A Field Of Poppies

Two shadows, elongated as the sun moved lower in the sky, stretched across a field where the blooms, that mirrored the sunset sky with their colouring, grew. One of the two took all of it in with a photographer’s eye, seeing exactly how best to frame this scene and what it might convey. His companion swallowed the lump in his throat, they were not a species prone to sentimentality in his experience, but that was the emotion he found rising in him more often than ever in past days.

‘Do you regret it, Jacques?’
‘What?’
‘That we revived something that should have been left to lie?’
‘Like ourselves, you mean, old chap?’
‘We had no choice in the matter as far as that goes, Jacques.’
‘Really, Tom? Don’t really believe that do you?’
‘Maybe not, but I know that our hands are stained with the blood of more men than we need have sacrificed to survive.’
‘It’s only a matter of degree, Tom, you should forget it. I didn’t realise that coming here was going to make you so melancholy.’
‘What else do you expect from me? Surely not pride? That would be slightly misplaced, wouldn’t it?’
‘I guess so, but as they say, my dear fellow, there’s no point crying over spilt milk, is there?’
‘Spilt blood, Jacques. There’s a difference.’
‘Yes, there is, but you haven’t forgotten that we deal in blood, have you? There’s no escaping what we are.’
‘I know, I know. Perhaps I’m being stupid, but the ghosts are starting to crowd in — I can sense them.’
‘There are ghosts for all of us, but if you embrace life then they will fade from view — give them attention and you give them flesh to walk in the world.’
‘Embrace life? But we are not living things, are we, Jacques?’
‘What you are has got you through enough time for it to be of some worth, no?’
‘Yes, maybe. But what I have done makes a mockery of the gift.’
‘Do you really think it wouldn’t have happened without your intervention? I know you’re not that naive; you have a bit more about you than that — there were a lot of complicated political games playing themselves out that you had no part in.’
‘That’s true. But Jacques, don’t you see, we funded this wholesale butchery of innocents? And we have done it since, and I know the organisation will do it again.’
‘That’s inevitable. That’s what they were set up for — they’re part of a vision that the founder had, a vision that has borne much fruit, fruit you and I have had cause to give thanks for. Don’t forget that. A change of heart this late in the game could prove a dangerous thing.’
‘What are you saying?’
‘Just be careful who you talk to about your doubts. The engineers of this bloody world have been shaping it for longer than the Pyramids have been standing. Don’t think they won’t hear of your reservations somehow — all tributaries lead back to the source.’
‘Are you saying to be careful talking to you?’

‘Look, in the event that they get word of you wavering in the breeze, who do you think would be the first person that they’d come after to confirm or deny it? Bingo, you got it in one — me! And I am not partial to torture or having my mind raped by those control-freaks in the Inquisition. I’m an unimportant cog in the machine, whereas you are one of the decision makers. If I have exclusive information about you that they need then I become important to them. Let’s just say I want to do my part and nothing more. I will remain loyal to the cause til the last sun sets or until some enterprising hunter stakes me.’

‘I understand.’
‘I hope you do. It’s not that I don’t care about you, you know that I do, it’s just — well, have you heard about the tactics that they’re employing these days?’
‘Yeah, more than most: I sat on the committee that decided on the strict new measures, I even had a hand in appointing Simms and Hooker.’
‘You put S & M in a position of power?’ said Jacques in disbelief.
‘S & M? That’s what you call them?’
‘It’s what everyone calls them — they’re notorious for exploiting their status as a way of getting Vampire victims to suck on instead of humans.’
‘They do their job well enough, you know the old one about omelettes and eggs.’
‘Yeah, I do. I’m surprised to hear it coming from your mouth though, so soon after the bleeding heart routine over the fighting men beneath your feet.’
‘That’s different.’
‘Of course it is. You keep telling yourself that.’
‘Jacques, give me a break …’
‘I might do just that. I need to get some fresh air, I need to get clear of you and your bad vibes for a while.’
‘Don’t be like that.’
‘Sorry, I didn’t mean it — we’ll speak later. I’m going to go and search out some good jugular. I’ll give you a call sometime.’

Tom stood looking helpless as Jacques walked away from him. The sun had gone and no moon was in the sky tonight. It didn’t affect his vision, he saw the whole scene as clearly as he would in bright sunlight — sometimes he thought that such good sight was more of a curse than a blessing; he saw further even than many of his kind. All that talk of the old days, the new days, and neither of them could bring themselves to utter the name of the organisation that they belonged to. Their organisation — responsible not only for some of the greatest war crimes ever committed, but also in a very real way responsible for many, if not all, of the wars themselves. The War Ravens marched through history, like ghosts, behind the uniforms they had helped put on the backs of their patriotic victims. Thomas had tired of stoking the engines of the machine of war.

Human affairs would have provided fertile enough ground for conflict to spring up from given time, but at certain points in history it served the Vampire elite to speed things on their way. He and his colleagues were facilitators for these actions that were needed. They were the ones who recruited the Manchurian candidates, they were the ones who fed false information to danger-loving spies, they made the deals with agent provocateurs — they were the middle men between those in power and the men who could make things happen. At least that was how it had started out.

The men who had gone about setting up the War Ravens did so with the financial backing of some very old and influential bloodlines, but more than one of them wasn’t happy just doing the grunt work — they wanted a piece of the pie they had helped bake. Their backers didn’t know who all the members of the Ravens were, the Ravens had the upper hand in every sense. These men, cunning men, had intelligence on all the elite: information that could put all of them in danger from the mortal authorities who they managed to keep in check through a very precarious balancing act. All masters have weaknesses and all servants have the opportunity to discover said weaknesses — not every servant is astute enough or gutsy enough to exploit the Achilles heel of the hand that feeds them though. The Ravens were both and had gained a free reign, operating independently of those old blood-suckers and the humans who thought they had a grip on the situation.

You didn’t leave the Ravens unless it was to meet the Ferryman who would escort you into the next world. Many had tried, but time is not a big enough place to hide in when your pursuers do not have to worry about ageing or dying. Thomas had been in service for so long though, he was suffering for what he did. He was as puzzled as Jacques had been as to why a conscience should choose to assert itself now; it never made its presence felt before. Perhaps he was just tired — being a Vampire heightened his senses and maybe, just for a moment, this had given him an insight into the climbing number of atrocities and the ramifications of their part in that. Vampires, when they truly became what they were, had often testified to how they had felt all human emotion die in them — it was a defence mechanism; a device that distanced them from their prey; allowed them to easily kill what they had once been. So it was a shock to temporarily have that insulation stripped away.

He touched his cheek and found it wet. Humans only bled when they were wounded, Vampires likewise only gave up blood, through tears or any other means, when something in them was damaged. What was it? Was it more than just his preternatural faculties puncturing the bubble of bloodsucker aloofness and letting empathy in? Or were there worms at the core of the apple? Was he rotting from the inside out? The world definitely seemed less solid than it had once done, but perhaps that instability he sensed came not from the world but himself.

An image flickered in the corner of his eye, he turned to see what was troubling his vision and through a filter of memory found the world transformed to the dirty, bloody trenches of the Somme. Men shouted and screamed as he listened, but they were soon drowned out by the artillery shells. He was at the scene of the death of the last of his blood-line. Even back then he had harboured some strange obsessions for a Vampire. Most of his kind severed all contact with those who made up their family tree; he, instead, traced each of them — curious about their progress, marking off his life in each successive generation’s advances. And here it ended.

Terence Maple, his last surviving blood relative, took a bullet, and was taken by that bullet into the next world. He had watched it all happen. He sat in a tree, working a glamour on any who came near him so that he was invisible to them. Isn’t war glorious, one of his comrades had said to him, all that blood running into the earth? Tom had laughed, they were War Ravens after all, and they believed that war was the be-all and end-all of everything. That day he had first realised that he was alone in the world. While his living and breathing relatives were walking the earth he had some kindred, now that was not true. Some part of him, the vestigial human part perhaps, had thought they might accept him. As what though? Some kind of eternal benefactor, the naive innocent in him answered. That private internal dialogue of his died as Terence expired. He could no longer fool himself, he must dispose of that long-held foolish notion of a reunion.

With the last of the bloodline, that had stagnated in him, but which had flowed for a while from the spring that were his brother’s descendants, dammed eternally, he must now admit that nothing would have ever happened between him and them. He meant nothing to them, he had heard them talk of him and the tale of his demise — a suicide as far as they were concerned; a disgrace. And if they had really meant anything to him, other than being a fertile ground for him to sow illusions over, then why had he not aided them in their times of trouble? They had undergone plenty of those, and what had he done? Nothing but watch. The thoughts he entertained along those lines were only daydreams, and they disappeared as all such things do. He was detached, he had nothing invested in them — they were a distraction.

And the memory evaporated. He stood still in the fields of that opium bloom, momentarily imagining disappearing in an opiate fug. People had walked past him, seen only a figure held there, static, by some private grief: it was something that many of them had been through themselves. And so they left him standing there. Alone.

He wandered into town, but he was blind to everything. People here stared at him. He raised the hackles on people’s necks, he made them feel uneasy. He did not particularly have the air of a stranger, more like something about him struck people as strange. In the field he was a ghost amidst ghosts; though many people walked there it was a private place. This place here was public, time was less thin here — history did not ooze into the minds of those who walked these streets. Tarmac had been laid over memory and people, eager to forget, grown old, growing through their children, cemented that amnesia — worked an alchemy on the base matter that was the terrible past. If Tom had sensed this he might have, momentarily, wished for the transformation to be worked on himself. But thoughts such as that would be pointless: he was unchanging; he was an eternal.

Tom couldn’t sense Jacques anywhere, and so figured that he must have moved on in that swift way which Vampires are capable of. He could kill without his and his friend’s death-tolls looking too suspicious. Why worry anyway, he thought, there’ll be a division of our W.R’s somewhere around, applying pressure to the correct pressure points, to make all the bad things that must be done appear to have never happened.

He found a young prostitute, read her mind, knew she had been driven to this place off the beaten track by the better established hookers. No-one would look for her or care about her, apart from some pimp. Their eyes met, he felt a lull in her, and moved towards her — caught her as she went into a swoon. The alley was empty. He sank his teeth into the soft flesh of her neck, bit into her, sucked for a bit and then changed his mind. He freed her left breast from her filthy blouse and began to suckle blood from it; the young girl, slowly drifting into oblivion, moaned softly. He was no Freudian, he just knew that he found the act comforting.

He returned to the temporary lodgings that had been arranged for him. He was reining in something in him that wanted to burst free. The girl had been like a trigger in him: he wanted to kill again tonight, but was suddenly nervous that he was going to be caught. This was unusual. What was there for him to be afraid of? Was it just a reaction to the strong sense of safety the girl had given him, that the act had given him? He was powerful, was he not? Anyone who knew of his exploits would testify to that. And yet, something nagged at the back of his mind, gnawing at him, making him uneasy. He lay back on the hard bed and tried to sleep.

He was woken by a rapid knocking on his door. He had been lying there one moment thinking sleep an impossibility, and the next minute he was in a deep slumber. Were all these irregularities in the pattern of the hours he had just passed through a symptom of his doubts about his work? It was possible. He got up to answer the door.

Stood there before him was someone who looked like a mirror image of himself. He remained there looking at his visitor for an impolite amount of time. The man didn’t seem to mind, but still, he didn’t intend to wait forever to be spoken to.

‘You are Tom Maple, no?’
‘Well, I haven’t used that surname in a long time, my friend.’
‘Just Tom then, yes?’
‘Yes.
‘And you are?’
‘Hans.’
‘Just Hans?’
‘For the moment, yes.’
‘And what can I do for you, Hans?’
‘It is more what we might do for each other, no?’
‘And what is that, pray tell?’
‘We have been watching you ,,,
‘Say, wouldn’t you prefer it if we discussed this in your room?’
‘That might not be such a good idea.’ Who invited strangers in who said that they had been watching you? No-one did, it was not an opening line that was guaranteed to get your foot in the door. Thomas moved towards this man, forcing him to back up.
‘Look, we pose no threat to you. Even if we could, you are quite capable of looking after yourself anyway, no?’
‘Hmm.’
‘Thomas, if you do not like what I have to say then you can tell me to go away and we will leave it at that. That’s not asking much now, is it?’
‘It depends what you ask. And people can get themselves into trouble by being asked the most innocent questions, if the person asking them is not the sort of person they should mix with.’
‘It is a good job that I have a thick skin, no?’
‘I don’t really care about the thickness of your skin …’
‘There is no need to be impolite. I have not done anything to offend you as far as I am aware, and if that is the case then I most heartily apologise, yes?’

‘OK, you were right, you better come in — we can’t just stand here in the hall and keep disturbing everyone else.’ What would it hurt to give this individual a few moments to have his say and then go away? Nothing. And if he were to push him out and try to ignore him? Thomas had the idea that this Hans might persistent enough that no amount of knock-backs would dissuade him from trying to have his say.

Tom stood aside and let his doppelganger enter the room. He looked him over again. Reconfirmed what his senses had told him before — that this was another Nosferatu sat before him, one he had never come across. Tom had been around the block quite a few times, and he did not like meeting new people, especially Vampires, who he did not already know about.

‘And so, Hans, to the essence of the matter, if you don’t mind.’
‘Not at all, Thomas, it will be a pleasure,’ said Hans, clearing his throat. ‘As I have already told you, we have been watching you — quite closely as a matter of fact, and we have had our psychics plumbing the depths of your mind …’
‘Are they the ones who triggered that damn memory?’
‘Yes, they did mention something about stimulating your memory centres.’
‘And to what purpose, if I may be so bold?’
‘I was coming to that.
‘We have noticed that you have been experiencing some doubts about your organisation: the War Ravens. We understand that you have thought about the pitfalls of leaving, and have decided that there would be no safe way for you to extricate yourself from their tangled web …’
‘Now hang on …’

‘Please, now, let me finish.’
‘OK, go on.’
‘We can offer you an exit in exchange for intelligence that would help us start to dismantle this evil behemoth.’
‘Who are you?’
‘We are an organisation that has run in tandem to yours, for as long as yours, working against you. Where your comrades see war as a source of easy-won blood, we see it for what it is: murder, pure and simple. You and those you have collaborated with are war criminals, mass-murderers. And we want to put a stop to it.’
‘Why the concern over the blood, do you not murder to get your sustenance?’
‘No, we do not. We coexist with a group of sympathetic humans whom we care for and keep in good health, and protect from rogue blood-drinkers.’
‘Where? Where is this place?’
‘It is not just one place, it is many.’
‘There are lots of you?’
‘Yes, we are great in number.’
‘How come I’ve never noticed your operatives in the field?’
‘Do you think that we would advertise ourselves?’
‘No, I suppose not. But what are you called, you haven’t told me that yet?’
‘We are called Tourniquet.’
‘What an awful name!’
‘It is not a fashion statement, Thomas, it is a declaration of our purpose. It is simple and anonymous, unlike your flamboyant title. Your War Ravens may pride themselves on working behind the scenes, but they are not invisible as we are. Their lack of cover shall be their downfall.’
‘You’ve just blown yours. How can you be sure that I’m not a plant that’s been brainwashed to have these thoughts as part of a ruse to draw you out?’

‘As I said, we have had our best telepaths working on you — they are not easily fooled. Some of them have gone as far as to place wagers on how quickly you will agree to come and help us all out.’
‘You’ve taken a big risk and I’m not sure that I’m not going to disappoint you.’
‘We can’t lose either way, Tom. If you refuse to leave the Ravens behind then we will kill you and we will have dispatched an important member of their organisation; if you decide otherwise, if you choose us — then we shall have a new powerful ally.’
‘So, what you said to me earlier about my being in no danger was not strictly true?’
‘Of course it wasn’t. Do you think I would have got anywhere by threatening you straight off? I don’t think so.’
‘You are a strange creature. I have read that when the student is ready the teacher shall appear. Is that what you are to be? My teacher?’
‘It may work both ways, Thomas. I do not know yet — I have no gift for predicting what may come; I only hope that good fortune awaits us both, no?’
‘Yes.’
‘Then you have decided?’
‘I don’t think there’s much of a choice really, is there?’
‘There is always a choice, I do not believe in destiny’s concrete nature: if I did then I would not bother to challenge things like you.’
‘No, I suppose you wouldn’t. Doesn’t change the fact you’ve given me a choice of two evils.’
‘Life was never meant to be easy, eh? Now was it, Thomas?’
‘I suppose not. Am I to go with you?’

‘Dear me, not yet, it’s not quite that simple. We are expecting to get access to the knowledge which is in your brain, of course, but you have the opportunity to acquire much more important documents for us, things which will help our campaign immeasurably.’
‘You are suggesting that I try and leave one of our facilities with top secret information concealed on my person?’
‘Exactly.’
‘Then you ‘re crazy and might as well kill me right now. Their security is better than anything anyone else in the world has ever developed — they’ve had thousands of years to perfect it.’
‘What, and it’s flawless, is it?’
‘Probably not, but I’m not going to ever have an opportunity to test its limits, and I doubt that you have ever got close enough to be able to look at the outside of the building, let alone the inside.’
‘True.’
‘Then how do you hope to achieve this miracle?’
‘Do you have clearance to use the information systems?’
‘Yes, all Ravens are given full access.’
‘Full access?’
‘Well, as close as, obviously there are restrictions to certain sensitive items, why?’
‘Are you allowed to record this data at all?’
‘Yes, on officially issued disks which have anti-tamper hardware in them. The disks also re-format themselves on a three-day cycle. Add to that the fact that they are configured to only work on officially sanctioned computers and you’ve got more than a few barriers in the way of stealing from them.’

‘Let us deal with those issues. We will find a way to fool their security systems. The computer system is no problem — get us a disk and we can load it up with one of our specially developed Trojan horse programs; it works like a retro-virus and camouflages itself so well the virus protection programmes shouldn’t even realise it’s there. You will basically be a courier. It’s a bit of donkey-work before you start reaping the rewards. It should be no problem for someone as accomplished as yourself.’

Tom did not accept the flattery, he was not the kind to get a swelled head, he had been around too long to be concerned with what others thought of him. If he had worried about what people saw in him and said about him, he might have been more wary and less likely to get cornered by someone like Hans though. Why had he never suspected that there were those who worked against the War Ravens? Was it arrogance? An insularity of thought that prevented it from ever occurring to him? Both?

‘I’ve just thought of something, Hans.’
‘Yes?’
‘This place is probably bugged.’
‘Don’t worry about that.’
‘Why not?’
‘We took care of that. We hacked their snooping devices yesterday and at this moment we’re feeding them a simulated conversation; we’re talking about Aubrey Beardsley and other various artists.’

Tom smiled despite himself. He was impressed. He was glad someone was on the ball — he was getting slack if that kind of thing was only occurring to him after a conversation had taken place. He would have to hone his concentration and get that edge he’d always had glinting with sharpness. He couldn’t afford blunted faculties where he was intending to go.

Hans left Thomas, telling him that he would contact him as soon as they were ready to initiate the plan — it seemed that there may be some fine-tuning required if everything were to run as smoothly as they needed it to. He knew that he needed to fine tune himself as well — there were things about how this whole situation had come about that worried him profoundly. Was conscience to be the undoing of centuries of survival? Had the flicker of guilt set the timer running on some bomb that was going to blow him to kingdom come? He hoped that wasn’t the case, but he feared that it might be … he had a horrible feeling it just might be the end of the road for him. That he had had a good innings was of no comfort to him — he had existed way beyond the span of a normal life and he found that each year he added to his time on this earth made him greedier for more.

He couldn’t even think about going back to sleep, instead, it occurred to him that he might go into work: where better to sharpen his faculties than the environment in which they had become sharp in the first place? He got changed, moved from his house to his garage, got in the car, and left.

They were not surprised to see him at work — the very nature of the creatures who worked there meant that the work-force had a propensity for working late into the night. War Ravens always had some work that they could be doing, regardless of the hour: there was always some tinkering to be done with the machinery of war. Peacetime was occasionally a difficult train to derail, they all understood that. That he seemed preoccupied would not cause undue concern — if he had appeared carefree the case might have been different, so hiding his nerves at what lay ahead of him on the road into the future was not that hard.

He sat there in front of his computer, scanning all the latest bulletins, checking to see if he had received any communiqués from his contacts — there was very little. There were several countries, new to the nuclear arms race, that they were trying to dupe into starting games of brinkmanship with each other: Thomas had played quite a large part in setting up this particular chess-board and had to admit that it had been a difficult task. It would all be worth it though, as far as the War Raven chiefs were concerned; this increase in activity in the less stable areas of the globe would get the big boys nervous and their systems would notch up a gear. One of his players was in place, teetering on the edge of making a mistake that might cause a small nuclear skirmish — he told his agent provocateur to do what he was there for: to provoke something, get a reaction, set the ball rolling. And that is what he did. Thomas knew Hans would not be happy, but what could Hans do about it? Nothing if he wanted that information still. Thomas couldn’t blow his cover by suddenly joining CND or the anti-war protesters, could he?

What was he doing? What had he just done? He had earlier been talking about how much he loathed what it was they did, and here he was carrying out a plan that would cause misery to countless people, just to spite someone who had steered him into doing something he might have done anyway. How stupid, how petty, how ridiculous for something that had been walking this planet for as long as he had to even contemplate. Still, it was done now — it didn’t stop him from getting that information and making a clean break of it, did it? No, of course it didn’t.

The wait for Hans to contact him, though it was fraught, was not nearly as long as he had expected it to be — this Tourniquet were apparently more efficient than he had given them credit for. The building security computer had already been infiltrated and occupied by a program that would make it possible to turn things on and off as they desired. Hans had told him that learning how they programmed what was, despite its apparent importance, only an outer and therefore secondary system, had helped Tourniquet’s hackers get an idea of how the Raven’s minds worked and how best the Trojan Horse should be disguised. He had described the easiness of the task as heartening. It was a word that Thomas would not feel comforted by until he was as far from the reach of the Ravens as possible.

He went to the same work-station that he always worked at. No-one batted an eye-lid. He was breathing heavily and his heart was pumping furiously. As he sat down to type in what would amount to a few routine enquiries his hands were shaking violently — someone patted him on the shoulder and jokingly told him that he ought to go and see somebody about his nerves, at which he laughed slightly too heartily and got a strange look from the joker. He miskeyed the entire phrase he intended to type the first time and sat there swearing at himself under his breath. He mustn’t look like a bag of nerves — Vampires, and War Ravens especially, were never nervous; at least that was the attitude of those high-up in his organisation.

He gathered himself and the look of a calm man descended upon him. He looked like any other person sitting at their computer trying to decipher ways to make the world a more dangerous place through the stories that the world told itself in newspapers and intelligence agency reports. He searched three stories in a fairly detailed and exhaustive manner which was what they had agreed he would do, and then he typed in the key phrase — the one that was pre-set to activate the program buried in the Trojan Horse.

The carapace of systems that encircled the major computer organs had less dense programming in their make-up and so took less to hack into. The links from these lesser systems were equally simple, not as robust as the inter-system pathways in the big brain of the whole set-up. This was strange, an uncharacteristic oversight on the part of his superiors. Hackers were usually over-ambitious and went straight for the meat and ignored the skin, not that the skin was simple to cut through, but it was the difference between knocking on the door of a fort and getting past them by playing them by their rules and trying to run through a whole battalion of soldiers waving guns in your direction — one way would get you killed immediately, the other would give you some breathing space before they realised you were an intruder. Thomas was glad that he and Hans concurred on which of these was the better option.

It was strange, but it seemed that the technology on the disc which he intended to transport the information on actually had more complex components than some of the equipment and software connected to the computer network. Then they realised that the pathways in were an entirely different kettle of fish to the pathways out. It seemed that the whole philosophy of the system was to catch and study infiltrators rather than to flush them out and dispose of them, and so, for a long time it looked like they had got in but they were not going to be able to get even the smallest amount of data out of the bloody thing. Then an apparently casual genius at Tourniquet’s Hacker Central spotted an irregularity in the programming language, a signature of the original programmer — and it was a golden key to all the doorways in this place. And so, it was all down to a bit of ego on the part of some computer geek that had flashed an exit sign to anyone who might have an inkling where to look, that they began to get what they had come for: information. Dates and names and details of transactions that linked the War Ravens to every single conflict since the first tribe had cobbled itself together out of friends and neighbours and taken a dislike to other groups of friends and neighbours began to spill out of the locked digital vaults of a failing system. Would one disc be enough? He had been assured that the compression rate on this little device could store the Alexandrian Library.

You could have powered half the city with the energy coming from his heart and its now irregular machine-gun bursts of beating. He thought that he was going to pass out, everything that he looked at seemed to be at some kind of a remove. It was not that he was hyperventilating, more that his fear was suffocating him, applying pressure to his windpipe. He started in his seat, as if he had just been spooked out of a reverie, and several people looked up from what they were doing to see what the matter was. When they had satisfied themselves that it was nothing they all returned to the projects they were working on — the need to work always overwhelmed the instinct to show concern: concern suggested involvement and that meant you had to commit time … time, like with any business, and especially the work of the War Ravens, was a valuable commodity.

The magic of a wish to remain uninformed and uninvolved with the things that were not brought about by their own designs, in the Ravens, served him well. Nowhere else, he thought, could you undergo such a blatant panic attack and get away with it with such ease. His breathing became more regular, his heart stopped sprinting ahead of itself, and he looked at the screen. The download was almost complete. Could it be this easy? Surely not. He could not credit the idea that the Ravens would have had such poor security, and that in the event of a security breach of this magnitude, that they would not have despatched rapid response teams to deal with problem immediately. But here he was, with enough information to bring down every single agent and high-ranking officer, well, everyone, to be precise, and nothing had yet happened. It just didn’t make sense, and he didn’t like it — not one bit.

The screen beeped, and the screen beeping meant that everything was complete, that the first hurdle had been cleared without any problems at all. He ejected the disc, popped it back in its case, and popped the case inside his coat. He turned off his computer and made his way to the exit. He was not stopped at the door. He walked out of that building in exactly the same way that he had done for his entire time with the War Ravens — he was home free, safe, escaped.

The meet would be in two days, two days in which he would have to lay lower than he had had to do in his entire career, and he had to be a sleeper agent for twenty years once; this was different though, that time he had the Ravens on his side, this time those same forces would be massed against him, baying for his blood, crawling over each other to sink their fangs into his jugular.

He dropped below broadcast depth quicker than most would be able to. He had muscle in the places he had been frequenting for countless years, pull that would buy him the silence of entire families no matter how much torture they were forced to endure. Some people would not be alive were it not for him and they were never likely to forget that — for some of them he still held the threat that was going to engulf them at bay; the enemy of these people were more often than not members of his own organisation. Yes, he would be invisible, and could stay invisible for as long as he desired, and that this time was only the matter of two days, meant it would be as easy as pie. Still, he didn’t like carrying this disc about with him: it felt like the Ancient Mariner’s albatross was strung around his neck.

He didn’t feed at all for the two days that he remained incommunicado. He could quite easily survive for a lot longer than that if required, it was just that he was not used to rationing himself, and he found that he was fantasising about some vital youth that he might sink his fangs into. The reverie might have lasted the whole two days, or he might have slept them away, but the deadline for his meeting with Hans seemed to arrive in no time at all.

Standing there, looking at his watch, waiting for his blackmailer to arrive, he got the sense that all was not as it seemed. Finally, when Hans deigned to arrive, he would not approach Thomas, and stood smiling at the end of the street. Thomas made to move closer to him but Hans held up his hand and communicated that he did not want Thomas to move at all. Thomas frowned: he wanted to get out of here as fast as possible, but he knew that this was a trap and that walking away from it unscathed was not part of the plan at all. A trap set by who though? Tourniquet? He didn’t think that they would work like that. Who then? Ah, he thought he had an idea …

The thud that he felt as he went down into unconsciousness was remembered later as a gong that woke him up. He knew that the Ravens had him, and that somehow Hans was involved in it. How could he have been so stupid? Sat here in a cell it occurred to him that it was a bit late to be asking questions of this nature now. He had been stupid and he was now going to have to pay the price. The darkness of this holding place struck him as being apt — he had been in darkness for so long now.

‘And here we are to take you into the light, my doubting friend.’
‘Jacques?’
‘Yes, Thomas, who did you think you would meet at the end of this desperate journey? Yourself perhaps? I told you before, our souls are long lost and not for the finding.’
‘So that meeting we had was all about flushing me out?’
‘Let’s call it testing the waters.’
‘What happened to Hans?’
‘We threw the puppet on the bonfire.’
‘So Hans wasn’t a real agent, and Tourniquet don’t really exist? They were just a means by which to draw out traitors?’

‘No, Tom, Tourniquet and Hans are both quite genuine. The fact that he was a born believer of one cause, and the fact that he had one of the most open minds that we have ever come across, meant that he was quite easy to turn. His mind was weak, and though the blocks which his masters had put in his mind prevented us from getting any information about Tourniquet directly from him, we were able to plant sufficient structures to make a double-agent of him, you, depressing as you may find it, were an afterthought, an afterthought that allowed us to identify the flaws in our security system, but an afterthought nonetheless.’
‘So those flaws weren’t manufactured?’
‘Sadly not. Yes, it surprised me that we should be so slack as well.’
‘You’re surely not going to weigh what I have just done against centuries of loyalty?’
‘It’s not the first time that doubt had made you susceptible to suggestion is it?’
‘So you’ve been watching me the whole time?’
‘Is that so difficult to believe, knowing what you know about us?’
‘No I suppose not.’
‘To be honest we never expected you to be so stupid, even with the doubts surfacing in your mind. I even tried to dissuade you from questioning your role in our organisation — you should have listened to me, it was the wisest thing I had ever said to you in my life, and it fell on deaf ears.’
‘And what shall happen to me?’
‘The rat has run the maze.’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means that the experiment of which you were a part has run its course: you have provided us with all the information that we required of you. The only thing which you represent for us now, is a problem of disposal.
‘Some of your superiors, after looking at your until-now exemplary record, have suggested that mercy is the path which we should lead you up. Whereas others have talked of making an example of you …’
‘What would be the different outcome of these two attitudes to the problem I pose?’
‘Well, it’s an interesting choice — mercy comes in the form of a public cremation, painful yet quick. Making an example of you would involve your entombing within a plasticrete cube for the rest of eternity, where those who contemplate the idea of acting in the same way that you have may come to look upon the sorry state which you have come to.
‘It goes without saying that we favour the less pleasant option.’
‘And who gets to make the final decision as to which way I end up?’
‘Well, there’s another interesting thing, an unlucky situation for you — it just so happens that we have been given the pleasure of deciding your fate.
‘Oh, and by the way, if you try and make a move against us that thing which, until now, has sat idly around your neck, will cause you an untold amount of pain.’
‘Oh, God.’
‘Oh, Thomas, I don’t really think that he has any interest in the affairs of us blood-sucking vermin.’

They stood there looking at him. It was a visit that they all had to take to pass their ethics class. Doubting Thomas or Prometheus Cubed, that was what they had titled the piece. Some said that the creature inside the plasticrete was an actual living Vampire, but considering how long the exhibition had been running that couldn’t be right, could it? Anyway, no-one had ever seen it move, and unless it was in some trance state that had lasted three centuries, then that was quite an astounding thing, for not one visitor to have ever witnessed a flicker of motion. There was talk about what would happen to this poignant piece of which everyone knew the story – the message – but it was likely that it would just go the way of all other art when it was no longer being viewed: it would be recycled. The class moved on, Thomas had made them think. They barely noticed the carpet of crushed poppies that were under their feet as they made their way into the next room of the exhibit.

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