Previous: Chapter One
Ethne Godwin was standing outside her therapy practice in China Town, watching the festivities. Red lanterns lined the street, glowing like underworld embers, while sulphur from the New Year firecrackers lingered in the fog. A red and gold arch loomed from the haze, festooned with dragons and flanked by stone lions.
The curfew had been lifted and the street was filling with people. Nobody would be rushing home tonight and the bars would soon be crowded with revellers celebrating the simple pleasure of going for a drink without worrying about being struck by lightning. Or getting caught in a riot.
A gang of men staggered down the middle of the road, arms linked, shouting half-remembered lyrics, all vowels and barely suppressed aggression. Ethne watched them approach and groaned. It was getting rowdy and the last thing she needed was some drunk eejit stumbling in and demanding a massage with a happy ending.
She looked at her watch; Ana should have been back by now. She dropped the latch on the door and ran upstairs to the reception. She checked her mobile as she crossed to the desk and woke the computer. No messages, no emails.
Ethne glowered at the damp patch spreading above the window. She knew Ana would pull a stunt like this. She spent more time at that homeless shelter than she did running her business. The tax return had to be in by the end of the week and Ana had promised to help. Not that Ethne needed help, but this was supposed to be a partnership.
She picked up her phone and dialled. It went to voicemail.
‘Where are you? And don’t call me back to tell me how much they need you. At this rate we won’t be in business anymore and you can give as many treatments away for free as you like.’ She paused and closed her eyes. ‘Sorry. I’m just…I’m locking up in half an hour. We’ll do the accounts tomorrow. Call me.’
She sat at the computer and opened the CogNet search page to check the job bulletins. This summer it would be four years since she had graduated and she still hadn’t found a decent job. At least, not one she could keep. Setting up Heaven Scent with Ana had been the perfect solution. The business had kept them both off the Work Farms and had given them a steady income. Until her friend had turned into Mother Teresa.
Ethne was a masseuse, while Ana provided aromatherapy and herbal remedies alongside her newly acquired skills. This meant that in the last few months, all the clients had wanted to see Ana; Ethne was the booby prize. She told herself it was because Ana was a soft touch, but there was more to it than that. Ana’s mere presence was healing. Ethne didn’t look like she could heal a paper cut. With her nose rings, tattoos, and kohl-darkened eyes, Ethne looked like trouble.
She was an overqualified, over-indebted linguist stuck in two tiny rooms above the Peking Duck watching the paint peel from the walls. Perhaps she would be a masseuse for the rest of her life. The thought made her bilious. The world was falling apart and all she did was give backrubs. Making people feel better was Ana’s department. Ethne wanted to do something with her life, something real, something that would change things. But as far as she could see, there would be no future, just a laborious disintegration.
She was surprised by how dull the end of the world was turning out. The apocalypse seemed so dramatic on TV.
She couldn’t discuss the future with Ana, not since she had changed. The last time, Ana had been following her around Golden Harvest watching Ethne fill her basket with tins of anaemic vegetables and deformed frozen fish. Not everybody was happy to shop in the Chinese version of Tesco, but Golden Harvest was the only supermarket left after the economy had gone under last year.
‘All I’m saying is we need to rethink,’ said Ethne, reaching for a carton of long-life milk. ‘And maybe relocate. We can’t compete with deer penis.’
Ana shrugged. ‘Tell me what you want me to do.’
Ethne tucked a stray lock of her raven black bob behind an ear and stomped towards the yoghurts. ‘I want you to stop being so bloody nice. Compassion is good. I get that. But it doesn’t pay the rent.’
‘So we should turn people away if they’re poor?’
‘Yes,’ said Ethne. ‘We’re not the NHS.’
‘Neither is the NHS. Not anymore.’
Ethne spun to face her friend. She didn’t want to get into a screaming match in the dairy aisle but couldn’t stop herself. ‘Has it ever occurred to you that people lie? That they’re not actually struggling as much as they claim?’
She knew Ana could read their minds, but that was no excuse as far as she was concerned. Talking to Ana these days was like talking to an especially compassionate brick wall. She continued regardless. ‘They come in with their new handbags, their new hairdos and their new shoes, and they give you a sob story about the roof coming in or the boiler packing in or their fucking dog dying, and you-’
‘I hear you, Ethne.’
Ana shrugged. ‘I want to help.’
‘So do I,’ said Ethne. ‘But I don’t want to starve to death in the process.’
She had often joked that if she didn’t find a proper job she would be forced to sell her own organs. But then she had discovered it was an actual thing people did and it wasn’t funny anymore.
There was a simple solution to the lack of cash but she didn’t want to take it. She wondered how bad things would get before she relented and swallowed her pride.
Ethne gave up on the job search and shut down the computer. She pulled on her leather jacket, checked the lights were off in the therapy room, then crossed reception to the battered sofa by the door and bent to switch off the water fountain on the coffee table. Nothing happened. Water trickled over the dolphin’s back and down the pile of stones to the pool at its base. She didn’t know why she had switched it on in the first place. It was supposed to be calming, but the stupid thing made her desperate for a pee. She wanted rid of it, but Ana liked it, so there it stayed.
She hit the button again. It had been playing up since Christmas, probably a dodgy connection. She gave the fountain an aggressive shake and slopped water over the side. ‘Shit.’
Her phone buzzed. It was Ana.
‘Hey, where are you?’ She hit the button again and the fountain stopped. There was a long silence on the other end of the phone. It sounded like Ana was out of breath. ‘Are you having an aneurism?’
‘Can you come over?’ said Ana. ‘And bring some food.’
* * *
Ethne was walking across the Byker Bridge when the street lights went out. A wave of darkness rippled through the city, followed by a collective groan. Another blackout. She switched on her torch. Everybody carried one these days; the torch was the new umbrella. Better to have one and not need it than be caught in the dark without a source of light.
Before leaving China Town she had picked up a takeaway and the rich aroma was making her stomach growl. She lodged the torch under her arm and snaffled a handful of prawn crackers.
Despite the blackout she could see her destination from the bridge. Ana and Michael lived in a flat at the top of a high-rise in Byker. A faint glow radiated from the window and fairy lights sparkled around the balcony. Michael had built a wind turbine when the power had gone down last year and was now experimenting with other devices. He wanted to generate enough electricity to run the whole building. Unfortunately for Ethne, he had not yet succeeded.
She dragged herself up fifteen floors to find Michael waiting in the darkened hallway. A candle threw deep shadows over his mahogany skin.
‘You got in okay?’ he said.
‘Someone propped the door open. Very considerate. Was that you?’
He nodded and grinned, teeth flashing between dimples in the candlelight. ‘Is that Chinese I smell?’
‘I ate the prawn crackers,’ said Ethne. ‘Fuel for the climb.’
‘My poor baby.’ He ushered her into the warmth of the flat. ‘I’ll get the plates, or are we going to be savages and eat straight from the trough?’
‘I’m hungry enough to eat the plates,’ said Ethne, following him into the cramped kitchen. ‘So, what’s with the summons?’
‘It’s a surprise,’ said Michael, laying out plates on the worktop.
Ana appeared and slipped her arms around his pudgy waist. ‘He’s being mysterious and it’s extremely annoying.’
‘No change there then,’ said Ethne, piling noodles onto the plates. She glanced over her shoulder at Ana. ‘Did you check your messages? Cos you probably shouldn’t, I was just shooting my gob off, and-’
‘As if you ever do anything else,’ said Michael, picking up a plate of chow mien and grabbing a fork.
Ana smiled, took a plate and retreated into the living room. She folded herself into an armchair and rested her plate on her legs.
Michael settled on the sofa beside the coffee table. ‘Now you’re both here, I want to show you something.’
Ethne perched on the other armchair, her plate on her knees. ‘Really, Mickey, don’t you have boyfriends for that kind of thing?’ She began knotting noodles onto her fork. ‘At least let us finish dinner first.’
Michael stuck out his tongue. Ethne picked up a cushion and slung it at him across the table. She had aimed for his head, but it never got there. Instead, the cushion veered away and hung in the air between them, suspended over the table. After a moment, it began to gyrate and twirl until they were both giggling like five year olds.
Ana averted her eyes. ‘It’s not a party trick, Michael.’
The cushion crash-landed on the table and toppled a pile of CDs onto the floor. Michael shot Ana an apologetic smile and their eyes locked.
Ethne knew they were communicating silently and watched them with a puzzled respect. They had met at university while Ethne was giving massages in the student union bar in exchange for beer. Ana had admired Ethne’s numerous tattoos, especially the star on her wrist. Thinking she had found a fellow enthusiast, Ethne had taken her to the tattooist to witness the addition of a soaring eagle across her shoulders, but Ana had almost fainted. Michael had come to the rescue and it hadn’t taken Ethne long to realise her new friends were inseparable. If you were friends with Ana, you were friends with Michael: two for the price of one.
Then seven months ago the sun had spewed charged particles into the atmosphere and transformed her friends. They could read minds, move objects with thought, and heal people.
Michael had recorded the development of their new abilities, and once the power grid was back up had posted the videos on his CogNet channel. The Okeke Gospel had gone viral within days and Michael had become an official Plasma Pundit. His films catalogued everything from the aurora streaming overhead, to the personal and social aftermath. Ethne had driven him around on her motorbike while he hung off the back and filmed the looting, rioting and general mayhem. She was amazed they were never attacked. Michael seemed to possess a protective aura and they had always emerged unscathed.
She cleared her throat. ‘It’s rude to talk behind people’s backs.’
‘Sorry,’ said Ana and Michael in unison.
Ethne stared at her noodles and waited for normality to reassert itself. ‘So. I’m guessing. Have you made a new film?’
Michael grinned and put his plate on the table. He reached for his laptop and switched it on. ‘Not bad for a Homo sapiens.’
‘I try,’ she shrugged. ‘Hang on. Are you saying you’re not a sap anymore?’
‘Patience,’ he said. ‘The Okeke Gospel will explain all. Meantime, Ana has something to ask you.’
Ana hastily swallowed a mouthful of noodles and shook her head. ‘It’s nothing. He’s probably just crazy.’
‘But what if he isn’t?’ said Michael. ‘Can’t hurt to ask.’
Ethne sighed. ‘What could I possibly know that you two geniuses don’t?’
‘You’re a Neolithic geek,’ said Michael.
‘That’s what I said.’ He winked. ‘It’s an important puzzle piece, Ana.’
Ana looked at him doubtfully and then shrugged. ‘Okay. I met a man today who thought I was you. At least, that’s what I think was going on. It was hard to tell. Can you show me your left wrist?’
Ethne shoved her jacket sleeve up to reveal her star tattoo. Ana gazed at it for an age and then nodded decisively.
‘That’s what I saw in his mind,’ she said. ‘As clear as you sitting here right now. He kept saying a word, sounded like a sneeze, like Akoo. Akoo.’
‘That’s what this is called,’ said Ethne, tapping her wrist. ‘It’s an Egyptian star that represents the Akhu, A-K-H-U. In the ancient Egyptian religion, the akh was the spirit, the immortal part of your being. Akhu is the plural form, usually translated as shining ones. They were the ancestors, the ones who civilised us, taught us writing, metallurgy, plant medicine, that kind of thing. There are similar myths in other cultures. What exactly did this man say?’
Ana and Michael exchanged a glance.
‘What?’ said Ethne. ‘For the love of-’
‘He said the Akhu would come,’ said Ana quickly. ‘And he wanted to know if I had brought the fire. Does that mean anything to you?’
‘They could come, I suppose,’ said Ethne. ‘I mean, Egyptian civilisation was based on the idea that the pharaoh was a reincarnation of the god Horus. He just kept coming back in different bodies. Like cosmic recycling. The whole point of their religion was to prepare you for death so you could return to the imperishable stars where the gods live, the Shining Ones.’
‘So it could mean something?’ said Ana.
‘Or it could be the ramblings of a crazy person,’ said Ethne. ‘Then again, there is a legend about a Fire Stone in Egyptian mythology. It was kept in the Mansion of the Phoenix and had names like the benben or the Great Lotus. A mythical serpent was said to have laid it on the Island of the Egg. Might have been a meteorite, but it’s never been found. It’s a metaphor, obviously, not real. A creation myth about rebirth and regeneration.’
Michael grinned at Ana. ‘He thought you were an Akhu and that you’d brought the fire. Sounds reasonable to me. It’ll make sense when you see my new masterpiece.’ The laptop hooked into the Wi-Fi and he opened CogNet.
Ana sat forward and stared at the computer as if it might explode. ‘You promised no more films.’
‘This one’s different,’ said Michael.
‘You’ve already uploaded it?’
Michael frowned at the screen. ‘I thought I did.’ His fingers flew over the keyboard, searching for the video. ‘It’s not here.’
‘Why did they take it down?’ said Ana.
‘You didn’t upload another film of your arse by mistake, did you?’ said Ethne, trying to diffuse the tension.
‘I’m serious, it’s gone. I only uploaded it this morning.’
Ana put her plate on the table and stood. ‘What was it about?’
‘Evolution,’ said Michael. ‘You need to see it, Ana. You both do. ARK call us Deviants but they’re wrong. We’re going back to the way we’re supposed to be. Niloufer showed me. He said it would help if I shared it. I don’t understand why they would take it down. I didn’t mention the angels or Linnunrata directly.’
Ethne could feel the conversation getting away from her. Michael appeared to be talking nonsense. ‘Who took it down?’
Before he could answer a riot of banging shook the front door.
Ana and Michael exchanged a glance, and then spoke in unison. ‘ARK.’ Michael tripped the switch on his power generator, plunging the flat into darkness and knocking out the computer. He found Ana and took her hands.
‘What about you?’ she said.
‘Ask Beatrice to take you to Linnunrata.’
‘You saw her today,’ said Michael. ‘On the Metro.’
‘I can see a blank bit in your mind. What are you not telling me?’
‘I can’t show you, Ana. You have to trust me. Hide. Find Beatrice. Go to Linnunrata.’
‘Please, Mickey. What’s going on?’
Another burst of violent knocking rattled the letterbox.
‘Erm, guys?’ said Ethne. ‘You can argue about who knows what later. Right now there’s a big bad wolf outside who wants in.’
Michael spun Ana towards the window. ‘I won’t let them take you.’
Ana retreated reluctantly onto the balcony.
‘You too Ethne,’ said Michael.
She shook her head. ‘I’m not like you. They’re not interested in me.’ She shone her torch around the room looking for weapons. The only likely objects were items of furniture, everything else was too flimsy or breakable. She didn’t want to smash her way through Michael’s entire lamp collection or break her torch. Then again, she didn’t want to answer the door from behind a raised dining chair either. She wasn’t a lion tamer.
A thud cracked against the door and the frame creaked. They were going to kick their way in.
Ethne secreted her keys in her fist and moved closer to Michael. In a fluid motion, he lunged for the door and sprung it open. A huge man fell forward and landed at Ethne’s feet. Another man blocked the doorway. He raised a handheld device, like a large iPhone, and pointed it at Michael.
‘Michael Okeke,’ confirmed the rugged face behind the device. He was dressed in black fatigues bearing the ARK insignia: red letters over a blue green earth. His taller companion had recovered and looked entirely carved from granite. Neither of them looked friendly.
Rugged pointed his device at Ethne and waited. There was no beep. Standing behind him, Granite pulled a stun gun from its holster.
‘You need to come with us, Mr Okeke,’ said Rugged.
‘Why?’ said Ethne. ‘You can’t just-’
Granite lunged forward and thrust the gun into Michael’s ribs. He convulsed violently and staggered back like he had pulled every muscle in his body. He fell to the floor, fighting against the electricity running through his system.
Ethne jumped on Granite and slammed her fists into his back. It was like punching a padded wall. Using her keys, she jabbed a volley of stabs into his ribs. He didn’t even flinch.
Strong fingers gripped her neck and pulled. Rugged yanked Ethne backwards and spun her away. She almost went down but corrected her balance and spun back to crack Rugged across the jaw with her keys.
Michael was recovering. He rolled to his feet, struggling for breath, and watched with pride as Ethne kicked and spat, lashing out wildly against both men. With her kohl-lined eyes and elaborate piercings she looked like an enraged Egyptian princess, in jeans.
Granite pulled his hand back, the stun gun raised and aimed at Ethne. While she wondered if being electrocuted would make her incontinent, Michael saw what was coming. He tried to shout a warning, but could only cough and wheeze.
The gun slammed into the side of Ethne’s head and she fell to the floor, unconscious.
‘Leave her alone,’ said Michael, between gasps. ‘She’s not-’ Another shock burned through his body.
Granite holstered the gun with a satisfied grunt. He pulled Michael into an armlock, and pain seared across his shoulders. ‘Sorry about your girlfriend,’ he said into Michael’s ear. He didn’t sound sorry.
‘Anyone else here?’ said Rugged, scanning the dark flat.
Michael shook his head, not trusting himself to speak.
‘I have a team downstairs that thinks otherwise,’ said Rugged, switching on his torch. He disappeared into the hall.
Michael listened to him searching the other rooms, opening cupboards and slamming doors. He reappeared and shone his torch over the balcony door. It was ajar.
Michael’s heart felt tight in his chest. ‘There’s nothing out there,’ he said, hoping his fear didn’t show. Whatever happened to him, they couldn’t find Ana. He had to keep her safe. He had made a promise.
‘She went out,’ he said more confidently. ‘They must’ve missed her.’
Rugged crossed to the balcony door and stepped out, then immediately stepped back. A pigeon flapped at his face like it was trying to rip out his eyes. He swotted at it blindly and stumbled into the coffee table, landing in an explosion of splinters. The pigeon circled the room then fluttered to the balcony and away into the moonlight.
Michael suppressed a smile.
‘Stupid damn bird.’ Rugged clambered to his feet. ‘We’ll pick her up when she comes home.’
‘Get the stuff,’ said Granite. He nudged Ethne’s inert form with his boot. ‘Should we take Queen Nefertiti too?’
Rugged retrieved Michael’s laptop from the wreckage of the coffee table then crossed to the desk. He ran his torch over papers and books, and then flashed the light in Michael’s eyes, making him wince. ‘Computer back ups?’
‘In the cloud,’ said Michael.
‘Nobody uses that piece of shit anymore.’
Michael thought quickly. Since the networks went down last year, most people relied on physical back ups. You never knew when the power would go off and nobody wanted to lose their stuff. Retro was the new future.
Michael wanted Ana to see the film. She needed to see it. If ARK took his discs she would be in the dark.
‘In the kitchen,’ he said. ‘Flash drive. On top of the fridge.’
Rugged disappeared into the kitchen and emerged holding a slim metal box. ‘This it?’
Michael nodded and pretended to look suitably crestfallen.
Rugged strode from the flat. Granite followed, pushing Michael in front of him. ‘What about Cleopatra?’
‘Not a Deviant,’ said Rugged. ‘Not my problem.’
* * *
On the balcony, Ana pressed herself into the corner furthest from the door. The pigeon had saved her. It landed on the handrail and began to pick its way over the fairy lights towards her, cooing and twirling as it came. She watched its solitary dance and the final piece of the puzzle locked into place.
Before Christmas, Michael had vanished from this balcony. He had stepped outside to check the lights and she hadn’t seen him for two weeks.
Now she knew how.
She closed her eyes and found his mental signature and followed his progress down the stairs. If she could keep her mind connected with his, she would know where they were taking him.
The men pushed him into the back of a transit van parked outside the tower block. Granite rammed a black hood over his head, and his vision clouded.
Ana could feel Michael reaching out with his other senses, trembling as he listened to the men moving around. For a flash, she caught a glimpse of something that didn’t make sense.
Michael had seen this coming. He knew ARK would take him when he posted his video. It was almost as if he had done it deliberately. Ana couldn’t understand why he would make himself into a target so willingly.
She stayed close to him, mentally holding his hand and pouring all the reassurance she could into his heart. She spoke directly into his mind, ‘I won’t leave you, Mickey. D’you hear me?’
Before he could answer, a sharp pain bloomed in his arm and oblivion rose to take him. He was gone. Ana could no longer see him.
Next: Chapter Three
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