EDGE, by Thomas Blackthorne
They drove through the Wiltshire night – he at the wheel, she in the front passenger seat, tension clamping her mouth – not saying the name of Sophie. Over and over, not saying it aloud. The insistent thought of her was a black transformation, joy into pain, the sundering of reconciliation; while from over the trees, a golden butter moon watched as it had in the centuries before humans, the eras before primates, aeons before vertebrates, never commenting on what it saw. For Josh and Maria, the suddenness of loss was everything.
Headlights floated in the mirror: call them company. Josh was in no mood for anything but darkness; but perhaps that was wrong. He reached halfway to the dash, needing music to slow down by, then changed his mind. With her name inside his skull, mantra-like – Sophie, oh, sweet Sophie – he fastened his hands back on the wheel, 10 and 2 o’clock, the way they drummed into him, then hammered the engine, the gear too low if he wanted the car to maintain its value, but on ops they always thrashed the things because you did the business now or there was no later.
“What a twat.”
The headlights from behind were incandescent, almost on them.
“What is it?” Maria’s first words for hours. “What’s wrong?”
“Besides the obvious, some arsehole coming up our rear.”
And a blind bend ahead. Shadows like ink, the road twisting to one side and out of sight.
“So drop your speed and–”
A blaze in the mirror, a suddenness of black then massive light in front – lorry coming at us – white paintwork flashing as the arseholemobile swung across – Audi – fighting to pull in before colliding, while the lorry driver yelled unheard, his face a glimpse of onrushing death as Josh reacted.
Magnetic brakes are supposed to be quiet but the car howled and shuddered as he slammed down, the car bucking, then the oncoming lorry and the maniac who’d come from behind to squeeze between them were past. The Audi’s driver had cut in fast enough to save them all, the innocents whose lives he risked. Josh had done worse but always with good cause, and this wasn’t it. At his hip – he grew conscious of it now – was the feel of hardness clipped to his belt: the mark of citizenship, his with the royal coat-of-arms because that’s what you got for military service: William Rex, Dieu et mon droit. Kill the foreign bastards for the sake of the state; except that if you’d been born in their country, you’d have done the same as them; and that was how it always was, had always been since tribal groups of primates fought, because even the most peaceful apes kill on occasion.
“Jesus. Jesus fuck.”
He’d stopped the car. Silence was an invitation. Maria looked vulnerable in a way she rarely did these days – when had she become so strong, developed that strength? – and if he found the right words he might perhaps fix everything (everything but Sophie) here and now, repair the damage he had done, that the world and random cruelty brought on. Build a bridge; bring her back; and make things whole.
But all he said was, “Motherfucker.”
He shifted gear and pushed the accelerator down, needing the pressure against his back, the kinaesthetic analogue of computation: inertia, vectors of velocity, the tactics of the chase; and as he drove his lips were curling back. They call Homo sapiens sapiens the smiling ape, and while we’re fangless like prey, we have eyes in the front of our heads, for we are hunters too; and when there’s a target we need to track it, focus hard and close the distance, all the way until it’s dead, and we have bones to crunch between our teeth. As Lofty Young used to have it: “Identify target. Take ’em out. Repeat until done.”
He forced the car, accelerating harder.
“Till every bastard is down.”
“Every last one of ’em.”
And the engine’s scream was cutting through Maria’s command: “Stop the car!”
His response was visceral, muscles tensing and releasing as he hauled the car through a turn, increasing speed all the way through the arc, hammering down as the road straightened. Red tail lights beckoned like targets on the firing range.
“Josh. Stop now.”
Her words were in the air but meaningless because Sophie’s name was howling in his blood, while the reptile brain that lives in all of us was locked on now, targeting its prey. A lizard might not know the way to stop a speeding car but Josh Cumberland did. His own car was juddering as he drew alongside the white Audi – the driver looking over, eyes wide – and then Josh was past, fingers curled around the handbrake lever – “Dear God, no, Josh!” – and ripping up, the car slewing sideways on to block the road, the burning-rubber stink immediate, smoke-clouds rising from the tyres as he halted and the chassis rocked.
If the Audi failed to stop he’d hit the passenger side, right where Maria was sitting – shit – and for a fifth of a second sickness filled Josh. Then the idiot was screaming to a halt; and Josh was already out on the road, like some quantum effect, with no memory of unfastening of the seat belt or opening the door. The bulk of his car was between him and his target, and he did it the quick way, a half step back for the plyometric spring, then throwing himself across the front, shoulder-rolling, dropping feet-first on the roadway, then four sprinting paces to the moron’s door.
The guy’s mouth was working like a goldfish who’s leaped from the tank into a new and deadly world. Josh’s hand went for the thermoplastic sheath on his belt – he could hammer the hilt into the window – and then he had a thought. Grinning, he pulled at the Audi’s door – and it came open.
Idiot. No idea.
A suicide jockey, with none of the most basic precautions.
No fucking idea.
He unsnapped the guy’s seat belt, clamped hands on jaw and the crown of the head, digging in his thumbs and fingers as he twisted, hooked, and pulled. With a squeak, the guy came out of the car headfirst. Still controlling the head, Josh hauled him half upright, then let go.
“Formal challenge.” He pointed to the man’s hip. “Citizens’ confrontation.”
“You’re a voting citizen,” said Josh. “Aren’t you?”
The sheath was shiny with polish, not with use. Likewise the too-smooth hilt.
“Th-that’s all. To vote, I mean. I’ve never… You know. Never.”
“Always a first time.”
Josh hardly seemed to move, but his blade was in his hand. Tau-bar, military, balanced for throwing in addition to slash and thrust: it had everything, including the memory of blood, and God but he wanted to use it now.
“I can’t.” The man was shaking. “I can’t. I’m not… Not like…”
His whimper accompanied a rising pungent aroma. In the headlight beams reflected from bodywork, Josh saw the spreading dark patch at the man’s crotch.
“Draw or die, motherfucker.”
Go on. Draw and come at me.
Trembling, the man fumbled at his sheath. There was a narrow safety strip around the hilt, and it took him three attempts to fumble the clip open. Then he held up the knife, shaking, tears like rain-streaks down his face. The blade was polished and unmarked.
Yes. Do it.
Maria’s voice was commanding… through the car’s open window. She knew better than to climb out of the car, understanding the danger, for in extremis the amygdala takes over, the brain’s emergency response bypassing conscious thought, our civilised selves that are far too slow for deadly action. And that was the risk, because there was no rational thought, not here and now – only the need to act.
“Now!” yelled Josh.
He leaped forward, sheathing his tau-bar as he moved, slamming down with his left hand, tension in the elbow, keeping it bent, while his right hand punched – throat – pulling his aim down – no – hitting the collarbone, not the neck, hitting twice more, then ripping the bastard’s knife from his clammy, slackening fingers. And the man was on the ground, propped on one knee, holding up a useless hand, every limb shaking. Josh grabbed a wrist, twisted, and pressed the knife against soft inner flesh.
“Radial artery, motherfucker.” This was the Timetable of Death which Josh could recite in his sleep (and had, according to Maria). “Penetration to one-quarter inch, unconscious after thirty seconds. Dead in two minutes.”
He slid the blade to the inside of the man’s biceps.
“Brachial artery. Half inch penetration, fourteen seconds then unconscious, ninety seconds to death.” Then the side of the neck, pricking the point against the skin. “Carotid, one and a half inches. Five seconds and unconscious, twelve seconds dead.”
“Josh, I’m calling the police.”
Carefully, he placed the tau-bar’s point against the man’s shirt, feeling for ribs beneath the fat. Here you needed to position carefully before you rammed the point in.
“Heart. Three and a half inches.” Josh moved the point, and the man squealed. “Loss of consciousness: instantaneous. Time to death: three seconds.”
There were other arteries, other places to cut and to stab, each with their own triplet of figures – penetration depth, time to unconsciousness, time to death – and Josh could enumerate them all. For King and country. He looked at the man’s sweat-covered face – the wide eyes, the gasping, drooling mouth – and inhaled the urine scent of fear. Then something changed, for as he pushed the breath out, he also pushed back the rage, and took a retreating step from the violence that so wanted to blossom forth, to manifest itself in surging aggression, filling the moment and drowning the memories of Sophie, but not for long.
“Sometimes you get to live.”
Josh twisted away, and hurled the man’s knife into the darkness, over a high hedge and into darkness. Field and woodland lay beyond. Then he reached into the Audi, grabbed hold of the key – shouldn’t do this – and yanked it out – better than killing the bastard – and held it in front of Moron Features’ face as the engine shuddering to stillness, quiet now. Josh waited for the moron to speak; but he was too afraid or had learned his lesson, or both. His eyes were very wide.
Josh snarled as he threw the key into the night, following the knife. There was a glint, and then it was gone; then a faint, grass-softened thud. Gone forever, and he so wanted to hew the bastard’s head from his shoulders, rip that aloft – see the lolling tongue and shocked, dead eyes – and throw it likewise into the wilderness; and that was when he wondered, whimsical yet serious, at the primal origins of basketball – and suddenly he barked a laugh, then stopped.
Won’t bring Sophie back.
Nothing would, that was the point.
Sophie, Sophie, Sophie.
He climbed back inside his car, and pulled the door shut. Maria’s expression was clamped down, silent, her eyes filled with fear and anger and something more, a mixture he could not decompose or analyse. But he had his own concerns, because Sophie was gone, in every way that mattered.
Oh, my beautiful girl.
The car started forward, and he accelerated gently, keeping control, his attention on the road ahead, refusing to look back at the devastated man and his useless car.
One hour later, in the hotel reception area – all silvery fluorescent lights and stained carpet squares – Josh put down their bags and stood next to Maria before the desk. The young receptionist looked up. Josh wanted to smash that soft face, but the feeling was irrational and the night had been wild enough already, so he forced the feeling down and made his voice soften.
“Cumberland. We’ve got a reservation.”
“Uh, sure, Mr Cumberland. Would you care to–?”
“And a separate room for me,” said Maria.
The receptionist blinked and stared at her.
“Not necessary,” Josh found himself saying. “I’m not hanging around.”
He picked up his black gym bag, leaving her case where it was. Then he stopped, giving her time to speak, to change her mind if she was going to, to fix everything, if only she could.
I’m sorry, Sophie.
He went back out to the car, tossed the gym bag onto the passenger seat, climbed in and shut the door. There was a moment – he closed his eyes – of total lucidity, a deep knowledge of just how stupid and painful everything was, including his own actions. Then he pressed in the key and pushed the gear lever, and rolled the car forward on crunching gravel, out onto the night-shrouded road, with a T-junction ahead. There, he turned right for no good reason, not bothering to read the signs, because everything was cloaked beneath darkness and all roads led to the same location: exactly nowhere.
He drove on at steady speed.