There’s a full moon tonight, and a sky full of stars, but they’re hidden behind a dense bank of cloud that smothers the light like a fire blanket thrown over a blaze. He’s waited close to the Drop Point, concealed behind a tree since before eleven p.m. with nothing to read but the Flight Plan – or FP as everyone calls it. Transport was running ahead of schedule this evening; a bureaucratic foul up by some secretarial pen pusher who was too busy filing crap in triplicate to concentrate on the things that matter. Net result: two hours waiting here until the time he’s been cleared to enter. ‘Do Not Pass Go. Do Not Collect Two ‘Effin Hundred Pounds.’ He watches the second hand on the face of the clock on Tesco’s fancy tower (‘a piece of townscape,’ the planning officer had called it; ‘an enhancement of noticeable benefit to the community.’ Not, of course, that the community actually was actually consulted in the matter. Remarkable how an envelope stuffed with notes oils the wheels of bureaucracy, isn’t it? But that’s democracy for you – exploitation of The People by THE PEOPLE). On the dot of one a.m. he snaps his fingers. The lights wink out one by one in perfect sequence all the way down the street, just as if there’d been a real power cut. ‘At least Environment got their timing right,’ he thinks. He drops the night vision goggles over his eyes and the world lights up again – for him, at least. He checks his equipment one last time and moves over to the house – a Victorian hall-adjoining semi. Immediately he sets to, examining the PPoEs (that’s Possible Points of Entry for those new to the Ops Manual). The Alarm flashes disdainfully at him. He’ll wipe the superior smile off the bugger’s face in a few moments. Electro-mechanical security is immaterial. Windows? Screw-locked: too noisy to undo; Door? Locked, bolted and chained. No problem
He draws his Obsidian from its sheath and touches the point to the lock. He waits for the familiar click as the latch complies with the instruction. One finger to the door is enough to make it swing back fractionally. He’s small; doesn’t need much room to get through. He takes his last breath of clean air, crosses the threshold of the house and simultaneously crosses the invisible threshold between honesty and dishonesty; respectability and indecency; his world and their world. He stands in the hall – if standing’s the right word for someone who hovers two palms above the floor (he loathes the new Imperial measurements and refuses to use them, even in official communication. Cubits and Palms were good enough for his grandfather’s grandfather and they’re good enough for him). The faint buzz from the pack on his back reassures him he has more than enough flight time to complete the Assignment. Finally he exhales and takes his first breath of foul air. His stomach retches. He fights to control the urge to throw up. He glances to the left through the lounge door. A glass topped coffee table covered with weekly magazines and coffee mugs, torn envelopes and pens, the lid from a Ben & Jerry’s pack of strawberry ice cream, wet side down on the bright red DFS sofa; the infrared on the TV reminding no one at all of the machine’s state of readiness. All the detritus of everyday human existence and nothing whatsoever that makes him want to be part of this world.
He checks his FP again. He can’t remember the last time he’s made a mistake, but he still checks. ‘There are old pilots and there are bold pilots,’ as the old mess hall cliché went, ‘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 height.
Research has already warned him in a carefully worded e-mail about the Feline. They’d got 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 understated 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 and certainly never harmed 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 intention towards him. It’s that if he kills it, it will probably scream. He’s learned over the years that it’s preferable to freeze-frame them than to kill them. But that takes real skill. You don’t get two chances at this. 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 that’s hanging on the wall. 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.
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 (BR: NO RELEVANCE) . Next to it, adult bedroom (AB: AVOID ENTRY, REMAIN VIGILANT). Next to that, airing cupboard (AC: HEAT SOURCE – EXTREME DANGER OF LOSS OF LIFE). And finally, children’s bedroom (CB: TARGET: FEMALE: 4 YEARS ). He returns the FP to its case, checks again for sounds of wakefulness anywhere in the house. Then he proceeds to the CB, 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 their elders. 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 TARGET. Her body is covered by blankets. Only her head is showing, her 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 learned to control it; all but the stomach retching that is – that’s pure reflex action.
And now follows the Act of Defilement. Of course, he’ll laugh about it with the rest of the squadron when he gets back; pretend he find’s 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. The child stirs but does not wake. Mercifully she rolls over, turning her face away from him. With the removal of the pressure of her head the enamel ore comes away easily and he glides quietly backwards with it in his arms and down to the carpet. He rises again, drawing the Compensation from his back pack. Christ, what a fuckin’ euphemism. What kind of Compensation do they call this? A coin of the realm. One pound Sterling for an enamel nugget that keep a full sized thaumaturgic generator operating for a week. OK, so it’s Treasury’s responsibility to set the exchange rate – mid nineteenth century, one groat, mid twentieth, sixpence, now one pound. But even after all these years, even after so many, many Transactions, he still finds it hard to reconcile himself to the fundamental unfairness of the exchange. He suppresses his morality once more and draws the coin from his pack; unfolds it; rises to the bed, holding it in front of him like an enormous tray and carefully slides it under the pillow. He is momentarily confused as it clicks against something hard.
And then he understands; realises that he is now confronted with the crowning glory of his career. That fabled moment disputed over endless jars of nectar in the mess halls of every airfield in the Land. This is it; a true Double Exchange. In the whole of his career he’s never met a single operative who’s actually made a Double Exchange. He doesn’t think anyone really believes they ever happen. He’s overcome with excitement; shaking; can barely control himself. He has to steady his hands to reach round behind the coin and fix his grasp on the second fuel nugget. Now he draws it around the coin and once again balances it carefully as he lowers himself to the floor. He stands back, shaking his head in disbelief at the scale of the evening’s Transaction. And now he feels an overwhelming pang of guilt, for he has no further coin to exchange for the second tooth. But his conscience is all but dead and the guilt is rapidly displaced by the thought that the Operation Plan contained no reference to their being a second nugget. Of course it didn’t. How would the Department know? The computer programs make no allowance for statistical aberrations. He knows he will not report it. The second fuel nugget is his, and his alone.
But now he sees the problem; how to carry two nuggets when his pack is designed for one. Quickly he decides and places the first nugget into the pack. The weight is considerable. But he is not daunted. He will carry the second in his arms and will conceal it somewhere near the Extraction Point before Transport arrives. When he’s certain he remains undiscovered he will return later and will break it down to sell piece by piece on the black market. He can’t even begin to get his head around its value.
He bends all four knees again, leans forwards and lifts. The effort is phenomenal. Mentally he instructs the motors of his gossamers to lift him. Their pitch rises and rises, but the weight is too great and he remains floor bound. Eventually he gives up, reconciles himself to the fact that he will have to drag the second nugget, cubit by cubit across the floor and down the stairs. He looks around for something to serve as a harness; sees what he needs on the bed, so sets the nugget down and rises to pluck a single strand of golden hair from the TARGET’S head. As he tugs on the strand, the follicle snaps out of the skull without warning and slaps across his face. It’s enough to disturb the TARGET. Though she does not wake, she turns again and he’s subjected to a full frontal blast of her breath that sends his spinning backwards with both the airflow and the stench. Still he clings onto the hair, spinning out of control, downwards to the carpet. He hits it with more force than he should; much more force. He’s concerned the crash landing will have damaged his gossamers. But no matter now. Dazed, he picks himself up and winds the hair several times around the fuel nugget, binding it firmly. He winds it around his own body and across his gossamer wings rendering them inoperable even if they are undamaged. But no matter. They are useless to him now anyway.
He checks the knots one last time to ensure the nugget is indeed bound firmly to his body.
He turns towards the open door.
It is then that he sees the cat.