Malone watched the view out of the carriage window as it drove through the industrial section of Outwall Farwell, past warehouses, factories and landfill sites in which toxic industrial waste was being dumped and buried. Columns of smoke and fumes rose into the sky to form a steely grey blanket through which the sun could be seen as a smudge of brightness. A few minutes later they were passing through a working class housing district consisting of thousands of terraced brick houses, featureless walls of brick red in which the windows were almost too small to notice, lining roads of muddy puddles over which the carriage bounced and jostled. Above the rooftops, though, the black and gold towers of central Farwell could be seen, made hazy by distance and the quality of the air in between but still looking like fairytale castles in comparison with the grimy squalor of Lewis Hill. A beautiful land of dreams and opportunities that the workers could only look at but never approach. Taunting them with its presence, so near and yet so far away. No wonder the workers were rising up in revolt! thought Malone. The Radiants were only accelerating something that would have happened sooner or later anyway.
Beside him, John Martin seemed to be asleep. His eyes were closed, anyway, and his head gave a small sideways loll with every shock to the carriage’s primitive suspension. His other two travelling companions were awake, though. A man called Dennis Wilks, a large, strong man whom Malone guessed mainly served as John Martin's bodyguard, and Jamie Fry, the younger man whom Malone had superseded as John Martin's assistant and who was regarding him with resentment. Malone was expecting trouble from him, and so was watching him carefully in case he made a move while he was distracted. From what he'd seen of him so far, he was quite capable of stabbing him in the back.
After a while, he noticed that there were trees and patches of grass outside the window, and he realised that they were leaving the city and heading out into the countryside. “Where are we going?” he asked. “I thought we were going to see Benjamin.”
”We are,” replied Dennis Wilks in his broad northern accent. “He lives out here.”
“I thought he was a worker, like us.”
“Not all workers live in the city. There are farmers out here, and quarrymen. Roadbuilders and scavvies. They break their backs working to earn a crust of bread just like us, dog boy.”
“Maybe, but they don't know what it's like in the city. The smoke and the dust, the poverty...”
“You think there's no poverty in the country, dog boy?”
“Of course there is, but there's food in the country. If you're hungry you can put snares out and catch a couple of rabbits. Nobody starves to death in the country.”
“Yeah they do, in the winter, when the snow’s lying thick on the ground. All the animals lying snug in their burrows. People in the country eat grass in the winter, ‘cos there’s nothing else, and they freeze when they run out of firewood. In the winter, people come flocking into the cities looking for bread and warmth, so don't tell me there's no poverty in the country. You need to learn a thing or two, dog boy! You need to learn fast!”
Malone nodded, but he'd travelled the northern parts of the world in winter with the Brigadier and his band of rangers, and they’d never had any trouble living off the land, even when the snow was waist deep and the rivers and lakes were frozen thick enough to drive a heavy laden carriage across. But then they were always moving, he realised. Never staying in one place long enough to exhaust the roots and tubers in the frozen ground or the fish under the ice. Maybe it was different for people who had put down roots in one place, who had a house to look after, adopted animals to raise. He looked out the window again, and kept his thoughts to himself.
Time went by and the countryside passed by outside, turning from farmland in which horse drawn ploughs tilled the ground to woodland in which the distant sounds of lumberjacks could be heard, and then great fields of open grassland in which herds of cattle grazed contentedly, watching them with their dull, stupid eyes as they passed by. Finally, though, the carriage came to a bouncing halt and John Martin woke up, looking around at his fellow passengers and the view outside. “Ah, we're here!” he said, opening the door and stepping out. “I must have dropped off!”
“Nothing like a nice, relaxing carriage ride to send you off to sleep,” said Dennis Wilks with a smirk, also disembarking. “Get out, dog boy. We're here.”
Malone stepped out of the carriage and looked around. To his astonishment, he saw that they were in the forecourt of a large aristocratic mansion with topiaried shrubs around the drive and a fountain in the centre of a large pond full of golden fish. Climbing plants covered the walls with thousands of hand shaped red leaves, neatly trimmed around the windows, and the cry of a peacock came from somewhere. A Radiant was drifting past high overhead, looking like a solitary white cloud in a blue sky, and Malone saw another one, further away to the East.
When they were all out, the driver slapped the reins to take the carriage to the stables and a man in a servant’s uniform came to escort them inside. “This is where Benjamin lives?”
“Lord Benjamin Hedley,” said John Martin, “although few people know his full name.
“I assumed he was, you know. Like us.”
“Yes, we encourage people to think that. The working men of Farwell would never trust an aristocrat. They'd think he was working for the bosses, searching out the ringleaders so he could betray them to the authorities.”
“Can you be sure he's not?”
“Watch your tongue, dog boy!” snapped Jamie Fry, his hands balled into fists. He was about Malone's size, but soft, with no sign of having had military training. Malone knew he could take him easily if it came to a fight, and his aggressive stance amused him.
“Easy, Jamie. Easy,” said John Martin, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “He doesn’t know him like we do.”
“Exactly! How can he be your assistant? He knows nothing about our organisation!”
“He has qualities I value. I value both of you, but in different ways. I've been giving it some thought, and I think that you have a great future in Icelonn. I’m thinking of sending you there to take complete control of operations.”
“But Icelonn is a thousand miles away!”
“You'd be commander of your own division, equal to the position I have here. Able to organise the movement the way you think best, and when the new order is established you’d be first choice to take over as Regional Director. Virtually the King of your own Kingdom! Think about that for a while.”
Jamie stared, then looked away, his eyes growing unfocused as he considered the offer. “I would be guaranteed the position?” he asked.
“It would be Benjamin's decision in the end, but I would certainly recommend you, if you do a good job up there, and he usually listens to my recommendations.”
He left the younger man to consider his words as they walked the rest of the way to the house. Inside, the servant took them to a room with padded chairs and a decanter of Taga with glasses on a small, round table. John Martin poured four glasses of the deep red liquid, handed one each to Malone and the others and took the last for himself. He took a long, luxurious sip, swirling it around in his mouth as he savoured the taste, then swallowed it with a gasp of satisfaction.
Jamie and Dennis were drinking theirs as well, but Malone just stared suspiciously at his, then took a tentative sip. He gasped in surprise as it burned his mouth, and Jamie laughed cruelly as he coughed, tears coming to his eyes. “Your first time, of course,” said John Martin sympathetically but also amused. “Sorry, I should have warned you. Taga is powerful stuff.”
“More powerful than the cheap ale you're used to, so expect,” said Jamie, who then tossed back the last of his drink in one long gulp.
“It certainly is,” agreed Malone. He put a frown on his face, trying to keep in character. The person he was pretending to be would be shocked that the leaders of the rebellion were living like this while the people they represented were living in grinding poverty. He was gratified to see John Martin nodding, as if reading his thoughts. “When we are victorious,” he said, “all men will live like this. Such luxuries will no longer be confined to the wealthy but will be freely available to all. All men will be kings!”
“All men will be kings!” echoed Jamie and Dennis, but Malone wondered who would grow the food and who would make clothes and build houses if all men were kings. It made a fine battle cry, but didn't bear too much thinking about. Of course, the whole thing was a lie, he knew. The people at the very top, Benjamin and his kind, didn't want to reform civilisation. They wanted to tear it down and turn humans into farm animals for the Radiants!
As if the thought had summoned him, a man appeared in the doorway. An aristocrat, dressed as an aristocrat with silk clothes and jewellery and with a walking stick topped with a glittering emerald the size of a man’s eyeball. His face and hands were completely covered with pink powder. Malone felt his guts turn to lead as adrenalin flooded his body. He'd found him! The adoptee!”
“John!” he said in delight, coming forward to take the other man's hand in a warm, welcoming grip. “Good to see you again!”
“You too, Benjamin!” John Martin returned the handshake. “And your taga is excellent! As always!”
Benjamin laughed. “And the sturdy Dennis Wilks! The backbone of the movement! And Jamie Fry! The heart and soul of the struggle! And who is this?” he asked, turning to Malone.
“My newest recruit, Malone. Very keen, very enthusiastic. I'm trying him out as my new assistant.”
“Your new assistant, eh?” Benjamin came closer, studying him with his clear, blue eyes. “What do we know about him?”
“He killed a government spy. Military moves if I'm any judge. He’s committed and he's keen.”
“And not quite human, I see.”
“There's nothing wrong with his brain. Nothing else matters.”
“Quite right, quite right. Well, John's new assistant, eh? Good for you Lad! Do a good job and you'll go far.”
“Thank you, Sir,” said Malone, making himself stare doubtfully. He was still playing a role. He had to react the way a real working class man would in this situation.
Benjamin nodded as if he'd spoken his doubts out loud. “Didn’t expect to find a toff in charge, is that it? It's okay, lad you can speak freely. That’s one of the things we're fighting for, after all. The right to speak freely.”
Malone hesitated, glanced at John Martin, who nodded encouragingly. Malone turned back to Benjamin. “Well, no offence, Sir,“ he said hesitantly. “I just wondered. Why are you doing this? Why are you on our side? You should be trying to stop us, not help us.”
“Ah, there it is,” said Benjamin, nodding to himself. “That's the reason we have to keep my identity a secret, you see? The common people, the honest workers, they would never believe that I sympathise with their cause. They would think I was leading them into a trap, planning to betray them, but the cause needs people like me. People with money, with political leverage, with connections. Connections with the government, the aristocracy, with people in other parts of the Empire. We need weapons, explosives, other kinds of expensive equipment if the authorities aren't going to crush the uprising. The sheer number of workers might seem like a strength, but it is in fact a weakness. It means that they can kill as many of you as they like and there are always plenty more to do the work. Thousands of men on the streets are pointless if the guards and the army can just mow them down with gunfire. You need guns of your own so that you can shoot back.”
“Yes, I understand that,” replied Malone, “and I'm grateful that you're willing to help us. I just don’t understand why.”
“I can't fully explain without telling you the full story of my life. Let’s just say they I've seen things, experienced things. Lost people I care about. Once, yes, I would have cheerfully destroyed the movement if I could. Put the working man back in his place, but I'm older now. Wiser. I've seen the misery and injustice the working man has to endure, and I have committed myself and my fortune to stopping it. John Martin and the other leaders of the movement have come to trust me. I hope that, in time, you will as well.”
“John Martin is a great man,” said Malone. “People everywhere tell tales of what he’s done. If he trusts you, then that’s good enough for me. I won’t doubt you again, I promise.”
“There's nothing wrong with doubt, young man. Doubt all you like. The authorities have spies in our organisation, we know this. Doubting people is how we find them. That's why I doubt you. Do you understand?” Malone nodded. “I've never seen you before. Never even heard of you. I trust John Martin completely, but even he might be fooled by a very clever agent. An old, experienced veteran of an agent so committed to bringing down the movement that he was even willing to be partially cursed back to his animal form as part of his disguise.” He turned to John Martin. “This is not a reflection on you, you understand.”
“I understand completely. I take no offence.”
Benjamin smiled gratefully, then turned back to Malone. “So, how do we know that you really are what you say you are?”
“I’m not a spy, Sir. I'm willing to submit to any test you wish to devise to prove that.”
“Good, because fortune has smiled upon us. A couple of days ago, my people apprehended a pair of government agents trying to trace the money we were using to buy weapons. They would have traced it back to me but fortunately we got to them in time. We've been interrogating them, finding out how much they know, but I'm confident we've got as much as we can out of them. There’s nothing left to do but kill them and dump their bodies on the steps of Totterwell Palace.” He drew a long dagger from his belt and held it out to Malone, hilt first. “I thought you might do the deed yourself, just to prove your true loyalty to the cause.”
“I’ve already killed a government agent.”
“So I've heard, but I find myself wondering whether he really was a government agent. Maybe he was just a starving worker thinking to earn some reward money to feed his family. He was found out, panicked and ran. Do you think that’s possible, Malone?”
“I suppose so. Whoever he was though, he was planning to betray us, so I killed him.”
“Well, now we’ve got two more men who need killing. Someone's got to do it. Why not you? You can use the military moves that John Martin says you possess.” He held out the knife again. Malone stared at him, looked down at the knife, then took it. “Take me to them,” he said.
Benjamin smiled. “We're keeping them in a shack a couple of miles away,” he said. “We'll go as soon as I've changed clothes.”
The shack was out of sight of the mansion, on the other side of a range of low hills. Benjamin had changed into working class clothes and had roughed up his hair to make himself look like a farm labourer. He was wearing rough, woollen gloves to hide his finely manicured fingernails and now looked so different that only the heavy layer of powder on his face and neck remained to tell Malone that it was the same man.
They walked between the ploughed fields of Lord Hedley's estate, Benjamin and John Martin chatting as they went. Jamie Fry regarded Malone with pure malice, probably hoping he'd be given the job of killing him if he failed the test, while Dennis Wilks walked in silence, his eyes on the ground in front of him as he trudged through the knee high grass, as if deep in thought. He made sure to keep himself between Malone and the two senior men, though, and every so often Malone saw his dark eyes flashing in his direction, as if to make sure he wasn't going to do something with the knife that he still held in his hands. Birds sang all around them and the sun was hot on their bare heads. It was a beautiful day, and it seemed impossible to imagine that they were on their way to commit murder.
The shack was an abandoned farmers cottage, run down and overgrown but still sound and secure, easily capable of holding prisoners. A man emerged to greet them as they emerged. “All well, Ned?” asked Benjamin.
“All well, Sir “ The man replied. “Been keeping our guests comfortable.”
“Good, good. Let's go see them, then.” He led the way inside. As he went around the building to the entrance, though, Malone saw that the Radiant he'd seen near the mansion had followed them part of the way, and was now floating over the hill they'd just crossed. Staying close enough to remain in telepathic contact with Benjamin. He wondered whether there was always a Radiant within a mile or so of him, and if so, whether any of the others had ever noticed and wondered about it.
Inside, another guard was watching over two prisoners, tied up and blindfolded on the floor. “Have they said anything else?” asked Benjamin.
“No, Sir,” replied the second guard. “Reckon they've already told us everything they've got to tell.”
“Good. Then there’s no need to delay the nastiness any longer.” He beckoned Malone forward. “Our new friend here will do the honours. A rite of passage, you might say.”
Malone looked at the two men. They bore the signs of having been beaten savagely and tortured in other ways, but there was still a defiance in the pose of their bodies, the way they struggled up onto their knees and raised their bodies as upright as they were able. Benjamin pulled the blindfold from one of the men, and he blinked as his eyes adjusted to the light. He looked around at the men surrounding him, then fixed on Malone, the one holding the knife. “Do it, then!” he growled. “Killing's what you like doing best, so get on with it!”
It was the same situation he'd been in before, in the warehouse. He couldn't save the man. If he didn't kill him, someone else would, and then he'd die himself. The same situation, the same moral dilemma, the same solution. Delaying would only make it worse, so he stepped forward, put one hand on his shoulder, put the knife to his stomach. He met the man’s eyes, it seemed the least he could do. Malone tried to convey his sorrow and remorse, tried to ask forgiveness, all with eye contact alone, and at the last moment the man's eyes widened slightly, as if he understood. This wasn't an enemy, but another undercover agent, buying his acceptance into the organisation he'd sworn to destroy by taking his life. Perhaps it meant that his death would have meaning after all. Before something in the man's facial expression or body language could give him away, therefore, Malone thrust the knife deep into his stomach, then up under the rib cage and into his heart.
The man died with a last exhalation of breath and collapsed onto his side. “You bastards!” The other prisoner spat, turning his face to Malone as if he could see him through the blindfold. “We'll get you all! You'll pay! You'll pay for that! You'll see! You'll see!”
Benjamin retreated to the corner of the room, where it was darkest, beckoned for John Martin to join him. “Take off his blindfold,” he told the second guard. The man obeyed, and the prisoner stared at his fallen comrade, his face full of sorrow and grief. Then he looked up and his eyes fixed on Malone, on the bloody dagger he was holding in his hands. His eyes spat daggers of hate at him. “Murderer!” he said, as if the word itself was a weapon he could use to kill him with. “You bloody murderer! I swear you'll pay for that! Somehow, some day, you'll pay!”
“Blindfold him again,” ordered Benjamin, and the guard obeyed. “You said earlier that they'd learned nothing of importance about us. Has he said anything to change that assessment?”
“No, Sir,” replied the guard.
“Take him back to the city and let him go. He can tell all his friends what happens to those we catch spying on us.” The guard nodded and pulled the prisoner to his feet.
“But he's seen my face!” protested Malone. “He'll tell them it was me who killed his friend!”
“Yes, so if you do turn out to be a spy, you’ll have some explaining to do when you go back to them.” Then he laughed, though. “Don’t worry, young man! My faith in you, and in my good friend John, has been confirmed, as I knew it would be! Welcome to the struggle, Malone!” He turned back to John Martin. “We'd best get back to the mansion, now. We've got plans to make! Big plans...”
He fell silent, staring at the wall, his head cocked as if listening to something. The Radiant was talking to him, Malone realised, and he looked at John Martin and the others to see how they were reacting. To his surprise, he saw that John Martin was looking at him, while the others were staring at Benjamin with concern. “You alright?” asked Dennis Wilks, and Malone decided to imitate his reaction. He wasn't supposed to know about the Radiant connection, after all. John Martin did know, though, he decided, although maybe he didn't know everything. The Brigadier thought the Carrowmen had been duped by the Radiants into thinking that they merely wanted to help them defeat Helberion. Maybe John Martin and others thought the Radiants merely wanted to help the workers overthrow the government. The benevolent higher beings trying to help mankind build a fairer society or something.
Had Malone given himself away with his initial reaction? If so, he'd have some serious explaining to do, but in the meantime he would just imitate the others and hope for the best.
It was clear to Malone, from Benjamin’s body language, that it wasn't just a one way message. It was a two way conversation, in which the nobleman was asking questions spurred by the initial message, and getting replies. Malone moved closer to John Martin. “What's going on?” He whispered. “Does this happen often?” The other man shushed him to silence.
A few moments later, Benjamin came out of it and returned his attention to the people in the room with him. “I have to reveal something to you,” he said. “Something that, until now, has been known to very few of us, one if our very greatest secrets.”
“Ben, is this wise?” asked John Martin.
“There's no point keeping it secret any longer. It's going to be known to everyone very soon.” He fell silent for a moment, as if choosing his words carefully. “We, that is, the movement, the uprising, has been receiving help from an outside source. The Radiants.”
“The who?” asked Dennis Wilks. “Never heard of them. Are they another group? Another organisation...”
“The Radiants!” snapped Benjamin impatiently. “Glowy white things with tentacles that float in the sky! They are benevolent beings that have been concerned by the injustices in human society for a long time. At first they were reluctant to interfere, but a few years ago a faction arose in their society that decided that action had to be taken, that those of us trying to correct those injustices had to be helped. They made contact with me about five years ago, offering their help, and I accepted.”
“Why are you telling us this now?” asked Dennis.
“Because there have been developments in Helberion. A Radiant attacked a Helberion science institute that was trying to develop a weapon to use against us. Several scientists were killed, and the Radiant itself was killed in a large explosion of some kind. The Radiants have now declared open war upon Helberion. No more hiding, no more secrecy. They mean to destroy the entire Kingdom and they will use every means at their disposal to do it.” Malone gasped in shock.
“How do you know this?” asked Dennis.
“Because I am in telepathic communication with the Radiants. One of the ways in which they are helping us is my adopting people and partially raising them to the point where they are able to communicate telepathically, with each other and the Radiants. I am one of these people. Unfortunately, the adoption has a side effect.” He reached into a pocket, pulled out a handkerchief and wiped his forehead with it. Some of the face powder came away with it, and his forehead glowed with a greenish light in the dark room. The exact same shade of radiance emitted by the Radiants themselves.
“Those Above!” swore Dennis and Jamie together, and Malone echoed the sentiment. He didn't have to pretend to be shocked. The news that his homeland, the country he'd sworn to defend, was at risk was as shocking to him as the news about the Radiants was to the others. Only John Martin was looking at him strangely, and Malone carefully avoided looking back at him in case his eyes sent a message he was unable to control.
“So, how does this affect us?” asked Jamie.
“In many ways, which I will explain later, in greater detail, but in one way in particular right now. Now that secrecy is no longer necessary, the Radiants want to increase the number of adoptees they have, doing their work among humans. They have a list of people they want to take back to their city to be parent bonded and be raised to the point where they gain telepathic abilities.” A radiance began to shine in through the window as the nearest Radiant approached and descended. Benjamin turned to John Martin. “Your name is on that list, my friend.”
The other man stared. “But I have work to do! A movement to organise...”
“Jamie Fry will take over that work. He knows enough to be able to pick up the reins and carry on. Young Malone here will be his assistant, unless Jamie has someone else in mind.”
“I'll have to give that some thought,” ‘replied Jamie, eyeing Malone with suspicion and some residual hostility. “He literally only joined a couple of days ago. He knows nothing about how we’re organised. There are others much better qualified...”
“Well, make your own choice.” The brightness outside the shack had intensified, and shone in through the gaps around the door. Dennis opened it cautiously, and stepped back when he saw luminous, dangling tentacles coiling and uncoiling lazily just a few feet outside. “In the meantime, your ride’s here, John, unless you'd like some time to think about it.”
John Martin was beaming happily, though, as though this was what he'd been waiting for all his life. “And when the struggle is won, will I be raised all the way, to full Radiant?”
“We all will,” agreed Benjamin. “All the adoptees. This is just a prelude to life as a higher being, as high above humans as humans are above cows and horses.”
“Then what’s there to think about?” John Martin stepped out the door, and one of the thickest tentacles wrapped itself gently around his waist. Then he was lifted up into the sky, the other tentacles withdrawing from view, and the others left the shack to see the Radiant rising high up into the sky, John Martin almost hidden amongst the brilliance as he gazed down at them from an ever increasing height.
They watched until the Radiant had vanished from sight over the hills to the west, and then Benjamin turned to the others. “And now, Gentlemen, I suggest we return to the mansion. We have a great deal of planning to do.”