THE FOURTH MILLENNIUM
3 Tour Of Duty (Cont)
Daylight, as ever, during the bleak, winter months, was a long time coming. It didn’t help matters that the sullen sky remained overcast, with a steel-grey sheet, fore-warning of yet more snow to come. At least this meant that it wouldn’t be quite as cold as it had been, during the month immediately prior to the arrival of the snowstorms. The high-pressure system that had displayed a seamless expanse of blue sky, by day, and a starscape of breathtaking clarity, by night, had also ensured that temperatures had remained well below freezing by both day and night.
Watching the passing scenery was just about the most uninspiring pastime Starling could imagine. Everywhere looked exactly the same, and the monotony of it all was mind-numbing. Kilometre after kilometre of identical-looking buildings presented a recurring nightmare of a landscape, totally devoid of recognisable, individual landmarks, man-made or natural. No natural features existed even, to break up the uniformity of the horizon. As far as the eye could see, in any direction was nothing but a level surface of tediously similar, snow-covered townscape.
As the day became lighter, the pure, brilliant white of the snow-blanketed ground, took on a dirty grey tinge, matching the despondent mood of the gloom-bearing clouds, and the dejected passengers alike. The once visible horizon disappeared as heaven and earth fused to form a void, which could be quite accurately, and entirely appropriately, described as purgatory.
Starling had made a point of taking note of the precise time the bus had set off from outside Nightingale’s house. For the record, he had registered the time as 06:17:24. He mused that, according to Chestnut at Transport Headquarters, they were due to arrive at their destination at 09:18:00, on the dot.
Robin had noticed, in his rear-view mirror, Starling’s purposeful glance at the digital timepiece, integrally situated into the back of the Aspex enclosure, surrounding him. He was well aware that Chestnut had guaranteed a travelling time of three hours and thirty six seconds. Without hesitation, he adjusted his navigational controls to achieve an average speed that would accommodate this guarantee.
As the bizarrely repetitive backdrop dawdled it’s progress outside, Starling found himself taking increasingly more frequent upward glances at the chronometer. This served the dual purpose of, not only providing a welcome distraction, but also allowing him to check the accuracy of Chestnut’s prediction.
At precisely 09:18, the vehicle came to an abrupt halt. It had been an incredibly smooth ride and, despite the monotony of the view to the exterior, a very comfortable and relaxing experience. So much so, in fact, that it took Starling and Nightingale several seconds to realise that the bus, had indeed stopped moving.
It was not until they noticed that the Aspex enclosure, surrounding Robin, had begun to move, and the driver himself, adjusting his position, to turn and face his jaded passengers; that they were able to confirm, both the stationary status of the vehicle, and the current time.
Starling and Nightingale collected their personal belongings, and disembarked, thanking Robin for his efficiency; at the same time, wondering whether or not Birch, the person Mallard had arranged to meet them, would be aware of the bus’s arrival.
They stood together for a few moments, bags in hand, close to the front of the bus, debating the reliability of ‘uncle’ Mallard’s instructions.
Robin leaned his head out of the window, and delivered a short, shrill whistle, beckoning to Starling with his left arm.
“Here,” he called.
Starling approached the window hesitantly, but before he was able to query the driver’s signal, Robin handed him a small, silver-coloured disc.
“You might find this useful,” he offered, in hushed tones.
Starling inspected the silver coin, lying in the flat of his hand. One side depicted the embossed likeness of a man’s face, surrounded on the perimeter, by a series of strange symbols, he was unable to recognise. They were, in fact, words. He did, however, recognise the numbers that also appeared to the upper left side of the profile, above the man’s forehead. They read 2736, which held absolutely no significance whatsoever to Starling. In similar fashion, the rear of the disc contained a representation of an ornate building. More words appeared to the upper portion of the coin, while lower, close to the base, stood the number 100. Unbeknown to Starling, this was a unit of currency, dating back to almost fifty years before the ‘Purges’.
“Thanks, Robin. What is it? A good luck charm?” enquired the bemused Starling.
“Now why would a man like you need one of those?” replied Robin, cryptically.
Not to be outdone by Robin’s verbal evasion, Starling returned the question with one of his own.
“Oh, no reason. Why give me such an item?”
“Perhaps you might be able to tell me; at a later date, of course.”
There was no reply that Starling could think of, to satisfy safely this development in the conversation. He looked Robin directly in the eye and simply agreed.
As the younger man started towards his friend, once more, Robin continued to speak.
“You know, Starling; from one bird to another. The use of the name ‘Robin’, sends a very powerful message, when applied in the correct environment.”
With that, Robin smiled, and saluted. An inexplicable expression appeared on his face.
Starling returned the salute nodding; realising that no further words were necessary. He now, more than ever, firmly believed that his initial perceptions had indicated accurately, that this man, Robin, could prove to be, one of his most valued, important, and influential allies.
Birch’s arrival, at shortly after 9:45, triggered the traveller’s departure from the grounds of Sector 4735’s Transport Department Offices.
With one last, deliberate glance, from Starling, in the direction of Robin, they made their way, the short distance, to the home of the Birch family. This was where they would be staying, at least until they had made further contact with, as yet unidentified leads, to ‘them’.
Birch was younger than Starling had been led to believe. He was, Starling discovered, thirty four, and not in his mid forties, as Mallard’s description had implied. Perhaps this was because Starling had imagined him to be only a couple of years younger than his sister-in-law, Nightingale’s mother, who was forty eight; the same age as her husband. Birch had, somehow, managed to retain his youthful good looks, which made him appear to be no older than late twenties; thirty at most.
Starling and Nightingale were informed, unsurprisingly, that they would have to sleep in the living room. They would have to make themselves as comfortable as possible, by utilising the rolled-up Portabeds that lay on the floor, behind the leisure seating.
This was ideal; it meant the maximum amount of time could be spent together, and plans could be formulated jointly, without having to wait to receive the other’s approval.
Copyright © Stanislaw Skibinski
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