for Love Lost.
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Copyright © Ian G Hulme 2014
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He had dreamt he was back in the Heavenfield. He was facing the Angel, but the more he looked into its dark, sorrowful eyes, the more he felt himself being drawn into them. He was getting closer and closer, the creature's gaze almost too painful to behold. And then, suddenly he was inside, his perspective reversed and he was looking out through the Angel's vision.
He felt a terrible power surge through his body – the Angel's body. In a mix of panic and exhilaration he saw his own fragile form standing opposite. It seemed ugly and lifeless in comparison to his new self.
He felt massive and god-like, as if he could expand his consciousness and consume the entire Field. He shut his eyes and instantly felt himself flying over red mountains, soaring joyfully through the clear sky.
He laughed out loud and the ground shook, a plume of red dust erupting from the rocks below.
He spread his arms out wide and felt himself growing ever larger. But he couldn't contain himself; he was expanding too fast, dissipating across the sky. A panic started to rise in his chest; he was fading, falling apart, being torn apart. He tried to scream but his throat was a dust-cloud streaming out red sand. His hands were elongating – turning into claws. He was the Heavenfield; all things good and evil. He knew that with a single thought he could level the mountains, crack open the red rocks and scorch the life from the earth.
He tried desperately to contain himself, but it was too much to bear.
He gave a last silent scream as he was torn asunder.
His body was gone now, and he was a single point of consciousness encompassing the whole Heavenfield as he disappeared to nothing.
And then he was gone.
Grace stood in an awkward silence, her breath steaming about her head in the fading light. She looked down at the unobtrusive plaque; there was still a scattering of frost obscuring the inscription.
She knelt down upon the cold, wet grass, without caring for her discomfort. She gathered up the remains of the wilted flowers from the graveside where they lay. A faded sympathy card fell from between the stems and she mechanically picked it up and put it in her pocket.
“Oh Pattie,” she whispered sadly as she placed fresh flowers down. She got wearily to her feet. “I'm so sorry.” She turned and hurried from the graveside, her hand held up to her mouth as if holding back her sorrow.
She dropped the dead flowers in a bin as she walked down the frosty path, and pushed open the heavy iron gate that led out of the cemetery. It closed behind her with a clang, and she jumped, stopping to look around. There was no-one to be seen in the dying light. A stillness hung over the cemetery; not even a bird sang.
“I'm so sorry,” she whispered again, and turned, heading off up the empty street.
Thomas looked anxiously around the empty hospital room. The vividness of his dream still hung over him; he was cold and his mouth felt desperately dry. He listened out for any sounds beyond the closed door, but all was eerily quiet. Even the usual hum of electricity which pervaded the underground Facility had ceased.
He sat himself up painfully, swinging his legs over the side of the bed. He didn't think he had been asleep for too long; Grace and Susan must have left him for a while. They were probably exhausted themselves he thought to himself.
He looked down. There, in a pile on the floor, was his discarded environment suit, still caked in red dust and pitted with corrosion. He shuddered, feeling a sudden wave of panic as his memories flooded back – the battle, Alex, the Angel.
He hopped off the bed, wincing as his bare feet hit the cold floor. He was wearing nothing but a green hospital gown. He found his thick-rimmed glasses on a trolley amid a clutter of medical instruments and dressings. He put them on absent-mindedly.
A set of his clothes was folded neatly upon a chair at the foot of the bed. He dressed quickly and self-consciously, half-expecting Grace or a member of staff to come walking in at any moment. But there was still no sound from beyond his room. He sat on the edge of the bed for a little while, unsure as to whether he should try the door.
Eventually, the silence was too much to bear, so, after wiping his sweating palms on his jacket, he got up and tried the handle.
The door opened out onto a deserted corridor. There was a nurse's station at one end, but that too was empty. A fluorescent light flickered rhythmically at the far end of the hall; there was no sign of life.
Thomas couldn't understand it. He had been in the Infirmary on a couple of occasions, and the small unit always bustled with staff.
He walked nervously down towards the nurse's station. He passed two treatment rooms, but each was empty.
“Hello?” he croaked. “Is, er, is there anybody there?” He peered into the various open doors that led off from the hall.
The silence weighed heavily upon the Infirmary. Thomas realised just how much background noise he was used to hearing in the Facility. Gone was the throb of the air-conditioning, and the rattle of the heating pipes. Even the annoying whine of computers was missing; the monitors at the nurse's station were black. Thomas felt a surge of panic. He looked down at the telephone on the desktop, trying to muster the courage to pick up the receiver. He expected that as soon as he touched it a nurse would come bustling around the corner and give him a dressing-down.
But he was more afraid that nothing would happen.
He glanced around again, then took a deep breath. He lent over and grabbed the handset, lifting it to his ear. The line was dead.
He replaced the receiver carefully and turned around, thinking he might return to his room and wait for somebody to arrive. He looked back along the corridor; the flickering light suddenly made him feel all the more anxious.
He turned on his heel and walked briskly towards the exit. He felt sure he would soon find someone who could resolve this mystery. He headed off down the corridor, and out into the labyrinthine passages of the underground Facility.
Grace quietly shut the door to her flat and leant with her back against it for a moment. She looked down at her hands; they were grimy from the dead flowers and they shook slightly.
She took a deep breath and walked into the cramped kitchen, pulling off her coat and tossing it onto the kitchen table. She left the lights off, even though it was almost too dark to see, and made her way carefully into the living room. She approached the window cautiously, peering out through one side of the grubby net curtains.
A parked car was across the road in the pool of darkness where the street lamp was out. It hadn't been there when she had entered her flat. She was too high up to get a clear view, but as she stood watching she thought she made out movement in the drivers' side.
She pulled back from the window and made her way back into the kitchen, closing the door behind her.
She finally switched the light on; it buzzed quietly in the stillness. She rummaged in the pockets of her coat, pulling out a battered packet of cigarettes and a lighter. She tossed them onto the table. Delving further into her pocket, she pulled out the crumpled inscription she had picked up from Pattie's graveside. She sat down on the lone chair and lit herself a cigarette.
She turned the card over in her fingers.
It had a faded floral design embossed on one corner, and the words 'In Loving Memory' printed across the front. Grace sighed, blowing a haze of smoke across the room. A hand-written note on the back of the card read:
'Dearest Pattie, lost but living on, forever in our memories.'
The Seven Sisters of St Michael.
Grace stubbed out her cigarette. She seemed to come to a decision, and held the card over the ashtray, taking her lighter and setting fire to one corner. It burned slowly, and Grace watched the flames consume the inscription until they reached her fingers. She dropped the card into the ashtray where the glow of the embers slowly died away to nothing.
She stood up and put her coat back on. The Church of St. Michael, she thought to herself. It was a fair walk across town. She looked at her watch; it was almost a quarter to seven now. She flipped off the light and hurried out of her flat, back into the cold night air.
Thomas stalked the empty corridors in a daze.
He had walked for hours now, and still he hadn't seen a soul.
He had almost forgotten that the Facility was so vast, as he made his way up from the Infirmary, through the Research Centre and up to Habitation. Eventually he opened the door to his own quarters and collapsed, exhausted on his bed.
Not a sign of life in the whole underground Facility he thought to himself. Every security checkpoint he came across was mysteriously left open, all the emergency phones were dead. The computer terminals were dead. Lifts were unresponsive, and the corridor lighting was a dim and sickly glow.
He racked his brain for an answer as to what could have happened. The whole Facility must have been evacuated he thought. But why had he been left behind?
Just his luck he thought morosely.
He drifted into a troubled sleep, tired and hungry.
He awoke from unsettling dreams, and made his way to the concourse, and the emergency stairs that would lead him to the surface. He passed through another security point, empty and abandoned. The iron gate creaked mournfully in the eerie stillness, and echoed off down the dimly-lit corridors.
Thomas felt desperately hungry and thirsty. He had lost track of the time he had wandered alone, but he knew it must be days since the start of his terrible experiences in the Field.
He stepped cautiously out into the open space of the concourse. It was outwardly unchanged since he had last passed through. The easy chairs and tables were in their familiar places around the central fountain, but now there was no sound of water flowing, and no bustle of staff. He peered nervously into the gloom, and then quickened his pace when he spied a vending machine.
He hunted about in his pockets for change but could find none. He went to pick up a litter bin from beside the machine and then stopped. He couldn't bring himself to smash the glass door.
Another thought struck him and he ran over to the fountain and knelt down on the low wall of the pool, eager to drink from it. But the pool was empty. He scooped up a handful of sand from the bottom and let it run through his fingers. He looked longingly back to the vending machine, but still didn't dare break the glass. He got up and stumbled wearily towards the fire exits, not relishing the gruelling trek up the stairs to the surface. He pushed open the heavy door to the stairwell. It was dark and foreboding. He looked over the railing and saw the steps disappearing up into the darkness.
He put his foot on the first step.
A loud crash of a door echoed up from below, making Thomas jump in fright. He heard slow, heavy footsteps on the concrete stairs below him. He peered nervously over the railing and saw the shape of a figure several floors below him descending the steps into darkness.
“Er, hello? Hello!” called Thomas timidly. “Excuse me! Can you help?” His shrill voice cracked in the stillness, and echoed down the stairwell, but the figure carried on its slow descent.
Thomas glanced longingly upwards towards the surface. He came to a decision.
He set off down the stairs at a trot, his high-pitched voice echoing as he went.
“Excuse me! Please wait! Can you help me?”
Grace stood nervously in the shadows, watching the last few people leave the church, heading off into the night. Soon there was nothing to break the silence. She looked around. She was in a run-down part of town, with a few boarded-up warehouses to her left and a litter-strewn park opposite. Its iron railings glistened with frost. The orange glow from the open door of the church looked warm and inviting.
Grace walked briskly across the road, her head down and her collar up around her cheeks. She cautiously entered the church, her footsteps making hollow echoes on the stone floor. She sat herself down on the nearest pew and let her gaze drift. The church was empty. A few candles flickered forlornly at the altar, but otherwise all was still.
She looked down at her feet. There was a small package on the floor, tucked beneath the bench. With an anxious look around to check there was no-one in sight, she lent forwards and picked it up, slipping it inside her coat.
“Don't turn around,” came a soft whisper from behind.
Grace's heart skipped a beat, and the hairs on the back of her neck stood on end.
“Did you find them?” she hissed, her eyes wide, still staring straight ahead.
“Take the package,” replied the soft voice. “It's too dangerous to talk now, they're still following you. Keep checking the drop-points, it may be some time before we can meet again.”
“Please, just tell me,” she whispered in desperation. “Did they find Thomas?”
There was no reply, only the forlorn moan of the wind through the open doorway.
“Please,” she croaked. She could bear it no longer, and span around, but the church was empty. She was alone.
She felt the package under her coat. It was small and rectangular, possibly a book or a videotape she thought. She stood, and walked back down the aisle, hurrying out into the night.
Thomas stumbled down the endless steps as fast as he dared in the half-light. His breath steamed and his footsteps echoed loudly in the narrow stairwell.
“Please wait!” he gasped, pausing a moment and leaning heavily upon the handrail. He was dizzy with fatigue and hunger, and his body ached from the exertion. “Please!” he coughed again. But as he peered down into the stairwell he saw that the figure still continued its descent. Thomas had dashed down seven flights now, but each time he looked over the edge he would catch the same glimpse of the dark figure walking two floors below him. He must be carrying a torch thought Thomas, because a faint illumination seemed to cast crazy shadows through the railings. No matter how fast he chased down the steps, the figure would get no nearer, even though Thomas could hear only a slow, steady footfall echoing up to him.
“Please,” he croaked in exhaustion and despair. He slumped down on the cold concrete to catch his breath.
A door slammed below him and the footfalls ceased.
Thomas pulled himself wearily to his feet and set off again, walking cautiously down the steps. He could feel his heartbeat hammering in his ears, and his eyes were wide with fear as he tried to perceive any shapes in the gloom.
Two floors down and the door banged again, making Thomas jump. A sliver of light shone out ahead of him as the door crept open again and then slammed shut in the wind. Thomas forced himself forward and pulled it open. He was in a dimly-lit access tunnel, one of the Array service shafts. A faint orange glow illuminated the exit at the far end, and he tip-toed down, barely daring to breathe. The walls and ceiling were a tangle of pipes and cables, and Thomas was surprised to see a thick layer of dust coating everything. As he moved he kicked up soft plumes of the stuff. He knelt down and picked up a handful; it appeared to be ash.
The man flitted past the far end of the corridor, silhouetted against the orange glow.
“Excuse me!” called Thomas desperately, and staggered off as fast as he was able.
He came out of the tunnel and stopped in his tracks.
He was standing in the Array Hall, the huge structure of the Accelerator Array looming ominously over him. Pipes, conduits and gantries disappeared off into the dark heights way above, but his attention was focused on the Array Chamber.
The confluence of the Accelerator Array, the gateway to the Heavenfield was normally sealed by a thick steel door. But now it stood open, and the orange glow emanated from within.
From out of the Chamber drifted a slow haze of ash. It lay in a thick carpet across the Hall, and hung heavily in the air.
And walking away from Thomas, directly towards the Chamber, was the dark figure.
Thomas felt torn. He was terrified to approach the Chamber, but was desperate to speak to another soul who might be able to help him.
He went to move forward, but he was too afraid. His legs shook and his heart threatened to burst in his chest.
He watched in despair as the figure climbed the steps to the Chamber. Without pausing, the man ducked in through the doorway and was gone.
The orange light died away to nothing, and with it Thomas' last shred of energy left him.
He crumpled to the floor, and drifted into unconsciousness.
I hope you enjoyed this preview of The Dead Man's Feast.