At length, they pulled the packages one by one out of the back of the van, loaded them one by one into appropriate transport, shifting them slowly towards the foot of the Wall, and then rushed back as though they could not take the queer, deathly shade for anything more than an infinitesimal moment.
"Stop looking at that watch," Aaron said. "We have plenty of time. Our window of opportunity is four hours, right?"
"Then get back to work, like everyone else. You volunteered for this, remember."
An hour gone. He tried vaguely to focus, to concentrate, to put off his feelings of being overwhelmed with a the pointlessness of it all. What difference would it make in a few hours' time, who would care how much explosives they have planted at the Wall's base? The Wall was more than just a wall, more than bricks and iron and concrete and ceramics. It could not be broken. The lot of collected blocks and fuses he dragged against the ground might was well have been children's modelling clay.
But unlike the others, he did not feel fear and horror near the Wall. He had spent so long in its presence that it felt like an old friend. The details seemed no less clear in his mind, and here in its shadow, he knew to anticipate every new feature, foresee every plausible event. But it was an old friend the rogues wanted to kill. How did that change things?
But things were already different. He did not expect the way things looked without the Inhibitor. Without it, he felt things. A surreptitious emotion seeped in the land. Something like sadness, of a nostalgic yearning for old memories. What were once only blackened and rotted lumps of wood resolved themselves into fallen trees, tumbled gateposts, headstones. In loving memory of… an inscription read. The essential and irrelevant name trailed off into a rusted illegibility, and the bench to which it was affixed crumbled into dust.
He was standing in a cemetery. What became of those dead left outside the Wall? He looked out for watching eyes, restless ghosts, but saw nothing, but the obstinate, steadfast Wall.
The Wall, oh the Wall. He seemed ever drawn to the Wall, and if it should fall…
And they were finished. So fast, incredibly fast. Almost as though their target had been overseeing its own destruction, they had worked like men possessed. A deep pile now lay, heaped where they wanted it. At the bottom, layered neatly, higher up, haphazardly and then finally tossed on randomly when their patience had ran out.
Studiously and with fierce concentration, they had laid down the fuses required for the job, checked them, doubled checked them, trebled checked for luck and terror should it fail, or worse only work partially, causing only minor damage and leaving them with insufficient power to complete the job. Next, they dug out a little ditch to shield themselves from any debris, planted the detonator firmly in the middle in case it would slip or anyhow lead to some sort of inconceivably unlikely disaster. When that was done, they all stood for a moment, stared at each other in a sort of disbelief, before remembering to twist together the wires properly between the detonator and explosives, to run the detonator electronics self-test, to check the explosives for water damage, to check fuse integrity one last time, to make sure the fuse-explosives connects were all properly secured, to set up the video cameras with their individual live links, to record their statements of responsibility and reason for any future viewing public, to check the fuses one last time…
"I think that's enough, now." Aaron said.
"We still have an hour and a half to go," Frank said.
"Yes, but we don't want to push too close to the deadline, do we? It's too risky. So, you've checked everything, right?"
"So let's blow this thing already."
They clapped their hands over their ears. And tried to simultaneously shut their eyes against the flash of the blast, and to open them to catch the Wall's fall. Aaron shook his head with a smile. Giddy as children, it seems. He moved over to the detonator, tightening the last wires which had been left loose for the sake of safety. With a sigh, he flipped up the protective cover on the main switch, prepared to fire.
Frank checked his watch.
"Hey, maybe we need some decorum for this. Like a countdown."
Aaron looked at him for a moment, a confused expression is his eyes.
"All right, then. Ten."
"You aren't meant to say five," Frank interjected. "It sounds like 'Fire'."
But Aaron, now visibly quaking with impatience, had already went on.
He moved his finger over the button, trembling over it. The assembled rogues squeezed their heads between their hands with greater desperation. They took a collective breath in, and looked to the Wall. Frank did not join them, but stared instead at the finger, the finger that wished to be the cause of it all.
He heard what the others did not hear, a quiet shriek go through the universe, through every fibre of his being and the world's being, a scream, a signal of alarm and warning that shook him, that silenced the noise of the evening birds, that hushed the rushing traffic in the distance, that moved outwards, ever outwards, past the dense darkness that hung as the skies, to the watching stars. He wanted to say something, but there was no time to do so. Madness, madness.
Nothing. Not even a puff. Aaron's eyes darted around, and Frank felt his sinking heart fall. The others warily got up, hesitantly removed their hands, looked to each other, mumbled. Someone began to laugh.
"I hear they made some advancements, but I've never expected them to make silenced explosives."
Aaron was not laughing. He did not even smile.
"I thought you checked the fuses."
"I did, just minutes ago."
"Then go check again. And we will redo the detonation." He said, in a half-hidden fury. "And this time, I'll come with you."
Wordlessly, they picked up their torches and tools, clambering slow out. Scanning his companion, Frank saw a bulge against the man's belt, saw his hand brush against it again and again, until at last he covered it with his jacket, and stared back accusingly.
"What are you looking at?"
Frank turned away, and pretending not to have heard. With slow, plodding steps, they moved through the wasteland. A cool night, without rain, but without stars, either. But for the small patch of torch-lit land in a cone before them, they could see only blackness, as though the bomb had killed the world not the Wall, and they were wandering in oblivion. But there was the wire, the thin snaking wire which they followed, swept over with testers. There where the shapes, indistinct, stories forgotten, which loomed up in ambush, diminished with resignation. There was the uncertain ground beneath their feet, with jagged rock and sudden sink-holes. There were the beeps of the tester. And there was each other.
And there was the wire's abrupt end.
"What do you make of this, Frank?"
He looked over the wire quickly, picked it up in his hands, bent down with torch in hand to examine the break. Pointing downwards, the cone of light from the torch became brighter but at the same time smaller, so the world of darkness grew and was ever more oppressive. He shivered at a sudden coldness in the world.
The wire ended with no warning, no sign of an impending termination. The plastic sheathing squeezed together, the copper inside sharpening to a jagged edge, a broken end. The same on the other wire. Scanning around, he saw footprints arrive and leave. His spot of torchlight chased them, but they disappeared into harder ground.
"The wires have been cut," he said.
There was the crunch of crumbly rock as feet moved to his back. Taking a quick glance to his rear, he looked to see Aaron move his hand to his belt pouch, pulling his jacket aside. Another crunching step, a spray of tiny pebbles, and he had moved to his direct rear. He heard a click.
"This isn't what it looks like," he said.
But he was already closing his eyes, the ellipse of brightness before him cropped away into the eternal gloom. He wondered if he believed in a god, whether there was something beyond, but know that god were all long dead.
"What do you mean?" Aaron said.
There was the ping of a shot next to him, the crash of thrown rocks returning to the ground. Almost an afterthought, the bang of the pistol which fired the supersonic bullet. He fell to the ground, instinctively looking for wounds, any wounds, any wetness or blood. The ground was full of moisture. The earth itself had been wounded.
But Aaron was upright, unafraid. His words were calm, as though he had trying to defuse an argument, not as though a hollow point had just hit the ground next to him.
"Hold your fire, soldier."
A man walked forward, cradling a weapon in his hands. The man was young, terrifyingly young, thin and short, his face hidden in the darkness, his form defined by the glint of light off gunmetal. He brought the gun up to his eyes. Squinted to remove his fear.
"Put your hands behind your heads!"
"Don't you know who I am?" Aaron shrugged.
"Or what? You'll shoot me? Give me your name, soldier."
Frank cringed from the look in the young man's eyes.
"Well, Durden, you have no idea what damage it would do to your career if you are to shoot a colonel. I can tell you, it doesn't do much good. So run along now, and stop troubling us."
Frank could feel it now. Durden would be hearing the voices in his head now, the voices telling him these were enemies, enemies he had to kill. And against them, there would be the pleas of other voices, other screams, telling him that as high ranking officers, he had to obey them, had to protect them… The noise would be growing into a cacophony, a crash of silence noise.
The soldier stood still. Frank held his breath. The universe waited. Possibilities hung in the balance. Would the Wall fall, or would he fire? Something was need to tilt the scales.
It came as a relief, a spewing expulsion of breath.
"He's got a gun!" Frank shouted. Frank screamed at him. Frank got up, charged at Aaron, trying to wrestle the man's arm away, to point it to the sky, to the ground, to anywhere else. Aaron looked directly into his eyes, and let go.
The pair of pliers lay, slightly warm, in his hands.
Durden fired. He heard the wet, sickening, exultant thud as it struck.
But Aaron was away. He was running, limping but still running. Leveling the gun, slowly tracking, the young soldier fired again. And again. And again. Little bangs, barely audible thuds, flashes of flame. Screams, cries…
Methodically, Durden lowered his gun, and started to run after his prey. Frank stopped him.
"He is going to set off the bomb himself. We need to get out of here, fast!"
They ran, ran as fast as their feet could take them.
Ran towards the bright lights away from the Wall, the lights which hung in the air, which buzzed with unloading men.
Ran along the ruins of what once was alive.
Ran away from the Wall, which was dark.
Which was bright.
Frank jumped into a slide across the ground, grabbed Durden and dragged him down with him. He pulled his hands over the back of his hand, trying to blot out the pain of the noise which seemed to go on and on. Rubbed his face into the rock, trying to find sanctuary in the dead ground. But to no avail.
He turned around, and saw a message written in fire. The long arc of the Wall made red, glowing, filled with yellow light. The world was ending, had ended.
The blast of warmth ended. But the image of the Wall was burned onto his retina, and when he closed his eyes, allowed himself a few tears, he still could not help but see it, see it burn and burn and burn.
"The Wall is unharmed," they said.
Durden was among them. They smiled, as much as the Inhibitors allowed them to smile, filled with the happiness of victory. Around them, the rogues were being taken away, their materials seized, and cars were taking off, departing to pick up the others. Camera sprouted on spindly tripods, flashed and panned. People approached them, trying to catch him smiling, to catch his exhilaration at what was surely a victory for the books.
Much rogue manpower deployed. Many rogues sacrificed. Much information falling into their hands. All for nothing, nothing at all. The rogues have been proven to be an ineffectual force. Soon, they would be all defeated, all dead or captured. Safely neutralised. Safe enough to be deleted, to be forgotten as one more of those old, obsolete bogeymen. Just as everyone expected.
He didn't play their game. Somehow, it felt more like a defeat.
But it didn't stop them trying. When the majority of them were gone, Durden came to join him.
"Looks like you're a hero, then. Probably visible now live in a dozen or so states."
And would Kyra be watching?
Seeing the lack of a response, Durden saw fit to continue.
"In any case, thanks for saving my life from that monster. That is, thanks on top of everything else."
He give him the pliers, looked on solemnly as Durden handled it.
"Wow. Thank you so much… I really don't want to be shot by this."
Frank suppressed a giggle, and then stopped. Soldiers do not do sarcasm. Durden was handling it very carefully indeed, angling it carefully so as not to orient it in certain directions, carefully stroking its length.
"Give back the gun," Frank said.
Durden handed back the pliers, and he shoved it into a pocket.
Durden thought the pliers was a gun.
Durden also told him the Wall was unharmed.