Dragons of Englor?
Book 24 of the Richard Blade Series
????? Two tall men walked along a corridor two hundred feet below the Tower of London. Theirfootsteps raised echoes from the tiled floors and painted cement of the walls.
The man on the right was known only as J. A casual look at him would have suggested that he wasa senior civil servant, nearing retirement age after many years of faithful and unobtrusiveservice. The Oxford accent, the erect carriage, and the flawless, understated tailoring of hisdark gray suit all reinforced the impression.
The man on the left was named Richard Blade. He had always been harder to classify than J, andalways would be. A dark man, one might have called him-dark hair, dark, closely trimmed beard,skin tanned almost to swarthiness. A wealthy man-he wore a custom-tailored suit, handmade brownshoes, a fine digital watch. A powerful man-under that suit was obviously an athlete's body,massively muscled and conditioned. If asked to guess about Richard Blade, the onlooker wouldhave probably said, "A well-off amateur athlete and man about town."
The onlooker would have been spectacularly wrong about both J and Richard Blade.
J had indeed served the British Crown faithfully and unobtrusively for many years. In espionagea man has to be faithful, and a man who isn't unobtrusive doesn't live very long. J was one ofthe century's great spymasters and head of the secret intelligence agency MI6. He had alsoreached an age where a normal man would have been at least thinking about retirement. But thosewho make distinguished careers in the dim shadowy world of espionage are seldom so normal.
Richard Blade was indeed a trained athlete, and not at all short of money. He'd been one ofMI6's finest and deadliest field agents, picked by J himself when fresh out of Oxford. Therewas nothing of the amateur about him, and there never would be. He was a brilliant andformidable professional in a game more demanding and far deadlier than polo or tennis orsteeple-chasing.
He was also unique in the whole world. He was the only living human being who could travel intoother Dimensions and return safely. It was because of Blade's uniqueness that he and J werewalking along the echoing corridor far below the Tower of London. At the end of the corridorlay a series of rooms, and in the last of those rooms stood an enormous computer. That computerwas the creation of Lord Leighton, who had the most brilliant mind and usually the worst temperamong all of Britain's scientists. Richard Blade's brain would be linked to that computer, sothat they formed a single circuit. Then Lord Leighton would pull a red master switch,activating that circuit, and Richard Blade would whirl off into-somewhere else.
They called that "somewhere else" Dimension X. When the great computer had finished twistingBlade's brain and senses, he saw and smelled somewhere else, heard and felt somewhere else,fought and moved somewhere else. Somehow he always survived and came back alive, sane, andreasonably healthy, to tell of what he had done and seen in the unknown. He was the only livingperson who could do that, in spite of all the efforts made to find others.
There was much more to what had now become Project Dimension X than simply giving Richard Bladea chance for one incredible adventure after another. Out there in Dimension X lay vastresources of all the things that Britain so desperately needed-land, metals, knowledge. Bladehad gone out twenty-three times and come back twenty-three times, but he'd never been able tobring back more than tantalizing samples or hints of the wealth of Dimension X. In spite of allthe money, work, thought, and good intentions that had gone into it, the Project still seemed
to be doing very little except giving Blade those exotic adventures.
This was becoming a problem, one that would rapidly get worse if things didn't change soon. Itwas this problem that Blade and J were discussing as they walked down the corridor.
"The total value of what you've brought back in gold and jewels and the like is adding up quiteadmirably," said J. "The grand total is now over three million pounds."
"That's not enough to cover the whole cost of the Project, is it?" asked Blade. He knew that heshould take more interest in the budgetary and administrative side of the Project. He had neverbeen an office type, though, or able to concern himself very much with even the most essentialpaperwork details.
"No. The total investment in the Project since we started is about eleven million. But whatyou've brought back has helped keep us within what the Prime Minister's Special Fund canabsorb."
"I imagine the Prime Minister is happy about that."
"Not happy," said J. "Not at the moment. He's reasonably satisfied with the financial end ofthe affair, and otherwise-well, Leighton's submitted another report."
"And put his foot in it again?" The scientist had a long-standing habit of conceiving andproposing large additions to the Project and its budget at the drop of a hat, without botheringin the least about minor details of trained manpower or financing.
"If you mean, has Lord Leighton made some new and expensive proposals in his report-yes, hehas. This time he's sat down and drawn up a comprehensive scheme for the Project for the nextthree years, covering long-lead time purchases, contingency planning, everything. I hadn'timagined that he had such a grasp of planning techniques."
J sounded genuinely impressed, rather than exasperated as he usually was by Lord Leighton'sproposals. "You sound as though you're supporting him, sir," said Blade.
"I am," said J. "Or at least I would be, if it would do any good. Leighton's done a fine job.He hasn't asked for anything we shouldn't have had years ago."
Blade hesitated, then fired the decisive question. "How much will it all cost?"
Blade grimaced. "I don't imagine we have much chance of getting that."
"None whatever. It can't possibly come out of the Special Fund, and as for getting a regularappropriation-well, you know as well as I do what the chances are of that, even if it weresafe."
Blade nodded silently. The Prime Minister's Special Fund was the only source of money for theProject where no questions would be asked. In Parliament there always had been and always wouldbe those who would question an unidentified expense of five pounds if they thought it wouldscore them political points. With four million pounds they would have a field day, and thesecurity of Project Dimension X would never survive.
It had to survive, though. No other nation knew the secret of inter-Dimensional travel. Noother nation appeared to even know that the British had discovered it. Things had to stay thisway as long as possible. What the Russians might do if they could tap the secrets of DimensionX was something to give the calmest of men nightmares.
"Besides," J went on, "Parliament wouldn't be inclined to come up with four million pounds forany scientific project these days, unless it's got some obvious value." Frustration and astrained temper sounded in J's voice as he continued. "Meanwhile, everybody's moving on aheadof us in a dozen fields. Atomic power-the French are putting breeder reactors into service.Electronics-the Japanese have made half a dozen breakthroughs in superconductors. Genetics-ingenetics, we've had reports that the Russians are on the point of cracking the codes for directgenetic manipulation."
"I thought that had already been done," said Blade.
"With bacteria, yes. But this report mentioned work with higher animals, at least up to thelevel of fish. Of course the- results will come more slowly with larger, slower-breedinganimals-until they get cloning perfected. So we may not have to worry for a few years. But-imagine a swarm of mutated and cloned sharks let loose as a terror weapon, or to form asubmarine detection network?"
Blade nodded. Anybody with a little scientific knowledge and a good imagination could in a veryshort time conjure up a dozen horrible results of direct genetic manipulation. It had been purescience fiction for a number of years. Now it was looming closer and closer as an unpleasantreality.
"Of course this makes matters even worse for us. Every scientist is trying to clutch Parliamentby the lapels and shake an appropriation out of it for his particular project. If by somemiracle we did get our four million, we'd have two-thirds of the research establishment howlingfor our blood. Even Leighton can't do his best without more cooperation than we'd get underthose circumstances."
"So where exactly do you feel that we stand, sir?" asked Blade. They were approaching the doorinto the computer rooms themselves. He wanted to get the conversation done and J calmed downbefore they entered. He had never seen J so close to losing his patience with anything oranybody, with the occasional exception of Lord Leighton.
J seemed to realize how much his agitation was boiling over. He took a deep breath and hisposture became even more erect.
"What we need is for you to bring back something extraordinary from Dimension X. It could be ascientific breakthrough whose value would be obvious even to the most idiotic backwoods back-bencher who's forgotten the small amount of physics and mathematics he ever learned. If it werethat obviously valuable, we'd be able to get our four million with no questions asked. We wouldsimply call ourselves a "secret research facility" that had produced this discovery, and askpolitely if they wanted us to produce some more like it."
Blade laughed. "Yes. Under those circumstances we might wind up with more money than we couldspend."
J fixed the younger man with a look of mock severity. "Richard, that shows how little you knowof administration. There is no such sum at the moment. Nor do I expect that either of us willlive long enough to see the day when there is."
"No doubt," said Blade. "What is the second thing I could bring back to help the Project out ofits hole?"
"A new process or product-something we could sell to private industry for at least-well, forwhatever the market would bear. I wish I could be more optimistic about the chances of that."
Blade nodded. He'd brought back a good many products and processes decades or centuries beyondanything known in Home Dimension. Unfortunately no one had yet been able to duplicate any ofthem on any useful scale. What the devil! The scientists were still struggling to duplicateteksin, and he'd brought the sample of that superplastic back from his first trip to Tharn,longer ago than he cared to think about.
Now they were at the entrance to the computer rooms. The door slid open in front of them. Theymoved on, through the familiar sequence of rooms crammed to the ceiling with supportingequipment and the technicians to handle it. They came to the door of the main computer room,waited while electronic monitoring systems scanned them and opened the door, then entered.
Lord Leighton's voice floated down to them from high above. "Richard, you can go ahead andchange. Everything's in order. I'm just taking the chance to make a routine inspection." Thesound of metal tapping on metal followed before Blade could say a word in reply. The scientistwas back at work, and he quite thoroughly detested making polite conversation at such times.
Blade didn't blame him. In fact, it was surprising that Leighton had bothered to speak at all.The scientist was more than eighty years old, his spine twisted by a hunched back, his legsalmost as twisted by polio. Yet there he was, clambering about somewhere high above, puttinghimself to inconvenience and strain to make an inspection that a technician a third his agecould have done easily. Lord Leighton was a man who considered any job-half-done unless anduntil he had done it or at least checked it himself.
Blade only hoped that he could remain half as conscientious and dedicated when age and physicalfrailty caught up with him.
Blade followed his usual path around the gray, crackle-finished bulks of the computer'sconsoles; to the changing room carved out of the rock wall. By now he could have followed thatpath blindfolded or in pitch darkness, without missing a turn or a step.
He could also have gone through the routine in the room in his sleep, he had done it so often.So he made a special effort to be alert during every moment of the routine. Long experience hadtaught him that the minute you start writing something off as "routine," you start makingcareless mistakes. Blade didn't want to run any risk of that with any part of a trip intoDimension X. They still knew just enough about the process to know how much more they had tolearn, and how many things could go wrong.
So he was as careful now as he had ever been, as he stripped to the skin and smeared himselffrom head to toe with greasy black cream. It felt dreadful and smelled worse, but it wasintended to prevent burns from the massive jolt of electricity passing through his body in themoment of transition.
He took a loincloth down from a peg on the wall and tied it on. He always wore one, althoughnone of them had ever passed into Dimension X with him. He had carried a gold ring on one tripand his old commando knife on another. Both of these had made the round trip with him, and bothwere now under intensive examination to reveal what special qualities they had.
Meanwhile, there was nothing else he could find that he'd had for many years and would also beuseful in Dimension X. There were plenty of things he could take that he hadn't owned foryears, but would any of them make the trip? Almost certainly not, from past experience. Theywould just add more uncertainties where there were already too many. It would be safer to gooff into Dimension X, prepared to arrive with nothing but his wits and his naked body. He'dsurvived that way often enough before.
Blade finished knotting the loincloth, stepped out of the room, and walked to the glass booththat stood in the very center of the room. He sat down in the metal chair inside the booth,feeling the rubber of the seat and back cold against his bare skin, and settled down torelaxing as much as he could. He always succeeded, although he could never completely keep hismind off what might be waiting for him in Dimension X.
Meanwhile Lord Leighton practically ran in circles around the chair, pulling wires in a dozendifferent colors out of odd parts of the computer. Each wire ended in a gleaming metalelectrode, shaped like the head of a cobra. Lord Leighton taped each electrode to Blade's skin.Then he stepped back, briefly surveyed his work with a satisfied smile, and walked across theroom to the main control panel.
The panel was already lit up like a psychedelic Christmas tree. The computer's program wasrunning on the main sequence, running steadily toward the moment when it would be ready to hurlRichard Blade away on his next journey.
In these last moments Blade always felt very much at peace with the world. He also knew betterthan ever how simple his job in the Project really was. No research to do, no appropriations tofight for, no security problems to track down and handle. At the moment, J was still fightingto sidetrack Scotland Yard from its search for the "mystery hero" who'd vanished after saving adozen lives in a train wreck a few months ago. That mystery hero was Blade, who'd vanished toavoid publicity that would endanger the Project, then gone off into Dimension X while J wasleft holding the sack.
Before Blade's mind could form another thought, Lord Leighton's hand descended smoothly ontothe red master switch and drew it even more smoothly down to the bottom of its slot.
The floor beneath the booth dropped away into a swirling black nothingness. The booth and Bladeinside it seemed to hang suspended above the blackness, with the room and the computer consolesand Leighton and J still clearly visible all around.
Then the blackness began to turn red and come alive with dark fumes that swirled around Bladewithout burning or choking or even brushing against him. They seemed to swirl right throughhim, for suddenly he was as intangible as they were.
Beneath the redness a fiery yellow began to glow, rising up through the redness, rising upthrough the fumes, pouring a fierce light over the computer and the men. They seemed todissolve in that light, as if they'd been dropped into boiling acid.
The light grew brighter, and Blade saw that the booth was gone from around the chair, and thenthe chair was gone from under him. He was alone, seated on nothingness in the middle of rawyellow fire that should have burned but did not.
He was still alone when the yellow fire faded slowly away into blackness and the blacknessswallowed him up and blanked out all his senses.
Richard Blade awoke slowly, with his head throbbing as usual. The sun was out-he could feel iton his skin. So he lay quietly on his back, his eyes closed against the light, while theheadache faded and all his other senses built up a picture of the world around him.
There was the sun. There was a definite breeze, warm but with a sort of faint undertone of dampcoolness. It felt very much like the breeze on an English spring day. There were bushes aroundhim and trees overhead, their leaves rustling in the breeze. There were flowers blooming closeenough for their scents to reach Blade. He recognized roses and half a dozen others, allsurprisingly familiar. Under him, prickling gently against his bare skin, was short, thickgrass, still slightly damp from a night's dew. It felt trimmed as close and as neatly as anylawn or park.
He could hear the faint drone of insects, the fainter chirps of birds, far away and fainterstill the barking of a dog. Still farther away was a subdued murmuring and muttering. If Bladehad been in England, he would have called it heavy traffic on a road several miles away.
The headache was fading now. Blade sat up, shaded his eyes to keep from getting the full blastof the sun, and opened them.
He was between two rows of bushes, with trees arching overhead to form almost a canopy. Throughthat canopy he could see cotton-puff clouds ambling across a deep blue and faintly hazy sky. Ona branch seemingly close enough to touch, a bird perched. It was the size and shape of anEnglish robin, except that its breast was a genuine crimson rather than a reddish orange. As hewatched, it sprang into the air. He noticed that its outspread wings had pale, almost whitishtips.
The grass under him was definitely a lawn-recently mowed, too. He picked up a handful ofclippings and let them sift through his fingers and scatter on the breeze. The ground under thebushes was freshly weeded, too. This was obviously a park or some rather extensive and well-kept estate.
That suggested a fairly respectable civilization. Blade was pleased. He could survive anywhere,among any kind of people. He had done so many times in the past, and no doubt would do so manytimes in the future, until either his luck ran out for good or until someone else was chosen togo off into Dimension X. Yet he was still a good deal more comfortable among people who tookbaths, wrote and read books, and were not in the habit of killing strangers on sight.
Blade stood up and started walking along the strip of grass between the two rows of bushes. Hewould do well to get out of this park or estate and get to some place where he could find someclothes. After that it would be safe to start exploring and trying to meet people. Civilized
Dimensions had at least one disadvantage. They had proper authorities, and those properauthorities often disapproved of people wandering around dressed as Blade was, in nothing atall.
Blade quickly saw that a fence ran across the far end of the grass strip, completely blockinghis exit. He moved on, noticing that the well-trimmed bushes on either side of him lookedremarkably like an English privet hedge, although the berries were pale blue rather thangrayish white.
Blade came up to the fence. It was a plain undecorated piece of work, wrought iron painted fiatblack. Peering around the hedges, he could see the fence stretching away in either direction.It looked like a hundred other fences be had seen in similar parks and estates in HomeDimension. Nothing surprising or unusual about it at all.
On the other side of the fence was a white gravel path, neatly raked and weeded, alsostretching off in either direction as far as Blade could see. He could see quite a distance,and all he could see appeared to be more park, more trees, more pruned bushes, flowerbeds, andneatly mowed lawns. Very far away he thought he could make out an occasional quick-movingsplash of color and hear the murmur that sounded like traffic noises.
On the other side of the path was something just as familiar as all the rest. In fact, it wasso familiar that Blade began to find it vaguely disturbing. It was a white porcelain drinkingfountain with brass fittings, mounted on a plain concrete base. It was thoroughly twentiethcentury British, except that this wasn't twentieth century Britain.
Or was it? Blade found a thought slowly forming in his mind. It was not vague at all, but itwas even more disturbing than the drinking fountain.
Was he still in Home Dimension, even in England? Had the computer finally misfired, merelyshifting him a few miles sideways in space and perhaps a few months forward or backward intime? Was he in a park in the suburb of London, and were those distant murmurings that soundedlike traffic noises exactly that?
It was too soon to call that the explanation. There was that robin that wasn't quite a robin,that privet hedge that wasn't quite a privet. Also, there was no sound of air traffic overhead,neither jets nor light planes nor helicopters.
True, all of this. But Blade had to admit that birds and shrubs weren't things he knew verywell. Both the "robin" and the "privet" could be something perfectly common and respectablethat he simply didn't recognize. As for the air traffic-well, there were undoubtedly parks evenin the suburbs of London a good distance from any air traffic lanes. The same thing would beeven truer of other towns and cities in southern England.
On the whole, Blade rather hoped that he wasn't still in England. The public authorities theredefinitely frowned on people wandering around naked in public. Unless he was very lucky in thematter of finding clothes, he would be arrested sooner or later. Then there would have to beidentifications and explanations made, somehow, preferably without involving J or anybody elseeven remotely connected with the Project. A hundred different things could go wrong, possiblyreviving the whole "mystery hero" problem or even breaching the security of Project DimensionX.
There were no spikes on top of the fence. Blade put both hands on the upper crossbar and gotready to swing himself over it. He wanted to inspect that drinking fountain, and, if it was asauthentic as it looked, get a drink of water from it. Then he would be on his way. The parkseemed fairly deserted-it was probably a weekday. But somebody was bound to wander by sooner orlater.
Blade had just taken a firm grip when he heard a weirdly familiar sound overhead, growingrapidly louder. His head jerked up, in time for him to see a large four-engined transport planesail low overhead. He got a good look at it as it passed barely a thousand feet above him. Longafter it was out of sight and hearing, his mind tried furiously to sort out what he'd seen.
Unmistakably, the plane was a Royal Air Force Lockheed C-130 Hercules, with four turboprops. Itwas identical to those he'd seen at RAF bases and even parachuted from a few times. It wasidentical from nose to tail, including the form of the insignia on the wings, the camouflagepattern, and the lettering of the serial numbers. If it had been a little lower, Bladesuspected he'd have been able to identify the squadron badge on the nose.
He was still in England. Suddenly it was hard to believe anything else. It was more than hard,it was almost impossible. He could certainly not find plausible the idea of a Dimension X thatflew airplanes virtually identical to those of Home Dimension.
No, he was still in England. The computer had slipped up and there was an end to it. Bladeshrugged. There were going to be all sorts of problems, unless by some chance he was luckyenough to escape arrest and get to clothes, money, and a telephone. If he was that lucky, aquick call to the Project's secret number would raise J, and he and the older man could bedining at J's club tonight. That would certainly set the all-time record for a quick tripthrough the computer!
Blade felt like laughing with one breath and swearing with the next. It was ludicrous. Here hewas, after all the ordeal of another brain-twisting by the computer, still in England. Here hewas, in no danger of either being hailed as a god or sacrificed to one, in no real danger ofanything except insect bites and arrest for indecent exposure!
It was also unpleasant to think about what it might mean if the computer had developed a newquirk. But that was a worry for the future, and in any case more for Lord Leighton than forhim. Here and now, it was time to get moving in search of those clothes, some money, and atelephone, and to put an end to this nonsense.
In the next moment Blade realized he should have got moving a little sooner. Brisk footstepssounded on the path to the left. He sprang back from the fence, looking around for a hidingplace.
Before he could find any, two people strode swiftly into view, a man and a woman. The man wastall and large-framed, with an erect bearing and a commanding air about him. His hair and largemustache were thick and gray, and his face was red but showed no softness or sagging. He woreBritish Army battledress and a black beret. Blade could not make out his regimental badges orhis rank. The battledress suggested a senior NCO-British Army officers seldom wore it off-duty.But the man's manner suggested a field-grade officer-a senior lieutenant colonel, perhaps,who'd kept himself in first-class physical condition.
The woman looked like the perfect wife for such a man. She was only an inch or two shorter thanhe was, with large capable-looking hands and a long, almost horsey face. She wore a long-sleeved blouse and a gray tweed skirt down to mid-calf, and carried a sweater over one arm.
As the couple came into view, the woman started to unfold the sweater from her arm. As she did,her eyes swung toward the side of the path and fell squarely on a Richard Blade who would inthat moment have cheerfully paid any price to become invisible.
The woman's eyes and mouth opened wide. For a moment Blade thought she was going to faint orscream hysterically. Instead she whirled, grabbed her husband's arm, and pointed with the otherhand. "Michael-there's a drunken man in the bushes!"
The man whirled to look where his wife was pointing. His own eyes widened, then his hand made adive for his belt. For the first time Blade noticed that the man was wearing a holsteredsidearm on his belt. His large hand moved with surprising speed and came up holding abusinesslike black automatic.
"What the devil-!" the man snapped out, in unmistakably plain English with an educated accent.Then:
-as Blade whirled and took to his heels. A second "Halt!" rang out behind him as he sprintedback the way he'd come. He was busy looking for a break in the bushes, where he could get outof the officer's sight. There was no point in trying to hide now, not in this park. The hunt
would be on soon enough, and his best chance of avoiding it would be to get as far away aspossible as fast as possible.
Blade ran on. At every step he half expected to hear the automatic crack and to hear a bulletwhistle past him-or feel it drive into his body.
A low place in the bushes appeared to his right. He swerved without slowing and leaped withoutbreaking his stride. He soared high, landed on his feet on the other side, and kept right ongoing. He could hear the officer blowing loudly and shrilly on a whistle. He did not slow downuntil the sound of the whistle faded away behind him. Then he started off more slowly, in adirection the sun told him was west. Now he moved carefully from one piece of cover to another,with long-practiced skill.
Blade could practically do this sort of movement in his sleep. So now he could spare somethought for the little brush with the military man. There'd been something distinctly anddisturbingly odd about it. A British Army officer or NCO might conceivably wear battledressoff-duty. But he would never carry a sidearm while strolling through a public park with hiswife.
Never, that is, except in wartime.
Blade frowned. Could he have been pushed a few years into the future, into a time when Britainwas somehow at war again? Perhaps. It seemed unlikely, though. A war large enough to have armyofficers wandering around with their sidearms would almost certainly have produced many otherchanges, changes he would have seen already. He remembered the books he'd read and the pictureshe'd seen of World War II. A park like this would have had the fences torn down for theirmetal, posters plastered all over, and perhaps an anti-aircraft gun or two lurking in thebushes.
It was unlikely but not impossible. After all he'd seen and experienced in Dimension X,"impossible" was a word Richard Blade refused to use.
If he'd traveled forward in time, even only a few years, it was all the more necessary to avoidarrest until he'd sorted things out a bit more. In a Britain at war, never mind where, why, orwith whom, the authorities would be more than usually suspicious about unidentified andunidentifiable people found wandering naked in the public parks. It might take weeks instead ofdays before he could make a phone call to anybody who could vouch for him.
But would there be anyone who could vouch for him? Both J and Lord Leighton were old men whomight well be dead by now. Then what? There would doubtless be people who remembered him stillworking in Intelligence. There wouldn't be anyone cleared to know about the Project, though-assuming it was still in existence. That would complicate explaining how he came to be where hewas, to put it mildly.
That wasn't the worst of it, either. There were all sorts of paradoxes that could crop up intime travel, such as meeting another Richard Blade doing useful war work for Intelligence hereand now. If that happened, Blade didn't care to think about what else might happen. Confrontedwith two Richard Blades, the authorities might very well decide to lock up the odd Blade outand throw away the key-or possibly even make him quietly disappear some night.
Blade suddenly realized that he might be in a good deal more danger than he'd thought. He wouldnot die of plague or as a sacrifice to the local gods here. But there was still a much betterchance than usual that he'd never get back to where he'd started. If the computer had bobbledhim forward in time to a Britain at war, it might be the last bobble it ever made with him.
The noises that sounded like traffic, and probably were, grew steadily louder as he moved.After a while he could see a main road off in the distance, through the trees, and a good dealof traffic passing along it. He could not clearly make out the types of vehicles, but theyseemed to be mostly trucks of various sizes. Some of them seemed to be painted in militaryolive drab.
Blade shifted his direction. If possible, he wanted to come out of the park in a quietneighborhood, not onto a busy road with dozens of people in sight, some of them probably armed
Two more aircraft flew over the park. One was a jet fighter, moving too fast for Blade toidentify the type. The other was a small helicopter. It seemed to be passing rather lowoverhead, and Blade had an unpleasant moment's wondering if it was looking for him. Then thehelicopter moved on and so did Blade.
What lay on the other three sides of this park was a matter of educated guesswork. Blade keptangling steadily farther and farther away from the road, listening to the traffic' noisesslowly fade. He also listened for any sound that might give him a clue of what lay in the otherdirections. He was as alert as a hunting animal. He also had to fight an urge to laugh at thenotion of having to use his skills in escape, evasion, silent movement, and all the rest herein his native country.
Suddenly the sound of voices came from the other side of a screen of bushes. Blade dropped fiaton the ground and listened. He heard footsteps, the metallic chink of military equipment, thenmore voices. One of them had an unmistakable flavor of cockney.
"'E must've 'eaded this way, or, Blooey'd 'ave picked 'im up. "
"Don't know 'bout that," said the other voice. "If he's running around starkers, he might be abit off in the head. I'm not going to worry, no matter what Sergeant Bloody Lamb says."
Blade lay still until both the footsteps and the voices faded away, and for a little longerafter that. The hunt was on, that was certain. It sounded as if the army was taking part in it.That made no sense, unless he was in or near some military installation, which didn't seemlikely.
In any case, he'd have to turn back, at least for the moment. The bushes and trees ahead made abarrier too thick to push through quickly or quietly. Blade rose to a crouch and beganretracing his steps, moving even more quietly than before.
After a hundred yards or so he changed direction again. His new course took him down a gentleslope, heavily overgrown with low shrubs. He was able to keep under cover all the way down theslope, until it suddenly steepened and he found himself standing on the edge of a stream. Thestream flowed through a steep-sided gulley nearly eight feet deep. Fifty feet upstream anarrow, whitewashed wooden bridge crossed the gulley.
Crossing the stream looked like a gamble, whichever way he did it. But he didn't seem to haveany choice, and he certainly had no time to lose. He carefully scanned every tree and bush andpatch of open ground he could see. Then he slipped from the shelter of the last bush and sliddown the side of the gulley.
He landed with a faint splash in a slow-moving trickle of cool, muddy water. He crossed it intwo steps and began to look for handholds in the bank in front of him. Just one, and he'd be upthe bank and back under cover.
Blade was just reaching out for a likely-looking root when someone shouted angrily.
"Hi there! Stop, in the name of the law!"
A large man in a London policeman's uniform was standing on the bridge, glowering down atBlade. He was also pointing at Blade an equally unmistakable and thoroughly vicious-lookingsubmachine gun. It was a remarkably incongruous weapon for a London bobby, normally armed withnothing more formidable than a truncheon and his bare fists.
Blade's eyes flicked quickly up and down the gulley. There was no cover he could possibly reachbefore the bobby could put half a dozen bullets through him. He stepped away from the bank intothe center of the stream, turned to face the bobby, and carefully raised both hands over hishead.
The chase was over. It would have been over even if he'd had a weapon to pick off the bobby,submachine gun and all. Security in this wartime Britain must be very tight indeed if even thebobbies were carrying submachine guns. In that case, resisting arrest would be fatal, sooner orlater.