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Chapter 3 Holly

 HOLLY Short was lying in bed having a silent fume. Nothing unusual about this. Leprechauns in general were not known for their geniality. But Holly was in an exceptionally bad mood, even for a fairy. Technically she was an elf, fairy being a general term. She was a leprechaun too, but that was just a job.

 

Perhaps a description would be more helpful than a lecture on fairy genealogy. Holly Short had nut-brown skin, cropped auburn hair and hazel eyes. Her nose had a hook and her mouth was plump and cherubic, which was appropriate considering that Cupid was her greatgrandfather. Her mother was a European elf with a fiery temper and a willowy figure. Holly, too, had a slim frame, with long tapered fingers perfect for wrapping around a buzz baton. Her ears, of course, were pointed. At exactly one metre in height, Holly was only a centimetre below the fairy average, but even one centimetre can make an awful lot of difference when you don't have many to spare.

 

Commander Root was the cause of Holly's distress. Root had been on Holly's case since day one. The commander had decided to take offence at the fact that the first female officer in Recon's history had been assigned to his squad. Recon was a notoriously dangerous posting with a high fatality rate, and Root didn't think it was any place for a girlie. Well, he was just going to have to get used to the idea, because Holly Short had no intention of quitting for him or anybody else.

 

Though she'd never admit it, another possible cause for Holly's irritability was the Ritual. She'd been meaning to perform it for several moons now, but somehow there just never seemed to be time. And if Root found out she was running low on magic, she'd be transferred to Traffic for sure.

 

Holly rolled off her futon and stumbled into the shower. That was one advantage of living near the earth's core - the water was always hot. No natural light, of course, but that was a small price to pay for privacy. Underground. The last human-free zone. There was nothing like coming home after a long day on the job, switching off your shield and sinking into a bubbling slime pool. Bliss.

 

The fairy suited up, zipping the dull-green jumpsuit up to her chin and strapping on her helmet. LEPrecon uniforms were smart these days. Not like that top-o'-the-morning costume the force had had to wear back in the old days. Buckled shoes and knickerbockers! Honestly. No wonder leprechauns were such ridiculous figures in human folklore. Still, probably better that way. If the Mud People knew that the word 'leprechaun' actually originated from LEPrecon, an elite branch of the Lower Elements Police, they'd probably take steps to stamp them out. Better to stay inconspicuous and let the humans have their stereotypes.

 

With the moon already rising on the surface, there was no time for a proper breakfast. Holly grabbed the remains of a nettle smoothie from the cooler and drank it in the tunnels. As usual there was chaos in the main thoroughfare. Airborne sprites jammed the avenue like stones in a bottle. The gnomes weren't helping either, lumbering along with their big swinging behinds blocking two lanes. Swear toads infested every damp patch, cursing like sailors. That particular breed began as a joke but had multiplied into an epidemic. Someone lost their wand over that one.

 

Holly battled through the crowds to the police station. There was already a riot outside Spud's Spud Emporium. LEP Corporal Newt was trying to sort it out. Good luck to him. Nightmare. At least Holly got the chance to work above ground.

 

The LEP station doors were crammed with protesters. The goblin/dwarf turf war had flared up again, and every morning hordes of angry parents showed up demanding the release of their innocent offspring. Holly snorted. If there actually was an innocent goblin, Holly Short had yet to meet him. They were clogging up the cells now, howling gang chants and hurling fireballs at each other.

 

Holly shouldered her way into the throng. 'Coming through,' she grunted. 'Police business.'

 

They were on her like flies on a stink-worm.

 

'My Grumpo is innocent!'

 

'Police brutality!'

 

'Officer, could you take my baby in his blanky? He can't sleep without it.'

 

Holly set her visor to reflect and ignored them all. Once upon a time the uniform would have earned you some respect. Not any more. Now you were a target. 'Excuse me, Officer, but I seem to have misplaced my jar of warts.' 'Pardon me, young elf, but my cat's climbed a stalactite.' Or, 'If you have a minute, Captain, could you tell me how to get to the Fountain of Youth?' Holly shuddered. Tourists. She had troubles of her own. More than she knew, as she was about to find out.

 

In the station lobby, a kleptomaniac dwarf was busy picking the pockets of everyone else in the booking line, including the officer he was handcuffed to. Holly gave him a swipe in the backside with her buzz baton. The electric charge singed the seat of his leather trousers.

 

'Whatcha doing there, Mulch?'

 

Mulch started, contraband dropping from his sleeves.

 

'Officer Short,' he whined, his face a mask of regret, 'I can't help myself. It's my nature.'

 

'I know that, Mulch. And it's our nature to throw you in a cell for a couple of centuries.'

 

She winked at the dwarf's arresting officer.

 

'Nice to see you're staying alert.'

 

The elf blushed, kneeling to pick up his wallet and badge.

 

Holly forged past Root's office, hoping she would make it to her cubicle before ...

 

'SHORT! GET IN HERE!'

 

Holly sighed. Ah well. Here we go again.

 

Stowing her helmet under her arm, Holly smoothed the creases from her uniform and stepped into Commander Root's office.

 

Root's face was purple with rage. This was more or less his general state of existence, a fact that had earned him the nickname 'Beetroot'. There was an office pool running on how long he had before his heart exploded. The smart money was on half a century, at the outside.

 

Commander Root was tapping the moonometer on his wrist. 'Well?' he demanded. 'What time do you call this?'

 

Holly could feel her own face colouring. She was barely a minute late. There were at least a dozen officers on this shift who hadn't even reported in yet. But Root always singled her out for persecution.

 

'The thoroughfare,' she mumbled lamely. 'There were four lanes down.'

 

'Don't insult me with your excuses!' roared the commander. 'You know what the city centre is like! Get up a few minutes earlier!'

 

It was true, she did know what Haven was like. Holly Short was a city elf born and bred. Since the humans began experimenting with mineral drilling, more and more fairies had been driven out of the shallow forts and into the depth and security of Haven City. The metropolis was overcrowded and under-serviced. And now there was a lobby to allow automobiles in the pedestrianized city centre. As if the place wasn't smelly enough already with all those country gnomes lumbering around the place.

 

Root was right. She should get up a bit earlier. But she wouldn't. Not until everybody else was forced to.

 

'I know what you're thinking,' said Root. 'Why am I picking on you every day? Why don't I ever bawl out those other layabouts?'

 

Holly said nothing, but agreement was written all over her face.

 

'I'll tell you why, shall I?'

 

Holly risked a nod.

 

'It's because you're a girl.'

 

Holly felt her fingers curl into fists. She knew it!

 

'But not for the reasons you think,' continued Root. 'You are the first girl in Recon. Ever. You are a test case. A beacon. There are a million fairies out there watching your every move. There are a lot of hopes riding on you. But there is a lot of prejudice against you too. The future of law enforcement is in your hands. And at the moment, I'd say it was a little heavy.'

 

Holly blinked. Root had never said anything like this before. Usually it was just 'Fix your helmet', 'Stand up straight', blah blah blah.

 

'You have to be the best you can be, Short, and that has to be better than anybody else.' Root sighed, sinking into his swivel chair. 'I don't know, Holly. Ever since that Hamburg affair.'

 

Holly winced. The Hamburg affair had been a total disaster. One of her perps had skipped out to the surface and tried to bargain with the Mud People for asylum. Root had to stop time, call in the Retrieval Squad, and do four memory wipes. A lot of police time wasted. All her fault.

 

The commander took a form from his desk. 'It's no use. I've made up my mind. I'm putting you on Traffic and bringing in Corporal Frond.'

 

'Frond!' exploded Holly. 'She's a bimbo. An airhead. You can't make her the test case!'

 

Root's face turned an even deeper shade of purple.

 

'I can and I will. Why shouldn't I? You have never given me your best ... Either that or your best just isn't good enough. Sorry, Short, you had your chance ...'

 

The commander turned back to his paperwork. The meeting was over. Holly could only stand there, aghast. She'd blown it. The best career opportunity she was ever likely to get and she'd tossed it in the gutter. One mistake and her future was past. It wasn't fair. Holly felt an uncharacteristic anger take hold of her, but she swallowed it. This was no time to lose her temper.

 

'Commander Root, sir. I feel I deserve one more chance.'

 

Root didn't even look up from the paperwork. 'And why's that?'

 

Holly took a deep breath. 'Because of my record, sir. It speaks for itself, apart from the Hamburg thing. Ten successful recons. Not a single memory wipe or time-stop, apart from ...'

 

'The Hamburg thing,' completed Root.

 

Holly took a chance. 'If I were a male - one of your precious sprites - we wouldn't even be having this conversation.'

 

Root glanced up sharply. 'Now, just a minute, Captain Short -'

 

He was interrupted by the bleeping of one of the phones on his desk. Then two, then three. A giant viewscreen crackled into life on the wall behind him.

 

Root jabbed the speaker button, putting all the callers on conference.

 

'Yes?'

 

'We've got a runner.'

 

Root nodded. 'Anything on Scopes?'

 

Scopes was the shop name for the shrouded trackers attached to American communications satellites.

 

'Yep,' said caller two. 'Big blip in Europe. Southern Italy. No shield.'

 

Root cursed. An unshielded fairy could be seen by mortal eyes. That wasn't so bad if the perp was humanoid.

 

'Classification?'

 

'Bad news, Commander,' said the third caller. 'We got us a rogue troll.'

 

Root rubbed his eyes. Why did these things always happen on his watch? Holly could understand his frustration. Trolls were the meanest of the deep-tunnel creatures. They wandered the labyrinth, preying on anything unlucky enough to cross their path. Their tiny brains had no room for rules or restraint. Occasionally one found its way into the shaft of a pressure elevator. Usually the concentrated air current fried them, but sometimes one survived and was blasted to the surface. Driven crazy by pain and even the tiniest amount of light, they would generally proceed to destroy everything in their path.

 

Root shook his head rapidly, recovering himself.

 

'OK, Captain Short. Looks like you get your chance. You're running hot, I take it?'

 

'Yes, sir,' lied Holly, all too aware that Root would suspend her immediately if he knew she'd neglected the Ritual.

 

'Good. Then sign yourself out a side-arm and proceed to the target area.'

 

Holly glanced at the viewscreen. Scopes were sending high-res shots of an Italian fortified town. A red dot was moving rapidly through the countryside towards the human population.

 

'Do a thorough reconnaissance and report in. Do not attempt a retrieval. Is that understood?'

 

'Yessir.'

 

'We lost six men to troll attacks last quarter. Six men. That was below ground, in familiar territory.'

 

'I understand, sir.'

 

Root pursed his lips doubtfully.

 

'Do you understand, Short? Do you really?'

 

'I think so, sir.'

 

'Have you ever seen what a troll can do to flesh and bone?'

 

'No, sir. Not up close.'

 

'Good. Let's not make today your first time.'

 

'Understood.'

 

Root glared at her. 'I don't know why it is, Captain Short, but whenever you start agreeing with me, I get decidedly nervous.'

 

Root was right to be nervous. If he'd known how this straightforward Recon assignment was going to turn out, he would probably have retired there and then. Tonight, history was going to be made. And it wasn't the discovery-of-radium, first-man-on-the-moon happy kind of history. It was the Spanish-Inquisition, here-comes-the-Hindenburg bad kind of history. Bad for humans and fairies. Bad for everyone.

 

Holly proceeded directly to the chutes. Her normally chatty mouth was a grim slash of determination. One chance, that was it. She would allow nothing to break her concentration.

 

There was the usual queue of holiday visa hopefuls stretching to the corner of Elevator Plaza, but Holly bypassed it by waving her badge at the waiting line. A truculent gnome refused to yield.

 

'How come you LEP guys get to go topside? What's so special about you?'

 

Holly breathed deeply through her nose. Courtesy at all times. 'Police business, sir. Now if you could just excuse me.'

 

The gnome scratched his massive behind. 'I hear you LEP guys make up your police business just to get a look at some moonlight. That's what I hear.'

 

Holly attempted an amused smile. What actually formed on her lips resembled a lemon-sucking grimace.

 

'Whoever told you that is an idiot ... sir. Recon venture only above ground when absolutely necessary.'

 

The gnome frowned. Obviously he had made up the rumour himself and suspected that Holly might have just called him an idiot. By the time he'd figured it out, she had skipped through the double doors.

 

Foaly was waiting for her in Ops. Foaly was a paranoid centaur, convinced that human intelligence agencies were monitoring his transport and surveillance network. To prevent them reading his mind, he wore a tinfoil hat at all times.

 

He glanced up sharply when Holly entered through the pneumatic double doors.

 

'Anybody see you come in here?'

 

Holly thought about it.

 

'The FBI, CIA, NSA, DEA, MI6. Oh and the EIB.'

 

Foaly frowned. 'The EIB?'

 

'Everyone in the building,' smirked Holly.

 

Foaly rose from his swivel chair and clip-clopped over to her.

 

'Oh, you're very funny, Short. A regular riot. I thought the Hamburg affair might have knocked some of the cockiness out of you. If I were you, I'd concentrate on the job in hand.'

 

Holly composed herself. He was right.

 

'OK, Foaly. Fill me in.'

 

The centaur pointed to a live feed from the Eurosat, which was displayed on a large plasma screen.

 

'This red dot is the troll. He's moving towards Martina Franca, a fortified town near the city of Brindisi. As far as we can tell, he stumbled into vent E7. It was on cool-down after a surface shot, that's why the troll isn't crispy barbecue right now.'

 

Holly grimaced. Charming, she thought.

 

'We've been lucky in that our target has bumped into some food along the way. He chewed on a couple of cows for an hour or two, so that bought us a bit of time.'

 

'A couple of cows?' exclaimed Holly. 'Just how big is this fellow?'

 

Foaly adjusted his foil bonnet. 'Bull troll. Fully grown. One hundred and eighty kilos, with tusks like a wild boar. A really wild boar.'

 

Holly swallowed. Suddenly Recon seemed a much better job than Retrieval.

 

'Right. What have you got for me?'

 

Foaly cantered across to the equipment table. He selected what looked like a rectangular wristwatch.

 

'Locator. You find him, we find you. Routine stuff.'

 

'Video?'

 

The centaur clipped a small cylinder into the accommodating groove on Holly's helmet.

 

'Live feed. Nuclear battery. No time limit. The mike is voice-activated.'

 

'Good,' said Holly. 'Root said I should take a weapon on this one. Just in case.'

 

'Way ahead of you,' said Foaly. He picked a platinum handgun from the pile. 'A Neutrino 2000. The latest model. Even the tunnel gangs don't have these. Three settings, if you don't mind. Scorched, well done and crisped to a cinder. Nuclear power source too, so plug away. This baby will outlive you by a thousand years.'

 

Holly strapped the lightweight weapon into her shoulder holster.

 

'I'm ready ... I think.'

 

Foaly chuckled. 'I doubt it. No one's ever really ready for a troll.'

 

'Thanks for the confidence booster.'

 

'Confidence is ignorance,' advised the centaur. 'If you're feeling cocky, it's because there's something you don't know.'

 

Holly thought about arguing, but didn't. Maybe it was because she had a sneaking suspicion that Foaly was right.

 

The pressure elevators were powered by gaseous columns vented from the earth's core. The LEP tech boys, under Foaly's guidance, had fashioned titanium eggs that could ride on the currents. They had their own independent motors, but for an express ride to the surface there was nothing like the blast from a tidal flare.

 

Foaly led her past a long line of chute bays to E7. The pod sat in its clamp, looking very fragile to be rocketing about on magma streams. Its underside was charred black and pockmarked from shrapnel.

 

The centaur slapped it fondly on a fender. 'This baby's been in service for fifty years. Oldest model still in the chutes.'

 

Holly swallowed.The chutes made her nervous enough without riding in an antique.

 

'When does it come off-line?'

 

Foaly scratched his hairy belly. 'With funding the way it is, not until we have us a fatality.'

 

Holly cranked open the heavy door, the rubber seal yielding with a hiss. The pod was not built for comfort. There was barely enough space for a restraining seat among the jumble of electronics.

 

'What's that?' asked Holly, pointing at a greyish stain on the seat's headrest.

 

Foaly shuffled uncomfortably.

 

'Erm ... brain fluid, I think. We had a pressure leak on the last mission. But that's plugged now. And the officer lived. Down a few IQ points, but alive, and he can still take liquids.'

 

'Well, that's all right then,' quipped Holly, threading her way through the mass of wires.

 

Foaly strapped the harness on to her, checking the restraints thoroughly.

 

'All set?'

 

Holly nodded.

 

Foaly tapped her helmet mike. 'Keep in touch,' he said, pulling the door behind him.

 

Don't think about it, Holly told herself. Don't think about the white-hot magma flow that's going to engulf this tiny craft. Don't think about hurtling towards the surface with a MACH 2 force trying to turn you inside-out. And certainly don't think about the blood-crazed troll ready to disembowel you with his tusks. Nope. Don't think about any of that stuff ... Too late.

 

Foaly's voice sounded in her earpiece. 'T-minus twenty,' he said. 'We're on a secure channel in case the Mud People have started underground monitoring. You never know. An oil tanker from the Middle East intercepted a transmission one time. What a mess that was.'

 

Holly adjusted her helmet mike.

 

'Focus, Foaly. My life is in your hands here.'

 

'Uh ... OK, sorry. We're going to use the rail to drop you into E7's main shaft, there's a surge due any minute. That should see you past the first hundred klicks, then you're on your own.'

 

Holly nodded, curling her fingers around the twin joysticks.

 

'All systems check. Fire it up.'

 

There was a whoosh as the pod's engines ignited. The tiny craft jostled in its housing, shaking Holly like a bead in a rattle. She could barely hear Foaly speaking into her ear.

 

'You're in the secondary shaft now. Get ready to fly, Short.'

 

Holly pulled a rubber cylinder from the dash and slipped it between her teeth. No good having a radio if you've swallowed your tongue. She activated the external cameras and put the view on screen.

 

The entrance to E7 was creeping towards her. The air was shimmering in the landing-light glow. White-hot sparks tumbled into the secondary shaft. Holly couldn't hear the roar, but she could imagine it. A raw skinning wind like a million trolls howling.

 

Her fingers tightened around the joysticks. The pod shuddered to a halt at the lip. The chute stretched above and below. Massive. Boundless. Like dropping an ant down a drainpipe.

 

'Right-o,' crackled Foaly. 'Hold on to your breakfast. Rollercoasters ain't got nothing on this.'

 

Holly nodded. She couldn't speak, not with the rubber in her mouth. The centaur would be able to see her in the podcam anyway.

 

'Sayonara, sweetheart,' said Foaly, and pressed the button.

 

The pod's clamp tilted, rolling Holly into the abyss. Her stomach tightened as G-force took hold, dragging her to the centre of the earth. The seismology section had a million probes down here, with a 99.8 success rate at predicting the magma flares. But there was always that point two per cent.

 

The fall seemed to last for an eternity. And just when Holly had mentally consigned herself to the scrap heap, she felt it. That unforgettable vibration. The feeling that, outside her tiny sphere, the whole world was being shaken apart. Here it comes.

 

'Fins,' she said, spitting the word around the cylinder.

 

Foaly may have replied, she couldn't hear him any more. Holly couldn't even hear herself, but she did see the stabilization fins slide out on the monitor.

 

The flare caught her like a hurricane, spinning the pod at first until the fins caught. Half-melted rocks pelted the craft's underside, jolting it towards the chute walls. Holly compensated with bursts from the joysticks.

 

The heat was tremendous in the confined space, enough to fry a human. But fairy lungs are made of stronger stuff. The acceleration dragged at her body with invisible hands, stretching the flesh over her arms and face. Holly blinked salty sweat from her eyes and concentrated on the monitor. The flare had totally engulfed her pod, and it was a big one too. Force seven at the very least. A good 500-metre girth. Orange-striped magma swirled and hissed around her, searching for a weak point in the metal casing.

 

The pod groaned and complained, fifty-year-old rivets threatening to pop. Holly shook her head. The first thing she was going to do on her return was kick Foaly straight in the hairy behind. She felt like a nut inside a shell, between a gnome's molars. Doomed.

 

A bow plate buckled, popped in as though punched by a giant fist. The pressure light blinked on. Holly could feel her head being squeezed. The eyes would be first to go - popping like ripe berries.

 

She checked the dials. Twenty more seconds before she rode out the flare and was running on thermals. Those twenty seconds seemed like an age. Holly sealed the helmet to protect her eyes, riding out the final barrage of rocks.

 

And suddenly they were clear, sailing upwards on the comparatively gentle spirals of hot air. Holly added her own thrusters to the upward force. No time to waste floating around on the wind.

 

Above her, a circle of neon lights marked the docking zone. Holly swivelled horizontal and pointed the docking nodes at the lights. This was delicate. Many Recon pilots had made it this far, only to miss the port and lose valuable time. Not Holly. She was a natural. First in the academy.

 

She gave the thrusters one final squeeze and coasted the last hundred metres. Using the rudders beneath her feet, she teased the pod through the circle of light and into its clamp on the landing pad. The nodes revolved, settling into their grooves. Safe.

 

Holly smacked herself on the chest, releasing the safety harness. Once the door seal was open, sweet surface air flooded the cabin. There was nothing like that first breath after a ride in the chutes. She breathed deeply, purging the stale pod air from her lungs. How had the People ever left the surface? Sometimes she wished that her ancestors had stayed to fight it out with the Mud People, but there were too many of them. Unlike fairies, who could produce only a single child every twenty years, Mud People bred like rodents. Numbers would subdue even magic.

 

Although she was enjoying the night air, Holly could taste traces of pollutants. The Mud People destroyed everything they came into contact with. Of course they didn't live in the mud any more. Not in this country, at least. Oh no. Big fancy dwellings with rooms for everything - rooms for sleeping, rooms for eating, even a room to go to the toilet! Indoors! Holly shuddered. Imagine going to the toilet inside your own house. Disgusting! The only good thing about going to the toilet was the minerals being returned to the earth, but the Mud People had even managed to botch that up by treating the ... stuff ... with bottles of blue chemicals. If anyone had told her a hundred years ago that humans would be taking the fertile out of fertilizer, she would have told them to get some air holes drilled in their skull.

 

Holly unhooked a set of wings from their bracket. They were double ovals, with a clunky motor. She moaned. Dragonflies. She hated that model. Petrol engine, if you don't mind. And heavier than a pig dipped in mud. Now the Hummingbird Z7, that was transport. Whisper silent, with a satellite-bounced solar battery that would fly you twice around the world. But there were budget cuts again.

 

On her wrist, the locator began to beep. She was in range. Holly stepped out of the pod and on to the landing bay. She was inside a camouflaged mound of earth, commonly known as a fairy fort. Indeed, the People used to live in these until they were driven deeper underground. There wasn't much technology. Just a few external monitors, and a self-destruct device should the bay be discovered.

 

There was nothing on the screens. All clear. The pneumatic doors were slightly askew where the troll had barged through, but otherwise everything seemed operational. Holly strapped on the wings, stepping into the outside world.

 

The Italian night sky was crisp and brisk, infused with olives and vine. Crickets clicked in the rough grass and moths fluttered in the starlight. Holly couldn't stop herself smiling. It was worth the risk, every bit of it.

 

Speaking of risk ... She checked the locator. The bip was much stronger now. The troll was almost at the town walls! She could appreciate nature after the mission was over. Now it was time for action.

 

Holly primed the wings' motor, pulling the starter cord over her shoulder. Nothing. She fumed silently. Every spoilt kid in Haven had a Hummingbird for their wilderness holidays, and here were the LEP with wings that were junk when they were new. She yanked the cord again and then again. On the third wrench it caught, spewing a stream of smoke and fumes into the night. 'About time,' she grunted, flicking the throttle wide open. The wings flapped their way up to a steady beat and, with not a little effort, lifted Captain Holly Short into the night sky.

 

Even without the locator, the troll would have been easy to follow. It had left a trail of destruction wider than a tunnel excavator. Holly flew low, skipping between mist hazes and trees, matching the troll's course. The crazed creature had cut a swathe through the middle of a vineyard, turned a stone wall to rubble and left a guard dog gibbering under a hedge. Then she flew over the cows. It was not a pretty sight. Without going into details, let's just say that there wasn't much left besides horns and hooves.

 

The red bip was louder now. Louder meant closer. She could see the town below her, nestled on top of a low hill, surrounded by a crenellated wall from the Middle Ages. Lights still burned in most windows. Time for a little magic.

 

A lot of the magic attributed to the People is just superstition. But they do have certain powers. Healing, the mesmer and shielding being among them. Shielding is really a misnomer. What fairies actually do is to vibrate at such a high frequency that they are never in one place long enough to be seen. Humans may notice a slight shimmer in the air if they are paying close attention - which they rarely are. And even then the shimmer is generally attributed to evaporation. Typical of Mud People to invent a complicated explanation for a simple phenomenon.

 

Holly switched on her shield. It took a bit more out of her than usual. She could feel the strain in the beads of sweat on her forehead. I really should complete the Ritual, she thought. The sooner the better.

 

Some commotion below broke into her thoughts. Something that didn't gel with the night-time noises. Holly adjusted the trim on her backpack and flew in for a closer look. Look only, she reminded herself, that was her job. A Recon officer was sent up the chutes to pinpoint the target, while the Retrieval boys took a nice cushy shuttle.

 

The troll was directly below her, pounding against the town's outer wall, which was coming away in chunks beneath his powerful fingers. Holly sucked in a startled gasp. This guy was a monster! Big as an elephant and ten times as mean. But this particular beast was worse than mean, he was scared.

 

'Control,' said Holly into her mike. 'Runner located. Situation critical topside.'

 

Root himself was on the other end of the comlink.

 

'Clarify, Captain.'

 

Holly pointed her video link at the troll.

 

'Runner is going through the town wall. Contact imminent. How far away are Retrieval?'

 

'ETA five minutes minimum. We're still in the shuttle.'

 

Holly bit her lip. Root was in the shuttle?

 

'That's too long, Commander. This whole town is going to explode in ten seconds ... I'm going in.'

 

'Negative, Holly ... Captain Short. You don't have an invite. You know the law. Hold your position.'

 

'But, Commander -'

 

Root cut her off. 'No! No buts, Captain. Hang back. That's an order!'

 

Holly's entire body felt like a heartbeat. Petrol fumes were addling her brain. What could she do? What was the right decision to make? Lives or orders?

 

Then the troll broke through the wall and a child's voice split the night.

 

'Aiuto!' it screamed.

 

Help. An invitation. At a stretch.

 

'Sorry, Commander. The troll is light-crazy and there are children in there.'

 

She could imagine Root's face, purple with rage as he spat into the mike.

 

'I'll have your stripes, Short! You'll spend the next hundred years on drain duty!'

 

But it was no use. Holly had disconnected her mike and swooped in after the troll.

 

Streamlining her body, Captain Short ducked into the hole. She appeared to be in a restaurant. A packed restaurant. The troll had been temporarily blinded by the electric light and was thrashing about in the centre of the floor.

 

The patrons were stunned. Even the child's plea had petered out. They sat gaping, party hats perched comically on their heads. Waiters froze, huge trays of pasta quivering on their splayed fingers. Chubby Italian infants covered their eyes with chubby fingers. It was always like this in the beginning: the shocked silence. Then came the screaming.

 

A wine bottle crashed to the floor. It broke the spell. The pandemonium started. Holly winced. Trolls hated noise almost as much as light.

 

The troll lifted massive shaggy shoulders, its retractable claws sliding out with an ominous schiiick. Classic predator behaviour. The beast was about to strike.

 

Holly drew her weapon and flicked it up to the second setting. She couldn't kill the troll under any circumstances. Not to save humans. But she could certainly put him out until Retrieval arrived.

 

Aiming for the weak point at the base of the skull, she let the troll have a long burst of the concentrated ion ray. The beast staggered, stumbled a few steps, then got very angry.

 

It's OK, thought Holly, I'm shielded. Invisible. To any onlookers it would seem as though the pulsing blue beam emanated from thin air.

 

The troll rounded on her, its muddy dreadlocks swinging like candles.

 

No panic. It can't see me.

 

The troll picked up a table.

 

Invisible. Totally invisible.

 

He pulled back a shaggy arm and let fly.

 

Just a slight shimmer in the air.

 

The table tumbled straight towards her head.

 

Holly moved. A second too late. The table clipped her backpack, knocking the petrol tank clean off. It span through the air, trailing flammable fluid.

 

Italian restaurants - wouldn't you know it full of candles. The tank twirled right through an elaborate candelabrum. It burst into flames, like some deadly firework. Most of the petrol landed on the troll. So did Holly.

 

The troll could see her. There was no doubt about it. It squinted at her through the hated light, its brow a rictus of pain and fear. Her shield was off. Her magic had gone.

 

Holly twisted in the troll's grip, but it was useless. The creature's fingers were the size of bananas, but nowhere near as pliant. They were squashing the breath from her ribcage with savage ease. Needle-like claws were scraping at the toughened material of her uniform. Any second now, they would punch through, and that would be that.

 

Holly couldn't think. The restaurant was a carousel of chaos. The troll was gnashing its tusks; greasy molars trying to grip her helmet. Holly could smell its fetid breath through her filters. She could smell the odour of burning fur too, as the fire spread along the troll's back.

 

The beast's green tongue rasped across her visor, sliming the lower section. The visor! That was it. Her only chance. Holly wormed her free hand to the helmet controls. The tunnel lights. High beams.

 

She depressed the sunken button and 800 watts of unfiltered light blasted from the twin spotlights above her eyes.

 

The troll reared back, a penetrating scream exploding from between rows of teeth. Dozens of glasses and bottles shattered where they stood. It was too much for the poor beast. Stunned, set on fire and now blinded. The shock and pain made their way through to its tiny brain, ordering it to shut down. The troll complied, keeling over with almost comical stiffness. Holly rolled to avoid a scything tusk.

 

There was complete silence, but for tinkling glass, crackling fur and the sudden release of breath. Holly climbed shakily to her feet. There were a lot of eyes following her - human eyes. She was 100 per cent visible. And these humans wouldn't stay complacent for long. This breed never did. Containment was the issue.

 

She raised her empty palms. A gesture of peace.

 

'Scusatemi tutti,' she said, the language flowing easily from her tongue.

 

The Italians, ever graceful, muttered that it was nothing.

 

Holly reached slowly into her pocket and withdrew a small sphere. She placed it in the middle of the floor.

 

'Guardate,' she said. Look.

 

The restaurant's patrons complied, leaning in to see the small silver ball. It was ticking, faster and faster, almost like a countdown. Holly turned her back to the sphere. Three, two, one ...

 

Boom! Flash! Mass unconsciousness. Nothing fatal, but headaches all around in about forty minutes. Holly sighed. Safe. For the moment. She ran to the door and slid the latch across. Nobody was going in or out. Except through the big gaping hole in the wall. Next she doused the smouldering troll with the contents of the restaurant's fire extinguisher, hoping the icy powder wouldn't revive the sleeping behemoth.

 

Holly surveyed the mess she had created. There was no doubt, it was a shambles. Worse than Hamburg. Root would skin her alive. She'd rather face the troll any day. This was the end of her career for sure, but suddenly that didn't seem so important because her ribs were aching and she had a blinder of a pressure headache coming on. Perhaps a rest, just for a second, so she could pull herself together before Retrieval showed up.

 

Holly didn't even bother looking for a chair. She simply allowed her legs to buckle beneath her, sinking to the chessboard lino floor.

 

Waking up to Commander Root's bulging features is the stuff of nightmares. Holly's eyes flickered open, and for a second she could have sworn that there was concern in those eyes. But then it was gone, replaced by the customary vein-popping fury.

 

'Captain Short!' he roared, mindless of her headache. 'What in the name of sanity happened here?'

 

Holly rose shakily to her feet.

 

'I ... That is ... There was ...' The sentences just wouldn't come.

 

'You disobeyed a direct order. I told you to hang back! You know it's forbidden to enter a human building without an invitation.'

 

Hollv shook the shadows from her vision.

 

'I got invited in. A child called for help.'

 

'You're on shaky ground there, Short.'

 

'There is precedent, sir. Corporal Rowe versus the State. The jury ruled that the trapped woman's cry for help could be accepted as an invitation into the building. Anyway, you're all here now. That means you accepted the invitation too.'

 

'Hmm,' said Root doubtfully. 'I suppose you were lucky. Things could have been worse.'

 

Holly looked around. Things couldn't have been a lot worse. The establishment was pretty trashed and there were forty humans out for the count. The tech boys were attaching mind-wipe electrodes to the temples of unconscious diners.

 

'We managed to secure the area, in spite of half the town hammering on the door.'

 

'What about the hole?'

 

Root smirked. 'See for yourself.'

 

Holly glanced over. Retrieval had jimmied a hologram lead into the existing electricity sockets and were projecting an unbattered wall over the hole. The holograms were handy for quick patches, but no good under scrutiny. Anyone who examined the wall too closely would have noticed that the slightly transparent patch was exactly the same as the stretch beside it. In this case there were two identical patches of spiderweb cracks and two reproductions of the same Rembrandt. But the people inside the pizzeria were in no condition to examine walls, and by the time they woke up, the wall would have been repaired by the Telekinetic Division and the entire paranormal experience would be removed from their memories.

 

A Retrieval officer bolted from the restroom.

 

'Commander!'

 

'Yes, Sergeant?'

 

'There's a human in here, sir. The Concusser didn't reach him. He's coming, sir. Right now, sir!'

 

'Shields!' barked Root. 'Everyone!'

 

Holly tried. She really did. But it wouldn't come. Her magic was gone. A toddler waddled out of the bathroom, his eyes heavy with sleep. He pointed a pudgy finger directly at Holly.

 

'Ciao, folletta,' he said, before climbing into his father's lap to continue his snooze.

 

Root shimmered back into the visible spectrum. He was, if possible, even angrier than before.

 

'What happened to your shield, Short?'

 

Holly swallowed.

 

'Stress, Commander,' she offered hopefully.

 

Root wasn't having any of it. 'You lied to me, Captain. You're not running hot at all, are you?'

 

Holly shook her head mutely.

 

'How long since you completed the Ritual?'

 

Holly chewed her lip. 'I'd say ... about ... four years, sir.'

 

Root nearly popped a vein.

 

'Four ... Four years? It's a wonder you lasted this long! Do it now.Tonight! You're not coming below ground again without your powers. You're a danger to yourself and your fellow officers!'

 

'Yessir.'

 

'Get a set of Hummingbirds from Retrieval and zip across to the old country. There's a full moon tonight.'

 

'Yessir.'

 

'And don't think I've forgotten about this shambles. We'll talk about it when you get back.'

 

'Yessir. Very good, sir.'

 

Holly turned to go, but Root cleared his throat for attention.

 

'Oh, and Captain Short ...'

 

'Yessir?'

 

Root's face had lost its purple tinge and he almost seemed embarrassed.

 

'Well done on the life-saving thing. Could have been worse, an awful lot worse.'

 

Holly beamed behind her visor. Perhaps she wouldn't be kicked out of Recon after all.

 

'Thank you, sir.'

 

Root grunted, his complexion returning to its normal ruddy hue.

 

'Now get out of here, and don't come back until you're full to the tips of your ears with magic!'

 

Holly sighed. So much for gratitude.

 

'Yes, sir. On my way, sir.'



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