If you’re coming in late, the novel starts here: CHAPTER 1: Some bugger steals my sushi
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Daniel and I half walked, half ran along Cumberland Street, then dodged through the ruins of some backstreets to Tina’s house. As we ran, I began to feel more and more nauseous, as if every step were dragging me further down, and churning my stomach more, filling it with dirt and death.
The bodies didn’t help either. Everywhere we looked, we saw ruin, devastation, and I realised, with a shock, that all the years I had been watching footage of natural disasters on the box, the camera had been carefully screening what was filmed, editing out the death and the blood. Now – here in the midst of a natural battlefield, we saw everything. Nothing was hidden from view.
I tried not to look, but the carnage made me ill and was strangely attractive to me at the same time. I didn’t want to look, but I couldn’t look at anything else.
And it was everywhere – all around us. At times we had to step over bodies, simply to make our way forwards. The children were the worst – no-one should have to die before they’ve even had a chance to live. We saw babies held in their mothers arms, and mother and baby both quite dead, crushed by falling stone.
And we saw grown men, and the elderly, all dead, so dead, complete or in parts, thei lives ended by the mass of wood and brick and stone that had fallen and been thrown through the air.
Everywhere we looked, too, the electrical wires were down, and it was clear that some people had been electrocuted where they stood, barely time to register what was happening. Maybe it was kinder that way.
I began to wonder if we were the lucky ones, for surviving and seeing all this. Or if we were the ones who had been sent straight to hell, and now this was our punishment, to witness all these images that would never, ever leave my mind, burned like a firebrand on our inner eyes.
My nausea increased every step of the way, and soon I became aware that it wasn’t just revulsion and confusion at what I was seeing around me. What I was sensing was a force, some kind of growing power field, that was buzzing in my ears and making my head throb, and giving me an odd taste of metal in the roof of my mouth. Something was wrong, was different – not just everywhere I looked, but inside me.
For the first time, I began to be actively aware, and afraid, of this “energy field” Athena had talked about, because I could feel it. As I ran, I looked down at my hands, and noticed they were shimmering, as if a heat haze were enveloping them.
I could see the field around me. If I’d been afraid before, it was nothing compared to what I felt now.
“Dan?” I said warily, as we moved through the streets.
“I see it too,” he replied. “You’re covered in it. Like a shadow. Ever since we left the Cathedral.” He stopped running, and focused on me, looking me up and down, with a worried expression on his face. “At first I thought it was me imagining things. Then I thought it was dust, and crap in the air, and we’d just stirred things up a bit by running around.”
He looked me in the eye. “But for the last five minutes, it’s been getting stronger, more intense, mate.” He tried to grin, to make me feel better, but his mouth couldn’t quite do it, and I’d have known he was faking it anyway. He patted me on the shoulder, and I saw him struggle to touch me, his finger having to push through the air to reach my jacket as though through a thick jelly. “Man, that’s freaky. it’s turning the air to soup around you.” He swallowed slowly. “I think this is the force field that Papadopoulos chick was talking about.”
“Awww – you reckon?” I replied sarcastically. Then I sobered up. “Shit, man, I’m scared.”
“Look: let’s get to Tina’s,” he said, trying to keep his voice level, although I could hear it shaking a little. “We need to get off the streets. They’re too dangerous. I’m buggered if I know what to do about this, but you’re my mate. We stick together. No matter what.”
“Yeah, stick together. Like jelly,” I said, peering down at my arms and pushing at the condensing air around me, in a state of near panic.
We arrived at Tina’s house, on Leith Street. Apart from a different coat of paint, the old weatherboard house looked pretty much the same. Here and now, twenty years earlier from our time, the building was bright canary yellow instead of the white I was used to seeing, but that was the major difference. The front garden was a little different, too – rose bushes instead of a vegetable plot. But the place was reassuringly familiar.
I was so relieved to find it standing and in good shape: the quake seemed barely to have touched it, apart from a small portion of the iron lacework along the porch that had fallen down.
We ran to the front door, and knocked, not knowing who we might find inside, now that Tina’s mother was dead, but knowing that this house had belonged to Tina’s family for a long time. We hoped that whoever lived here now might be able to help us, or at least give us a safe place off the streets, away from the carnage.
The door opened, and an older man, maybe in his forties, answered it. I recognised him from photographs Tina had shown me in our own time. It was her father.
“Yes?” he said cautiously, examining us like we were some kind of vermin, and I realised we probably didn’t look that good, covered in dust, blood and muck.
It was then I realised what I had to say, and didn’t like the fact that I’d have to say it. “Can we come in?” I asked tentatively, softly. “We have to talk about the Dean.”
“Oh God,” he said, his eyes widening in fear. “Is she okay? The Cathedral…?”
“We’d better come inside,” said Daniel, looking up at Tina’s Dad.
“Yes, yes, of course,” replied the Dean’s husband, and motioned for us to enter.
He ushered us down the very-familiar corridor and into the kitchen at the back of the house. Everything was…not quite right. The furniture looked too new. The wallpaper was different. It was the same house, but I automatically knew that someone else lived here. And the whole scent of the place was oddly unfamiliar.
I moved forward, and sat down at the kitchen table, the same kitchen table at which I’d eaten pot noodle – was it yesterday? – and had discussed nanobots with Tina and Kayly. Everything was so strange, and a strong sense of deja vu, combined with the thickening air around my body, was making it increasingly hard to think and feel and react to what was going on around me. My head was feeling clammy, and my joints were starting to ache. I was glad to sit down.
Even the sound of Daniel talking with Tina’s dad was starting to become muffled, as though the soup-like air was unable to transmit sound as efficiently as usual. I felt like I was being held underwater, in a clouded, murky darkness, while the rest of the world carried on up above, in the light. I could vaguely hear Daniel mention words “Dean” and “Bishop” and something about a knife, and Tina’s Dad laughing crazily, almost like a yell, then his insane laugh dissolving into tears, and then I fell from my chair onto the floor, unconscious.
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I woke up with the sense that a long time had passed. Hours, maybe. Somebody had moved me to the sofa in the front room, and my collar was unbuttoned. Daniel was sitting next to me.
“You awake?” he said.
I nodded, and tried sitting up, slowly. Not again, I thought blearily, my brain starting to switch on again gradually, the room coming into focus little by little. I took some deep breaths, stretched, and sat up. “Is it just us?” I asked.
“Luke’s in the kitchen, drowning himself in scotch,” said Daniel, referring to Tina’s dad. “Don’t blame him. It’s been a rough day. He’s lost his wife and his city has been mashed. But he’ll be allright in time.”
He chewed at his thumbnail thoughtfully. “Not sure about you though.” He looked down at me, a disturbed expression in his eyes. “Sorry to dump on you the moment you’re with us again, but it’s not good. I can’t touch you, mate. This weird bubble thing has got you. Look…” He tried to touch my forearm, but the air around me pushed him away as effectively as if I were cocooned in a thick rubber mattress.
“I’m scared,” I said.
“Me too,” he said, letting his normal bravado slip away. Damn, I thought. I could do with someone who wasn’t scared out of his pants like I was right now.
“I haven’t heard from Athena Papadopoulos,” he went on. “And I still haven’t figured out if she’s on our side anyway. I don’t know who to trust. Tina is here, down in the kitchen with Luke, but she’s not much use: she’s barely walking yet – took her first steps two weeks ago – and at her current age is more interested in teething on the furniture than in helping us. She’s a cute baby, but.”
He stopped chewing his nail, and stared at me, expectantly. When I said nothing, he asked bluntly, “So…why did you faint? What’s going on in that head of yourself, mate? You’re stil here, right?”
I shivered, but nodded. “Yep, I’m still here.” I thought of all the excuses I could make – that I was tired, that suddenly the Dean’s murder had freaked me. Maybe even that I was just really hungry and needed food – which I was. But I couldn’t lie – I couldn’t bull my best mate. So I swallowed down the bile that was rising in me, and told him the truth.
“I’m still here. It’s still me. But there’s something inside me.” I took a deep breath. “I don’t know what it is, and I don’t understand it, but I feel likeit is taking me over. It’s like some demon, choking the life out of me. I’m really scared. Man, I’m really scared.” I swallowed again, thinking how if I’d been a kid, I’d be crying right now, blubbering at Dad, asking for support. But I wasn’t a kid.
“I can’t touch you, mate” repeated Daniel, his voice shaking. “I’ve never seen anything like this before. It’s that field Papadopoulos was talking about, right? And that evil Bishop dude called you a ‘Host’…”
“Nothing’s going to come bursting out of my stomach, Dan,” I said, sounding more confident than I felt.
“She said the other…Hosts…died,” said Daniel quietly.
“She said the other Hosts were murdered,” I corrected. “And from seeing how that Bishop just killed the Dean without even thinking – it was so fricking quick! – I’m going to believe that the others were murdered. I don’t think this thing…whatever the hell it is…killed anyone.”
“We don’t know that.”
“I have to believe that,” I said quickly. “I don’t have a choice. Or I may as well go and slit my own wrists right now, and save the Bishop, and the rest of his Order mates, the bother of offing me, right?” I smiled at him, trying to make light of my situation.
“I guess so,” Daniel said, trying to grin and support me. “So what do we do now? Keep away from that Bishop is a pretty obvious first step…”
“Yeah,” I agreed. “I’d rather take my chances with this field thing that’s got me. We could stay here, but I don’t want to put Tina and her dad in danger. I suppose we didn’t think this through properly, did we? I just wanted to find somewhere safe. But we can’t stay anywhere where we’re going to endanger someone else that we care about.”
“You haven’t even seen her yet,” said Daniel. “Look: ley’s head down to the wharfs. If we’re going to find somewhere to hide, that’ll be the place. The Bishop shouldn’t bother Luke and Tina as long as he doesn’t find out we’ve been here. Let’s clear out, head for the wharfs, and find somewhere safe to hole up while we figure out what to do.”
“Sounds like aplan,” I said. “But before we do, I just want to see Tina-the-baby. You understand? I guess I’m curious…”
“…And you don’t know if you’ll see her again,” said Daniel, saying what I was thinking.
“Something like that.” I rolled off the sofa and stood up. “Let’s get going.”
Down the back of the house in the kitchen, Luke was hunched over the table, a three quarters empty bottle of scotch beside him. Clutching at his knees, behind the table from where we were standing, a small girl – probably a year old at most – was holding a bottle of milk. She eyed us suspiciously as we came into the room, and I tried to smile at her.
Even though she was barely beyond being a baby, it was Tina all right. Odd how, no matter what a person’s age, they’re immediately recognisable. Something in the way she moved and carried herself, even as a tiny kid, sparked recognition in me.
And I wondered, suddenly, whether she’d be all right in the future and get to grow up, now that time seemed to have changed on us and history seemed to be rewriting itself by the moment.
“Hey Tina,” I said softly, edging closer and bending down to greet her. “It’s me, it’s Mike.”
She backed away a little, and held her Daddy’s knees a bit tighter. Luke was practically wasted from the scotch, was in no condition to mind his baby daughter, yet he managed to let go of the scotch bottle and put his arm around Tina. “S’allright,” he drawled. “It’s just Mike, Teeney. He’s okay…”
I came forward, and crouched down so that I was eye-level with Tina, face to face with her. Forgetting that I couldn’t be touched, I said gently, “Do I get a hug goodbye?” and reached towards her.
And touched her.
In that moment, the earth shifted again in another quake, and I landed face first on the ground. When I looked up, a stunning sight caught my eyes.
Tina was growing, changing, ageing years in seconds. She was shooting upwards and out, growing taller and older and wider and stronger every single moment, faster than my brain could comprehend, her limbs lengthening and expanding, her face maturing and her body developing and reaching adulthood.
It was like someone had clicked the fast-forward button on her life, and now we were watching the results of a time-lapse, and we were watching the creation, the becoming, the rebirth of the girl I knew from the baby I didn’t.
Somehow I could sense it too…this growth was drawing energy from all around her, but mostly from me. I could feel the air drying out and crackling with unseen fire, that metallic taste in my mouth again which I now knew to be the taste of electricity and the firing of the neurons in my brain.
Tendrils of power were reaching through airspace and through the air to connect and push her forwards in time, growing and changing and becoming, as she sucked the force field and the very air around me dry: the same, mysterious force field that had been growing all the while in strength, ever since the Cathedral and since her mother was murdered.
As the quake went on her growth continued, pulsing as the earth shifted, and slowing as the earth’s movement slowed, and I could see clearly that the two were connected, the one reflecting the other. Perhaps the one causing the other – I didn’t know.
Then, just as suddenly as everything had started, the quake stopped, the earth shuddered and was still, and Tina collapsed to the floor, naked amidst the tatters of her outgrown baby clothes. Not a baby any more, but a girl in her early twenties perhaps.
The girl that I knew from our own time.