This is an excerpt from “Fast Falls The Eventide”, a short story from the “Futurist Manifesto” series of Alternative History tales by John Paul Catton. The story is available as an ‘e-short’, and is published in volume 2 of “Tales From Beyond Tomorrow”. Learn more about the world of the Futurist Manifesto here!
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide,
The darkness deepens, Lord with me abide …
The back doors of the five-ton truck swung outward, and the ramp was hastily lowered. Senior Explosives Officer Christopher Owen eased forward and tilted his chassis down to crawl into the night.
The camera he held flicked from convention spotlight scanner, to Star-Tron magnification scope, then to infra-red. For ninety seconds Owen observed the somber, cooling buildings that passed his line of sight as he orientated himself. Police officers ran past him from left to right in polychromatic blurs.
In the truck parked a few yards away from Owen’s carrier, Explosives Officer Don Hickman found a flat surface for his Amstrad keyboard and donned a spindly speaker-headset, never once taking his eyes off the monitor screen. Snapping back from thermal imaging to conventional mode, he watched the floodlight cast a powerful ring of light across the Adelaide Street tarmac.
“Lima Four Zero, over.” Captain Benjamin Craig thumbed the switch on the R/T to hear the reply. “Roger. We are on site, and sending in Mark Nine now. Any word from the Home Secretary yet?”
When he finished his short, terse dialogue, Craig let the young corporal in charge of the R/T take over, and stood up to address the rest of the four-man unit. “Right, we’ve got the area sealed off. Doughty, man the R/T and keep in touch with the evacuee units. Bilton, get out there and help the others with the generator.” As the uniformed officer quickly scrambled from the mobile headquarters, Craig crossed to where Hickman sat. “How’s our man?”
“System check runs A-OK, sir. He’s online now.”
“Right.” Craig swept off his cap and ran a hand over his damp forehead. His long face, features emphasised by a severely trimmed blond mustache, looked pale and sickly in the harsh light. “Get him onto ground zero, Don.”
Hickman’s fingers tapped with unnecessary force against the keys. On the monitor screen, the road slid away from view toward the left …
Out on Adelaide Street, Owen swung slowly toward the left until the portico and entrance to the Church of St Jude’s lay square in his field of vision. The image trembled as he propelled himself forward. The stone of the portico’s column gleamed under the harsh scrutiny of the approaching lamp. The image rolled and then swayed up and down as Owen’s tractor treads bit into the crumbling steps that led up to the church. He reached the top and leveled off, pushing himself forward through the unlocked doors into the vestry. Past the North Aisle door, his camera registered the shadow stripes cast by the rows of pews, and to his left, the entrance to the old tower gaped vacantly.
If Owen were still human, he would have felt cold.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me …
Christopher Owen, seven years of age, prepared for his first confession.
The booth in which he tried not to fidget held the same coolness the school chapel seemed to harbor. No matter how hot the summer’s day, the church held that same chill ambience. Owen tugged down the bottoms of his short trousers to stop splinters piercing his legs.
“Forgive me, father,” he said, “for I have sinned.”
Looking up, briefly, Owen saw the priest in silhouette through the grill. Head bent, eyes shut, as if his body was overburdened with other people’s sin. The still figure muttered something Owen couldn’t catch. Nervously, the boy nodded in agreement, but to what, he didn’t know.
Had he really sinned? His mother was upset; she kept saying that she didn’t want him to go on to the practice grounds, she didn’t want him to get hurt. But what about Dad? He was a soldier, so he did that sort of thing every day of his life.
The broken treasures scattered across the grounds of Netheravon Camp were the spoils of imaginary wars to a clever, curious child; cartridges, spent shells, discarded tin boxes … did the cordite smell any worse than the smells sticking to the other boys’ hands?
Owen stumbled through a litany of anything that could get him into trouble at home. It wasn’t difficult; Father Reid, tall with grey stubbly hair, his breath always smelling like over-ripe fruit, seemed to find fault in almost anything a child was capable of doing. Owen’s mother would always hide the battered deck of cards before the priest came to call, even thought they’d only been playing ‘snap’.
The priest dismissed the boy with a cursory absolution and a request for purity in thought and body. The whole thing took less than ten minutes. Owen, standing outside the booth in the church that dwarfed his small body, toyed with many thoughts. He thought of going home and mass-producing homemade grenades. Kicking his brother. Never going back to boarding school. He thought of doing them all, and then after ten minutes in the Confessional booth he’d still be forgiven.
Of course, he didn’t do any of them.
Swift to its close ebbs life’s little day,
Earth’s joys grow dim; its glories pass away …
The floor plan of the Church of St Jude’s crackled like kitchen paper as Craig spread it out beside the keyboards. Leaning down on it with both hands, he and Hickman gazed from the map to the view of the church on the monitor.
Owen moved slowly down the aisle, picking out his way by feedback sensors. In the spotlight’s wash the pews stood erect and lumpen, holding their massed congregation of shadows. At the periphery of vision hung the organ pipes, drained of color, silent and leaden. Looking from the monitor to the plan of the church, Craig traced the path Owen took into the nave, the path leading straight ahead to the chancel and, off to the right, the small side chapel. The crypt, he noted, was crammed with the boiler and heating equipment, and almost inaccessible.
“Sir,” Hickman said. He pointed to something pale daubed on the chapel wall. Craig increased the magnification; two words in Latin had been messily painted onto the brick.
“The UDA,” Hickman whispered. “It’s a reaction to the peace talks …”
“Never mind that now,” Craig snapped. “Scan for booby traps. Start with anything electromagnetic or sonic.”
“Owen is signaling to begin the sweep, sir,” the sergeant hastily reported.
“Right. If there’s anything there, we need to spot it now.”
Owen switched to infra-red. The two explosives officers followed the monitor’s view, as it swung on its axis.
The quiet was broken by a messenger at the back doors, saluting and asking for the CO. Craig didn’t bother to reply but took the small sealed envelope. He tore open the flap and scanned the slip of paper it contained. “Shit,” he muttered.
“Switching to UV,” Hickman announced. Moments passed. “Ultrasonics.” The church was still clean. No booby traps, but no primary explosive device.
“I know it’s in there somewhere.” Craig glanced at the slip of paper then folded it into his back pocket. “I know it’s there. Try X-Ray.” Hickman’s fingers flickered across the keyboard once more.
Craig never had time to wonder why Owen fired the X-Ray camera at the altar first.
Change and decay in all around I see,
O thou who changest not, abide with me …
Christopher Owen, twenty-eight years of age, gunned his jeep through the Catholic ghetto of Clonard.
The years of training at Aldershot, the Bramley Scool of Ammunition, and service abroad, had taken a childhood obsession and turned it into a career in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps. As to be expected, he found himself in Belfast, based at Girdwood Park Barracks. It was from there that his vehicle sped as he repeatedly called over the R/T for more information on the device just located. Kashmir St, Springfield Rd, Cawnpore St, the rebuilt Bombay St – he read off the street names of West Belfast like the beads on a well-worn rosary.
A flash of light near the corner of the eye, like summer lightning. A low grinding rumble felt through the car’s bodywork. Other peripheral sounds followed the main explosion; the breaking of glass, the collapsing of timber, the climbing arc of a scream. A pall of smoke and dust began to rise from the rim of Clonard.
“Christ!” The Lance-Corporal seated next to Owen pointed needlessly in the direction of the blast. “That was close.”
Rounding a corner, Owen saw the bulk of a warehouse almost obscured by smoke and dust, a scarlet tongue of flame beneath its low roof. Screaming, and the chiming crunch of glass, came from all around. The jeep screeched to a halt and the soldiers bundled out.
“Here, sir!” The shout came from one of a four-man patrol, who struggled toward Owen through the smoke, retching, covered in dust and plaster. He pointed behind him, to what Owen thought at first were a pair of ripped-up combat fatigues, torn from someone’s legs and flung on the sidewalk. Then he saw the blood, and the gleam of shattered bone.
Choking back the smoke, Owen and his unit cleared the rubble from around the fallen soldier. Mercifully, the legs were still attached to the body; but Owen soon saw that the severity of the man’s wounds had been hidden by the dust that covered him. The soldier’s battered head lolled, and blood began to froth from the top of his skull.
“It’s too late, sir,” the Lance-Corporal gasped. “He’s a goner.”
Ignoring him, Owen radioed for a medic. On his knees beside the unconscious man, the Lance-Corporal gingerly looked for a way to remove the man’s backpack, without aggravating his injuries. The civvies were gathering, standing beyond the smoke. Owen could feel their stares of contempt, could hear their muttered jeers.
Looking up from the body, Owen turned his face to the gathering crowd, the dour stares, the tension, the barely concealed excitement. One figure in particular pushed through them, picking his way toward the rubble. The man was tall, in a dark jacket and trousers, grey hair blown back by the wind into an unruly crest. Owen stood up. “Let me through,” the man called.
“Absolutely not. Please get back with the others,” Owen snapped.
“I’m a priest!” the newcomer yelled. “Let me tend to that man.”
Before Owen could answer, a ferocious snarling made him turn round. A large dog, released by one of the civvies, bounded up to them and lunged toward the dying soldier’s body. Alarmed, the other patrol members stood defensively in front of their fallen comrade.
“Get away from the dog!”
As they stepped away, Owen swung his Browning rifle up, the stock slapping into his arm. Through the drifting smoke, he sighted into the eyes of the animal. His gun cracked and spat brief, bright fire. The animal jerked aside, its hide ripped open by the bullets.
Dazed, Owen stood tall in the sudden silence, his gun still aimed at the dying animal. He realized that the priest had dropped to his knees beside the dying soldier. Head bent, his hand making quick gestures above the man’s face, the priest spoke quickly but confidently in Latin.
The last rites, thought Owen. He’s giving him the last rites.
Owen caught the Lance-Corporal’s gaze from the corner of his eye, and motioned him to be still. The soldiers didn’t move until the military ambulance screeched into the road, a Land Rover behind it. The civvies had melted into the graffiti-stained background; whoever owned the dog had disappeared. The priest got slowly to his feet, looked cannily at Owen, and turned to walk back into the bloodstained maze of Clonard.
Not a brief glance I beg, a passing word,
But as Thou dwell’st with Thy disciples, Lord …
At Craig’s orders, Owen had pulled back to the vestry. Three of Number One Unit’s sappers waited with the replacements for his end effectors.
Inside the mobile HQ, the air stank of sweat and tension. Craig and the ATO passed the skeletal image of the X-Ray photograph between them. The image was of a lumpish block, about three feet long and two feet deep, enclosed within a shadowy envelope representing the wood and cloth of the altar. The pictures taken from a higher elevation showed an arrangement lodged inside the block, a shape that chillingly reminded Craig of a hangman’s noose.
“Five inches,” said Craig bitterly. “Five inches of cement. And what the hell is that stuff underneath?”
Hickman shrugged. “I couldn’t say, sir. But the lads are fitting Owen with the masonry drill right now.” he glanced back at the monitor screen. Owen was rotating and operating the drill, holding it up in front of his camera, quickly getting used to the feel. “That should be enough to get through.”
It must be the isotope, Craig thought. Why else would they set a bomb inside a concrete block? They want to make sure we can’t get to it. No wonder we didn’t find booby-traps.
Communications Officer Doughty called for their attention. “Sir … the Home Secretary wants to know what’s going on.”
“Put him through to H.Q.”
Craig listened at Doughty relayed the message, and as soon as he’d finished, called for silence. It was time the others knew. “Now listen – I need to brief you both as soon as possible.” He pulled out the message he’d crumpled into his hip pocket.
“As you know, terrorist alert was stepped up from Delta Orange to Delta Red last month. The reason, which only a very few people besides Prime Minister Cook knew about, was a consignment of U-235 stolen from the Resurgam nuclear power plant five weeks ago. Nobody claimed responsibility. Nobody identified themselves when they called the police station earlier to say there’s a bomb in St. Jude’s. But it’s now beyond any reasonable doubt that the explosive in that device is weapons-grade uranium.”
“Jesus,” Hickman said softly. “How much was taken, sir?”
“Enough pure material for a six-kiloton explosion. The fireball will take out every building within a square mile at least, spread radiation all over London, and the EMP will spread over five miles.”
“UDA bastards,” Doughty growled, his voice hoarse with shock.
“All that matters is we have a bomb,” Craig said firmly. “A special atomic demolition munition, gentlemen, it’s finally happened. So we stay calm. Owen can cut through the bomb’s casing. We know he’s the best. He’ll get through in twenty minutes with the masonry drill.”
“What time was that call made to the police station, sir?” asked Hickman.
Craig frowned. “Ten-thirty.” Hickman chewed his lip, an unspoken question on his face. “So we don’t know what kind of firing mechanism it’s got; it could be proximity, or interference.”
“Or it could be on a timer, sir.” Doughty finally said it.
“Yes, it could be on a timer. All the more reason why we should get to work now.” Craig’s eyes turned once more to the monitor, the camera once more showing the aisle rolling back as Owen made his way forward. Craig started as a message typed itself across the bottom of the screen.
“Duncan?” Hickman sat back in his chair, shaking his head. “The priest?”