by Bob Shaw

To Chris Priest — counsellor and friend.


The drive to Chivenor had been long and tiring. As it had progressed the pain in Hasson’s back had grown worse, and with the pain had come a steady deterioration of his mood. At first there had been stray misgivings, hints of sadness which anybody might have felt on passing through a series of towns and villages where all commerce and community life seemed to have been vanquished by the chill grey rains of Match. By the time they had reached the north Devon coast, however, Hasson felt more than normally dejected, and later when the car surmounted a rise giving its three occupants a glimpse of the Taw estuary — he realized he was terrified of the journey that lay ahead.

How can this be? he thought, unable to reconcile his feelings with those he would have experienced six weeks earlier in similar circumstances. I’m being given a free trip to Canada, three months” leave on full pay, all the time I need to rest and recuperate

“I always think there’s something right about the principle of the flying boat,” said Colebrook, the police surgeon, who was sitting in the rear seat with Hasson. “The whole idea of flying over the sea in ships, having four-fifths of the globe for a landing place

It all seems natural, if you know what I mean — technology and nature going hand-in-hand.”

Hasson nodded. “I see what you’re getting at.”

“Just look at those things.” A gesture of Colebrook’s plump, strong hand took in the slate-blue strip of water and the apparently haphazard scattering of flying boats. “Silver birds, as our Polynesian cousins might say. Do you know why they aren’t painted?”

Hasson shook his head, trying to take an interest in the surgeon’s conversation. “Can’t think.”

The load factor. Economics. The weight of the paint would be equal to the weight of an extra passenger.”

“Is that right?” Hasson smiled, hopelessly, and saw the boyish enthusiasm fade from Colebrook’s face to be replaced by a look of professional concern. He cursed himself for not having made a greater effort to cover up.

“Problems, Rob?” Colebrook turned bodily to get a better look at his patient, pulling his suit into silky diagonal folds across his stomach. “How do you feel?” “A bit tired that’s all. A few aches and pains. I’ll hang together.”

“I’m not asking about that side of it. Have you taken any Serenix today?”

“Well …” Hasson abandoned the attempt to lie. “I don’t like taking pills.”

“What’s that got to do with anything,” Colebrook said impatiently. “I don’t like brushing my teeth, but if I stop the result will be a lot of pain and a mouth full of delph — so I brush my teeth.”

“It’s hardly the same thing,” Hasson protested.

“it’s exactly the same thing, man. Your nervous system is bound to give you hell for a month or two, maybe longer, but the fact that a thing is natural doesn’t mean you have to put up with it. There aren’t any medals for this Rob — no Misery Cross or Depression Diploma…”

Hasson raised a finger. “That’s good, doc. I like that.”

“Swallow a couple of those caps, Rob. Don’t be a fool.” Colebrook, who had too much medical experience to allow himself to be upset by a wayward patient, leaned forward and tapped Air Police Captain Nun on his shoulder, his expansive mood returning. Why don’t we all go to Canada, Wilbur? We could all do with a break.”

Nun had been at the wheel most of the way from Coventry and was showing signs of strain. “Some of us can’t be spared,” he said, refusing to be captivated by pleasantries. “Anyway, it’s too early in the year for me. I’d rather wait till the Iceland-Greenland corridor is cleared.”

“That could take months.”

“I know, but some of us can’t be spared.” Nunn transferred the weight of his forearms on to the steering wheel, managing to convey his disinclination to talk. The sky ahead had cleared to an antiseptic pale blue, but the ground was still wet, and the car’s wheels made swishing sounds on the tarmac curves as it descended towards the airfield and flying boat terminal at Chivenor. Nunn continued to drive fast, with broody concentration, as the view of the estuary was lost behind a row of dripping evergreens.

Hasson, slouched uncomfortably in the rear seat, stared at the 8 back of his chief’s neck and wished there had been no reference to the clearing of the flight corridors. His plane was due to take off in little more than an hour and the last thing he wanted was to think about the possibility of it smashing into any human bodies which might be drifting through the low cloud and fog that often obscured the Atlantic air lines.

Nobody in the west had any clear idea of what was going on in the vast tracts of land spanning the eastern hemisphere from the Zemlayas to Siberia, but each winter a sparse, slow blizzard of frozen bodies — kept aloft by their CG harnesses — came swirling down over the pole, endangering air cargo traffic between Britain and North America.

The general belief was that they were Asian peasants, ignorant of the dangers of boosting to even a modest altitude in a continental winter, or victims of sudden weather changes who had been claimed by frostbite without realising what was happening to them. A hysterical faction, small but vociferous, claimed they were political expendables deliberately cast loose on the geostrophic winds to hinder, even marginally, the flow of western commerce. Hasson had always regarded the latter idea as being unworthy of his consideration, and the fact that it had entered his mind now was yet another pointer to his state of health. He slid his hand into his coat pocket and gripped the container of Serenix capsules, reassuring himself they were available.

In a few minutes the car had reached the airfield and was skirting its perimeter on the way to the flying boat docks. The tall silvery fins of the boats could be seen here and there above the complex of quayside sheds and portable offices. A number of men, their clothing marked with dayglo panels, were flying between the quay and the boats anchored further out in the estuary, registering on the edge of Hasson’s vision as a constant agitation of colourful specks.

Nunn brought the car to a halt in a parking bay which was outside the mesh fence of the departure area. As Hasson’s department head, he had been burdened with most of the behind-the scenes work associated with smuggling Hasson out of the country and finding a place where he could live in safe obscurity for three months. No formal machinery existed for hiding and protecting key witnesses whose lives could be under threat, and 9 Captain Nunn had been put to considerable trouble to find a suitable host for Hasson in another country. In the end he had come to an arrangement with a Canadian police officer who had been on an exchange visit to the Coventry force some years earlier. Nun was a man who hated anything to upset his administrative routine and now he was anxious to get Hasson off his hands.

“We won’t go in with you, Rob,” he said, switching off the engine. “The Less we’re seen together the better. No point in taking any chances.”

“Chances!” Hasson snorted to show his disapproval of what he thought of as a charade. “What chances? Sullivan is a mobster, but he’s also a business man and he knows he’ll be finished if he starts killing cops.”

Nun drummed with his fingers on the serrated rim of the steering wheel. “We’re not cops Rob — we’re air cops. And people kill us all the time. How many of your original squad are still alive?”

“Not many.” Hasson turned his head away to hide an unexpected, unmanning quiver of his lower lip.

“I’m sorry — I shouldn’t have said that.” Nunn sounded irritated rather than apologetic.

Colebrook, ever watchful, gripped Hasson’s arm just above the elbow and squeezed it firmly. “Take two capsules right now, Rob. That’s an order.”

Embarrassed and shamed, Hasson brought the plastic dispenser out of his pocket, fed two green-and-gold capsules into his palm and swallowed them. They felt dry and weightless in his mouth, like the blown-out eggs of tiny birds.

Nun cleared his throat. “The point I was making is that the Sullivan case is out of the hands of the Air Police and we have to do what SCQ tells us. If they think your evidence is worth the Sullivan organisation’s trying to shut you up for good we have to accept what they say. It’s their patch.”

“I know, but it’s all so …” Hasson gazed around him helplessly. “I mean … fake identity, fake passport! How am I going to get used to calling myself Haldane?”

“That doesn’t seem much of a problem to me,” Nunn said brusquely, compressing his lips. “Try to adopt a more positive attitude, Rob. Get yourself off to Canada and do a lot of sleeping and eating and drinking, and enjoy it while you have the chance. We’ll send for you when you have to testify.”

“Speaking as a medical man, that sounds like good advice.” Colebrook opened the door at his side, got out and went to the back of the car. He lifted the lid of the trunk and began unloading Hasson’s cases.

“I won’t get out,” Nunn said, reaching a hand into the rear seat. “Take care of yourself, Rob.”

“Thanks.” Hasson shook the offered hand and let himself out of the car. The sky had completely cleared now, to the palest wash of blue, and a searching breeze was whipping in from the Atlantic. Hasson shivered as he thought of the thousands of kilometres of open sea that lay between him and his destination. The journey seemed too great for any aircraft, and even more incredible was the idea that only a few months ago he, Robert Hasson, faced with the task of getting to Canada, would have brashly strapped on a counter-gravity harness and made the flight alone, with no protection other than a helmet and heated suit. At the thought of going aloft again, of being able to fall, a looseness developed in Hasson’s knees and he leaned against the vehicle, taking care to make the action look casual. The enamelled metal chilled his fingers.

“I’ll go with you as far as reception,” Colebrook said. “Nobody’s going to worry about seeing you with a doctor.”

“I’d rather go in alone, thanks. I’m all right.”

Colebrook smiled approvingly. “That’s good. Just remember what the physiotherapist told you about how to lift heavy weights.” Hasson nodded, said goodbye to the surgeon and went towards the gate which led to the departure building. He carried a large and a small case in each hand, keeping his back straight and the load in balance. The pain from his spine and the rebuilt joint of his left knee was considerable, but he had learned that movement — no matter how uncomfortable — was his ally. The real pain, the devasting and paralysing agony, came after he was forced to remain immobile for a long period, and then had to perform a once simple action such as getting out of bed. It was as though his body, denying the magic of surgery, had a masochistic yearning for crippledom.

He went to the passenger terminal where he and his baggage were subjected to a series of fairly perfunctory checks. It turned out that there were about twenty other people on his particular flight, which meant that the flying boat had almost its full quota of passengers. For the most part, they were middle-aged couples who had the flustered, expectant look of people who were not used to long-distance travel. Hasson guessed they were going abroad to visit relatives. He stood apart from them, sipping machine-made coffee and wondering why anybody who had the option of remaining safely at home would set out to cross a wintered ocean.

“Your attention, please,” called a stewardess who had razor- cut golden hair and neat, hard features. “Flight Box 62 is scheduled to take off for St John’s in approximately twenty minutes. Due to the strength and direction of the breeze which has sprung up within the last few hours, we have been forced to anchor the aircraft further out than is usual and our motor launches are having to cope with extra work — but we can avoid delaying our departure if we fly out to the aircraft. Are there any passengers with boarding cards for Flight Bo162 who are unable to make a personal flight of half a kilometre?”

Hasson’s heart lurched sickeningly as he glanced around the group and saw that all of them were nodding in tentative agreement.

“Very well,” the stewardess said, nodding her head. “You will find standard CG harnesses on the rack beside the…”

“I’m sorry,” Hasson cut in, “I’m not allowed to use a harness.”

The girl’s eyes flickered briefly and there was a disappointed murmur from the other passengers. Several women glanced at Hasson, their eyes speculative and resentful. He turned away without speaking, feeling the chill air rush upwards past him at terminal velocity as he bombed down into Birmingham’s crowded commuter levels after a fall of three thousand metres, and the lights of the city expanded beneath him like a vast jewelled flower…

“In that case there’s no point in any of us flying.” The stewardess’s voice was neutral. “If you will all make yourselves comfortable I will call you as soon as a launch is available. We will do everything we can to keep delays to a minimum. Thank you.” She went to a communications set in the corner of the glass-walled lounge and began whispering into it.

Hasson set his cup down and, acutely conscious of being stared at, walked into the toilets. He locked himself into a cubicle, leaned against the door for a moment, then took out his medicine dispenser and fed two more capsules into his mouth. The two he had swallowed in the car had not yet taken effect, and as he stood in the sad little closed universe of partitions and tiles, praying for tranquillity, it dawned on him how complete his breakdown had been. He had seen other men crack up under the strain of too much work, too many hours of cross-wind patrols at night when the danger of collision with a rogue flier made the nerves sing like telephone wires in a gale, but always he had viewed the event with a kind of smug incomprehension. Underlying his sympathy and intellectual appreciation of the medical facts had been a faint contempt, a conviction that, given his mental stability, the wilted air cops, the sick birds, would have been able to shrug off their woes and carry on as before. His sense of security had been so great that he had totally failed to recognise his own warning symptoms -the moods of intense depression, the irritability, the growing pessimism which drained life of its savour. Without realising it, Hasson had been terribly vulnerable, and in that fragile condition-shorn of all his armour — he had gone into the arena against a grinning opponent who wore a black cloak and carried a scythe…