Sunday, January 30, 2011

Red, Part Eight - tasted like cough drops

My destination was a bare concrete platform with no building other than a phone booth. The sky was a dull metallic grey and there was a faint directionless rumble all around.

A man paced up to me, appearing from the booth. He was tall and rotund with legs and arms that were so thin they seemed about to snap with each of his enthusiastic motions. As he got closer I saw watery grey eyes with long eyelashes that gave him the look of some sleepy predator.

"Good morning Alan," he said. "Ready to face the dark-side of our happy society?"

He took me to dinner in an otherwise deserted restaurant. The food and wine were indifferent and I couldn't help noticing that the puppet serving us had a broken leg, poorly splinted with a thin length of wood.

"Pay no attention to Igor. He or she is far better off here that where I found him or her. Standing orders are that there be no medical interventions for injured puppets. There are always more where they come from."

I studied the puppet for a moment. Bald with deeply sunken eyes of undifferentiated misty blue. Each eye surrounded by a corona of what looked like cork. The rest of the face looked human but the body was very different. Thin, except for a pot belly, limbs that seemed to be too long and have too many joints. There was no sign that it was in pain. There never was.

I shared gossip from the West with him and told him of my journey, including the events with Yelena.

He looked sad. "I'm aware of the Yelena project of course. Everyone in the East is, but we try and keep it from people in the West. You tend to be puritanical about puppet improvement. You were wrong to kill what sound like a very advanced member of the class, the Novy Petrograd crown were very wrong to unleash her on you. Keep quiet and there should be no consequences."

I decided that this was the best I could hope for. I'd keep my head down until I returned to the West and then tell Giles' uncle everything.

The meal finished we sat drinking brandy that tasted like cough drops and smoking cigars that smelled like dung.

"You know why you're here of course?" he asked.

"To familiarise myself with the situation and report back to London," I said, filied with a sinking feeling that I was about to discover a new interpretation of my mission.

"Wrong. You're here as our new Tactician. Any experience in that?"

"None whatsoever. Anyway, I'm leaving in a week."

"I'm afraid you aren't. Read your orders? You must have pissed someone off big-time.

He threw a thin packet of papers across the table. I read them and sure enough they stated that I was on permanent secondment to the 20 N deg lat, 5000 E deg long camp.

"I never saw these before. They can't be real."

"Trust me, they are. Came through on the very slow, very unreliable radio link back to the West. You weren't given a copy?"

'No, nothing at all.'

'There you go. They didn't want you to make a fuss. Don't try to leave. The tube won't work for you now and the return puppet convoy takes ten years to get to the Urals."
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