WAYLAND CYBERSMITH (WAYCYBER) STRONGHOLD : EXODUS : - 1) HUNTRESS, MAY 3

This story is rated 4 stars (2 ratings).

by WaylandCybersmith

 

STRONGHOLD: Exodus

 

 

“Here, I don’t doubt, England's new partisan attitude taxed the East Russian nerve severely.”

Luc Losueur – The Action of Russia 

 

Huntress: May 3

ASHTON FROME: The Home of David Bonnar 03.13 

It had been a month since David Bonnar killed his wife. Every night since, he called up her ghost to haunt him, to torture him with her laughter. Bonnar lay in his recliner staring at the screen, which covered all of one wall. When Amy died, his whole reason for existence died with her. He had tried to commit suicide three times, but could not go through with it. Some annoying spark of self-preservation stopped him. 

In that world behind the screen, she was alive and happy, playing with Benji, their Husky/Labrador cross breed. Bonnar froze the picture. Amy appeared to be looking straight at him, her head tilted slightly forward, smiling that smile of hers. It used to send delicious shivers down his back, but now he felt nothing. He studied every detail of her elf-like face; the short black hair that framed her eyes and ears; the big, brown doe eyes, full of laughter and mischief; the thin arched eyebrows; the red curve of her lips. 

Bonnar was 42. He thought he would have all the answers to life by now. All he had was more questions. He thought he had found his partner for life in Amy, so, although society considered that marriage was bad taste, they got married. Bonnar thought they would have children by now, but when genetic screening became law, and their test results classed them as a high risk, they were both compulsorily sterilized. They could not adopt either, because he worked for the National Security Command, another high risk.

So, they bought Benji. Right from the start Amy and Benji adored each other. Amy would sit watching the screen, and Benji would come and lie across her feet. He would follow her all around the house. When Amy died, Benji pined away. He would wait by the door, refusing all attempts to move him. He would not eat or drink. He just went to sleep one day, and never woke up.

The phone rang.

Bonnar let it ring.

The ringing stopped.

The phone rang again.

He stepped over clutter and debris that carpeted the floor to where the phone lay on a cupboard. He fastened the crescent shaped device around his ear and pressed the answer button.

“David, old chap. Forgive me phoning at this time.”

“Who is this?”

“It’s Harry, Harry Mahone,”

“Sorry. I’m not thinking straight.”

“Well, you’d better sort yourself out, old chap. Back to work today.”

“I still don’t feel I can cope.”

“No choice. Too much going on, old chap. We need you. That’s why I phoned. Did you see Seaver’s interview?”

“No, Harry. I wasn’t up to it.”

“Well, I suggest you do. Catch up and all that. Soon as you get in, see Doctor Jason Samfai. He will check you out. Make sure you’re fit for work and all that. Don’t worry, old chap, he’s one of the best Section 20 has to offer.”

LLANTRAETHELL: 04.19 

The waves rolled onto the shore with a constant roar. All was dark except for the thin crescent moon and a tiny green glow out at sea. The air was freezing cold, the spray made it difficult to breathe. The chill was like a thousand icy needles that penetrated to the bone.

Una Sallis and her four companions were huddled inside their blankets, as the dinghy bucked and bounced towards the shore. Every now and then, the navigator, his face green in the glow of his scanner, would call out instructions to steer the boat around the sandbanks and wreckage for which Llantraethell Bay was infamous.

One of the sailors leaned over and tapped Una on the shoulder. “It’s a haunted place you go to, especially on a night like this.”

“What do you mean?” Una said.

“Well, you could be walking along the road, minding your own business, when, suddenly, you hears the sound of hoof beats. Hundreds of them. They gets louder and louder until, just when you fancy you feel horse breath on your neck, and you think they are about to trample you, they stop. Of course, they can only scare you. 

“Then there’s Tangye, the devil dog. They says he’s a great black hound, half the height of a man, with eyes of fire and teeth like daggers. You can be walking along the road, minding your own business, when, suddenly, you hear a gentle pad, pad, pad. You turn and you see a shape darker than the shadows, with two burning eyes. He doesn’t come for you straight away, mind, so you run away, see? You run as hard and as fast as you can. Then, just as you stop for breath, you hear it again. Pad, pad, pad. Once Tangye gets your scent, he doesn’t stop until he gets you. Then he drags you down to the fire pits of hell.

“Then there’s the Tylwyth Teg. You can be walking along the road, minding your own business, when, suddenly, you sees a stranger. They seems like regular folk. They might talk to you. You might talks to them. But, if you takes your eyes off them, they vanishes. You can be in the middle of a field and see for kilometres around. Still they vanish, nowhere to be seen. Now, if you meets them, don’t buy nothing from them, and don’t takes no food from them, or you’ll be bewitched, lost in the world between worlds.

“We’ve reached the shore now. Remember what I says, mind.”

The five clambered onto the sandy beach. They used a flashlight to illuminate their way to a path that led up a hill. By the time they reached the top, dawn was blossoming. Deep purple clouds edged with blood red floated overhead like enormous sky creatures. The first limb of the sun rose above the distant hills and cast long, dark shadows across the landscape. Birdsong was all around them as they continued along the path to the wooded valley below. 

Behind them, a huge, black beast watched silently from the top of the hill. The light of the rising sun made the hound’s eyes glow fiery red. It followed the companions, stealthily, keeping to the shadows and the cover of the undergrowth. Close enough to smell, see, and hear, but not so close that the companions could spot it. It was not the right moment yet. It was not ready..

THE HOME OF DAVID BONNAR: 05.23 

Since Mahone’s phone call, Bonnar slipped back into a semi-conscious state, his mind fogged by depression. Beethoven’s Piano Sonata No. 18 blasted out from his bedside radio. Bonnar was shocked into some semblance of wakefulness. He climbed the stairs to the bathroom, opened the medicine cabinet and took a handful of pills, bracing himself against their awful taste as he flushed them down with water. 

He stepped into the shower and, hesitatingly, put it to the coldest setting. The rush of icy water made him gasp for breath. He quickly turned the temperature up, and then leaned against the corner of the shower booth letting the water flow over him. 

He emerged from the shower, cleaned his teeth, shaved and combed his hair. He looked at himself in the mirror, not out of vanity, but in an attempt to see the man he was before his life took such a tragic turn. 

He came back downstairs made a double strength coffee, and selected George McDonald’s political show on the screen.

“Good Evening. The United States, once the mightiest country on the plane, now wrecked by natural disasters and grinding poverty, it ranks below many third world countries in economic tables. Its people want a better life. Some have tried to find it in Britain. The Government, however, has routinely denied entry to US refugees. Here is Trudy Aspel, with the background.”

“The United States of America now has debts rivalling any third world country. Bankrupted by military campaigns costing thousands of billions of dollars, America was ill prepared financially for the devastating onslaught of natural disasters. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and the eruption of the Yellowstone Caldera left the United States with a death toll of over five hundred thousand. With no money to rebuild cities, there are millions of homeless. Fire-storms, lava, and volcanic ash have destroyed one fifth of America’s farmland. Hospitals are full and medical supplies are almost exhausted.

“With food and shelter in short supply, looting and riots have become commonplace. This has led to the imposition of martial law. Thousands of desperate refugees tried to escape the USA to start new lives elsewhere in the world. After Canada and Mexico closed their borders, many of the refugees travelled by sea in fishing boats and cargo ships. They came to Australia, Europe and the UK, only to be denied entry. The refugees’ frequent response was to sink their ships deliberately, resulting in hundreds being drowned. The survivors were rescued and deported.

“Some, however, made it through. Despite efforts on the part of the NSC, there are, according to the latest Home Office estimates, fifteen thousand illegal American immigrants now in the UK.”

“Thank you, Trudy. Watching that with me is the Home Secretary, Lord Louis Seaver. Good evening, Home Secretary.”

“Good evening, George.” Seaver sat relaxed, fingers steepled, and eyes unblinking, like a reptile in a human form.

“The NSC is engaged in a campaign to find illegal American immigrants and send them back to a broken country.”

“Yes?”

“Considering the history between Britain and the US, does this not strike you as callous?”

A slight smile flashed onto Seaver’s face for the briefest of moments. “Not at all. We are merely returning them home. We have enough concerns of our own to deal with without taking on the problems of the world. We are not a big country.”

“I agree. However, Britain has a long history of social growth, and change built on the labour of immigrants. My own grandfather came from Trinidad in the Sixties.”

“Yes. I had the honour of being interviewed by him many years ago.”

“My point is that modern British history, political and cultural, has long been linked with the United States. Does this not mean we have an obligation to the Americans?”

“Not at all. We have the National Cleansing, the unification talks, the Cornish unrest. It is enough that we deal with these without the added problems brought in by illegal American immigrants.”

MacDonald’s composure noticeably slipped. It reminded Bonnar of Benji, just as the dog was about to pounce. “All right, let’s leave the subject of American immigrants. You spoke of the National Cleansing. Thousands of people being shut away in a prison camp just for being different?”

Seaver raised his hands, palms toward MacDonald, and shook his head, smiling with barely disguised derision. “George, George. Why are you so dramatic? This country has long sought a humane solution for dealing with people who cannot live in our society, whose way of life is at odds with the standards of our culture, and may be disturbing or even dangerous to normal people.”

“Such as?”

“Substance abusers, schizophrenics, psychotics, psychopaths, the anti-social, the violent, the religious, sexual deviants, that kind of person. We have built a whole town on the Isle of Wight where they can be held and treated. It is hardly a prison camp. They can live out their lives without harm to anyone else.”

“And you consider such exile humane?”

“Society seems to think so.”

“What about the Cornish situation? The RRK has put forward a strong case for its devolution.”

“The RRK is a terrorist organization, as is becoming increasingly clear. We do not negotiate with terrorists.”

“The EU is expected to grant Cornwall full statehood within the union.”

“That is by no means certain. Right now, the unification talks between the European and African Unions are our main concern. As hosts, we are at the forefront. I would have thought that was more worthy of your attention than the matters we have discussed thus far.”

LLANTRAETHELL: Valley Woods 06.19 

Una watched as the breeze shook the leaves of ashes, birches, and oaks. The sun cast flickering, dancing shadows across the footpath. Either side there were patches of dogwood and bluebells. The sudden warmth and the dewy moistness of the air brought out the pungent scent of the forest. Gulls called to one another accompanied by the “chiddip, chiddip, eehah, eehah” of warblers.

Una looked up at the sky, a broad smile on her face. The cool breeze and the warm sun made her feel more alive than she could ever remember being. With arms outstretched, she spun herself around. She let out a whoop of joy. She stopped. Hands clamped over her mouth with embarrassment. Her companions looked back at her, so serious. She couldn’t help laughing.

Only a few meters away from her, the hound watched from its hiding place in the dense undergrowth. Then it darted, silently, in an arcing path until it reached a point ahead of the group.

Una lost her family when Hurricanes Anton and Delilah flattened her home in Brough, Texas into a bug smear. She decided to travel, alone, to Dare County, North Carolina. On the way, she met John and Anne Barry. They came from Farleigh, California. He was a pastor and she worked for the government. When the rioting started, John’s church was burned down. The government decided to declare the martial law, but before that, they dealt with any possible source of dissent. So Anne was sacked, along with all other Christians working for government departments.

When they reached Dare County, they met Mario Rossi and Paul Martin. Rossi was an ex-gang member with a history of violence and drug offences A church youth project called Team Challenge helped him see another way of life. Paul Martin was a successful architect from Schenectady. The two had helped New Yorkers recover from the skyscraper-smashing storms. While Rossi and his gang members built shelters and foraged for food, Martin tried to get financial help to build proper refuges. Then the anti-religious persecution grew and mobs looted and destroyed mosques, temples, synagogues and churches. Martin and Rossi escaped to Dare County. The companions met at the very site the Wright Brothers made history. There they made a pact. They would travel together in search of a place where they could live without fear. The companions had heard rumours of a community in England, and they determined to seek it out.

A voice interrupted Una’s thoughts.

“Kaydin, Kaydin.” The voice came from an elderly lady who was looking around the trees and through the undergrowth. “Kaydin, where are you, boy?”

Una waved to the lady, trying to attract her attention. “Excuse me, ma’am, what are you looking for?”

“My Yorkshire Terrier, luvvy. He’s such a naughty boy.”

“Well, don’t you be having conniptions none. We all will find him, won’t we guys?” And with that, Una began calling and searching along with the lady.

Paul Martin strode over and grabbed Una by the arm. “We don’t have time. Come on and leave the lady to it.”

Una broke away and gave Paul a hurt look. “She’s all choked up like a momma with a baby in a well.” 

The companions looked at one another. They knew Una. So, with deep sighs, they agreed to help in the dog hunt. They searched for ten minutes without success. 

“Never mind,” the lady said at last, “I expect he’ll find his own way home. You’d best be on your way now. Where are you headed, young lady?”

“Caerdinas. Do you know it?”

“Yes. It’s quite a way from here. Look. You have been so kind, please take this broach.”

The lady offered Una a broach as blue as the sky. The sunlight made it look alive in the lady’s hand.

“Gosh, ma’am, it’s as pretty as a butterfly, but I couldn’t. Really.”

“Well, all right. You have a safe journey.” The elderly lady shook the hand of each companion in turn, and they continued their journey.

When Martin thought they were a safe distance away, he rounded on Una. “This isn’t a safe place for us. You don’t know who you can trust.”

“But she was as sweet as pie, and she only wanted her dog.”

Rossi was examining his hand and wiping it on his jacket. “Did you notice how sticky her hand was? What’s with that?”

Meanwhile, after checking that the companions were no longer in sight, the lady looked down at her broach. “Nano, auricular.”

The blue broach appeared to melt and flow, reshaping itself into a phone. The lady hooked it around her ear.

“4-81. This is 10-54. The target twenty is Caerdinas.”

A few moments later, a black hound darted past the companions and loped off into the distance.

THE HOME OF DAVID BONNAR: 07.27 

The gravel drive crunched under Bonnar’s feet as he approached his black Sterling Enterprise. His hand rested on the door handle. There was a soft click as the locks disengaged. He sat in the driving seat, his mind drifting back to when he was first given the car.

Bonnar remembered sitting in the driving seat for the first time, playing with the controls. He was greatly amused by the variable tint windows that went from clear to black at the touch of a control panel.

Booth, the head of Section 17-01 – Tactical Vehicles, was trying to instruct Bonnar on the features of the car, which he had named Penny. Booth positively swelled with pride as he spoke, like a father boasting of his favorite child. 

“Pay attention, Bonnar. Penny is equipped with all the usual refinements. She is completely self-navigating. Just tell her where you want to go, and she will get you there in one piece. Penny is connected to all the NSC feeds and has a complete on-board analytical reference library.”

Bonnar touched another panel and part of the dashboard became a keyboard, the keys and letters illuminated by a blue glow. Entering a few commands, a three dimensional image of NSC HQ appeared in front of him. “What about an ejector seat? And where’s the machine guns?”

“Do try to be serious, Bonnar. Penny does have armoured glass and chassis and is a very capable off-road vehicle. All in all, you have the ultimate mobile command and control unit.”

His thoughts returning to the present. Bonnar had to admit it, Penny was a fine car. He settled himself in and touched the activation panel. 

“Good morning, David.” Penny’s voice had been given a slightly Geordie accent. “Please give your password for voice confirmation.” 

“Portzebie.”

“Identity confirmed. Ready to accept commands.”

“Set course to NSC HQ and engage, please Penny.” David kept telling himself, you don’t say please to a machine, but habits were hard to break, and she did sound human.

“Destination confirmed. NSC HQ, Lierbury.”

TRURO: Guillemets Restaurant 07.57 

Morcant Ruth had been here many times. He could almost quote the blurb on the menu by heart. “Guillemets Restaurant is styled on a Parisian boulangerie-patisserie. Our range of breads, croissants, quiches, tartlets, sandwiches, strudels, and pastries are famous throughout Cornwall. We boast a huge variety of coffees, fruit juices and organic vegetable drinks. Our early morning opening makes us the premier breakfasting restaurant in Truro.”

He looked around at the other seven men. They were dressed identically in black suits with white shirts, black ties and sunglasses. Jowan Whear was getting all excited about something trivial. “Let me tell you what Monaghan is about.” Whear, was a thickset man who marked his points by chopping the table with his hand. “It’s about this lugger that goes to name-up moldrer. It’s a classic.”

“Hold on you, Monaghan? That’s drazac you betwattled duffer!” Aedan Gwyn was a wiry man, the self-styled intellectual of the group. Always ready for an argument. “He gets bit by some space nasty and just happens to get the nellow pür. C’mon, how believable is that?”

“It’s a comic. It don’t have to be believable. It’s a wassacum, a metaphor.”

“A metaphor of what?”

“I dunno exactly. Just a metaphor.”

There was quiet as the others waited to see if the discussion would continue. When all seemed safe, Jago Anden leaned forward. “Right, me bra pare. Us are going to do this, and us are going to do this right. That means no weapons. I heard about how you razor wired those guard dogs, Gill. That was sick. There will be none of that this time.”

Ruth thought back to when several of those seated, including himself, had tried to drive the Sawsnek, or English, out of Cornwall by acts of violence. Ruth had become sick to the stomach with it. That was when Anden told him of plans that he had been making to free Cornwall, or Yow Kernow as they called it. Ruth was quick to sign up. 

“Ruth?”

“Yes, Anden?”

“Don’t you get us lost again. Backalong you got in such a shape we passed the same place five times. Us are going to—” Anden paused as the waitress brought over a tray of teas and a single orange juice. Ungust Melen took the juice whilst the teas were distributed among the others. Realizing he could have been overheard, Anden signaled for the others to come closer while he told them of what was going to happen and how Cornwall would finally gain its independence.

CAERDINAS: 08.27 

An ancient fortified manor house overlooked a wide expanse of salt marsh. Una ignored it. Birds jostled around pools, feasting on fish left stranded by the retreating tide. Una hardly saw them. Sheep and horses grazed or sat in the shade of trees that dotted the area. Una completely failed to notice them. The companions were tired and footsore. Each step became more of an effort than the last.

“Are we there yet, Paul?”

“Not too far now, Una. That could be it up ahead.”

“Good. When we get there, I’m gonna have a gallon of coffee, then I’m not gonna move for a week.”

They continued in silence until they reached the cluster of houses that was Caerdinas. An elderly man was sitting on a bench. He looked up briefly from his newspaper as they passed by. They came to a small meadow with a standing stone in the middle of it. A dappled horse was chewing grass that it tore out of the ground. Farther along the road, they came to the Welcome Traveller

The Welcome Traveller had a long history. It had been a meeting place for smugglers, a coaching inn, a hotel, and a restaurant, now all that remained was a café haunted by holiday makers. 

As the companions came through the door, Anne Barry almost fell over two small squealing children that were chasing each other. The Americans found a table away from the window and door and sat down. In moments, a waitress in a yellow and white checked uniform came over with a notebook and a smile.

“Can I take your order, please?”

Paul Martin had become the de facto leader and spokesman of the companions. No-one seemed to mind. “Coffees all round, and we would like to see your menu. By the way, do you have anything on the Axolotl exhibition in Swansea?”

The waitress’s expression froze just for a moment. She disappeared into the kitchen and reappeared with a tray of mugs a minute or so later, her composure restored. She distributed the drinks among the companions and gave Martin the menu.

“Someone will be with you later to tell you about the exhibit. In the meantime, order whatever you like. It’s on the house.”

Just then, the elderly man came through the door and took up a seat by the window. Something about him made Una feel uneasy. She dismissed it as tiredness and imagination, and said nothing.

GUILLEMETS RESTAURANT: 08.39

Morcant Ruth was getting fed up with all this talk. He wanted to get under way. After all, it was a long journey, and he was one of the drivers. He was relieved when Anden called the waitress over.

She gave Anden the bill and a PICPAD. Anden held the silver wedge. It read the ID chip implanted in his hand and displayed his name on a small screen. He selected a payment method and entered his share of the bill plus a tip. Then it was passed to each person in turn who repeated the process. 

Then the PICPAD came round to Ruth. He knew the others were watching. He had a reputation as a skinflint. Who was he to disappoint? He entered his share of the bill precisely and passed it back to Anden. When he saw Ruth hadn’t put in a tip, Anden returned the device to him. “C’mon, dob in a Euro!”

Morcant Ruth pushed it back “Uh-uh, nothing”

“Nothing?”

“Nothing!”

“You know what these here maids earn? They earn aggle.” 

“Guss on, Melen. Her doesn’t earn enough fangings that her can scoot.”

Piran Dew huffed in disgust. “I don’t know a scrovy shammick who’d have the kellyow to say that. Let me see if I cotton on: do you mean you don’t never tip?”

“I don’t tip because people says I have to. All right, if someone earns a tip, if they really pitch-to, I’ll give them something, a snip extra. But this tipping for tipping sake. It’s for the gakems. Seems to me, they’re just doing their core.”

Glass leaned over towards Ruth, jabbing a finger at him. “Hey, our maid were handsome.”

“Her was OK. Her weren’t nothing special.”

“What’s special?”

“Well, her could always gwreugh astevery ow hanaf.”

There was a pause, and then Piran Dew said, “That’s chancing it a bit, ain’t it?”

Anden struck the table with his fist. “Enough of this. Us are going to London, and when we come back, Yow Kernow will be free. Are we agreed?”

All eight raised their right fist in the air. “Ný a assent! Rythsys rak Yow Kernow!”

LIERBURY: 08.53 

Bonnar’s car curved off the motorway onto Lierbury’s tree-lined ring road. 

“There is a call from 10-43 on a secured channel, David.” Said Penny. “Would you like it connected?”

“Yes, please.”

The windows darkened and the face of a young woman appeared. “Hi, Boss. Ready to put in a day’s work?”

“Hi Cassie. You should know, shouldn’t you?”

“It doesn’t work at this distance, you know that. Seriously, David, it has been a month now. How are you doing?”

“The truth? I don’t feel anything. I’m totally numb.”

“David, it wasn’t your fault. You must stop blaming yourself. It wasn’t as if you pushed Amy under the car.”

“I might as well have. The argument was my fault. I shouldn’t have left it until our anniversary party, but there was no time.”

“I have an idea that might help. Keep Wednesday evening free.”

“More of your spooky stuff I suppose. How is the rest of the team?”

“Lamb and Archer are still fighting it out for Alpha Male status. The team room reeks of testosterone. Jean has been spending time with Section 20. There’s something wrong, and I think it’s serious, but she’s blocking me out. Janus is still locked in his laboratory.”

“Where is Jean now?”

“Undercover as usual. Whatever the problem is, she isn’t letting it get in her way. In fact, I think she’s pushing herself harder, trying not to think of it.”

“How’s Lamb taking it?”

“Frustrated. She won’t confide in him about it.”

“Any other news I should know of?”

“Well, I had a premonition two days ago. Someone is going to destroy the Freaks. No name, just a face. Section 4 hasn’t been able to identify him yet.”

“You know I hate that name.”

“Freaks? That’s what we are, aren’t we? What’s wrong with that? I like being a Freak.”

“OK, Cassie. I will see you later. I’m almost at HQ, but I have to go to Section 20 first. Penny, access the file on Cassie Anders’ premonition.”

A life like image of a young man, perhaps in his twenties or thirties, floated in front of him. Bonnar was very skeptical about supernatural things. He only believed in things he could measure. However, he had to admit, Cassie was rarely wrong in these matters. He studied every detail of the likeness. So, this man was going to destroy his team. 

Penny reached the top of Lanwick Hill, and turned towards the centre of the city. The tower of the National Security Command Headquarters rose like a blue crystal above the sea of houses. The diamond shaped roof sloped down to the south reflecting the morning rays of the sun in a blaze of blue light. The car glided into cool darkness of the underground parking area and came to a halt in a bay.

THE WELCOME TRAVELER: 09.19 

Una had finished her breakfast and was playing with the children. Just then, Meaghan, the waitress, came over with a tall dark haired man who she introduced as Gareth Anfarwol. Gareth immediately ushered the companions into his minibus parked outside the café. Once everyone was on board, he drove out of the town and parked in a country lane out of sight of the main road. He handed each one of them an envelope. Una opened hers immediately.

Gareth leaned forward and spoke in hushed, secretive tones. “I can take you by Cardiff. From there you go on the coach by Birmingham. There’s tickets in the envelopes, see?”

“Is that box for us?” Anne indicated a cool-box that the waitress had put in the vehicle.

“Yes. There’s food and drink for the journey. You’ll need it.”

Paul had been checking the envelope. “There is no money here. What if we need to buy something?”

“We have not used cash here for years. Take a look at this.” Gareth held out his right hand and the companions noticed a small lump in the middle of his palm.

“That’s an ID chip, see? We all have them. One in the neck as well. Now, did any of you see the silver box that Meaghan the waitress carries with her?”

Una raised her hand, as if she was in school.

“That’s what we call a PICPAD. It’s like the old credit card machines, but it reads ID chips instead of cards. No need for cash, see?”

“What happens about people visiting from other countries?” Paul asked.

“They all get chips. Otherwise they do not get in. What I’m trying to say, see, is you can’t buy anything without a chip.”

“So, how do we get them?”

“You don’t, Paul. It cannot be done. The chips are controlled, see? Right from when they’re made to when they’re implanted. Then they have to be registered. That would mean hacking the NSC database, and that has never been done.”

“OK, so we won’t buy anything.”

“That’s not all. The NSC is always on the look-out for people without chips, see? Dead give-away that they’re illegal. There’re scanners everywhere. We call them Judas Boxes. The NSC has portable ones as well. If they find that you haven’t got a chip, they’ll arrest you and deport you, if you’re lucky. Best to hide in crowds. Don’t be conspicuous.”

“So, what happens now?”

“I take you by Cardiff, then you get the coach to Birmingham. When you reach Birmingham, you’ll be met by a bloke named Joshua, who will take you to a place that will shelter you. We’d best be off now, so strap in.”

NSC HQ: Section 20, Dr. Jason Samfai’s Office 10.19 

Bonnar stared out of a window looking over the city of Lierbury, listening to the bustle of nurses, doctors and orderlies in the corridor behind him, and smelling the sickly sweetness of antiseptic (which almost turned his stomach). He hated hospitals at the best of times. 

After a while, Dr. Samfai came in and sat behind his desk. The doctor was younger than Bonnar, perhaps in his early thirties. He had long black hair that reached his collar. The man had attempted to be fashionable in his choice of clothes, but if fashion was music, Dr. Samfai would be tone deaf. He made mouth noises as he tapped his cheek with a finger while reviewing his notes. 

“We still have some concerns, but, all in all, I can pronounce you ready for work on one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“These drugs you’re taking; Alapromine, Tranylcypropram, and Isocarboxaline. They’re very powerful and undoubtedly impair your abilities. I want you to use these instead.” Dr. Samfai passed a box of skin patches to Bonnar. “These patches are Soma-420. They will stabilize you, but they are very addictive. Once on them, you will have to use them for the rest of your life.”

“Any other side effects?”

“Yes, but nothing to concern yourself about. You must understand that, unless you agree to use these patches, you cannot return to work.”

Bonnar thought a while, weighing up the costs.

“I’ll try it.”

“Once you start on these, there is no way back. You will have no choice.”

“I understand. I’ll do it.”

“Very well, use one now, and then one a day. Wait here. There is someone else who needs to speak to you.”

Putting the box in his pocket, Bonnar shook Dr. Samfai’s hand and the doctor left, closing the office door. After a few minutes, the door opened again. A tall, impossibly thin man came in. He wore a black suit with a crimson shirt and a white tie. His hair was short, dark and slicked back. His fingers were long and slender. The man strode over to Dr. Samfai’s chair, flicked open the middle button of his jacket, and sat down.

“You know who I am, Mr. Bonnar?”

“Sylvester Aden, Director of Policy.”

“Good, good.” Aden leaned forward. “The Board has been observing your career with great interest, Mr. Bonnar. We were deeply concerned at the recent demise of your wife. I trust you are somewhat recovered now? Dr. Samfai informs us that you are ready for work. Is this your opinion, Mr. Bonnar?”

“Yes, sir. I believe I am.”

“Are you wearing one of his patches now?”

“No. I’ll put it on before I go to the team room.”

“Mr. Bonnar. You must appreciate, we must be certain you are doing everything possible to ensure you perform at optimum efficiency. To that end, you must comply with the good doctor’s wishes. You will put a patch on now.”

“Now? Here?”

“If you would be so good, Mr. Bonnar? Else I cannot allow you back on duty.”

David Bonnar removed a Soma-420 patch from the box, rolled up his shirtsleeve and stuck the patch as high on his arm as he could. A shudder ran up his spine accompanied by a feeling of well-being. This stuff was amazing.

“Very good, Mr. Bonnar, very good. Important days are ahead that will test your abilities to the full. We will, of course, be keeping an eye on you. Just to make sure you are settling into the routine. You may go now.”

NSC HQ: Section 11, The Snoops 10.31

Betty Hansen – Monitor 16 – was sitting in her comfortable cubicle, surrounded by screens of all sizes. She was like the spider in a web of information. She was reading a transcript of a conversation recorded earlier that day.  It was strange.  They appeared to be discussing a comic book called Monaghan.  Evidently, he was a tough guy that was bitten by an alien and became a super-powered assassin.  Then what was all that about tipping?  One of them didn’t like to do it because he had to.  He would only tip for something above and beyond what he expected.  Like refilling his cup.  The cheek!  Scrovy shammick was right.  Mean, cheating. He knew the waitress didn’t earn much.  He knew she couldn’t afford to leave the job, and still he didn’t have the courtesy to give her a tip.  That was kellyow all right, and he should get a knee in both. 

Betty looked at a screen tracking a vehicle owned by Morcant Ruth. She knew Ruth was a member of Rydhses rag Kernow, better known as the RRK. They were thought responsible for a number of terrorist attacks on English owned property in Cornwall, although there was not the evidence to prove it. Ruth’s vehicle had been travelling out of Cornwall accompanied by two others.

Betty studied her screens. Each supplied her with data from different departments within Section 11. Department 13 provided a video feed of the vehicles from a satellite, whilst Department 28 gave her images from ground based CCDPs and CCTVs. If her prey came anywhere near a Judas Box, or used a PICPAD, Department 38 would immediately identify them. Until then, Department 40 – the National Road Charging feed – reported the speed and position of the vehicles.

So far, Betty could track the vehicles, but she could not identify who was in them. This looked about to change. The three cars were turning into Popham Services. Betty’s fingers danced over her keyboard as she focused all available feeds onto her target. 

The cars did not stop. They went into the parking area and came straight out again. Eight other cars came out with them. After a kilometre, the transponders of all eleven vehicles changed to the same code. It was impossible to tell them apart. The vehicles scattered and Betty hurriedly set traces on each one. Then, a few minutes later, the transponder numbers changed again, together with all the vehicles near the original eleven. When Betty was trying to get a fix on these as well, it happened again.

It was a Conway Virus. Once it had been transmitted, it had a life of its own. Each vehicle would affect those around it, which would affect still more. It was impossible to work out where the original convoy was, or where it was going.

Something big was about to happen. Betty could feel it. She liked it not one bit. 

NSC HQ: Section 10, Team Room 11.03 

Bonnar entered the team room as quietly as he could. There were nine rooms attached to this one. Each was designed specifically for the abilities of its occupant. The first room was used by the mysterious Doctor Janus LaPorte. LaPorte had been assigned to Bonnar without explanation. Bonnar had been told not to disturb him for any reason whatsoever.

Bonnar’s room was next, followed by the one assigned to Jean Folana. Along the back wall was an empty room followed by two used by Brian Archer. The third wall had the rooms of Hannah Gee, Neville Lamb and Cassie Anders.

Through an open door, Bonnar watched Archer, who was hunched over his workbench. Archer wore a yellow jacket with pockets all over it, each stuffed with gadgets and tools. Brian Archer. Genius, inventor, martial artist, genius, marksman, and above all, genius. Bonnar stood for a moment fascinated by Archer’s deep concentration. If he did not know better, he would say that the man was frozen like a statue. Bonnar knew that Archer would be working on something so minute that any other person would need a microscope to see it. All around Archer were shelved his smaller inventions and devices. The larger ones occupied the room next door.

The door to Neville Lamb’s room opened and two men dragged out a thick sheet of steel that was pock marked with fist-shaped dents. Bonnar saw Lamb hand a dumbbell to two muscular assistants, who almost buckled with the effort of carrying it.

Cassie Anders burst out of her room shouting “David’s back!” She cheered and whistled. Lamb stood at his door, orange towel around his shoulders, and applauded. Archer threw his gadget across to the far side of his room. He stormed into the team room, his eyes full of thunder at the disturbance. 

“You’ve just wasted a week’s work, witch!” He screamed.

“Sure. Fine. Whatever.”

Lamb put a massive hand on Archer’s shoulder. “You could’ve closed the door, funza!”

Lamb had hardly finished speaking before he was on his knees. Archer had twisted Lamb’s arm back, locked it and was threatening to break it. “Haven’t you learned by now, Lamb? Don’t ever attack me! Understand? You might be a big, strong man, but I can give you pain you can’t ever imagine.”

“Stop this!” Cassie waved her hand, and Archer flew across the room, bouncing off the far wall. “David’s back. Is this any way to welcome him?”

Archer picked himself up “So? ‘David’s back.’ What of it? He’s spent a month feeling sorry for himself. Then he actually shows up for work, and you want to throw a party?” Archer stormed into his room and slammed the door behind him.

Lamb shrugged. “He’s a juha, that one. He never got over Ewan.”

“And he blames me. He’s supposed to be the smartest man on the planet, and he got involved with an arms dealer. What did he expect? He was lucky we kept him out of it.” Bonnar paused, taking in the team room. “I see they’re cleaning up Hannah’s room.”

“Yeah. Don’t take ’em long. She just kind of overloaded. They kept her in a tube in Section 20 until she died.”

“How’s the Janus LaPorte watch going?”

“Archer actually saw him a couple of weeks back. LaPorte came out for a coffee and didn’t close the door right. Archer swears he smelt cigarettes and heard jazz music.”

“Cigarettes have been banned for years, so where could he get them from?”

“And the music? Archer says it was no recording, so who was playing it?”

“Very strange.”

LONDON: Schwarzer Felsenhelm Distribution Warehouse 12.31

Ruth drove his black Mercedes MPV into Leg of Lamb Yard. He was followed by two other cars. At the end of the road stood the Schwarzer Felsenhelm Distribution Warehouse. It had been unused for twenty years and was just a shabby shell of a place. The sign had lost half of its letters. Red paint flaked off the walls and the windows were boarded up.

Jago Anden let himself into the building and opened the roller door. Once the cars were safely inside, Anden closed the roller door once more. The RRK members got out and stretched themselves after their long journey. 

“So, us are in Sawsnek Central, ay Anden?”

“Aye, Ruth, but I won’t be happy until Yow Kernow soil is under my feet again.”

“Where are us staying? Here?”

“No. Eutopia Hotel. It’s not far from here. Us’ll meet Windsor tomorrow.”

Anden straightened his black tie with its white St Piran’s cross; put his black trilby on his head and his wraparound sunglasses on his eyes. “OK. Remember, me bra pare, try to blend in.”

BIRMINGHAM: Digbeth Coach Station 13.27 

Una was looking out of her coach window at the urban sprawl of Birmingham. Up ahead, sunlight shone red off the copper cladding of Digbeth Coach Station. The coach pulled up into a green-canopied bay, and the passengers filed off through automatic doors, across the transit lounge, and into the concourse. Una and the others walked past the coffee shops and newsagents and positioned themselves by the outer doors. 

They waited.

Buses pulled in. Buses pulled out. Crowds gathered and evaporated.

Still they waited.

A police car screamed a banshee wail as it sped past the coach station.

Still they waited.

The cool box was now empty. The last sandwich was gone, and the flasks of coffee and bottles of fruit juice were exhausted. So were the companions.

Still they waited.

They turned at every minibus like sound, straining to look down every conceivable way of approach. Finally, it appeared. It was old, shabby, and had the remains of broad, coloured stripes over it. There were traces of blue, gold, red and white.

Una saw the driver step out. He was a young man in his late twenties. He greeted the companions with a smile and a handshake. “I’m Joshua. I’m glad you made it this far. We have a bit of a drive ahead, and then you can all have a rest.”

Then he stopped and turned to Mario Rossi, “You aren’t who you seem to be, are you? Does the name ‘Jean Folana’ mean anything to you?” 

Una was shocked as Mario began to change. He grew taller. His short, dark, curly hair became long, blonde, and straight. His deep-set eyes moved forward, going from brown to green, and took on a more almond shape. His hands narrowed, the fingers lengthening. Then the teenage Italian-American man had become an attractive middle-aged woman. There was a shimmer of blue as her clothes reshaped to her new form.

For her part, Jean was at least as shocked as Una. Her eyes widened in panic. This couldn’t happen. How did he know who she was? How did he make her change? She darted a look at her equally shocked companions and was about to run off when Joshua said “Wait.” All thought of escape left her. Jean just stood there.

Joshua looked at Jean, genuine concern in his eyes. He said in confidential tones, so none of the others could hear, “You’re dying, aren’t you?”

The hunted look in Jean’s eyes faded. This stranger had only met her a minute ago and seemed to know more about her than her closest friends. 

“Yes.” Jean said quietly. “Every time I change form, it gets harder to hold it. When I go to sleep at night my body starts to liquefy.”

“Are you happy to live like that?”

“No, of course I’m not.”

Joshua placed his hand on her unresisting head. “Then in Jesus’ Name, be healed.”

Jean felt waves of liquid warmth flow through her body, from the top of her head to her feet. It was a wonderful sensation, and she didn’t want it to end. When she opened her eyes – she didn’t remember closing them – the minibus and the companions were gone. She had lost them. 

NSC HQ: Section 10, Bonnar’s Room 14.09 

“10-96, I have a priority call from 10-54.”

“OK, Nestor, put Jean through.”

Nestor, the NSC's central computer, displayed Jean’s image on Bonnar’s main screen. She was looking embarrassed and puzzled. When Jean saw Bonnar, she brightened up slightly.“You’re back, David. It’s good to see you.”

“Good to see you, too. I thought you were undercover. Have you finished?”

“You could say that. I screwed up.”

“How do you mean?”

“I infiltrated a group of illegal American refugees. When we got to Birmingham, some person called Joshua came to collect them. He knew I was a fake and just left me there. Can you track them? They were in a minibus. They left Digbeth Coach Station about fifteen minutes ago.”

“OK. Nestor? Connect to Section 11.” 

“This is Monitor 15. I have been assigned to your case.”

“We want to trace a minibus, last seen at Digbeth Coach Station, Birmingham within a half hour or so. Ten-Fifty-Four will send you details.” The face of Monitor Fifteen disappeared, and Bonnar turned back to Jean. “That’s all we can do for now. What did Joshua look like?”

Jean’s eyes flicked downwards as she sent Joshua’s e-fit to Bonnar. Bonnar’s eyes widened in disbelief. “Jean, you need to get back here as soon as possible.” He looked back over his shoulder. “Cassie, can you have a look at this picture Jean has sent us?” 

Cassie came into the room to see what Bonnar was talking about. Looking back at her was the man from her premonition.

GRANHURST: Heritage House 14.33 

Una was getting excited. Joshua had turned off the main road into a drive. The journey was almost over. The drive wound between woodland and lawns. Eventually, they came to the courtyard. Minibuses similar to the one they were in, old double-decker buses, coaches, and other vehicles packed the courtyard so tightly, it made Una think of one of those sliding square puzzles.

They all got out of the minibus and stretched. Grateful that their travelling was at last over. Joshua spread his hands towards the building. “Welcome to Heritage House, one of the last community houses of the Wild Olive Shoot Community.”

“What was it before? A hotel?”

“Good guess, Paul. It was built before World War 1. It had sixteen bedrooms, a ballroom for two hundred people, and a restaurant that seated fifty. We’ve expanded it since. Once you’re settled, I can get someone to give you a guided tour if you want.”

Joshua led the companions into the lounge.  Una and the others were ushered to comfortable chairs, and they collapsed into them, the stress and anxiety of the journey finally falling away from them. Una looked around the room. It was packed with people laughing and chatting.  They looked like bankers, builders, bikers, buskers, and business folk.  There were many in shirts and ties, and others in tattered jeans and faded t-shirts.  Hot drinks and trays of flapjacks and fruit circulated among the crowd.

Joshua smiled to see his guests relaxing. “When you’re rested, I’ll get someone to show you your rooms. Tomorrow we can sort out clothes for you from our clothing store.”

Una suddenly thought of her missing friend. “What about Mario, Joshua? And who was that woman? What was she?”

“Mario must be with the NSC by now, Una. The woman must have been an operative of theirs. I don’t know how she could change shape like that, but I do know she was dying. She’s healed now.”

“But Mario? What will they do to him? Will he be all right?”

“I can’t promise anything, but I will try to find out for you.”

Una heard a movement behind her chair. She turned to see a young girl, finger to lips and waving a hand to get Una to turn back.

A boy not much older burst into the room and started looking under the tables and behind the chairs. He looked over the counter of what was the bar but now held books instead of bottles. He came over to where Una sat. Una tried to keep a straight face, but couldn’t and the boy reached around and took hold of the girl’s arm.

“No, Nathan. I’m not ready for a bath yet.”

“Do-ro-thy. Come on. Dad said.”

“Just a bit longer, please?”

“See what Dad says.”

Reluctantly Dorothy allowed Nathan to lead her away. She turned back to Una, and for a second, her feigned miserable face became a broad mischievous grin, and she gave Una a little wave, Then Nathan gave her another tug. “Don’t pull so hard, Nathan. You’re hurting me. I’ll tell Dad.”

Una looked over to where John and Anne were sitting. A man was resting on John’s shoulder, snoring loudly. John had a look of embarrassment and powerlessness. Una giggled at the sight. She gestured to John to give the man a push, which he did. The man woke up, bleary eyed “Amen!”

“What?”

“Oh. Excuse me. I was praying.”

“Oh. Right. I’m John Barry, this is my wife Anne, and over there is Una.”

“Dennis ‘Steadfast’. Always pleased to meet new people. Welcome to the community.”

“That’s an unusual surname,” said Una, “I haven’t heard of it before.”

“It’s what we call a virtue name. It’s supposed to tell you about what kind of a person we are.”

“Have you been with the community for long?”

“About thirty years. I would have been dead without them.”

“How come?”

“I used to be a window cleaner. Too greedy and independent to work with anyone else. I put my ladder against the wall of a house, but I didn’t spot the patch of ice under one of the feet.”

“What happened?”

“I got to the top of the ladder, and it slipped. I fell onto a brick wall and shattered my leg. Oh, they fixed that up all right, but I lost my nerve. I couldn’t climb ladders, and I was too proud to work for anyone but me. I turned to drink and gambling. I lost my family. I lost my house. I lost my health. I was on the street for eight years when the community found me. I’ve been here ever since.”

The companions were distracted by a noise on the other side of the room.  A young man, face red with anger, stood almost nose to nose with an older man. “Look, you fleck, if I want to go out, I’ll go out.”

“We’re not stopping you, but if you come back drunk again, you know the penalty.”

“I might not come back. You can’t tell me what to do.”

“That’s true, but we all have a responsibility to each other. That’s what it means to be a community.”

“This is my home. If I want to go and have a drink, that’s my business.”

“And if you come back drunk, it becomes our business. Look. We aren’t telling you what to do, but, if you want to continue to live here you must show some respect for the other residents.”

“Sturm!! I’m going out.” With that, the young man barged his way past, wrenched open the door, and slammed it behind him. The room was silent for a short time, then the conversation started up again.

Una glanced across at John. He was looking very troubled.

NSC HQ: Section 10, Conference Room 15.11 

Bonnar could hear the buzz of conversation coming from the conference room.  It fell into an uncomfortable silence as soon as he entered.  He tried to dismiss it and calmly sat at the head of the table.  The others took this as a signal and quietly took up their seats.  Bonnar flicked through the documents in his hand. 

At the far end of the room, Doctor John Trapp sat patiently waiting for the meeting to start. He had been with the NSC from the day it had been created. There was not one person in the whole organization who had ever complained about Trapp or his work.

The young man to Bonnar’s right, looking very nervous, was Joey Bell. Bonnar flicked to his personnel page. This was Bell’s first assignment leading the forensics team of Section 3 – otherwise known as the Toddies.

Intelligence was handled by Mike Holmes of Section 4, with James Peck of Section 7 looking after the political and organized crime angles.

George Norden was responsible for the Snoops. They would provide the first warning of any trouble.

Then there were the Section 19 department heads. “Rocky” Rhodes, of the DOGS swat team; “Felix” Charles, of the Alley Cats bomb disposal team; “Jaguar” Kodiak, of the Immortals – an elite team of bodyguards; and Don Kent, of the Eagles ‒ the riot control unit.

Finally, there was Bob Steele. He was an archetypal policeman. His Section 9 supplied the manpower to others. Despite their diligence and hard work, his men were nicknamed Grunts or Redshirts.

“OK, I’ll keep the introductions brief.  For those that don’t know me, I’m David Bonnar; Section 10 Special Resources Unit.”

Barely audible, Bonnar heard someone whisper “Freaks!” There was a flash of half-concealed smiles.  Bonnar ignored it.

“I have been out of action for a while, but I’m back, so let’s concentrate on the task in hand. We are hosting the current phase of the EU/AU Unification Conference.  This is extremely high profile.  We cannot afford anything to go wrong.  That means all departments working together, with none of the usual finger-pointing, back-biting and points scoring that has gone on in the past.  Holmes, that especially applies to you.

“OK, let’s get started.  Nestor, display schematic of Danny Friedner Centre, 3D Wire frame.” The ghostly form of the Conference Centre floated over the table.

“Joey Bell?  I understand this is your first time at the helm of a forensic team.  You will need to set up operations in the Alan Leigh Suite. 

“Holmes.  Do you think your section is up to this?”

“Don’t worry. We always come through.”

“You really want to be to comment on that?  Your team will be working from here.”

“Well, thanks for the confidence.”

“Ah. Mr. Peck. Good to see you back from your travels. You will be based here too.

“George, get your techies down to the conference centre, full CCDP and Judas Box coverage. You know the drill. Arrange a twenty-four hour rota with your monitors, with redundancy.

“Rocky, you and your DOGS will be based in the Fiona Milton Suite. Archer will be joining you.”

“Fine, if he sticks to the plan.”

“That’s between you and him. Felix, you will work out of the Connor Rhodes Suite.”

“And we do a full sweep, as soon as we get there. No problem. Consider it done.”

“Jaguar. You are in the Jan Pearce Suite. Neville is going to be assigned you for this one.”

“He’s a good man to have on the team.”

“Yes, I know. How many times have you put in for him to be transferred?”

“Well, er.”

“Don’t worry. Just remember, this is only a loan. Don. Eagles. Crowd control, obviously. Duncan Dealey Suite. There might be some people trying to use the event as a platform for their issues. The RRK spring to mind.”

“We will be ready.”

“Bob, I’ve allocated you to the Ron Radford Suite. Liaise with Rocky, Jaguar, Felix and Don. They will need your best Grunts for this one.”

“Davy boy, let’s do a deal, shall we? I won’t call your team Freaks if you don’t call my field operatives Grunts.”

“Of course. Sorry. Doctor Trapp. It’s unusual to see you in the field these days. Not enough sick people here to treat?”

“I like to keep my hand in from time to time.”

“Good to have you on board. We’ve got just the suites for you and your staff. Ella Spriggs and Don Whitehead. Right. You’ve all had copies of the timetable, so let’s get stuck in. Next item, the motorcade.”

TRÉGRYSTYON: 15.59 

It was a beautiful Cornish countryside scene. The sky was deep blue with fluffy clouds blown across by the strong wind, which rippled over the yellow seas of wheat and rapeseed and set tree branches dancing. Tractors made slow progress across the fields spraying fertilizer behind them.

The sun shone on the village sending dazzling flashes from the blades of a Histapis Vertical Axis Wind Turbine array, sparkling off the water in the canals that criss-crossed the village and blazed off the solar panelled roofs.

The village was full of activity. The muted sounds of drilling, hammering, and sawing drifted through the hot afternoon air. Red and blue clad work gangs hurried through the streets, disappearing into a building here, a building there. Red vans bearing the name Katartizo sped out of the village, returning with materials and supplies.

At the top of a nearby hill, in the shade of a clump of trees, a lone figure surveyed the panorama with powerful binoculars. He lowered them onto his chest, looked over the scene once more. Then he smiled, and said, very quietly, “Boom.”

NSC HQ: Section 10, Bonnar’s Room 16.19 

Bonnar was searching through the conference plans, trying to find any vulnerability. 

“Hi, David.”

“Oh, Hi, Jean. I didn’t hear you come in.”

Jean was wearing her trademark green cat suit. She dropped her blue shoulder bag on the floor and said “Nano, bagagem.” The bag turned into a blue liquid, which formed itself into a box with hundreds of tiny wheels. The box rolled into Room Six.

“It’s amazing how you got Nano to understand Portuguese.”

Jean smiled. “It drives Brian mad! He couldn’t teach them English, so he has had to learn Portuguese himself.”

“How are you?”

“I haven’t been too good, I’ve been to Section 20. They want me in for tests.”

“Is this anything to do with why you can’t change shape?”

“But – how did you know?”

“Simple. You sent an e-fit instead of shape-shifting.”

“Yes, you’re right. I don’t know if it’s permanent, but what I do know is my ability was killing me.”

“Does Lamb know?”

“No, and he is not to be told. At least, not yet.”

“So, what happens next?”

“I don’t know. I’m glad to be normal, but I’m frightened about what kind of future that will mean. What use am I without my powers? Part of me would like them back, but would that mean I become sick again?”

“We won’t know anything until after the tests. Then you will have plenty of time to plan. Let’s see what Section 11 have found out. Nestor, connect me to 11-15.”

“Monitor 15 here.”

“Any news.”

“We’ve – er – had some problems.”

“What kind of problems? You have the finest surveillance equipment known to man.”

“Satellites couldn’t penetrate the cloud. A pigeon blocked the CCDP at Digbeth. We couldn’t read the driver’s ID chip, and the vehicle’s transponder only gave a weak and erratic signal. We lost them south of Coventry heading east.”

“Tell me you’re joking. You’re joking, right? Not even an old fashioned number plate?”

“No. Afraid not. But we are checking nearby CCDP feeds for anything like the minibus 10-54 described.”

“OK. Let’s try another tack. Jean, where were they headed?”

“Some community. I don’t know any more than that.”

“What exactly happened with this Joshua?”

“I don’t want to talk about it. You will think I’m mad.”

“I need the facts, Jean. Just tell me what happened.”

“He said my name and I changed back to me. I had no control over it. Then he put his hand on my head and said something.”

“What did he say?”

“It’s nonsense. Crazy.”

“Just tell me.”

“He said, ‘Be healed in Jesus’s name’. After that, I couldn’t change shape.”

“Are you sure that’s what he said? You could end up on the Isle of Wight talking like that.”

“I said it was crazy.”

“Well, something happened. You can’t change shape. OK. Nestor, connect me to Section 4.”

“Collator 23 here. I have been assigned to your case.”

“I want information on anyone called Joshua in connection with some kind of community in the East Midlands area. It may be a Christian community.”

“I will advise you when I have it.”

“Cassie said this Joshua was going to destroy our team, Jean. Looks like he’s started with you.”

HERITAGE HOUSE: 19.07 

In the old ballroom, four tables had been arranged in a square. Joshua Goodwill sat with the other eleven apostolic leaders. The normal lively conversation was now stilled. Each of the leaders had a story of how, from one quarter or another, pressure had been brought to bear on the community houses, trying to force them to close.

Casey “Watchful”, leader of Sanctuary House in Belfast, told of how planning legislation had been used against them. The house, a listed building, had been with the community for many years. Now it had been decided that the width of the staircase was too narrow for the number of people that lived there. Being a listed building, the community was unable to alter the staircase. The number of people the council had stipulated was not enough to keep the house going. So, they had to close the house and move everyone into rented accommodation.

Flock House in Bristol had been destroyed by an arson attack. The community boarded up the street-facing windows of Candle-Stand House in Cardiff because of the number of times they had been smashed by bricks and rocks. Desired House in Swansea had suffered multiple break-ins and thefts. In each case, the police failed to appear, or did nothing. Sometimes the residents of the houses were treated more like criminal suspects than victims. One police inspector even said they should take the hint and go.

Cars were regularly driven through the gates of Dove House in Nottingham, where they were set on fire. They also had human excrement smeared on their doors and windows. A gang of youths kicked in the door of Inheritance House in Lierbury and threw in the burning body of an Alsatian dog.

In Derby, Zion House had all its windows sprayed with black paint. Every day for over a month, at two in the morning, a gang of about twenty youths and adults stood banging dustbin lids and shouting profanities and abuse for an hour.

Jed “Hopeful” had seen Hill House in Glasgow demolished. A Radon survey measured five hundred and sixty Becquerels per meter cubed, meaning that the area was not safe for human habitation. A similar survey the previous year had only measured forty – well within acceptable limits. Jed suspected that the second survey had been faked, but he could not prove it in time.

The three houses that Kulvir “Kindheart” was responsible for – Pillar House in Manchester, Ground of Truth House in Liverpool, and Heavenly House in Stoke – had all been the target of a concerted campaign through the courts. They were investigated for benefit irregularities, health and safety violations, and trading standards issues. Most cases were either thrown out immediately or on appeal, but it had cost a great deal of money that the community could not afford, and left them thoroughly demoralized. On one occasion, someone was seen releasing rats in the gardens of Heavenly House. Less than an hour later, a Health and Safety inspector paid a surprise visit. Fortunately, the residents had caught the vermin, and he found nothing.

Nemanja “Generous”, the leader of Temple House in Leeds, had to protect his people from a mob of journalists that camped around the house. It was hard for the residents to lead a normal life. Anyone that left the house was followed and photographed. Dorothy, the girl that Una had met, was grabbed near her school. A parent intervened, but the girl was so shaken up that she refused to go out for weeks. 

During this time, stories were published about life in Temple House. There were claims that money and possessions were stolen from visitors, and that children were kept locked in the basement. The fact that the house did not have a basement made no difference. The residents and friends of the community wrote to the press to defend Temple House, but they were either ridiculed or ignored.

Mountain House in Edinburgh had a similar problem. They were led by Aaron “Protector”. He and others went onto the streets of Edinburgh to care for the homeless. They met a man who had been sleeping rough and invited him to stay at the house. He was with them for about a month and seemed to fit in. They thought he was going to make a commitment. Then he just left. The next thing anyone knew, he had written an exposé of the community. He mocked their faith and lied about their motives. They were afraid to take anyone in for a long time after that. The council tried to take three of their children into care on the strength of what he had written. Even when they proved it was untrue, they still did not get the children back for many weeks.

There were similar stories from other houses around the country. It was strange. Despite all the persecution, people applauded the work the community did. They were awarded for the way they helped drug addicts and alcoholics. There was a program for getting ex-offenders back into society. The homeless were found somewhere to live. Work was found for people no-one else would employ.

To the people that knew them, the Wild Olive Shoot Community had been a shelter and support. A place to go to for those in need, with few questions asked and full acceptance. It did not matter if a person was wealthy or homeless, a company director or unemployed. They gave people an opportunity to live in a new way. To others, the unusual lifestyle was too great a challenge. In the community houses people mattered more than possessions and everyone shared everything. The houses helped those who were in greatest need, the same people that society felt most threatened by.

The leaders discussed how the houses that had once been their homes had been emptied and closed, the residents journeying down to Granhurst. There were still some stragglers, but they were expected over the next few days. Much of the community lived in private houses. These, too, were emptied and sold. Soon, the whole community would be together, 

THE HOME OF DAVID BONNAR: 19.33 

Bonnar surveyed his living room. He was not the most domesticated of men, he would be the first to admit, but, with his depression lifted, he saw the state of his house for the mess that it was. After two hours, he had filled five black bags with rubbish and finally got the place habitable. He was just about to make a well-earned drink when his earphone rang. He picked it off the coffee table and fastened it on.

“Bonnar here.”

“David, old chap. How are you doing? First day back and all that.”

“Fine, Harry. Almost too fine.”

“How d’you mean ‘too fine’?”

“I got into the swing of work like I’d never been away. The depression’s just gone.”

“Well, that’s good, isn’t it?”

“There’s a part of me that feels guilty about not thinking about Amy. Does that make sense to you?”

“Not surprisin’, you were a big part of each other’s lives. I understand what you’re saying, but try not to think about it too much. I know you, David. I chose you for the NSC because you pick at problems like a dog with a bone. If there’s a mystery or a puzzle, you can’t let it rest until you know the whole answer. Well, sometimes you have to tell yourself ‘No’. Don’t worry when there’s nothin’ to worry about. Just get on with your life.”

“Thanks, Harry.”

“Just remember. Give me a call if you need anythin’, old chap. And stop worryin’!”

“OK, Harry. Goodbye.”

Bonnar took off his earphone. Harry Mahone had been his teacher. His guide. His mentor. It was because of Harry that Bonnar joined the NSC in the first place. Why did things seem different now? What had changed?

NSC HQ: Section 14, Medium-Security Detention 20.53 

“Lift your hands in the temple and praise The Lord.”

Conrad Hesse slammed his paper down. “How long has he been at it?”

“About an hour now.” Mark Shade, Hesse’s colleague, did not lift his eyes from his magazine.

“Lift your hands in the temple and praise The Lord.”

“Shut up!”

“Don’t let him get to you, Conrad.”

“You who serve by night in the sanctuary.”

“I’m telling you, Mark, I’ve had enough! You carry on, Yank, and I’ll come back there!”

“Lift your hands in the temple and praise The Lord.”

Shade knocked on Rossi’s cell door.

“Don’t worry, he’s gone. Hey, have you eaten anything?”

“Not since this morning.”

Shade unlocked the door.

“Come on out. It will be OK.”

Cautiously, Rossi followed Shade to a room that only contained a table and a couple of chairs. 

“Sit down. He will be about half an hour. Here, try this. My wife’s chilli.” Shade passed a steaming bowl to Rossi, who practically inhaled it.

“Slow down there, Yank. So. You’re a Christian?”

“Yeah.”

“You really believe all that mumbo jumbo?”

“It ain’t mumbo jumbo, but, yeah. I believe it.”

“It’s cruel what happens to Christians in this country. If they don’t send you back to the States, they’ll send you to the Isle of Wight. I used to go there on holiday as a kid, now it’s a hell-hole. Typhoid, cholera, diphtheria. Ghastly place. Hey, are you all right?”

Rossi was rubbing his stomach.

“Yeah, I guess I bolted it down too fast.”

“Come with me.”

Shade led Rossi into another room. It had white enamelled walls and floor, and the floor sloped down into a channel. Along a wall was a rack of vicious looking tools.

Rossi turned to see Hesse slam and lock the door. The man was holding two shock sticks, one of which he handed to Shade. They made Rossi stand in the middle of the room. If this had been back in his gang days, Rossi would have fought back. Now he prayed he would have the strength to endure whatever was going to happen.

Shade put his hand on Rossi’s shoulder in mock concern. “How’s your stomach?”

“Pretty bad. But that’s what you wanted, right?”

“Cle-ver boy! Tell you what, we will take you back to your cell, but we want a song from you first.”

“What?”

Hess stood almost nose to nose with Rossi. “Yeah, sing that song again.”

“If I refuse?” They struck him with the shock sticks. He jerked violently as the electricity shot through him. Hesse rammed a bag over Rossi’s head and tightened a leather strap around his throat. 

“Now sing!” Hesse struck Rossi again with the stick.

“Lift your hands in the temple and praise The Lord.”

“Come on then, lift up your hands. As high as they can go.” Hesse jabbed at Rossi’s arms until he obeyed.

“Lift your hands in the temple and praise The Lord.”

“Oh dear, Mr. Shade. I think he’s cacked himself. Keep singing! And keep those hands up!”

“You who serve by night in the sanctuary.”

“Louder! Sing louder!” Hesse screamed.

NSC HQ: Section 20, Jean Folana’s Room 22.07 

The sounds of Section 20 were quieter now. The hectic race of medical personnel had become more sedate after the night shift began. Jean lay in her bed staring at the lights and displays on her monitor. It seemed unreal. She held up her hand, willing it to change, but it stayed exactly as it was. 

There was a knock on the door and Doctor Erin McCulloch came in. “I’ll check up on you before you go to sleep. In the meantime, I’ve got a couple of visitors for you.”

Jean recognized them straight away, Doctors Jenny Till, and Jane Thomson. 

Jenny pulled up a chair and sat down. “Erin told us what happened, so we thought we should see for ourselves.”

“It’s true, Jenny. I can’t change shape any more.”

“That’s totally gold! It’s been, what, eleven years since the accident?”

“It must be, Jane. I still remember the look on Jenny’s face.”

“I remember the look on yours! We rushed in after the explosion, Jenny went to help you up, and suddenly I was looking at two of her!”

“We didn’t know how potent those stem cells were. Still, we finished the project.”

Jenny was looking over Jean’s medical chart. “We had to use the compound earlier today. One of the Grunts was involved in a pile up. He lost a huge chunk of leg, right down to the bone. We just applied layer after layer. The surviving tissue programmed the stem cells to become whatever was needed; bone, nerve, muscle, flesh. It took five hours, but he should be OK now.”

“Good. Then it was worth it. It’s been fun being able to turn into other people, even animals. I got a thrill from infiltration and surveillance, but when I started losing control, I was frightened. All in all, I’m glad it’s over.”

Jenny put the clipboard back on the end of the bed. “We were trying to find a cure for you. We just couldn’t. Whenever we began to make progress, there would always be some priority job or other, and we had to put our research on hold.”

“I’m still confused, Jean. How did this happen? How can it be that you’re cured now?”

“I – er – can’t say.”

THE HOME OF DAVID BONNAR: 23.09 

David Bonnar peeled off the skin patch and threw it into the waste disposal. He was feeling relaxed for the first time in weeks. He got into bed and quickly fell asleep. 

He was in the Pink City restaurant. It was the wedding anniversary. Amy was sitting across from him, smiling and happy. Mr. Naamalum, the owner, was pouring champagne. The evening had been perfect. Their guests had departed long ago. It was just the two of them. Bonnar reached across to Amy, holding her hand tenderly between both of his. He should have told her weeks before, but couldn’t. Now, here, at this time, he had to. He had no choice. 

“Amy,” he heard himself say. “I’ve got an assignment. It means I’ll be away for two years. I might not be able to get back.”

“Can’t someone else do it?”

“No. It has to be me.”

“When do you have to leave?”

“Next week.”

“You’ll be able to come home from time to time, won’t you?”

“I don’t think so.”

An uncomfortable silence fell on the couple. 

“Can’t you quit?”

“What do you mean?”

“Quit. Leave the NSC.”

“It isn’t that easy.”

David played with his napkin. This was it. The moment he had been dreading. 

“Look. Amy. You don’t have to wait for me.”

“What do you mean?”

“You don’t have to be alone.”

“I don’t understand.”

“I’ve been thinking about this, and I decided we should get divorced. You’ll be free to find someone else. If all goes well, we can get married again when I get back.”

“You decided? You decided? Just like that. Without talking to me about it?”

“We’re talking now, aren’t we?”

“What good does that do? You’ve already made up your mind. I don’t get any say in it.”

“It isn’t like I have any choice.”

“There’s always a choice David. If you have the guts to make it.”

“Look. I’ve thought about it. It’s for the best. That way, you still have a life.”

“You fool David! You are my life!”

Before Bonnar or anyone else could stop her, Amy ran out into the road into the path of an oncoming taxi. The driver had no chance to stop. It smashed into her. When Bonnar got there, Amy was laying in a pool of blood. Rain was falling in torrents, soaking Bonnar, Amy and the crowd that had gathered. Rivulets of rain and blood flowed away from Amy’s broken body. 

Bonnar cradled Amy in his arms, tears flowing down his face. He looked into her eyes, but there was no life in them. It seemed an age before the paramedics arrived. When they got there, they could do nothing. Amy was dead. 

Bonnar woke trying to scream but could not. He was cold and shivery, his muscles tensed and cramped, pain tore into all his joints, and he spewed vomit and blood. His head felt like someone had smashed his skull. His vision was blurred and unsteady. He tried to move, but he had no strength. His heart beat loudly and erratically, the noise of it filling his ears. 

A dark cladded figure was moving in the shadows. It came over and sat on the end of his bed. Then it spoke. The voice was female, with a slight foreign lilt to it. “We have been silly, haven’t we, Mr. Bonnar? You were warned about the skin patches, were you not?”

“What ha – happened?” Bonnar hardly recognized his own voice as he fought to get the words out. 

“We made you better. Did you not feel better?” 

“With – with – ?” 

“Withdrawal symptoms? Yes. However, this is just the start, Mr. Bonnar. Without the Soma-420 you will die either from asphyxiation on your own vomit or from an aneurysm. No one has survived coming off them. I think the longest anyone lasted was about two days. You? You would not last an hour. Why do you think we put you on them?”

“Don’t know.” 

“It’s a leash, Mr. Bonnar. A leash. We will ask you to report on certain concerns of ours from time to time. We may even ask you to perform some, shall we say, morally grey tasks for us. You will comply in all cases, or we will stop your supply of Soma-420 and you – will – die. Are we clear on this?” 

“Yes.” 

“Then be a good boy and take your medicine.” The figure wiped an area of Bonnar’s shoulder before applying a fresh Soma-420 patch. It kicked in immediately. The cramps left him, as did the headache and blurred vision. He still felt weak, but his mind was once again focusing. By the time Bonnar could move, the visitor had gone. 

After cleaning himself up, exhaustion took over and Bonnar went back to bed. He could do nothing that night. Tomorrow would be another matter entirely.

 

 

© Colin Nelson www.waycyber.com

© WaylandCybersmith 2011

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