Authors: Darren Stapleton
Blood on Borrowed Wings
Copyright 2016 by Darren Stapleton
THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS FOR THIS BOOK
Reproduction or transmission of this book, in whole or in part by electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or any other means is strictly prohibited, except with prior written permission from the author. You may direct enquiries to
For Matilda. My curly hero.
Mum. Dad. You were right... it does last forever.
I would like to thank Pierluigi Abbondanza
for his astounding artistic talent and for putting up with my atrocious Italian.
Naomi Shepherd-Dodsley for the cover design and re-design and re-design.
And special thanks to Judith Henstra
whose red pen has improved my work and frustrated me in equal measure.
Gemma I could not have done this without you.
Table of Contents
- links to individual Chapters.
Tomorrow is virginal to
Not yet spoiled or tainted,
By what came before.
The present our mistress,
Who we flirt with
Yet never know fully,
Or ever adore.
Nimbus Anthology (Anon)
Stay low. Keep moving.
He breathed heavily as he crashed through the labyrinthine undergrowth. His lungs burned and the coppery taste of blood filled his mouth. He flashed past the whips of saplings and the stricter gnarly canes of relentless brush. Sweat bloomed and spread across his uniform in dark khaki patches, his body making its own camouflage to blend him into the cold grey light and uneven mottled darkness of the natural surroundings. His muscles screamed for respite.
They were nearer; the treacherous sounds of branches and leaves being disturbed behind him betrayed their proximity. He thought he heard voices; laughter, heavy breathing.
He cut left, pushing off from the trunk of a tree to propel forward, instinctively knowing he’d be at the Edge soon. He heard something whip past his face and crack into the trunk as he pressed away from it, bark exploded in fiery splinters that bit into the soft flesh of his cheek and neck.
They were near enough for crossbows.
He heard one of them cuss the other’s poor aim and then more laughter. They were enjoying the chase; as if it was some training exercise or game. He shuddered; used his revulsion to spur him on.
The reputation of his pursuers was legend; stories about them were enough to make small children tremble in their beds at night when desperate parents whispered of what the dastardly two might do to them if they did not find sleep.
quickened his pace; glad he knew the Nimbus Edgelands like the back of his hand. As he ran, he reached up to his neck and drew his palm away tacky and warm from sap and blood. He cut right, blindly into thicker mist, reading the swirls and eddies, the rises and dips of the land; the knuckles and the palms of the place he knew so well.
Stay low. Keep moving.
Summer was at its pinnacle and the fat moon cast a soulless neon light down upon the thicket of clouds and swirling mist. The sound of his heartbeat filled the world, an orchestral kettle drum. He angled right again, dived into a thick twisted tangle of bushes and knelt on the damp, silty soil of the Edgelands. He winced as he ran both of his hands over the substantial amount of blood oozing down his face and neck. He put his hands, palms down, onto the ground then smeared the bloody soil over his clammy face. With his eyes closed the sound of fast approaching footfalls and murmurs was amplified. He curled up as if in prayer for reprieve or forgiveness and held his breath as they ran by him. Only they were not running by him. They were slowing.
‘What the….?’ The voice was close.
‘Ssssh,’ the other one interrupted. ‘I reckon he's gone to ground.’
The closer one grunted.
'Predictable, it would be nice if they'd give us a fucking challenge once in a while. Where is their sense of adventure? The sport?’
The nearer of the two grunted again.
‘Well you certainly didn’t expect him to die quietly like his colleagues, did you? That would just be, ah... careless.’
Newton knew the tactic; they were trying to provoke a knee jerk reaction from him, trying to get him to compromise his position and use the time to look for tell-tale signs in the environment that might give him away; and though he knew his life depended on it, he still shook from the effort it took to bite back the tears and bile he felt when thinking of how his three fellow squad members, had just died.
‘At least you haven't got to haul this massive thing around.'
A grunted reply.
'It would help if our employers weren’t so fussy.’
‘Prudence is a virtue, Mckeever.’
‘So is virginity, Croel, and they can both get fucked.’
‘Virtue has never been one of your strong points, has it?’
‘As travelling light is not one of yours,’ he said
‘Needs must, as they say,’ Croel patted the heavy case he had been hauling along. ‘Now, listen.’
heard them, about ten yards away. They were motionless, listening, sniffing at the air; hungry wolves.
He exhaled as quietly as he could and fought to control his breathing. His heart pounded from the run and adrenalin still blistered through his body, priming his nerves and sinew for action, but he remained perfectly still. His instincts prepared him for fight or flight and doing neither was tiring him out.
All dressed up and nowhere to go.
Cold sweat snaked down the valley between his shoulder blades; leaving a track that tickled its way down between shirt and skin, to the base of his spine where it stopped and spread across his waistband. The leather of his belt was getting wetter and darker. More camouflage.
He held his breath again, looked up slowly to see how close they were and found himself staring directly at the back of two thick, mud-caked boots. The men each had an infrared scope, portable and powerful. He thought they might have been used to guide the crossbow bolts into the faces and chests of his friends. He started to shiver. His anger rose, piled up, totemic and monumental in proportion and potency. His hands curled into fused fists with sledgehammer intent. He pushed them down into the sodden earth; the stumps of his chewed nails still long enough to leave eight half-crescent welts in his palms. He shuddered, unclenched and tried to let the thought slip away, releasing that thread of consciousness as one might let a hooked, merciless leviathan slip off the fishing line and back into the murky unfathomable sea below.
It would do no good thinking about them now.
The moon’s glare negated some of the scopes’ effectiveness and his closest pursuer’s position meant his more distant colleague did not have an unobstructed view of where he now crouched. He lowered his head once again and closed his eyes. He heard the click of another crossbow bolt sliding home and the brief swish of clothing that suggested they were communicating with hand signals and gestures. They began to move off, towards the Edge.
He brought his breathing back under control.
Counted a minute off, though it took a lifetime to pass.
The sweat on his back and brow got colder.
He fought against shivering.
He was a muddy, foetal sculpture in the undergrowth.
He felt his neck and face crack from the congealed blood, sweat and sap, as he slowly lifted his head again to view the clearing and found two dull, granite grey eyes staring directly back into his.
‘Introductions are pointless,
. We’ll have time for pleasantries later.'
'Besides, you know who we are,’ said another voice, also extremely close. He recognised it as Croel’s from earlier and then wondered why he was even trying to think of such an irrelevant detail. He looked at the crossbow Mckeever was pointing at his neck.
let his right arm relax, a comforting lightweight blade slid, butt first, from a ratchet sheath on his forearm and into his shaking hand. He deftly manipulated it, business end forward, being careful to keep any possible glint of moonlight beneath his coat sleeve. He curled his fingers around the weapon and fought for steadiness, his knuckles went white.
Croel sneered, ‘I must say, like your friends, I thought you would be tougher to catch.’
Mckeever turned and began to laugh: ‘Yeah, I'm su...….’
Newton plunged the knife into Mckeever’s right eye. The fast, upward arc obliterated the eyeball with a comedic pop and Newton felt the warm, repulsive, vitreous gel spatter his coat and at the same time join the juices already coalescing on his face. The knife struck the upper brow inside the socket and impacted into the skull there, where it stuck like a wilting antennae, waiting for some better news. Newton pushed himself backwards, using the momentum of the forward motion to propel himself with little finesse but maximum speed, out of the bush and onto the woodland path behind him. Twigs snapped and leaves blustered. He rolled, collecting moss and woodlands floor detritus on his long flowing coat as he tumbled, sprang to his feet and was running before Mckeever’s scream had even had time to hit full tilt. It started as a guttural gurgling that ascended in both pitch and volume as Mckeever flailed wildly, brought his crossbow up and fired at where Newton should have been. The bolt sank up to the base of its flight into the sodden ground.
Croel moved fast, grabbed the bulky weapon case and dashed after Newton into the undergrowth. Dark, sickly glee spread across his calculating expression and he smiled; a cruel crescent paper-cut slash, unsure whether the source of his own amusement was the thrill of the chase or his partner’s extremely womanlike screaming.
Newton staggered on uneven ground and shrugged out of his coat as he ran. His arms and legs powered up and down, pistons, maintaining his balance and striving to put some distance between him and his pursuers.
It seemed to be working.
Maybe Croel was tiring from the chase or busy tending to his wounded friend. He paused and then heard his hunter cursing his baggage and crashing through cover towards him. Tears began to fill Newton’s eyes as he ran; he could feel them welling and overflowing, sliding out to cut clean paths of grief through his smeared and dirty face. As he looked through the tears, the moon began to spangle high over the Nimbus sky: it glimmered all colours of silver, amethyst and sapphire, deep set into a cold, cloudless, ebony canvas. Light pollution barely existed here and the Edgelands of Nimbus were a particularly glorious place to look out across the infinity of the plains and lakes, into the vast expanse of the universe and contemplate one’s own inconsequentiality and mortality. To Newton the view always embodied the crippling, overwhelming vastness of the soul, the boundless mercy and compassion of people, the beauty of the unknown within our pompous, over-inflated existence. It was proof of higher things and darker dreams, proof of endless time and humanity's ultimate insignificance.
As Newton ran he waited for the bone-crunching slam of a bolt into his back or leg or head. It seemed his anger, tears and grief were hampering his escape far more effectively than any well-aimed weapon or badly placed pothole ever could. He nearly didn’t notice the drop until it was too late. Nearly went tumbling over the edge, off the precipice and hundreds of feet down into black oblivion. He did not take his cue to stop from a glimpsed edge or change in surface type or tension. He stopped because of a feeling, a singular degree swing of a barometer’s needle from fair to foul, and he nearly missed it.
The updraft surging from the Edge’s wall pushed air skyward in a violent whoosh and the sound filled Newton’s ears with noise. He threw himself to the ground to stop himself piling over the edge, his speed and momentum almost succeeded in carrying him across the boundary and down. A few loose stones and leaves skittered over and fell into the night, as if to prove the point. As he scrambled to his feet he heard Croel behind him, branches and leaves whip-snapping their alarm call. He sounded like a small elephant blunder-bussing his way closer. This was the only way the path would funnel him: into this clearing, and Newton knew he had very little time left. He removed his crossbow and tried to fumble a bolt into the groove, dropped it, kicked it, grabbed another, clicked it home and brought it up to aim at the darkness of the narrow pathway.
he thought, and hoped Croel would.
‘This gun is too fucking heavy.’ Croel said under his breath, as he trampled over Newton’s discarded coat. He was a fibrous man with a rodent-like face and charm. Opposite to his large, muscular friend, he was all angles and sinew, yet he blasted through the night and the undergrowth as if both weren’t there, boldly and purposefully like a small army, stealth and tracking no longer considerations. He ignored foliage as it whipped his face and arms, the flexible branches chided his pace and left behind no remnants of his sinister smile.
When his employer had insisted they use the windshark harpoon to bring Newton down, he and Mckeever had both thought it implausible, impractical and rude. They were professionals, usually hired for their own inimitable way of getting things done. They were not puppets or mud-headed mercenaries. They were accustomed to being told what they were to do, but seldom how to do it.
Whilst they had standards, they also had a shrewd eye for making credits, and standards, they found, were flexible, when the pockets were deep enough. And Vedett’s pockets were very deep: chasms, in fact.
As Croel carried the giant wooden harpoon gun he cursed his partner’s lack of art and anticipation and his employer’s insistence on setting a flamboyant example of Newton. Still running, he clicked the heavy wooden stock of the harpoon into the runners, looped the carbonised reel into place and discarded the case in the undergrowth.
Extended, the gun was almost as long as he was tall, and he had to carry it at an angle to avoid it ploughing deep furrows of soil as he clattered clumsily forward. Mckeever wailed but it sounded far away, a wounded night-wary seabird crying for dawn. Croel stumbled over one of the spidery legs of the weapon and swore. They could not mess this up. Vedett did not tolerate failure.