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They had drugged him and now his body twisted lazily as it tumbled through the air.
Somewhere in one corner of his drugged mind was a feeling of annoyance, because he wasn’t a body yet, but that was how they had referred to him. And, looking at the ground creeping closer, he felt the description would soon be accurate, which annoyed him even more. He hadn’t even been given the choice of whether or not to die.
The wind was a booming, rushing noise in his ears. He had fallen for a long time. He had fallen off a mountain, he recalled, though he wasn’t sure what a mountain was. Perhaps it was that shining blur. They may have drugged him into compliance and a fatalistic acceptance of death, he thought, but he wasn’t stupid.
Another corner of his mind wondered about the emergency agravs – necessary equipment when you lived over a mile above ground, designed for just such eventualities as this. Even now they should be picking him up and reducing his rate of descent so that he would land as smoothly as a feather. Somehow he had got past their reach.
He frowned because something wasn’t making sense. This was the Home Time and murder was meant to be a thing of the past, and yet he was reasonably certain that murder was what had just happened to him.
And then the ground, once so far away and approaching slowly, was suddenly coming quickly up towards him, and there was no time for terror before all his worries abruptly ceased.
Help! Help me!’ The Correspondent paused and cocked his head, still fingering the halter of the camel tied up beside the road. He had stopped to inspect the animal because a camel saddled for a rider, but riderless, aroused his curiosity. He was in the middle of what was still called Persia and it was shortly after his arrival at 08:00, local time on 13 May in the year the faithful called 407, the Christians called 1029 and his masters called 1564 pre-Home Time. He was on the road between Qom and Isfahan and so far, apart from the camel, he had seen no sign of anyone else around him.
‘Help!’ The voice was more desperate and, turning up his hearing, the Correspondent could hear the sounds of conflict, heavy breathing, metal on metal. The noise came from the other side of a small hill beside the road through the desert, and he set off over it at a slow jog.
There was a fight going on round the other side of the hill, three against one, and the one was tiring. The Correspondent had no idea of the rights and wrongs of the situation and no especial desire to intervene, so instead he began to record the scene, sucking the information in through his eyes and storing it in the special areas at the back of his brain.
In his final despair, the one man below raised his eyes and saw the Correspondent at the top of the rise. ‘In the name of the Prophet, help me!’ he cried. Still, the Correspondent might have stayed put if one of the three others hadn’t turned round and spotted him. Immediately he charged with an angry bellow, scimitar raised.
The Correspondent stood where he was and watched the man approach. Something inside him assessed a threat to personal safety and he shifted to defence mode, without showing any external change. The attacker’s yell peaked as he drew close and brought the blade down.
With one hand the Correspondent swatted the blade aside. The other he jabbed deep into the man’s throat. The man staggered backwards and fell, eyes bulging, choking on his crushed larynx.
The two remaining attackers stood over their now motionless victim. They ran at him as one, and again the Correspondent let them get close. Then his foot came up at the end of a straight leg, catching the first under the ribs and crushing his heart. The second man got the Correspondent’s rigid fingers in his solar plexus and his spinal cord was severed by a chop to the back of his neck.
The Correspondent looked down at the three bodies, stored the scene in his memory and then went down to see if the one they had been attacking was still alive.
He was – a young man only just out of adolescence, with a scraggly beard. He had propped himself up on one arm and he gazed at the Correspondent with awe.
‘You just stood there!’ he said. ‘I have never seen someone dispatch three bandits so quickly. You have my eternal gratitude.’
The bandits had actually posed little threat. The Correspondent still didn’t know much, but he knew that. Provided he avoided immediate trauma and kept himself in more or less one piece, his body could overcome virtually any threat to it from war or disease, and regenerate itself indefinitely. He was packed full of added organic components and he possessed skills and senses that evolution had never given Homo sapiens and never would. He could even remould his features if desired, given a day or so to himself. At the moment, he appeared like any other man of the region in his mid thirties.
The young man in the sand would not have understood, so the Correspondent just asked: ‘Who were they?’
‘Infidel worthless bandits,’ the young man said casually. He looked up at his helper. ‘And who are you, friend?’
Who was he? A good question. Your memory will be affected by the transference. They had told him that, though he couldn’t remember who they were and he still had no specific memory of the Home Time. He did know that he had a function: to observe, to comment, to survive. He was Correspondent RC/1029 – any further identity that he took would be up to him.