Both vehicles had skidded to a stop, one on the pavement and the other on the mini-roundabout in front, rendered in seconds into inert colanderised metal cans. The staccato shrieks made by the bullets lasted all of six seconds. Alan Dare’s magazine was empty, his arms still shaking from the strain of controlling the automatic rifle’s attempts to pull away from his target. He dropped it like a hot brick, motioned to the others who did likewise and turned for the bikes parked up behind them. Later they would learn that six would-be mass murderers had died and one would be confined to a wheel chair for the rest of his life.
Meanwhile, Abdul’s comrade on the inside, hearing the shooting, ran to the rear lobby and set off his pack-bomb, blowing out both sets of lobby doors and bringing down the ceiling.
The guards on the gate had dropped to the ground as ricochets screamed about them and the bomb went off behind them. Deafened by the explosion, ably supplemented by a cacophonic orchestra of car alarms set off by the ricochets and flying debris, no one heard two motor-bikes picking up speed as they headed for the bridge over the motorway.
Alan was breathless as he sat on the pillion seat. It was too unplanned, too last minute, too many police nearby, too risky, but what else could they do? They had had to move fast. Badr had at least been telling the truth about the fall-back target and how to trace his team. Over a thousand lives had been at stake. Tipping off the authorities had been an option, but one equally difficult for them and from what they had learnt the authorities weren’t spotless or reliable; they certainly weren’t friends. Besides him, their mentor here on the outside, had said an intervention by unknown parties such as them would have other unspoken benefits. So, their hand had been forced.
The guns were clean, virginal, he was sure of that and could be safely left. The overalls they were wearing would be burnt with everything else later. The bikes would be dragged into the 4×4’s trailer and covered at the first meeting point five miles away, only five minutes. If they got away safe from there they should be okay. Dispose of the 4×4 and bikes in the Cotswolds, the site was already prepared, and back home to go to ground for an extended period. He looked at his watch; they were nearly there, just three or four minutes to safety. No police cordon could be set up that quickly. That bomb at the hotel had been a real boon to their get-away, a complete diversion, and then he realised the price paid by the innocents affected. Saying a silent prayer for their souls, whoever they were, he consoled himself with the thought they had saved many hundreds of others by this evening’s work; hopefully that would mitigate the price he would pay later.
He was well west on the A303 now, nibbling at the fringes of the West Country on route to his parents-in-law. They were expecting him: it hadn’t been an easy conversation. Understandably they felt he should have dropped everything after her car had been found, must be wondering if he weren’t quite human anymore. Was he, or was he just losing perspective or being truly ‘professional’? His work phone rang, it was Dager himself.
“Have you been listening to the radio?” Before he could answer Dager continued, “There’s been a major terrorist incident by the NEC at the main hotel. Some sort of company conference, a government minister and all sorts of bigwigs there as well. Reports say a bomb went off inside, seemingly suicide, some sort of fire fight by the car park outside; two commercial vehicles that seem to be full of explosives shot up in the street, along with at least half a dozen gunmen, maybe more. AK47’s and spent rounds lying around like confetti. Those on the ground are awaiting the arrival of bomb disposal before they enter them. The local force thinks a major catastrophe’s been averted. The target was almost certainly the hotel rather than the music concert at the NEC, but that’s got to be confirmed. Look, I know you’ve got personal business, but I need you back here by mid-afternoon tomorrow after you’ve met the case officer for your wife. I can’t give you any more, okay?”
Dager rang off. The near panic in his voice was clear, even via a speaker phone travelling at eighty miles per hour through the dark countryside. Bowson could sense the fear for his prospects in his staccato delivery, not his usual suave self. The speedometer had climbed to ninety-four, better slow down, being pulled over now is the last thing you need. Was this just coincidence, or had the event on a backstreet of Birmingham triggered this event? A reasonable conjecture, but he mustn’t jump to conclusions. Two terrorist related attacks within a dozen miles of each other in less than seventy-two hours. No, they had to be linked. Who was doing it?
What had Henry whispered to him in that first conversation in the police HQ, the fear of a “nativist” reaction or, according to the senior spook in the meeting at the Home Office, foreign security services pursuing some private vendetta on the streets of England? Too easy to blame the Israelis, they were everyone’s favourite speculative scapegoat. But the reported manner of this one was entirely different from the one he had witnessed. Well he had eighteen hours to get back: the others could cover the ground by until then. The lights would be on late in parts of London tonight and the airwaves busy. Andy had something more important on his mind, a higher priority and again he found his mind clear, refreshingly so, as he switched on the radio.
Georgios Tredare drove the Land Rover containing his three colleagues south then west by the A and B roads, avoiding the cameras of the motorways as far as possible. They were dozens of miles past the police cordon before it became tight. They were entirely untraceable, forensics would struggle to find much on what they had left behind, the bikes and get-away 4×4 were burned and buried at the bottom of a pit, dug deep under a huge barn and then refilled. The other team would follow up, but let it all cool down, the authorities would be distracted by other things soon enough.
Alan had let Georgy deal with the prisoner personally. Sam knew Georgy’s opinion of Alan: he thought their leader was clever, meticulous, decisive, but lacking the embitterment to have a real killer instinct, let alone to do whatever needed to be done. And Georgy had enough bitterness for all of them; his immigrant mother’s stories of her homeland and her family’s history saw to that. As for Art, well, he was harder to read, quieter, ruthless enough to do the job required, but lacking a personal motivation or grievance. As for me, the baby of the team?
Lots of reasons…
There would be no evidence. The bunker had been burned clean along with his clothes and the other items, then doused in caustic and swilled out, as had the stall where the prisoner had been “interviewed”. The pigs were happy, and their faeces would be cleaned out and put with the mountains of other animal waste, the bones ground into powder and scattered on the roadside behind them along with the ashes from the flames. Even now the other stalls were being carefully hosed out and cleaned up. They had a saying, ‘diligence and preparation are the handmaidens of freedom.’ Corny, but utterly true. Nothing remained other than their memories. Another four hours and he would be at the last staging point before home.
Sam was stretched out on the back seat, jostling with Art for the most space, pretending to be relaxed enough to sleep. Seventy-two hours ago it had all been talk, hypothetical preparation. Now it was all too real. Gunning down the occupants of the second van had been child’s play compared with the killing of Amallifely. How many were in there? Several for sure and the press would report the answer later. How many had he hit? He would almost certainly never know. They were just abstract invisible targets in the commission of evil. Amallifely had been an individual, someone he had stalked, whose face he had studied through the rifle scope as if close to, someone he had turned by a twitch of his finger into a lifeless shattered corpse.
Yes, the second had been easy in comparison, but their blood was still on his hands; he was well across the divide now and headed deeper. Too late to turn back, to recant, too many others were counting on him, most of all his team-mates. They all said he was probably the best marksman they had. His instructor, that leathery old Texan Green Beret bastard Hendricks had sought, in the time remaining to him, to pass on all the craft he had learnt in half a dozen best forgotten conflicts in this poisoned world, but the cancer had denied him the chance to hear how his star pupil had put his learning into action for the first time. He suspected what Hendricks would have said though, ‘Only 1k range, straight, unsuspecting target, little wind, not bad, but you’ve still got a long way to go.’ Yes, he wouldn’t have been happy, satisfied perhaps. God forgive him.
Her gentle interrogation of her hosts was really a two-way process she realised, only cut off by the arrival of Doctor Gillian as promised, and the need to put her son to bed. The Doctor pronounced herself satisfied after changing her dressings and hurried home. Coming back downstairs after making sure Josey was comfortable, she found her hosts with Mark the Seigneur, or whatever he was called, in the living room with two other youngish, fit looking men. Mark looked up at her as she descended, but caught sight of a reassuring nod from Iltud, which she noticed too. She was okay then, if not to be trusted just yet it seemed, at least she wasn’t a problem.
“You and your son are comfortable? Feeling better? Good.”
It was odd how this man, who clearly held some high level of authority and the respect of the others in the room, came across so stilted in his questions to her. Perhaps she worried him more than she did the others. She caught sight of some vicious looking military style firearms propped up against the corner of the room along with three unlit oil lamps and, now she noticed it, she could see they were all wearing military style clothing and boots. Fear surged back, a rude shock after such a homely afternoon and evening.
Martha’s husband noticed the reaction. “There’s nothing to fear Sally. Mark and some of the boys are going to spend the night on the moors by the barrier…”
“My apologies, I didn’t mean to frighten you. Your arrival, while cause for joy,” he nodded at Martha, “coupled with what we saw and sensed last night when we found you, means that the barrier is weaker than normal. Things can press in further than usual and it’s my job to prevent that in this area. It also means it’s more likely that other wanderers such as you cross through and like you they may need our help…”
“This barrier you say I crossed? How does it work? Why did it let us through, but you say it keeps everyone out and all but a few in? It doesn’t make any sense. Surely if it let us through, it would work the other way too?”
Iltud and Mark looked at one another as if to defer to the other to answer. She noticed that Mark wilted first.
“So asks every arrival. They all get the same answer: we don’t know, or if any here do, I, the rest of us, have not been told. Some of us can, if specially selected and subject to an annual ceremony, come and go. Outsiders can enter if touching one of us as they cross, but it doesn’t work the other way around…”
“Told you, we don’t know…”
“Or you don’t want to say so I don’t try to leave…”
Mark’s face was flushed now, his authority challenged in his little domain. “You can try, find out the hard way. That’s if the Guardians don’t find you…”
“Mark,” Martha face registered shock and dismay, “how can you say such a thing, it’s a fair question.” She smiled reassuringly at Sally. “It’s true Sally. Ask Gillian if you won’t believe us natives. We’ve no idea, nor why some outsiders make it through unaccompanied, but it seems to happen more when the barrier is weaker, as Mark said…”
“Are you trying to tell me it’s some sort of magic? I’m not stupid…”
Iltud sighed. “We’re not Sally… It just goes back to the first days of the Pocket. The monks say it’s divine will, that we’re a sanctuary and those who find us need what we can offer, that’s all. Something in you needed us, somewhere safe, the barrier responded, that’s all. But it’s one way I’m afraid.”
Frustration. Credulous fools, or liars, or both. Be fair, they may believe it, yet not understand, it’s some quirk of nature, like something out of a sci-fi film. “But why now, why is it so weak now?”
Mark had used the respite to master his temper. “It’s difficult to explain to an outsider, but the barrier weakens when the Pocket expands and takes a while to build up its strength again so most of the Seigneurs will be out tonight along the barrier. It also seems your disappearance has caused an unusual stir on the outside; there’s been lots of activity there since they found your vehicle. Unfortunately, we didn’t have chance to move it as we had our business to complete and you to bring home safe. It means that we will have to delay further business with Logres, by land at least, for some time. I’ll report back later to you Iltud and head back to the Council in the morning. When will she be well enough to attend?”
Sally realised he didn’t mean to be rude, talking about her like this. He wore his duties heavily, a bit like her husband she thought, and was preoccupied with events he must feel to be threatening. Perhaps not long in his position, he didn’t want to be thought less than completely dedicated or competent.
“A day or two, but it depends on the Doctor, sooner than we thought last night anyway.”
He nodded at her and his hosts, picked up his effects and left with his two mute acolytes, closing the door behind them.
“We go to bed early here,” said Martha, “my husband was up most of last night, so I hope you don’t mind?”
That was as clear a dismissal to bed as she had had since her childhood, she reflected as she got under the covers and extinguished the bedside lamp. So much to take in, too much to comprehend in a short time, and then the weariness closed in around her…
Two hours later, her mind sparked into life. The police and others had found the car and would be looking for her. Her husband must be with them, surely? Could she get to them, did she want to see him, how would she explain? The ambiguity of her response shocked her.
What was it her hosts had said at dinner, outsiders who come through the barrier can’t leave, it’s a one-way trip, down to some freak of nature? Most outsiders just see and step through it straight to the opposite side of the Pocket as if they have just gone an extra sixteenth of an inch without even noticing the slightest sensation of displacement. But from this side of the Pocket it was an impermeable and invisible barrier above and below ground as well on it. The same was apparently true out at sea.
She knew from the TV that astrophysicists were speculating about the existence of bubble universes, ekpyrotic universes, whatever they were, thousands of other dimensions, all attempts to explain away the singular creation of the Big Bang without a deity. Well, perhaps there’s one here right under their very noses on Earth. What did that mean for her faith? Was Andy’s disillusionment with it right after all? They had argued bitterly over it at times, neither making any headway against the other, just deepening the divide between them further every time. And now they weren’t even trying to win the other round any more, not from toleration or a desire not to hurt the other, just from weariness with it all.
Only those who had been ‘touched’, whatever that meant, could leave and few incomers were that privileged. Many, most, never wanted to go back anyway, even for a short visit and of those who did, they had to prove their complete loyalty or have something uniquely required. A few incomers, a tiny handful over the centuries, had never settled and tried to escape, almost always unsuccessfully. Some who had received the ‘touch’, both native and incomer, had tried to leave; some had been caught and confined, one or two had made it out and been judged lunatics or worse by the outside world when they tried to tell their stories. Life in an asylum or punishment as a witch was hardly an incentive to escape, and no one had tried for well over a hundred years.
Why had they been so interested in her background, her career before Josey, even more than her husband’s job? Most acquaintances were much more interested in him than her; it was almost flattering in a way.
© 1642again 2018