• Darkest Hour

    Book Description
    The Eternal Conflict between the Light and the Dark once again blackens the skies and blights the land. On one side: the Tuatha De Danaan, golden-skinned and beautiful, filled with the might of the angels. On the other: the Fomorii, monstrous devils hellbent on destroying all human existence. In the middle: five Brothers and Sisters of Dragons, determined to use the strange power that binds them to the land in a last, desperate attempt to save the human race.
    Published by Gollancz (2000) & Pyr (2009)

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    Extract

    MAY 2, 8am; above the English Channel.

    “SOMEBODY must have some idea what’s going on.” Justin Fallow fiddled uncomfortably with the miniature spirit bottles on his tray as he watched the dismal expressions sported by the air hostesses. It was amazing how little fluctuations in the smooth-running of life were more disturbing than the big shocks. Those looks were enough to tell him something fundamental had changed; he had never seen any of them without those perfectly balanced smiles of pearly teeth contained by glossy red lipstick.
    “I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Everything will be back to normal in a few days.” Colin Irvine stared vacuously out of the window at the fluffy white clouds. The reflection showed a craggy face and hollow cheeks that seemed older than his years. The trip to Paris had been better than expected; the business side tied up quickly, then two days of good food and fine wine, and one brisk night at a brothel. His head still felt fuzzy from the over-indulgence and he would be happier if Justin shut up at least once before the plane landed.

    “Well, I wish I had your optimism.” Fallow’s public school accent was blurred by the alcohol and he was talking too loudly. He flicked back the fringe that kept falling over his eyes and snapped his chubby fingers to attract one of the hostess’ attention. “Over here, please. Another vodka.”

    “I like a drink as much as the next man, but I don’t know how you can get through that lot at breakfast,” Irvine said without taking his gaze away from the clouds.

    Fallow slapped his belly. “Constitution of a horse, old chap.” When the vodka arrived, he brushed the plastic glass to one side and gulped it straight from the bottle.

    “Steady on, eh?” Irvine allowed himself a glance of distaste.

    “But what if it isn’t going to be sorted out in a few days?” Fallow drummed his fingers anxiously on the tray. “You know, we have no idea what’s going on so how can we say? A sudden announcement that all air traffic is going to be grounded indefinitely doesn’t exactly fill one with confidence, if you know what I mean. Now that sounds serious.”

    “We were lucky to get the last flight out.”

    “I mean, the country could be on its knees in days! How will business survive?” His startled expression suggested he had only just grasped the implications of his train of thought. “Never mind your bog standard business traveller who has to get around for meetings – they can muddle through with a few netcasts and conference calls in the short term. But what about export-import? The whole of the global economy relies on–”

    “You don’t have to tell me, Justin.”

    “You can sit there being sniffy about it, but have you thought about what it means–”

    “It means we won’t be able to get any bananas in the shops for a while and international mail will be a bastard. Thank God for the internet.”

    “I still think there’s more to it than you think. To take such a drastic step… Trouble is, you can’t trust those bastards in the Government to tell you anything important, whatever political stripe they are. Look at the mad cow thing. It’s a wonder we’re not all running around goggle-eyed, slavering at the mouth.”

    “You obviously didn’t look in the mirror last night–”

    “This isn’t funny. Go on, tell me why you’re so calm. What could cause something like this?”

    “Let me see, Justin.” Irvine began counting off his fingers. “An impending strike by all international air traffic control which we haven’t been informed about for fear it causes a panic. You know how much pressure they’ve been under recently with the increase in the volume of flights. Or some virus has been loaded into the ATC system software. Or the Global Positioning Satellite has been hit by a meteorite so all the pilots are flying blind. Or all those intermittent power failures we’ve had recently have made it too risky until they find the cause. Or they’ve finally discovered that design glitch that’s had planes dropping out of the skies like flies over the last few years.”

    “I’d rather we didn’t talk about this now, Colin.”

    “Well, you started it.”

    Justin sucked on his lower lip like a petulant schoolboy and then began to line up the miniature bottles in opposing forces. “I suppose all the hostesses are worried they might be out of work,” he mused.

    A crackle over the Tannoy heralded an announcement. “This is your captain speaking. We anticipate arrival in Gatwick on schedule in twenty minutes. There may be a slight delay on the–” There was a sudden pause, a muffled voice in the background, and then the Tannoy snapped off.

    Fallow looked up suspiciously. “Now what’s going on?”

    “Will you calm down. Just because you’re afraid of the worst happening doesn’t mean it’s going to.”

    “And just because you’re not afraid doesn’t mean it isn’t.” Fallow shifted in his seat uncomfortably, then glanced up and down the aisle.

    What he saw baffled him at first. It was as if a ripple was moving down the plane towards him. The faces of the passengers glancing out of the starboard side were changing, the blank expressions of people watching nothing in particular shedding one after the other as if it had been choreographed. In that first fleeting instant of confusion, Fallow tried to read those countenances: was it shock, dismay, wonder? Was it horror?

    And then he abruptly thought he should be searching for the source of whatever emotion it was. Before he had time to look, the plane banked wildly and dropped; his stomach was left behind and for one moment he thought he was going to vomit. But then the fear took over and it was as if his body was locked in stasis as he gripped the armrests until his knuckles were white and forced his head into the seat. Screams filled the air, but they seemed distant, as though they were coming at him through water, and then he was obliquely aware he was screaming himself.

    The plane was plummeting down so sharply vibrations were juddering through the whole fuselage and when it banked again at the last minute, the evasive action seemed so extreme Fallow feared the wings would be torn off. Then, bizarrely, the plane was soaring up at an angle that was just as acute. Fallow was pressed back into his seat until he felt he was on the verge of blacking out.

    “It can’t take much more of this punishment,” he choked.

    Just as he was about to prepare himself for the whole plane coming apart in mid-air, it levelled off. Fallow burst out laughing in relief, then raged, “What the fuck was that all about?”

    Irvine pitched forward and threw up over the back of the seat in front; he tried to get his hand up to his mouth, but that only splattered the vomit over a wider area. Fallow cursed in disgust, but the trembling that racked his body didn’t allow him to say any more.

    One of the air hostesses bolted from the cabin, leaving the door swinging so Fallow could see the array of instrumentation blinking away. She pushed her way up to a window, then exclaimed, “My God! He was right!”

    The whole plane turned as one. Fallow looked passed Irvine’s white, shaking face into the vast expanse of blue sky. The snowy clouds rolled and fluffed like meringue, but beyond that he could see nothing. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he noticed a shadow moving across the field of white. At first he wondered if they had narrowly avoided a collision with another plane, but the shadow seemed too long and thin and appeared to have a life of its own. There was a sound like a jet taking off and then the colour of the clouds transformed to red and gold. A belch of black smoke was driven past the window.

    Fallow rammed Irvine back in his seat and craned his neck to search the sky. Beside and slightly below the plane, flying fast enough to surpass it with apparent ease, was something which conjured images from books he had read in the nursery. Part of it resembed a bird and part a serpent: scales glinted like metal in the morning sun on a body that rippled with both power and sinuous agility while enormous wings lazily stroked the air. Colours shimmered across its surface as the light danced, reds, golds, and greens, so that it resembled some vast, brass robot imagined by a Victorian fantasist. Boned ridges and horns rimmed its skull above red eyes; one swivelled and fixed on Fallow. A second later the creature roared its mouth wide and belched fire; it seemed more a natural display, like a peacock’s plumage, than an attack, but all the passengers drew back from the window as one. Then, with a twist that defied its size, it snaked up and over the top of the fuselage and down the other side.

    Shock and fear swept through the plane, but it dissipated with a speed that surprised everyone. Instead, everyone seemed to be holding their breath. Fallow looked around and was astonished to see faces that had earlier been scarred with cynicism or bland with dull routine were suddenly alight; to a man or woman, they all looked like children. Even the air hostesses were smiling.

    Then the atmosphere was broken by a cry from the aft: “Look! There’s another one!”

    In the distance, Fallow saw a second creature dipping in and out of the clouds as if it were skimming the surface of the sea.

    Fallow slumped back in his seat and looked at Irvine coldly. “Everything will be back to normal in a few days,” he mocked in a sing-song, playground voice.

    MAY 2, 11am; Dounreay Nuclear Power Station, Scotland.

    “I just don’t know what they expect of us!” Dick McShay said frustratedly. He threw his pen at the desk, then realised how pathetic the act appeared. At 41, he had expected a nice, easy career with BNFL, overseeing the decommissioning of the plant that would stretch long beyond his life span; a holding job, no pressures apart from preventing the media discovering information about the decades of contamination, leaks and near-disasters. Definitely no crises. He fixed his grey eyes on his 2-I-C, Nelson, who looked distinctly uncomfortable. “I have no desire to shoot the messenger, William, but really, give me an answer.”

    Nelson, who was four years McShay’s junior, a little more stylish but without any of his charisma, sucked on his bottom lip for a second; an irritating habit. “What they want to do,” he began cautiously, “is make sure most of Scotland isn’t irradiated in the next few weeks. I don’t mean to sound glib,” he added hastily, “but that’s the bottom line. It’s these power failures–”

    McShay sighed, shook his head. “Not just power, William, technology. There’s no point denying it. Mechanical processes have been hit just as much. I mean, who can explain something like that? If I were superstitious…” He paused. “…I’d still have a hard time explaining it. The near-misses we’ve had over the last few weeks…” He didn’t need to go into detail; Nelson had been there too during the crazed panics when they all thought they were going to die, the cooling system shut-downs, the fail-safe failures that were beyond anyone’s comprehension; yet every time it had stopped just before the whole place had gone sky-high. He couldn’t tell if they were jinxed or lucky, but he felt like it had made an old man of him.

    “So we shut down–”

    “Yes, but don’t they realise it’s not like flicking off a switch? That schedule is just crazy. Even cutting corners, we couldn’t do it.”

    “They’re desperate.”

    “And I don’t like them being around either.” He glanced aggressively through the glass walls that surrounded his office. Positioned around the room beyond were Special Forces operatives, faces masked by smoked plexiglass visors, guns held at the ready across their chests; their immobility and impersonality made them seem inhuman, mystical statues waiting to be brought to life by sorcery. They had arrived with the dawn, slipping into the vital areas as if they knew the station intimately which, of course, they did, although they had never been there before.

    For support, they said. Not, To guard. Not, To enforce.

    “All vital installations are under guard, Dick. So they say. It’s all supposed to be hush-hush–”

    “Then how do you know?”

    Nelson smirked in reply. Then: “We might as well just ignore them. It’s their job, all that Defence of the Realm stuff.”

    “What are they going to do if we don’t meet the deadline? Shoot us?”

    Nelson’s expression suggested he thought this wasn’t beyond the bounds of possibility.

    “I just never expected to be doing my job at gunpoint. If the powers that be don’t trust us, why should we trust them?”

    “Desperate times, Dick.”

    McShay looked at Nelson suspiciously. “I hope you’re on our side, William.”

    Nelson shrugged curiously. “There aren’t any sides, are there?”

    A rotating red light suddenly began whirling in the room outside, intermittently bathing them in a hellish glow. A droning alarm pitched at an irritating level filled the complex. The Special Forces troops were instantly on the move.

    “Shit!” McShay closed his eyes in irritation; it was a breach of a security zone. “What the fuck is it now?”

    Nelson was already on the phone. As he listened, McShay watched incomprehension flicker across his face.

    “Give me the damage,” McShay said wearily when Nelson replaced the phone.

    Nelson stared at him blankly for a moment before he said, “There’s an intruder–”

    “I know! It’s the fucking intruder alarm!”

    “–in the reactor core.”

    McShay returned the blank stare and then replied, “You’re insane.” He picked up the phone and listened to the stuttering report before running out of the room with Nelson close behind him.

    The inherent farcical nature of a group of over-armed troops pointing their guns at the door to an area where no human could possibly survive wasn’t lost on McShay, but the techies remained convinced someone was inside. He pushed his way past the troops on the perimeter to the control array where Rex Moulding looked about as uncomfortable as any man could get.

    Moulding motioned to the soldiers as McShay approached. “What are this lot doing here? This isn’t a military establishment.”

    McShay brushed his question aside with an irritated flap of his hand. “You’re a month late for practical jokes, Rex.”

    “It’s no joke. Look here.” Moulding pointed to the bank of monitors.

    McShay examined each screen in turn. They showed various views of the most secure and dangerous areas around the reactor. “There’s nothing there,” he said eventually.

    “Keep watching.”

    McShay sighed and attempted to maintain his vigilance. A second later a blur flashed across one of the screens. “What’s that?”

    The fogginess flickered on one of the other screens. “It’s almost like the cameras can’t get a lock on it,” Moulding noted.

    “What do you mean?”

    There was a long pause. “I don’t know what I mean.”

    “Is it a glitch?”

    “No, there’s definitely someone in there. You can hear the noises it makes through the walls.”

    McShay’s expression dared Moulding not to say the wrong thing. “It?”

    Moulding winced. “Bob Pruett claims to have seen it before it went in there–”

    “Where is he?” McShay snapped.

    As he glanced around irritatedly, a thick-set man in his fifties wearing a sheepish expression pushed his way through the military.

    “Well?” McShay said uncompromisingly.

    “I saw it,” Pruett replied in a thick Scots drawl. He looked at Moulding for support.

    “You better tell him,” Moulding said.

    “Look, I know this sounds bloody ridiculous, but it’s what I saw. It had antlers coming out like this.” He spread his fingers on either side of his head; McShay looked at him as if he had gone insane. “But it was a man. I mean, it walked like a man. It looked like a man – two arms, two legs. But it’s face didn’t look human, know what I mean? It had red eyes. And fur, or leaves–”

    “Which one?”

    “What do you mean?”

    “Fur, or leaves. Which one?”

    “Well, both. They looked like they were growing out of each other, all over its body.”

    McShay searched Pruett’s face and felt uncomfortable when he saw no sign of contrition; in fact, there was shock and disbelief there and that made him feel worse. Before he could make head or tail of the story, Moulding suddenly grew tense, his gaze fixed on the monitors. “It’s coming this way,” he said quietly.

    Unconsciously, McShay turned toward the security door. Through it he could hear a distant sound, growing louder, like the roaring of a beast, like a wind in the high trees.

    “The temperature’s rising in the reactor core,” Nelson called out from the other side of the room. The second tonal emergency warning began, intermingling discordantly with the intruder alarm; McShay’s head began to hurt. “The failsafes haven’t kicked in,” Nelson continued. He pulled out his mobile phone and punched in a number; McShay wondered obliquely who he could be calling.

    “It’s nearly here,” Moulding said. McShay couldn’t take his eyes off the security door; he was paralysed by incomprehension. That horrible noise was louder, reverberating even through the shielding. He couldn’t understand how the troops could remain immobile with all the confusion raging around them; their guns were still raised at the door, barrels unwavering.

    The one in charge glanced briefly at McShay, then said, “If it comes through, fire the moment you see it.”

    What’s the point, McShay thought. It’s been in the reactor core and it’s still alive! He was overcome with a terrible feeling of foreboding.

    There was a sudden thundering at the door and it began to buckle like tinfoil; McShay thought he could see the imprints of hands in it. Despite their training, some of the troops took a step back. The roaring which sounded like nothing he had ever heard before was now drowning out the alarms.

    “I don’t wish to state the obvious, but if that door comes down like that it will take more than a shower to decontaminate us,” Moulding said in a quiet voice that crackled with tension.

    McShay came out of his stupor in a flash; the thought that a security door designed to survive a direct nuclear strike might ever be breached was so impossible, his mind hadn’t leaped to consider the consequences of what was happening.

    “Everybody fall back!” he yelled. “We need to seal this area off–”

    The next second the door exploded outwards. McShay had one brief instant when he glimpsed the shape that surged through and then the gunfire erupted in a storm of light and noise, and a second after that a wave of soft white light seemed to come rushing from the reactor core towards them all.

    The first person to see what had happened to Dounreay Nuclear Power Station was a farmer trundling along the coast road in his tractor. The sight was so bizarre he had to pull over to the side to check it wasn’t some illusion caused by the sea haze. The familiar modernist buildings had been lost behind an impenetrable wall of vegetation; mature trees sprouted through the concrete and tarmac, ivy swathed the perimeter fences and buildings, dog roses and clematis clambered up the side of the administration block, cars were lost beneath creepers; all around squirrels, rabbits and birds skittered through the greenery. And if anyone had decided, for whatever reason, to check for radiation, they would have found none, not even in what had been the reactor core. Nor would they have found any sign of human life.

    MAY 2, 8pm, News International, Wapping, London.

    “There’s no point in us being here.” The accent was pure Mockney, hiding something from the Home Counties. Lucy Manning repeatedly punched the lift button then shifted from foot to foot with irritation as she watched the lighted numbers soporific descent. She was in her twenties, dyed-blonde hair framing a face that had the cold hardness of a frontline soldier.

    Beside her, Kay Bliss could have been a mirror image or a copycat sister, but the look and the accent were all part of the office politics; a game they both knew how to play. “Oh, fuck it, Lucy, we’re getting paid, aren’t we? It’s nice not to be out doorstepping some twat until the early hours for a change.” Her voice had the hard vowels of a Geordie, though she could hide it when she had to.

    “There’s some idiot from Downing Street permanently in the newsroom,” Lucy continued, “going over every piece of copy with a fine toothcomb. D-Notice on this, D-Notice on that. We’ll be like some fucking cheap local rag soon. Golden wedding stories and photos from the Rotary lunch.” Lucy strode into the lift the second the doors opened, then rattled her nails anxiously on the metal wall. “Come on. Why are these things so fucking slow? All the technology we’ve got in this place, you’d think they’d be able to get lifts that worked quickly.”

    “We’re not even supposed to be using them. All those technology crashes–”

    “Like we’ve got time to walk up and down flights of stairs all day.”

    Kay held her breath until the doors opened on the newsroom floor. She’d spent an hour stuck in it with three monkeys from the loading bay and it wasn’t an episode she’d like to repeat.

    Lucy was still talking as she dodged out between the opening doors. “It started with that terrorist strike on the M4–”

    “Damon covered that.” Kay looked puzzled for a second. “Terrorists?”

    “It had to be terrorists. It wasn’t that long before the Martial Law announcement.”

    “Someone said a Yank plane had gone down carrying nukes.”

    Lucy shrugged. “And there were all those phone calls from the great unwashed claiming they’d seen some fire-breathing monster.” She flung open the swing doors. “Sometimes I wish I worked for the FT.”

    The newsroom was quiet now that all the dayshift had departed. The night news editor stared at the slowly scrolling Press Association newsfeed on his computer while lazily chewing on a cheese roll. One of the sports reporters whistled loudly.

    “‘ello, darlin’,” Kay shouted back with a cheery wave.

    “It’s all right for them,” Lucy muttered moodily, “their Ludo tournaments never get censored.”

    “You’re in a right mood, aren’t you?”

    They’d walked on a few paces before Lucy said, “I had the splash today and they pulled it.”

    “Oh, that explains it. Bitter and twisted at not getting any front page glory. What was the story?”

    “A whole unit of Royal Marines slaughtered up in the Highlands. A hot tip from my man at Command Headquarters.” She stuck out her bottom lip like a sulky child.

    “Wow. A proper story. No EastEnders stud getting bladdered in that one,” Kay said with what Lucy thought was an unreasonable amount of glee. “But you didn’t really expect to get it through, did you?” Lucy shrugged. Kay’s expression gradually became troubled. “Slaughtered? In Scotland?”

    “Hey, it’s the Barbie twins!” Kevin Smith, one of the sales managers, had been lurking around the news desk. The hacks hated him for his retro-yuppie look and his aftershave stink, but he insisted on pretending he was one of the boys.

    “Fuck off, Kevin,” Kay said with a mock-sweet smile.

    “Careful you don’t cut yourself with that.” He patted the desk so they could both sit next to him, but they studiously went round to the other side where they could talk to the handful of freelancers doing the night shift.

    “What’s up?” Lucy perched on the edge of the desk so she could tease the newbies with a flash of her thigh.

    “Don’t bother the fresh meat!” the news editor barked. “Get over here!”

    Kay was first over. “What is it, chief?”

    He tapped the screen as he spoke with a mouthful of cheese roll. “PA says the PM’s making an announcement at nine. Half the cabinet is getting the boot and they’re setting up a coalition with the other parties. Government of National Unity or something.”

    “Good policy. Get all the losers in one place. It’ll probably be as successful as their Martial Law that they haven’t got enough manpower to enforce.” Kevin had wandered over and was reading the newsfeed over the night news editor’s shoulder.

    “I’ll take that one,” Lucy called out.

    “You’re both working on it.” The night news editor rammed his chair backwards into the sales manager’s groin. Kevin exhaled sharply, but continued to force a smile.

    Kay tore off a sheet of printer paper to make notes. “Blimey. Two proper stories in one day. It’s a sign – the world really is coming to an end.”

    They all stopped what they were doing as the night news editor leaned forward to peer at the screen, swearing under his breath. “Somebody must have rattled Downing Street’s cage. There’s a whole load of stuff coming up here. Flights grounded earlier, now we get ‘train services limited… No international calls… may be extended disruption of the phone network… orders to shoot looters on sight…’ What the fuck is going on?”

    A middle-aged man in a smart dark suit moved slowly from the editor’s office towards the news desk. He had a non-descript haircut and bland features and he carried himself with the stiff demeanour of a civil servant.

    “When are you going to tell us what the fuck’s going on?” the night news editor bellowed. “It’s a fucking outrage! The people have a right to know–”

    The dark-suited man dropped a sheet of paper on the desk. “This is tomorrow’s page one story. ‘PM Launches Battle of Britain'”

    They all looked at it, dumb-founded. “You can’t do that!” Lucy could see another byline disappearing before her eyes.

    The night news editor scanned the paper, then hammered it beneath the flat of his hand. “We can’t print this! It doesn’t fucking say anything! Just fucking PR guff! Nobody has any idea what’s going on, they don’t know who the fucking enemy is! It could be a fucking coup for all anyone knows! There’ll be panic in the streets–”

    “This has been carefully designed to prevent panic,” the man said calmly. “The problem is internal, but not a coup. That is for your information only. The Government needs to act quickly and efficiently and that means the public must not get in the way–”

    “It’s like 1984!” The night news editor’s face was flushed bright red.

    The civil servant held up a hand to quiet him which only served to irritate him more. “This is being done with the full approval of your editor–”

    “Does he know what’s happening?”

    “He’s been briefed by the PM personally, as have all media editors–”

    “What’s it got to do with all the technology black-outs?” Kevin interjected. “There’s stuff happening there that makes no sense at all. And all those freak calls we’ve been flooded with…people claiming they’ve seen UFOs and God knows what. I mean, someone said their dead uncle had come back to haunt them. And some farmer said his cows were giving up vinegar instead of milk. I mean, what’s that all about?” He looked from face-to-face; everyone was staring back at him as if they had a bad smell under their nose. “The switchboard keep putting them through to my office.”

    “I wonder who arranged that?” Kay eyed the night news editor who gave nothing away.

    “We will be making a full and clear statement as soon as the situation demands it,” the civil servant said blandly. “We have no intention of a cover-up. There is a state of emergency for a very good reason and our primary directive has to be to deal with that. It is taking all our resources. You have to believe me on this. Keeping everyone informed comes a very distant second.”

    The night news editor read the replacement story one more time, then lounged back in his chair with his hands over his face. “I don’t know why I’m even bothering. We might as well all go down the pub–”

    “You can’t go out,” the civil servant said. “There’s a curfew once the sun goes down.”

    “And you’re going to stop me personally, are you, you cunt?” The night news editor glared at him venomously. Kay noticed a strange note in her boss’ face, something that was a little afraid; a suspicion of how bad things really were.

    She glanced back to the civil servant who sported a smiliarly curious expression. It was a little like contempt; it reminded Kay of the look some older people burdened by life’s problems gave to teenagers acting stupid and frivolous; a one day you’re going to have a rude awakening look. He masked it quickly with expert precision, shrugged as if everything was beneath his notice, then sauntered slowly back to the editor’s office.

    Kay shrugged too. What did he know? Boring, jumped up twat.

    Once the office door had been closed the night news editor said, “I think I might have to kill the bastard.”

    “I’m getting a bit worried about this.” Kevin chewed his lip, his gaze still fixed on the office door. “It seems really bad.”

    “If it’s a war I could be a war correspondent.” Lucy made a paper aeroplane but it died mid-flight.

    “Aren’t you worried?” Kevin asked.

    She eyed him contemptuously. “What’s to worry about? You want to try getting a drink up the road when all the circulation twats are in trying to pinch your arse. That’s dangerous.”

    “Hang on.” The night news editor was staring intently at his terminal.

    “Not more bad news,” Kevin said.

    The PA newsfeed seemed to be melting, the letters sliding down the screen into a mass at the bottom. Eventually the whole screen was clear. A second later a single word appeared in the top left hand corner: WARE.

    “What does that mean?” Kay asked. “Software?”

    The word began to repeat until it filled the whole screen in capitals.

    “It might mean Be-WARE,” Kevin said. “Some kind of warn–”

    “Lucy, get on to Systems.” The night news editor threw the phone across the desk. “This fucking thing isn’t much use to us at the moment, but at least I can see what PA are doing.”

    Lucy picked up the phone and instantly dropped it as ear-piercing laughter shrieked from the receiver. “Fuck! What was that!” She stared at the phone as if it was alive.

    “Interference,” Kay said wearily. “Try the other one.”

    The same contemptuous, inhuman laughter burst from that one too. They had an instant to look at each other in puzzlement and then all the lights and the computer screens winked out, plunging the entire windowless office into darkness.

    There was a long period of deep, worrying silence until everyone heard Kay say, “Fuck off, Kevin.”

    MAY 2, 11pm, Balsall Heath, Birmingham.

    “What did your dad say?” Sunita chewed on a strand of her long, black hair while she watched Lee’s face. The night was uncomfortably muggy against the background stink of traffic fumes drifting in from the city centre.

    Lee shifted uncomfortably as he scrubbed a hand across his skinhead crop. “What do you think he said?”

    The glare from the streetlamp over their heads seemed to draw out the sadness in her delicate features; her large eyes became dark, reflecting pools. “That he doesn’t want his son going out with some Paki.”

    “He’s not my dad anyway,” Lee said defensively. “Step-dad.”

    They both subconsciously bowed their heads as across the road a crowd of youths making their way back from the pub made loud kissing noises. Once they’d passed, Lee slipped his arms around her back; she felt so fragile against the hardness of his worked-out muscles that he just wanted to protect her.

    “Why do we get all this shit?” She rested her head on his chest. “I’m not even twenty yet! We should be having a good time, enjoying it all. Sometimes I feel like an old woman.”

    He knew how she felt. When they’d first started seeing each other almost a year to the day before he was almost overwhelmed by the frisson of doing something wrong, at turns exciting and deeply disconcerting. And the fact that he did feel that way made him queasy because he knew how much his step-father had subconsciously corrupted his thought processes. There was nothing wrong with their relationship, but he’d had to keep it secret from his step-father through what seemed like a million minor deceptions and big lies. It had cast a shadow over everything when they should have been loving the feeling of falling in love; that pure sensation had been lost to them and he hated his step-father for causing it. There was relief when he finally discovered who Lee was seeing after spotting them holding hands on New Street, but that had brought with it a whole different set of problems, the most worrying of which was that Sunita might no longer be safe. His step-father’s associates from his weekly meetings were brutal men with a harsh view of life that didn’t allow such weak concepts as love the slightest foothold; and they were relentlessly unforgiving.

    Sunita knew all this, and she knew it would be safer for her to leave Lee well alone, but how could she? The choices had been made and imprinted on their souls; they had to live with the consequences. “What are we going to do? Carry on as normal, just…going to different places?”

    “You know we can’t do that. They know where you live.” He took a deep breath. “We’re getting out of Birmingham.” He paused while he watched her expression. “Least, that’s what I think. I know it’ll be hard with your family–”

    “It’ll be a nightmare! My dad’ll go crazy, my mum… all that wailing!”

    “You’re old enough–”

    “That’s not the point.”

    He winced at being so insensitive, but he found it hard to see anything from the perspective of a loving, caring family. “I’m sorry, Sunny, but, you know, we’ve got to do something–”

    “Where were you thinking of going?”

    “Down south somewhere. Just hit the motorway and see where we end up. They’ll never be able to track us.”

    She sighed. “It’s not just your dad. It’ll be good to get out of this city. Sometimes it seems like it’s choking the life out of me. There’s something… a meanness… it just gets me down.”

    “I know what you mean.” He listened to the drone of city centre traffic drifting over the wasteland and abandoned houses waiting for demolition. “It’ll be good, a fresh start.”

    “Do you think it will work out?”

    “I know it will.” He wondered if he could tell her why he was so sure; saying it out loud made even him feel like he was crazy; and he’d been through it. “Come on, let’s walk.” He took her hand and began to lead her in the direction of the house.

    She looked uncomfortable. “Your dad–”

    “He’s at one of his meetings, wishing we still had an empire.”

    The familiar streets were thankfully empty, adding to the wonderful illusion that they were the only people left in the world. Away from the wasteland the air was a little fresher. They turned down the hill from the imposing big houses towards the line of pokey semis where Lee had lived all his life. It felt odd to think he might not walk down there again. He’d miss his mum, and Kelly, but not Mick; he’d be happy if he never heard Mick’s voice again.

    “When are you thinking of going,” Sunita asked.

    “Now. Tonight.”

    “Oh.”

    He couldn’t tell her that his step-dad’s beetle-browed cronies might act after they’d finish their rebel-rousing for the night. They had to be as far away from Brum before everything blew up. But even though he didn’t say anything he could tell from Sunita’s response to the tight deadline that she understood the dangers.

    “Mum and dad will understand,” she said confidently. “I’ll call them once we’re on the road. They’ll be asleep when I get back to pack. Though, you know, things aren’t so different between us. They both wish I was with a boy who knew the Koran back to front.”

    He shrugged, said nothing. There were always too many people wanting to interfere in everybody’s life.

    Sunita slipped her arm through his and gave it a squeeze. “We’ll never be able to agree on the music for the car, you know. There’ll be me with my Groove Armada and Basement Jaxx and you with some ancient old toss like The Redskins or one of those other old fogey bands you like. I don’t know how you got into all that stuff. Most of them were playing before you were born.”

    “You’ve got to appreciate the past to know where you’re going.”

    “You’ve been reading books again, haven’t you? I told you it was bad for you.” She smiled, but it drained away once she realised they were standing outside his home. Over the year her imagination had turned it into some kind of nightmarish haunted house, the place where all bad things originated. Even on the few times she’d been into the empty place there’d been an unpleasant atmosphere mingled in with the cheap cigarette smoke and smell of fried food. “Are you sure he’s not in?”

    “He never misses a meeting.” Lee led her round the side of the house. The small back garden was in darkness; a few items of clothing still fluttered on the washing line.

    “What about your mum and Kelly?”

    “They’ll have stopped off for a drink after the bingo.”

    “Lee, why are you bringing me here?”

    “There’s something I want to show you. To put your mind at rest.”

    “About what?”

    “That everything’ll be all right.” She still seemed unsure so he took her hand and tugged her towards the shed in the shadows near the rear fence. It was much larger than average. Mick had put it up when he was thinking about breeding racing pigeons, but he’d never got round to it, like so many other things in his life.

    “You don’t want to get down to it here one more time, do you?” she said with a sly smile.

    “Wait and see.” They stepped into the darkness of the shed and its familiar smell of turps and engine oil. He took her hand and waited a couple of seconds before saying in a clear voice, “Come out. It’s me.”

    In the dark Sunita looked at him in puzzlement; she could feel his hand growing clammy. “Who are you talking to?”

    He hushed her anxiously. He kept his gaze fixed firmly on the back of the shed and when he didn’t get whatever response he had been expecting, he tried again, a little more insistently. Still nothing. “Please,” he said finally. “This is Sunita. I told you about her. She’s okay, you know that.”

    He waited for another full moment and then sighed. “We better go,” he said reluctantly.

    Outside, she gave him a peck on the cheek. “It’s a good job I love mad people. Now are you going to tell me–”

    “You better not laugh!”

    “Of course not.”

    “Promise?”

    “I promise, idiot. Now get on with it.”

    He bowed his head with the odd, wincing expression which she knew signalled deep embarrassment. “It started a couple of weeks ago. I kept hearing noises in the shed.”

    “Noises?”

    “Yes, you know… voices. They kept chattering in there. I thought some smackheads had broken in, but every time I went to check there was no one in there.”

    “Ooh, spooky!”

    “Yeah, that’s what I thought. But then last week there was someone there.”

    Sunita eyed him askance, trying to predict the punchline. “Who was it?”

    He rubbed his chin, obviously not wanting to continue. Finally he said, “Do you believe in fairies?”

    “Fairies?” She burst out laughing.

    “You said you weren’t going to laugh!”

    “Sorry, but… You can’t be serious!”

    He looked away grumpily.

    “Okay, go on!” she said, tugging at his sleeve. “What did they look like?”

    “They looked like fairies! Well, a fairy. Small, pointed ears, green clothes. It was just like one I’d seen on a book I had when I was a lad.”

    It took him another ten minutes to get her to take him seriously, but eventually she accepted it. “Okay, there’s been a lot of strange stuff going on all over. If you say fairies, I believe fairies,” she said, bemused. “So there are, really and truly, fairies at the bottom of the garden.”

    “I don’t know why I even bother with you,” he sighed. “Just listen then, if you’re not going to believe me. I tell you, I thought I was going loopy to start with, but every time I went in, there he was so I had to accept it. And we started talking.” He snorted with laughter at the ridiculousness of the idea. “I told him all about you, about my dad, about… well, everything.”

    “I bet he had a good fairy laugh at all that,” she said bitterly.

    “No, actually. He said his people always looked after young lovers. ‘Simpletons and those in love’, that’s what he said.” He laughed. “Same thing, I suppose. Anyway, I told him I was going to leave town and he said not to worry, everything was going to be all right for us.”

    “So where was he just?”

    Lee looked troubled. “I don’t know. He’s been in there every time I’ve been in recently. Maybe he doesn’t appear if there’s more than one person…” His voice faded away as he recognised how stupid he sounded. “Or maybe all the stuff with Mick really has turned my brain to jelly.”

    “Jelly boy!” She danced a few steps ahead before he could pinch her; instead he swore forcefully. “Okay, okay!” she laughed. “But there’s one thing I never could quite work out as a girl. Can you really trust fairies?”

    From the darkened lounge Mick Jonas watched his step-son and the Paki bitch step into the shed, obviously for a quick touch-up, and he was still watching when they headed back towards the road. He quickly switched on his mobile phone and hit the speed dial. “They’re on their way now,” he said in his thick Birmingham accent. “Follow ’em till they’re outside Brum then get ’em off the road. You can do what you like to the cunt, but just give our Lee a good fucking hiding. Teach him a lesson.” He listened to the voice on the other end for a second, then added, “If you want to use a can of fucking petrol on her, pal, you do it. Just make sure Lee doesn’t get burned up. The old woman would kill me.”

    He switched off the phone and lit a cigarette before lowering his overweight frame into the frayed armchair he had made his own. He felt a burst of triumphalism that he’d got one over on his lefty, Paki-loving step-son who thought he was so fucking superior. But Mick had seen him sneak the suitcase out and store it in the boot of his old banger. He knew what the little shit was planning.

    He closed his eyes and sucked deeply on the cigarette, enjoying the moment and the certain knowledge that a blow had been struck against the fucking multi-cultural society. But when he opened his eyes a moment later he was almost paralysed by shock. Through the window he could see something moving rapidly across the lawn from the bottom of the garden. He couldn’t tell what it was – its shape seemed to be changing continuously and his eyes hurt from trying to pin it down – but it was horrible. The scream started deep in his throat, but it hadn’t reached his mouth before the window had imploded, showering glass all around him. And then it was on him.

    Maureen and Kelly returned from the local five minutes later. They tiptoed through the front door, just in case Mick was dozing after a few pints. They’d both pay the price if they woke him. But the moment she was across the threshold, Maureen had the odd feeling something was wrong. There was a strained atmosphere like you felt just before a storm, and an odd smell was drifting in the air. While Kelly went to the bathroom she crept into the lounge to investigate.

    The first thing she saw was the broken window and the glass crunching underfoot. Her mind started to roll: burglars; some of those shabby youths who didn’t like Mick’s little club.

    And then she looked into Mick’s armchair and at first didn’t know what she was seeing. It was black and smoking and resembled nothing more than a sculpture made out of charcoal. A sculpture of a man. And then she looked closer and saw what it really was, and wondered why the armchair hadn’t burst into flames as well, and wondered a million and one other things all at once.

    And then she screamed.

    “I don’t believe we did it!” Lee was bouncing up and down with excitement in his seat as the car pulled on to the M6 heading south.

    “Well, your fairy told us, didn’t he?” Sunita said with a giggle.

    He gave her thigh a tight squeeze. “This is about us now. We can do anything we want. We can really enjoy ourselves, just the two of us. God, I love you!”

    She smiled and blew him a kiss. “Things are strange right now, aren’t they?” she said dreamily as she stared out of the passenger window into the night. “People seeing all those weird things. You and the fairies. Uncle Mohammed having those dreams that came true.”

    “Maybe it’s a sign”

    “Of what?”

    “I don’t know. Of hope. That things are going to get better.”

    She shook her head, her smile not even touching on the endless happiness she felt. “You’re a hopeless romantic.”

    And the road opened up before them.

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