Surface Detail

One

“This one might be trouble.”

She heard one of them say this, only ten or so metres away in the darkness. Even over her fear, the sheer naked terror of being hunted, she felt a shiver of excitement, of something like triumph, when she realised they were talking about her. Yes, she thought, she would be trouble, she already was trouble. And they were worried too; the hunters experienced their own fears during the chase. Well, at least one of them did. The man who’d spoken was Jasken; Veppers’ principal bodyguard and chief of security. Jasken. Of course; who else?

“You think so … do you?” said a second man. That was Veppers himself. It felt as though something curdled inside her when she heard his deep, perfectly modulated voice, right now attenuated to something just above a whisper. “But then … they’re all trouble.” He sounded out of breath. “Can’t you see … anything with those?” He must be talking about Jasken’s Enhancing Oculenses; a fabulously expensive piece of hardware like heavyduty sunglasses. They turned night to day, made heat visible and could see radio waves, allegedly. Jasken tended to wear them all the time, which she had always thought was just showing off, or betrayed some deep insecurity. Wonderful though they might be, they had yet to deliver her into Veppers’ exquisitely manicured hands.

She was standing, flattened, against a flat scenery. In the gloom, a moment before she had spread herself against the enormous backdrop, she had been able to make out that it was just painted canvas with great sweeps of dark and light paint, but she had been too close to it to see what it actually portrayed. She angled her head out a little and risked a quick look down and to the left, to where the two men were, standing on a gantry cantilevered out from the side of the fly tower’s north wall. She glimpsed a pair of shadowy figures, one holding something that might have been a rifle. She couldn’t be sure. Unlike Jasken, she had only her own eyes to see with.

She brought her head back in again, quickly but smoothly, scared that she might be seen, and tried to breathe deeply, evenly, silently. She twisted her neck this way and that, clenched and unclenched her fists, flexed her already aching legs. She was standing on a narrow wooden ledge at the bottom of the flat. It was slightly narrower than her shoes; she had to keep her feet splayed, toes pointing outwards in opposite directions, to stop herself from falling. Beneath, unseen in the darkness, the wide rear stage of the opera house was twenty metres further down. If she fell, there were probably other cross-gantries or scenery towers in the way for her to hit on the way down.

Above her, unseen in the gloom, was the rest of the fly tower and the gigantic carousel that sat over the rear of the opera house’s stage and stored all the multifarious sets its elaborate productions required. She started to edge very slowly along the ledge, away from where the two men stood on the wall gantry. Her left heel still hurt where she’d dug out a tracer device, days earlier.

“Sulbazghi?” she heard Veppers say, voice low. He and Jasken had been talking quietly to each other; now they were probably using a radio or something similar. She didn’t hear any answer from Dr. Sulbazghi; probably Jasken was wearing an earpiece. Maybe Veppers too, though he rarely carried a phone or any other comms gear.

Veppers, Jasken and Dr. S. She wondered how many were