The jump took the boy back to a very different place. Instead of the crystal sunshine of a warm summer afternoon, clouds of grey smoke blocked out the light, making it impossible to know what time of day it was. The fresh salt air carried on the coastal winds was gone and in its place was the smell of burning tar. The fumes crawled inside Winston Young’s throat and he began to cough.
The jump had been a good one; it had gotten Winston to within a couple of miles of the drop-off point. He had emerged on a hill overlooking the remains of the town. Winston knew this place. Even though there had been inevitable changes since he had last been here, Winston was able to pick out a few landmarks. In its time the town had carried strategic importance but now all that remained were the crumbling avenues of shattered masonry with the long, twisting arms of buckled metal that reached up into the skies like bizarre sculptures. The scene reminded Winston of the photographs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki he had seen in his history lessons.
And yet there was life among the ruins. Movement. Hazy figures in the smoke with faces wrapped in strips of cloth, powdery dust rising like steam from their ragged clothing. These people were scavengers, survivors of whatever had happened in this place. Looking for anything of value that could be sold on the black market: a strip of metal… Old, tattered clothing… Burned out electric components. Everything had its price.
Before he left the hotel, Winston had discarded his porter’s uniform and was now back in full combat gear: a grey canvas jumpsuit, pockets bulging with ammo and weapons ranging in sophistication from the soundless A-16 that he had used to kill Slater to a small pocket knife that Winston kept for absolute emergencies. Like many, Winston always felt nauseous after a jump. The effect of the best part of a month in the field, eating and drinking foods that tasted of mud and slime did not help matters. Moments after arrival, Winston was relieved to be able to rid himself of a few of these noxious substances. Nobody paused to assist him as he emptied his guts into the dust. People around here knew better than to approach a Grey – especially one so young.
Winston checked his watch: the date read 16 June and the time three-thirty but he could not be completely sure of its accuracy. Winston began walking. His first priority was to find Morris and let him know that the mission had been a success. Winston was anxious to get his money. And to get rid of Slater’s head.
Slater’s head was stored in a small portable cold box that was handcuffed to Winston Young’s wrist for safekeeping. Winston didn’t know if he was actually prepared to lose a hand in order to protect his property, but then nobody had so far been willing to put him to the test. Winston had been bred to feel no compassion but he nevertheless felt a slight pang of regret when he thought about the person whose head he carried with him. Before embarking on this mission. Winston had studied Slater’s file meticulously. It was an unusually large file, testament to the success and longevity of its subject. It was a pity to lose somebody of Slater’s calibre; men like Slater were few and far between. Slater was a brother. In another life the two men might even have been allies.
Winston walked on for several miles, oblivious to the sights, sounds and smells of the ruined town. There was nothing here that he hadn’t seen before. Other than the scavengers he saw few people in the streets; anyone who appeared brave enough to approach him was quickly deterred by the sight of his hand moving towards the A-10 strapped around his waist. The town was in even worse shape than Winston remembered: the last time he had passed through here there had been roads… cars… even the odd person out shopping. But all of that was gone. Most of the buildings had collapsed and the piles of rubble had been systematically picked apart and carted away to be bartered or sold. This place had once been a thriving cultural centre with shops, restaurants, cinemas and hotels similar to the one Winston just left. Something had happened to change things.
In the middle of town the burned out remains of a huge tower jutted out into the sky, its metal girders buckled and melted almost beyond recognition. It was, however, a landmark of sorts – something to aim for. Winston had not been given precise directions to the pick-up point, that would have been impossible – he had simply been told to head for the largest man-made structure he could see. Sure enough, Morris was waiting nearby. Winston spotted him skulking in the chalky debris. Like Winston, he wore the uniform of a Grey – although he certainly could not be described as such. Winston had already dealt with this man on three other occasions and knew he was not to be trusted. Winston approached Morris warily, his muscles tensed, ready to react.
“You’re late, kid,” said Morris. “I’ve been waiting for three days.”
David Griffin felt a sudden urge to stop and look around him as he walked along Mayor Street. His eyes fell upon the drab frontage of the Phoenix Hotel, mock Georgian covered in garish signs. He had no idea why he was drawn to this building – he walked down this street most weekdays and had never before given the place a second glance. What’s the matter?” asked Mary Simms, walking beside him sucking a cigarette. “You’re looking weird again.”
“I dunno,” said Griffin. “For a moment I had the strangest feeling… Like someone was watching me.”
“They probably were. You know that the temperature of your skin changes whenever somebody looks at you? It’s because of the light being reflected from the other person’s eye. You subconsciously sense the change in temperature and you get that creepy feeling.”
“Well somebody must have been looking at me, then. Either that or I’m going to have to stop drinking…”
Winston Young wasn’t interested in what Morris had to say. He just wanted his money. And he wanted to rid himself of the heavy box that was handcuffed to his wrist. There were too many people like Morris, filling the empty space with jabber and mock-friendliness, doling out gossip and hearsay like cheap candy. “They say there have been three actions during the past fortnight alone,” said Morris, ignoring the other man’s glazed expression. “Two minor and one that took out a whole city…”
“Keep your bullshit to yourself,” said Winston.
“One minute it was there and the next it wasn’t… A whole population simply disappeared into thin air. Think of it Winston. Think about all those women you could have ass-fucked. All those women and children. All gone… forever and ever amen.”
“My money. Where is it?”
Morris stopped talking and looked over at Winston in disdain. “Money,” he said, shaking his head theatrically. “Who wants to talk about money when the world is crumbling away before our very eyes?”
Winston guessed that Morris could not have been any older than twenty-nine. Old for someone who wore the uniform of a Grey. Old enough for the years to have carved into his features a pretty accurate representation of the sort of man Morris was. Morris was a middleman kept on a retainer by the agency. He evidently wasn’t the sort to place himself in danger – the lack of any scars on his face was testament to this – but he apparently had no problem in accepting more menial tasks such as this. He’d take this type of job on at a moment’s notice: go here, pick up this, drop off that. It wasn’t exactly challenging work. Morris was little more than a courier with a gun, permitted to wear the uniform because of who he worked for not who he was. Morris was also an addict. Winston had already spotted the telltale markings under his eyes and on his cheeks. Probably Dellamite… At the very least VCA. That was why Morris was not to be trusted. It was also what made him dangerous.
“That’s all it is to anyone,” said Winston. “Everything I do I do for money – so do you. You’ll be getting your cut from this, too.”
“It could be us next, kid. It could be you… The world is a fucked up place.”
“Who gives a shit? You wouldn’t know anything about it anyway.”
“Oh but I would, kid. I’m sure of it.”
“Just give me my money.”
Winston opened the cold box and flashed its contents at the other man. Morris reached into his own bag and pulled out a hypodermic. He inserted its thick needle into Slater’s shattered skull and took a sample of chilled brain tissue. This was not the first time that Morris had done this task. Morris pulled out a small lab kit and tested the sample. He waited for a few moments and declared: “It’s positive.” Then he turned and ran.
The first rock hit Winston on the corner of the head and staggered him. He managed to avoid the second one that was thrown. For the briefest moment Winston was in shock but then his conditioning kicked in. A quick look around told Winston that there were six – no seven – figures emerging from the rubble surrounding the tower. All were scavengers, their faces hidden beneath strips of rag. Some of them were brandishing guns – old-fashioned, antiquated looking guns such as the ones used by cowboys in old westerns. As blood dripped down from his head wound Winston took aim and easily picked off three of them. They hit the ground like sides of beef, smoke billowing from their fatal wounds.
But somebody was behind Winston. He whirled around and was dazzled by a bright flash; suddenly his right shoulder was on fire. Winston’s instinct was to feel for the wound with his good hand, find out how bad it was but instead he sought out the A-10 and began shooting in an arc around him. Several more of his ambushers dropped like stones but one managed to crawl along the ground to within touching distance. Before Winston could react the man stuck a knife into his calf. The pain was intense. Winston let out a howl and kicked out at the man, shooting him dead as he cowered on the ground.
Now more hands were upon Winston and he felt the gun snatched from his grip. Another knife slashed at him, this time at his good hand, and Winston was dragged to the floor under a pile of bodies. Winston could smell their breath and hear their grunts of exertion. Once on the ground they set about him. Quickly emptying his pockets of weapons, bludgeoning his face with their fists and kicking out at his panting body. Then, as Winston felt his consciousness begin to wane, he saw the long carving knife and realised what they planned to do with it.
From someone within the chaos Winston heard the distant voice of Morris: “Take care with the head, I’ve told you… Don’t damage the head.”
Winston felt the blade cut into his wrist. Through electric jolts of pain he fumbled for the abort button. Every Grey was required to carry an abort button. It was usually to be found in a pocket or sometimes strapped to the thigh. It was compulsory. In their line of work there were inevitably occasions when a swift exit was called for. This was one such occasion.
“Stop him!” cried Morris. “Stop him!”
Winston’s bleeding fingers found the button. He jumped.
The bundle of bodies that pinned him to the floor melted away into nothingness and Winston sucked in huge mouthfuls of air. His pulse was racing and the adrenaline had temporarily dulled the pain. The jump lasted only a split second and Winston found himself lying in lush, green grass. A gentle breeze blew against his face and the sound of running water could be heard close by. Winston’s attackers were gone and he was safe for the time being. The pain kicked in and through the agony, Winston found himself thinking about Morris, thinking about what he was going to do to him when he caught up with him. Morris was going to die a slow and painful death. He would be howling for his mother before Winston was finished with him.
Right now, however, Winston had more urgent things to think about. He realised this as he tried in vain to pull himself to his feet. The Jump had been unplanned. Random. He’d had no time to select a location. Winston knew that he could be anywhere right now. He had to think fast.
Again Winston’s conditioning took over. While his eyes scanned the surroundings for any potential danger, Winston felt for his wounds, mentally calculating how much of him was left that could be called into action in an emergency. He knew immediately that his condition was not good. Blood was coursing from wounds to his right shoulder and to both hands. One… no two of his ribs was cracked or broken and blood from the gash on his forehead was streaming into his eyes. Of greatest concern was the wrist that his attackers had tried to slice their way through. They must have severed an artery. Winston tried again to stand and for a moment forgot that he still had the cold box chained to his wrist. The metal handcuff dug into his damaged wrist causing the blood to flow faster. Like a wounded animal, Winston let out a shriek of pain. Then post-traumatic stress hit him and Winston began to sob.