The vicious crosswind howls across the air intakes just beyond the windscreen of the rented transit van, threatening occasionally to pick it up and fling it into the heather lined ditch, the only thing separating this lonely road from mile after mile of Scottish moor. A shiver goes down my spine as wierd, otherworldy harmonics vibrate through the airconditioning and crawl into the cab, voices on the edge of chaotic sound; an almost-ordered brown noise that reminds me of the neverending semi-musical environment of a Vegas casino gaming floor, almost, but never quite establishing itself as real melody.
I almost miss the turn-off when it comes up, there’s an almost imperceptible flattening of the undergrowth, and a break in the almost infinite fence, and I haul the heavy van round and off the road, after glancing in the mirrors, and gazing down the oncoming mile or two towards the vanishing point. No point drawing attention to ourselves. There’s a thump as I cross the kerb, and a nasty grating as my load shifts on the boards in the cargo section behind me, but as soon as I crest the rise, the track is clear, for the next few hundred yards before I lose it in the gloom, and it becomes even harder to see when I turn my headlights off, and slowly negotiate my way onto the moors by my sidelights.
I stop the engine, kill the lights, and wind down the window, and lean out, trying to catch the noise of any cars which might have been a ways behind me, in this light they’d be hard pressed to notice the black panel van, and I want to check the GPS before I lose sight of the edge of polite civilisation. I cup the GPS screen in my hand to stifle its glow, and it puts my destination another mile south, well beyond the sight of the road, and hopefully in a relatively dead sat-surveillance spot. Then again, most of the surrounding hundred square miles is a dead spot, the Scottish highlands never having been much for cold war action.
I dream of a lonely place. I am driving my car through fog, the daylight is fuzzy around the edges, but the visibility is low, down to thirty yards or so.
I stop the car and get out. All around there is dead silence.
The road is surrounded by open grassland, no hedges or kerbs line the tarmac. The fog blurs the edge of the land into a null, a void, with no end and no beginning.
At that moment I could truly believe that I and this bubble of existence in the fog is everything that exists, and I am alone in this tiny universe, only my thoughts, my consciousness.
I fire up the van again and creep onwards, turning my lights onto high beam as soon as I lose sight of the road, and now, moving down into a gentle dip in the moor, I can see a dark group of farm buildings, and the curve of a black corrugated steel roofed barn, no lights, no signs of life, and that’s just what I expected. They won’t hear me coming though, the occupants will be far too busy.
The scattered concrete debris crunches under the tyres as I pull the van round the back of the barn and underneath the metal roof, hidden from the main approach. I block in a black Ferrari, a rusted fiat, a customised land rover with over sized tyres, and a smart car.
My eyebrows raise at the last, I’m surprised I didn’t pass it in the ditch earlier. There is also a smattering of black cars in the company mould, and I wrap myself in my army issue parka as I walk past them down the row towards the main building, all recent number plates, no distinguishing marks.
Before I scurry across the yard to the house, I rap my knuckles on a filthy fuel tank up on a concrete plinth, and it rings satisfyingly full, the result of a previous trip, and I take the opportunity as a thought springs to mind, to check under a greasy green tarp behind it for the twin generators we stole from a depot down the road in Wick a month previously, Originally destined for Piper Yankee somewhere out in the North Sea, they will be serving a higher purpose.
As soon as I open the door from the freezing yard, I feel the noise and heat leaking out at me, just taking the edge of the chill off. A slight hint, growing exponentially, of cigarette smoke and caffeine, the glow of naked lightbulbs highlighting the peeling paint on the naff plaster of the utility room as I crack the door open wider. As I hold the door against the wind pushing me into the house, I can hear the cacophony, akin to a city bar, sweeping toward me. As the door closes as I lean back onto it, I raise my open hands in mock fear and grin at the man holding the South African copy of an Italian semi automatic shotgun at what passes for a coat-check.
“Hey Kurt, hows it goin?” I ask.
“Fine yeah, but you’re fucking late ja?”
“Gimme a break, you tool, do you know how much my load weighs? You’re gonna need to put that down, I need both your hands getting it inside. Should I check in with the party first though?”
Kurt puts the Franchi down, stock first, leaning against the stack of wooden crates, next to the programming manual of an antique games console he’s been reading. The shotgun isn’t just for show, but hopefully no-one will be stupid enough tonight to try and bring any hardware in, and if they do, once Kurt’s removed it, he’ll degauss is with the electromagnet I can see in the alcove wired to a series of car batteries.
“you haven’t missed much yet, but say hi anyway, gimme the keys.”
I toss Kurt the keys to the van, and try to remember that however friendly he might be, he did barbecue a carjacker who was stupid enough to try ripping us off a year before in Jo’burg when we were picking up some hot blades for a server farm. I wander through to the lounge to a cheer, punctuated by some party poppers draping me in rather fetching cheap paper streamers.
I know it’s the loudest cheer of the night so far.
I know that because i’ve brought the beer.
The air is already heavy with the smell of a large group of people all on a sugar rush, with nothing to do.
The cheers I am greeted with settle down quickly, and I get a wave from most of the interested parties. The brownian motion and human habits of congregating with one’s own kind has already exerted a natural selection process within the large lounge, and I can identify the species at a glance, over on the right, nearest the unstocked bar are the hardcore black hats, most of whom I recognise from dealings over the last year and are giving me a glad hand from the corner, I acknowledge them with a touch of my forelock to them as I pass my gaze around. In the opposite corner, their antithetical brethren, the corporate lads who we drafted in, trusted, bloody good at what they do, but team players in a very specific way. And left in between and filing in the gaps, the random supporters, some of whom have supplied the hardware, and in one case a large amount of money; the group with the most disparate attitudes and backgrounds, who obviously found it easiest to strike up conversations with each other, and who we”ll be relying on to glue the whole together. There’s a fire in the grate, and the room is cold, but comfortably within the limits of human toleration, and once we get going later on, we might even need to crack a window, specially if these guys didn’t bring any deodorant.
With any luck the beer ought to even things out a little, at least for the next 36 hours, before things get too busy.
Later on, I sit on a pub style bench, surrounded by lunatics and noise. There’s enough booze in me to make me smile, and enough humour left to laugh at the stories thrown over the table.
Kurt’s carjacking in Pretoria, solved by the Franchi.
Falk’s trip across the states asleep in a steel container after we locked him in it, drunk, in San Francisco.
The frantic drive from Glasgow to London a couple of them made, to pay my bail after being picked up at the May Day riots a few years back before the cops twigged to my false ID and found the other outstanding warrants attached.
I dream again. I am in the suit I wear for work, but I am falling through the sky.
No, I am floating, flying, but the wind tears through my hair, my clothes, I am cold.
I gently turn in the air, neither falling nor rising, but just go with the airflow which is carrying me along. My tie flutters past my head, a counterpoint to the rushing wind.
I roll, just tilting my body around until i face the ground. I must be thousands of feet up, the ground below is almost featureless, but I can identify rough features of barren country, brown desert and earth.
The knowledge comes unbidden to my mind, that earth below me, the land, is empty, unpopulated. Tabula Rasa, ready to be carved by my will.
I drift, looking down on this blank, with the core fact burning itself slowly into my brain, there is no-one here, and it’s waiting for me to tell it what to be.
Scottish coast: Sandside Bay, West of Dounreay. Standing at the edge of the world.
I look down at the waves, and feel like I’m in the swell myself. Grey manes of sea beasts as they smash on the rocks, force of nature.
I’m not in control anymore. None of us were, ever. The most we can do now is take a stand, and try to fight the swell for just long enough. The dreams come back to me, only now it’s water tugging at my hair and that I float in, weightless. I feel cold, and I want to go back to the farmhouse, sit in front of the fireplace, but I stay here for as long as I can, get a feel for how big the world is, and find my place in it. The current must be getting stronger, and I don’t want to drown.
In the distance, through the spray and the sea-fog, I think I can see the lights of a ship.
Today’s gonna be a laid back day, not a lot to do other than wire up our kit and check the generators and fuel. I took a break, drove up and down the local roads, keeping an eye out for anything out of place, like us.
The computers at the power plant are still connected, they’ll be our control. If they get out of hand, we know we’re losing. If they crap out on us, we know we’ve lost. At least we’ll be in the circuit though, and we can fight back. It took us six months to run the fibre optic over to the farm, to set up the relays, to violate british nuclear fuels security enough to give us an in when we needed it.
That’s why Kurt’s there with the shotgun, to keep shop talk out until we’re ready (not the Shotgun, just the presence. The Shotgun’s in case of something else). No signals, no busy ,no chat, just everyone chilling out before the world goes to hell in a shopping basket. No Generals either, no top brass, just us, doing what we do.
I always wanted to do something epic, change the world kind of thing. Never really worked out that way I suppose, but it’s almost like the lottery, being in the right place at the right time, overhearing a conversation on the tube, getting involved, volunteering.
Should have remembered the cardinal rule; never get involved, never volunteer.
It might not be epic in the true sense of the world, but it sure is going to be big.
A rustling of sleeping bags announces the morning. The wind leaves a slight howling through the fireplace. There is a clanking from one end of the house, muffled by the heavy walls of the place. Someone has had the initiative to get cracking with the food. We’re still three hours away, but there’s hangovers to clear, strategies to plan, and game faces to put on.
Coughing from one indeterminate form, and smoke rises from a sleeping bag. Like a bad school trip to a foreign country, overconfident kids waking up the next morning to face what they did the evening before, and the indiscretions which may come back to haunt them. Don’t get me wrong, amongst the semi-stable borderline personality disorders which populate the house right now, there are some of our female colleagues, but they’ve been sensible enough to sleep upstairs behind a nice heavy bolted door.
I step outside to take a breath. Clean air, empty and quiet.
The wires are hot, both generators are online, and we have a two hour window of uninterrupted uplink to the satellite.
We lost the benefit of generals looking at each other over a battlefield over a century ago. Artillery came first, obliterating teenagers from miles away, then came ROV Drones, dropping a cruise missile guided by GPS, piloted by x-box from the safety of another continent.
I have no idea who sits the other side of the world right now. We have some ideas, cobbled together personnel files of likely recruits, just as they have our files on a desk somewhere. Our hope isn’t that they don’t know who we are, just that they don’t know where.
Would I like to shake his hand? Possibly. I like to think we have some honour still, even if we do fight from a distance, we still believe in something, even if it isn’t ethics by anyone else’s definition.
Charms are hung from flatscreen monitors, custom keyboard setups, esoteric mice with screws and adjustments, custom weights and so on. Not one rig can I see without three screens and some funky anarchic customisation.
Thirty seconds. I fire up my atmospherics, something heavy, loud, solid bassline, something to get the rage going, the hate going.
I wish this was a game.
It’s almost time. The end of the window, and about 5 minutes before the fall of civilisation.
I extract a fag from the last of my packets of Marlboros, I’ve managed pretty well since I got here, only had a couple.
I drift towards the door, idling slightly, neither wanting to leave the sinking ship nor return to reality. What’s gonna happen is gonna happen at this point, we’ve done all we could, and now it’s in the hands of whatever silicon gods have been listening, watching.
My skin fairly crackles as it tries to adjust from the warm farmhouse to the scalding cold coming out of the north. If I look directly north, there’s only the Faroes, and Jan Mayen Island between me and the Ice Cap. I doubt anyone on either will notice the invisible battle being fought around them. I’ve just managed to light the end of my cigarette, cupping my hands against the wind, firing and refiring the cheap plastic disposable lighter, when Kurt joins me, lighting his from the ember on mine, and looks north with me. We’re joined, slowly, by others, happy to let the dice roll and fall where they may. No-one speaks, but they huddle in their jackets, taking shelter against the wall of the house, but shelter against what?
Standing here, knowing what’s about to happen, with the wind rushing past us, looking at an onrushing storm, I wonder if anyone of us has the right kind of eyes, to see the frontline shift back and forth, over us, past us, through us.
We stood, anyway.