing boat. When the neurohormone hangover had gone, when the memory of Edwards had faded, when he felt human again.
She untied the pannier and tossed it into the boat after him. ‘Sure, Greg. Take care.”