The Straight Path
In October Sage turned up missing after a skirmish over a water pipeline. They went back for him, to a deserted moorland village. They'd have done it for any one, but the idea of having to carry on without Sage upset everybody, not least the Ax. They had him located him in the cellar of a house that had been blown up by a home-made mortar bomb. The only approach allowed by the steep and narrow street -ancient cobbles under frayed tarmac- was covered by a sniper ensconced in the church tower. Shots came out of the body of the church as they moved through the churchyard. Ax walked, in the strange emptiness surrounding the sparse pattern of fire, around the building; found a door and blew out the lock with a short burst that was lost in the other noise. None of the Islamists in the nave saw him, as he crept up the stairs to the tower. There he found the young man, alone with his high powered rifle in a dusty space broken up by big diagonal rafters. Sixteen or seventeen years' old, the same age as Fiorinda: blooming with new muscle and height. He'd dropped the rifle. Maybe he'd run out of ammunition, it didn't look like a weapon that would take kindly to the kitchen sink variety that was coming on the market now. He had no way out, unless he jumped through one of the tower's windows. No one had thought about his exit, fucking poor planning on their part, he's a marksman, he's valuable. He was clutching a grenade, about to pull the pin, yeah.
'Allah Akbar!' he yelled, this angry young man, with fine dark eyes alight; serene.
God is great.
I don't want to live at this price, thought Ax. I don't want to. But the assault rifle -this was a first, never before used it where he could and must know just what happened on the other end- came up of its own accord: a terrific racket, Ax splattered in blood and tissue and fragments of bone. Snatched up the grenade, tossed it out into the grey winter graveyard, stayed alive.
Meanwhile Sage had rescued himself; and the kid Chris who had been trapped with him. Whatever he'd had to do to achieve that, the skull stayed blank as a Hallowe'en toy for a couple of hours after he rejoined them: a disconcerting thing to see. But he was fine later.
.In November they once camped in a ruined monastery. The Islamists had had no part in this destruction, most of the buildings had been bumps in the grass for hundreds of years. No picnicers now, no virtual reality show in the restored tithe barn: a thin sweeping of snow, a black night, frost and stars. They were looking for the herb garden, which Ax knew should be around here somewhere, and talking about food -oblivious of the small heap of human corpses that lay in the shell of the church. The Islamists had a habit of dumping bodies in churches, in the (largely mistaken) belief that this would shock or distress the enemy. The barmies had shovelled some earth over the remains when they moved in, but the ground was hard and they hadn't got very far.
Something moved in the darkness, in the enclosed space in front of them.
'What's that?' whispered Ax.
It looked like a human figure, greyish and fuzzy in outline. It appeared to be climbing out of the stone box of a table tomb. They were both armed. It was easy to get attached to having a weapon, comforting weight, slung over your shoulder. But they didn't have the reflexes, not at this moment anyhow. They stood, and watched. It seemed to be alone, nothing else stirred. It started coming towards them. A waft of foul air preceded it, and as it came close enough they saw that though moving and limber it seemed to have been a long time dead. The teeth had no lips to cover them. Only the eyes, sunken and wet, had survived. It stood looking at them, then it moved away, heading towards the east end, where the bodies were lying. Ax started forward - to accost the phantom? To prove it was someone in a mask, to ask it what interest it had in the poorly buried flesh?
'No,' said Sage, stopping him.
They backed off. Found the herb garden, but didn't fancy harvesting anything from the dry, wintering bushes. They decided not to tell the lads, just posted a double watch and sat up all night themselves. Nothing else happened.
And between these and other adventures, back to the nearest non-Islamist town: clean up, shave, delouse (the crusty-tendency in their group was incorrigibly verminous, everyone had to live with the fallout). Become rockstars again, get drunk, find some friendly girls to fuck among the barmy army's camp following. Of course, don't touch the locals -a veto that was becoming sinisterly easy to observe. Local girls -Hindu, Christian, Muslim or nothing- didn't come out to play. Women were disappearing from the streets, from daily life. Catch up on the Islamist incursions into Lancashire and Teesside, join the latest government and police failure to negotiate. Do the goodwill ambassador, think of plausible reasons why Muslims still living in this town shouldn't move out. Try to stem the polarization: get nowhere. The only battle they were winning was a private objective Ax had spoken of to no one but Sage -a vindictive determination to get the number of casualties higher for combatants than for non-combatants. Of whichever persuasion. They'd done that. The anti-civilian terrorist actions were way down. For what that was worth.
dreams of the young sniper's head coming apart. Soldiers are also human.
In December they were holed up in a conifer plantation, towards Wharfedale. The weather was vile. They'd used larchpoles from a stack of thinnings they'd found as flooring for the benders, but the mud got in everywhere. There was nothing to eat in this forest, even the hippies admitted that, and supplies were low. They had sent their two most respectable looking individuals -disguised in more or less clean clothes- off to find a corner shop that would take cash money (much of the Islamic territory that surrounded them was running on complex barter systems); and now they whiled away an afternoon, sitting out in the cold under a stretched tarp, as if around the campfire they didn't have because of the smoke. As usual, the barmies were talking politics. Brock -their battle-reenactment weapons nut, broad as a bear, grey hair in a bushy ponytail- was trying to persuade the hero of the Deconstruction that selfish human interests should be as naught, compared to the fate of one red squirrel. Or tropical cloud forest tree frog.
'You got to do it by force, Ax. Torch the car depots, raze the fast food joints. Like we did, and you didn't try too hard to stop us, did you. Turn back the tide by force, there's no other way to save the planet for the species that deserve to live.'
'I've thought about it,' said Ax. 'I care more for human beings, myself. But if you don't, I think you still have to put them first if you want a lasting solution to the problem. I think it works out. If you create a culture that is good for people, genuinely good for their peace of mind, health and happiness, then you get a situation which is okay for the planet. Not ideal in your terms Brock, but okay. Maybe there won't be much wilderness, maybe we end up living in a garden, that we have to manage fairly thoroughly- '
'Ah, fuck that Ax. If it's wild it's nature, if it ent wild it's gone, dead-' Brock lifted the sword that he was working on, (he loved sharpening his swords) and glowered down the blade. 'There's no compromise on this issue- '
'But it's true,' said another of the hippies. 'England is a fucking back garden already. Wherever you park yer bender, you get some fucker claiming ye're in his face-'
Sage did not contribute to these discussions. He just listened, as he was listening now, lying on his back staring up at the cracked, muddy grey-green plastic of the tarp, taking in the Ax manifesto at a remove and thinking: how fucking strange. What if he can actually make it stick...? It was a pity the two most pass-for-normal barmies had to be the two youngest -fifteen year old Chris, and a seventeen year old third generation hippie kid called Zip, who was rebelling against his background stylewise. It was a six mile hike to the nearest settlement, but they'd been gone too long. Shoulda vetoed the foraging. But rank was not like that in the barmy army. You got groups of weirdly straightened out hippies, polishing their boots, putting hospital corners on the bender tarps and howling Sah! at each other: but the infection was mainly all the other way. You don't tell 'em what to do unless they clearly want to be told. Under fire. They find it reassuring to be yelled at under fire.
And here at last were the two boys, humping their rucksacks, exhilerated by success. They'd found a friendly corner shop. They'd bought potatoes, onions, carrots, tinned fruit, fresh milk and pitta bread: and news. The Hindu shop owners had warned them to go home and stay indoors, because the army was in town. The Islamist army, that is: on their way to do some fighting. Yorkshire Hindus, though of two minds on the subject of proper marriage for their daughters, could be relied on to be neutral or wary towards the Islamics.
'That means us,' said one of the ex-regular soldiers, happily. 'We're on. Fancy doing some drugs, Ax, mate? May as well celebrate now, might not be here tomorrow.'
'Brock,' said Sage, sitting up. 'How about if we go and practice the sword fighting again?'
When he returned to the bender it was dusk. A pan of dahl and vegetables stood on the chemical stove. 'Why does it fuck you up?' said Ax pre-emptively. 'Because you got caught, that's why. If you had never been addicted, you wouldn't panic about the occasional.'
'It fucks me up, because I don't think you are doing that for fun. I think you're doing it because you need it, and in the position we are in, with the authority you have, I don't like to think that that's your frame of mind. Also, my experience is that if you need heroin, using it does not make you need it less.'
'I'm writing to Fiorinda. Want to add something?'
'Ah, I'm wasting my time. Go to hell then: what the fuck do I care. Okay, pass it over.'
'It's not a very good letter, but it'll have to do. You missed the conference.'
This landscape had never been conducive to the cellphone revolution, but the barmy Signals core handled it fine. They managed a nightly postcard-screen 'video conference' by landline and mobile transmitters; including the police and sometimes (if he spared the time), the President. It was secure as hippie nethead talent could make it, which was pretty good. They'd yet to spot the enemy profiting from what went down.
'The kids were right. We're going to meet the Islamists tomorrow morning.'
They took the pan of stew out along a Forestry track, far enough to escape from the camp's dim stench into the scents of moss and water, stone and fresh cut timber. A blackbird was singing in the twilight. The night was going to be cold, but there would be no frost: the sky was thick with cloud.
'Why do they never harrass you about your green credentials? It's always me.'
'That's because I'm the one who napalmed half Suffolk. My cred is impeccable.'
'Fucking perverse. I hated that stunt.'
'I know, I know. It was fun though. And it got me well in with your barmy army, which- '
'Probably was no bad thing, in the light of this business. Ah, okay.' Ax leaned back against a larch bole, pulling up the collar of the battered leather coat. 'At least if we get killed tomorrow it means no more body lice.'
'No more a shitload of unpleasant things... yeah. Hardly any loss at all, really.'
The skull and Ax grinned at each other.
I have never felt more alive, thought Ax. Never more alive, and never nearer to the unforgiveable, the unthinkable. Despair, giving up.
The blackbird stopped singing. High overhead there was a sound like tearing silk. They both looked up, with intense anxiety: nothing crossed the darkened aisle of sky.
'That's definitely a fighter plane.'
'Air power is the point of no return,' said Ax. 'I'll pretend it isn't, when I find out where the planes are coming from. But it's the end. No pulling out of this. Fucked.'
At night the slightest wind roared through the timber, sounding like a hurricane. Ax lay awake, listening to the weather, which he knew was due to get worse again before morning. He could hear Sage's quiet breathing, didn't think he was going to sleep at all himself. No problem, they still had drugs. He could dose himself with energy when he needed it.
The Islamists were not going to break. They were not interested in making peace, and they had no incentive to make terms. Meanwhile the Pig, instead of resenting Ax's popularity up here, had simply lost interest. Ax could handle the gut-reaction (not shared, far as he could make out, by other non-white barmies: to their credit? Yes, to their credit) that he was on the wrong side. He was getting less and less able to deal with the organised murder, that was achieving nothing. He should get back to London, before his influence with the President evaporated. The barmy army should quit, stop pouring petrol on the fire.
Pretend what happens next is not your business: except that it soon will be, because the military solution is no solution, and the trouble won't stay in Yorkshire. The Islamics are inextricably part of this country. Give them up for lost, give up the whole thing-
Sage rolled over. 'You still awake?'
'Yeah. What time is it?'
Ax's watch was a piece of retro handicraft: you couldn't read it in the dark.
'Middle of the night time. What does it matter?' But he stretched out his arm, resignedly, so Ax could touch his wrist. It was just after three thirty, by the clock function figures that glowed through the skin, about an inch above where the skeletal-hand masks would stop.
'That's a clever thing.'
'Nnmm. I don't like it. I'm gonna get Olwen to take her spell off again. It's giving me future shock.'
'That's a daft remark, coming from you. I suppose the masks aren't useful for anything.'
'Except intimidating people.'
'And hiding behind. But they don't interfere with your closet-hippie belief that we should all go back to getting up at four am to milk the moo cows, the hardy few of us that survive- '
'You're not going to inveigle me into one of your insomnia conversations. Go to sleep. Or not, I don't care.'
When they got up, before dawn, it was raining hard. One of the trucks was so badly grounded they couldn't shift it, the other refused to start. They covered everything and set out on foot. After an hour they came out of the plantation, above a shallow upland valley: clad in straw-grey winter grasses, crisscrossed by fresh tyre tracks, alive with barmy army guerrillas -sitting round their camouflaged trucks, wandering to and fro, readying their unorthodox weaponry; in the thick, small rain strangely hard to spot until they moved. It was called Yap Moss, this place: about half way, on a north east, south west diagonal, between Ilkley Moor and the Brontes' Haworth. The great Muslim controlled conurbation of Leeds, Bradford, Halifax lay to the south. Another December the ground would have been sodden and impassible, but this (inspite of what the guerrillas felt about the weather) had been a very dry year. The barmy commanders consulted with their young Alexander. The groups came together, split again into larger companies and moved into their positions: and shortly the Islamists came over the hill, in about half their reported strength.
Ax and Sage's company was in the centre, at the lowest point in the valley. It was intended that the enemy should believe they'd found all their quarry when they saw this mass of barmies: that they would commit themselves to the low ground and get caught. Down they came. Fewer in number, better armed, looking much more like a model army, they dropped and fired and jumped up and came on, like that night-patrol in Doncaster magnified.
'Transmission mast,' said Ax to Sage.
'See you there- '
Don't go to meet them, let them come on. Those organised volleys are not as dangerous as they look, here are no serried ranks to be mown down. Fire when it is stupid-time, when there's really no chance that you won't hit someone. Soon, in the racket and the blur of smoke and rain, the fighting will be hand to hand, then the Islamists will lose their advantage. Now it's happening, a melee like a dancefloor. There's Sage, using the roman legionary's stabbing sword Brock gave him, easier for him to grip: the skull glimpsed, grinning, perhaps their eyes meet but it's difficult to say. What hard work it is, how cold the rain, how sickening the thrust into flesh and the grappling, the warm blood, warm as the sweat that bathes your body. The slamdancing crowd heaves, something has happened. It should be step two: the Islamists have committed themselves and our reserved forces, that have been taking advantage of every dip and hump on Yap Moss, have risen out of the landscape. A barmy Signals voice in Ax's ear confirms, yes that's where we're at. Now we push them up the hill again, yes it can be done.
The strangest thing is that if you look up, if you ever dare, you can see all round you quiet empty stretches of the straw-grey Moss. It would be possible to elbow your way free (well, cut your way) and get out. I'm tired, I don't want to dance no more, let's go get a drink. There's a hippie in a gasmask. What, seriously? The Deconstruction Tour did its best to rip the heart out of this county's capacity for organised violence, but there are still some chemical plants around... No, it's not a gasmask it's some weird gaming accessory. Islamists must think we're mad, avatar masks and fancy dress-
Transmission Mast. There it is. So we're up the hill. This may mean we've won, at least it means we have the advantage, what happened to the rest of the Islamists? For a moment, with that spidery tetrapod looming out of the rain -which had become a fine, stinging hail- Ax had the wonderful illusion that the battle was over and it hadn't been too bad. But here they come, another rush. The voice in his ear told him what was happening: about five or eight hundred Islamists had been waiting on the ridge, and it's all to do again.