Chapter Forty-Six

By the time they made it to the shuttle, Carver’s eyes were stinging worse than ever. His sight, however, had almost returned to normal. Seriously, he hadn’t doubted that it would — would the dragon allow its emissary to stay blind? Hardly likely. Although he sat in the back looking down at his own knees, squinting and blinking in pain, he could tell that the prisoner was flying the loader with a fair degree of skill. The other prisoners sat around him in silence and he could feel their tension and excitement all around him. Everything was going to plan.

‘Is that it?’ Welby suddenly asked. Carver looked up and saw that he was pointing at the small screen affixed to the ceiling of the personnel compartment in which they sat together on steel benches, strapped in.

The shuttle, adhered to its rock like a leech, was coming into view on the screen, looming up between the tumbling debris of the belt. Carver’s heart lifted. Home, he thought. I’m coming home.

‘That’s it, Welby,’ he said. ‘Where the dragon lives.’

‘Amazing. . .’ sighed Welby, his gaze fixed firmly on the screen.

Cratered steel and jagged stone scrolled beneath them as the prisoner guided the loader in to dock with the shuttle, giving expert little kicks with the manoeuvring jets, flying without computer aid.

Welby turned to Carver and said, ‘See? He’s a decent man, Fuller. One of my people.’

Some of the other prisoners shuffled nervously in their seats. Unbelievers, thought Carver, looking sidelong at them through his burning, watering eyes.

They congregated in the loader’s hold and Carver explained his plan for the prisoners to assist him with the digging. Thus, by their combined strength, they would finally extract the dragon from its rock. They would need more mining equipment, and they mounted a space-suited expedition into the shuttle’s icy, airless hold to search for it. Welby, it transpired, had actually been a ship-fitter at Platini Dockyard in his former life, and he suggested that it might be possible to tweak the air scrubbers and flood the hold, but Carver didn’t see the point. This revelation from Welby did seem to confirm the man’s usefulness, though. But they had other fish to fry. Much bigger, hungrier fish. The dragon hadn’t spoken to him for a while, but Carver took this to be a sign of approval if anything. He felt certain it would tell him if he strayed from the path in any way.

Deep in the forest of racking and huge magnetic crates, they found the perfect twin of Carver’s plasma cutter. He wondered briefly about the wisdom of putting such a thing into the hands of one of these men, who might eventually seek to betray him, even turn it against him, but he decided it was a risk he would have to take. Surely the dragon would warn him if he was in any danger of betrayal. It would know.

They also found many smaller, less impressive tools, including a simple pneumatic drill and matching compressor. Welby showed Carver a crate filled with dull grey metal cylinders, which he identified as shaped explosive charges. Carver didn’t think he’d dare to use them on the rock face, but he took them anyway. Shaped explosive charges? It would have been ludicrous not to. The name itself had a certain power to it, a sound he liked when rolled off the tongue. Shaped explosive charges. He liked that a lot.

They also found a fair cache of weapons in a solid-looking banded trunk that sat on its own at the foot of one tall shelving unit, deep in the shuttle’s hold. Helpfully, it was labelled SECURITY — STANDARD WEAPON SET 04. Carver opened it with his own, original plasma cutter, feeling an expression of childish delight spreading across his face. It was, as promised, full of the tools of murder. The most dangerous items therein were more of the cheap-looking laser pistols, but there was also a decent selection of other kit. Carver brushed aside his previous concerns about equipping the freed prisoners with weaponry, and armed the lot of them. He let Welby distribute the limited number of pistols, assuming that Welby would choose the people he himself trusted most, and hence the people least likely to cause any trouble.

They returned to the machine rooms of the shuttle, which led to the bridge and the boarding tube into the asteroid. Carver gave what he considered a rather rousing speech about the task at hand, the reason for their freedom. Most of the prisoners gaped in awe, as convinced as Welby was that Carver’s dragon was indeed one of their venerated Old Ones, and that he himself was a prophet sent to gather disciples to its cause. Maybe they were right — he really didn’t care. His only interest was in using these people for his own ends, which meant for the dragon’s own ends. It wanted to be freed, so who better than a gang of prisoners to do the job? There was a certain poetic justice to it.

There were a few ex-convicts, however — a tall black man named Marcus, a heavy-set and tattooed simpleton named Josh, an ill-looking little scarecrow of a man named Ballic or Ballich or some shit — whose faces bore sullen looks of suspicion when he spoke to them. Carver marked these faces in his memory, his fingers itching on the handle of the cutter, which he hadn’t put down for hours now.

Unbelievers,’ the dragon whispered. ‘Beware.’ And it told him of its plan for them.

In an uncharacteristic bout of generosity Carver distributed rations from the hold, then watched over his flock as they ate with apparent gusto, stuffing the food into their mouths like animals at trough and washing the starchy powders down with canteens of water. I am Carver, he thought, emissary of the dragon and leader of men. He knew it was a last meal for some of them. That was okay. This was a time of finality — he could taste it in the air. Things were coming to a head, the future racing away towards a conclusion that he could, as yet, not see. He felt no fear, only a slowly-culminating sense of elation.

He didn’t let them rest for long. He led them out into the ice-slimed cavern of the asteroid’s interior. The debris had completely filled the space without anybody there to keep it under control, and they set to work clearing it, manhandling pieces back through the tube and stowing them in a large, empty hold just off the shuttle’s machine rooms. Even in the micro-gee this was a fairly laborious task. Already the debris half-filled the new dumping ground, and there was much more to follow. They’d find another place to store it when it came to that. Maybe they could eject it out of the airlock.

Then Carver showed them where to dig and detailed a group to remove the waste as they went. He asked Welby to choose another whom he trusted to be left temporarily in charge at the dig site. Welby picked out a large, greasy-looking man with a heavily-scarred face, and Carver gave him the second plasma cutter. He looked more than strong enough to manipulate the tool and his expression suggested that he took Welby’s trust in him seriously.

Then Carver picked out those people who had looked at him so scornfully during his earlier speech and led them away into the shuttle. Welby accompanied him, staying behind the unbelievers with one of the laser pistols in his belt. The unbelievers, though, were armed only with stun-batons. Carver wondered if they had noticed anything amiss in this fact yet, or if they would do before it was too late.

‘It is already too late,’ said the dragon. Carver smiled as he led the group towards the shuttle’s machine rooms.

‘Yes,’ he agreed. ‘I guess it is.’

‘Is what?’ asked Marcus suspiciously, his voice an incredibly deep and sonorous bass. He was following behind Carver with some difficulty, pulling himself along the handline with irritating slowness.

‘Nothing,’ said Carver, turning his face away to hide his grin. The pulsing of his head had become so fierce that even his ears were ringing now. He’d have another hit of fader when this task was through. ‘Nothing you need concern yourselves with,’ he elaborated. He stopped before the doorway that connected the shuttle to the parasitic ISL and turned to face the others. ‘Welby,’ he said. ‘Shoot them.’

Welby proved his worth again. He didn’t pause for consideration; he didn’t ask Carver to repeat himself; he didn’t go What? or even Right! He just shot them — one, two, three — each in the chest. Two of the men convulsed and died quickly, gurgling their last like little babies. But Marcus writhed, spinning away and clutching at the burn in his suit. He pushed back towards Welby, attempting to swing his baton, teeth clenched in an animal snarl.

Welby, unfazed, shot him again, this time in the face. The laser burned cleanly through the front of Marcus’s skull. His eyes glazed instantly, as if net curtains had fallen behind them, then rolled up into his head. The baton drifted away from his hand and Carver caught it smoothly, laughing softly to himself. It couldn’t have been choreographed better if he’d tried.

‘Good,’ said the dragon.

‘Yeah,’ agreed Carver. ‘Easy.’

‘I’m hungry. . .’ crooned the dragon. ‘So hungry. . .’

‘How will you eat?’ asked Carver. Welby looked up into his face indulgently. ‘Should I take them to the rock face?’ Maybe the dragon would want the prisoners ground up and poured into a fissure in the stone.

‘Until I am free,’ explained the dragon wistfully, ‘I must live my life through you.’

‘I don’t understand,’ said Carver, but he thought perhaps he did.

‘You, Emissary, must be my eyes, my ears, my claws. . . my teeth. . .’

‘Of course,’ breathed Carver, staring at those three drifting corpses. He was suddenly and ravenously hungry.