Mist clung to the city like a security blanket, the river a dark gash through a haze of light. Thousands of glowing beads hung in the air as if defying the darkness of space.
Behind one of those lights, Ana moved between benches administering first aid. She was at the shelter where she volunteered three times a week. It was packed. The earlier rain had driven everyone inside, washing the streets and parks clean. Those who hadn’t found a place in one of the numerous squats springing up around the city ended up here in the abandoned church. They squeezed into the pews, fetid steam rising like a storm cloud.
The building was crumbling and wire mesh covered the windows, its oval belly now stuffed with the homeless and desperate. Lines of drying clothes had been strung up between the wooden pillars and several tents nestled against the walls.
Ana dabbed lavender and oregano oil on a dressing and pressed it to the cuts marking a woman’s legs. ‘Hold this in place.’ She waited while the woman placed her shaking fingers over the cotton pad. Ana could feel the woman’s fear skittering inside her like disturbed bats.
Another body had been found, crumpled at the foot of a cliff up the coast. There were rumours that the man had been dead before he hit the rocks. Ana knew the rumours were true, but kept what she could see to herself because she didn’t want to frighten people any more than they already were.
Somebody was killing the homeless. It made no sense. Most of them were starving to death anyway.
‘He used to come here,’ said the woman. ‘What was he doing in Craster? There’s nowt but kippers and kittiwakes up there.’
Ana remembered him. She had tried to fix his broken nose after a fight. He had been a regular at the shelter but no one had seen him in months.
‘Are we safe?’ continued the woman. ‘Here. Would they come here?’
‘I don’t know. Perhaps.’
The woman’s fear intensified. Ana secured the bandage, then gently touched the woman’s cheek and watched the flames of fear sputter out. ‘Help each other,’ she said. ‘You’re stronger together.’
She gathered up her bottles and dressings, stepped over the bodies filling the aisle and mounted the steps to the altar. It was the only part of the church that hadn’t been overrun. A serene Virgin Mary stood at the centre of the stone slab, her face blackened by smoke. She had acquired plastic angel wings that hung from her neck at a wonky angle. A cluster of candles burned at her feet. Mary gazed unblinking into the flames, perhaps waiting for the fire to rise, shred her sapphire robes and curl the paint from her plaster body.
Ana shunted her doctor’s bag to one side and leaned across the altar to straighten the statue’s wings. She gave the solemn figurine an encouraging smile, then dropped her tincture bottles into their compartment and closed the bag.
Anastasia Wilson wasn’t a conventional doctor. She was a herbalist and a healer and had been coming to All Saints since it reopened after the storms. She barely remembered her life before. The old Ana had been vaporised and a serene squatter now gazed at the wreckage of her life through awakened eyes.
Last year the sun had become a dragon, spewing great columns of fire. The earth was hit three times. The first a gentle warning shot, as if translucent wings had enfolded the planet in a protective luminosity.
Then on the cusp of midsummer, emerald and ruby plasma had ripped through the atmosphere as far south as the equator. The earth convulsed like it was under a cosmic defibrillator. Mini quakes shivered through the ground and Britain shook itself like a dog.
By the time the final storm had blown itself out last month, the world had changed, and so had Ana.
She didn’t want people to know what she could do; the way her mind could penetrate reality, seemingly of its own accord, like she was practising a long lost skill. Most people didn’t respond well to the idea of her poking around inside their heads. One-to-one, she could block their thoughts without much effort, but a person was more than their thoughts and she couldn’t block it all.
Not all the time.
She had tried. She had built barricades against others to keep her mind isolated, but it always ended badly. The pain would start small, a slight ache behind her eyes. But if she stayed behind her mental shutters for too long, the pain would increase steadily until she could no longer stand. At Christmas she had managed it for 24 hours before she had collapsed. She had slept for three days and it was a week before she had fully recovered.
Ana closed her eyes and listened to the invisible emotional geometry of other minds as they moved against hers. If she concentrated, she could discern patterns in the noise, follow one thread of thought and find its source. Anxiety hummed through the crowd, a bass note of fear that infected every mind. Except one.
A man was trying to get her attention.
She turned to face the church. The curved wooden pews were filled with people talking in hushed voices. Some warmed their hands on bowls of steaming soup and passed hunks of bread down the line, breaking off a morsel before handing it on. Ana scanned the faces, shadowed by candlelight. Some felt her gaze and glanced up to smile or nod their gratitude.
An old man wormed his way through the crowd towards her. He was wrapped in several coats riddled with holes, his wild hair as deranged as his mind. Ana felt his delirium invade her mental space, forcing itself upon her. A madness of such overwhelming clarity it was almost divine.
There was nothing she could do to help this man. She steadied herself against the altar as he tripped up the shallow steps and stumbled into her arms. The stench of rotting vegetation hit the back of her throat and she tried not to gag.
‘Please,’ she said. ‘Please sit-’
‘It’s you.’ He grinned through his matted beard. ‘I knew you would come.’
Ana took his hand and led him slowly down the steps to the nearest pew, nodding silently. Perhaps if she humoured him, he would let her go. She eased him onto the hard bench. ‘There now. Have you eaten?’
He touched her long blonde hair with trembling fingers. Ana shuddered involuntarily, but allowed him to stroke her hair. Since the storm people wanted to be near her. She seemed to make them strong. Perhaps it was a cruel joke, but she felt more at home with the homeless.
‘You bring the fire?’ said the old man, his eyes searching hers. ‘You, Akhu… Akhu will come.’
She smiled and gently shook her head. ‘It’s Ana.’
He gazed at her intently. ‘I see the star.’
Ana felt lost. She couldn’t understand what she was seeing in his mind. One image dominated: a tattoo of a five-pointed star on a person’s wrist. It looked more like a starfish than a star, and she had seen it before. Her friend, Ethne, had the exact same tattoo. Did this man know her friend?
Without warning, he grabbed her left hand and yanked her forward. She almost fell into his lap, but steadied herself and watched his confusion grow. He ran his filthy fingers over her left wrist, searching for something that evidently wasn’t there. He looked into her face and frowned. ‘Akhu?’
Ethne’s tattoo was on her left wrist. It was an obvious case of mistaken identity, but not even a blind man would confuse Ana with Ethne.
Ana smiled and released herself from his grip. ‘I’ll get you some food.’
She glanced around the church for another helper and waved at the woman dishing up leek and potato soup near the entrance.
Kelly worked at one of the community run City Farms that kept the shelter supplied with vegetables and eggs, and meat when they were lucky. She ladled out a fresh bowl and dispatched it across the church, where it was passed hand to hand until it reached Ana.
The old man’s mind was aglow with shimmering figures and huge carved stones. He mumbled the same word to himself, over and over, like a mantra, ‘Akhu, Akhu, Akhu…’
Ana touched his shoulder to get his attention. She checked the soup wasn’t too hot and then carefully handed it over. He cradled the bowl in his hands and inhaled.
‘Stay here tonight,’ she said. ‘You can get clean, and there might be a better coat for you.’
He gazed up at her like a child. ‘The darkness will fight its extinction.’
Ana smiled. ‘Yes, I’m sure it will.’
‘All is myth,’ he said, and slurped his soup. ‘All is myth.’
Ana felt his mind disengage from hers and she stepped away. She allowed her mind to travel along the pews, gently probing and checking on people as she went. They were all as content as could be expected; it was time for her to leave. She retrieved her doctor’s bag from the altar and squeezed through the crowd to the door.
All Saints stood on the north bank of the river in Newcastle. The north-east city had survived the worst of the storm and the green steel of the Tyne Bridge rose proudly into the sky, lit for the first time in months.
Ana stood at the top of the steps outside the church and peered into the gloom, her breath freezing in the fog. She wrapped her coat tighter and opened her senses to listen. All was still, but then beyond the church she sensed movement: the jumbled fizz of two bored minds.
She walked around the church to the street and found their owners: two men sitting in a black Lexus parked beneath a street lamp. One of them was reading a newspaper, the other played a game on his phone. She listened to the tumble of disjointed thoughts and discovered that the men worked for ARK Security and they were waiting for someone. She told herself it was paranoia to assume they were waiting for her, but made a mental note of the number plate, just in case.
Suddenly, the game playing man glanced up and saw her. Both men panicked when they realised she had been watching them. Fragments of startled thoughts pierced her mind like darts.
It was her. She was Deviant. Dangerous. Call for backup.
Ana hurried past the car into the underpass and forced herself not to run. One of the men had recognised her. Was it a coincidence she had seen them, or were they waiting for her? She could hang around and listen to their thoughts to find out, but it was too risky. She decided not to walk home but to take the Metro instead. She needed to get off the street.
The yellow box of the Metro sign at Monument shone through the fog and Ana sighed in relief. If the light was on it meant the service was running. Few trusted the Metro since the power cuts had begun and only the brave or the foolhardy would risk being stranded underground. Ana was neither. She ran down the steps and through the barriers. It was only two stops, but it was worth it to be safe.
The station was deserted, but she didn’t have to wait long for a train. There were two other passengers: a lad in a hood sat near the doors listening to music on his headphones, and opposite was a girl reading a paperback. Ana listened in on the story to distract herself from thinking about the men in the car. It was a tale of doomed love in a dystopian world. The girl was enjoying it, but the story filled Ana with an aching sadness she didn’t understand. She shut off the connection and listened instead to the clack of the train on the tracks.
The train slowed and pulled in at Manors station. The girl tucked the paperback into her jacket and stepped off the train. Ana watched her disappear up the escalator. On the platform, the lights began to flicker and a pigeon strutted towards the train. The speaker above Ana’s head crackled, ‘Stand clear of the doors.’ With one hop, the pigeon boarded the train just as the doors hissed shut.
Ana peered down the carriage. The pigeon was trotting towards the lad in the hood. The lights flickered and Ana glanced up in frustration. When she looked back, the pigeon had vanished.
In its place stood a dazzling woman with spiky hair and dove-shaped earrings. Her skin appeared to glow with its own luminescence. She wobbled forward and sat opposite the boy, who hadn’t noticed his new companion. The woman watched him for a moment, and then pulled the headphones from his ears.
Brutal beats cascaded into the train and the boy hurried to switch it off. The woman smiled, took his hand and kissed the inside of his left wrist with great reverence and affection. They conferred quietly and the boy nodded eagerly. The lights flickered again, and determined not to miss anything, Ana watched intently. The train jolted and shuddered as it rounded a corner and the lights blinked off. When they came back on, Ana was alone.
She stood, swaying as the train clattered onwards, and walked down the carriage. She searched beneath the seats for the missing passengers and felt foolish. Perhaps she was losing her mind. Pigeons don’t generally turn into strange glowing women and then vanish. Just as the train pulled into Byker station, Ana noticed something on the seat where the woman had been sitting.
A single white feather.
She picked it up to stroke its soft edges and was so transfixed she almost missed her stop. She tucked the feather into her pocket and ran up the escalator.
Ana reached the street and checked her phone. She had missed a call from Ethne and a text from Michael. She hurried through the derelict shopping centre towards the main road, past shuttered shops and heaps of rotten garbage, and opened Michael’s text.
‘Bring E when U come home. Got a surprise 4U.’
‘I’ve had enough surprises for today, thanks Mickey,’ she muttered under her breath while broadcasting the thought to Michael. She heard her friend chuckle in reply and decided Ethne’s message could wait.
Ana turned to cross the road beside a pile of bin bags and rubbish and then froze. A man’s foot protruded from beneath a cardboard box.
She glanced up and down the deserted street and then extended her mind, searching for the man’s mental signature. She found nothing. She approached the body and carefully removed one of the bags to reveal his face. She didn’t need to check for a pulse to know the man was dead.
Leaning closer, she could see something wasn’t right. His clothes were ragged but his fingernails were clean. He looked well fed and his hair had been recently cut. She lifted his shirt and pushed back a sleeve and wasn’t surprised to see that he was clean under the rags.
This man wasn’t homeless.
She was about to stand when she noticed markings on the man’s arm: a line of tiny puncture wounds. The body found on the rocks at Craster had the same marks. She shone her phone torch on them to get a closer look.
Ana shuddered and straightened up. This was another unexplained, and inexplicable, death.
On the edge of her awareness she picked up two minds coming her way. She glanced around, trying to appear casual, but her heart was pounding in her chest. The voices were familiar. She could hear them as clearly as if they were standing right beside her. She hurried away from the abandoned body and crossed the road.
Further up the street, a black Lexus hugged the kerb. She checked the number plate through the glare of the headlamps. It was the same car.
ARK was following her.
She got her keys out of her pocket and doubled her pace, listening to the men argue. Neither of them wanted to be there. They weren’t stupid, they assured each other. They knew what had happened, they had worked it out. There had been no storms that day.
Ana began to run.
Next: Chapter Two
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