Signs & Portents
The Unraveling World
The world was unraveling—it had been silently and relentlessly unraveling, stitch by stitch, for years. Not many, however, had time to take notice of the loosening fabric, so the first stray threads drifting loose in the dust of time went unnoticed.
An increasing number of unexpected geophysical events had rippled down the length of the British Isles. Newspaper headlines like, GIANT TIDAL WAVE DESTROYS SOUTH COAST RESORT, or OXFORD SURVIVES SECOND EARTHQUAKE, became familiar and were after awhile, shrugged off as regrettable, but rare events which only temporarily interrupted the humdrum process of the rat race, the struggle to survive in the modern world. At the beginning, the string of disasters affected only a small minority of the population. The safe majority, in village, town or city watched reports of the worst hit areas on television, got up and went to work the next morning, perhaps discovering that the office windows had been cracked or broken. A few maverick scientists sounded a disturbing note by saying that recent events were the foreshadowing of permanent and radical changes in the geological make-up and climate of the British Isles. The Times, usually cautious, carried on its front pages the headline: SCIENTISTS WARN OF NEW ICE AGE.
Groups of people began buying up land and houses in remote country areas where they announced they could survive the coming changes. This caused small storms of excitement in the media, leading to debates and authoritative pronouncements by scientists and politicians, arriving finally at the comforting consensus that all of the recent calamities, were merely isolated "freak" events. "It will pass," people said.
Oddly enough, about this time there was a lull in the unraveling. The British Isles entered upon what was to become a record Indian summer that would last well into October. In the warm sunny days, belief in the on going permanency of the every day world quickly reasserted itself and the bizarre events of the recent past were shunted into the remoter recesses of the collective mind.
So it was in that summer lull, that an amusing—if mildly disturbing event—took place. No one saw its essentially ominous nature.
On a remote Devonshire farm a few miles outside of Lynmouth, a farmer saw, in his own words, "a flipping great dark hole" open up before him. Ben Cresswell, who had just been repairing a stone wall, was on his way back home for dinner when it happened. He froze on the footpath—too terrified to move.
The world in front of him had suddenly gone totally dark and seemed to disappear into the earth itself. The warm green and russet colors of the farm at sunset drained into the zig-zagging abyss that yawned in front of him. Worse, Ben began to make out shapes in the black void—shapes so horrible that the very sight of them were a threat to his sanity. Incredibly, the hole closed up and everything was back to normal.
Hurrying forward, Ben stumbled, picked himself up looking quickly round to see a ghostly group of black and white deer men in reindeer heads pounding the earth in the slow awkward rhythm of a primeval dance. A blast of horns boomed across the fields and the leaping dancers tumbled to the ground. But over them jumped robed figures—and they were racing towards him with a flash of golden sickles. Ben fled in wild panic down the footpath while the terrifying sound of horns and shouts wheeled around him in the air. He ran full tilt, not daring to look back, although he heard the terrifying sound of horses joining the chase.
Reaching the back door of the farm house, he did not pause to open it, but crashed through, wrenching the oaken door from its iron hinges. He tried to scream, he later told a reporter from the Lynmouth Recorder, but had no wind left to do so.
Reports of this strange event failed to raise any interest outside of Devonshire. This was not surprising, after all most people regarded Devon as a secret country, where doors to other worlds were quite likely to open, a place where hauntings, fairy lights, and ghostly gliding along deserted roads were heard with little more than a smile and raised eyebrow.
Soon, however, other reports of dark holes or voids began to appear—after returning to normal, these also left the areas of their occurrence troubled by strange and incomprehensible apparitions. Ghosts, however, were not unknown to the British public. An expert on ley lines became an overnight sensation by explaining the phenomena as fields of negative energy caused by the breaking up of ancient ley patterns. His theory was embraced by some and sternly dismissed by others. At least, the voids were far from any human habitat which helped them to remain an ephemeral curiosity.
A scientist, who witnessed one of the voids, suggested that it was a rip in the fabric of time and space. He was interviewed endlessly by the media, and gradually, his answers became less than rational. He warned, however, that this phenomena would rapidly increase unless something was done about it. But he had no solution and his voice was lost in the growing storm of opinions, arguments and pronouncements in the media.
Robert Harrold usually spent most of his time trying to solve the enigma of the unraveling world. So far as he was aware, he was one of the few people in the world who possessed a clue that the unraveling of the world might—just might—have a solution. He had only clues, and his time was spent searching, spurred on by the constant nagging feeling that time to find a remedy was very short.
It was 5 pm on Friday in the London offices of Spirit International, a small publishing house hidden away in a rambling office block a few streets away from the old British Museum. Robert was tidying up his desk and making a few notes for a colleague to sort out on Monday. This finished, he slumped back with a sense of relief into his swivel chair. Now a week's freedom lay in front of him. Robert was just trying to send an e-mail to Miri and failing, the internet, once a sure way across the miles was deteriorating rapidly. He'd have to try later. His office door swung open and in came Rachel, one of his editorial colleagues.
"Well, you can stop loading up your briefcase, Robert! You won't be going any where tonight." Robert smiled and carried on packing his briefcase, he had fallen for Rachel's good natured joking before. He pulled on his overcoat and saw that Rachel was still standing in the doorway, only she wasn't smiling, and in fact her normally cheerful face was drawn and tense.
"Oh come on Rachel, cheer up, it's Friday."
"Robert I'm not joking—there have just been two explosions on the London Underground. Harvey came in a few minutes ago and said that something very serious has happened at Bond Street station and also at Tottenham Court Road. Apparently it's absolute chaos down there, ambulances, rescue teams."
Many areas of London had now been taken over by gangs who designated certain areas their "turf." With the rapid and unexpected de-population of London, the police force had had been reduced to the bare minimum and the vigilante forces, for those who still traveled into the Old City, as it was now called, were a help. Robert and many of his colleagues were now voluntary vigilantes, escorting workers to and from work.
"Oh, Robert, I wish I was joking. Jay is coming down at 5.30 to talk with everyone in the conference room, there may be—news. Rachel, shrugged in an odd kind of way. "Some of the girls are making tea and sandwiches. Look, I must dash—see you later in the conference room."
"OK, love, see you later," Robert called after her.
Robert was slightly apprehensive by this "news," he felt his mind reel at the possible scenarios this situation had landed them all in, and he was taking off his coat, when the telephone rang.
"Robert?" said a breathless voice at the other end.
"Yes." It was Vernon Ellis the Deputy Chief Editor.
"You've heard about this—uh, 'news'?"
"Yes, Rachel came through a few minutes ago and told me about it. I don't know, I guess we'll have to hear it from the boss."
There was an audible sigh and some halting breaths, "Well, see you in the conference room."
Robert replaced the receiver. Another voice was heard from, Vernon Ellis was the spreader of news but not even he knew what the score was. He slowly walked over to the window that overlooked the street. A handful of younger men from the office were out on the street standing guard outside the main entrance. God, what a time for this to happen, just as I'm about to go on holiday, he thought. Well, it wasn't really a holiday, he was, in fact, going to spend the time studying a pile of of books on Zoroastrianism he had just received. Robert glanced at his watch and saw it was approaching 5.30 so he made his way up the stairs to the conference room on the 1st floor. People were talking in groups in the corridor and the atmosphere was buzzing with expectancy.
"What a turn up for the books, eh?"
"You can say that again," smiled Robert.
"Weren't you about to go on holiday?"
Robert was about to reply to his bearded colleagues question when, he saw a tall figure making his way through the throng.
"Ladies and Gentleman," silence immediately descended around Vernon Ellis, "May I please have your attention for a minute. Jay is coming down now, so could all of you please take a seat in the conference room." He then waved everyone in. Chairs were set out and through a back door one of younger girls brought in a tray of tea and sandwiches. Robert scanned the room and guessed that most of the staff were present.
"Look's as if no one was lucky enough to get out before the explosions. I'm afraid that's not good news," someone whispered.
Jay looked around the room and said, "Well, what we feared for some time has finally happened. Firstly, let me say that everyone is accounted for, so it's a good time for me to make this sad announcement—Spirit International regrets to say that it is not doing business anymore. It is officially terminated.
"As some of you already know, I'm afraid the telephone lines are down. We don't know at this time if it's a voluntary silence, or if they have been blacked out more or less permanently. Our only news has come from radio contact with the vigilante group in Holborn. The latest news is that there have been explosions on the Underground and all over the City. As you all know, we have been negotiating for property near Hampton Court in Surrey for the last few months, and earlier today, we received the Temporary Resettlement Agency go ahead with our proposed move. It's a pity the OK didn't come earlier, as we now find ourselves in difficulties that forbid our..."
Jay was cut short in his talk, by a large booming noise that seemed like rolling thunder. The room shook. Then there was a strange silence. One of the men had been monitoring the radio and said a vigilante group had just witnessed another explosion at one of the large deserted department stores on Oxford Street—Selfridges, he thought.
"Jesus Christ, are we are going to get blown up?" said one distressed man.
Jay gathered his senses and said, "Please, everyone, lets keep calm. I'm sure we will be perfectly safe. Let me remind you that we, like all organizations continuing to operate in London during the "changes," were considered risky, if not foolhardy. We made a brave effort, but our time has come. Let's make a dignified exit in keeping with the spirit all of us have demonstrated. All of us, I am sure, are worried about our families in other parts of London. We will do our best to get messages through to your families through the vigilante network. O.K., everyone. Keep smiling, we'll win through. If anyone is trapped and has to stay over, well, we have army camp beds and plenty of food. So we will all be comfortable and well fed."
Everyone now thronged forward to get sandwiches and some of the men started to organize a rota for all night patrol duty. It was odd, despite the dangerous situation, nobody really panicked. The good old British stiff upper lip still runs in the old genes, Robert thought. Shortly after Jay's talk, it looked as if everyone had resigned themselves cheerfully to the situation. People played cards, sat talking in groups, and a few even settled down to have a sleep on the rickety camp beds.
Robert felt an odd calm—despite the downward trend, something wordless in him insisted that life was on the move again, breaking out from all the nets and tight corners. Now that the old UK was part of the Federation of European States, London was no longer a focus for economic and political power and the centuries old institutions of government and business were beginning to quietly dissolve. The UK agency of the F.E.S, "FEZ" as it was jokingly called, had scorned London's massive decay, selecting instead the city of Manchester. The Royal Family had long ago retreated to a low profile existence in the Scottish Highlands. Businesses and people had been steadily leaving in a relentless exodus, their London residences, often as not, simply abandoned.
But the Old City still had an uncounted population of sorts. Near the office of Spirit International—a number of office blocks had been taken over by homeless people. The resulting ambience was comparatively safe and even cheerful. Once considered outlaws, vigilantes were welcomed as heroes and had been helpful in curbing lawlessness. Elsewhere, a wasteland was spreading, taken over by the Wastelanders, as they were called, who battled over the boundaries of their "turf" like ancient city states. The Underground was still London's main—and in most cases—only means of mass transport. Official police had been reduced to the barest minimum, and their main thrust was to "ride shotgun" on the Underground, a kind of last ditch effort to protect those who still traveled in and around the Old City on legitimate business.
Robert had plans to make a new start in the Pac States, so he wasn't too dismayed by Spirit's end. But the Underground explosions gave him an acute feeling of anxiety and chagrin. If the Underground really had stopped running, it would be time consuming and very dangerous to get around London by any other means. It wouldn't be the first time he'd spent the night at Spirit's office because of problems with the old transport system—but the Underground had survived. What had caused the explosions? He was no stranger to escapes from near death, he was, after all, the target of a relentless enemy. If he had not been delayed by Jay's final talk, in all likelihood, he would have been down on the Holborn station platform. He considered the fact that he might have been the target of the mysterious force that had him in its sites. Forget that, he had to find out if the Underground was still running.
Realizing that he was leaving, Rachel called after him, "My husband will bring the car around tomorrow. We'll see you as far as we can. Tonight, I think I'll just spend here."
Apparently, she wasn't alone in her decision not to chance the night, there was no grand rush for the doors as in former times. "That's very nice of you," Robert replied, pausing at the exit, "I'll just go and check on things at the station and see what's happening. If the trains are not running, I'll take you up on that."
There was no need for further discussion, Rachel's husband would not attempt an overland route by car with night approaching. In the event he had to make the attempt in the morning, another able bodied man in the car might help to deter an attack by Wastelanders if any were encountered along the route. Walking away from Spirit's offices, Robert saw lights from the barricade that had just been set up around Holborn station. My God, thought Robert, as he walked nearer, it's just like an old World War II air raid watch.
"Reinforcements are here, you chaps," chuckled Harvey Morgan, as he saw Robert approaching.
Robert had a nodding acquaintance with Harvey, he passed him every day on his way to and from work. Harvey was an ex-Sargeant Major, who had taken it upon himself to organize everyone on the front line, as he perceived it. It was only a barricade, but to Harvey, it was one of the last bastions against total anarchy and the barbarian hordes.
"Things are rough tonight, explosion's further up the line. They're clearing away the last of the debris in this tunnel. Can't let you down for a few minutes yet," he added officiously.
Robert leaned against the barricade and studied the four men sitting before him scanning the nearby roads and buildings with night field binoculars. Harvey paced back and forth urging his lads to be on the alert. Harvey was also actively pursuing a solution to the puzzle of the world's unraveling. An ex-Sargeant Major in the Territorial Army, he was retired "under a cloud" after he was found to be a little too light fingered with the army's military hardware. His present "command," as he now viewed his role as head of this Neighborhood Watch had been a God given opportunity to pursue his own version of the real solution—not that you could expect too much from these volunteers, no training, no real fibre.
Harvey peered down the tunnel and allowed Robert to pass and he started cautiously down the winding stair to the platform, heading for a string of emergency lights in the gloom. Twice he had to move aside for stretcher bearing medics to go past. He could see the smoking remains of a badly damaged train car. Heavy duty machinery had been brought in and was busily hauling sections of the remains off the track. That, at least, looked like good news.
"What happened," Robert asked a uniformed police woman, who stood watching the wrecking crew.
She waved her arms widely, using a grime smeared sleeve to mop at her perspiring face. "God only knows," she answered, straightening her cap and continuing to stare grimly at the wreck.
Robert hesitated, taking in her scorched and torn blue skirt and sooty jacket, very likely from her appearance, she'd been a guard on the wrecked train.
"Looks like a bomb job, if you ask me, Luv," she volunteered after a couple of deep breaths.
Robert was unsure whether to regard a bomb as reassuring, or threatening with respect to whether he was the intended target. He concluded that it weighed on the reassuring side, his own brushes had lately been with things that were supernatural and utterly inexplicable. But then, no rule said the powers of darkness would not use conventional means.
At one end of the platform two tired looking vigilantes sat on the floor, resting their backs against the far wall, watching the stairwells, shotguns propped by their sides.
"Should be a train along any minute now. Where you heading?" asked one of the men stiffly.
"Notting Hill Gate."
"Well, that's all right, you're lucky, quite a few stations are closed tonight."
Relieved, Robert wandered back to the other end of the platform, leaned against a tiled column, and stared into the smoky blackness of the tunnel. The track started vibrating, like a train coming into the station. A violent blast of air whipped out from the tunnel, tugging at his coat and sending platform debris tumbling into the air. Something was wrong, really wrong, the track was not clear. He opened his mouth to yell a warning, but something borne on the wind struck him in the face, something black and nameless whipped around his head, closing off both breath and vision, a searing pain forced his head back and the sickening smell of crushed aluminum engulfed him. Afterwards, Robert could never clearly recall what happened.
"Ahri..." he couldn't say the name, the word.
"That's all right, mate. Joe, he's coming round, hold his head up."
"You've had a bit of a fall, mate, it's all right."
Robert tasted a sickly sweet liquid on his lips. "Drink this, you'll be all right in a tick."
"You okay now, mate? Bit of a tumble that's all. No broken bones. You must have fallen just before the train came in. Lucky, you didn't fall onto the lines."
The two vigilantes helped him to a seat on the train, and slouched into seats at the rear of the car, shotguns hung loosely over their arms, eyes peering into the blur of passing stations, quickly shifting to the doors at stations, examining each boarding passenger.
The train reached Notting Hill Gate station and Robert jogged the few blocks to his building. Entering the dark hallway cautiously, he opened the door to his flat with extra care, flicking the light switch, ready to react quickly if necessary. Everything looked normal. All the same, he carefully checked any possible hiding places before starting his supper.
Something was coming, everyone knew it like an old ache deep in the bones, knew it with a wordless ancient knowing that whispered in the night hours. By the flowing waters of the Thames, the Old City sleeps—and the watchman in his tower, stretching his aching body, looks seaward across the dark expanse. Only the Gods are awake now, whispering in strange tongues by an ancient reed wall...