He waits a moment to reassure himself that the household is still sleeping, then turns his attention back to his ascent. Just before the top of the stairs he dons his oxygen mask (probably unnecessary at this altitude, but standard procedure for all structures above ground level, and anyway, it helps a bit with the smell) and continues to the landing. Four doors, all closed. He consults his FP again. Straight in front, bathroom (‘ no relevance’) . Next to it, adult bedroom (‘avoid entry’). Next to that, airing cupboard (‘heat source – extreme danger of death’). And finally, children’s bedroom (‘Target: Female, 4 years’). He  returns the FP to its case and checks again for sounds of wakefulness anywhere in the house. Then he proceeds to the children’s bedroom, points the wand at the handle and blows on it until it swings gently back. He hovers in the doorway, peering through the night sight.

Two beds. Not bunks – at right angles to each other against the wall. Thomas Tank Engine printed on one quilt, Barbie on the other. A shelf lined with books. A Paddington Bear boot perched on top of the tower of a plastic castle; two Action Men, limbs entwined in a faintly obscene pattern; Postman Pat and an over-stuffed teddy surveying it all non-judgementally from the window ledge. He enters the room. The human stench is more powerful now, the oxygen mask not helping much. Human pups have a far stronger scent than the full-growns. It’s evolution’s way of ensuring the parents can detect them at a distance. As instructed by the FP, he heads for the Barbie bed; sees the target; hesitates. The operation disgusts him, however many times he repeats it. However often he laughs with the other Field Operatives in the mess hall after the missions are over, it’s still sickening, soul-blackening work. He might as well be a cess pit cleaner.

At the bed he descends towards the sleeping child. Her body is covered by blankets. Only her head is showing, long blond hair cascading over the pillow.  However often he does this, they still disgust him, these kids, – warm-blooded, elephantine and swathed in far too much flesh. Always, always they seem to sleep with their mouths open. He has no alternative but to fly straight through the path of her breath. He tries to time it so that she’s breathing in as he does, but he can’t avoid the out-breath when he lands on the pillow. He gets giddy with nausea. But he’s a pro and he’s learned to control it; all but the stomach retching that is – that’s pure reflex action.

And now follows the act of defilement that has long since cost him his soul. Of course, he’ll laugh about it with the rest of the squadron when he gets back; pretend he finds it funny no matter how loudly the last vestiges of his conscience scream at him. He steadies his breathing, bends all four knees til he’s crouching. Latex gloves will give him some relief from the impact of handling human flesh. Latex; one of the few human inventions for which he acknowledges gratitude. With both hands he reaches under the pillow; finds the fuel nugget immediately – a large, nicely rounded piece. He knows by the feel of it in his hands that it will transmogrify perfectly. He tugs gently.

To be continued

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