Sunday, 18 December 2011

The Pale Horse -The Final Chapter


There is not a truth that hasn’t been said.
Nor an evil that hasn’t been done.
(The pity is, it’s not the other way round)

July 20/Day 16

Fay Williams closed her ears to the sound hissing through the pipe and, willing her hands to stop shaking, slid open the box and confirmed its contents. She'd enough for three attempts.

It was more than two weeks since he'd gone, leaving with a promise he'd be back. A promise and a phone number that meant nothing, when nothing worked. He was a memory easily shaded out, except, she needed something to hold on to. She'd kept the radio on day and night, imagined hearing voices through its mush, denying its sterility, till the electricity died. Anger fed her for the first week. Anger at him for buggering off and taking away all the options she thought she'd gained. Anger at Eric for leaving her long before he’d actually gone. At herself for not walking the minute Eric had got his prognosis. For having no social credits to feed the bloody meters. Anger at the whole miserable fucking world for not one of its uniformed, card carrying, tiny minded minions, knocking at her door and taking her in their arms, hugging, and reassuring her it was over, they were back in control. By the end of the week she'd chewed the last of her anger and began gnawing at her terror. Terror brought its own, starker. dimensions and values. They got rid of the subtleties of hues leaving only white or black, live or die. It enticed, in her own voice. "Go on you've survived. You are a survivor."

She'd boiled the water, listening to it bubble until it was half of what it had been, then let it cool while another pan boiled, and another. The kitchen turned into a sauna and the stove hissed its blue flame. Then the water mocked her to drink. She imagined the chicken carcases, their feathers rippling in the breeze, plucked, degunked and skinned, then boiled till the meat was blanched white. Meat falling off the bone and threatening to turn to soupy mush while her stomach chewed in anticipation and growled with nerves. She ate, panicked and made herself sick, felt stupid, then waited. She ate some more and kept it down, boiled some more and cleaned some more, created a multi boiled larder. Two days later the gas credits ran out.

She was a survivor. Kept telling herself that as she wrapped the soapy bandage round the connection of garden hose to copper pipe, by-passing the meter. She was a survivor and that meant not giving in to the hopelessness or tastelessness of meat boiled and cooled again and again. After she'd eaten she'd call it a high day and boil enough for a bath. Three matches, but once she'd lit the burner it could stay on forever, her eternal flame. She still shouldn't waste one. She gave a silent prayer as crouched over the stove she struck the match.

She'd survived by a combination of luck and tenacity; she'd never get the credit but, eventually, when her eternal flame died, would venture out.
Dick was the first to know, Bess the first to sense it. The unknown had teased them with choice, offering scenarios of normalcy, a fleeting, constantly recurring, cautiously uttered triumph of hope over inner uncertainty. A confidence held only by their isolation and struggled with in their individual cloisters of thought. Except when a school of dolphins or porpoises sought them out and tantalised with their playful normalcy. Then hope would sing through nerves and they could lose themselves for moments in their sea world. Even the stiffening carcasses of the flying fish that had chosen to launch themselves at exactly the wrong moment and place, were gently dropped over the side with a silent prayer of thanks for the hope they nourished. There had been other signs of life, though they were difficult to qualify now as civilisation. Once, the tenuous, filtering trace of a high jet stream caused an argument about whether it was a plane or merely cloud. Then a glint off polished metal, too high to be identified that, through atmosphere or choice, didn’t respond to the radio beacon activated by Dick. Dusk after dusk a fiery mantle in the west promised another day. Back on deck, Dick smiled when he saw Bess up at the bow. Nose up, sifting the smell that meant land and a proper claw stretching crap and scrape. Joining the others in the cockpit he drew their attention to Bess.

Bob nodded. 'She's been there for the last hour. What's the picture?'
'About six hours to Funchal. Five if we lay-off and head straight for Porto Moniz or the base. The chart shows a supply jetty, marked with all the usual military warning off gubbins. Give it a couple of hours and we can try contacting either the base, or the port at Funchal. I've heard nothing, but that could be down to them using military frequencies. Shouldn't apply to Funchal but who knows the rules they've imposed. So, we can hope for the best and head for one or the other. Or, since it's going to be well and truly dark before we are heading in, we could anchor off and weigh things up in the morning.'
'What's to weigh up, Dick? We've got to land.'
'I know, Glen. What none of us knows is what we're going to find. At night the east of the island round to Funchal should be lit up like a Christmas tree and I should imagine there would be some lights off the base. If there are we’ll know life's going on in some form or other. It isn't safe to assume everything's all right because the navigation lights are working; they're all on automatic sensor controls. Besides, as far out as we are, it's surprising not to hear some sort of radio traffic.'
Antony, struggling to overcome an inability with knots, pulled straight another bowline without bite. 'Merde.' He dropped the rope in disgust. ‘I think it's Bob's decision to make.'
Weighing up the nods and murmurs of agreement Bob decided, 'Heave to off the base.'

It was half two in the morning before Dick heard the soft slap of the inflatable bouncing round by the stern. Followed by the deeper note as a body was carefully lowered, then the squeak of oar against the rubber rowlocks. He waited till the outboard was started before going up on deck and found Bob circling slowly. He’d expected it, and there was nothing to be done, other than to give Bob a wave and wish him luck. Earlier they'd picked out lights on the base, but so few and dull that Dick rechecked their position before satisfying himself they weren't further off than they'd wanted to be. Then Deek, asking the obvious, dumped them back in the quandary of doubts. 'If this is a military base, why aren't there any planes flying?' They'd all came up with reasons except Bob. He kept stroking Bess's ears and staring at the pinpricks of light. What he'd to block out, deny completely, was the unnatural quiet. Now it was Dick's turn. He hardly turned his head when Mary cuddled into him.
She asked, 'How long will it take him?'
'About an hour to the shore. After that, God knows.'
'One of us should have gone with him.'

Memory flashed Dick back to weeks of torment searching a Spanish shore, trying to gently nudge back to normality a husk that regarded you as no more than an expedient shadow. Until you realised that for all the sentimental slop-shit, a heart could be broken and you had to be there to give a nudge, a helping hand or a caring hug. And, most difficult of all, to know when to shut up. 'He would have asked if he'd wanted it any other way, girl.' Seeing Mary's look he hugged her. 'All right, first light we'll close in and go after him.'
'Dick, what if?'
'Let's keep what we've got for now, girl. We're too close to answers to struggle with speculation.' He'd lost sight of Bob and the inflatable. Now he was back to searching the night for any new light adding to the pinpricks of the few from the base. Cuddling against Mary he wondered if the old adage about better to travel than to arrive could be proved wrong this time.
Glen found them towards the dawn huddled in sleep. 'How do you answer that squawk box? Sounds like somebody's trying to raise you.'
His slow grin eased Mary's concern but Dick moved too fast to see it. 'Bob?'
'I'm fine, Dick. Everybody's fine. It's bloody marvellous. Rab, Lyn and Sally are here with me. They've no fuel on the Island. Look, you can hear it all for yourself when you come in. Technically I'm under arrest for illegal entry, trespassing on military property, which can be classed as spying. Stateless without a passport or visa and for frightening two air force guards to death. At the moment I'm a prisoner of the U.S. of A, but in order to balance things out they've agreed to hand me over to the RAF.'
'That's great, Bob.' Dick quickly released the send button when he realised Bob hadn't stopped talking.
'It's just routine they say. Aren't they bloody marvellous words? Just routine, never thought I'd feel like singing them. Anyway, can you get everybody's passports and give the details to them. Once they've checked you out they'll clear you to take the boat in.'

Seeing five passports spread in front of him Dick asked, 'Bob, what about Deek?'
'I've explained he works with me and we were expecting to drop him off at the Scillies. They're not bothered Dick. I think they're as pleased to see us, as we are to see them. Look I'll put you on to Captain Shanks for the passport details. I don't think my brain can slow down enough to concentrate. I'll see you when you come in.'

To have, in times to come, been able to look back and comfortably reflect on the quiet gratitude and dignity they’d displayed on this deliverance would perhaps, have been a more comfortable memory, but it wouldn't have been true. Two grown men, a woman, a boy and a confused dog whooping and performing a thundering jig, deafened Dick and confused Shanks when he took the headphones. 'What in the hell?'
'Sorry Captain, bit of a celebration going on, just give me a minute.' Dick barked his authority. 'Quiet you scurvy lot or I'll treat it as mutiny and have you in irons. That's better. Now Captain if I can give you the details.'
Shanks had the sound of a decent man. Repeating the details he handed them over to a striper and told him to get them off before coming back to Dick. 'Might take a little longer than usual to get you cleared. Things tend to take a back seat on the routine side just now.'
Dick wasn't bothered, 'Appreciate that captain. Do we need to take any precautions when we do get ashore?'
Shanks laughed. 'No sir, but I wouldn't wear your best whites, and probably you'll all be checked out by the medics, and you will get a jag. I take it scurvy’s the only problem aboard?'
'It was until moments ago. Now my malt’s disappearing at a rate that could swamp their sanity if we wait too long.'
'Can't have that, Skipper. Aw, to hell with it. Keep them in line and making fleet speed to tie up alongside about nine; but do not get off the boat. I'll square it up with the C.O. Just keep this channel open and I’ll look forward to meeting you.'
Easing the whisky down his throat, Dick felt he could call it the start of a perfect day till Glen lit his pipe and spoiled it. 'Wonder if they've specimens of the locusts so we can study them?'
Reaching out Dick twisted the bowl off its stem and held it over the side. 'One more word from you about bloody locusts and this'll turn into a pipefish. Well, half a pipe fish.'
Glen adopted a suitable look of penance. 'Wouldn't know one if it landed in front of me.'
The quip was lousy, the humour crap but they felt entitled to it. Mary queried if the Pilgrim Fathers had been as intoxicated when they landed on their promised land. Getting no sensible answers she reverted to hostess and filled the glasses. Deek had another taste and confirmed it wasn't for him. Bess sniffed a glass and wasn't impressed.

Moira jumped when the molecular warble finally made itself heard over the early morning bird song. Turning her head from the window, she willed one of the attaché cases to stop, cease, wrong number; it's over. It kept on warbling, computer patience, connection guaranteed. She still tried to defy it by pulling the pillow over her head. Knew she'd lost before the knock on her bedroom door.
'Moira? Moira, you awake?'
'Val come in and shut this thing up. Better still, take them down to the lake and sling them to hell. Should have done it the day we came up here.'
Letting his bulk rest against the doorframe, Val sifted his response. 'You know I can't answer it. We've got to see this through.'
'It's done Val, over. It has nothing I want to do and there's nothing I want from it. Come in will you Val. I’ve spent enough time talking to the void without talking to you through a door.'

Val found Moira sitting on the edge of the bed, dressed, as she'd been the night before, grief etched in her face, hands clasped and pressed between her knees. Crossing the room he took the active case and raising her hands placed the case gently on her lap. 'Find out what it is, then come down stairs and we'll discuss what to do about it. I'll have the coffee ready.' Seeing her thumbs slide towards the lock screens, he put a comforting hand on her shoulder. ' It's probably nothing, only some dregs.'
Moira nodded. 'No coffee for me Val, tea please.'
It was routine, a confirmation required for a forgotten instruction, from an island she couldn't place. She confirmed and closed the case.

Blinded by the sunlight when he stepped out of the service lift of the Salwezi deep waste dump, General Sam Noder, ripped off his facemask and wished his face could be as expressionless. Stepping to the side he let the men packed around him, their stint over, drag their way past. He couldn't find sensible words of thanks; just as he couldn't find sensible words of encouragement to the men who allowed themselves to be dragged back down to relieve them. An anonymous Welsh voice shouted out, "Got them tidy enough for you General. Pack em in, layering room only, an stop the tittering up in the gods."

He sensed rather than saw Brigadier Gliddock stiffen. 'Let it go Jack. If I had to do their job... Shit, I don't know if I could take it. Let's get out of this gear; makes me feel sautéed.'
Stepping over the tracks, he kept his eyes off the wagons slowly rolling towards the dump's twin offloading shafts. Beyond the rolling train another two waited, and ten miles behind them? He couldn't remember the figure Squid had planned for. Feed rates, capacities, logic-shits. It was at Jack Gliddock's suggestion that they’d adopted a ten-mile gap. No more than three trains at the dump at any one time. 'Too demoralising,' he'd said. 'Like death with no end.' Now they came three at a time, a putrid shuttle of defunct humanity waiting for burial then resurrection.

This was his second visit to Salwezi. Ten dumps, two visits, twenty days. Flying over a continent chasing funerals, where the corpses would have pitied the mourners. An army, half a million strong, backed with unknown quantities of civilians, to find, treat with a chemical shroud, transit and dump the odd billion plus. As much as he saw of it, he hadn’t the vision to scale it. Their "log jam" wouldn't be the rail tracks or the dumps, Major Squid, the analyst back at H.Q. rationalised. It was the collection and chemical treatment, and getting the units to the rail compounds that was critical if they were to meet the target.
'Fuck your target,' he'd wanted to scream, but hadn't. Instead he'd done his own finger twisting arithmetic. It seemed all each of them had to do, every soldier, sailor and general, cook, analyst and civilian, was to bury six thousand. He did ask, without bothering to hide the sarcasm. 'And how long have they given us to achieve our objectives?'
'A hundred days.' Squid's had answered. 'Four million per dump per day. Of course,' and he was deadly serious, 'it will get harder to achieve the target towards the end when we're collecting the dregs. That's why it's important to get up to speed quickly, so we have some leeway.'
'Who's doing the body count Major? You?'
Major Cruden - he didn't know he was squid - wasn't fazed. 'We get the total roll over the weighbridges at the dumps. We reckon on an average of ninety-three pounds body weight per unit. Take off the net weight for the rolling stock; divide what’s left by ninety-three and we get the body count. It's all done by computer.'
Noder felt disgust churn his stomach. 'Major, who in the hell worked this lot out,?'
'Strat-Com's own analysts, sir. I've been on attachment with the department for six years.'
'Major, I think I've met my first megalomaniac.'
'Just doing my job, sir, and that's to make the best use of available resources.'
'What are your lamp shades made of at home?'
'Beg your pardon, sir?'
'Never mind Major. I'll make you a deal. You shut up about all these targets and analysis jargon. Keep it all to yourself and jack your own tally. I'll keep it going for the hundred days and if we miss the target tough shit. Got it?'
'Yes Sir. But with the dumps and infrastructure I'm sure ninety, ninety five percent is achievable. They're almost ideal for the job.' That was exactly what Sam Noder didn't want to hear. He wanted to ask this slimy, cold mollusc if his mother had a thing about special lampshades. He wanted to shoot him, or at least hit him, instead he said, 'You're a cold blooded mother fucker Cruden.'
'Only doing my job, Sir, and trying to make the best of it. Perhaps the General would be happier if circumstances had his command throwing ironmongery from one warm blooded man to make others bloody?'
Sonofabitch had got him there. Nodding his dismissal, he'd wished it were a head butt.

After ten days the ghoul's arithmetic was proving to be pretty well right. That didn't mean he'd to like him. No doubt somewhere, tucked up in some clapboard honeysuckle covered box, would be a wife and children that called him daddy. He hated passing Cruden’s department at H.Q. and seeing his charges slaving over their hot terminals, creased and neat. He hated him even more when Jack passed him the glass of whisky and they both turned their eyes from the production lines to cleanse them on the empty plain.
'You know, Sam, these dumps could have been made for the job. It's uncanny how everything fits.'
Squid hadn't been the first, Jack wouldn't be the last, and it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference. He went to take a sip of his whisky and found he'd already downed it. 'No Jack, it's all chance. Nothing fits, we're just making it.'
Jack Gliddock shrugged. 'Perhaps you're right.' Then, after an involuntary shudder added, 'Doesn't bear thinking about.'
Refilling his glass, Noder nodded his agreement and, desperate to veer off the subject, broke all his rules. 'Squid tells me we're nudging ahead of target.'
Gliddock searched his memory for acronyms then gave up. 'Squid?'
'Major Cruden, analyst guy back at H.Q.'
'Why do you call him squid?'
Noder shrugged, knowing he'd never been fair to the guy, but needed somebody to hate 'Can't remember, but I've never seen him smile.'
It was the Brigadier’s turn to fill his glass. 'Can't remember when I last smiled myself.'

Sam Noder didn't feel like being a general for much longer. Didn't feel much like being anything. Maybe if he could throw off all the trappings, got himself someplace where he could roll up into a ball and bawl his heart out, he might, just might, find something he felt like doing. Or, if he was very lucky, something he felt right doing. He'd seen the form of their resurrection, authenticated with the mystic markings of "top secret". How their waste would be made to fit, racked and tiered and then the access filled and the vents all sealed. How strange crucifixes would valve and distribute their gaseous spirits to help form the re-birth of their nation. As Squid Cruden would say, "Making the best of available resources." But surely a nation of people deserved a greater eulogy than that?
Bending over Anna to read the message, Alexei took the pad with him saying, 'I'll ring direct.' He was due a break, though he doubted if he was going to find this much of a rest. His finger had picked out half the series of numbers before he cancelled and corrected with a different sequence. The phone was lifted before the second ring and he recognised the voice instantly. He regretted both the sequence and the voice that answered.
'Moira, how are you coping?'
'Best I can, Alex. Val's still with me. He's being very supportive; a good friend. He's staying for another week before, like the rest of us, he retires.' She hesitated, nothing was coming out as she intended. She had to choose her words carefully. 'Alex I have two attaché cases here. They came with us when I left the White House. I can't see me having any use for them so I wondered if there was anything special you would like done with them.'
'Better to keep them for now.’ he suggested.
'Alex, why would I want them? There's one I used, the other’s impossible to get into. I know you’ll understand when I tell you I'm finished. These cases have no further use.'
This revelation shocked Varbagin to the point where his voice faltered. 'Moira, please keep it.'
'No Alex, I can't see it going with my new lifestyle. There’s an action that should have been relayed to you. I'll pass it over to you now.'
'Moira forget the message, but please reconsider and keep the case. Just the one, the other we'll take out of the loop.'
'Alex, this's not up for discussion. Now do you want this relay? I think you should.'
'Not particularly, I wouldn't be able to respond sensibly.'
'I think you have to. It’s for you to decide when it's over. I'm relaying it now then for me it’s over.'
Alexei's sigh was long and very sad, 'Moira please reconsider.'
'Nothing to consider, Alex. It's what I want. .'
Maybe she was right. Perhaps the time had come to close it all down and seal up the loose ends. Perhaps, in view of this development, he should get Moira across to him where it could all be done in a controlled manner. He cursed his old friend for costing him more than he'd ever been prepared to spend. 'All right Moira, just give me a few day's to get everybody prepared.'
'Alex, they're going now.'
'Then confirm with me, Moira, as soon as the cases are where you want them to be. Get Val to take them at least a mile from the house. I'll keep my one on standby till you ring back.'
'Alex, you're going on like and old woman.'
'Moira!' The buzz telling him the line was dead

Moira was Stygian. He'd never guessed and more to the point, wouldn't have wanted to. That had been a bad move of Jim's. Suspecting someone close he'd always given the benefit to Val. But Moira? She shouldn’t have been involved; never been tarnished or compromised. And she'd kept it well hidden. Under that straight woman-friend exterior there had to be a discipline of iron to be the Stygian she had been. Alexei allowed her a moment of pride then found a deeper sense of regret swamping it. He’d lost his two best friends only to find one had an identical twin you didn't feel comfortable with.

Moira gave a last glance at the cases she'd placed by the Shaker washstand. Both items were equally Spartan and functional, but there was an honesty to the one that the other would never match. She gave herself another twenty minutes before getting back to Alex. Time to ring Val on the mobile and add a few more ‘necessities’ to his shopping list. She made a pot of tea and sat with it on the veranda, smelling the new mown grass and softly running her fingers over the dollar Alex had given Val to return to her. She stole another two minutes then had to wait another five before Alex could talk to her.'
'Moira, have they gone to where you want them?'
'Yes.' she lied.

The explosion shredded the house and brought an early fall to the surrounding trees. Even the honesty of the Shaker stand didn't preserve it. Alexei calmly pressed the desk button and told Anna he definitely wasn't to be disturbed before turning round to a wall that wouldn't care how much a grown man cried. Knowing now there was nobody he could ever share with, he felt the loneliest man on earth

Letting out a sigh that seemed to erupt from his soul, he asked Anna to bring him the latest status on the dumps being capped in Africa, the radioactive read out on Bombay and the Arabian Sea along with the oil production schedules. Tomorrow he was acting as host to the first meeting of the D.W.G. Everything had gone to plan except for Japan. Not surprising since Isheda had always been their weakest link and, unlike Christiani and the others, had never managed to foster the aura of being the obvious successor. Still there was little Tokyo could do other than accept him, for now. Tonight he'd spend some time refreshing his memory on their legends before reviewing the candidates for the primary satellite states.

What started as a quiet celebration, turned sombre as they watched the playback of the disastrous Bombay summit. They were catching up on things as a family along with Captain Inego Shanks. Already a friend of Rab and Lyn's, the rest felt that Ego, as he insisted on being called, had earned a special place for being their liberator. That and the fact that he was a real friendly bloke and required by the base commander, Colonel “Metal”McCabe, to act as their castellan and oversee their restricted movements within the base. A duty that would force him to be aboard Whisperwind when they slipped out of the jetty and on round to Porto Moniz in the morning. Glen and Antony cried off the trip, asking Ego if they could access all the data the base had on the plague and, once the were told the reason for the jabs, source anything he could find on locusts and the use of a lab. Ego said he’d do what he could, but Rab chipped in saying it would be better if they kept to the RAF end, and left to set it up with his boss.

That's how it started. A quiet private gathering after a high but not an easy day. You couldn't help but be stung by the President's words, made all the more poignant by the nuclear wipe out. You wanted to know everything. How it happened? What had happened and where? And what was happening now? Impatient for the answers you wanted to hear, you interrupted the negative or the speculative, unless it was Glen or Antony. Then found the questions you were chasing were much the same as those being asked of you. Only questions about the island got anything like answers with the authority of fact.

Madeira always had the toasted look. From the light wholemeal to the bitter charred black. But now the soothing sheen of greenery and the brilliance of petals that usually camouflaged this sombriety was gone. It was the reason for the grounded planes, Ego's warning not to wear white, and the aroma that Bess had sensed beating in the wind.

The super tanker, Arrona, had beached at her full cruising speed off Camara de Lobos, breaking her back and rupturing her tanks in the process. From the shore it had looked like a sedate, but inept, piece of pilotage. The screaming tear of metal traced by steam and muted by water, left the onlookers with crossed fingers, until the visceral gunge haemorrhaged to the surface. Regarding it as a disaster, until they learned the probable reason for the beaching, the authorities asked the base to ignite the crude. They had, then watched an even more deadly cloud approaching from the south. It had sensed the putrid fog and veered back to Africa's mass. For two days the combination of prevailing wind and black smoke belching over Funchal and the east of the island had kept lungs croaking but hoping, until it veered to the southeast. It was the west and the base that gained its doubtful benefit now. Leaving the blackened east exposed while the cliffs of Girao turned into a two thousand foot flume, spewing the smoke into an impenetrable curtain where it was least needed.

American and British pilots had flown continuously through the murk, blind on take off and landing, pinning faith on instruments till they emerged like crows from chimney pots. Funchal had to be the centre of resource, the hotels commandeered as dormitories and medical posts. Wagons, coaches and carts, anything that could be loaded and moved had drums of fuel stacked aboard and were driven towed or pushed to form a barrage along the Avenue of the Sea; a barrage that had to be continuously replenished. It looked formidable to those who built it, until they saw the density and strength of the besieging horde. Then the fierce heat from the fuel looked flimsy, a travesty of hope. Once the fuel ran out and the last plane settled back on the earth, there was nothing to be done but hope the whim of the wind would swing back from the west. Maybe that's the only way to pray, when the saving and forgiveness is asked for all, because it worked.

For the surviving islanders, life was about as normal as it was going to get for some time. Between the base and hotels they’d enough food in freezers to last ten days, provided they'd fuel to run the generators. Dick’s question on whether they’d checked the Arronas fuel tanks? Getting a coy smile between Ego and Rab and Ego reaching for the phone; so ten days then. Drink had to be from a can or bottle, leaving a community of grateful survivors already tiring of carbonated pop and beginning to long for the flat, sour hit of tea or coffee. Pure water seemed so far out as to be not worth considering. Life, they were told, was beginning to find a normalcy, but their celebration felt like a wedding sneaked in between funerals.

Maybe that was why it started quietly before erupting into the ceildith it became. Perhaps they'd enough of crying: for the families of the two planes they'd lost; for the people of Funchal, Santa Cruz and Santana who'd lost out. For the dots of farms and clustered houses that could still be hiding their dead; for the miracle voice that would say their New York parents, their Chippenham aunts, their Edinburgh uncle, Arkansas sister or gay San Francisco brother was alive. Whisperwind and its crew was the proof that it could happen. They had enough of the soot that would cling in their minds long after it had gone from the earth. Somebody was alive to arrive. Somebody had a reason to celebrate? They all had reason to celebrate. So they hoe-downed, rocked, bopped, twisted, shimmied and shaked, strathspeyed and reeled till sweat stung their eyes, dripped cold down their backs and had trousers and skirts being nipped from between sodden buttocks.

By one in the morning exuberance had sunk from drunken melancholy to sentimental slush. Ego Shanks had a heart that waxed romantic and had primed Rab with enough whisky for him to agree to play the pipes. If Rab managed to play at all, and Dick's memory wasn't fading, whatever tune he started would be played endlessly until he crossed his hazy Rubicon and crashed out. Your only hope, for it to be a tune you liked. It seemed his memory was still functioning.
'What's the tune he's playing, Mr Carter?' Ego slurred as he threw himself down next to him.
'Drop the Mr Ego it's Dick, and the tune he's slaughtering is supposed to be, We're A Wearin Awa Jean. It'll probably haunt you for the rest of your days.'
Ego mouthed the title a couple of times then had a go in Maori. However to Dick's and, he suspected Lynn and Mary's relief, Rab's playing was having the desired effect. Revellers were wearin awa to their beds and, for the lucky ones, each other's arms. Earlier he'd promised a sober Ego to organise the escorting of Antony and Glen back to their quarters. Glen and Antony had already gone, and Deek, completely gone, had crawled to a halt beneath young Sal's bed leaving Dick to escort Ego. He didn't mind, though Ego was more weight than his lean frame promised. Jamming the Captain's hat to his own head, they launched into the six hundred metre waltz to the quarters. Dick was happy. Happy to be able to drink, and dance a drunken friend home. To talk of nothing but owls and pussycats and going to a pea green sea in a looking glass. Which reminded him, he needed to pee his own sea. So he did, and Ego joined him in a union of relief; Shoulder to shoulder, sway to sway, they sighed, shook, then tucked away under a tinkly sky.

Dick started humming the pipe tune, and was joined in a serious but spasmodic way by Ego. At the door of their quarters, Ego drew himself to attention to salute Dick goodnight, searched for the words, then grinning maniacally dropped unconscious. He didn't leave Dick much option but to tip him on Deek’s cot, throw a sheet over him, and then consider going back to Rab and Lyn's apartment and flake out on whatever seating Bob had left for him. It was that or settle for the night in the quarters easy chair. He decided on the chair, swinging it round so his back was to the snoring throats and positioning the low table for his legs. On a whim, he went over to Ego and eased him out of his uniform jacket, searching through it for cigarettes and a light, and then used the jacket as a blanket. Dick sank back in the chair, listening to the snores puncturing air in and out of sync, smoking his first cigarette in half a lifetime and wishing it was a cigar. At least there was one benefit to the crusty soot covering the island; by decimating the bugs, it allowed the windows to be open. Stubbing out the cigarette as sleep stole over him, he didn't think he'd make a habit of them. The last thing he remembered was the smell of Ego's head when the hat tipped over his eyes, and thinking, there are moments in life when everything made sense.

He was still in the same position when a hand shoke his shoulder from a land further away than Nod. Squinting against the sun and pain, his brain somersaulted at finding the room filled with uniforms. It was the voice that allowed him to home in on direction rather than his eyes.
'What time did you get back here Carter?'
'Difficult to say.' Looking around he knew there was a problem by the way Deek was staring wild-eyed at him. 'What's up Deek?'
Deek couldn't manage an answer, other than to nod his head towards the cots while his eyes welled with confusion. Dick’s brain began to focus. 'Colonel McCabe? Sorry, I though it was Ego, er, Captain Shanks.'
The rage spat from McCabe. 'Difficult for him Carter. He's dead. Killed in the same professional manner as Shafner and Morice.'
'What!' One of the uniforms helped him to stay upright. Kept supporting him as he fought for control to struggle over to the cots. Glen had a pool of coagulated blood in his right ear; on Antony it was the left. Both had a second wound drilled through the nape of the neck. None looked serious enough for more treatment than a band-aid, until McCabe, seeing his perplexity, slipped his pencil into Antony's ear; all the way in. Dick felt his stomach heave and spewed his gut dry.
McCabe seemed to relish his discomfort. 'Small calibre. Keeps it nice and tidy, and it's still in there.'
The outline of Ego's face, combined with his heaving gut, stopped Dick from making the pilgrimage to his cot. He didn't want to see a pencil probing into an open mouth and he'd the feeling McCabe wasn't too interested at the moment on anything he wanted.
'Consider yourself under arrest Carter.'
'Bullocks man. You can't believe I'd any thing to do with this?'
McCabe shrugged. 'What's to believe? They're dead and you're still breathing. They've each got a couple a holes in them and you haven't a scratch. How am I to know my man wasn't a convenient patsy for something you had going with the other two?'
Dick felt an instant dislike towards this metal mickey but knowing his brain wasn’t in combat mode or mood, confined his defence to, ‘Fuck off. Idiot.’
‘Carter I’d advise you to consider your position and keep a civil tongue in your head. We’re under martial law and that means on this base I’m god. I could convene the court and have you tried, convicted and shot before sundown.’
Dick didn’t know where it came from, nor how he could, but he laughed, ‘McCabe, get somebody with more than one brain cell to repeat what you have just said and I might believe your serious.’
McCabe turned to his men, ‘Cuff him and throw him in solitary.’
Dick sought out Deek, ‘Go and tell Bob and Rab what’s happened and tell Rab I’d like to see his senior officer,’ then turning to McCabe. ‘C’mon then, lets see your metal, trick or treat is it?’

Being in solitary was almost a relief, except when the mash of grief and anger crashed in, he had time to think. He despised his anger for denying him the freedom to grieve and the grief for forcing him to consider if there was more to come, and how much? Imaginings of Ruth, Adam and Co were too small a glimmer of hope over uncertainty, their price to high to be trusted to the whims of hope. Not that thinking gave him answers to the killings, only to consider his position and how to thin out McCabe’s case. Within an hour of him being locked up Wing Commander Bryce, Rab’s boss, came to see him. He hadn’t said much, other than to commiserate on his loss, and not to worry; there would be no kangaroo court. Somehow Bryce’s quite assurance helped Dicks thinking to stay on track. On the third day he was escorted to McCabe’s office, only a little confused when his escort cuffed him when they reached the admin block.

Dick disciplined himself by sticking to what he knew and saying nothing of what he thought. McCabe seemed to have come up with nothing, and continued to apply the same myopic pressure interspersed with claims of being under pressure himself. The good cop bad cop routine rolled into one, made all the more farcical by McCabe not being a cop. He constantly tried to prise a splinter of inconsistency from the blandest of statements. ‘No he couldn't be sure of the time. Between two and three o'clock was the best guess he could make. Yes they were alive. Because they were snoring. No he hadn't checked on Glen or Anthony, they were snoring. He'd dumped Ego on his bed and yes, all three were snoring or, at least, breathing. Ego's hat was already on his head, it was the easiest way to carry it. No, not Captain Shanks head, my head. No he hadn't thought of the blankets in the cupboard. Why should he, it was their first night? He hadn’t even looked in the cupboard. He just felt like a smoke and thought Ego'd be more comfortable out of the jacket. Why had he smoked, because he was winding down or something? He was drunk, they all were, and he just fancied one. Maybe it was only because he was drunk, to be stupid enough to smoke and not to think of cupboards and blankets, or going back to Rab and Lyn's. The hat because it was the only way to carry when his hands were full with the body that was usually under it. He remembered the smell of it when he fell asleep. No he couldn't remember why he'd remembered. No he didn't have a gun of any sort. For Christ's sake go find the killer, he’s loose on the base. No he didn't have any argument with Glen or Anthony. Even if he had it wouldn't be reason for killing them. You fucking moron, go find the fucking killer. No he didn't have a gun, didn't like handling them.’

McCabe opened a cabinet containing an arsenal of shotguns. Dick sighed and explained they belonged to Bob and the reason they were aboard. Besides there was nothing in the cupboard that would match the wounds. McCabe said he didn't expect there would be; that the weapon was probably lying on the seabed. And, given the state he was in, he couldn’t have made it to the shore? After that Dick decided there wasn't anything he could say that wouldn't disappoint McCabe. And Dick, not knowing why that should be, decided he couldn’t give a fiddlers fart.

He began to wonder if the search of Whisperwind had included the papers Antony and Glen had worked on; and if those, in conjunction with their intention of using the base hospitals lab to start tests on the locust carcasses had anything to do with their deaths. But the papers didn't appear and nothing was mentioned of them. When Mary was allowed to visit him he’d cautioned her to say nothing of WREC and to tell Bob and Deek not to either. It seemed Dicks attempt had failed, reaching into his file McCabe pulled out two fax sheets and spread them in front of Dick. The fax spelt out all their connections. Dick was asked if he appreciated the niceties and not so niceties of being under martial law.
Dick shrugged. 'No, not really, but I gather it can cut a lot of corners.'
McCabe nodded. 'Only the corners that aren't essential. Tomorrow the bodies are to be flown to Portugal for a full post mortem. It will be done in conjunction with the Portuguese authorities who will act as neutrals. Until we get their findings you are free to go. By that…'
Dick interrupted, 'Free within the base.'
McCabe's glower was that of a predator who didn't mind the kill so much as the fact he hadn't been nourished by it. 'You're not out of it yet, Carter. Even your friends in Washington won't be able to help if I find anything that sticks.'
Dick couldn't think of any friends he had in Washington, unless it was Schultz. 'There's nothing to find where you're looking Colonel McCabe and I can't believe you don't already know that. We were friends who worked together in WREC and the only reason we came here was because of my brother's family. We arrived, were checked out and naturally decide to have a celebration. That night three people I regarded as friends are shot and, by freak chance, one of them is your man when it should have been me. The question I would like answered is why the farce of the last three days? Why the concentration on me instead of a full scale murder hunt?'
McCabe tapped the file of papers in front of him. 'Every man on the base has been questioned, including your relations and we carried out a thorough search. You have to remember Carter, the situation we're currently in. We have no forensic facilities and little to no chance of getting any sent out. The killer was obviously a professional and by now, assuming he's confined to the island, any weapon or evidence will probably have been tossed. None of that stopped me having the whole base searched, along with all the waste and clean up dumps. As I said, we’ve taken it about as far as we can here.'
'You still have a killer on the loose, McCabe.'
'And maybe I'm still looking at him Carter.'
'Colonel, if I thought for a moment you believed that I might doubt your sanity but understand your actions. As it is, I think you have been using me as bait.'
McCabe straightened the file that had wandered a millimetre off square on his desk. 'Carter, what was there to stop you shooting all three, getting rid of the weapon, then setting yourself up with the no alibi of the innocent?'
'Only three facts. No reason, no weapon and not capable.'
'I've only your word on that.'
'And only a warped mind would believe the other.'

Seeing Mary and Bob arrive at the outer office Dick started to leave. 'Colonel, I don't know the procedure but Glen Shafner was a bachelor and I never heard him mention family. Anthony had parents but he hadn't been able to contact them. You'll know more than I do about Ego. I'm asking if there is anything arranged for their burial. If not I'd be pleased to cover it.'
'Carter you're in cuckoo land. You have to be a president or pope to get a private funeral now. Once the post mortem's done they'll be cremated or buried where they are.'
'Then I, and I'm sure the others, would like to pay our respects before they're taken away.'
'The plane's scheduled to land around eleven hundred hours tomorrow. Shouldn't take more than two hours to off load the fuel it's bringing. Around one you can pay all the respects you like as the bodies are being loaded.'

Dick hadn't much to say that night. It was difficult to feel private in Rab and Lyn's overcrowded apartment. Eventually he locked himself into Sally's room and squeezing his legs under her desk began to write. Two hours later he slipped the sheets from Sal’s sketching pad into a large manila envelope without bothering to check them over. He didn't know if they would serve a purpose, or do any good because he'd no connections, just a gut feeling there was some game still being played. He'd only one tendril that at times was solid enough to hang his theories on, and, at others, thinned to the consistency of paranoia. Yet, when everything finally pointed to its irrelevance three people had been executed. What the hell did the ratio of humans to insects matter now? They'd had their cull and insects don't shoot. Then there was metal mickey McCabe. Why should he have him squirming as the prime suspect, while telling Bryce, he was being held for his own protection? Supposedly he’d hinted they should create a cover story to the effect that Carter had been killed. Bill Bryce hadn't thought that a sound idea, though he did have thoughts on the pressure McCabe claimed he was under. Thoughts he passed on the Rab and Lyn and the reason for Sal staying with friends, the two automatic pistols they took home and Dick addressing the envelope for Bryce's attention.

There was no ceremony when the bodies were loaded on the plane. Only some tears for old and new friends who were now ageless. There was nothing from McCabe as he left them, fully decked in his flying suit, striding with his attaché case to the freshly fuelled F18 fighter. He'd been recalled to the Pentagon, leaving Bill Bryce in command. Cupping their ears, they watched his plane thunder down the runway and thrust into the sky. 'Good riddance' was all Rab said.

McCabe felt the tension leave as the G force squeezed in. Madeira was beneath and behind his planes belly when he reached his cruising altitude and speed and switched to autopilot. He gave himself another twenty minutes of freedom before struggling to set his solitary piece of luggage on his lap and put his fingers on the print locks.

President Varbagin was deep in discussion with President Christiani in his Oval Office when the insistent warble interrupted. 'Excuse me one moment Eric and I'll attend to this.'

McCabe started humming to himself. After all it had been a mistake anybody could have made; he frowned when the digits appeared in a sequence he’d never used. His death was instant, normally recorded by a blip disappearing from a screen; only the screen was already blank from the lack of power

Mary and Dick had the apartment to themselves for the afternoon. Bob had taken everyone else down to Whisperwind to help him take it round to the mooring at Moniz. It was pressing now because sometime tonight they expected the first supply ship to arrive. In the week since they'd watched McCabe strut his stuff to his plane and Bryce had put Operation Succour in motion, this was their first break. They’d collected survivors and set up tents all over the base. The children were concentrated on, nothing dramatic, just holding warm limp hands and trying to coax them to respond. Walking them round the camp and other pools of survivors hoping they'd be scooped up by family or at least recognised and identified. Some cry of joy, often only from a neighbour or family friend, but no less from the heart would give them back hope. The most dramatic moments were when families were reunited. There were too few of them.

For most of the men, Deek included, there were no dramatic moments. Just drudgery that visor’s the mind against the whims and cruelties of fate, a shutter that couldn't blank out the memories except to hold back the tears, because you knew you hadn't enough to share round. Day and day about, one on burial duty, the next searching for life and hauling out death. Dick said nothing, but in a week of exposure he hadn't felt threatened once. Maybe that meant nothing, but if Deek had done as he'd been told, it would have been him in the cot that night. And he and Ego might have gone someplace else to flake out and Deek wouldn't be around to act as Bess's mate, Sal's pony, or to bend Rab and Lyn's ears with supersonic questions on planes and qualification and how long, how much, how old? It looked like Bob wouldn't have him for too long on the farm. But most of all, on this sad, sooted, sunny island, there were shoots to be seen, there was hope. Faith would take longer; trust, perhaps never. Certainly, they hoped, not in the demi-gods of corrupted power and values they’d allowed free rein in the past. Dick mused on the speculations Glen and Antony had offered one night they were enjoying a cockpit drink.

Schistocerca gregaria, Antony had given as their Latin name, the desert locust. He’d explained how, in conditions that left them with space they would actively avoid other locusts, but crowd them together and they change behaviour and begin to actively aggregate. They also change colour during this stage from green to a fragmented pinkish grey and by treating their eggs with a foam secreted from their reproductive glands, believed to contain pheromones, the hatchlings would also be gregarious. Glen had butt in at this stage, ‘Just so you get the picture, this’s is all fairly recent findings. Infact it wasn’t until the 1920’s that we learnt the solitary and the gregarious were the same breed. They’re fascinating; one of natures survivors and when they’re in gregarious mode their colour warns off predators because their guts full of toxins.’
Bob had asked, ‘So it could be down to them, the sickness Jon was telling us?’
Both Antony and Glen shook their heads. Antony answering, ‘Very, very doubtful. It would have to be their waste and that, or they, would have to be ingested. Perhaps the starving would eat them; they have in the past. But I can’t see a European regarding them as the new escargot, and to kill a man? Certainly not that quick.
‘Couldn’t all this global climate change not effect them? Make them more toxic? And couldn’t the successes of WREC; more crops, more vegetation couldn’t that have encouraged them to breed like buggary?’
Glen shook his head, ‘Could’s a mighty big word to say no to Dick; but my guess it’s too quick for the first and we would have had time to notice the second. Anyway you cut it, this has been engineered, and we’re the only specie capable of doing that.’
It was Mary who broke the silence, ‘This gregarious and solitary differences you were telling us. Does that mean when they’ve a lot of space to live in they’re practically benign?’
Antony nodded, ‘A lot of space and sufficient food and you would be hard pressed to class them as more than a minor irritant.’
‘Not so different from humans then?’
At the time Dick had smiled with the rest at the witticism But perhaps Mary’s comment had more sagacity than wit

'What's going to happen now?' Mary asked laying herself beside him on the lounger.
'What would you like to happen, girl?'
'Difficult to say. Do you want the easy or the hard first?'
'Give me the easy. I'm not sure if I'm up to the hard.'
'Sodding well better be, Carter.'
Dick's grin implied he'd misinterpreted.
'Not that, you lecherous goat.'
Dick found his hard done by look. 'All right, what then?'
'From now on I only want the happy ever after.'
'No problem. Now what's the hard?'
'It has to be with other happy ever afters.'
Couldn't argue with that. Couldn't promise it either; only go for it. 'Home?' he asked.
Mary smiled. 'When they remove the travel restrictions and we can fly. And if we're all ready. No rush.'
'Which one?'
'Told you. Where the happy ever afters are.'
'You want me to try ringing Adam?'
'Uh uh. Not yet.' She realised that she didn't want to hear a phone ring and ring when there was so much hope attached to it being answered. 'For now let's just enjoy what we have.'
Keeping his eyes out to sea, Dick studied it all the way to its northern horizon. No, a definite not. The Grange was solid, insectocuted, security shuttered and internally shuttered. Crews had survived to fly planes and crew ships. Adam was a survivor. He had the stamina and savvy to see them through. Sod the phone, that could be anything.

No doubt about it, not from where they stood. High on the hill, waiting for the new world to find its feet and come around. Turning his head to kiss Mary, Dick prayed he was right. He wanted to hug Ruth and become a godfather.

And I looked, and behold a pale horse; and his name who sat on him was Death, and hell followed with him. And power was given unto them over the fourth part of the earth, to kill with the sword, and with hunger, and with death, and with the beasts of the earth."

Revelations. Chapter 6:8.

It is arrogance for humanity to believe it is the end of 


© EoinTaylor


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