Chapter Fourteen

The Nomad

The six terrorists who attacked London yesterday have been killed in a shoot-out with a military unit in the West End. Communications into and out of London are down. The biological agent used by the terrorists has not yet been identified, but the whole of the London basin is affected, and travel to and from the city is strictly prohibited. Please help the emergency services and the military to contain this disaster by following these simple guidelines: Anyone trying to enter or approach London will be arrested. Any aircraft attempting to overfly London will be shot down. There follows a list of numbers for concerned relatives…

— UK All-Channel Bulletin, 9:00 a.m. GMT onwards, July 29, 2019

At seventeen, Jack should have taken Sparky aside at the first opportunity to ask him how it was, was she hot, and to give him all the details. But that would have been in normal times, and these times were far from normal. There was a quietness to Sparky the next morning, and while Jenna helped Ruben and Rosemary prepare the best breakfast they could from old tinned foods, Jack sat beside his friend on the sofa.

“Okay, mate?”

“Yeah.”

“Hope today’s a bit better than yesterday.”

“Well…” Sparky began, then he smiled. “Yesterday was mixed.”

“What’s up?”

Sparky sighed. He scratched at his arm where his brother’s name was tattooed, then leaned back and looked up at the ceiling. “We’ve got no control over any of this, you know? We follow Rosemary from one mess to the next. We lose Lucy-Anne, and can’t do anything to try and help or find her, and how bloody frustrating is that?”

“We all feel the same. But Rosemary’s right, there’s no way of even guessing where she is.” He drummed his fingers on his knee, tapped his foot. He’d dreamed about Lucy-Anne, but today he could not remember his dreams.

“And last night, Jack. My first time. Incredible. And…I should be telling Steve about it, you know? I should tell him, and he should laugh and be pleased, and it should be a secret from Mum and Dad because that’s just the way it is with brothers…” He trailed off, blinking slowly.

“You just told me,” Jack said.

Sparky looked at him with tears in his eyes. “Thanks.”

“You’re welcome. Shithead.”

“Ha!” Sparky stood and stretched, leaned sideways so that he could see through the hallway and into the kitchen, then turned back to Jack. “Mate,” he whispered, “she was hot!”

Emily came down a few minutes later, and they all sat around the kitchen table and ate baked beans, hot dog sausages, and tinned peaches. For what it was, Jack enjoyed it immensely.

He tried not to catch Jenna’s eyes, embarrassed, but he felt her glancing at him all through breakfast. When he finally stood to tidy up, he took an empty tin from her hand and she held on tight. He looked at her, and realised what a fool he’d been. She looked so anxious and tense, that when he smiled and winked she seemed to deflate.

“Thank you!” she said as she let go of the tin, but Jack knew the real thanks was for something else entirely. Yeah, he’d certainly been a fool. He’d known that Jenna had liked him, just not how much.

“Ruben will be leaving us soon,” Rosemary said. “He’s not one for sneaking along dangerous streets and scrambling through tunnels.”

“I’d only get stuck,” he said, tapping his not inconsiderable stomach.

“Are you going home?” Emily asked, and a dark cloud touched Ruben’s face.

“Yes, dear,” he said. “All the way home.”

“Thanks for taking a bullet out of my guts with your bare hands,” Jenna said, raising her bottle of water in a toast.

“Any time.”

“Bloody hope not!” Sparky said, and they all laughed.

As they left, Rosemary took a quick look around the house, her expression blank. “Doubt we’ll use this place again,” she said.

“Why not?” asked Emily.

“Too dangerous, dear. I’ve stayed here three times myself, and Ruben a couple of times. Too much activity attracts attention.”

“So it’ll just stay shut up?” Jack asked.

“Yes. Once we’re out, I’ll drop the key down a gutter grating.”

Sparky checked that the coast was clear before they trailed out into the street. It was still early, only seven thirty, and the air was cool and clear. Pigeons cooed softly from window sills and rooftops, a scruffy ginger cat strolled without care along the middle of the road, but apart from that all was quiet.

Rosemary pulled the door closed until it clicked. Jack didn’t like thinking about the empty house, and how it could be like that forever. They had filled it with life for a night, and even some love, and now it stood alone and abandoned once again, one of many sad monuments to the foolishness of humanity. There were a hundred thousand buildings like this all over London. Houses were built to be lived in, not left empty, home only to the dust of memories.

They walked along the street, and when they came to a gutter Rosemary dropped the key through the grating. Jack heard a faint splash, and the house was lost to them. If anyone ever explored its insides again, they would have to smash down the door or break a window first.

He noticed Sparky and Jenna share a glance and wondered what they were thinking right then.

Ruben said his goodbyes, sparing Rosemary a hug. They seemed very close. Jack and his friends gave their quiet thanks, then the fat man sauntered away, his incredible hands swinging by his sides. There goes another miracle, Jack thought. The city killed by humans seemed full of miracles today.

Rosemary huddled them together at the end of the street. She listened for a minute, head cocked, but there was nothing to hear except the birds.

“It’s not too far until we go back belowground,” she said. “As I told you, Jack, she spends most of her time down in the old Tube station. But I promised to be honest with you from now on, so I have to tell you, the place is disguised. And it’s protected from the Choppers.”

“Protected how?” he asked, instantly fearing the worst. Alligators? Lions? Monsters?

“There are two people down there, boy and girl twins, whose seventh sense has been incredibly boosted.”

“Seventh?” Emily asked.

“That’s what they call it, for want of a better description. They can project images and ideas onto people’s minds. It’s remarkable…and it can be really quite disturbing, too. Everyone who goes down there has to pass through the twins’ projections. Those who should know about the hospital can work through them, because they know the images are false. Anyone else…they wouldn’t go very far.”

“What sort of images?” Jack asked.

Rosemary pursed her lips. “They won’t be very nice. But I’ll tell you when we’re getting closer, and you’ll all have to…”

“Work through it,” Jenna finished for her.

“Yes, dear.”

“Piece of cake,” Sparky said. Jenna glanced at him and smiled, and Jack felt the growing warmth between the two of them. It made him feel good.

“Maybe Lucy-Anne will be down there,” he said. But no one answered, and he realised it was a vain hope.

They set off, walking through the early morning streets and watching the wildlife. It was unsettling, and yet beautiful, how so many animals had made the devastated city their home, as if nature had been patiently awaiting its moment. All the usual birds that Jack would expect to see in a city were there; pigeons, sparrows, starlings, blackbirds, magpies, and the occasional robin. But he also saw a woodpecker, wrens, a kingfisher skimming a canal, goldfinches, siskins, and several pairs of buzzards circling with their offspring. The untempered plant growth throughout the city sustained many more seed-eating birds, and close behind them came the birds of prey.

The birdsong barely lessened as they walked along the street. The creatures were confident. That, Jack thought, was the unsettling part of it. This was no longer a city of people where the birds had to find their own way to survive. Now, the situation had been reversed.

Rosemary made them pause every few minutes and hide in a garden or an alleyway, just to take time to listen and watch for any dangers. They heard no motors, though once an aircraft flew past high overhead. It was fast and loud, and obviously military. Rosemary made them hide in a burnt-out shop, afraid of the detection technology the aircraft might have.

After the aircraft had gone, and as they approached a road junction, a lioness stepped into view from the street perpendicular to theirs. She was sleek and fit-looking, and she paused to look their way.

Jack gasped. Emily, walking beside him, slowly lifted her camera and started to film. The others froze in place.

“Amazing,” Sparky whispered.

“Be still and quiet,” Rosemary said. Jack saw her take hold of the gun hanging by its strap from her shoulder.

They were close enough to see the lioness’s nostrils flare as she sniffed at them. She looked the other way, perhaps deciding whether the street ahead seemed more inviting than the street with the human meat, then stared back at them for a long time.

“Do they eat…?” Jenna was unable to finish, but everyone knew what she meant.

“I’ve never heard of it,” Rosemary muttered. “Too many cats, dogs, and other things for them to hunt.”

“Always a first time for everything,” Sparky said. Then he giggled. “Jenna tastes good.”

“Shut it, or I’ll cut you and push you towards her,” Jenna whispered.

“Quiet!” Rosemary said. “All of you.”

The creature was beautiful. Jack could not help marvelling at how she had adapted to the strange environment, an animal designed to live on the African plains stalking concrete and brick streets and eating dog meat instead of gazelle or zebra. Two years previously she must have been caged in a zoo or wildlife park, meat thrown in to her every day already dead. Now, she had to hunt for every meal. Nature’s way of coping, he thought. It was wonderful.

Humankind, in its ignorance and superiority, had set itself apart from nature, and that weird chemical or bug released two years before had removed them even further from the evolutionary chain. Ironic that it had been called Evolve.

The lioness roared softly, as if to assure her place in their memories. Then she walked away, disappearing around the building at the corner of the junction.

“That was cool,” Sparky said, the excitement apparent in his voice.

“We should move on,” Rosemary said. “If she returns with the rest of her pride, things might be different.”

They walked for an hour, skirting around a large park that had taken on the appearance of a jungle. The trees at its boundary were full and lush, and where they could see past the trunks there were huge swaths of shrubs with exotic-looking pink flowers drooping from stems a dozen feet tall. They reminded Jack of the blooms they had seen atop the mass grave in Tooting, but these seemed more natural and innocent.

As they approached a roundabout from which four roads branched, Emily paused and pointed.

“Who’s that lady?” she said.

They all looked, and for a moment Jack had trouble seeing who she meant. Then he saw the motionless shape on the small concrete island at the roundabout’s centre, something he’d taken upon first glance to be a statue, and the breath was knocked from him.

There was something…otherworldly about the woman. She stood utterly motionless, and between blinks she was suddenly walking towards them, flowing, floating across the dusty tarmac like a ghost. Her feet are touching the ground, Jack tried to persuade himself. She is walking, not drifting. She seemed to be moving too quickly.

“Superior?” Jenna asked. None of them could take their eyes from the woman. Her movement was hypnotic, her face mesmerising.

“Rosemary?” Jack prompted. The woman was coming closer, and a pang of fear complemented his sense of wonder. Her loose jacket flowed behind her, though there was no breeze this morning, and her long hair flicked at the air. “Rosemary!”

“The Nomad,” Rosemary whispered, and she started backing away.

“Holy shit,” Jenna said.

Nomad? Jack knew the name, and the legend, but he had always thought it was just that: myth, not truth. A wondrous fable concocted out of the awfulness of what had happened. It spoke of a woman, the Nomad, who wandered the streets of the Toxic City untouched and untouchable. Rumour had it that she possessed all the powers of the Irregulars combined, which made her, so far as those interested in her believed, a god. And that was why Jack could never believe, because the need to have faith in something so amazing after events so dreadful just seemed too obvious.

Out of all of them, it was Jenna who researched and believed in the Nomad the most. Having lost no one to Doomsday, her interest was otherwise.

“Nomad, indeed,” a woman’s voice said, and it was low and husky as though not used to speech. “No need to flee, healer.” She raised one hand and Rosemary stopped backing away, although it looked as if she was still trying.

When the woman reached them at last she continued walking, snaking through and around their small group. Jack thought about moving, but decided against it. None of them moved. Maybe none of them could.

Rosemary was shaking with fear. She had closed her eyes, and she uttered unheard words to herself. Perhaps she was singing a song, or speaking to someone she had lost, anything to take her someplace else.

Is she so terrible? Jack thought, looking at the Nomad as she passed before him. She gave him a coy glance, and he felt a warm glow in his chest. He did not recognise it: Fear? Calmness? Lust?

“Are you really the Nomad?” Jenna asked.

The woman gave the girl a slow nod as she walked in front of her.

“So are you an Irregular? A Superior? I heard you have many powers, and that-”

“I’ve no need to name myself other than Nomad.”

Emily was filming. She seemed unafraid. To have her sense of innocence, Jack thought.

“No one can touch you,” Jenna said, and she displayed no fear. Only wonder. “The Choppers can’t catch you, the Superiors can’t take you. And now I see you, I recognise you, and it’s all true. You’re Angelina Walker. You’re the scientist who crashed into the London Eye and spread the infection.”

“I’m the first vector, if you need to name a first.”

“No need,” Jenna said. “I would ask you why, but…”

“She’s moved on,” Jack said. He glanced at Rosemary again, and the woman was still trying to be somewhere else.

Nomad continued to weave around them, and every time she passed before Jack she would give him that strange smile. She seemed to be moving through water.

The air around him felt heavy and thick, and he was not sure he could move even if he wanted to. Nomad performed an occasional, strange dance with her hands, and perhaps she was snatching their breaths from the air. Jack’s mind felt open to view, and though there was no sense of being invaded, still he felt exposed and vulnerable to some far greater force.

She passed him again, smiled, moved on.

Emily continued to film. Nomad seemed not to mind, though Jack doubted there would be any recorded image of her when they viewed it back.

The aura she exuded was one of great power. Every one of Jack’s senses-normal, unaltered, innocent of the touch of the Toxic City-thrummed with the idea of what Nomad possessed. He saw her movements and her smiles, and her knowledge was so much more. He smelled a sweet, mysterious scent on the air, like perfume from another world. The air tasted of somewhere he’d never been, the sound of her voice was a secret to unfold, and his whole body tingled in her presence, as though touched by colours he had never seen. She was beautiful, wondrous, and terrifying.

“I have a friend,” Jack said, “Lucy-Anne. We lost her. Do you know where she is?”

Nomad paused before him and changed direction, passing so close behind him that he felt the hairs on the back of his neck stand up. “She’s a wild girl with the birds,” Nomad said.

“What does that mean?” Jenna asked.

“Not dead,” the strange woman sang. “Just wild.”

Jack sighed in relief, and he felt a grey mass of guilt lifting from him. The air seemed to swallow it away.

“Unchanged,” Nomad said, “apart from the healer. All of you…so pure and untouched.”

“I’m Reaper’s son,” Jack said.

“Reaper? Just another name. Nothing to me, when I walk to spread the word.”

“What word?” Jack asked, and he thought, To some of them, she’s a god.

“The word of change.”

“You’ve changed everything anyway,” Jenna said. “You were the one. You were the terrorist.”

“Terrorist?” Nomad’s flowing walk continued, and she seemed to be tasting the word, considering its meaning. “It was all about freedom,” she said. “And it’s only just begun.”

Jack tried to step forward but could not. Rosemary seemed to have entered a trance-like state, still muttering words none of them could hear. “Why is Rosemary so scared of you?” she asked.

“People are scared of what they cannot know.”

“I’m not,” Sparky said.

Nomad did not answer, and Jack saw Jenna reach out and take Sparky’s hand. He did not know whether it took a strength of will, or if Nomad allowed them the contact.

“I think you’re the one I want,” the woman whispered in Jack’s ear. He felt her breath against his neck and a sexual thrill warmed through him. But when she paused before him, halting at last, he knew this was much more than that. Beneath the sexual excitement nestled a fear he had never known before. A fear of the unknown, not without, but within.

“Me?” he said.

“Jack?” Emily said. His sister was scared, but he could not even turn to look at her. This woman, this Nomad, held his complete attention in the palm of her outstretched hand.

“I always knew I’d need help,” she said, slipping her index finger into her mouth. Then she reached out, pointing at Jack’s mouth. He pressed his lips closed, but still they opened. He leaned back, but stretched forward. He closed his eyes but saw, and he understood that none of this was her. It was all him. Whatever it was she offered, he wanted it completely.

Her finger passed across his tongue and it tasted unknowable. When she withdrew it the taste was gone. But he would know it forever.

“Jack?” Sparky asked.

“It’s okay,” Jack said, to all of them. “I’m fine.”

Nomad gave him that coy smile one more time, and then without another word she walked past them and along the street.

They turned to watch her go. Rosemary slumped down and started shaking, but the others could not take their eyes off the strange woman. She drifted away. Even when she turned out of sight along another road they watched, as if the ghost of her passing would always be here.

“Well, that was weird,” Sparky said. He was looking at Jack. “What was all that about?”

“Don’t know,” Jack said. He moved his tongue about his mouth, and still recalled the taste of that alien touch. He had no idea what she had done, only that she had done something.

“That was Nomad,” Jenna said, amazed. “Even after all this time, I was never really sure. But to be here, and to see her…” She looked at Jack as well, and he thought he saw a flash of jealousy in her eyes.

“Bugger,” Emily said. She was looking at the display screen on the back of her camera, pressing buttons to snap between pictures and bits of film. “It wasn’t filming.”

“Rosemary’s coming to,” Jenna said. The woman was looking around, seeing them as if for the first time.

“Is it gone?” she asked.

“Nomad?”

“Is it gone?”

“Yes,” Emily said. “She’s gone.”

“Which way?”

Jack pointed along the street, back the way they had come.

“Then we go that way,” Rosemary said. She pointed in the opposite direction.

When they started walking again, Rosemary would not answer any of their questions. She shook her head when they mentioned Nomad, refused to elaborate on her fear, said nothing when Jenna talked to her about the strange woman. Jack felt angry, but he let his anger filter away, carried on his own thoughts of Nomad.

A few minutes later, still walking in silence, they paused in an old garage forecourt while a group of a dozen people ran by. They were dirty and wild, some of them naked, others dressed in scars. A few growled or whimpered as they ran, and several dribbled blood and mucus from their mouths.

Some loped like animals.

Rosemary did not seem too concerned about hiding.

“The sick ones?” Jack asked. Rosemary did not reply, so he answered for himself. “The ones who can’t take it.” They all watched the people disappear along the street, and a couple of minutes later Rosemary led them away again.

They walked quickly and as they reached the mouth of Stockwell Tube Station, the healer seemed pleased when they left the sunlight and found cool shadows.

“Down,” she said. “We’ll be there soon. But once we reach the platform, remember the twins. You’ll see things that scare you. But they’re not really there.” Without another word she pulled a small torch from her pocket and started down the escalators.

Jack and the other followed. Back into the darkness.

And when they stepped onto the platform, Jack saw the first of the giant scorpions.

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