To whet your whistles here is the Prologue and Chapter One.
Darkness outside. From the expanse of his office, the Facilitator gazed down at the city spread below. Orange lights twinkled. A busy machine.
It was his. They were entwined. Both products of this still young, brave new millennium.
He held a powerful secret. Held it and knew how to keep it. At any cost. Just like a thousand predecessors. It was a secret born of millennia of social experimentation, refining, conditioning – almost perfect.
He was interrupted by a rap at his door. He sighed. He keyed the intercom.
“Come in, Max.”
Max entered, carrying a red file under his arm. Unusual. Max gave nothing away.
Excellent control. Or did he have no fear? A worrying possibility but unlikely.
“Max!” He smiled as the man seated himself.
“I called you up here because I understand you are a little concerned about things. About poets in fact. A little doubting perhaps?”
Max’s eyes narrowed but he gave no other reaction. The Facilitator had hit his target. He sat down himself and steepled his fingers.
“I have prepared a report,” said Max and threw it on the table. It slid over the polished wood with a swish, stopped at the Facilitator’s hands. He glanced at it, briefly but did not open it. He sighed.
“Max, there’s no need to worry about poets and writers, artists and romantic fools. We disarmed them years ago. We turned them into whiners. Still, can.”
“Many of ‘the greats’ were laughed at in their time,” said Max.
“Ah, but did they change anything?”
He smiled at Max wisely.
“No, they did not. They were only appreciated when times had changed of their own accord and people looked back and saw their sense with hindsight.”
Max did not look convinced but kept his silence. The Facilitator couldn’t blame him.
He stood again and turned his back on Max. He stared back down at the city, caught sight of the flashing blue light of a police car screaming down a road to some anonymous crime. He shook his head.
“Max, don’t worry about it. It’s no threat. If you don’t believe me just wait and see. Then perhaps we’ll restore a little of that lost confidence, eh?”
Max went pale.
The Facilitator let him sweat for a few seconds then he turned on him with a bright smile. He leant on the desk and looked his subordinate deep in the eye.
“I have made a decision, Max! We will destroy him. In fact, you will destroy him. It will restore my confidence in you.”
Max looked up with sudden fake eagerness.
“You want an example made of him?”
“No, no. I want you to do it quietly. He must disappear with no cause for questions. Can you do that?”
“Of course,” said Max, “I’m right on to it.”
A flame. A slender orange blade raised to two points, devil’s horns. It was perfectly still, untouched by breezes.
Around it was darkness.
From the darkness, a face encroached, stealing into the faint corona of the flame. A face of strength and authority. Worn but solid. Reliable but for some undefined threat deep in the blues.
The face broke into a white smile, the eyes became sharper with malice or glee, then laughed. Laughed at the flame and puffed it out.
Marc was left in darkness, sinking slowly into a mire, a swamp of darkness that sapped his strength.
He found a scrap of will to fight, began to struggle. Feebly at first then more frantically until he was thrashing around like a trapped wild cat.
Suddenly there was a surge of power beneath him and he was lifted like a leaf in a fountain. He flew up through the swirling currents of black. The surge grew and grew as he rose. The wind whipped his hair and clothes savagely.
He was struck by a sudden fear. Where would this ascension take him? Would his rise end with a slam into a hard ceiling?
Somewhere a siren was wailing. For him? Why? He had done nothing wrong, had he? No! He had done nothing wrong. Nothing! Nothing, nothing, nothing!
Up and up and up!
He awoke with a start, sat up rigid and vomited. The fear of his nightmare pursued him into consciousness. Sweat soaked him, he was shaking. The wet sheets coiled around his limbs. He craved peaceful sleep but the wailing would not stop.
Fuck! The wailing was his alarm. Its vile red numbers glared at him with disapproval. He was going to be late!
He wrinkled his nose at the scent of vomit and sweat. He had to clear up, had to shower ready to face the day but there was no time. Only time for a quick wash and shave. He raced to the bathroom his heart beating with panic.
The razor slid roughly over his cheeks and chin. It scraped off the bristle and revealed the smooth, fresh face beneath. Beneath that, he still felt shabby. He saw through his own mask and those blue eyes looked too tired. He brushed his dark hair, wishing it was shorter. Then in frustration, he threw the brush into the water, splashing his image in the mirror, blurring the face.
This had to stop! He was getting worse lately. As he armoured himself in his slate grey suit he wondered if he were losing all his willpower. He had always been an early riser yet this was the third time he had overslept in a month. He hadn’t been late for work so far but he worried that his Team Leader had noticed. Surely it had affected his performance? All this rushing around could not be good for him. He really needed time to compose himself before facing work.
He knotted his silk tie the correct way, remembering his father’s strong hands showing him how. His father who had been the perfect citizen, the example he had been expected – indeed aspired to live up to.
Marc almost hung his head in shame.
He shook his tousled hair. He had to sort himself out. He was no good to anyone like this. No good to himself. He was going to lose his job. If he went on like this then he would drop precious points on the league table. Too much of that and he would lose this house and his status position, end up being relocated to the slums.
He had to get going. No more time for grooming. He threw a flowery towel over the pool of drying vomit, picked up his briefcase and turned his back on the stench.
He stepped out of the house, smoothed down his suit and slipped into the stream of people. The air was stifling. There was the faint smell of blocked drains.
He managed to make his hurried pace look like a determined stalk rather than mild panic. Being late he saw a different set of people. Parents leaving their children at crèche before flying off to work. A lone police officer on the prowl for anti-social behaviour or, if he was lucky, a member of one of the rebel gangs emerging from their underground hiding places. Marc watched him finger his gun with relish.
A road hygienist made his slow, steady way along the grainy street. The chain that attached his cart to his waist swung and clanked in time to his plodding stride. Marc could smell the rotting vegetables he transported. His hair was long and white and his chin bristled with tufts of a white beard. Broad flared trousers swung with his gait. Despite his age the man’s muscles were strong, hardened by a lifetime’s labour. Marc wondered if anything could stand in the way of his ponderous, unerring stride.
The wheels of the cart left tracks in the dust.
There was noise all around. The constant rumble of vehicles. The beeping of traffic control signals. Advertisements being blared from shop windows. But the people were silent. None spoke. All wore the mask of inward reflection, contemplating the day ahead and how it could be most profitably and efficiently employed. Marc wondered what was really going on behind those masks. The same mask he wore.
For whose sake was he wearing it?
He passed silently through the noise and the shadows of the lofty, imperious buildings. Implacable façades for the lofty, imperious companies and organisations shrouded behind the smooth glass and steel. Every now and then a flash of orange light from the rising sun glanced like a flame from a window then faded again as he passed.
He found that he had slowed his pace to study the world as it passed him by. The same world he saw every day. The same world he had seen every day of his working life. Why had it caught his attention now? There had been no change. It had all jumped out at him from behind a grim wall, yet it was all familiar.
He shrugged and picked up his pace again, leaving such thoughts behind. He could not afford to be late. His footsteps clicked on the concrete pavement.
He arrived at work on time. He put on his easy smile and walked through the smooth glass doors with a relaxed swing.
The smile felt empty to him. He hoped it didn’t appear so, there were too many young ‘potential achievers’ snapping at his heels. On the ladder of success, you had to at least preserve the image of a strong confident grasp on the rungs as you climbed.
He didn’t have time for a coffee, which made matters worse. He was sure that his body’s imbalances would show up at tea break, during the standard demi-scan. A coffee would have calmed him down. The rich aroma teased him. Well, there was no point in worrying, that would only increase his stress. He heaved an inward sigh, sat down at his desk and tried to forget about it.
Almost subconsciously he set his mornings targets higher than he had intended, overcompensating to hide any adverse effects of the morning’s troubles.
After several hours of sorting and finishing assignments, Marc was called to the Team Leader’s office.
Row after row of eyes cast studiously down at their desks typing, working – yet all attention was focused on him. Why had he been called to the office? What had he done? Was he about to be decorated for some dynamic deed or flailed for some fundamental failure? Marc feared the latter, wondering if his Team Leader had finally spotted his disaffection. It was vital that he portray the image of somebody who was sure of the praise he was about to receive. He walked down the grey avenue with his head held level.
His disaffection! There! It was admitted. He was disaffected and dissatisfied. But with what? With his job?
Yes. He was tired of the striving. He was tired of the climb but fearful of the fall. His legs were weary and his grasp was weakening, only vertigo kept him going.
This was not the whole truth. With a sickening feeling, he perceived that he had only touched the surface of this particular revelation. Darker things lurked below.
The revelation shook him and it took all his willpower to continue that walk toward the office and keep his mask in place. He could not afford to think about it now. He diverted those thoughts to another part of his mind where they could mill around until he could pull them out later, at his leisure.
If they didn’t break out of their own accord.
He entered the office, escaping one ordeal of general scrutinization to face another of a more personal nature.
His Team Leader was busy studying forms. She waved him into a seat and then ignored him for a few minutes. Before she turned her attention to him he glanced around the room to see if there were any major changes since his last visit. There were none. The office presented the same façade. He felt disappointed – but did not show it. Perhaps some change might have given him an indication of why he was here. Perhaps not. Whatever the case the room was the same. The desk the same clean smooth surface. The built-in console the same impersonal white, shedding unearthly green light in the Team Leader’s crease-less suit. The walls hung with pictures of storm clouds, tumultuous seas and bleak mountains, landscapes all designed to calm the stress of the top executive. All underlined with proverbs from the business world. Proverbs that were steps of wisdom towards success, so they were told. Hand holds in the climb of life, put there to smooth the way and ease the mind. Proverbs that had been hammered into them all for as long as he could remember!
Proverbs that sometimes gave him nightmares.
The room smelt of disinfectant.
“Marc,” the voice of his Team Leader almost made him jump. Her attention suddenly felt like a beam of power bearing down on him. She held so much influence over his life. She could destroy everything he had worked for, all his father’s hard work and trust. She could do it on a whim or most probably because he had lost some anonymous client some money.
“I’ve been studying your work lately and I have noticed a change.”
Alarm piled up in him but he disguised it with a nod.
“You’ve been doing a lot more, and it’s good stuff. I like that. I like to see improvement.”
His alarm crashed into waves of relief and release. He had, even more, trouble concealing that. His mask melted into the correct smile of gratitude.
“Well, I like to go forward you know. Nothing survives standing still. Without motion, forward motion, we stagnate and then it’s all downhill.”
This left a sour taste in his mouth, yet for the first time, he felt sure that there was something in the words. Something that had nothing to do with what he was telling his Team Leader.
“Quite right!” she exclaimed, “that’s why I am giving you a chance to progress. I am going to give you a major arts assignation project. Basically, I want you to examine some sculpture proposals for the town hall and I want you to recommend the correct one.”
Marc nodded with genuine eagerness. This sounded interesting.
“It’s quite a responsibility, you will have to examine every aspect and all the implications.”
“I understand,” he said simply. This was an exciting change in his life, perhaps just what he needed.
“I hope you do. It’s worth a lot on the league tables if you are successful. Well, finish your work for today. Assign any impending business to Josephine Fisher and then you can start fresh tomorrow.”
Marc almost flinched at the word fresh. Had she smiled slyly when she had pronounced the word? Had she noticed his inner turmoil? Was this some sort of test? Was she trying to break down his defences, unmask him and reveal his true attitude toward the company?
Whatever, he could not refuse the task. That would finish him immediately. Besides, he still liked the idea and the points were not to be sniffed at.
When he left the office his jaunty smile and sure step were not as fake as they had been a few minutes earlier.
However, he had to put that task out of his head and concentrate on clearing today’s work. This was even more tedious now that an alternative was just around the corner. Soon the sheer drudgery of it all had dulled his joy.
Another thought poked through these grey clouds. There was vomit on the carpet at home.
Precisely eight hours and thirty minutes after sitting down at his desk he rose a happier man. His colleagues believed he was a fully integrated team member. No hint of his bad night had leaked past his veil. His spirits sunk though when he was invited to a game of squash. He felt slightly ashamed that he found it easy to hide his frustration. What worried him most was there was vomit lying on the floor in his bedroom and he wanted to get back, before Moira. It would be difficult to explain it away and she was not an easy person.
He won five games of squash, hating every minute. He took the praise with the correct blend of modesty and gratification and spent a relaxing hour in the bar sipping drinks and discussing with fervour he didn’t feel the up coming conference. With feigned reluctance, he was persuaded that it was time to call it a day and that they should all go home. They all arranged another match time and with muscles as taut as tensed steel wire he strolled home.
Moira was there.
William flinched as the bark of the machine gun fire slammed around the hall. In the flashing yellow blaze, he could see the police sweeping their guns back and forth like scythes.
They were enjoying it.
From his hiding place he wept. Tears flowed unhindered for on the floor of the hall, rolling and shuddering with the impact of round after round of bullets, were his people. People he loved.
Blood sprayed everywhere.
All we wanted was somewhere to sleep in peace William raged in his mind, but he was silent. Even his sobs were muted.
He wanted to go in there! Grab a gun from someone and send that lead back into the heart of the man who was firing it!
But what good would that do? None! It would undo his life’s work.
So instead he watched from the other room, peering through a slit, praying that a stray bullet would not find its way past his cover but unable to wrench himself from the carnage and seek safety.
Suddenly a hand landed firmly on his shoulder and spun him around. He tensed, ready to strike out.
It was Oliver, one of his most trusted people. He too had tears in his eyes.
“We have to go,” he said simply. William nodded but hardly had the strength to rise. Oliver held out his hand. William took it and his friend pulled him up.
Together they made their escape and left behind them another pointless night and more wasted lives.
All for a night out of the sewers and some decent food.
Marc knelt by the pool of reeking, stagnant vomit that stained the thick carpet. Through the mess he stared forlornly at the pattern of orange flowers.
Moira was perched on the edge of the bed, still dressed in the sharp, blue, predatory suit of a solicitor. She looked down on his efforts.
The atmosphere was rank.
“You’re not happy with your job are you?” Moira’s tone was not sympathetic. Marc went on his hands and knees cleaning up, trying not to gag on the stench of it all.
“Of course, I am. Don’t say things like that. It’s not true and it could cause trouble.”
His gaze fell on his guitar, standing out if its case against the blue-grey wall. He stared blankly at the taut steel strings. Around the edge of his sight, he imagined he could sense the threats that crowded his life. Stalking him, chasing him into fear.
“Why the nightmares then? Why all the oversleeping? You are not ill; the doctor gave you a shining report.”
Of course, he had! He was fine most of the time, perfectly balanced. It was only the odd occasion that he had nightmares and overslept.
The strings on his guitar looked too tight. If he plucked one would it snap? The light in the room seemed somehow too dim.
“You need help,” she said, sounding as if she were quoting, “you need to see a psychologist.”
“If you are not happy with your job then I will have to find somebody who is,” she remarked casually.
“Well, I have my career to think of as well you know.”
“Of course but,” he looked up at her, unable to believe what she was suggesting, “if we separate do you know what that would do to me?
“Certainly,” she picked up the TV remote control and started fiddling with it absently. Marc was struck by the totally inappropriate thought of how attractive she looked in her suit.
“A big drop in the Personal League tables and it would certainly put your career on the line. That is why I would not do it unless I thought it was totally necessary. If you will not admit that you are dissatisfied with your job when you damn well are then I am not going to let it ruin my career too!”
Strings in his mind were being pulled too tight. The screws that held them were being relentlessly turned, stretching them to breaking point. Instead of being pulled and plucked to play harmonies and airs they hummed with tension. If they were struck they would wail, scream high notes of anxiety and discord.
“I am not unhappy with my job!” Marc growled.
“I’ve said that once. Anyway, where did you get the idea from in the first place? Who’s been telling you I am fed up?”
“I never said you were fed up, those are your words, not mine. Nobody has been telling me anything. I can tell, that’s all. You don’t live with someone for two years without getting to know them and their moods. Besides it has been proven that dissatisfaction at work can lead to feelings of inadequacies and that those feelings are often translated to other areas, notably sexual relations.”
“Oh, so I am no good in bed now am I?”
“I didn’t say that! But you could be better,” she shrugged and smoothed the line of her skirt with her palm.
“But then I have always thought so.”
Marc almost spat in disgust and mumbled angrily to himself through clenched teeth.
“I wonder what your basis for comparison is?”
“Don’t mumble!” screamed Moira and she hurled the remote control across the room. It hit the guitar, broke a string, bounced off and hit the wall where it shattered and landed, a pile of black shards in the pool of drying vomit.
“You are driving me mad with your stupid little habits and your nightmares! Why couldn’t I get a more decently social partner?”
“Keep your voice down!” said Marc, heeding his own advice but trying to overpower her tantrum.
“The man two doors down is a good friend of my Team Leader. I don’t want a bad report getting to her.”
“Sod your Team Leader! I bet she has noticed your decline as much as I have.”
“No, she hasn’t,” retorted Marc. Then before he could stop himself.
“As a matter of fact, she has just given me a top assignment. She has every confidence in my ability.”
“Well, why don’t you go and bloody live with her then!?”
Oh, shut up, shut up, shut up!
Somebody was dragging the edge of a plectrum across his mind. It was a wailing cacophony.
“Look, darling, why don’t we both calm down and talk about this in the morning?” He kept his voice as smooth and calm as he could.
“Don’t bloody darling me! That’s your idea, is it? Put everything off? How long for? A day? A week? For good? You are useless, you know. Totally useless!”
“Don’t say things like that Moira! We’re supposed to support each other. That’s the whole idea you know or had you forgotten?”
“No, of course, I haven’t,” she was sulky now. “Oh, this whole thing stinks. This room stinks, you stink! I am going to bed and I am going to get some decent sleep.”
She stormed off to the spare bedroom, leaving Marc to ponder the thought of sleep, nightmares and clashing chords, unaware of the flames that had started to burn within him.
Richard held up a pair of wire cutters that shone dully in the moonlight. Like the smile that she gave him, they lacked lustre.
Maybe it ran in the family she thought as her brother put the tool to work efficiently. Here they were, breaking into a high-security building (owned by one of the country’s largest water suppliers) and she felt no excitement or fear.
The fact that she felt no shame or remorse did not compensate. She felt nothing at all unless it was a slight twinge of disappointment.
Richard was the only family she had really known so she had no idea what her parent’s reaction would have been. No idea whether it was a family trait. Her parents were vague memories to her. Scarlet memories buried deep within her. Perhaps her feelings of guilt were buried with them.
It had been her brother’s idea, of course, to steal the official tests on water pollution. He was full of ideas like that and she was willing to follow, to take an active part in any plan he devised, hoping to find some way to share the excitement he derived from them. Or had once. She often got the impression that he had grown bored of them himself, or disillusioned by the lack of any real impact.
She wondered what would happen if he succeeded. What would be the consequences? Where would they lead?
Were people like Richard the seeds of warfare?
Success or not they would not give up. They were determined. They would pursue their goals in the only way they knew. Both fighting the order for their own reasons. She wasn’t really sure of her brother’s reasons, they seemed to shift and change from time to time. She reasoned that he was fighting for the sake of fighting, that no matter who ruled or what order they had been born into, he would have fought it. She could not remember him being any other way.
For herself? Well, her reasons were clear. She was bored. She found the world and its constant pressures tedious. She dreamed of ancient times when the challenges had been real and the world more clear-cut and, in a brutal kind of way, more honest. When people’s lives were more vital. They were born in the wrong time, they had told each other that more than a few times.
Now though even these adventures didn’t really excite her.
Richard beckoned her through the open fence. Her senses came alert, even without the thrill. She was merely being competent. As she climbed through she could smell the rust on the fence. She pushed aside the rough metal.
They made their way through a small side door. Its defences had been turned off earlier in the day. Richard was a genius in such things. Not only had he turned them off but the security systems still believed them to be active. Only a manual check would show that something was amiss and nobody did manual checks very often on a door as insignificant as this.
A few specialised tools were all that was needed and they were in. Bright white light spilled momentarily out into the darkness, then they shut the door. They found themselves in an empty corridor. The walls and ceilings were the cold white of medical institutions. There was the faint smell of cleaning chemicals. A trail of red tiles, inset into a grey floor, showed the way. Richard did not need them. As they entered the cool air from outside invaded the stale sterile atmosphere of the building. As silent as snowfall they stalked their goal, following the cool breeze down the passageway and around the corner.
When she had first accompanied her brother on these forays she had gently disapproved of his tactics. They should not have to break the law to attain their ends she suggested. Richard had laughed at that and asked her how she thought the people who ruled got where they were. She had been slightly shocked at this statement. The rulers had to be moral. It was a written requirement of the constitution. Surely they were not corrupt?
“If they weren’t,” her brother had said, “then we wouldn’t have to do what we do.”
“What exactly were the rulers guilty of then?” she had asked. He had not been able to answer that satisfactorily even, she felt, to himself. He just knew that they were corrupt and that was enough, enough to lead him to hunt for the evidence to damn them.
Perhaps he was just a natural predator?
Footsteps echoed – someone was approaching. They both looked around sharply. Richard’s fierce blue eyes were like a hawk’s searching for prey.
He pointed at a door and led her through it. They closed it behind them just as the stranger rounded the corner.
They were in a closet. It was crowded but they were both experienced enough not to jostle for room.
Jane watched her brother carefully as the footsteps drew nearer. He was tensed and poised for action. Jane thought that stupid but said nothing. Even if they succeeded in stunning the enemy then their chances of getting out would drop dramatically. If they were caught then who knows what the ramifications would be? Richard seemed to think that the government was involved in whatever he thought was going on here. If they were taking on the government then the consequences of getting caught were grave indeed. They might end up in jail or worse.
They might just disappear quietly. There were few people who would miss them and nobody with any influence to find out what had happened.
It occurred to her that she should know more about what was going on here. She had not read the sources that had led Richard here. Maybe that was what she was lacking. Maybe information was the fuel to his fire.
She thought all this with cool calculation as the footsteps passed and faded. She wondered if her brother were so cool. Was his heart beating fast with tension and fear? His eyes burnt fiercely and his fingers played with his gun. Was he eager to use it?
Richard cracked open the door and looked around. It was clear. They slipped out and rounded a few more corners to arrive quickly at their target. The Pollution Control Lab. In this highly protected room the company kept its scientific eye on the level of dangerous impurities in the area’s water, a growing problem throughout the country. Richard believed that the company was holding back information.
Richard opened the door. Alarms and sirens failed to go off, Richard had disarmed them earlier using his illegal access to the Internet. Breaking the rules, as he had said, opened doors and smoothed their stealthy way.
Closing the door behind them they set to work immediately. Jane slid across the floor keeping low and out of sight of the windows which adjoined the neighbouring room. There were a few night workers in there monitoring the water network and trying to earn a few extra credit points from their employer. They worked busily in the dim light, testing water. Just one look from one of those workers might blow the whole thing. Fortunately, the workers could not afford to be seen away from their tasks.
Jane immediately set to work on a safe. As she worked she noticed a rack of cultures on a nearby shelf. They were all clear except one that caught her eye. It had been marred by the track of a single growth that seemed to have crawled straight to the centre, invading the purity of the gel. She wondered what had driven it to seek out the centre with such surety.
She shook her head. She could not afford distractions. She got back to the task at hand. With her usual efficiency, she soon had the safe open and had located the correct documents and accompanying portable drive. She slipped them into her pocket and made her way back to the door. There she met Richard who was holding a box containing small vials of water for testing. Without so much as a nod, they left the room, closing the door quietly behind them. She followed her brother as the tiles blindly guided them back and within a few minutes, they were outside again.
From the time that they cut the fence until they were safely back in Richard’s Land Rover, they said not a single word.
They had succeeded again. Jane felt no exhilaration.
Marc strode through the masque, shoving people out if his way. They fell or moved aside in his wake like delicate petals in a torrent. He strode with fierce purpose towards his goal.
He was getting out! Out of this farce, away from these people with their bland masks and finery, their cloying, clasping manners.
He strode towards the exit, undeterred by the fact he couldn’t see it. He ripped off his mask revealing his maniacal grin. People held up their hands in shock or terror. He revelled in their reactions.
Then he saw the grand staircase sweeping up out of the hall. Golden steps, a glittering ladder to heaven.
He leapt over the heads of the crowd and landed on the bottom steps. He was about to bound up the steps when a hand grabbed his arm and held him.
He looked around. It was Moria, he could tell despite the ridiculous clown mask she wore because she was still dressed in her steel grey business suit.
Amongst all the voluminous ball gowns and lace, it looked like a sharp knife.
He felt a surge of hatred towards her. He pushed her away and she fell back into a tangle of arms reaching out to catch her and drag her off into the thrall.
He was getting away from her! Away from all this. He turned and looked up the stairs. Up! Up and away from all this. Up to a better life, a better world.
He took a step and stopped.
Up to what? Another ball? With finer clothes, finer manners? More pressure?
He hesitated, turned to look back from where he had come – but it was gone. Everything had gone. He was standing in sudden darkness.
From somewhere in the darkness that surrounded him there came a glow, the light shed from the stub of a candle, its wick spluttering and almost spent. Into the failing corona moved a face, a stern, fatherly face with strong eyes. It smiled a smile of glee and opened its mouth to laugh.
Marc awoke and found himself hyperventilating. He gasped his way back into control.
What the hell was happening to him? Did he need psychiatric help? He needed something.
This had to stop!
Moira was right, he needed help. He would follow her advice and go and see a psychiatrist, as much as the idea repelled him.
This had to stop.
William sat down, his back against the muddy wall of the tunnel. A cold breeze blew through. William wondered if it were an easterly wind. Easterly winds were supposed to be colder. He could not tell.
This was the best place they had found for months and a little breeze was not going to cause any complaints. William wrinkled his nose at the smell of distant sewers but again that was something that could be tolerated.
His audience, seven or eight children huddled on their haunches. In their multi-coloured rags, they looked like they had stepped out of a Dickens novel. Not that any of them had heard of Dickens. Most of them could not read.
William could and he was full of stories. He began.
“Back in the time when my family held a position higher than any that now exists, when our blood was considered special, then, we had a vast and ancient library of books. Some of these my father rescued and I have read just a few. I would like to tell you one now.”
The children of the tunnel settled down, huddling close together for warmth. They blew steam from their mouths and their cheeks were red raw with cold. But they were eager for the story.
William went on.
“There was a land, vast and wide. Where the wind played in the swathes of tall grass, leapt over tall hills and soared into the grey, forbidding mountains.
“In the winter fierce snow storms ravaged the land, leaving jagged icicles hanging at obtuse angles from the hardy trees.
“In summer, orange dust drifted over empty plains like a silent snake bringing thirst and famine.
“Despite this people dwelt here. Scattered in sparse villages, living fragile lives. They endured and they were happy.”
William’s audience smiled dreamy smiles. This gratified him for he did not consider himself a master storyteller in any way.
“They tilled the land and against all that nature plagued them with they gathered an adequate harvest each year. They survived. They huddled together and they sang songs to ward off the worst the winter could muster.
“It was here that a young man called Comm lived. He was a strong and honest youth. He was most welcome in the fields as he was free with his strength and ready to help his people in whatever way was asked of him. He had a warm smile and a rich voice – which he used often while he worked, singing hearty songs that eased the toil for himself and the many that gathered to work around him.
“He loved life and people loved him. But in his big heart, there was a special devotion for one in particular.
“Her name was Thira. He had met her one day on the way to the fields. A group of women were hurrying to a barn, carrying cloths and tools for repairs to the storage huts. One of them lagged behind and suddenly fell. Comm hurried to help her up, picking up the tools she had dropped. He helped her back to her feet and returned the tools.
“She smiled wanly at him, nodding her thanks. But as she walked back to the women she hobbled and struggled. Comm followed after in concern, holding her arm in support.
“‘Are you well? Did you hurt yourself?’ he asked. She shook her head and hid her face from him.
“‘She is of ill health,’ said one of the women, ‘illness plagues her every day.’
“From that day Comm was always there on her way to her daily task. He carried any burden she bore and supported her on her way.
“At first, she would not look at him. She hung her head as if shamed by his help, but she always mumbled thanks to him. Comm was patient, he never failed her, never scolded her, merely helped her on her way.
“After a while, she began to lift her head, a while longer and she would look him in the eye when she murmured her thanks.
“Eventually, she smiled at him. And that smile went straight into the depths of that huge heart of Comm’s.
“He worked harder in the fields and earned himself extra food and goods, these he would present to Thira’s family. They welcomed him into their home with thanks – for Thira had been a burden to them – though a burden they never shirked or complained about.
“Thus love was sown and began to bud.
“At this time too the weather was unusually kind and each year the harvest improved. For once all the village began to enjoy plenty, peace and times of rest and rejoicing.
“It was not to last. News spread over the world of the plentiful harvests in this land. And a visitor came to the village.
“One dark, stormy night a dragon descended upon the land. His name was Econ. He was as large as a mountain and his skin was the colour of brushed steel. His claws were of iron and he breathed fire with every word he spoke. The ground itself trembled under his feet.
“The villagers trembled in fear having never encountered such might before. They stood cowed as Econ explained that he had come to rule over them and that the greater part of their harvest would be forfeit to him.
“To prove his will he slaughtered all the elders of the village. Then he forced all to swear allegiance to him.
“The villagers had never had to fight before, they had no weapons or skill at war. They had no choice but to obey.
“Life went on. The fields continued to be bountiful in ways that had not been seen in living memory.
“But Econ drove them hard. He expanded the fields and planted more. The harvests were way beyond what the villagers would have needed – yet they saw little of it. In fact, they found that they had less to eat now than when the weather was worse.
“There was no longer singing in the fields.
“Life went on in other ways. Comm’s love for Thira grew and grew. In time he asked for her hand in marriage. Her family gave permission gladly and she gave Comm her heart.
“Despite the new austerity of the village, there were celebrations. The whole village gathered and joined in dances, songs and games. The couple were showered with flowers of yellow and purple. The villagers grew dreamy on the scent of the forest.
“All this was not unnoticed by Econ. As the festivities reached their height the village was suddenly plunged into shadow. The dragons wings obscured the sun as he swept down into their midst.
“He looked around at the scene and inquired what was happening. The villagers explained and seeking to flatter their evil master they asked for his blessing on the marriage.
“Econ ushered the people away from the couple with his wings and bent down to look closer. He peered at the couple, Thira looked fearful but Comm stood proud beside her.
“Econ frowned. With a flick of the tip of his wing, he pushed Comm aside. The dragon gazed deep into Thira and perceived her frailty, the illness that seeped right into her very bones.
“With a sudden movement Econ drew himself to his full, terrible height, then let forth a fierce stream of fire and reduced Thira to ash.
“‘I forbid this marriage! This creature’s weakness would do nothing but sap the strength of one of my prize subjects! No more marriages will take place without my permission. Furthermore such weakness,’ he indicated the smouldering pile of ash, ‘will no longer be tolerated.’
“He looked directly at Comm but addressed the whole village.
“‘You will return to work!’
“Life went on. The villagers lives were even harder than before but none more so than Comm’s. The dragon took every opportunity to humiliate him, make an example of him. At the same time he did not physically hurt him – he kept him working at his most productive. At times he could be seen knee deep in the thick brown mud, dragging a plough behind him. A plough that should have been pulled by oxen but that the dragon had taken delight in fixing to the poor villager.
“Comm was a patient and steadfast man. He bore what he could for longer than most. But his heart had been broken and in time his spirit broke too. Swearing an oath of vengeance he fled the village.
“It was many years before he was seen again. He was never forgotten in that time. He was spoken of fondly and by some with hope that his oath would be fulfilled. But the years went by and life was hard. Such indulgent dreams were pushed to the back of the mind.
“When he finally returned few recognised him. He rode in on a horse, clad in blood red armour. When he raised his visor there was the scarred visage of an older man. His eyes were filled with pain and complex emotion. The warm smile was gone. He only smiled when he was told of Econ’s whereabouts. That smile was chilling.
“Comm rode out and faced the dragon. He raised his lance and charged, screaming fury at the beast.
“The battle was long and fierce, from dawn to dusk it raged. Econ tried to incinerate Comm but his shield protected him, though his arm was burnt and blistered. Comm struck again and again with his lance, wounding the dragon many times. Black blood spilt on the land, burning crops. When finally his lance snapped Comm drew out his sword. Risking the sweeping claws of Econ he deftly rode in and out of the dragon’s reach, stabbing into his tough hide, drawing still more blood.
“Econ was weakening but still a challenge to the greatest of warriors. He thrashed his wings and tail, he caught Comm with his claws and Comm’s blood flowed with the dragon’s on the floor. He roared fire until Comm’s shield and sword glowed red, but he would not let go despite the searing pain in his fingers.
“Then with a sudden flick of his tail, he caught Comm’s steed. Both he and his horse were thrown through the air. The sword was ripped from his blistered palm.
“He landed with a thud in the bloody mud that he had once tilled. His helm came off and rolled away. He moved no further.
“The dragon lowered his head slowly until his flaring nostril was above the unmoving knight.
“Suddenly, Comm leapt up. He jumped right onto the dragon’s head. The dragon reared in anger, spewing fire into the air. Comm ran and kept his balance. He reached over his back to the hammer strapped there. With all his strength he raised the mighty head and swung it down, striking the dragon hard, right between the eyes.
“The dragon roared in pain and shook his head wildly. Comm fell, plummeted back down into the mud. He landed on his back and did not rise. He felt his body break. He heard the roaring stop. He opened his eyes and saw the dragon lower his head toward him. The beast was unsteady, swaying but he was also unmistakably drawing his breath to deliver a torrent of fire upon Comm.
“It did not come. Suddenly there was a yell and the dragon turned his head. With his final strength, Comm followed his gaze.
“From out of the forest, the villagers streamed. They flew, bearing axes and scythes and hammers. As one, and with the fury of years, they fell on the dragon, hacking, slashing and hammering him.
“And the dragon fell. He was too weak to resist now. Expending the last of his fire into the air he crashed to the ground and died at the villagers’ hands.
“Comm died too, hurt from his wounds. The villagers raised a statue in his honour depicting the slaying of the beast. Never again did a dragon take their freedom. The villagers returned to their simple lives but they kept the story of the dragon alive, passing it down from generation to generation so that the terror of the beast would never be forgotten.
“Likewise they kept the spirit of Comm alive too – and remembered him not only as the great warrior and redeemer but also as the kind supporter of the frail, and the simple farmer who tilled that land.
William’s audience gave him a subdued round of applause as they took in the implications of the tale.
At that point, a man came running.
“Rats!” he gasped. Everyone sprung into action, William among them. Grabbing crude weapons they all headed after the man, on the hunt for their next meal. They splashed through water that looked like weak gravy. Ahead of them was a fire. Its red light swayed, showing them the way.
As they jogged down the tunnel William wondered what the normal people above them would think if they knew there were people eating rats below their feet.
These places were the only home he had known. Abandoned underground railways and sewers and older tunnels whose uses were forgotten. He was not alone in this. He had grown up with many of these rebels. After his father had died they had been the only family he had known. He had soon become their leader.
His father had not always been a rebel. He had told William of grand palaces and castles where his family had once lived, all filled with gold and purple, jewels and crowns. The finest of which had belonged to his Grandfather after whom he was named.
William had not understood how such splendour could fall. His father had said that the economy had deposed even them in the end.
He wondered if one day he would get the chance to reclaim the palaces of his family. Would he do it if the chance presented itself?
No, he wouldn’t! The very thought of it fired his anger. That would mean abandoning his people. He could never do that. It would mean abandoning his principles. It would make him no better than the bastards who ran the country now, whose policies and ruthlessness drove more people into the tunnels every year.
Besides he believed in the rebels. They were human. They knew the value of each other. They were the germ of the future. He firmly believed that one day, maybe beyond his lifetime, they would inherit the ruins of that corrupt empire above them.
The Secret – that was the seed of all his stories. It was carried in the heart of every member of his audiences, waiting to be discovered and embraced by each of them, then passed on until it grew strong enough to bear fruit.
As the hunt heated up and everyone took their places, William thought back to his story and wondered if any such tale had ever really existed.
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