Art Pact 91
Johnson walked slowly back to the lifter, heaved the kitbag off the back, then walked back to the tree, both arms stretched out full as the weight of the kit tilted him to one side. With an audible puff of air he finally heaved the heavy weight at Darwell's feet and stood in place, racing his eyebrows and waiting.
"Fine!" Darwell exclaimed, and kneeled down to begin. Behind the double-zip of the kitbag was the jumbled collection of machinery and battery packs, still tangled up and bearing witness to the hurried packing at the end of the last job. He began to pick out the wires and prop sticks of the cutter, twisting and pulling at the knotted mass until he could tease out the two connector ends, then working back from them and beginning to stretch the machine out of the back to either side. It reminded him of untangling christmas lights as a child, and again he cursed the feature of his memory that allowed him to recall every sensation, every smell and sight and sound of that time, almost a hundred years ago, but would not remind him what he'd eaten for breakfast or when he'd left the barracks. "Jesus Christ."
"Oh, whinging about it, are we?" Johnson said archly. He was leaning on the target, the big red X that marked it for cutting sitting over Johnson's head like a spiky halo. Again, Darwell found himself wondering where the mistake had been made. The tree's base was more than twice around as the distance he could reach with his arms - he'd tried it when he first arrived, before Johnson had got there in the lifter - easily three or four times the size of any of the trees they'd cut so far.
"We should call back," he said. "There's been a mistake somewhere along the line."
"There hasn't been a mistake. Well, there's been one mistake, but in personnel."
"Oh, very droll." His hands, still digging in the kitbag, found the cutting head trapped between a handsaw and some blocking wedges, and he let himself slow down to extricate it carefully from its tangle. "Look, if this tree isn't for the chop, if it's been marked wrong... It can't hurt to send a packet back to base, double-check before we attach the cutter." He stopped, still kneeling, and looked up at Johnson's unsympathetic face, putting on a neutral expression to underline the reason of his point.
"Oh, for God's sake," he said. "Look at this thing! We've never been asked to harvest a tree this old, it's got to be a mistake, what's the harm in hanging on for half an hour to make sure?"
"The harm is," said Johnson, pausing for effect, "that there's no mistake, and we'd have dropped half an hour behind our schedule, we never catch up again and my rating drops a rank. There's your harm, old man - now quit fucking around and get the cutter out so we can drop this bastard."
"You little shit," he said, hoping it would be enough provocation, but Johnson appeared to be too canny for him, and the younger man just turned on his heels and began to walk around the target, checking out the best direction for it to fall. Johnson already knew that there was a clear area on the other side (it would take out a couple of saplings, but they'd probably grow back unless a branch dug into the ground near their roots). It was troubling - usually a tree this magnificent would have been surrounded at a safe distance by others nearly full grown, but this one was on its own. Like me, he thought.
The cutting ring was out of the bag completely now, and he laid it along the ground and began to check that all of the prop sticks were the right way round, the connectors at either end of the belt were in the right orientation without any twists, the cutting head free to move along its tracks. The constrictor actuator at one end was low on batteries, and he briefly considered leaving the old ones in just to slow down the process, but the ones that were in place would last a couple of hours at least, more than enough to have cut through the bark and the first inch or so of wood, and he knew that that would be enough to kill the tree anyway, even if it wasn't enough to bring it down.
"Right then," Johnson said, appearing from the other side of the tree. "Let's get this party started."
He picked up one end of the cutting belt and gestured for Darwell to take the other.