Screenwriter and novelist
Originally published in Walking in Eternity. Reproduced by permission of the author. All rights reserved.
Everyone ran to the walls when the Needleship took a direct hit, high overhead, and some of them even got up there in time to see it come down. The Needleship was true to its name, too slender to make out apart from when the sun caught metal and made a flash that left a slow-fading mark at the back of the eye. They tracked it by the line of arrowing smoke as it ripped through the atmosphere, and someone called out that he'd seen the explosion as the pilot ejected.
There was certainly no explosion when it reached the desert ground, some way outside the city's defensive ring. There was no detonation, no rain of burning fuel. Just a silent cloud of dust, rising. It was enormous and at this distance it looked perfect and sculpted, a flower blossoming in slow motion.
Lookouts studied the far-off site from the highest points of the city, using glasses and whatever instruments they could find that still worked. Did anything remain of the wreck? Was there anything that might be salvaged? Could the cloud be radioactive and if so, was there any sign of it drifting this way?
Nobody could say.
There was only one way to find anything out, and that was to send somebody out there.
They picked a burned-out second-level Knuckleman called Kobold, and for his second he picked a Recon named Jarad. They'd both seen too much action but they each had a proven knack for surviving it. Maybe it was just a luck gene. Both were handy soldiers but neither had any special skills worth preserving, so they were fit to be risked. Kobold had that dead-eyed stare of the marked-forever combatant, and Jarad was well on his way to acquiring it.
Kobold was nineteen, Jarad a couple of years younger. Both had been born into the siege and they'd been soldiers almost since they could walk.
They were told they'd have to ride out together on the same dust bike, to conserve fuel. They were each kitted in a patchwork of torn radiation suits, remnants so tattered that they had to be bound to their limbs and their bodies with several turns of cord. Cloth masks and goggles, one ration of water each and a radio, and they were on their way.
No crowd turned out to see them off. Kobold was in the saddle and Jarad stood on the bodywork behind him, braced and hanging on. They raised a following cloud of their own as they set out down a desert trail in the direction of the crash site.
The trail was little more than a faintly-swept line across the bare land. It took them out past empty bunkers, useless silos, abandoned sites that had once been a part of the defensive ring. Everything here had been stripped out to ensure that some other installation could carry on functioning. This was how the war had been kept going for so long; it had started with the highest of high-tech weapons and had eventually degenerated to spit and string and sheer determination. Now the two sides were like exhausted fighters, still landing punches, somehow still standing. The sleek athletes they'd once been were gone forever. Energies gone, reserves gone, everything gone. There was nothing left worth fighting for, but still they fought on. If there should ever be a victor he'd be a beaten hulk, and his victory would be a victory over nothing.
How had it started? Few could even remember.
Out beyond the ring, with the dust cloud still blotting out the sun, they'd begun to descend into a raw dirt valley before they realised that they were actually in the Needleship's impact trench. The aircraft had ploughed into the desert at a low angle, cutting right across the trail, breaking up as it went. Huge chunks of raw machinery were half-buried amongst a continuous litter of broken ship.
So they turned and followed the trench as far as it went, and at its end they found what was left of the Needleship's fuselage.
It was in two pieces, broken-backed. The part with the cabin was still intact, more or less. Dead technology spilled like guts from the rent between the sections. Only this part remained. Tanks, engines, control systems - everything else was the debris they'd been riding through.
Kobold stopped the dust bike alongside, and Jarad climbed down. He was stiff and aching from having to brace himself and absorb every bump and jar from the terrain. Desert wind swirled the dust around them as Jarad poked around amongst the debris and Kobold picked his way through wreckage to take a look inside.
After a minute or so, Jarad heard a call.
"There's a body in here."
"It's still alive."
Jarad dropped the panel he'd been levering up out of the dirt, and scrambled inside.
The cabin interior was barely recognisable as such. It looked as if it had been trashed by a whirlwind. Kobold was crouched at the forward end. The pilot's seat was gone, along with the blowaway escape panel above it. The other seat's panel was also gone, but the seat itself had failed to eject. In the seat was a live body. Burned, bloodstained, but definitely a live body.
It was wearing a survival suit. But its chances of survival would have been enhanced even more if it hadn't been shot in the head.
Kobold was hunkered there, watching the damaged stranger, wary of getting too close as if the body in the chair might spring into action without warning.
Some chance. Jarad leaned forward and brushed some of the soot from the survival suit, uncovering part of the scorched insignia on the arm. It had frayed and almost burned away. Carefully, he poked the edges of the remaining pieces back together to get some idea of what the badge had been.
Then he looked at Kobold.
"This is what their generals wear," he said.
"How do you know?"
"We've all seen pictures. I'm a Recon. I'm supposed to remember things I see. You'd better get on the radio. Tell them to send out that Doctor."
The Doctor did what he could with the standard field kit, under the close and suspicious supervision of Kobold and two further Knucklemen who'd brought the Doctor out here in the dune truck.
"I keep telling you I've got no medical training," he said as he fixed field dressings over entrance and exit wounds and turned the victim's head a little to ensure a clear airway. And he did this with reluctance, wary of making any neck injury worse.
"All I can do for him is to give him basic first aid," he said.
"Stop yakking and get on with it," Kobold said.
There were no painkillers. Every kit had been raided for them, years before.
"His pulse is strong and he's breathing well, but don't try to lift him out of the seat," the Doctor said. "We don't know what his injuries are. You need to keep him in the chair and cut the whole thing free. It'll be like a support for him until you can get him back to town."
Jarad was standing well back. There was little enough space in the cabin already, and Knucklemen tended to look down on Recons and curse them when they got in the way. He couldn't see much, but he could crane around and get an idea of what was going on.
"Is that a gunshot wound?" Kobold said.
"It looks like it," the Doctor said. "In under the jaw and out under the ear. He's going to need some major surgery."
One of the other Knucklemen snorted then. The city had no surgeons. All the trained doctors were out at frontline posts, and even their training was hardly the best. The city had low-level medics with only the most basic knowledge, and that was it.
Kobold said, "So what do you think happened?"
"At a guess?" From what Jarad could see, the Doctor was checking the crash victim's limbs, probing his midriff, looking for any other areas of serious injury. "The general here was a priority cargo. There was no explosion when the ship hit the ground, which suggests to me that they were carrying a minimum weight of fuel in order to achieve a maximum speed. Wherever they were trying to get him, they wanted him there in a hurry. Playing around with the fuel and weight equations can be a dangerous game. Doesn't matter how precise your figures are, the reality never is. Maybe there wasn't enough of a margin and that's how they dropped to within range of the ground batteries. Let me think."
The Doctor considered.
"They take a hit. The pilot can see right away that they aren't going to make it. Maybe he can manage a crash landing, but it's going to be right on the enemy's doorstep. What's the most important thing? Make sure the general doesn't fall into enemy hands. So before he looks to his own safety, he has to be certain he ejects his passenger."
Here, Jarad looked at the gaping square where exploding bolts had once held the eject panel above the general's flight position. The bolts had blown and the panel had gone, but the ejection unit hadn't fired.
"But the seat fails and his passenger doesn't go. What's he going to do now? There's only one option. He can't save the general but he can't risk leaving him to the enemy. So in the couple of seconds he has left, he has to make sure that he kills the general before ejecting himself."
"Not sure enough," Kobold said, and the Knucklemen made a low gurgling sound that, after a moment or two of attentive listening, might have been recognisable as laughter.
"Or else..." the Doctor said, and then he winced as if at a thought that wouldn't quite form. The crash victim coughed, then, the first real sign of life he'd shown since they'd found him.
When the Doctor had done what little he could for the survivor, he was turfed out of the cabin and sent to stand at a distance from the wreck. Jarad was assigned to watch him while the three Knucklemen brought tools from the dune truck and began working to cut the passenger couch free with its passenger still on it. They couldn't use torches, for fear of igniting the unused propellant in the seat. There was a lot of clattering and cursing.
"If he's lucky, he'll die," the Doctor said, hearing the oaths.
"If he's that lucky, so will you," Jarad said.
The Doctor looked out toward the city. Another dust plume was rising. More vehicles were coming out. A captured general was a serious coup, maybe even a turning point in the progress of the war. Not just because of what he was, but more importantly for what he might know.
If they could get it out of him.
"What's the matter with you?" Jarad said.
"Just thinking," the Doctor said.
He'd been picked up as a spy, moving amongst the crowds in the heart of the besieged city. He'd disguised himself to blend in well enough, but he'd failed to realise that in a city besieged for generations there are no strangers. Under interrogation he'd tried the old "I'm just a traveller," line, and he'd been in confinement ever since. He called himself the Doctor but he said he knew no medicine. The man couldn't even keep his story straight.
Here came the first vehicle with its enormous balloon wheels. There were three vehicles in all. The lead one was personal transport for Brooligan, high muck-a-muck and commander of the regional defence forces. The second was his personal guard and a bunch of Recons and the one coming up behind was just a plain old open load carrier, the kind used for carting scaffolding and building stone around. None was exactly what you'd call easy on the eye. All had the look of junkyard salvage pieces but then, there wasn't a working vehicle in the city that didn't.
Brooligan had a TV crew in tow. It wasn't just a matter of the general's strategic potential, here. Bringing down an enemy plane was always good for morale. A plane with a live enemy was a thousand times better. People had been starved of anything to celebrate, and they'd starved for too long. The Knucklemen stopped what they were doing and waited for Brooligan, and Brooligan said, "So where is he? I want to see him."
He went inside, and so did the crew and the camera lights, and when there was enough footage to make it clear that Brooligan was in charge of the situation he withdrew and the dismantlers went back to work. There were more of them now. Instead of trying to cut the chair out of the fuselage, they worked to cut the fuselage away from around the chair.
The Doctor spoke up from the back, then.
He said, "Excuse me. There's a chance that this situation may not be all it seems."
Brooligan turned, looked at him.
"Who's this?" he said.
Jarad hadn't expected to have to speak, and the words caught in his throat.
"Enemy prisoner, sir."
Brooligan indicated the wreck, with incredulity.
"From that?" he said.
"No, sir. A spy. Captured in the city."
"Why's he here?"
"He calls himself a doctor."
Brooligan started to turn away.
"You need to hear this," the Doctor insisted, and that was all that he had to say because one of the Knucklemen stepped in and felled him with a blow from a weighted glove. He hit the ground like a sack of stones, moved once as if to rise, and then didn't move again. Jarad and the Knuckleman dragged him to one of the vehicles and heaved him on board.
When the others had cut the chair free, it took eight of them to lift it onto the load platform of the third truck. The Recons were left behind to search the wreckage, with orders to follow the wide trail all the way back along the impact site. They were to dig for plans, for documents, for anything that might be of use or interest.
The rest of them headed back to the city in convoy. Jarad hitched a ride on the open truck rather than make a second journey clinging to the back of the dust bike. They'd rigged a canvas cover to shade the captured general, and they'd lashed his supporting framework to the load platform. The original safety harness kept him from falling out.
He'd made it so far, but Jarad wondered if the man would survive the journey back. It was a rough ride for someone so badly injured. Jarad had overheard that there were real doctors being summoned back from the front line to deal with him, on their way even now.
He was a prize, there was no doubting that. Even dead he'd be a prize. But a live enemy... in a war where death happened at a distance and at the push of a button, sight of a live enemy was almost unheard of.
As they jolted their way along, Jarad crawled under the canvas awning and pulled himself upright by the general.
The general's good eye was open, and was looking straight at him.
The rest of his face was a blood-caked mess. A couple more degrees of angle and the pilot would have blown his brains out, as intended. As it was, the general had been left mutilated and on the edge of life. If they were going to get information out of him, it would have to be by some other means of communication than speech. The general would probably never speak for himself again.
He was trying to, though.
The truck jolted hard over a gully, and the general cried out loud as Jarad hung on.
"Don't expect pity from me," Jarad said.
rend, the general seemed to be saying.
"I'm not your friend," Jarad said. "Nobody here's your friend. Welcome to hell. You don't like it, you shouldn't have helped to make it what it is."
As they drew close to the walls of the city, the first of the crowds could be seen. There was obviously some plan that Jarad didn't know about, because the trucks slowed without stopping and the Knucklemen from the vehicle ahead were jumping down to the ground and then boarding his own as it drew level.
"Be off with you, Recon," one of them said, and gave him a rough shove that sent him sprawling in the dirt.
It wasn't a hard landing, and Jarad got back to his feet and trotted in the wake of the truck.
They threw back the canvas and heaved the chair upright so that the general hung in his straps in a standing position. They fixed it in place, and then with their knuckleknives they cut the clothing from him until he was left naked. He was scrawny, and his body was covered in healed scars and tattoos. All of his dignity was gone and every one of his injuries was plainly visible as the truck entered the narrow streets and the crowds surged forward around it.
Jarad couldn't keep up with it, then. The crowds were too dense, and there was a display of emotion like none he'd never seen. They were howling. They were fighting to get over each other, desperate to get to the enemy. The Knucklemen were there to fend them off.
It escalated in seconds. Brooligan had no doubt envisaged a triumphal progress through the streets, a managed release of pent-up animal passions. Himself leading the way, the enemy on show right behind him. But everyone ignored him and went straight for the truck with the naked prisoner.
The Knucklemen were unprepared. They'd expected an obedient crowd letting off steam, not a full-blown riot. They were shouting to their driver, but their driver couldn't hear. He was trying to follow his orders, trying to follow Brooligan's truck up ahead, trying to continue with the increasingly chaotic pageant.
Up on the truck, hanging in his upright frame, the prisoner raised his head. He'd little strength, but the sheer volume of sound and emotion had roused him. With his good eye he gazed out blearily, helplessly. What could he be making of what he saw? How much could he understand?
And Jarad thought, Enemy or no enemy, this is wrong.
They came into the city's main square, the Square of the Twelve Pillars, and there the procession was slowed even more and then finally halted. The crowd were out of control. Brooligan was leaning out of his vehicle and beckoning and the Knucklemen were firing into the air, but there was little they could do against such a solid, pushing mass of people.
At the still heart of it all hung the prisoner, gazing helplessly out at the mob. Uncomprehending object of their hatred, bewildered victim of their fury.
Somebody threw something, but it missed.
Then a man threw himself over the front of the crowd, riding them like a wave, something fluttering in his hand; it was a rag, a handkerchief, and for a moment the Knucklemen to either side were distracted by the masses that were pawing at them and he was able to get through. One of them noticed the assailant after a moment and drove him back with a kick, but not before he'd succeeded in his bid. The man fell back with his trophy held high, his cloth red with the enemy's blood, and if the crowd had been explosive before they went nuclear now.
The trucks were starting to rock. The crowd was rising in a single tide, every member of it urged on by the same idea. The Knucklemen were no longer firing into the air but were firing right into them now, firing on their own people, and bodies were falling but the mob just came on. The Knucklemen's weapons were taken from them and the Knucklemen themselves were pitched to the ground. The truck was overrun. The prisoner on the back of it disappeared in a mass of bodies.
He reappeared once, briefly, as within a few moments the lines had been cut and the framework to which he was harnessed was tipped forward and off the truck. He was raised into the air above their heads before plunging, face-first, toward the ground. When it hit the ground, the crowd closed in.
He might have appeared once more, tossed like a puppet, worried by the crowd as a dog might throw a doll before dismembering it. By now he'd been abandoned by his captors. The trucks were charging their way out of the melee, spinning people aside and forcing others to scramble.
Nobody was interested in stopping them any longer. When they reached the edge of the crowd they put on speed, and the last few bodies scattered out of the way.
Jarad saw how, at the centre of the mob, the crowd boiled, and boiled red.
Calm on the streets was returning. The riot -- there was no other word for it -- had ended quickly. Of the captive that had been its focus, there was nothing to be found.
Nothing recognisable, anyway.
One faction had gone looking for the spy with the idea of giving him the same treatment, but it quickly emerged that he had never returned from the desert. The vehicle into which he'd been thrown had returned without him. Nobody knew at what point he'd slipped away from them.
Jarad found someone in Brooligan's outer offices, and was told to wait. He found himself a chair and sat. He saw Kobold emerging from one of the debriefing rooms down the hall. The Knuckleman looked red-eyed and pale, and he shambled. Jarad tried to catch his eye, but he didn't succeed.
About an hour later he was called in.
He'd expected to have to argue his way through a series of minor officials, but he came straight into the presence of the top man himself.
Brooligan was a man who looked as if he'd wasted quickly. His clothes didn't seem to fit and he shifted inside them as if they itched. He looked at Jarad as if he'd been hoping he might bring answers, but had abandoned the hope as soon as it came within reach. Now he just wanted him to say his piece and be dismissed.
"I think we're in even bigger trouble than you imagine," Jarad said.
"We're not in trouble," Brooligan said. "We had a situation and it's been contained. We won't let it happen again."
"The prisoner wasn't a general."
"You said he was."
"I identified a general's insignia. A general's uniform doesn't necessarily mean that the man inside it has to be a general."
"Who was he, then?"
"When the Knucklemen stripped him, I could see that he had Thornflower tattoos. Thornflowers only grow in the desert. The enemy doesn't have them. I think he was one of ours."
"Prisoner of war. Maybe one of the Recons that never came back."
"Well, it's entirely academic now. We're not going to get anything out of him."
"I think we already got more out of him than we bargained for," Jarad said. "I think we just lost the war."
The gates stood open. Some had tried to run. He'd passed their silent camps by the trail.
A few bodies lay in the streets, but mostly the streets were empty. The plague had hit fast and hard.
He'd seen something like it once before. In less sophisticated times an invading army had been known to catapult the rotting and diseased carcases of pigs and sheep over the walls of a besieged town, hoping to infect or pollute the environment of those within.
This time the methods had been more subtle, the end more sure.
The odd sound as he moved through the streets told him that there was still life within some of the buildings, but he knew it couldn't last. There was nothing he could do for them, not for any of them. He kept a long cloth wrapped around his face and head to keep out the sun and the smell. He'd no fear of the infective agent, not now. Any danger would have been evident long before this. It was, frankly, unlikely. Although his outward appearance was similar to the local species, there was little else physically that they had in common.
Appearances deceive. In the Square of the Twelve Pillars, where a still-smouldering pyre represented a vain effort to cleanse the flesh that was beyond salvation, he walked through the smoke to where the thirteenth pillar stood, unnoticed by all.
At his signal, the pillar's outline melted and reformed to its more familiar shape.
Sometime soon, at a guess, the enemy's aircraft would take advantage of the lowered defences and move in to sterilise the area with flash-bombs.
The fruits of victory? A burned-out hole in a desert.
There was nothing more for him to do but enter, and move on.