WiP: Oakfield – chapter five

Work in Progress

Busy weekend. Here’s the last of what I’ve got done so far.  Unproofed. Unedited. Straight off my machine. It’s a cyberpunk / horror story set in the South West of England and is a direct prequel to the epic novel God Seed.  Enjoy!

Start from the beginning: Chapter 1 here

Chapter Five

“So, you would be a perfect addition to the team. What do you think?” David pressed, leaning forward from the leather armchair and fixing James with a focussed smile.

James chuckled and glanced over at the portly, aging figure of Robert, who merely nodded sagely before taking a slow sip of whisky.  James looked down into his cut-crystal glass and took a sip himself.

They were in the snug, the small room with the bar tucked away behind the main lounge.  It was almost dark outside. The stone-framed windows held onto the shadowy forms of trees beneath a violet and aquamarine sky rapidly bleeding into a Prussian blue. In the half-light and soft glow of the table lamps, David looked more like a movie-star of a bygone era than usual.  However, it was his eyes, dark, hard-edged and shadowed from fatigue which took away the gloss to reveal the serious, unrelenting character beneath the attractive flesh.

This wasn’t the first time David had asked him to join ‘the team’.  A part of Vigilant Venture, David and Robert both operated within a division that specialised in conflict investment.  They injected cash into places where one side needed help defeating another: weapons, ammunition, training, logistics, medical and intelligence support.  In exchange, the newly arisen victor would sign lucrative rights for market share and access to natural resources.  It was money for murder.  It was the corporate face of regime change.  The hard-boiled figures on the return on investment could make a withered corpse in the desert drool.  It was big money. And big risk.  Both financially and for the local assets that David managed on the ground.  James suspected that more often than not there must be a political angle to the game; Vigilant Venture just another pawn of big governments. But David had always remained adamant that the only influencing factor in his business strategy was profit and the probability of fluctuations in a significant geo-political climate.  The hard faced negotiators and contract killers of the CIA, MI6 and MOSSAD were more often than not rivals to be avoided, or advisors to be paid for information.  Sometimes both.

David didn’t allow a silence to form: “It’s a tricky business, James. Your experience of combat. Your pilot qualifications with PARCs and the strategy of using them.  You can bring a complete package to the planning room.  You would give us an extraordinary competitive edge over our rivals.”

James snorted in good humour; a self-depreciative gesture.  “I’m sure there are a dozen men and woman out there just like me but better, and more hungry for the opportunity.”

“Don’t be so quick to put yourself down, James.” David responded smoothly, one finger extended from the side of his glass. “I’m married to a brain-doc who specialises in post-traumatic stress disorder and all the shit veterans had to process.  She knows it would be good for you. She doesn’t agree with it but then when does she ever agree with anything?” That got a quick chuckle. Even the stoic Robert made a smile. “But the point here is, going back into the war isn’t going to help you. And if you don’t go back, then where else are you going to go?  Here’s a ready-made offer and place just right for you.”

Actually, the question about where else he might go had been on the forefront of his mind for the last few months.  What made James so special, and he suspected one of the key reasons Vigilant Venture wanted to lure him into a contract, was his knowledge of the technical and engineering systems used within a PARC.  He didn’t just pilot them. He knew how to repair and even modify them. Many of his exploits within Operation Metal Hammer had made it onto the blogger-feeds.  One had become a global tech-news story: he had applied an organic gel, normally used in clearing up bioweapon contamination, to his PARC’s rebreathing filter systems and found the gel colonised the internal gills – leading to a radical improvement in operational endurance.  That one was more blind luck, James figured.  But there were things he did to the PARC’s that were more tailored, and far more subtle. In recent weeks he had been following the blog of a remarkable technologist and inventor called Ethan Carmichael.  Carmichael was the man behind holographic arrays and James had read speculation he was looking to widen his business focus, to recruit specialists to work on integrating his ideas into different sectors. James wondered if there wasn’t an opportunity for him there.  Carmichael worked out of Copenhagen.  James like Copenhagen.

Maybe it’s all a pipe dream, James mused, a sour hue to his thoughts. Paranoid spike: Like this house?  Am I just inside of a virt whilst they freight my consciousness to some far flung deep space habitat for analysis and repair?

“James.”  It was David. Looking at him in that way that suggested he’d drifted off again.

“Sorry.  You know what it’s like. Hard to maintain focus sometimes.”

“Are you taking your medication?”

James puckered his lips and gave one slow shake of his head.

David shifted his posture in the leather chair. “I do know what it’s like. I’ve been there.”

It was true. It was how David and his sister met.  David had been sectioned for a while, rolled out of active service for combat stress after a messy tour in Antarctica – protecting corporate drilling interests from a bunch of militant environmentalists.  Suspicions of Russian funding that were never proven.  Annabelle had been in South America, working at a head clinic. David had been wheeled into her world and a few months later they walked out together. A strange kind of romantic but James liked the story.

“Look ditch the medication,” David encouraged. “And grab this offer with both hands.  It’s a whole new ballgame. You get to see the world from a new angle and make decisions that actually shape it.”  A quick glance at Robert who responded with a knowing smile.  “And you get to earn seven figures for the pleasure.”

James whistled but he knew it didn’t sound genuine.  “I’ll think about it.”

David opened his mouth but held back any further words. A quiet sigh through nostrils and his body eased back into the leather chair.  David knew when not to press too hard, too far.

* * *

He left them in the snug, sinking into drunken silence as they ploughed through one of the many bottles of whisky behind the bar and smoked expensive cigars brought along by Robert.  James didn’t hold David’s approaches against him; it sometimes felt relentless, as if David’ plan was to gradually wear him down until one day he surrendered – but that was just David being who was. Doing what David did best. Conflict strategy and resolution.

Walking through the soft-lit lounge into the equally dimmed hall James was struck how big and silent the house felt, and yet, at the same time, how familiar and comfortable.  It didn’t feel like the house of a stranger. Maybe it was because he and Eustace had actually met?

Dressed in a casual blue suit and trousers with a self-ironing shirt left wide open around his neck, he walked through the porch, unlocked the front door, shoved his hands into his pockets and stepped outside.  The night air was still warm. Hadn’t been ripped away from this coastal stretch by the sea breezes.  A half-moon hung overhead, tarnished yellow and large. James pictured the ocean, out of sight and just beyond the ridge that lay ahead of him, where the land dropped away towards Hiram’s house, lit up by the jaundiced glow of that moon.  Indigo waves shimmering like glass.  He cocked his head and listened.  He could hear the distant surf.  A murmuring whisper of the hiss and boom of the tidal waters against rocks. There were no clouds in the sky. Light pollution was minimal, giving him a sublime view of the star fields.

If this is just a virt generated by a medical facility then it’s a real piece of work.

He walked forwards in a direct line away from the house.  Trouser legs whipped through wild grass.  Awareness of the trees marching down either side of him, to his left and right, boxing him in –automatic instinct to be wary of snipers.  He tried to push the thought away.  Aware also of his brain rebelling and building up an image to superimpose on his vision; a daytime view of scrubland on the edges of a rocky desert. High hills and the sun blazing down without mercy.

Mercy.

                There was none of that that day.

Stop it. Push back James. Push it away.

                He did.

Twisting around he took a couple of backward paces, his eyes soaking up the nocturnal scene of the house sitting there, resplendent, set amongst the space of the gravel drive, the dark line of the trees curving around either side of it to meet at the rear somewhere. The steep incline beyond, rocky, almost mountainous, leaping up from sea level in a series of blunt ridges and bulbous outcrops – a seamless and imposing black mass in the darkness now.  He recalled the satellite imagery: there was nothing but barren land, quarries and old abandoned tin mines up there.  His gaze scanned the edges of the uppermost ramparts of that rocky escarpment. Snagged the upright skeletal finger, the large stack that Anthony had mentioned. No mistaking it. It stood forlorn and isolated.  He shuddered, without knowing why.  Maybe a chill breeze blowing in from the sea behind?

He dropped his gaze down to the house.  Big, bold, beautiful, soft lamp light spilling from every window on the ground floor. A few on the first floor. The uppermost second floor encased in darkness.  Empty windows with just the faintest hint of moonlight reflected in the glass.

Movement. Up above. Way up. By the stack.  James was aware of it even before his eyes darted up and left to focus on it.  But there was nothing.  Just the lingering after image of having seen something luminous, almost blue purple in colour, drifting down and out of sight.

Hmmm.

He yanked a hand from one pocket and dragged the top side of it against the stubble peppering the flesh above his lip. A smell of sweat and the brandy from the bread pudding.  He smiled but it quickly faltered and tumbled away as he hand started to tremble.

Christ, no.

                The bud of tension that had been sitting in his chest all night suddenly burst open. He could feel his lungs going rigid. And then his diaphragm heaving, fighting to suck in a breath that was enough to satisfy his body’s craving for oxygen.

He rocked forward, hands clamping his thighs, spine arched, and head hanging loosely between his knees with the itching caress of wild grass brushing his scalp. He started sucking in deep gasping breaths but it was no good, he could still feel the panic rise.

The noise of his breathing was inside of his head.

It brought back the sense of being encased in metal, unable to move. The heat rising. The sounds of outside getting through. Memory flashback. Staccato images.  The moment of impact.  His PARC treading carefully alongside a seemingly abandoned enemy compound; mud bricks and corrugated hydrogel panels, everything bleached to muted colours by the sun.  The abrupt warble of multiple sensor alarms. Insurgents spilling from several ambush points. His squad laying down immediate fire-zones but unprepared, as concealed snipers popped the skulls of carefully selected targets; the leaders of his squad.  An RPG came thundering down from a rooftop fire position. His sensors identified it as a Holy Lance.  The best of Iranian launcher technology.  The information started to settle into his awareness as the warhead struck.  Lucky shot. It took out his neural link to the PARC’s chassis.  Darkness and immobility followed.

The sound of his breathing swamping his head.

When the insurgents finally prized open his hatch they had lost a couple of dozen men and teenage warriors to the PARC’s brutal anti-tamper, anti-personnel batteries. The angry jabbering. Rough hands dragging him out. Glimpses of the shredded bodies his machine had created. Less pleasant views of the butchered remains of his squad.  Beaten, set-on fire, strung-up and hacked to pieces. Just like him. In moments like this, when his will power totally failed to hold back the tidal wave of memory, he recalled what they did to him.

James collapsed forwards, head snapping up, arms reaching out. He caught his fall and landed on his knees amongst the sun-dried grasses. A cry of terror and grief and horror slipped from his lips. Sucking in air again, faster and faster with each explosive breath. In, out, a ever increasing dizziness, lightness of mind as the panic raced him away towards unconsciousness. His head was lolling from side to side. He was an animal in the dirt. Crawling. Snarling. Shrieking.

Movement. Incoming. He glanced up and saw the blurred outline of a figure running towards him through his tears.

“James!”

Annabelle’s voice.

“James!”

Calm.

He reached out one hand and she tore through the grass to reach him.  Her arms wrapped around him, held him close, pressed his head into her belly, hands stroking the back of his head.

He sobbed. And held her tight.

His sister.

His flesh and blood.

And the thought that wouldn’t go away wormed out from the soft vulnerable tissue of his brain to plop onto the arena floor of his mind:

This wasn’t his flesh and blood. Not the body he grew up within. Not the body that used to race his big sister along the street as she pedalled her Matsumati electro-pod.

He was a Captain with a triple A-star pilot rating. Medical care that went up and included full re-zipping.  The thing that was holding his sister, the thing calling himself –  him –  was something grown in a lab facility in New Tokyo from his DNA and then zipped around his mind.  Identical right down to the white-blonde hairs poking out of his nostrils.

Which meant that somebody in the clean-up crew that picked through what the insurgents had left of his squad, must have gone to his mutilated body and gouged out his cerebral codex: a small piece of hardware wired into the base of his brain stem.  Which meant that he had probably made the journey from the Operation Metal Hammer kill zone to New Tokyo in a parcel bag no bigger than his thumb.

So in the same way that a piece of nail clipping was a detached part of him, that’s how he felt about himself right now. Detached.

Annabelle squeezed tighter and he felt the warmth of her, connecting him, grounding him. His breathing came back under control.

“Come on, let’s get you back inside. I think a glass of warm milk with honey and shot of whisky is what you need.” She told him, helping him clambering back up onto his feet.  Warm milk and honey. It’s what their mother, Sonoma, had always made for them. The whisky part was the addition that came with adulthood. He managed to smile around the idea.

Later, lying in an unfamiliar bed in an unfamiliar room, he drifted off to an untroubled sleep with yellow moonlight streaming through both windows.  His final thought before slipping beneath the surface into the realm of slumber and dreams, was that maybe this week was going to be good for him after all.  His demons were here, but so were the people who could help him fight them back down.

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