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Sunday, Halgary 21st

17. Special Service Troop 42 Takes The Field

Brightening false dawn was bringing a new day to a nameless collection of buildings on the fringe of the Losemore National Park. In the main, they were decaying shells, but a wisp of smoke escaping from the chimney of one of them showed that they had not been forgotten completely. As the night had been warm, the watchers concluded that the smoke belonged to a cooking fire.
   They could see ten buildings, five on either side of a broken road, staggered such that the first house on the northern side of the road faced the second on the southern side. Two lanes of pot-holed tarmac connected the hamlet with the expressway to the south west, and died away to nothing in the national park. A small wood behind the houses on the southern side of the road was the source of the fuel for the cooking fire.
   The hamlet lurked in a hollow between crescent-shaped hills to the north-west and south-east, which shielded it from expressway traffic noise. Beyond the northern hills, seemingly endless acres of ‘petrol plants' sprawled to the horizon. They were to be the raw material for the Clinton Synthetic Motor Spirit process when it was perfected. They formed the basis of the charge that all national parks looked alike because of the large areas devoted to the cultivation of these vital weeds.
   Eight dark green personnel carriers were parked on the link road to the expressway, hidden from the hamlet by the falling shoulder of the southern hills. Ulver-based Special Service Troop 42 was out on an operation. Acting on information supplied anonymously by Major Tarpigan, the paramilitary police unit was about to close in on a group of PSF activists. The unit expected to arrest the PSF cell that had attacked the Refuse Reclamation Centre at Sylport on Friday night.
   Sections One and Five of the Troop were deployed on the forward slopes of the two hills. Sections Two and Four would approach the houses along the road. Both the Medical Section under Lieutenant Willsden, known affectionately as Slasher Jenny, and Corporal Dolan's Technical Section were still in their vans either checking equipment or just sitting quietly on the grass, having a smoke.
   Lieutenant Esterell, the troop commander, and Sergeant Leigh were to be found in the command vehicle, hunched over a small map table. Corporal Garvin, Esterell's driver, had managed to scrounge some real coffee. A change from the eternal coffee substitute was very welcome. Synth-café was fairly palatable but it was hardly the real thing. Not wishing to become an accessory, the Lieutenant had not asked about the source of Garvin's good fortune.
   Both Esterell and his Troop Sergeant were compact men, no more than an inch taller than the minimum height, and trained to a dangerous grace which became apparent when they were in motion. They had police eyes but not police feet.
   Sergeant Leigh was the elder by five years but he looked the younger. His fair hair was touched with grey above the ears. Very little black remained in the Lieutenant's hair. Leigh was married with two children who didn't mind having a Hondo for a father. Lieutenant Esterell was single, twenty-nine years old, and he had four chances in five of seeing thirty, according to current statistics.
   His driver, Corporal Garvin, was also single, but he shared a house with his girlfriend and they had a young son. He was tall, dark, deeply tanned, good looking in a worldly way, two weeks from his twenty-fourth birthday and he intended to die in his own bed at the age of 102 after a life of debauchery.
   "I think we've covered everything, Sergeant," decided Esterell. He ground the life from a honey-flavoured cigarette and finished his coffee. "Ten minutes to dawn."
   Corporal Garvin handed them their riot helmets, his head bowed in the manner of a faithful retainer. There was just too little room in the van for him to stand upright. Sergeant Leigh took his compact Bakersfield assault rifle from the rack on the left hand wall of the van and checked the magazine. His superior smoothed the black leather glove on his artificial left hand, then armed himself with a Mac-40 sub-machine gun.
   Corporal Garvin closed the rear doors of the van after his departing superiors and investigated the coffee pot. The life of a driver and personal aide suited him. There would be no crawling around dew-damped countryside for him. And no crouching in scanty cover, trying to grab a smoke. He decided that he would have time for another cup of coffee and a cigarette before Old Iron Fist required his services again.
   "Looks very quiet," remarked Lieutenant Esterell, examining the hamlet from the crest of the hill. His binoculars were clamped in his artificial hand.
   "Too quiet," agreed Sergeant Leigh.
   The thread of smoke from the cooking fire was the only evidence of human presence. Two of the houses looked reasonably weather-tight. The only other house with a complete roof lacked part of the front wall, and the roof was sagging inexorably towards the garden.
   Surveillance from the hill tops had revealed that the middle houses on either side of the road had curtains on their shattered windows. Esterell noted that an irregular patch of roofing felt, glued down with pitch, covered part of the slate roof at the rear of the house nearer the wood.
   "I wonder how many?" murmured Sergeant Leigh.
   "We'll find out the hard way," returned Esterell.
   Operations against the Popular Socialist Front were usually full of surprises. The strength of political activists could vary from two or three gangsters with shotguns to a well-armed, disciplined platoon. The intelligence report had said ‘a handful'. How big a hand was not known.
   Lieutenant Esterell stowed his binoculars in a pouch at his belt and clicked his helmet visor into its seal. "Off we go."
   Sergeant Leigh reached forward with his chin to activate the transmit switch of his helmet radio. "Troop will advance."
   Forty-two cases of the janglers faded as the Troop closed in on the hamlet. Uniformed figures in summer green and dark brown camouflage advanced in short rushes, leapfrogging by half sections. Ten cautious minutes later, they had established a tight containment circle.
   The houses were spaced fifteen yards apart, their territories defined by either a rotting wooden fence or a waist-high wall of grey stone. Five yards of nettles, dandelions and limp, moss-choked grass separated the houses from the road. Fantastic vegetable gardens stretched for thirty yards behind them, full of head-high cabbages and marching mint.
   Corporal Stevens and Four Section had confirmed that the first three houses at the park end of the hamlet were unoccupied and they were covering the next two – the ones with complete roofs and curtains. Corporal Johns and Two Section had found two vans and a car garaged in houses at the expressway end of the hamlet.
   Completing the encirclement of the houses thought to be occupied, sections One and Five were posted at the foot of their vegetable gardens. Corporal Dolan and four Troopers were lurking in the long shadow of a stone wall, between One and Two Sections. The rest of Three Section, under the command of Trooper Beddows, had taken up positions on the other side of the road with Lieutenant Esterell.
   The rising sun was a low, white disc, burning through a morning haze from the bottom of a yellow to orange well. A nice day seemed threatened. Tiny transmitter darts flashed through the sunlight, burst through sacking curtains, and lodged in walls or ceilings, according to the angle of fire. The houses were one room thick, and they had two rooms on each of the ground and upper floors. One dart was placed in each room.
   "Listening devices activated, sir," Corporal Dolan reported to Lieutenant Esterell over his helmet radio. "All quiet." His voice carried a strong trace of Norland.
   "What do you have, Corporal?" returned his officer.
   "They must have been relying on that electronic picket line we mopped up, sir. They're all asleep. Looking from the back of our house, we have four in the first floor left, four in the first floor right, and three in the ground floor right."
   "What about our house?" Esterell asked Trooper Kinstrey, who was crouching beside him.
   "Three in the ground floor left, sir. Two above them."
   "What's behind those curtains? Glass? Boards?"
   "Nothing, sir," said Kinstrey. "Our darts went right through."
   "Same with ours, sir," added Corporal Dolan.
   "Gas attack, as planned, Sergeant," ordered Esterell.
   "Sir!" snapped Sergeant Leigh.
   Four Troopers advanced up each back garden, taking care not to step on anything noisy. They stopped ten yards from their respective houses and aimed gas grenade projectors at the windows.
   "Take aim," ordered Sergeant Leigh.
   Eight men closed one eye and curled their trigger fingers.
   "Three, two, one, fire!"
   Gas canisters tore away sacking curtains, then exploded into dense, white, stupefying fog. The Troopers split right and left and raced for cover. A storm of explosive shot smashed into a stone wall moments later, blasting it to splintered chippings within inches of Corporal Dolan's head.
   "Five active on the first floor of our house, sir," he reported to Lieutenant Esterell. "No, four. They must have had gas masks handy."
   The Lieutenant glanced at Trooper Kinstrey, who gave him a double thumbs up. "All under the gas here, sir."
   Lead began to fly in all directions as the group in the house across the road proved that they were both armed and dangerous. Esterell followed the stone wall, circling the terrorists' line of retreat to the road. Sergeant Leigh passed him a broadcast speaker.
   "This is the police," boomed the Lieutenant, cutting through short, rapid bursts of automatic fire. "You are surrounded. Cease firing and throw your weapons out of the building."
   A muffled, jeering shout and a burst in his approximate direction were the PSF's reply. They seemed to have an inexhaustible supply of ammunition. Troop 42, in contrast, was keeping its heads down and firing single shots, just reminding the opposition that they were surrounded and that there was no escape.
   "So much for talking to them," remarked Esterell. "We'll put in concussive grenades from our side, Sergeant."
   "Sir!" responded Sergeant Leigh.
   Crouching behind bullet-proof screens, following the dubious cover of a woven garden fence, Corporal Morgan and three Troopers edged to the front of their garden. Their comrades kept up a steady barrage toward the front windows of the house across the street. The PSF replied by poking the muzzles of their weapons over the window ledge and firing at random.
   The fence had been shredded to splintered gaps by the time Corporal Morgan and his men reached their position. Corporals Johns and Stevens increased their rate of covering fire. A storm of firing raged briefly at the back of the house. Then a leaden silence fell on the hamlet.
   "They tried to make a break for it, sir," reported Corporal Gillan of One Section. "We put four down with riot guns."
   "Well done, Corporal," returned Lieutenant Esterell. "We won't need your grenades, Corporal Morgan."
   "Sir!" replied Morgan.
   "I suppose honour is satisfied in some twisted way," the Lieutenant added to Sergeant Leigh. "They went down fighting to the last, even if they're only stunned by riot gun charges. What's happening in the houses, Corporal Dolan?"
   "All quiet, sir," replied the corporal on charge of Three Section
   "Check them over," ordered Esterell. "And watch your step."
   "Sir!" Corporal Dolan switched his helmet radio to the Three Section channel and began to issue instructions.
   On the other side of the road, Troopers Beddows and Kinstrey took a dislike to the back door of their house and started to check the right-hand window with a snooper. Deep scratches on the window ledge and a polished smoothness of the frame told them that they had found the preferred entrance.
   Both were twenty-four years old, of average height, wiry-tough rather than muscular and easily amused behind an air of professional detachment. Both had risen to the rank of corporal three times – but never for more than six weeks. Their outlook on life and the Police Code did not mix.
   Corporal Morgan paused to watch them for a moment, bouncing a superfluous concussive grenade in his right hand. Beddows told him to go away forcefully. Cackling softly, Morgan continued down to the foot of the garden.
   Ten minutes crawled past. The four riot gun-stunned prisoners had been carried away to be examined by Lieutenant Willsden's Medical Section. Willsden was grateful that her team had nothing more serious to do.
   "Nothing much in our house, sir," Corporal Dolan reported to Lieutenant Esterell. "Just a few alarms. Beddows found tangleweb on the front door of his house, and the back door is mined. So is the staircase. Pressure switches on steps four, seven, and eleven."
   "Tell them not to go upstairs until we've removed the prisoners," ordered Esterell. "Through one of the windows."
   "Sir!" snapped Corporal Dolan.
   "One of our prisoners is in a bad way, sir," reported Corporal Gillan from the northern side of the village. "She stopped a ricochet. The rest are undamaged." He paused for a moment. "Lieutenant Willsden says she's got a fair chance."
   "Thank you, Corporal. Carry on." Lieutenant Esterell returned his attention to the house on the other side of the road.
   The third and last prisoner was being passed through a ground floor window. He was encased in an orange sleeping bag and a splash of sunlight made him look very young and innocent. Two Bakersfield assault rifles and a box-like Mac-40 followed the captives, then a battered travelling bag, two fairly new, bulging backpacks and a low-powered field radio transmitter.
   "That's the lot, sir," reported Trooper Beddows.
   "Very well. Carry on," nodded Lieutenant Esterell.
   Beddows and Kinstrey moved away from the window, heading for the middle of the house and the staircase. There was a longish pause, then Beddows reported, "Both bedrooms clear. There's a toilet and bathroom between them at the front of the house. That's clear too. The window's bricked up because they've been using it as a darkroom. There's a cupboard full of photographic stuff."
   "Tangleweb on the loft hatch," added Kinstrey. "There's something else up there but I can't get any clear readings."
   "Leave the loft for the moment," decided Lieutenant Esterell. "Prisoners out first. Through the window again."
   "Sir!" replied Kinstrey.
   Corporal Dolan of the Technical Section trotted up to the lieutenant and saluted. "We've cleared the other house, sir. Nothing of any great interest, apart from a lorry-load of thirty-five calibre ammunition. Could come from that factory that got robbed about six months ago. My lads are having a scout round to see if there's anything buried in the area. Shall I have a look in here?"
   "Yes, do that," nodded Esterell. "Watch the stairs."
   A sleeping bag emerged from the window above their heads. Beddows and Kinstrey lowered it to the full extent of their arms, then let go. Two brawny Troopers from Five Section broke the prisoner's fall. She was around thirty, her dark brown hair a tangled mess, her pale face caught in a slight frown. The other sleeper was a man of about fifty. His expression was haggard, his cheeks drawn into deep hollows, his eyes sunk into grey pits. Their luggage followed – another of the box-like Mac-40 sub-machine guns, a needle gun fitted with an extension barrel and a wooden stock, and two well-used backpacks.
   "We'll need more equipment to tackle the loft, sir," reported Corporal Dolan.
   "You're sure there's something up there, Corporal?" asked Lieutenant Esterell.
   "Positive, sir. It's the only place they can store anything in the house. The rooms have been stripped bare. And they've gone to a lot of trouble to set up the mines and the web."
   "Point taken, Corporal. What action do you propose?"
   "We could try desensitizing the tangleweb, sir. But that's going to depend on luck. It could take the rest of the day. Or we could try going through the ceiling of one of the bedrooms. But..,"
   "I take it Beddows is complaining about an ache in his wooden leg?" remarked Esterell, grinning invisibly behind his helmet visor.
   "This place has a very bad feel to it, sir," confirmed Dolan. "We need to do a bit more checking."
   "Carry on, then, Corporal. We have plenty of time."
   "Sir!" snapped Dolan. "Back to the van, you two. Don't forget the stuff from the darkroom," he added to Kinstrey.
   "Pack mule, that's me," muttered the Trooper rebelliously. "Get on with it," grinned Dolan. "What about the mines?"
   "There's every chance they'll go off on their own in time." Beddows slipped a hand under his armoured padding to scratch his chest. "The explosive's too crystallized to get the detonators out. And the wires have lost most of their insulation. Mice, probably. I've disarmed the triggers, so we'll be all right if everyone tiptoes."
   "I want some breakfast before I do anything energetic," hinted Kinstrey, stuffing plastic bottles into a refuse sack.
   Corporal Garvin appeared beside Lieutenant Esterell and handed him a mug of coffee. "I've brought our van up, sir, The Medical Section are parked behind us."
   "How's the casualty?" asked Esterell.
   "Lieutenant Willsden says she's stable. There's a chopper on the way to pick her up. Breakfast, sir?"
   Esterell glanced at his watch. "Breakfast at five past five in the morning? Yogar! Yes, carry on, Corporal."
   Two more dark green vans bumped along the pot-holed road, following the common set of tracks left by the medical and command vans. They crashed through a rotting fence and came to a stop in the back garden of the first house on the left. The concrete patio was cracked but still fairly level.
   Sergeant Leigh hurried to complete his redeployment of the troop. Representatives of the news services had started to arrive. Corporal Morgan found himself blocking the advance of a freelance holovision unit, which had just appeared out of the petrol-plant wastes of the national park.
   Watched by Five Section, the leader of the holovision unit attempted to secure a blind eye with promises of free tickets to a cinema with which she had an arrangement. Corporal Morgan stood to lose a bottle of uisge to Corporal Dolan if she had too low an opinion of his threshold of corruption.
   Lieutenant Esterell strolled to his van to watch Corporal Garvin anchoring a spotless white tablecloth to a folding table. The van was parked beside a concrete post – all that remained of the garden fence between the first and second houses on the southern side of the road.
   Sergeant Leigh trotted over to report. "Sections One and Five are keeping the newsfiends and others at bay, sir. Corporal Johns and three men are guarding the prisoners. Three section haven't found anything else in the area."
   "Yes," nodded Esterell, "Corporal Dolan seems to think all their spare arms and equipment will be in the command house, where it would be nice and handy."
   "There's an HV team trying to bribe Corporal Morgan, sir," the sergeant added with a grin.
   "We'd better make sure that Five Section get their breakfast before Corporal Morgan becomes too weak to resist temptation. Keep an eye on him, Sergeant. He's a good section corporal but no diplomat. We need deaf ears at the moment, not the complication of unnecessary arrests."
   "Sir!" Sergeant Leigh peeled off a regulation salute and turned for the road.
   Corporal Garvin had set two places at the table, along with salt and pepper shakers, a jar of spicy Norlish mustard and a large ashtray. Esterell lowered himself onto one of the chairs and clamped a cigarette between the first two fingers of his artificial hand.
   He had owned the glove for ten years, the hand beneath it for two. He could still relive the shock of finding nothing at the end of his arm. The memory was as vivid as the event on that wet, cold afternoon in November. Sergeant Watson had saved his life that day. Frank Watson, a giant of a man who had been a fanatical archer, had stopped the bleeding and carried Esterell on his back to the medical station.
   The news of Watson's death, scythed down by a hit-and-run driver two months later, had been as hard to bear as the loss of his hand. The price of maintaining order always seemed to be paid by those who could be spared least.
   "Coffee, sir," said Corporal Garvin, breaking the mood.
   "Thank you, Corporal. You'll join me, of course?"
   Garvin placed a second cup on the table and sat on the floor of the van. Esterell pushed a cigarette case over to him.
   "Nice morning, sir," remarked the corporal, meaning that there had been no casualties on the police side.
   "Yes, it is," nodded Esterell. "This place must have been quite pleasant in its time."
   "Sir!" The agreement was automatic. Corporal Garvin was a confirmed city dweller and he did not understand the attractions of a pastoral life. He took a swipe at an early morning fly, which investigated the interior of the control van briefly then buzzed on its way.
   An idling helicopter engine picked up to a takeoff scream, then headed for the expressway.
   "There goes our wounded prisoner," remarked Esterell.
   "More coffee before I get the breakfasts, sir?" asked Garvin.
   "Let's enjoy it while we can," nodded Esterell, wondering how much his personal aide had managed to scrounge. "Tell me, what are the men up to over there, Corporal?"
   "That's Corporal Dolan's mob, sir. They managed to turn the water on in that first house on the other side. Saves setting up the field latrine."
   "All the comforts of home, eh? They'll be queuing up for showers next."
   "I don't think so, sir. There's no hot water." Corporal Garvin pretended not to see the point. He planted a dark green, duck-billed cap on his short, dark hair and looked past Esterell. "Will you be taking breakfast, sir?" he asked, retainer fashion, as the newcomer slid gracefully onto the vacant folding chair with a sigh of relief.
   "If it's edible," nodded Lieutenant Willsden.
   "Very good, sir." Corporal Garvin tramped across a stretch of rampant weeds to the house, then followed uneven paving to the road.
   "Any luck with the prisoners?" asked Esterell.
   Lieutenant Willsden shrugged. "Fat chance. Most of them are just soldiers, fighting for their cause, any cause, because it gives them an excuse to run wild with a fair chance of getting away with it."
   "Anyone likely to help us neutralize that house?"
   "The ones likely to know anything have been given deep hypnotic conditioning. And probably a negative tolerance to the usual interrogation drugs."
   "Oh, well," said Esterell philosophically. "Corporal Dolan and his men ought to be equal to anything the PSF can throw at them. How about identifications?"
   "Some known trouble makers. A couple of them have even served short sentences for assault. Two others are wanted for questioning in connection with an armed robbery on a security vehicle. The rest are apparently respectable members of the local community. I'd say you've scooped up all the commanders of this cell."
   "Where would we be without informers?"
   "At this time of the morning? Still in bed."
   "Looks like they were having a party to celebrate their efforts at Losebridge on Friday night. There's enough empties around to keep a Rec Centre going for a week. Perhaps we won't be hearing too much from the PSF for a while."
   "If not them, then someone else," said Willsden with a sad smile. "At least I had nothing to do."
   "I warned the men about that," smiled Esterell. "I always find the sight of blood puts me off my breakfast. Perhaps I lack the soul of a butcher."
   "Yes, we all know how sensitive you are, Richard," scoffed Willsden. "Soldiers and surgeons, we're both in the same profession – blood-letting."
   "One rather more constructively than the other, Jan."
   "Perhaps so. What's that you're drinking?"
   "Garvin managed to get hold of some real coffee."
   "Oh! I wonder if he got any tea? I could do with a change from that weird Arcade mixture. Will we be here long?"
   "That's rather up to Corporal Dolan and Technical Section," smiled Esterell. "Why not relax and enjoy the sunshine?"
   "Fat chance of that!" complained Willsden. "I've got to check over all the prisoners to make sure they're in good condition before we get rid of them."
   "That shouldn't take too long."
   "And then I have a mountain of record work to get through. And we'll be stuck here until bockan Beddows and Kinstrey have qualified the troop for an extended duty bonus." The corners of her mouth slipped upwards into a smile. "It's a tough life in the CSP, isn't it?"
   "I'm sure you'll survive, Jan," laughed Esterell.
   Corporal Garvin returned with three stacked plates. He set two of them on the table and retired into the van with the third. Sounds of metal on plastic filtered out from behind the communications equipment, then the singing of an electric kettle.
   "Are you making some tea, Corporal?" asked Willsden.
   "Tea, sir?" repeated Corporal Garvin, as though he had never heard the word before.
   "Finish your breakfast first," laughed Willsden. "We can't have you collapsing from starvation."
   "You're so good to me, sir," drifted out of the van.
   "Have you ever noticed the funny look on the Chief Director's face when someone calls a lady officer sir, Jan?" asked Lieutenant Esterell.
   "A lady officer, Richard?" Perfect teeth flashed behind Lieutenant Willsden's smile. "I rather like that. So that's what it's all about. I'd written him off a permanently constipated. He's one of the ma'am brigade, is he?"
   "Definitely opposed to the De-sexing of Service Personnel in imitation of those Ferran idiots. You can almost hear the capitals when he's on about it."
   "I think I prefer it," decided Willsden. "My commission came through just a few weeks before the new ruling came into effect. Time enough to be called mam, mum, marm, merm and a host of variations. You know where you are with sir. Even the robot-like Sahr! your men seem to prefer. Not quite the same scope for sarcasm. Is that tea ready, Corporal?" she added as a stifled chuckle seeped from the command van.
   "Just pouring it out now, mum. I mean sir," replied Garvin.
   "The engine of our van is getting awfully dirty. You don't happen to know anyone who'd like to volunteer to polish it, do you, Corporal?" Willsden asked sweetly.
   "Me, sir? No, sir!" Corporal Garvin emerged from his hiding place with a large mug of tea and the coffee percolator. Having served the officers, he picked up two strips of plastic and jumped down to the grass. "Permission to put up the signs, sir?" he asked Lieutenant Esterell.
   "What signs?" frowned Esterell in bafflement.
   "They've got the water going in the end house of this row as well, sir." Garvin hooked a thumb over his right shoulder. Then he turned the plastic signs over to display the legend: OFFICERS ONLY.
   "Carry on, Corporal," said Esterell, biting back a smile.
   "I thought Old Iron Fist wasn't supposed to have much of a sense of humour?" laughed Willsden when the corporal was out of earshot.
   "Only when the maintenance of discipline is threatened."
   "Please, Richard, no lectures," ordered Willsden. "I know all about the importance of commanding the respect of your command, as one of the lecturers at the college put it. I also know all our lives may depend on instant obedience to your slightest whim."
   "That's something you have to believe as well as know."
   "We're in a very serious mood this morning. What you need is a spot of diversion. Something to chase away all your buried tensions."
   "And what would you prescribe, Doctor?" asked Esterell, maintaining a serious expression,
   "A visit to my quarters when we sign off. With a friend. No, make that two. White wine, preferably."
   Esterell broke into a smile of total amusement. Willsden slammed her mug down and started to rise to her feet.
   "Well! If that's what you think of the idea!" she said angrily.
   "No, no, Jan." Esterell tried to catch her arm with his gloved left hand, but the fingers failed to open. "I'm sorry. It's a marvellous idea. It's just that, well..."
   "Well, what?" demanded Willsden, dropping back onto her chair for the explanation.
   "It's just the significant glances in our direction. I can almost hear the men asking themselves if Old Iron Fist ever gets anywhere when he chats up Slasher Jenny."
   "Oh!" said Willsden quietly. "I'm sorry, Richard. I don't know what got into me. I think nothing happening has left me on edge. I wonder if they know you do get somewhere when I'm in a more reasonable mood?"
   "Probably." Esterell shrugged. "Very little escapes them. Especially when it's none of their business. I hadn't realized you were so much on edge."
   "I'm never at my best this early in the morning," smiled Willsden. "And having nothing to do but routine stuff..."
   "I think you need a rest," countered Esterell. "I think we both need to get away for a few days. Hello, back to business."
   Sergeant Leigh marched up to the table and peeled off a magnificent salute. "Ready to rotate the perimeter guard, sir."
   "Carry on, Sergeant," nodded Esterell. "How are things?"
   "Four holovid outside broadcast vans on the road from the expressway, sir. They can't get past our vans. And Traffic reports an increase in the popularity of our bit of the expressway. We seem to be gathering a fair audience. Can't think what they expect to see."
   "You'd better put a tape fence across the ends of the village. Anyone crossing the tapes or entering the gardens is to be put down with a riot gun for their own protection."
   "Sir!" Sergeant Leigh saluted again, then doubled away.
   "I suppose I'd better get back to work," decided Lieutenant Willsden. She inspected her mug for damage. Finding none, she drained it.
   "And I'd better check with Corporal Dolan," said Lieutenant Esterell. "If I don't see you later, I'll see you back at Terbridge. And I'm serious about that leave."
   "I do believe you are." Lieutenant Willsden tucked a stray chestnut curl under her uniform cap and headed across the overgrown garden to the OFFICERS ONLY house, starting to feel the benefit of food and affection on a weary morning.

18. A Display For Holovision

Sitting in his van, composing a report, Lieutenant Esterell found himself distracted by the numbers of the sightseers. Over fifty vehicles had parked on the uneven, grassy mounds beyond the hard shoulder of the expressway. Corporal Garvin had been monitoring the Traffic Division's communication channels while working his way through a second breakfast. Sergeant Leigh had estimated the crowd at approaching one hundred. He too was surprised to see so many people out and about at zero six hundred hours on a Sunday morning. Given the choice, he would have preferred to have been in his bed with his wife.
   Very little had happened to reward the patience of the spectators. The prisoners and their luggage had been removed by road. Troopers Beddows and Kinstrey could be seen occasionally, moving about on the first floor of one of the houses, charting the positions of the objects in the loft. Kinstrey had opened the visor of his riot helmet just enough to admit his long cigarette holder. The arrangement kept smoke out of his eyes, and with the air cycler turned up to double the normal rate, he was in no danger of becoming smoke-bound inside his helmet.
   Out of sight of all officers, commissioned and otherwise, Beddows had removed his riot helmet but retained his communications headset. He maintained that the helmet made his scalp itch and that a man cannot concentrate when part of him is screaming to be scratched. The two of them were taking their time, partly to qualify the troop for an extended duty bonus and partly because the reputation of the PSF justified caution.
   The eighteen men and two corporals of Sections One and Five, most of the Medical Section and half of Three Section were much more visible as they haunted the canteen van to the disgust of a mob of parched civilians. Corporal Dolan and the rest of his section were shut away in their van interpreting information relayed to them by Beddows and Kinstrey.
   Report writing, the curse of the police force, occupied Lieutenant Willsden. A cup of pale orange Arcade tea, steaming on a locker beside her improvised writing table, served to remind her of the real thing as supplied by Corporal Garvin at breakfast. Rising wages in the producing countries were slowly forcing tea into the luxury bracket to join coffee and other sometime everyday commodities.
   Half an hour later, and within comfortable reach of an extended duty bonus, Corporal Dolan reported to his troop commander. Troopers Beddows and Kinstrey and Sergeant Leigh also invaded the command vehicle.
   "We found six containers up there, sir," said Corporal Dolan, tapping at the keyboard of the videolink to call up a map of the loft. "Strong metallic signals from all but one of them. These two over the middle of the right-hand bedroom contain weapons. The ones behind them are ammunition. The one right over here, well away from everything else, is probably explosives."
   "I see," nodded Esterell. "Very odd. How accurate are these dimensions?" He pointed to the bold green figures beside the six oblong box-shapes.
   "To within half an inch, sir. Yes, they are too big to have gone up through the loft hatch. Looks like they went in through the hole in the roof."
   "How about removal? A hole in the ceiling?"
   Trooper Kinstrey coughed and assumed an expression of reluctance and doubt. Lieutenant Esterell raised his eyebrows in invitation, stretching his thin face.
   "It's nothing concrete, sir," explained Trooper Beddows. "It's just there was some odd slush on our signals."
   "And?" prompted Esterell.
   "There may be a passive network up there, sir. Linked up with the explosives. You can look all you want, but disturb it by chopping holes in things and boom! Goodbye, Charlie."
   "They reckon that's what got those blokes from 97 Troop last month, sir," contributed Kinstrey.
   "I see," nodded Esterell. "Recommended action, Corporal?"
   "I'd have said the technology is beyond the PSF, sir." Corporal Dolan's Norlish accent strengthened when he was deeply involved with a technical problem. "Until recently. And there was something similar to this slush reported by the blokes from 97 Troop."
   "Very well. We'll proceed extremely carefully," said Esterell. "Especially with all these HV teams camped on our doorstep."
   "I wonder if they forgot to include the roof in the network?" Corporal Dolan asked himself thoughtfully.
   "Sergeant," said Esterell, "did I see a helicopter swanning around over the expressway? One of ours?"
   "Yes, sir," nodded Sergeant Leigh. "A Forrester Mark Eight. One of the Traffic jobs."
   "Present my compliments to whoever's in charge of it and ask them if we can borrow it for a while. Beddows and Kinstrey are going to put on a show for the news-fiends."
   "Sir!" Sergeant Leigh retired into his helmet.
   "Permission to report I suffer from airsickness, sir?" said Beddows.
   "I'm sure Lieutenant Willsden can give you something for that," returned Esterell. "By injection."
   "He's allergic to needles too, sir," grinned Kinstrey.
   "The officer in charge is Inspector Northolt, sir," reported Sergeant Leigh. "She says you can borrow the flitter for half an hour, and is it worth coming to watch us?"
   "Give her my thanks, and tell her there might be the odd explosion," replied the Lieutenant.
   "Sir!" Sergeant Leigh dropped his visor again.
   "Who's getting blown up, sir?" Kinstrey asked suspiciously.
   "I think that depends on how careful you two are," said Lieutenant Esterell. "But if you can get the equipment out of the loft for the usual attempts to trace it, we'll still have to do something about the unstable explosive in those mines. And the tangleweb, of course."
   "Flitter's landing, sir," reported Sergeant Leigh.
   "Right, let's get to it," said Lieutenant Esterell.
   As Troopers Beddows and Kinstrey were preparing to dangle beneath the expressway patrol helicopter to examine the patch on the roof of the PSF hideaway, one of the three occupants of the helicopter strolled over to join Lieutenant Esterell. She was wearing riding breeches and riding boots. Her riot helmet carried a yellow, Traffic stripe. Sunlight flashed from the twin silver bars of a Senior Inspector on her epaulettes. "I'm Northolt," she told the lieutenant, extending her ungloved left hand.
   "Esterell. Good of you to lend us your helicopter." They shock hands awkwardly, right hand to left. Officers of equivalent rank rarely bothered with salutes in the field.
   "There's not much for it to do at the moment," smiled Inspector Northolt. "You seem to have attracted the traffic off the roads. And I used to be in your line of business. Until this happened." She glanced down at the black glove on her right hand. "Good job I'm left handed."
   Esterell smiled a special smile of understanding. He too had once been left handed.
   "Would the Inspector care for some coffee?" Corporal Garvin appeared with two mugs. He towered almost a head taller than the new arrival.
   "Thank you, Corporal," smiled Northolt. "That smells like real coffee."
   "It is, sir," the corporal assured her.
   "Sir?" Sergeant Leigh marched up to the group, looking annoyed. "The holovid mob are trying to provoke Corporal Morgan into shooting someone. There's obviously not enough happening so they're trying to make their own news."
   "So they can scream about us interfering with their freedom to broadcast?" said Esterell sourly. "All right. Get their chiefs together and explain what's going to happen. Tell them there's an explosion hazard, and if they approach closer than two hundred meters, I shall contact their insurance companies and get their field cover cancelled. Then I'll vid the HV unions and tell them their members are working without insurance. If that doesn't scare them into co-operating, I don't know what will."
   "Sir!" The Sergeant hurried sway, fighting a grim smile.
   The Traffic helicopter fluttered into the air and hovered twenty yards above the patch of roofing felt. A figure in green and brown camouflage dropped into view, dangling on what looked like a length of thin string. When his feet were within a yard of the roof, Trooper Kinstrey performed a series of contortions which left him upside down with his feet hooked around the monofilament cable. Several tense minutes passed, during which he examined the section of roofing felt with various instruments from the collection on his belt. The fact that Kinstrey was dangling the wrong way up seemed not to inconvenience him in the slightest.
   Lieutenant Esterell judged that Inspector Northolt could follow the stream or jargon passing between the end of the winch line and Trooper Beddows in the helicopter. Esterell had long since given up trying to follow the Technical Section's strange language, which never seemed to be the same twice running. But for the fact that Northolt kept nodding in time with Troopers Jamieson and Dawson, who were sitting on a wall, watching Kinstrey through binoculars, Esterell would have been sure that Three Section talked nonsense deliberately to confuse outsiders.
   He put the inspector's age at about twenty-eight, which he considered to be the ideal age for a woman. Northolt was not as attractive as twenty-eight-year-old Janet Willsden to his biased eyes, but he judged that she had more undeclared admirers.
   Lieutenant Willsden's attempts to project a tough, unshakable exterior as part of her image of a completely dependable field medic had an off-putting effect on many men. Northolt, in contrast, with her lively brown eyes and her artificial hand aroused protective instincts. No matter the strength of the tide of equality of the sexes that swept out from progressive Ferron, it was always more shocking to see a young woman who had lost a limb in the service of her country.
   Trooper Kinstrey seemed satisfied that the area of roofing felt was clear of booby traps and pulled a knife from the sheath on his belt. The patch slithered down the roof, driven by the helicopter's rotor wash, and flapped into the back garden. Kinstrey disappeared into the hole. Several minutes ticked away, then the cable wriggled and went slack. Trooper Beddows slid down to join him. The helicopter moved away, retreating to a safe distance and treating part of the crowd and a holovision unit to a dust bath. Once the main attraction had moved into an interval, Lieutenant Esterell noticed that he seemed to be claiming the intermittent attention of his men.
   They're as bad as the proverbial old maids for gossiping, he thought. Asking each other if Slasher Jenny knows Old Iron Fist is chatting a dazzler from Traffic. Poor old Jan. Stuck behind a mass of files, trying to catch up. Who'd be a medic? They seem to have to deal with about five times the paperwork.
   "No problems about getting the gear out, sir," reported Corporal Dolan from Three Section's van.
   Lieutenant Esterell chinned his communications switch. "Carry on, Corporal. Carefully."
   The helicopter made six short trips from the house to a piece of open ground a safe distance away, dangling first wooden crates, then a plastic coffin, and finally two troopers.
   "That's it for today," Esterell remarked to Northolt. "I take it Three Section didn't manage to baffle you?"
   "Not quite," smiled the Inspector. "I've been out of it for a year now. All but a couple of weeks. Surprising how it comes back."
   "It must be quite a contrast, Traffic after Special Service."
   "I had no choice. Damaged Psychological Profile, the medical report said. I think they expected me to suicide," Northolt added bitterly.
   "I'm sorry. I didn't mean to dig it up again."
   Northolt detected sincere regret. Esterell was not merely making comforting noises. She managed a smile. "I'll have us both in tears in a minute. And I don't suppose I'm telling you anything new." She glanced down at Esterell's gloved left hand.
   "Unfortunately." Esterell removed his riot helmet, noting with a grin the reaction in Northolt's eyes when she saw his black-streaked snowy hair, which looked thirty years older than his face. "Who says the job doesn't drive you grey with worry?" he said with a smile. "Shall we inspect the spoils?"
   "At least your hair hasn't dropped out," Northolt remarked lightly, removing her own helmet. Her hair was short and very black, combed forward into a fringe and framing a delicate face and small, neat ears.
   Esterell handed the empty mugs to Corporal Garvin. They slid over the garden wall and followed an overgrown path to the road. After an automatic check for traffic, they crossed over and continued down the side of the house opposite. A collection of arms and ammunition was being displayed on two green plastic ground-sheets among the weeds. The walnut-textured plastic coffin could be seen, under guard, in the neighbouring garden. Corporal Dolan and Three Section were huddled around a set of mid-grey shoe boxes.
   "The news-fiends would like some pictures, sir," said Sergeant Leigh, casting covetous glances at a pearl-handled Sternway automatic pistol.
   "Small numbers, not the whole mob at once," said Esterell.
   "Otherwise things will disappear," nodded the Sergeant. "We have a fair mixture of arms, sir. All for point three-five calibre ammunition. There's a fair supply of that too."
   "Weapons ancient and modern," agreed Esterell. "The old ones for their NeoKirlans and these for their own use." He picked up one of the compact sub-machine guns. "I've never seen so many of these together before. They're Zinders. Produce of Heitain. What do you have, Corporal?"
   "A rather conventional selection of detonators, triggers and timers, sir," replied Corporal Dolan. "The explosive's in pretty bad condition. About all it's fit for is blowing up. I shouldn't cough near it."
   "Saves us the demolition charges," commented Esterell.
   "Yes, sir," agreed Dolan. "We found a passive network in the loft. A Ferran job, from the looks of it. I've never seen anything quite like it before, sir."
   "Oh, yes, sir. They'd left clear instructions for switching it off. They were probably as scared of it themselves as we were. No problems about disarming it and packing it up."
   "It should give the lab boys something to play with," said Esterell. "Ever come across anything like it?" he added to Inspector Northolt.
   "Only a copy of a Ferran report on them," she replied. "They're using then quite a lot as anti-intruder devices on government installations. Either to give a warning, or to set off things like optical flares to blind the intruder. And worse."
   "A report in circulation?" asked Esterell.
   "I'm afraid not. There's some admin jamble holding it up. I don't think the Intelligence people want the Ferrans to know we have it. Do you know Neil Stevens of Two Troop?"
   "Big bloke with a ginger moustache?" asked Corporal Dolan. "Sir," he added as an after-thought.
   "That's him," smiled Northolt. "He can let you have a copy."
   "You must drop in on us more often," said Esterell. "You're wasted on Traffic."
   "I hope to convince the mind-crankers of that at my next medical," smiled Northolt.
   "I'm sure you'll succeed," said Esterell. "And I'll be sure to include your co-operation and the value of your information in my report."
   "I'd be grateful if you did. Every little helps," said Northolt. "And a good word from someone at the sharp end carries plenty of weight."
   "Glad to help," said Esterell. "Right, Corporal. Prepare the house for demolition. A nice spectacular bang should keep the news-fiends happy for a few minutes."
   "Sir!" snapped Corporal Dolan. "Jamieson, Dawson."
   "A fiver says they blow themselves up," Trooper Kinstrey remarked to Trooper Beddows in a very audible aside.
   Corporal Dolan glared at them. Beddows nudged Kinstrey and nodded towards the canteen van. Looking as if they were on a mission of importance, the pair of them marched away.
   "I think I'll watch your explosion from the air," decided Inspector Northolt, having inspected the captured arsenal.
   "Thanks again for your help," said Esterell.
   "Pleasure," smiled Northolt. "Anything to liven up a dull Sunday morning. Roll on the end of the shift, eh?"
   They shook hands again, right to left. As Inspector Northolt lifted her riot helmet to her head, the sunlight caught her face in such a way as to highlight the tight shine of a patch of scar tissue beneath the right side of her jaw. A sudden depression swamped Lieutenant Esterell. What, he asked himself, could be done about a society which allowed such terrible things to happen to its young women?
   "Sir?" Corporal Garvin's voice at his elbow prevented his thoughts from descending too far into morbidity. "Chief Director on the vid for you, sir."
   "I'll leave you to it." Senior Inspector Northolt smiled her attractive smile again and headed for the wasteland beyond the garden and her helicopter.
   Lieutenant Esterell hurried to the control van. The videolink screen showed a square, uncompromising face that was full of lines and folds around a craggy nose and dark, direct eyes. Esterell delivered a rapid but thorough summary of the morning's events.
   "Well done, Richard," beamed the Chief Director. The use of his first name told Esterell that he had indeed done well. "Only one non-fatal casualty and you could well have broken the back of the PSF in the area. And saved us a deal of trouble from the arms and explosives you scooped up."
   "Thank you, sir," said Esterell with appropriate modestly. "I'll pass that on to the Troop."
   "And a good bang for the holovision cameras," continued the Chief Director. "A textbook operation. Three things to stress in your press statement – tell them about the tangleweb. The public have an absolute horror of it since that film on the vid the other night. Don't dismiss the possibility of some brat wandering into a house like these and get caught up. Don't let them trick you into mentioning the PSF by name. But you can say this raid was made in connection with the attack on the reclamation centre at Losebridge on Friday. Sir Simon Lake has been asking some rather pointed questions about what we're doing about it. And lastly – stress the lack of casualties and show the newshounds some bullet holes outside the house. We don't want any false sympathy for the PSF. They were shooting at the police and they knew it. Make sure we can shout foul if they edit that message out of their recordings."
   "Yes, sir," nodded Esterell, wishing that police work didn't have to be a constant struggle to obtain a fair deal from the unbiased holovision news services and pretty much a lost cause with the politically biased ones.
   "And take a couple of newshounds into the house before you collect up the cartridge cases.. I'd be enormously pleased if one of them slipped and broke a leg to underline how much lead was flying at you. I'll see you at the debriefing."
   "Yes, sir," said Esterell as the videolink screen swirled into a mirror. The unenthusiastic expression of his reflection became a faint grin of self mockery.
   Oh, the horrors still to come, he thought. Debriefing and the inevitable bockan report to write. Not to mention the press release. Still, there's the afternoon and Janet to look forward to.

The stone house collapsed into a cloud of grey dust in a most satisfactory manner. Some of the spectators felt rather cheated at not seeing the fireball that holovision programs had taught them to associate with an explosion, but they cheered none the less. By way of an encore, Corporal Dolan detonated the rest of the explosives on the plain to the north of the hamlet.
   Senior Inspector Northolt sent her congratulations on an efficient demolition job, then resumed her patrol of the area's roads and expressways, which included spotting brush and forest fires as well as traffic congestion and accidents. Lieutenant Esterell began to regret not having invited her to press the button of the exploder. He felt sure that Three Section would have approved the gesture.
   Trooper Kinstrey's watch was reading 08:09 when eight dark green Metro vans came to a halt in the yard behind the main police station at Ulver. The rest of the country was in the process of coming to Sunday life. For most of Troop 42, the remainder of the day would be their own after a debriefing session, a second breakfast and the inevitable checks on their equipment. Corporal Johns and Two Section were on stand-by duty. And there would be an extended duty bonus for all.

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