So here we are. The end (for now). As this last chapter divides neatly into three distinct scenes, I’m putting it up as three posts throughout the week.
First up, what happened to Colin …?
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Coals of Fire: Ash
To Colin, crouched behind a car at the end of the road, it looked like nothing so much as an unholy fireworks display. He heard the choppers first, the signature beating of their rotors clear in the still silence of the night; he saw the muzzle flares from their wing-mounted launchers, and, a second later, heard the faint roar the rockets made as they sped from the sky; a sudden, blinding barrage went up from behind the houses, hundreds of magnesium flares hissing and spinning and thrashing upwards, meeting the rockets in a shuddering detonation of white and red and yellow: the light first, then the deep bass that shook him down to his lungs, then the gust of hot wind and the smell of cordite; and, finally, the whump of the one rocket that made it through, hitting a house halfway down the street and blasting it half to hell, all black smoke licked by sudden, hungry flames.
All this in the space of a minute, so fast he barely had time to register it. Then silence: long seconds dragging by in hideous suspense, before the first round of gunfire cracking and snapping, the retorts echoing off the houses. Shouts of command, confident at first, barking back and forth; then the inevitable call of man down! and the shouts rose in pitch, less sure, panic creeping in, then anger, as the carefully-laid battle plans began to fall apart into the frantic scramble of down-and-dirty warfare.
What had he gotten involved in? Some kind of black ops, that was for sure: the houses in this street had been evacuated, the lights cut, all signs of an outfit with enough tech and influence to do the job properly. As if in agreement, the two Apache helicopters that had begun the engagement thundered overhead before peeling away to the north. Colin turned, craning his neck to watch them go. When he looked down he was facing the blunt muzzle of a silenced pistol.
“Colin Michael Ashwood?”
The question was delivered curtly and precisely, like a receptionist in a doctor’s waiting room. Colin peered down the arm that held the pistol, looking for a face. He had had enough guns shoved in his face in his life to know fear was useless — what mattered was the psychological advantage, and for that you needed to see their eyes. But it was too dark, and the purple afterglow of the explosions still blossomed across his vision. Idiot, was all he could think. You deserve to be shot, at this rate.
“Colin Michael Ashwood?”
Normally he would expect a tinge of impatience on the second question; not with this person. The voice was steady, inquisitive. The speaker genuinely wanted an answer. The barrel of the gun had not moved an inch.
Colin licked dry lips. “Who’s asking?”
There was a sudden blue-white glow in the darkness, the screen of a phone. The figure held it up, as if comparing Colin’s face to something on the screen, then pocketed the phone and tightened his finger on the trigger. A shot rang out. Colin flinched, knowing he was dead, while the voice in his head said, But it was a silenced pistol. The figure’s head snapped back, a red flower blooming where his eye had been, and he tumbled to the ground like a stringless puppet.
Colin turned. A figure clothed from head to foot in mottled grey and black had risen from the shadows accross the street and was advancing on him, one eye pressed to the night-scope of the rifle she held in expert hands. He could tell from her voice that she was a woman, but her head was sheathed in a black Lycra hood, and apart from her eyes he could see nothing of her face.
“Identify yourself!” she repeated. She stopped ten paces away in the middle of the road, her rifle still trained on Colin. On the pavement, the body of his assailant slowly bled out.
“My name is Colin Ashwood,” he said, extending his hands towards her, palms open. “I’m unarmed.”
“What is your status?”
Colin shook his head. “I don’t know what you mean.”
She shifted her grip impatiently. “What did they want with you?”
She’s tense, Colin realised. She hadn’t expected this.
“Maybe if you tell me who ‘they’ are,” he said, “I can tell you what I think they wanted with me.”
She didn’t reply. She was thinking. Just wait. Let her take her time. She shifted her grip again, unsure what to do, what to say. Colin thought about speaking out, to reassure her, to ask her who she was working for; but before he could open his mouth the woman tutted impatiently, lowered her rifle, drew a sidearm from her hip, aimed, and fired.
There was a sharp sting in Colin’s neck. His hand went up automatically and came away holding a two-pronged dart. A dart. The word sparked something in his mind, something he knew was important, but whatever it was she had shot into his neck was already working its way through his bloodstream, and the thought slipped away from him. The edges of his vision began to blur; his arms were dead weights, his legs uncertain. He stumbled to one side, tried to look up at her, to ask why, what he had done, but his lips were rubber and his tongue was bloated, and the words came out as a spray of saliva. He was on his knees, then his side, cheek pressed against the cold pavement, warm blood from the corpse beside him seeping into his hair, watching as her booted feet approached and the muzzle of her rifle nudged his head.
He expected unconsciousness, but it didn’t come. He remained aware, hearing and seeing everything: the long wait until the last of the gunfire had died away; her muttered communication over her comm unit; another long wait, then more boots and more voices, though they were slurred and booming in his ears; hands gripping him, lifting him, blue lights and open doors, then a harsh flourescent glare from which he could not shield his eyes. A plastic mask was placed over his mouth and nose; there was a cold hiss of oxygen, soothing to his lungs. His head lolled to one side, and he saw the gurney beside him, and the dark-skinned woman stretched out on it, a purple bruise blooming down one side of her face, and the blood on her shirt, and the gloved hands splayed on her chest, pressing, pressing, pressing, pressing …
He saw everything, and heard everything, and understood nothing.
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Next up: Jason and Rachel.