In the late twenty-first century, as the first fusion plants came online and advanced robotics transformed global industries during the “Golden Decade,” it truly looked as if the world was set to make the transition away from fossil fuels with elegant ease. Russia, fooled like so many others by this idiot optimism, negotiated an alliance with the European Union and, along with North Africa, a conglomeration was formed that ultimately became Pan Europa. However, Russia, by controlling gas reserves and oilfields, still wielded a big stick, and thus came away from the negotiating table with huge concessions. In this way the massive industrial complexes and spaceports of the Pan Europan Space Agency were established at Minsk even before the Asian Coalition climbed aboard. Space missions were launched from there, thousands of satellites sent up, and it was there, too, that the dream of the colonization of Mars began to look like a reality. Meanwhile NASA, already moribund under its stifling level of bureaucracy, continued a steady decline, and the Russians, essentially, won a race that began with Sputnik’s first beep. Thirty years later people were actually living and working on the red planet, and Mars camouflage combats had become a must-have fashion item. Ten years after that, Minsk Spaceport began dying, however; sucked dry by a bureaucracy of an order of magnitude even bigger and greedier than NASA’s.
Var shut off communication with Ricard and focused instead on the advancing shepherd. As she saw it, she could not allow herself to fall into the Political Director’s power because, even though he had labelled her as essential, giving in to him would still lead to her certain death. They had been abandoned by Earth, and left here to die, but even so they still had energy from the fusion reactor, they had hydroponics and protein production, materials to utilize, and a hundred and sixty-two people, most of them very intelligent as well as highly skilled and motivated. Yes, they had problems over food, air and water production and usage and, yes, by killing off many personnel these could be eked out, but they would still eventually run out and those few remaining here would die. Better by far to apply all those useful minds to their present problems, since brainpower was all that could save them. Ricard had to be stopped.
Var tried to remember everything she knew about shepherds. Their purpose was utterly specific: they were devised to go into large crowds—riots in fact—and grab up ringleaders already targeted by the Inspectorate, whom the robots generally identified by their ID implants. Ricard had to know by now that Var had removed her implant and, since she wore an EA suit, the shepherd would not be using a facial recognition program to identify her. But then she guessed it wouldn’t be difficult for it to track her down, as it wasn’t as if she was taking part in a riot. The shepherd had probably been instructed to grab the only human around out here, so the moment she stepped out of the crawler it would have her.
She ran a diagnostic check on the crawler, and was soon examining a list of the damage on the computer screen. The deflated tyre could not reinflate since the pump was offline. Four-wheel drive was out, battery power low, and it seemed that the gearbox contained no lubricant. However, she could engage rear-wheel drive, circumvent the safety cut-out that prevented the gearbox from running, and there just might be enough power to get her all the way back. She performed these things, set the engine running, and the crawler started rolling forward just as the shepherd arrived.
The thing stopped directly ahead of the vehicle, and its adhesive gecko tentacles, hanging underneath its tick-like body, began writhing as if in anticipation. Var shivered, realizing she’d been frightened of these things from the very first time she’d seen one as a child. Certainly, other robots deployed by the Inspectorate were more effective and dangerous, like spiderguns or razorbirds, but the shepherds had established themselves in the public consciousness as the archetypal Inspectorate bogeymen. She floored the accelerator, a horrible grinding issuing from the gearbox as it spun up the rear wheels and sent the vehicle hurtling directly towards the shepherd. The steering wheel was nearly wrenched out of her hands, and she had to strain to keep it half a turn over to compensate for the flat tyre, for it now seemed the power steering was out too. The shepherd scuttled to one side, and allowing the wheel to slip from her grasp let the crawler skid towards it. With a reverberating clang she clipped one of its legs, but it danced to one side, then turned to keep pace with her as she continued towards the base. Of course, she hadn’t expected to bring it down, as the damned things were too agile and, anyway, part of their programming covered an ability to avoid ground vehicles directed against them.
After only two kilometres, her arms were aching and an overheat warning kept flashing up on the screen. She resented that. This vehicle was precisely the kind of machine they would desperately need over the coming years, and here she was wrecking its gear box. A further kilometre got her round Shankil’s Butte, and now she could see occasional glints of sunlight off polished metal or laminated glass windows. Only glimpses though, because a wind was now starting to pick up the dust again. Good, that should give the cover she needed.
If she entered the base’s garage, Ricard’s enforcers would certainly be waiting for her there, and if she parked outside the base and tried to leave the safety of the crawler in order to gain access some other way, the shepherd would grab her. She would have to be thoroughly ruthless to stop Ricard, and even as she drove with the shepherd loping along just to one side, she glanced back at the contents of the cargo section. Entering the base, she would become just one against Ricard, his five executives and twelve enforcers, and would be given no time to explain the situation to the others and recruit them to her cause. Miska, Lopomac and Carol would immediately be with her, and so would Kaskan once she told him how Ricard had ordered his wife shot: but Miska was certainly being held prisoner and quite likely Ricard had grabbed the other three also. She needed to even the odds, she needed weapons, but first she needed to get out of this crawler without being captured by the shepherd. And it seemed that Gisender and her range of tools provided the means for all of these objectives.
Antares Base rested in a natural dip in the landscape. After the failure of Valles Marineris base—the unfortunates who occupied it having found that rockfalls, even in the low gravity of Mars, became lethal when erosion dropped boulders the size of this crawler onto your home—this new location had been selected. The robots sent here had first cleared a runway to accommodate planes like the one she could now see over to her right. It was a great manta-winged thing of bubblemetal, perfect for flying in the thin atmosphere of Mars, but which would melt if it ever tried re-entry on Earth. Anyway, it was going nowhere, had been sitting there for five years.
Beyond this landing strip the robots had cleared another area of rocks, and then stolidly erected the first hexagonal building of the base, then the six wings extending from this, then Hexes Two and Three at the ends of two of these wings. Initially the entire structure had been just bonded regolith a third of a metre thick, with gaps left for windows and airlocks. These were then added, fabricated from bubblemetal and laminated glass, which were themselves refined from ores and silica sand mined from the surface, before the smaller robots moved inside to work on the rest. By the time the first personnel arrived here, the fusion reactor had been assembled and fired up. Hex Two, with its geodesic one-way glass roof to admit meagre sunlight and with internal sunlamps to complement that, was already up and running, with the hydroponics troughs inside already crammed with GM beans, cassava, sugar cane and other high-yield crops. Air and water were provided by a bore drilled down into an underground permafrost pocket—the water was cracked into oxygen and hydrogen, the latter fed straight into the fusion reactor. Hex One contained the laboratories, the artificial wombs and protein tanks, the community room and much else besides. Hex Three contained the garage, the reactor, spacious quarters for the political staff and Ricard himself, whilst everyone else occupied the dorms located along the six wings.
Soon Var was motoring past the partially constructed Hex Four, where an arboretum was to be established, though the new seed stock had never arrived. Here a block-making machine and a couple of construction robots stood idle, like big steel birds peeking out of their coop. Behind this, stretching in towards Hex One, lay Wing Six, but she did not turn in there, instead driving on past it towards Hex Three. As always, on viewing the base from outside, she got the impression of seeing something long-established and old. The bonded regolith was not sharp-edged and its colour varied from pale yellow to red-umber streaked with black. It had been bonded in blocks using a special epoxy resin, so the entire base looked like it had been built from stone hewn from the planet itself, perhaps by green giants with more than the usual complement of upper limbs, before they went off to do battle with some neighbouring tribe.
Ricard would probably assume she was heading for the garage, but would want to know what she was up to after she halted, therefore she must park the crawler well out of sight of any of those windows glinting like slabs of mica in the stonework. She chose a wall of the hex that faced in towards the centre of the base, where no windows had been made, and where a couple of large insulated water tanks had been erected. By now the overheat warning continued perpetually and the gearbox was making a sound like ball-bearings being rattled about in a tin can. Upon drawing the crawler to a halt, she noticed a haze of vapour in the cockpit, and bleeding out through the holes in the screen– smoke from that gearbox. The shepherd, obviously recognizing her only possible exit from the vehicle, strode round and squatted just beyond the airlock. Next the com light came on—Ricard wanting to talk to her.
Var stood up, rubbing at her arms. The left forearm, from which Miska had removed her ID implant, was particularly painful. Stepping into the rear of the crawler, she eyed the tools available. Gisender had taken out a saw with a circular, diamond-tipped blade, probably so as to quickly cut open the ducting that the fibre-optics had run through, also some hydraulic shears for severing the optics themselves. These would do nicely; but first there was the shepherd to deal with.
She opened the inner door to the airlock, which extended across the rear of the cargo compartment, unlocked the outer door and pushed it open just a little, and peered out. The shepherd immediately rose out of a crouch and drew closer, only a couple of metres away, and looming above. Even in the thin air she could hear the hissing sound its gecko tentacles made. She returned to the cargo compartment, bent over Gisender and hauled off the tarpaulin.
“I’m sorry about this,” she said, lifting up the corpse.
She shouldn’t feel so concerned about human bodies, for many had already gone through recycling here, along with the other waste, whilst more recent ones resided in a silo stored for when they would help make up the soil necessary for the arboretum. Manoeuvring Gisender’s body through the airlock itself was easy, though she did wonder if its lack of weight would be noticed. She then pushed the outer airlock door open, just enough to shove the dead woman outside. And the shepherd instantly pounced, its shiny legs clattering against the crawler, tentacles spearing down like the tongues of chameleons. Var held back for a moment as the arachnid machine retreated, then she moved forward to peer outside again. The shepherd was striding away, with Gisender tightly clasped against its underside, clearly with no idea that it had retrieved the wrong EA-suited human.
Var returned to the cargo compartment to pick up the diamond saw and its battery box. She took the shears too, though the saw ought to be enough. She needed to act quickly now, before Ricard discovered that his shepherd had only retrieved a corpse.
His other preparations, made after he completed the escape tunnel, were good, though Saul had been hoping not to need them. The dyke curved round for nearly a kilometre, the water in it growing fetid and the silkweed becoming a toxic orange. Glancing back, he could see a pillar of smoke rising from the abandoned bunker’s location and, worryingly, two shepherds patrolling around it. But only as he and Hannah moved into the shadow of a processing plant did he witness more aeros arriving.
The dyke carried the outflow from apparatus used for cleaning and preserving vegetables. He imagined that the orange tint of the water derived from the antiviral and antibacterial sprays used to extend shelf-life. That was not quite the organic dream of previous ages, but then, over the last century, and faced with the cold realities of trying to feed an out-of-control population, a great many of Earth’s dreams had been abandoned.
The outflow pipe ran out underneath a security fence, and many months ago he had cut through the bars of the grating at the near end of it and secured them again simply with ducting tape. It came away easily, and they proceeded through darkness, ankle-deep in toxic water, to an inspection hatch he’d previously altered so that it could now be opened from the inside.
“This way.” They crossed a carbocrete yard and skirted the looming silos and juice tanks, also the big storage barns beside which robotic harvesters were parked.
From here, when the season arrived, the great combines, diggers and sievers would depart to harvest the crops, before returning to pump, blow or otherwise convey their loads into the processing plant. Keeping in the lee of a wall made from blocks of bonded ash, the pair of fugitives moved round to the forecourt where lorries and tankers awaited. Some of these were robotic, but others of an older make required human drivers. All these took rapeseed oil and bamboo pulp to fuel plants and power stations respectively, vegetables to MegaMalls or other processing plants where they were further preserved, and cereal crops to be turned into all sorts of commodities. Saul knew, for instance, that the big bread factory in Suffolk used a great deal of bamboo pulp in its flour mix to bulk its products out.
“Over there.” He was heading for a nearby grain lorry when he noticed Hannah staring at something over by the fence. He glanced over that way too, but couldn’t figure out what had caught her attention until a swarm of flies rose up. Someone had obviously made it this far through the surrounding fields, and then been brought down at the fence.
“Why?” she asked, her voice choking.
It seemed an odd question to be asking him then and there, but then he himself had grown used to seeing the dead scattered across the agricultural landscape, and smelling the occasional stench arising some days after another desperate human being had fallen foul of readerguns or razorbirds.
“Because human life has been cheapened by its sheer number?” he suggested.
Hannah had no reply for that, so they now climbed up into the truck’s cab. He paused to watch as a robotic tanker pulled out of the forecourt, probably loaded with sugar syrup that had been processed here during last season.
“You can drive this?” Hannah asked him, her gaze still fixed on the fly-blown corpse clinging to the razormesh. “It won’t be picked up?”
“It’s always wise to be prepared,” he replied, reaching under the dashboard and pulling out the black box he’d stashed there previously, which was linked in to the truck’s computer. The click of a switch overrode the recognition system that allowed only approved drivers to operate the vehicle. He pressed the start button and, after the hydrogen turbine had wound up to speed, reversed the lorry round, before heading towards the compound gate. It opened automatically, and soon they were out on the all-but-empty motorway.
“So what other preparations have you made?” Hannah asked leadenly.
“I’ve got caches of useful items spread across Europe, as well as new identities I can assume. More in North Africa, too, in case things get really desperate.” He glanced at her. “But we definitely don’t want to go that route, as it would take us further away from where we ultimately want to go.”
“Minsk Spaceport,” she replied flatly.
The apartment Saul decided to use measured eight metres square. It possessed a small kitchen area, a combined toilet and shower, a motorized sofa bed and a home computer. One window overlooked the central megaplex of the residential block, and a screen window could run any view he selected, including ones from the numerous cams positioned on the block itself. Or at least it would if the screen was working. A single lighting array, also containing a community safety camera, was suspended from the ceiling. Generally, only complex computer programs kept watch on the inhabitant of this apartment, but if his behaviour strayed outside acceptable parameters, the visual and audio feed would instantly be diverted to a community political officer, for further assessment. Not everybody endured cameras like this one perpetually watching them, but then not everyone was considered a “societal asset” who needed constant supervision.
“Not your place, then?” Hannah remarked.
“Assigned to one of my reserve identities,” he replied. “Ownership is merely an anachronistic concept fostered by the anti-society dissident,” he quoted.
“So what’s your name now, citizen?” Hannah asked, as she paused by the door—holding it open, as he had instructed, with his altered keycard still in the slot.
“Kostas Andreas,” he replied, looking round.
“Very…Mediterranean,” she observed.
He nodded, pulled over a chair and stood on it to get at the safety camera, smearing the lens with a gobbet of rotten margarine he’d scraped from a pot in the fridge—which, in turn, had been automatically shut down by Block Control after its door hadn’t been opened for a specific time. Next he jammed a pen into the little microphone incorporated in the side of the camera and scrunched it around a few times. He then stepped down.
“Okay, you can close the door now.”
After doing so, she headed across to dump her holdall on the sofa and hand him back the keycard. “Are you sure that vandalism is not going to be a problem?”
“Cam service personnel are overstretched almost everywhere, but especially here.” He looked up at the device as the microphone spat out a spark—the cam now activating in an apartment that had registered vacant until Hannah removed the keycard. “They’ll detect the fault instantly, but then it’ll join a maintenance backlog over a month long.” He gazed at her steadily. “You have to understand that our masters are starting to give up on the whole idea of constant surveillance and ideological correction. They’ll only be reinstated when our numbers are sufficiently reduced for them to again be effective.”
She nodded, looking slightly sickened by the thought, then threw herself down on the sofa. He’d already told her about this Straven Conference, and the sectoring of ZA sink estates and other population areas. She’d wanted to disbelieve him, but he guessed the corpses she’d recently seen in the fields went some way towards convincing her. He suspected her doubts had lasted only until he abandoned the lorry in what he hoped was still a cam deadspot adjacent to a sector fence. He felt that the two corpses, one lying on the ground and one still clinging to the fence, must have finally persuaded her.
“I think,” she said, “that since you took me from the Inspectorate, this is the longest time in my life I’ve been without someone constantly watching me.” She reached up, pressing a fist against her chest, her shoulders hunched and a bewildered expression on her face.
“I’m watching you,” he said. “Are you in pain?”
“Panic attack.” She gave him a tight, forced grin. “They’re a constant with me but, as I’ve recently discovered, I don’t get them when there’s any real reason for panic.” She waved a dismissive hand and lay back, closing her eyes, deliberately pulling her hand away from her chest and resting it flat on the sofa beside her.
“You’re watching me,” she said, “but I don’t think you’re about to lecture me about squandering government resources, or deliver any completely inappropriate homilies.”
“Misuse of government property is theft from the people?” he suggested.
“Yeah, because all property belongs to the people, but is controlled by the Committee for the good of the people.” She opened her eyes and gazed at him. “Better then to say that all property and all people belong to the Committee, for its own good.” She looked up. “You know they gave me political prisoners who were scheduled for disposal to experiment with?”
Yes, he already knew that, but it seemed she wanted to repeat herself. She wanted to be certain he knew about the crimes she believed herself to have committed. Perhaps she wanted to revel in her own guilt.
“I saw one in your surgery,” he said neutrally. “And I released one from his cell. He seemed very self-possessed, so I wonder if he managed to escape.”
“Malden,” she said. “I hope so too, because, if so, he’s going to be a big thorn in the state’s side. He’s a revolutionary leader, maybe even the revolutionary leader. I put as much hardware in his head as I could, and used the organic interface and comlife they allowed me. He is a lesser version of what you yourself can become.”
He dropped onto the sofa beside her, saying nothing.
She eyed him sideways. “I had no choice, you know.”
“After Smith made us watch what happened to you, he kept us grouped together for a while longer. Once they brought in the first human subjects for experimentation, Aira objected.” She was staring at the floor again. “He didn’t even try to persuade her otherwise, just took her down to a cell and made us all watch while five enforcers raped her repeatedly. When they were done, he just shot her through the head—no attempt at adjustment.”
“I can pass judgement on you if you like,” he said. “If you consider a serial murderer’s judgement of any relevance. You, at least, have done the bad things you’ve done to survive. I don’t have that excuse.”
“I don’t want excuses.”
“What happened after Aira? Where’s the rest of the research team?”
“Smith had us separated—the only communication via comlink—and I got to stay in the cell complex. Smith himself got reassigned after that.” She gazed at him steadily. “He was made Political Director on Argus.”
Motives within motives, and now he had another motive to get himself up to that space station. “So I guess I shouldn’t be surprised at how willing you are to help me?”
She frowned. “I just want to be there when you see him again.”
“You will be. That’s a promise.”
“There must be…justice,” she said firmly.
It seemed likely to Saul that she would not enjoy his idea of justice.
She nodded, then turned away. “Does that shower work?” she asked, pointing.
He shrugged. “I think the water’s turned on, but whether it’s hot is another matter.”
“Do you have any fresh clothing here?”
Standing up, she stripped off her lab coat, kicked off her trainers, then began unbuttoning her blouse. He rose too, and began heading for the door.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
She pointed up at the cam. “You’ve given me more privacy than I’ve ever enjoyed before in my entire life. Please stay.”
She stripped off with determined deliberation, and with equal deliberation he didn’t look away. She had a tightly muscular body, small breasts and a slim waist, her hip bones quite prominent. Her pubis was bald, probably electro-depilated, while a moon-shaped scar lay above her right knee. When she turned round he observed a fade-form tattoo at the base of her spine, its pattern regularly changed by any alterations in her skin temperature. He’d had sex with just two different women over the length of his two-year life, and neither of them had looked so familiar to him. His chest felt abruptly tight and he understood that here was the real reason she so willingly stayed with him.
“How long were we lovers?” he asked.
“You remember?” she asked, suddenly hopeful.
“I remember your body.” He felt ashamed. “I’m sorry, but that’s all.”
She headed over to the shower. “From about ten years after we first met, then up until Smith burnt up your mind. I like to think that, besides your sister, I was the only other human being you actually cared about.” Stepping into the shower, she gazed coyly over one shoulder. “Maybe we can shake loose some more memories?”
“I’ll take a shower right after you,” he replied, smiling at her as she closed the glass doors.
He retained the smile for a while longer, then suddenly he switched it off. He’d been operating alone with perfect if ugly efficiency for two years, yet now he carried a passenger and, if he allowed to grow further what he so far only felt a hint of, his ruthlessness might become impaired.
He couldn’t allow that.
Having placed an apartment door sideways across the communal stairs to act as a toll gate, they searched the woman ahead, removing from her bag a sorry collection of potatoes before letting her through. They’d created their own deadspot by spray-painting over the cams fixed up on the ceiling, which, Hannah supposed, might just mean the cams were now queued in a month-long maintenance backlog. However, the man’s corpse lying up against the wall in a pool of old brown blood, with flies crawling in and out of its nostrils, didn’t look that fresh. It should certainly have been reported by some responsible citizen, but the fact that his killers showed no particular hurry to be elsewhere seemed to confirm that no enforcers were likely to be coming here. Perhaps it was now policy to give free rein to those thinning out the excess population. Hannah did not like to think so, but after Saul had pointed out the corpses rotting on the fence surrounding a “sectored” area, she was starting to believe some of the things he had been telling her.
“What you got in there?” asked one of the thugs, now turning to Saul and herself.
The four of them—three young men and one woman—were all dressed in Mars and terran combats, rib-effect body warmers with a slick waterproof look, and Velcro-strap training boots. Their dress looked decidedly military, but the only gun visible was an ionic stunner one of them had tucked into his belt. The other three sported home-made weapons consisting of long-handled maces fashioned from lengths of pipe with foam-tape handles, the club end comprising a collection of heavy nuts and bolts welded together into a mass. Judging by the ragged dent in the side of the corpse’s head, one of these implements had been used on him. Hannah glanced at Saul, wondering how he would handle this situation, yet not so sure she really wanted to know. But, no doubt, handle it he would.
It had taken three days before the Subnet became available through Saul’s home computer—accessed via perpetually changing radio frequencies using a receiver it was considered an “adjustment” offence to own. It lasted only four hours before Inspectorate hackers took it down again, but long enough for him to confirm a local deadspot was still in use, and then to learn some other news. Hannah then took a seat beside him to have her first look at what he described as the real world.
With the new food pricing beginning to bite, there’d been sector riots in Manchester, Cardiff and in some of the suburbs of the Outer London sprawl. In the first of these conurbations a Subnet reporter had detailed how a vast crowd surged towards the exit to the Salford sector of Manchester, using short-range missile-launchers to take out the readerguns. As they stormed into the surrounding community, they had grabbed the Inspectorate guards and hanged them with razorwire from the sector’s fence posts. But then enforcers had arrived, flying aero gunships and dropping gas grenades. They didn’t use knockout gas either, because afterwards they had quickly and efficiently loaded dropside tipper trucks with the corpses, using small vehicles equipped with loading buckets to the rear, and digger arms terminating in tri-claw grabs to the fore. Saul pointed out how both vehicles seemed to have been specifically designed for the sole purpose of removing corpses. Similar mobs in other sectors didn’t even get as far as the fences—the readerguns had been reformatted to fire beyond the no-man’s-land adjoining the fences, while enforcers were coming in with the gas even as the mobs were gathering. No clear-up within the sectors, though—which perhaps accounted for the smell of carrion in the air here in the London sprawl as he and Hannah set out from his apartment towards the local deadspot.
“It’s exponential,” Hannah observed, trying to apply a scientific frame of mind to the growing horror she felt. “Start running out of the basics, and it’s all going to break down fast.”
He nodded in agreement as they strolled down one of the community-block streets towards the communal stairs, since the elevators were out of action again. Hannah noticed that here, even in this block reserved for those considered societal assets only, the people seen out and about all carried backpacks or large flight bags ready to be filled with whatever food they could acquire with their triple Cs or any cash they might possess. Saul explained that the produce grown in the greenhouses on the roof, which about a year ago might only be bought with large wodges of rapidly devaluing currency, could no longer be bought at all, because readerguns and Inspectorate guards were stationed up there now. The few shops in the neighbourhood with goods actually available were easily identifiable by the queues outside. While she nervously waited for him in the apartment, he himself had stood in a few of these during the last few days, using three different identities simply to obtain enough food for the two of them. And still Hannah was hungry, just like those waiting on the stairs.
“Nothing of interest to you,” Saul replied to the thug’s question.
The man tilted his head, acknowledging the fact that perhaps Saul was going to cause him a problem. “I’ll be the judge of that,” he replied. His hand dropped to the ionic stunner at his belt, and one of the other men stepped forward, shouldering his mace. Hannah saw then that it seemed the visible corpse was not their only victim. Further spills of blood stained the floor, one still sticky and red with a couple of teeth lying amidst it. Were the others who had been assaulted still alive, or had they merely been dragged out of sight, just the one corpse left on display?
“Let me show you.” Saul unshouldered his backpack and dropped it to the ground, glancing at Hannah as he did so. She slid her gaze away from the corpse, to the fresh bloodstain, then back to Saul. What was he going to do? What could he do in this situation? What if they stole the hardware he’d risked his life a second time to retrieve? And what if they stole the payment he had brought to finance the installation of that hardware?
As he glanced down at his backpack, then focused back on the man before him, Saul asked, “Did you kill him?”
“He died for a bag of sugar.” Grinning at that, the man stared at Saul challengingly. “Thought he was a tough guy.”
Suddenly Hannah realized that even if they paid whatever toll was demanded, they would still be in trouble. She felt she needed to communicate this to Saul, but how?
“Inspectorate enforcers could be here at any moment,” Saul suggested calmly.
Hannah then noticed that two of the four, including the man standing before Saul, wore badges on the shoulders of their body warmers: an emblem of laurel leaves enclosing an Egyptian eye. They were community political officers.
“They’re not interested,” the man said flatly. “Now open your pack.”
Saul nodded thoughtfully, reached round under the back of his jacket, as if tucking in his shirt, pulled his automatic from its holster and simply shot the man through the throat. He flew backwards till the door caught the rear of his legs and his head slammed down hard on the carbocrete steps behind him. Saul’s second shot punched straight through the chest of the next man, spraying gobbets of flesh over the wall behind him before he thumped into it and slid down, leaving a wide and bloody trail. The woman threw her mace at him, before turning to run after her remaining colleague, who had already taken off. Saul stepped aside and the weapon clattered past him, then his next shot lifted the top of her head and sent her tumbling down the stairs. Steadying his gun hand, he next put a group of three shots into the back of the fleeing man just as he reached the next landing. That dropped him as well.
“Not the Alan Saul you remember,” he remarked.
She shook her head numbly and moved away to steady herself against the wall. Her legs felt suddenly weak, her breathing an effort. She felt she was going to be sick, but managed to hold on to it, perhaps because there wasn’t enough in her stomach for her to bring up.
Saul returned his gun to its holster, shouldered his backpack again, stepped over the door serving as a toll gate, kicked it over then squatted to inspect the haul the four had assembled. It consisted of a couple of bags of potatoes, a few tomatoes and cucumbers, a loaf of bread and some preserved sausage. He shoved these into a large shoulder bag before searching the clothing of the two lying nearest. Some chocolate and a little cash, but not much else of value, though he did pocket the stunner.
“You carry the bag,” he instructed, pointing to the haul of food. Feeling utterly out of her depth, Hannah pulled herself away from the wall and tried to be calm as she went to pick up the shoulder bag. Her foot slipped and she nearly went over, then seemingly out of nowhere came the tears.
“I’m sorry,” she said, shaking her head, and angry with herself. “I’m sorry.”
He stepped over and she put her arms round him, burying her head in his shoulder, let some of it go, but all too soon he was pushing her away.
“We can’t stay here.” He nodded towards the stairway behind.
People were gathering on the landing above, staring down. She nodded but, when he started to pull away again, she clasped him even tighter. A moment’s pause, then she released him. The flow of tears ceased abruptly, and they headed down.
“I’m sorry, too,” he said, once the corpses were well out of sight. “But if we’re weak, we die.”
“Are you really sorry?” she asked. “You didn’t have to kill them all.”
“No, I didn’t,” he said. “I could have taken us safely through and just left them to carry on doing whatever they wanted, to rob and murder.”
“That bothers you?”
He seemed to say that with such sincerity that Hannah tried to suppress her doubts, for he still appeared utterly unaffected by what he had done—almost like he was used to it.