Authors: Jasper Fforde
I took another sip of water and looked at the assembled faces. They were following my every word, but the hardest part of it was yet to come.
“I reloaded, then pulled open the driver's door of the upturned car. I had expected Acheron to tumble out in a heap, but Hades, not for the first time that night, had failed to live up to expectations. The car was empty.”
“Did you see him escape?”
“No. I was just pondering this when I heard a familiar voice behind me. It was Buckett. He had returned.
“ âWhere is he?' ” Buckett yelled.
“ âI don't know,' I stammered in reply, checking the back of the car. âHe was here!â'
“ âStay here!' shouted Buckett. âI'm going to check around the front!'
“I was glad to be given orders and spared the burden of initiative. But as Buckett turned to leave he shimmered slightly and I knew something was wrong. Without hesitating, I shot Buckett in the back three times. He collapsed in a heapâ”
operative?” said one of the SO-1 crowd with an incredulous tone. “In the
?” I ignored her.
“âonly it wasn't Buckett, of course. The figure that picked itself up from the road to face me was Acheron. He rubbed his back where I had hit him and smiled benignly.
“ âThat wasn't very sporting!' he said with a smile.
“ âI'm not here for the sport,' I assured him.”
One of the SO-1 officers interrupted me.
“You seem to shoot a lot of people in the back, Next. Point-blank range with fluted slugs and he
? I'm sorry, this is quite impossible!”
“She's lying!â” he said indignantly. “I've had just about enough of this!â”
But Flanker laid a hand on his arm to quieten him.
“Carry on, Miss Next.”
“ âHello, Thursday,' Hades said.
“ âAcheron,' I replied.
“ âTamworth's blood is getting cold on the concrete upstairs and it's all your fault. Just give me your gun and we can finish this all up and go home.'
“Hades reached out his hand and I felt a strong impulse to give him my weapon. But I had turned him down before when he was using more persuasive methodsâwhen I was a student and he was a lecturer. Perhaps Tamworth knew I was strong enough to resist him; perhaps this was another reason he wanted me on his team. I don't know. Hades realized this and said instead in a genial manner:
“ âIt's been a long time. Fifteen years, isn't it?'
“ âSummer of '69,' I replied grimly. I had little time for his games.
“ âSixty-nine?' he asked, having thought about it for a moment. â
years, then. I seem to remember we were quite chummy.'
“ âYou were a brilliant teacher, Acheron. I've not met an intellect to compare with yours. Why all this?'
“ âI could say the same about you,' returned Acheron with a smile. âYou were the only student of mine whom I could ever describe as
yet here you are, working as a glorified plod; a LiteraTec; a lackey for the Network. What brought you to SO-5?'
“There was a pause. Acheron smiled.
“ âI always liked you, Thursday. You turned me down and, as we all know, there is nothing more seductive than resistance. I
often wondered what I'd do if we met again. My star pupil, my protÃ©gÃ©e. We were nearly lovers.'
“ âI was
your protÃ©gÃ©e, Hades.'
“He smiled again.
“ âHave you ever wanted a new car?' he asked me quite suddenly.
“I did, of course, and said so.
“ âHow about a large house? How about
large houses? In the country. With grounds.
“I saw what he was up to.
“ âIf you want to buy my compliance, Acheron, you have to choose the right currency.'
“Acheron's face fell.
“ âYou are strong, Thursday. Avarice works on most people.'
“I was angry now.
“âWhat do you want with the
manuscript, Acheron? To sell it?'
“ âStealing and selling? How
' he sneered. âI'm sorry about your two friends. Hollow-points make quite a mess, don't they?'
“We stood there facing one another. It wouldn't be long before SO-14 were on the scene.
“ âOn the ground,' I ordered him, âor I swear I'll fire.'
“Hades was suddenly a blur of movement. There was a sharp crack and I felt something pluck at my upper arm. There was a sensation of warmth and I realized with a certain detached interest that I had been shot.
“ âGood try, Thursday. How about with the other arm?'
“Without knowing it, I had loosed off a shot in his direction. It was this that he was congratulating me on. I knew that I had thirty seconds at best before the loss of blood started to make me woozy. I transferred the automatic to my left hand and started to raise it again.
“Acheron smiled admiringly. He would have continued his brutal game for as long as he could but the distant wail of police sirens hastened him into action. He shot me once in the chest and left me for dead.”
The SO-1 officials shuffled slightly as I concluded my story. They swapped looks, but I had no interest in whether they believed me or not. Hades had left me for dead but my time wasn't yet up. The copy of
that Tamworth had given me had saved my life. I had placed it in my breast pocket; Hades' slug had penetrated to the back cover but had not gone through. Broken ribs, a collapsed lung and a bruise to die forâbut I had survived. It was luck, or fate, or whatever the hell you want to make of it.
“That's it?” asked Flanker.
It wasn't it, of course, there was a lot more, but none of it was relevant to them. I hadn't told them how Hades had used Filbert Snood's death to grind me down emotionally; that was how he managed to get the first shot in.
“That's about all we need to know, Miss Next. You can return to SO-27 as soon as you are able. I would remind you that you are bound by the confidentiality clause you signed. A misplaced word could have very poor consequences. Is there anything you would like to add yourself?”
I took a deep breath.
“I know a lot of this sounds far-fetched, but it is the truth. I am the first witness who has seen what Hades will do to survive. Whoever pursues him in the future must be fully aware of what he is capable of.'
Flanker leaned back in his chair. He looked at the man with the twitch, who nodded in return.
“Academic, Miss Next.”
“What do you mean?”
“Hades is dead. SO-14 are not complete losers despite a certain trigger-happiness. They pursued him up the M4 that night until he crashed his car by junction twelve. It rolled down an embankment and burst into flames. We didn't want to tell you until we'd heard your evidence.”
The news hit me squarely and hard. Revenge had been a prime emotion keeping me together over the past two weeks. Without a burning desire to see Hades punished, I might not even have made it at all. Without Acheron all my testimony would be left unproven. I hadn't expected it all to be believed, but at least I could look forward to being vindicated when others came across him.
“Sorry?” I asked suddenly.
“I said that Hades was dead.”
“No he isn't,” I said without thinking.
Flanker supposed that my reaction was the effect of traumatic shock.
“It might be difficult to come to terms with, but he is. Burned almost beyond recognition. We had to identify him by dental records. He still had Snood's pistol with him.”
“No signâwe think destroyed as well.”
I looked down. The whole operation had been a fiasco.
“Miss Next,” said Flanker, standing up and laying a hand on my shoulder, “you will be pleased to hear that none of this will be published below SO-8. You can return to your unit without a blemish on your record. There were errors, but none of us have any idea how anything might have turned out given a different set of circumstances. As for us, you won't be seeing us again.'
He turned off the cassette recorder, wished me good health
and walked out of the room. The other officers joined him, except for the man with the twitch. He waited until his colleagues were out of earshot then whispered to me:
“I think your testimony is bullshit, Miss Next. The service can ill afford to lose the likes of Fillip Tamworth.”
“For telling me his first name.”
The man moved to say something, thought the better of it and then left.
I got up from the table in the impromptu interview room and stared out of the window. It was warm and sunny outside and the trees swayed gently in the breeze; the world looked as though it had little room for people like Hades. I allowed the thoughts of the night to come back again. The part I hadn't told them was about Snood. Acheron had talked some more that night. He had indicated the tired and worn body of Snood and said:
“Filbert asked me to say he was sorry.”
“That's Filbert's father!â” I corrected him.
“No,” he chuckled. “That was Filbert.”
I looked at Snood again. He was lying on his back with his eyes open and the likeness was unmistakable, despite the sixty-year age gap.
“Oh my God, no! Filbert? Was that him?”
Acheron seemed to be enjoying himself.
“ âUnavoidably detained' is a ChronoGuard euphemism for a time aggregation, Thursday. I'm surprised you didn't know that. Caught outside the herenow. Sixty years piled onto him in less than a minute. It's little surprise he didn't want you to see him.”
There hadn't been any girl in Tewkesbury after all. I had
heard about time dilations and temporal instabilities from my father. In the world of the Event, the Cone and the Horizon, Filbert Snood had been unavoidably detained. The tragedy of it was, he never felt he could tell me. It was then, as I hit my lowest, that Acheron had turned and fired. It was as he had planned it.
I walked slowly back to my room and sat on the bed feeling utterly dejected. Tears come easily to me when no one is about. I wept copiously for about five minutes and felt a great deal better, blew my nose noisily then switched on the television as a distraction. I rattled through the channels until I chanced across the Toad News Network. It was more about the Crimea, of course.
“Still on the subject of the Crimea,” announced the anchorwoman, “the Goliath Corporation Special Weapons Division has unveiled the latest weapon in the struggle against the Russian aggressors. It is hoped that the new Ballistic Plasma Energy Rifleâcode-named âStonk'âwill be the decisive weapon to change the tide of the war. Our defense correspondent James Backbiter takes us through it.”
The scene changed to a close-up of an exotic-looking weapon handled by a soldier in military SpecOps uniform.
“This is the new Stonk plasma rifle, unveiled today by the Goliath Special Weapons Division,” announced Backbiter, standing next to the soldier on what was obviously a test range. “We can't tell you very much about it for obvious reasons, but we can show its effectiveness and report that it uses a bolt of concentrated energy to destroy armor and personnel up to a mile away.”
I watched in horror as the soldier demonstrated the new weapon. Invisible bolts of energy tore into the target tank with the power of ten of our howitzers. It was like an artillery piece in the palm of your hand. The barrage ended and Backbiter
asked a colonel a couple of obviously posed questions as soldiers paraded with the new weapon in the background.
“When do you suppose the frontline troops will be issued with Stonk?”
“The first weapons are being shipped now. The rest will be supplied just as soon as we can set up the necessary factories.”
“And finally, its effect on the conflict?”
A small amount of emotion flickered on the colonel's face.
“I predict Stonk will have the Russians suing for peace within a month.”
” I murmured out loud. I'd heard this particular phrase many times during my time in the military. It had supplanted the hoary old “over by Christmas” for sheer fatuousness. It had always, without exception, been followed by an appalling loss of life.
Even before the first deployment of the new weapon, its mere existence had upset the balance of power in the Crimea. No longer keen on a withdrawal, the English government was trying to negotiate a surrender of all Russian troops. The Russians were having none of it. The UN had demanded that both sides return to the talks in Budapest, but it had all stalled; the Imperial Russian Army had dug themselves in against the expected onslaught. Earlier in the day the Goliath Special Weapons spokesman had been instructed to appear before Parliament to explain the delay of the new weapons, as they were now a month behind schedule.