Authors: Roderick Gordon,Brian Williams
The old lady started, spinning around from the stove. “Oh, ’ello, son,” she said. “You must be all done in. Go and put yer feet up by the fire. Me and Eliza ’ad our dinnah, but I’ve kept yours nice ’n’ piping. You can ’ave it on your knees.”
In the sitting room, the Second Officer lowered himself gratefully into his armchair. He glanced wearily across at Will’s spade, left in a prominent position on top of the sideboard. After they’d discovered it in the room, his mother and sister had intentionally left it on show as a reminder, almost a warning to him, following the episode with Mrs. Burrows. But it had quite the opposite effect — he was comforted to see it there. It reminded him of Celia.
“ ’Ere you are, love,” his mother said, plonking the tray, with a massive bowl on it, in the Second Officer’s lap. He was ravenous, and eagerly snatched up the spoon and began to shovel the food down with much slurping — the usual abysmal table manners found throughout the Colony.
His mother was gabbling away ten to the dozen as he ate. “I couldn’t believe it when the Styx pitched up at number twenty-three and moved the Smiths out, there ’n’ then. It was a sorry sight. Mrs. S had her dresses under ’er arm — some of the ones I stitched for ’er, too. ’Er daughter made a right spectickle of ’erself. She was ’owling and giving it the full waterworks and all that — you should ’ave ’eard ’er. But Mr. S just went where they led him, his ’ead down, like ’e was going to the gallows. It was ’eartrending to watch. Bet it was ’orrible, too, in the North.” She raised a hand up as if she couldn’t bear to hear anything about it, then waited expectantly for her son to tell her.
When he didn’t, she went on. “You know I wouldn’t blame you if you ’
gone above grass with that Topsoiler woman. They don’t give a tinker’s about us these days, the Styx. This isn’t somewhere for a young person to be, though you and Eliza are ’ardly spring chickens no more.”
The Second Officer stopped chewing, his spoon poised in front of his mouth. This was not the way the old lady ever spoke about the Colony or the Styx. One of the most respectful members of their society, she would never normally hear a bad word said about anyone in authority.
“Mother!” the Second Officer exclaimed. “You don’t mean that!”
She bowed her head. She hadn’t combed her thinning gray hair after her nap, and it was as disheveled as a wind-ravaged bird’s nest. “I do, ’fraid to say,” she whispered in a downbeat way. “I do. I think it’s all over for us now.”
“You don’t really believe that.” There was a note of reprimand in the Second Officer’s voice, even though he was talking with his mouth full. Realizing that gravy was dripping from his spoon onto his blue tunic, he sat up so any spillage would instead be caught by the tray. As he did so, he sniffed, catching the aroma coming from the stew. “This is tasty,” he complimented his mother in an attempt to lift her spirits. “You’ve really outdone yourself.” He frowned. “But we never normally have rat on weekdays, do we?”
He stirred the watery gravy in the bowl. As he did so, something floated up from the bottom.
Although the heat had turned most of it a dull gray, in one place the greyhound’s tiny eyeball still had a pinkish hue to it.
He dropped the spoon in the bowl.
His mother was up and out of her chair and beetling rapidly toward the door. “Times are ’ard. There’s not enough food to go r —”
“You monstrous old hag!” the Second Officer shouted, throwing the tray across the room. “You did! You cooked my bloody dog!”
“I hear my father got you behind the wheel, so why don’t you do the honors?” Drake lobbed the car keys at Will. “And take it slowly because I want to brief you both on the way,” he said, pointing at the track that led to the woods.
He continued to talk as they trundled along. “I’m going to introduce you to some old friends. They aren’t exactly used to having people around, so you have to tread carefully with them.”
“Why? Who are they?” Chester asked from the backseat.
“They’re here on the estate because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. They’ve all worked with Parry in the past — even as far back as his tours in Malaya. Many of them are . . . how can I put it . . . ?” Drake ran a hand over his clean-shaven scalp as he chose the right words. “Battle weary. And some of them were deemed too much of a liability to be allowed back into the general populace. So Parry undertook to the authorities that he’d give them a home here.”
The boys absorbed this, then Will ventured, “So are they dangerous?”
“Potentially, yes. These men have served their country in ways you couldn’t even
to imagine. They’ve been to the dark side — a place you don’t return from unscathed.”
As Will recognized the gate with the danger sign on it, Drake told him to stop. He slowed the Land Rover to a juddering halt and turned off the ignition. Drake made no move to get out, so the boys remained in their seats.
“But how well do you know these people?” Will asked.
“They were around while I was growing up. My mother died young, and they helped Parry to look after me, particularly as he went abroad a lot. They were kind of like my extended family.” Drake smiled to himself. “A bunch of extremely strange but incredibly interesting uncles.”
“But why are
meeting them?” Chester asked. “Why not my dad and Mrs. Burrows?”
Drake swiveled around in his seat so he could speak to Will and Chester at the same time. “You have no idea how much you’ve both changed, do you?”
“What do you mean?” Will said, exchanging a glance with Chester.
“When I first took you under my wing in the Deeps, you were a couple of baby-faced kids, with no idea what you were doing. But you have now.” Drake let his words sink in before he went on. “I know it hasn’t been easy for you with the Styx on your tail.”
“You can say that again,” Chester muttered.
“And it shows,” Drake said. “These men will recognize that in you. They’ve been there, too, in their lives. And I need them to realize that the threat is real, and persuade them to come on board. . . . I need them with us if we’ve got a snowball’s chance of beating the Styx.”
As they got out of the vehicle, Drake turned to them. “Make sure you haven’t got anything electrical on you. Anything with a current. A flashlight, for example.”
Will and Chester checked their pockets, then Will remembered his digital watch. “Just this, but it only has a small batt —”
“Doesn’t matter. Take it off,” Drake interrupted. “If he’s not expecting it, you can’t take anything like that near him.”
“Who’s not expecting it?” Chester inquired, becoming quite unnerved.
“First up, we’re meeting Captain Sweeney. He’s known as Sparks, but you shouldn’t call him that — not yet, anyway.”
Will undid the strap on his watch and left it on the car seat. Then Drake unlatched the gate and began down the track, the same track that Chester and Will had run along a few days earlier to reach the woods.
“Through here,” Drake directed as Will spotted the moss-covered roof he’d noticed before. Drake left the path to descend the embankment. He pushed into what seemed to be a tangle of impenetrable bracken, but in its midst was a narrow track that took them to the crofter’s cottage at the bottom of a small hollow.
It was difficult to believe anyone lived in the building, which was completely ramshackle. Although the front windows were intact, they were virtually opaque from the bloom of algae on the glass.
“Stay behind me, and it’s better if you don’t speak. If he does ask you anything, keep your voice low . . . and I mean really low,” Drake said. He knocked once on the door — so gently as to hardly make a noise — and nudged it open on its rusting hinges.
Drake stepped into the darkness with Will and Chester shuffling blindly behind him as they wondered what they were getting themselves into. The only noise in the room came from their boots crunching in the loose dirt on the bare stone floor, and the air smelled fusty and damp. Unable to see anything, the boys kept close to Drake, until Will felt pressure from Drake’s hand on his arm, which he took as a sign to stop. “Hello, Sparks,” Drake said softly. “Hope we’ve come at a convenient time?”
“Sure, I was expecting you. Your father said you’d be dropping by,” a gruff voice responded from a far corner. Will and Chester listened as Drake advanced toward the voice, but as much as they strained their eyes, they were unable to make out who was there in the gloom. A match was struck and an oil lantern began to glow wanly through a carbon-streaked shade.
Beyond Drake’s silhouetted body, someone else was just visible. Although it was still difficult to discern much by the light of the hissing lantern, the man was a good six inches taller than Drake and built like a bear. “Been far too long,” the man added in a rumble, although there was affection evident in his voice.
“Yes, it has,” Drake said.
“You’ve brought them both with you. I suppose you’d like me to come outside so they can meet me properly?”
With Drake guiding them, Will and Chester retraced their steps back through the front door. Like a wraith reluctantly showing itself, the man emerged into the daylight. Although his face was far from clean, the boys saw that around each of his eyes was a series of concentric circles, suggesting something under the skin. The lines were almost black, and the effect was quite disarming — it was evocative of a face decorated for some tribal ritual.
As Will regarded the man, he couldn’t help but think of Uncle Tam, who’d been similarly well built. However, Sweeney looked like he could have given Uncle Tam a run for his money. He had massive shoulders and his wrists, where they emerged from his army woolly pully, were thick and muscular.
He was also wearing a pair of stained and loose-fitting camouflage trousers, and on his head was an army-issue cold-weather hat with flaps hanging down over both ears. As he removed it from his head, the inside reflected the light as if it were lined with metal foil.
“Does that help?” Drake asked.
“Not much,” Sweeney grumbled in reply.
Now that the man was without his headgear, Will could see that his forehead was also crossed with an intricate lattice of raised lines. Will found it difficult to tell how old Sweeney was because of his strange face, but estimated from his thinning gray hair that he had to be at least in his sixties.
Narrowing his bizarre eyes, Sweeney studied Will and Chester in turn. “Told you anything about me, has he?” he demanded, sticking a thumb in Drake’s direction.
The boys shook their heads mutely.
“Thought not,” he said, then cleared his throat. “Forty years ago, I was in the Marines, the SBS, to be precise. But there’s a history of progressive myopia in the family, and my eyesight was on the slide. So it was either a discharge on medical grounds or spend the rest of my career shuffling papers behind a desk, when this boffin chap from an army research program showed up at the barracks, asking for me. It was as though I was being offered a miracle; he promised he’d fix my eyes so I could go back into active service. The army was my life, and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else, so I grabbed the opportunity. But you know what they say . . .”
“Never volunteer for anything,” Drake put in with a smile.
“Too right. Anyway, it was all to do with perception enhancement for combat applications.” With two fingers Sweeney described a figure eight around his eyes as if he were administering himself a benediction. “You see, by surgically implanting some gizmos in my retinas and ears, then boosting nerve conductivity and the synapses in my noodle, my vision and hearing were tuned to way beyond human limits. A side effect is that my reaction times are pretty fast, too.” He cleared his throat uneasily. “I was the third soldier the surgeons got their mitts on, and by the time it was my turn to be opened up and rewired, lucky for me they’d got their act together. More or less. The other guinea pigs weren’t so fortunate — one poor sap died on the table, and the other was paralyzed from the neck down.”
As Drake had directed them, Will and Chester remained silent. Filled with awe, they simply stared at the man as he continued. “So . . . I’m fast, and I can see and hear things you can’t,” Sweeney said, then peered down at the hat in his hands.
“Which is mighty handy for night ops and deep jungle insertions,” Drake explained.
“Yes, that was how they deployed me — three decades of skulking around in the dark,” Sweeney said, nodding as he looked up. “Everything is amplified . . . supercharged. . . . If I’m not prepared for it, loud noises can be excruciating.” He frowned, the grid on his forehead forming a succession of Vs. “But, in the end, what gets you is that there’s no off switch. What they didn’t envisage was the 24/7 sensory overload. It can drive you clean off your rocker.”
He pointed loosely at the woods and cocked his head to one side. “Right now, I can hear insects burrowing under the bark in those trees. They sound like jackhammers.” He swung in the direction that Drake and the boys had come from. “And the vehicle you left by the gate . . . I can hear the engine block cooling. It’s like icebergs exploding in here.” Sweeney raised his hands to his temples but didn’t touch them. “And there’s no way to make it stop.”