Excerpt for Spacetime: Book One of the Time Quest Chronicles by , available in its entirety at Smashwords







Spacetime

by Patrick Sheridan









Book One of the Time-Quest Chronicles









Cover design by Daniel Anslow









Copyright 2017 Patrick Sheridan

All rights reserved

Smashwords Edition









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To my Mum – Survivor, rock of support, and the first writer to encourage me to pick up a pen.

Chapter 1

It all began one chill autumn evening. It could be said to have begun long before; or far in the future. But for me it was straightforward enough. It was the point of rude awakening from the mundane daydream of my life into the extraordinary roller coaster that was to engulf me.

Darkness was falling over London. Towering thunderclouds filled the sky. Majestic, sullen, they glowed dully in the dying sunlight. Angry raindrops and fitful gusts of wind rattled the windows of my flat. I shivered, sensing perhaps a portent of things to come, and shut out the vision of such elemental forces with a swiftly drawn curtain. Lighting a cigarette, I turned instead to the more comfortable certainties of Jazz F.M. and an early evening drink.

My mobile rang and I picked it up, groaning inwardly as Charles's enthusiastic tones assailed my ear. Charles was a nice enough guy in an oddball sort of way. But he expected everyone to tackle life with his own limitless brand of energy. He pursued an ever-changing series of obsessions which rarely stirred my interest, if at all.

‘Hi Richard, all set?’

‘I suppose so Charles.’

‘Cheer up, you'll love it. I'll be over in a bit.’

I ended the call with a wry smile, wondering just how much I might enjoy the evening ahead. Charles worked in the accounts department of an architectural firm where I was a junior partner. He had recently inherited a cottage some way out of London, and had pestered me to come and see it for weeks. His excitement evoked considerable misgivings on my part regarding far-fetched renovation schemes, yet I had eventually agreed. But fate had worse in store than I had feared. Agreeing to spend Saturday with Charles was only the foot in the door: I found myself manoeuvred into an eventful Friday evening as well.

‘It's amazing Richard, really, all sixties stuff, live, terrific atmosphere!’

Retro rock bashes were Charles's latest thing. Unsurprisingly, he had achieved little success in finding kindred spirits to share this latest revelation. But he was so keen I hadn’t the heart to refuse, and had capitulated wearily. It had also occurred to me that perhaps it was time I did something different; and without Melissa for a change.

I had never really had much luck with women. They might show initial interest, but as soon as I opened my mouth everything went wrong. I never knew what to say, and only the most inane remarks seemed to surface at such moments. Melissa and I had been an item for almost two years, but the relationship had never been particularly intense. It had come about almost by default: she didn’t seem to mind my random conversation, and we kept ending up at the same parties with no one else to talk to. I finished my drink and hesitated before pouring another. I had been feeling uneasy about Melissa for some time. At least, I felt uneasy about something, but was unsure if I could lay it all at Melissa's door.

There seemed to be a kind of emptiness seeping into my life. Nothing was quite the same anymore. I sighed gloomily, wondering what had happened to all of those high, bright dreams. Not that my life had ever been particularly happy. Family life had been rather bleak. I had no siblings, and my parents had fought for as long as I could remember. Mostly I recalled feeling somehow responsible for their frustrated ambitions. My father had left when I was thirteen, and my mother had been ill for a long time before her death. That had been a couple of years after I started work. But she had got me through university: found fulfilment in setting my feet on the first steps of the ladder. I had been determined to achieve better things: dreamt of stylish designs and an exciting lifestyle. Instead life seemed to be slipping through my fingers, usurped by a greying world of habit and financial necessity.

I glanced distastefully around the room. I had planned to do all kinds of things when I bought the flat, but it looked as boring and nondescript as ever. Even thinking about it seemed too much to contemplate. I stared irritably at the cigarette in my hand, and stubbed it out in the ashtray. I had even started smoking again, and drinking too much. I shook free of such thoughts with a self-mocking smile. That didn’t help either. A couple of times lately I had glimpsed a downward spiral into darkly hypnotic depths.

Suddenly I felt better about going out that evening: that perhaps Charles was right to keep charging at life like a bull at a proverbial red rag. I wondered what it would take to ignite that kind of passion in me, and smiled a little wistfully as Melissa drifted back to mind. I toyed with the idea of phoning her, but decided against it. She had been quite happy for me to spend the weekend with Charles. She seemed to have been more tied up with her job lately, taking work home, and we were spending less time together.

Charles's arrival was announced by a cheerful tooting outside.

‘His horn even sounds like him,’ I grumbled. I waved through the window, and scooped up my jacket. Yet my heart felt a little lighter. I was surprised by a trickle of anticipation at the evening ahead. It did feel good to be doing something new after all.

The rain had stopped, and I tugged the jacket around me against the damp autumn air. Charles sat jauntily in his car, the wheels ploughed deep into a sodden pile of auburn leaves in the gutter. It was a few days before Guy Fawkes, and somewhere nearby a firework went off with a desultory wail. I marvelled at how peculiarly English the whole thing was: arbitrary, anonymous bangs and screeches echoing around the country for days; all in celebration of someone not quite managing to blow up parliament.

Charles was determined I would enjoy the evening ahead. He had insisted he drove so I could 'have a good drink'. It seemed slightly illogical that someone practically a teetotaller believed I had to get legless to have a good time. But I supposed I may have given him that impression at the last office party. I eased myself gingerly into the finely tuned environment of gleaming gadgets and booming bass, and we were off: zooming stylishly through wet shiny streets, illuminated by dull orange streetlights and the electric rainbows of glaring headlights.

‘Do you good to get out on your own,’ said Charles, nodding sagely to himself, ‘lots of great people there, nice girls, everything.’

‘Charles,’ I sighed, ‘I am not the type to run around with other women.’

‘Of course not,’ he backtracked hurriedly, ‘but it's not as if you're married or anything. Anyway, girls might like me more if there are two of us.’

I regarded him suspiciously. ‘So this is just about meeting girls? I thought there were apps for that these days.’

‘Yes – no,’ he said hurriedly, ‘I mean, of course there are, but they don’t work for me. That’s not really why we’re going though. It’s fun, really great. You’ll see.’

‘Have you tried dating apps?’ I asked in surprise.

‘Yes,’ he said uncomfortably.

‘And?’ I pressed.

‘Well, err, not many wanted a date,’ he admitted.

‘How many did you ask?’ I enquired, fascinated.

‘Thirty seven so far,’ he said glumly.

‘So how many dates did you get?’

‘Three.’

‘Oh dear,’ I said, ‘how did they work out?’

‘They didn’t,’ he said. ‘One didn’t turn up. One went to the toilet and didn’t come back, and the other was gender-fluid and exploring his – err, I mean her – preferences.’

I suppressed a grin but my heart went out to him. ‘Oh well,’ I said, ‘maybe retro rock raves will work out better.’

He looked more cheerful. ‘Yes I hope so. You can meet people too: you know, make new friends.’

‘Hmm, friends,’ I muttered. My social life was pretty unexciting too, and I fell into wondering what had happened to everyone. Married, a few of them, and others had moved away. Some had just drifted off. Or perhaps I was the one who had drifted off – me and Melissa.

‘Probably bored them all to death,’ I mused aloud.

‘What? Bored?’ exclaimed Charles, alarmed. His gaze darted rapidly back and forth from me to the road ahead like an anxious sparrow.

‘Oh, sorry Charles,’ I said with a rueful grin, ‘I was just thinking how boring I have become.’

‘Ah,’ he said, relieved, and then beamed triumphantly. ‘That's all going to change tonight, you'll see.’

We took a while finding somewhere to park before Charles hurried eagerly towards a disused sixties cinema. An authentically shabby venue I thought. The muffled clamour of live music hung heavily in the damp air. Volume reigned supreme over quality, but Charles was quite unabashed. He almost quivered with excitement as we shelled out a (surprisingly large) entry fee. We pushed through the doors, and the sound leaped to an ear-shattering crescendo.

The floor trembled, strobe lights flickered, and light projectors bathed everything in a melting kaleidoscope of psychedelic colour. A group on stage pounded out an iconic sixties song in a brilliant grotto of light. Everything else lurked dimly at the edge of the visual spectrum, camouflaged in swirling patterns of light and darkness. After a moment I made out a bar to our left. Two men stood there: mouths stretched wide, screaming in wild exhilaration at the deafening noise all around them.

‘It's great isn't it!’ bellowed Charles.

‘It's madness,’ I yelled.

‘What?’ bellowed back Charles.

I smiled apologetically and shook my head. Charles looked disconcerted for a moment, then brightened.

‘I'll get the drinks!’ he mouthed, making pantomime motions with his hand. He indicated some tables and chairs which were flashing intermittently in and out of view to one side. I headed towards them, half-feeling my way into a seat. My heart was beginning to sink, and I peered unenthusiastically through the shifting shadows. The place was not crowded, but the combination of noise and lighting was disorientating. The beginnings of a nagging headache did not seem a good omen.

‘I must be getting old,’ I groaned, and tried to cultivate a frame of mind that would find it fun. I would certainly need a few drinks for that, I decided.

Then, in the space of a moment, my old life ended. She appeared suddenly out of the maelstrom of flickering light and darkness. I jumped: a shock like a static charge passing through me. I grunted in surprise, unable to take my eyes off her. She was casually dressed: jeans, a T-shirt and a light jacket, and strikingly attractive even in that fluorescent mayhem. She had a great figure, but moved with a purposeful physical assurance which seemed quite out of place on the dance floor. The dancing shadows accentuated the fine contours of her face. Her eyes gleamed bright, luminous. Her hair flowed like black satin, alive with electric sparks of reflected light. An odd, fatalistic calm seized me. My head said she wasn’t coming to me, but my heart told me she was. I tensed: yet there was something about her that disarmed me. Then she was standing over me, and leaned to call into my ear.

‘Richard! Richard Walton! I must speak with you. Come with me.’

I was stunned, and hesitated before rising slowly to my feet. My mind was a whirl of confusion. I had no idea what was going on.

Charles appeared, staring incredulously, a drink in either hand. A fleeting suspicion that he had set this up evaporated at the look on his face. A sense of the ridiculous bubbled up, and I gave a self-conscious grin. Whatever was happening, it was worth it just to see Charles's face.

I looked at her uncertainly, thoughts ricocheting about in my head. I wondered confusedly if I had heard her correctly – how she could possibly know my name. I half turned towards the entrance, but she grasped my arm impatiently, and pulled me away. Even more mystified, I allowed myself to be dragged back into the depths of the swirling light show.

My mind raced, struggling to understand what she wanted. Strobe-lit dancers gyrated around us like shimmering statues, frozen in moments of time. A sense of unreality gripped me. I convinced myself that I must have misheard her: that she just wanted to dance. But she pushed on through the writhing figures. A dimly lit exit door swam into view, and she strode towards it, thrusting open the release bar. She pulled me through, and it swung back behind us with a crash.

‘Hey!’ I spluttered, ‘I'm going to have to pay to get back in!’

‘You people are crazy,’ she said with a half-smile on her face. ‘Don’t worry, I fixed the door, you can get back in.’ She had a slight accent, one I could not place.

‘Wait a minute!’ I spluttered, belatedly trying to regain some control. ‘What's this about? How do you know me? What do you want?’

‘Over here,’ she said.

The noise from the club was still very loud, and she pulled me several steps further. A high brick wall enclosed the narrow walkway, which ran back around the outside of the building to the road. She was little less than my own six feet, and surprisingly strong. There was a casual physical force about her which was quite intimidating. Then she reached inside her jacket, and everything went quiet. The clamour from the dancehall ceased abruptly. It seemed surreal: we were isolated suddenly in a zone of silence. The only sound was a faint, indistinct, clacking noise, as if we were surrounded by a random ensemble of whispering keyboards.

It was weird. But so was she. I regarded her uneasily. Something about her disturbed me deeply: fascinated and alarmed me in equal measure. She returned my gaze matter-of-factly.

‘Well,’ she said slowly, ‘you’re better looking than I expected.’ She shook her head wonderingly, ‘but such a baby!’

Embarrassment flooded me. I was as confused by her familiarity as by her candid appraisal. Then I saw something else: a look I could not fathom, of amusement, even affection.

‘I am not the girl for you,’ she said with a mischievous smile, ‘at least not in that way. I am, shall we say, someone who means you well.’

In that moment something communicated itself beyond words. An overwhelming sense of déjà vu coursed through me: a confused remembering. It was like encountering an old friend unexpectedly in a foreign land. I felt another electrical charge, this time distinct and sinuous. My skin tingled, and the hair rose on the back of my neck. I shivered, a slow rush of exhilaration travelling the whole length of my spine. She regarded me steadily, and I stared back doubtfully. Something unfathomable linked us. She saw my bewilderment and looked contrite, her lips twitching into the beginnings of a rueful smile. My traitorous mouth smiled tentatively in return. I could not deny the affinity I felt.

‘Who – who are you?’ I faltered.

‘You must trust me,’ she said more gently, ‘I know it’s difficult.’

I nodded reluctantly, puzzled yet entranced. But my mood somersaulted in an instant. Something stirred in the back of my mind, and I felt an extraordinary flash of malevolence. I froze in shock.

Her eyes narrowed. ‘Yes,’ she said, ‘there's that too.’

Now I was lost, totally confused: held together purely by the strength of her personality. Too many bizarre things were happening, and my mind could not track what was going on. I had the strangest feeling I was seeing my life from two separate perspectives, and a wave of dizziness washed over me. I staggered and almost fell. She gripped my arms, staring intently into my eyes.

‘Hold on, look at me, you will be fine’ she insisted, pouring her will into me.

Something inexplicable was happening: my sense of reality was changing. The déjà vu grew stronger again. There was a shift in the quality of my awareness, a heightened perception of everything around me. Incomprehension struggled with fear, but deep down some fundamental certainty nagged: an unknown memory surfacing like a forgotten limb.

A measure of normality returned, and I tried to reject what was happening by becoming amazingly superficial. I recalled the image of Charles standing there in astonishment, a drink clutched in either hand.

‘My God – Charles!’ I gasped, ‘I’ve left him in there!’

‘You can catch up with him later,’ she said impatiently, ‘in fact you must.’

I frowned. More riddles. She looked at me. ‘I know this must seem crazy to you. Just bear with me a little longer.’

‘Crazy is the understatement of the century,’ I grumbled, feeling for my cigarettes. A cigarette was just what I needed, I thought. But I could not have been more wrong. It had barely touched my lips when she snatched it away with a snort of disgust, and tossed it over her shoulder.

I stared in blank astonishment. ‘What did you do that for?’ I demanded furiously, only to encounter a fierce glare in return. I continued more cautiously, ‘you err, don't like smoking?’

‘Of course I don't like it!’ she said angrily, ‘and neither do you!’

I sighed, rolled my eyes heavenward and wondered if this could all be a bad dream. I was suddenly weary, unable to imagine what was going to happen next.

Then I felt the cool touch of her fingers on my hand, and my mistrust faded again. I wondered what it was about her that affected me so much. She regarded me gravely, her eyes grey-green and luminous, brilliant with life and intelligence. Tiny gold flecks danced in their depths. I remembered what she had said: that she was not the girl for me. I could not make sense of it all.

Again I felt the extraordinary rapport between us. For an instant I sensed resistance, a strange stab of resentment within me, but it was swept aside in a wave of empathy. Only the immediacy of the present mattered. The moment lingered, deepened, expanded. I stood spellbound. An unseen energy palpitated between us. It vibrated in my body, in the concrete beneath my feet, in the bricks of the alley. Even the air we breathed seemed to resonate with power. I was gripped by the conviction that my life hung in the balance: that I tottered precariously over a terrifying chasm of uncertainty, buffeted by forces I could not understand.

‘There are things I must say to you,’ she said.

‘It had better be good to explain this,’ I said shakily. ‘I think I'm going out of my mind!’

For the first time she seemed irresolute, even evasive. She shook her head slowly, and I was surprised by an almost wistful curiosity in her gaze.

‘I thought this would be so easy…’ she faltered.

‘Oh great!’ I snapped, suddenly angry. All at once I couldn't bear the mystery any more. I regretted the outburst as a flicker of distress registered in her face, but I couldn’t hold back now.

‘Look,’ I said quickly, ‘I can’t stand this. If you’re crazy just say so. If this is some kind of game just tell me, OK? I’ve gone along with it because – well, I don’t know why. I don't know who you are. I don't even know your name. I’ve hardly had a sane moment since I first saw you.’

‘No,’ she said a little sadly, ‘I don't suppose you have. There's a lot I can't explain. It's not that I don't want to. I just don’t know where to start, or even if I should – all right!’ She flung up her hands in mock surrender as my anger began to explode again.

‘My name is Alex.’ She sighed. ‘I shouldn't tell you that either. Please speak of it to no one – no one at all. If you do it could cause great harm to both of us. Now hear me out. It will sound crazy, but you will understand soon enough. You are about to acquire a valuable artefact, a highly advanced technological device shall we say. It will attract – it has already attracted – the attention of some very dangerous people…’

‘Me!’ I exclaimed incredulously. Somehow I had not expected it to be about me. ‘What do you mean? How am I supposed to acquire this – thing?

‘I said ‘just hear me out,’ she said sharply, ‘not jump in and interrupt at every possible moment!’

I backed off a little, still disbelieving.

‘I am myself in possession of’ – she paused briefly, closing her eyes for a moment – ‘such a device. You are aware of it. You have experienced things you have never felt before, have you not?’

I swallowed uncomfortably. My safe, mundane world was eroding fast, but it was reluctant to go down without a fight, and I tried to make light of it all.

‘I know I shouldn’t interrupt, but why is this thing so valuable if it just makes people crazy?’

She looked annoyed again. ‘It affects our relationship with space and time. Much of what you are experiencing is discordance looping. It's because of me. I shouldn't be here, and before you ask, I can't really explain that either.’

‘Oh well thanks for clearing that up,’ I said, exasperated. ‘Have you got anything to say that actually makes sense?’

‘These are serious matters,’ she said sternly. ‘It is foolish to be flippant about things you don't understand.’

I must have looked particularly vacant at that moment, because she began to speak as if I was a schoolboy.

‘It is very important that you don’t change your plans. You must go to Charles’s house tomorrow.’

‘You know Charles?’ I said in amazement, ‘I don’t believe it! Have you been snooping on me?’

‘Of course’, she said coolly, ‘and so have a lot of other people. They have been watching you for weeks.’

The swirl of unreality lurched into full flood, and I felt cold fingers of fear within me. ‘This is not 'pretty crazy',’ I said angrily, ‘it is totally insane. People are watching me? Why would anyone want to watch me?’

She frowned. ‘It's actually a good question. They know about the artefact of course, but it's hard to believe they plan to act openly. You are under intense surveillance: there are tracking devices on you.’

‘You don’t really expect me to buy this do you?’ I said sceptically, ‘tell me this is all some kind of trick.’

‘I’m afraid it’s the simple truth,’ she said, ‘I'm suppressing the devices at the moment, but you should assume they will know where you are and what you are doing once I’ve gone. When you have the…artefact, you should be OK. It will negate anything like that.’

‘Nothing you are saying makes sense,’ I said in exasperation. ‘None of this makes any sense at all.’

‘I don’t understand it all myself,’ she said calmly. ‘I wasn’t expecting them to be here. I came because of something they did months ago, something much worse.’

Her manner changed as she spoke. Her eyes hardened, and she leaned forward, fixing me with a glare that seemed to pierce my soul. I squirmed, feeling a pang of fear. More than fear: anger and implacable hatred. Some part of me, something deep inside, felt threatened.

‘Why don’t I like the sound of that?’ I asked, feeling a stirring of dread.

‘It’s a Mindworm.’ She spoke flatly, but with a small catch in her voice. ‘A neural virus: they want to control you.’

A jolt flashed through me. I felt a blast of fury, and then pure, cold terror as something unwound itself inside my head. It disappeared into the back of my mind like a crab burrowing into the sand, and I froze in horror.

‘Th – there was something there,’ I yelped, too shocked to feel ashamed at the hysteria in my voice, ‘something weird, it was horrible.’

‘It didn’t like the attention,’ she said with some satisfaction. ‘They like to work slowly and subtly. There’s little that’s subtle about their purpose though. Being exposed has upset its plans.’

‘But where does it come from?’ I shuddered, waves of revulsion sweeping through me. ‘I’ve never heard of… something like that… it was awful.’

A shadow crossed her face. ‘It is advanced technology,’ she said, ‘the effects are gradual, tailored to the psyche. This one I think is meant to distract you, degrade your effectiveness. Eventually perhaps to turn you into one of them: that or drive you crazy in the process.’

‘Why not just kill me?’ I heard my voice ask. ‘This can't be real. It's a nightmare!’

‘If so it’s a nightmare you're already caught up in,’ she said evenly. ‘They can’t act too openly, so it’s a logical choice I suppose.’

‘Why can’t they act openly?’ I asked confusedly, ‘what do you mean?’

‘Many different parties are mixed up in this. There would be repercussions if anyone interfered dramatically. Using the Mindworm is clever. It weakens you gradually. It is intended to bend events in their favour over time. Of course it’s shocking, but forewarned is forearmed.’

Her cool composure steadied me a little.

‘I can't believe it,’ I said shakily, ‘who would use 'advanced technology' in such a disgusting way?’

She laughed humourlessly. ‘People use advanced technology in all sorts of disgusting ways. This is just something new. You know it’s possible, you felt its existence. The point is, why? They are afraid: you are a threat to them. Think instead how to fight back.’

‘Who are these people?’ I demanded, ‘aren’t there any good guys who can stop them?’

‘We are the good guys,’ she replied with a grimace, ‘we have to deal with it.’

‘All this stuff is way over my head,’ I said peevishly. ‘I don’t understand what is happening, and I don’t know what I can do about it. I’m nobody special.’

She looked amused. ‘True, you don’t look up to much at the moment. But that doesn’t mean you are nobody special. I think you should have more faith in yourself.’

‘I can't imagine why,’ I said sulkily, ‘I think you must have picked the wrong guy.’

‘You are not the wrong guy,’ she said, a twinkle reappearing in her eyes, ‘and perhaps we will talk about who picked who another time. There is much more at stake than just you in this, more than you can imagine.’

OK’, I thought, ‘maybe this thing is like a bad tooth. I just have an anaesthetic and out it comes.

‘If this thing is real, how do I get rid of it?’

Her encouraging air dropped a notch. ‘They are not meant to be got rid of,’ she admitted, ‘you’ll have to try and find the answer from the people who created it.’

‘How the hell can I do that?’ I demanded furiously. ‘Wait a minute, you must know. You know what this is all about. You can help me.’

‘I can’t,’ she said, a note of anguish creeping into her voice. ‘I’ve taken a big enough risk just coming here.’

‘You said this ‘artefact’ will neutralise the bugs,’ I remembered desperately, ‘can’t it neutralise this horrible thing as well?’

‘It’s different technology. It will not perceive the Mindworm as separate or alien. The neural virus is written into your DNA – downloaded as a customised genome which synthesizes your own proteins to construct itself in your brain.’

‘You must help me,’ I pleaded.

‘I’m sorry,’ she said, her gaze compassionate, ‘only you can do it. It's a long term problem. It’s been there for a while but you’ve existed with it, haven’t you? It will try to work its way into your life, to exploit your weaknesses and drag you down. Stay positive. Try to remain separate from it. Recognise what it wants, and don’t let it take control.’

‘What about you?’ I asked fearfully, ‘where will you be?’

‘I will be close for a day or two,’ she answered, more subdued, ‘then I will be far from here.’

‘Do you mean I won't see you again?’ I asked quickly.

‘No, I don't mean that,’ she said, ‘we will meet again.’

‘Can't you tell me anything?’ I pleaded.

‘Their intervention has changed some things, but so will mine. The situation is not irretrievable. It may just work out in a slightly different way.’ She paused. ‘There is one thing. Don’t try to fight it all by yourself. Get help.’ She took my hands and stared fixedly into my eyes, ‘especially from people who care about you.’

The intensity of her gaze embarrassed me again. I wondered what Mellissa would think if she could see us, and realised I hadn't thought of her once since this extraordinary girl had appeared.

‘Wait a minute!’ I exclaimed, ‘what about Melissa? How can I even begin to tell her –’

‘Oh, I wouldn’t worry about Mellissa,’ said Alex, ‘she’s having an affair with Stinks.’

‘What!’ I stared in blank astonishment. For a moment her words seemed completely meaningless, and I wondered if she was just plain mad. Then a niggling suspicion grew.

‘You – you’re not talking about Dinks, by any chance?’

‘Dinks, that's right. Forget about it, it's not important. You must go back to Charles. Don’t say anything about this conversation, remember the bugs. Just make sure you go to his house tomorrow. Don't say anything about me before you get the Artefact.’

‘Dinks!’ I said, aghast, ‘you can't be serious! This is definitely a nightmare. I'm going to wake up in a minute!’

‘I said it’s not important!’ she exclaimed crossly, ‘now what are you doing?’

I was struggling to dig my mobile out from my pocket. ‘I'm going to ring her!’ I said through gritted teeth, ‘I’m going to find out if it's true, and if so I'm going to wring his neck.’

‘It won’t work,’ she said, ‘I’ve got a suppression field on. Have you listened to anything I’ve said?’

‘What's wrong with it?’ I asked dumbly, watching random patterns swim merrily about on the display.

‘No, obviously not,’ she said sharply, ‘after I leave the bugs will work again. At the moment they are picking up what is going on in the dancehall. Be careful what you say, they'll be listening.’

‘What?’ I said stupidly, looking up from my phone, and it was her turn to roll her eyes heavenward. But a second later everything changed. She concentrated inwardly for a moment, and was abruptly radiating intense, coiled energy, like a tiger about to spring.

‘Someone’s coming!’ she hissed, and the strange zone of silence vanished. ‘Remember everything I said,’ she yelled above the sudden clamour of the dance hall. ‘Don’t forget the bugs – and go back to Charles!’

She steered me forcibly back towards the exit door as I stared at her in shock. I was startled to see desperation, even the glint of tears in her eyes.

‘Don't leave us, please!’ she shouted, as the clamour in the dancehall grew loud. Then, paradoxically, she whipped open the exit door, thrust me through and slammed it behind me.



Chapter 2

I stood there stunned, surrounded by ear splitting noise and flickering shadows once more. Her last impassioned plea had been as emotionally charged as it was crazy. It made no sense at all, yet I had felt a poignant wrench deep within me. For long moments I floundered in confusion. My body jerked belatedly with an impulse to chase after her, yet I felt unable to move. My mind was numb, failing to process what had happened. I shook my head, and resisted the urge to sink down onto the floor.

Finally the thought of Charles mobilised some semblance of normality. I pushed my way unsteadily through the crowd of dancers, the noise and flashing lights a mere distraction now. He was sitting at the same table looking rather glum, still nursing my drink. I clapped him on the shoulder, suddenly glad to see him. His face lit up, and we went through an elaborate pantomime of meaningless gestures before giving up on explanations. Then I tossed off my drink, and set out to the bar for another, dragging him with me.

Attracting the attention of the barman, I ordered a half of beer for Charles and two double whiskies for myself. Charles's eyebrows shot up at the sight of my drinks, and stayed up as I downed them one after the other with unseemly haste. I shut my eyes, willing the burning liquid to sooth the trembling in my body, and suddenly I wanted more. I looked for the barman but halted, wondering if it was wise. I had never really liked drinking that much. Now I questioned if there might be something alien about the impulse.

I was shocked at my own paranoia. Yet the memory of the creature remained stark in my mind. It made me wonder if I was going mad. I could hardly believe the whole fantastic episode had taken place, never mind think coherently about it. I felt torn apart: half fascinated by the extraordinary girl who had gate-crashed my life, and half appalled by the craziness of it all. I tried to cling to the belief that there was a logical explanation for it all, but I could not imagine what it might be. It was all I could do to keep functioning at all. If nothing else, I decided, this was not the time to get obliterated. Instead I suddenly wanted to let off steam with a vengeance.

‘Let's dance!’ I yelled recklessly, miming my intention with wild abandon, and leapt out onto the dance floor. Charles followed, looking determined, and for the next two hours we gyrated wildly to the music. I had a couple more drinks, just enough to keep me anaesthetised. Charles almost got friendly with an eccentric looking blonde who danced reasonably close to him, while I pointedly ignored two different girls who seemed to pick up on the energy that drove me. I kept remembering Alex's face: her sudden appearance in that very place such a short time before.

‘Well?’ demanded Charles excitedly, as we walked back to the car.

I had not decided until that moment what to say to him. Part of me feared I had imagined Alex’s appearance: another part that it was real. It was on the tip of my tongue to give him an amusing account of it all, but I held back at the last moment.

‘Yes, it was great,’ I prevaricated, ‘I really enjoyed it.’ I was surprised to realise it was true. I hadn’t danced like that in a long time.

‘Of course it was great!’ exclaimed Charles impatiently, ‘but that's not what I meant. What happened with the girl?’

Having avoided mentioning Alex once, it now seemed somehow prudent to say nothing after all – until I had more time to think about it, at least. I did not want to believe her warnings about eavesdroppers, but a more primal part of me was less certain. The alcohol cast a rosy glow over the evening’s developments too. It seemed kind of fun to play along with the drama her appearance had created.

‘Which girl?’ I asked, enjoying a little playful misdirection.

‘The first one,’ said Charles.

‘Oh I don’t know, danced for a bit. She seemed a little pushy.’ I even grinned, wondering if Alex was listening as well.

‘I didn’t really think you would dance with anyone,’ said Charles, ‘what about Mellissa?’

All at once Alex’s remark about Dink’s came back to me. The fact she knew anything about him was bizarre, but her claim that he was involved with Mellissa was – well, unthinkable. It occurred to me that it was something I could check up on, and I stopped dead in my tracks.

‘What’s wrong?’ asked Charles.

‘Nothing,’ I said, setting off again, ‘just something I’m wondering about her.’

‘Really,’ he said, ‘after all this time?’

‘What do you mean?’ I demanded, suddenly suspicious.

‘I don’t mean anything,’ he said, looking startled, ‘I just thought, you know, that you should know everything about her by now.’

‘Hmm, I suppose I should,’ I grunted noncommittally, and changed the subject. ‘What time are we going tomorrow, not too early I hope?’

‘Ah, tomorrow!’ said Charles eagerly, ‘yes, not too early. But not too late either, so we have plenty of time to see everything.’

I let his voice drone on as the car sped through the silent streets. The alcohol was starting to lose its edge, and I began to feel a little morose. Other things Alex had said crowded back into my mind. I was startled to realise I missed her sharply. She had burst into my life like a spectacular shooting star, and her dramatic departure had left an aching void inside me. I could not believe a stranger had turned my life upside down so quickly. She had talked about such crazy things. Yet the impact of her personality had been profound, and she had seemed so passionate about what she was saying. What really bugged me was that such a bizarre experience had felt somehow so significant.

I wished Charles goodnight, uncaring that he was puzzled by my mood.

‘Nine o’clock then,’ he said; a hint of uncertainly in his voice.

‘Sure,’ I agreed with an absent wave, opening the front door and striding purposely up the stairs. I had my phone out, and Mellissa’s number was ringing before I entered the flat.

It rang for a long time.

‘Hello – Richard.’

I frowned at the hesitation in her voice.

‘Is Dink's there?’ I was harsher than I meant to be, but the silence at the other end lasted much too long.

‘What – what do you mean?’

There was no mistaking how flustered she was now, and I felt a burst of fury.

‘How could you!’ I shouted, ‘Dink's of all people!’

‘Richard I – I was going to – ’

My anger cooled suddenly, and a confusion of feelings swirled inside me: rejection, betrayal, and the slow recognition that Alex had been right. A fateful resignation seemed to distil itself from the turmoil, a sense that events in my life were moving beyond my control. I realised I had known the relationship was going nowhere, and suddenly a fling with Dinks did not surprise me.

‘Forget it,’ I said sadly. ‘I wish you the best of luck. Goodbye Mellissa.’

‘No! Wait – ’

I cut the call. There was no way I could talk to her, not at that moment. Instead the inexplicable events at the dancehall paraded through my mind again. It seemed Alex was not crazy. At least I thought with a lopsided smile, not completely crazy. I felt oddly pleased until I remembered everything else, and a flutter of fear stirred in the pit of my stomach. I tried to contemplate the idea that strangers might be watching me; might have done something terrible to me; could be listening to me now. I shivered, searching for another explanation. But the thought that Alex was just a weird stalker prying into my life would not stick somehow.

I went back through everything I could remember about her dramatic appearance. The things she had said. The way she had looked. The way I had felt. It had seemed so real, yet it made no sense. I could not imagine what this 'artefact' might be, and how it might be connected to me. I poured myself a nightcap and threw myself back on the bed; hands crossed behind my head. Thoughts whirled chaotically through my mind, and I stared sightlessly at the ceiling. Alex, Melissa, mysterious artefacts. It seemed impossible to engage with any of it properly, and I drifted wearily into sleep.

The insistent jingle of my mobile dragged me out of dark, complicated dreams. I fumbled blindly and grunted into it, wincing at the daylight streaming through the window, and Charles's metallic tones in my ear.

‘Hi Richard, all set?’

‘No, not again,’ I muttered.

‘Are you OK, Richard?’ he asked anxiously. ‘We’re going to the cottage!’

‘Yes, yes,’ I grumbled, ‘just had too much to drink.’ I stretched and groaned. ‘I'm not used to dancing like that. Give me a chance to have a shower.’

‘Great,’ he said, happy again, ‘say forty five minutes?’

‘Fine,’ I agreed, through gritted teeth.

My head throbbed, my mouth tasted awful, and I realised in disgust that I was still fully dressed. But first things first: I glanced surreptitiously at my hand, and there, written in smudged biro for precisely this moment, was the word 'Alex'. Last night I had believed, at least partly, in the extraordinary girl who had hijacked my life. I had expected it would be different in the cold light of day, and it was. Fear knotted my stomach, doubts clouded my mind, and my heart ached in confusion. People were watching me, Melissa was gone, and so was the girl who had exposed her. It was hard to accept it had all actually happened. I felt the pressure of the everyday world, its stolid reality and workaday routine, and stared at the tiny letters half concealed in my palm. Yes, said my message to myself, some of it at least was true. It was not a message I really wanted to hear though. At least a sizeable part of me did not. It took a real effort to accept it at all.

Anyway,’ I thought to myself, ‘I only have to carry on with life as normal.’

And then what?' demanded a less certain part of me.

I reached for my cigarettes. They repulsed me now more than ever, and I suddenly wanted to be free of them. But they were a useful crutch, and I had an excuse. I was supposed to remain in character. I decided to wait and have one with a coffee, and heaved myself off the bed to head for the shower.

The journey into Hertfordshire was uneventful. Charles made a couple more attempts to broach the subject of Alex's appearance in the dancehall, but I attempted to sound bored and disinterested. I tried to divert the conversation towards the cottage, but Charles did not want to talk about this either, at least not yet.

‘Just wait until you see it!’ he said brightly.

I fell to thinking about Alex again. ‘Don't change your plans’, she had said, ‘go with Charles tomorrow’. It felt weird having a complete stranger know my business, yet I felt reassured somehow that she knew where I was. It irritated me that I hoped to see her again, and I wondered at my own foolishness. I was still shell-shocked by the whole thing, and tried hopelessly to piece it all together, settling back distractedly into my seat.

I felt very different to the person who had set out for the dancehall with Charles the evening before. Everything about Alex’s appearance had been bizarre. Nothing she had said made any sense. Yet the impact of her words had been immense: had seemed so significant. My mind floundered helplessly as I tried to understand it all. She had told me I should have faith in myself. I remembered how she had looked when she said that – the urgency and intensity of her personality. I wanted to believe her, but it all seemed as crazy as hell.

I supposed it was partly frustration. I felt helpless and confused, out of my depth, with no real idea what was going on. There was more to it than that though. I was shaken by the pace of events, but it wasn't just confusion that unsettled me. There was excitement too. Something was happening in my life: a little too much no doubt; but something I wanted or needed. I felt alive again in a way I had forgotten was possible. A forgotten self seemed to be awakening in me, or perhaps just a younger one. I found myself wondering what had happened to the old me: to my fascination with ancient civilizations, and obscure scientific facts – my conviction that magical opportunities hovered on the horizon of life. Now a vital current of anticipation seemed to trickle through my veins: a sense that anything was possible. I realised that no matter what came of all this, a part of me could not regret it. ‘After all’, I thought wryly, ‘all I have to do is forget that everything Alex said is impossible, and see what actually happens.’

An hour or so after setting out from London we pulled into a short driveway off a pleasant country lane. We were a few miles from the busy A1 that led up towards the North of England. The cottage was traditional, substantially built in local stone. Charles beamed at me, inviting appreciation of his good fortune, and I was duly impressed.

‘Good old Aunt Jane!’ he exclaimed happily, hopping out of the car. ‘She always said she would leave it to me!’ He stretched mightily, breathing in the rich countryside aroma with much satisfaction, before pointing eagerly up at an attic window. ‘See that room! That’s where I want the observatory!’

I couldn't help smiling. How Charles thought he was going to get planning permission for an observatory I couldn’t imagine.

‘Can we have a cup of tea first?’ I suggested.

Sure enough, Charles had several building schemes in mind; and feeling rather irresponsible, I encouraged him to elaborate. It had occurred to me that an 'artefact' might be something we would discover in the house. It didn't quite make sense. If so, it would presumably be 'acquired' by Charles rather than me. But it seemed as good an idea as any.

He was much gratified by the keen interest I showed in everything, if a little puzzled at my efforts to investigate every nook and corner. The day would have passed pleasantly enough had I not constantly felt I should be looking over my shoulder. The weather was good for the time of year, and we opened the windows to air the place a little. It let in a rich chorus of birdsong and diffused farmyard aromas, and we enjoyed leisurely tea and biscuit breaks over the sturdy, wooden kitchen table. The place seemed idyllic.

‘Listen to them!’ said Charles cheerfully, ‘the place is so full of birds it's not true. Isn't it weird that so much noise can sound so peaceful!’

In the evening we drove out for a meal and a couple of drinks, stopping at a local pub. It was a nice enough place, but the clientele were not above a certain suspicion of strangers, and it reminded me of hidden watchers. I wondered who these mysterious people might be: perhaps clandestine agencies or criminals. I half expected Alex to pop out from somewhere and tell me. Perplexed anticipation became tinged with impatience. I wanted to have everything out in the open, and get it over with. Eventually we took a bottle of wine back to the cottage to enjoy the novelty of a real fireplace. We scavenged some wood from an outhouse, and settled by the hearth to watch it burn. Conversation became sporadic, and companionable silences longer as we stared into the fire. My body relaxed, soaking up the warmth, and on impulse I reached out and switched off the single table lamp.

The transition in consciousness was so gradual I did not notice it at first. For a moment the flickering firelight reminded me of the flashing lights in the dancehall, but such electronic wizardry seemed suddenly trivial and meaningless. I was transfixed by the incessant play of light and colour: the bright rainbow hues of the writhing tongues of flame as they delivered their cosy heat. The rich, acid tang of wood-smoke seeped deep into my nostrils, the spitting crackle of logs an elemental chorus evoking a more ancient alchemy. The incandescent heart of the fire seemed to resonate with the volcanic depths of the Earth: constantly changing, always the same; a mystic glow reflected in the gaze of countless human beings over thousands of years.

This was Alex's world I felt suddenly: an ancient, primeval world which bore the tinsel of the twenty-first century with unhurried indifference. I sensed the presence of the Mindworm. It did not like such contemplation, but strangely it no longer scared me. It felt distant and feeble, and was pushed aside by the depth of the mood that engulfed me. I remained absolutely still, too lost in the experience to wonder at its nature. It felt that some new depth of being had opened within me, something timeless and immutable. Unseen energies palpitated everywhere, and my vision expanded beyond the fleeting reality of the stone cottage walls, far beyond my dreaming form by the fire. I was awakening from a living dream, the sleep of ages falling away, and unknown wonders sparking my imagination. How small, how foolish seemed the ant-like preoccupations of humanity: how tragic the obsessions of all those blinkered minds.

‘They say you can see the future,’ said Charles suddenly.

‘What?’ I grunted in surprise, startled from the intensity of my reverie. His words resonated uncannily with the trancelike state that had overtaken me.

‘They say you can see the future in the flames,’ explained Charles. ‘Girls were supposed to see their future husbands when they looked into the fire.’

‘Oh.’ I muttered, struggling to focus, ‘who knows? Maybe they did.’

Charles gave me an odd look. ‘Are you all right?’ he asked.

A good question I thought, stunned by the strange state of perception that had overtaken me. Back down to Earth, it seemed extremely weird. I stared at Charles, trying to get my bearings. I had no idea what had happened, and there was no way I could explain it to him. For long moment I felt vacant, suspended in a kind of limbo. Then my mind spluttered back into action again. I remembered that strangers were supposed to be listening – and wondered if that was any odder than having God-like visions of humanity. I suppressed a shudder, and tried to turn it into an elaborate yawn instead.

‘Sure, I'm fine,’ I said finally. ‘Just tired I guess. Maybe it's time to crash.’

Sleep was slow in coming though. I lay in darkness, my mind spinning with the extraordinary events that were crashing in on my life. I wondered if the extraordinary vision of ant-like humanity was something to do with Alex: who Alex really was, and where she might be. I thought of Mellissa too, a lingering sense of loss mingling with the inexplicable void left by Alex’s disappearance. Everything seemed to be falling apart, and I didn’t think I could go on like this much longer.

I awoke surprisingly early next morning. My mind was full of the weird experience of the night before, but I half wondered if I had dreamt it. There was no sound from Charles’ room. I peered out at the unaccustomed country scenery through my bedroom window. The sun shone brilliantly through a delicate mist, its wispy tendrils drifting close to the ground. The fields and trees were bathed in a luminous, golden-pink glow. It was a magnificent sight, and I could not resist going outside to savour its beauty.

The dawning day was quite magical. The sun's rays transformed glistening dew-drops into immaculate jewels scattered over the lush green grass. I walked slowly in dampened shoes, enjoying the rare foray into the natural world. The birdsong was beautiful. Childhood memories stirred as I took in deep, deliberate breaths of the pristine morning air. It seemed strange that I had lived so much of my life in the absence of such potent vitality.

Alex’s mysterious prophecy, and the odd experience of the night before were far from my mind when it happened. A startling wave of disorientation washed over me, a puzzling sense of dislocation from my surroundings. The hair on my body lifted with a static charge and a small thrill of excitement blossomed. I recognised the familiar, tingling energy that resonated all around me.

‘Alex!’ I thought elatedly

There was a sense of lightness, of expansion, as if my consciousness existed outside the confines of my body. The air began to distort and shimmer: gossamer patterns of colour playing over a ghostly energetic field. A fleeting golden dust sparkled everywhere like a thousand tiny fireflies. There was a subdued reverberation: a hum of power. Then in the blink of an eye a man appeared, as completely and finally as if he had dropped from the sky.

Funnily it was disappointment rather than amazement that registered first. It wasn't Alex. Yet a similar sense of déjà vu unsettled me. I knew this man too – and he was also a stranger. Then I realised he was badly hurt. He was small, almost petite, and not young, with neatly-cropped hair and a trimmed beard. He wore a loose flowing garment: a rich cream colour decorated with beautifully patterned, coloured boarders. But his face was grey with pain, and there was a great scorched rent across his stomach and lower chest.

He stared wildly at me for a moment, and then surprise and recognition registered.

‘Richard!’ he gasped, his words oddly accented, ‘You were right, we were fools!’

I gaped back at him, trying vainly to understand what was happening. I had no idea what I was supposed to do. But I recognised it had to be connected with Alex, and her warnings seemed suddenly crucial.

‘Someone is watching us!’ I blurted out. Alarm flitted across his face, and then several things happened at once. He clutched hold of me: eyes closed in pained concentration. Simultaneously I glimpsed rapid movement across the field. Something came straight towards us at an impossible speed. More than one, I realised in shock. Grotesque, insect-like beings blurring across the ground almost faster than the eye could follow.

Sudden bars of light, blindingly bright, stabbed viciously among them from somewhere behind me, tracking their movements. The bizarre creatures darted aside, changing position so rapidly they seemed to blink in and out of existence. They froze into intermittent solidity to emit bright, venomous rods of their own, before flashing back into a deadly dance with the rapid lightning that played amongst them. The air pulsated with power, but their weapons seemed less potent than the incoming fire. These shafts of light flashed a super-dense blue-white, repeating themselves with frightening speed, and leaving negative afterimages in my vision. One of the creatures was struck, and then another: blasted, shattered, to the ground. They were men I saw, clad in strange armoured suits.

I had barely registered this when another ripple of disorientation rocked me. Energy flowed everywhere, coursing through my body and crackling on the surface of my skin. Time seemed to slow, or perhaps I was speeding up. The world began to fade. It became as insubstantial as a myth or a dream. Then in a heart-stopping moment of fear and wonder I stepped beyond it.

I floated in a formless void, bombarded by myriad, bewildering perceptions. Exotic energies danced everywhere: fascinating and beautiful. I was lost, adrift between the walls of reality. Then trees, fields and bright blue sky came back into being, and I found myself sprawling with the injured man on solid ground. I was paralysed with shock, my senses reeling. But amidst my confusion I saw we were alone. The strange armoured men and the wicked spears of light had gone.

I sucked in a ragged breath. ‘Wh – what happened?’ I gulped.

My voice died to a squeak as I realised the fields and trees were quite unfamiliar. Charles’s house had vanished. We were in a completely different place, and I stared about myself in astonishment.

The man moaned piteously, shaking me from my stupor.

‘You're hurt.’ I said, attempting to disentangle myself from him. I looked around helplessly, trying not to panic, ‘you need help.’

The man groaned again. ‘No one can help me,’ he gasped, tears of pain in his eyes, ‘the damage is too great. I barely escaped.’

He turned to look at me, trembling with effort. ‘But you are not….’ he paused, staring at me. Then understanding seemed to grow.

‘Oh!’ he whispered, and something like a sob escaped him.

‘Can I do anything for you?’ I asked shakily, ‘get medical help?’

He regarded me for long, anguished moments, his eyes full of questions

‘You must help me with this,’ he whispered finally, pawing weakly at his throat. He closed his eyes in trembling concentration and the humming vibration started up again, different in pitch now. He feebly pulled his clothing aside to bare his neck and upper chest.

‘Here’, he said, touching his chest just below the throat.

I peered where he indicated, unsure what he wanted. For a moment I saw nothing. Then an insubstantial shape began to form, vibrating intensely. It grew suddenly solid, like a hazy image snapping into focus, and I stared, entranced. A jewel-like necklace of stunning perfection had flashed into existence. Something about its nature made my head swim. It was wide and complex: sparkling crystals of scintillating colours worked into a composite web of exotic metals and golden filament. But there was an elegance of form and function that transcended its exquisite artistry. It carried the indefinable stamp of technology, and a potency that radiated from every molecule.


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