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If at First

By´╝ÜPeter F. Hamilton

1



Meteorites fell through the night sky like a gentle sleet of icefire, their sharp scintillations slashing ebony overload streaks across the image Greg Mandel’s photon amp was feeding into his optic nerves.

He was hanging below a Westland ghost wing, five hundred metres above the Purser’s Hills, due west of Kettering. Spiralling down. Wind strummed the membrane, producing near-subliminal bass harmonics.

Ground zero was a small crofter’s cottage; walls of badly laid raw stone swamped with some olive-green creeper, big scarlet flowers. It had a thatched roof, reeds rotting and congealing, caked in tidemark ripples of blue-green fungal growths. A two-metre-square solar-cell strip had been pinned on top.

Greg landed a hundred metres downslope from the cottage, propeller spinning furiously to kill his forward speed. He stopped inside three metres. The Westland was one of the best military microlights ever built – lightweight, highly manoeuvrable, silent, with a low radar-visibility profile. Greg had flown them on fifteen missions in Turkey, and their reliability had been one hundred per cent. All British Army covert tactical squads had been equipped with them. He’d hate to use anything else. They’d gone out of production when the People’s Socialism Party came to power, twelve years previously. A victim of the demilitarization realignment programme, the Credit Crash, the Warming, nationalization, industrial collapse. This one was fifteen years old, and still functioned like a dream.

A time display flashed in the bottom right corner of the photon amp image, spectral yellow digits: 21:17:08. Greg twisted the Westland’s retraction catch, and the translucent wing folded with a graceful rustle. He anchored it with a skewer harpoon. There’d be no danger of it blowing away now. The hills suffered frequent twister-gusts, and this was March, England’s rainy season: squalls abounded. Gabriel hadn’t cautioned him about the wing in her briefing: but Greg always followed routine, engrained by sergeant majors, and way too much experience.

He studied the terrain, the amp image grey and blue, smoky. There were no surprises; the Earth-resource satellite pictures Royan had pirated for him were three months old, but nothing had changed. The area was isolated, grazing land, marginally viable. Nobody spent money on barns and roads up here. It was perfect for someone who wanted to drop out of sight, a nonentity wasteland.

Greg heard a bell tinkling from the direction of the cottage, high-pitched and faint. He keyed the amp to infrared, and upped the magnification. A big rosy blob resolvfy"to a goat with a broad collar dangling a bell below its neck.

He began to walk towards the cottage. The meteorites had gone, sweeping away to the east. Not proper shooting stars after all, then. Some space station’s waste dump; or an old rocket stage, dragged down from its previously stable discard-orbit by Earth’s hot expanded atmosphere.

‘At twenty-one nineteen GMT the dog will start its run towards you,’ Gabriel had said when she briefed him. ‘You will see it first when it comes around the end of the wall on the left of the cottage.’

Greg looked at the wall; the ablative decay which ruled the rest of the croft had encroached here as well, reducing it to a low moss-covered ridge ringing a small muddy yard.

A yellow blink: 21:19:00.

The dog was a Rottweiler, heavily modified for police riot-assault duty, which was expensive. A crofter with a herd of twenty-five llamas couldn’t afford one, and certainly had no right owning one. Its front teeth had been replaced by mono-lattice silicon fangs, eight centimetres long; the jaw had been reprofiled to a blunt hammerhead to accommodate them; both eyes were implants, retinas beefed up for night sight. One aspect Gabriel hadn’t mentioned was the speed of the bloody thing.

Greg brought his Walther eight-shot up, the sighting laser glaring like a rigid lightning bolt in the photon amp’s image. He got off two fast shots, maser pulses that drilled the Rottweiler’s brain. The steely legs collapsed, sending it tumbling, momentum skidding it across the nettle-clumped grass. In death it snarled at him, jaws open, eyes wide, crying blood.

He walked past, uncaring. The Walther’s condensers whined away on the threshold of audibility, recharging.

‘At twenty-one twenty and thirteen seconds GMT, the cottage door will open. Edwards will look both ways before coming out. He will be carrying a pump-action shot-gun – only three cartridges, though.’

Greg flattened himself against the cottage wall, feeling the leathery creeper leaves compress against his back. The scarlet flowers had a scent similar to honeysuckle, strong sugar.

21:20:13.

The weather-bleached wooden door creaked.

Greg’s espersense perceived Edwards hovering indecisively on the step, his mind a weak ruby glow, thought currents flowing slowly, concern and suspicion rising.

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