He checks his FP again. He can’t remember the last time he’s made a mistake, but he checks anyway. ‘There are old pilots and there are bold pilots,’ as the old mess hall cliché goes, ‘but there are no old, bold pilots.’ Almost noiselessly he glides forward over the tiled floor, ingrained with dirt transferred from six generations of footwear, until he reaches the stairs and begins the upward phase of the journey. The pitch of his motors rises with the effort of gaining the necessary height.
Research has already warned him in a carefully worded e-mail about the Feline. They’d become very specific about recording their advice last March, when an Operative had been lost. Research had claimed they’d advised of the presence of a PAE (or Potentially Aggressive Entity as the bureaucratic style of the Ops Manual put it). Operations swore blind they’d not been told. It didn’t really matter who was lying. The Field Operative never came back. Everyone had become more careful after that – careful in practice and more careful still in box-ticking, triple-carbon-copying back-covering.
He’s over half way up the stairs when he sees it on the landing. A full sized tabby, standing maybe two thirds of a cubit at the shoulder. Its back is stiff and arched, its fur bristling. It spits and snarls venomously. How can something he’s never seen before hate him so much, he wonders? He hovers, draws the Obsidian wand from its sheath again and waits for the Feline to make its move. The problem isn’t that it will harm him, no matter how evil the filthy creature’s intentions towards him. It’s that if he kills it, it will probably scream. He’s learned over the years that freeze-framing’s a better option. But that takes real skill. You don’t get two chances. As he anticipated, it leaps at him from the top stair, legs straight out, claws fully extended, mouth twisted into a howling grimace of unadulterated hatred. He returns no aggression – he’s long since understood that emotion makes him less efficient. In a perfectly timed response, he dematerialises momentarily, then re-materialises and twists round just in time to see it close its paws over the place he has just been occupying. Without hesitation he flicks the wand down hard. He’s gauged the energy level perfectly. The creature stops in mid air just above the fourth step from the hall floor, level with a picture of a lighthouse hanging slightly askew on the embossed wallpaper. He continues to hold the wand steadily until he’s sure the animal’s frozen, then lowers it carefully in the direction of the hall floor. Its body hesitates for a moment, then follows the trajectory that the wand has described, coming to rest silently at the foot of the stairs. It will wake there sometime later during the night. The whole operation has taken a little over three seconds – time allowed for in the FP, but time he would prefer not to have expended.
To be continued