Chapter Fifteen

Healers

There were no terrorists. There is no help. London is dying, and we’re all dying with it.

— Radio ham communication out of London (first and last transmission), 11:44 a.m. GMT, July 29, 2019

He could see why the unwary would choose to go no further.

The scorpions were as fat as Jack’s head, their legs as long as his arms, and there were too many to count. Some were bright yellow, stings dripping tears of poison that sizzled small holes in the floor tiles. Others were black, with red markings on their backs and spikes along their legs on which rotten meat festered. They hissed and spat at each other, crawled up the shattered tile walls, balanced along the dulled rails where trains used to run, dropped from the ceiling, and a group of them further along the platform worried at a pile of fresh bodies, ripping flesh, and breaking bones.

They’re not real, Jack thought. Rosemary walked into a scorpion and it disappeared around her feet, melting away into a breath of mist and shadow. Living in my mind, that’s all. They’re not here. They’re not real. He closed his eyes and opened them again, and the scorpions were multiplying and growing larger.

“I can’t!” Emily said. “The snakes. The snakes!”

“I see scorpions,” Jack said. He held his sister’s hand, and the sweat on her palm added to his own.

“Chickens,” Sparky said.

“Chickens?” Jack laughed nervously.

“Ten feet tall,” the boy said defensively. “Beaks are covered in blood, and-”

“You are truly weird.”

“They’re not here,” Rosemary said, her voice cool and flat. “None of this is here.”

“What do you see?” Jack asked, but the woman did not respond. Since their meeting with the Nomad she had been distant, and he vowed to ask her why. But right now, his mind was focussed on his mother. She was down here in the dark, his dear, lovely mum, and soon they would be together again.

Emily looked at him and smiled. “Not real snakes,” she said.

“Not real scorpions,” Jack said.

“I see moths as big as seagulls,” Jenna said.

“My chickens will take your moths any day,” Sparky said, and they all laughed. The edgy banter continued as they made their way along the platform, helping each other walk past and through their own unique fears. Jack’s attention turned inward, and he tried to sense whether the twins Rosemary had mentioned were touching him inside to plant these fears, or causing him to project them himself. If he closed his eyes he could still hear the scorpions, though he had yet to feel their cool, sharp touch. He could understand how the twins were such an effective defence: what he saw was terrifying, even though he understood it was not real. To anyone unsuspecting, seeing a Tube platform crawling, squirming, or sliming with their own personal fears would be unbearable.

They walked to the end of the platform, and Rosemary shone her torch into the tunnel. There was a ledge leading in there, just wide enough to shuffle along sideways, and the others followed her as she started edging her way inside.

Something squealed, and Jenna let out a sharp scream.

“The rats are real,” Rosemary said.

“Thanks.”

The wall at their backs ended suddenly, and by the time they were all through Rosemary was a dozen feet ahead of them, talking quietly to someone sitting in an armchair. The furniture was so incongruous that Jack wondered if he was still seeing things. But the girl was still in the chair, a boy sitting beside her on a camp bed, and he knew they were almost there.

“The twins,” Jenna whispered. “What power! It’s scary, isn’t it?”

“It’s wonderful,” Emily said.

It’s both, Jack thought. Just like everything these London survivors can do, it’s both.

Rosemary waved them all over and shone her torch at a metal door in the wall behind the twins. “In there,” she said. “Down a spiral staircase to an old deep level shelter. They built it during the Second World War, and now it’s found its use again.” She smiled at Jack and Emily.

“Does she know we’re coming?” Emily asked.

“No. I never told her I was going for you. It was a secret, and…I didn’t want to raise her hopes. It’ll be a nice surprise.”

A nice surprise. It was the phrase Jack and his friends used for something amazing. He was certain it was going to be just that.

He and Emily went alone, the others remaining up on the platform to give them their moment. He glanced at Sparky as the metal door closed behind them, feeling awkward and embarrassed, but his friend beamed a smile and gave him a big thumbs-up.

Beyond the door was a small metal landing, then a staircase that spiralled down into the darkness. Its walls moved, flexing in the flickering light from candles placed on every third or fourth riser. Jack went first, and the candlelight moved even more.

He heard Emily descending behind him.

He was nervous, and scared, and his heart beat so fast that his vision seemed to throb. We’re going to see Mum, he thought. In his memory she was always alive, but in his mind’s eye he sometimes found her dead. This descent felt so surreal and unbelievable. He paused on the spiral staircase and breathed in deeply, and Emily did not ask why he had stopped. He heard her taking in a big breath as well.

The staircase ended, and Jack ducked through a narrow doorway. They were at the end of a very long room, twice the length of the platform up above. It had a similar vaulted brick ceiling and tiled walls. A generator hummed somewhere, and strings of light bulbs were suspended from the ceiling. There were three lines of beds, maybe fifteen in each line, and at the far end of the room, two curtained areas. Along one wall stood metal storage cabinets, desks and shelving, and two doors leading away into other rooms beyond.

About half of the beds were taken. Several people wandered from bed to bed, giving drinks, touching patients, and Jack spotted his mother immediately.

“There,” he said, grabbing Emily’s arm and pointing.

“I see her,” his sister said, and her voice broke.

They watched their mother for a minute, remembering the way she moved, brushed her hair back from her forehead, and laughed, and then it was too much and Emily dashed forward, unable to call out through her tears.

The sobbing was enough. Jack saw their mother stiffen, her back to them, and her stillness told him that she already knew.

“Mum,” he said.

It was stranger than he’d ever thought it could be, because his mother had changed so much. She was thinner than before, her hair shorter, an ugly scar beside her nose, and though he knew it was impossible, her fingers seemed longer and more delicate. She had aged ten years in the two since they had parted.

But she was still their mother, and as she hugged them both and Jack smelled her familiar smells, he realised that this reunion must be even stranger for her. Emily had been seven when they’d come to London, now she was nine. The change in her was greater than all of them, and that showed in their mother’s eyes as she kept pulling back and staring at her daughter.

They went into one of the side rooms, which was stacked all around with towels, beddings, and bags of medical supplies. There was a space in the middle with a large table and several chairs, mugs, and plates scattered across its surface. More tears and hugs were inevitable, but eventually the talking had to start. There were two years and a whole new world to catch up on.

So Jack told his mother how he had been looking after Emily, living in the house they’d shared ever since he was born, and how Emily had helped him as much as he had helped her. He said he’d always tried to keep the faith that she and his father were still alive somewhere in the Toxic City. He told her about the doubts he and others had about the government’s lies, but that the general populace believed that London was now a city of deadly, toxic monsters. He had met his best friends-Sparky, Jenna, and Lucy-Anne-through the growing certainty that they were all being lied to.

His mother said how proud she was of her brave children, and how not a day had gone by since Doomsday when she had not thought about them and felt desperate for them to be together again.

Whenever Jack mentioned their father, she changed the subject. For now, he allowed her that.

He and Emily took turns relating their journey into London, and when he mentioned Rosemary, his mother smiled and shook her head. “She’s become a good friend. As good as any friend can be in this place, at least.”

“She came to get us because of Reaper,” Jack said.

She stared at him for a while, then turned to Emily, speaking past her constant veil of tears. “How are you doing in school, my darling?”

Their mother told them how unbearable it was being separated from her children. Soon after Doomsday, when London stank with the dead and resounded with the agonised cries of those unfortunates still alive, many had attempted to make their way back to family and home. The slaughter had been terrible. She’d seen five people pulled from a car and executed outside a church in Holborn, the military still wearing their bulky NBC suits, still uncertain about what had happened. Every survivor could relate tales of killings from that time. Since then there had been fewer and fewer efforts to escape.

“It became like another world,” she said. “I convinced myself that London was a different place entirely, a different reality, not just the ruin of a city so close to home. I missed you both terribly, but thinking that way made it somehow easier.”

“It’s not so wrong,” Jack said. “We’ve only been here for two days, but it is somewhere else.”

Their mother told them about the hospital, and how difficult it was gathering medicines, bedding, towels, and food without being caught by the Choppers, the problems of sanitation, wild animals, rats…

Emily asked why they needed medicines when there were healers. Their mother replied that most healers’ powers were very specific, and that illnesses and injuries in the Toxic City were much more diverse.

They were talking around so many important subjects, and the more they talked, the more Jack began to fear they would never discuss what was important.

“Rosemary says you’re a healer like her,” he said. And here it was. The subject of their mother’s change, that in turn would lead on to what had happened to their father.

“Not like her,” she said. “Not exactly. None of them…none of us…are exactly alike.”

“What was it like, Mum? When it happened?”

She shook her head slowly, her face grim. She looked between Jack and Emily and into the past, seeing scenes which Jack guessed she had tried her best to bury. But her daughter had asked, and the good mother would answer.

“It was like living a nightmare. First the rumours of explosions and a terrorist attack, and then…Your father and I were just coming out of the Natural History Museum. There wasn’t panic, but police cars were tearing along the roads in every direction, sirens everywhere, and people…” She shook her head, smiling. “People were standing with their phone cameras, ready to catch something amazing. A few were watching the news on their phones, and as we stood on the pavement we could almost see the ripples of panic spreading out from these people. That was the first time we heard talk of a biological attack, and your father and I started to worry.

“The first people I saw die were coming out of a restaurant on a street corner. Maybe the breeze blew whatever was in the air along the street, and it hit them just as they emerged. They fell, hard and quick. I knew they hadn’t just fainted. You could almost see the life going from them.”

“They died that quickly?”

“Everyone did. The breeze carried the change through the streets, and one breath was enough. They fell in waves, and the sound was…horrible. Heads striking pavements. Mothers dropping their dead babies, falling dead themselves. Cars crashed. There were explosions, fires. There was screaming.”

“But you and Dad?”

“We ran. We thought we were running away from it, but then they started dying all around us. And then we fell.” She was crying now, but these tears were far different from those she had already shed. They glimmered on a sad face, not a happy one, and they did not seem quite so bright. “We lay together on the pavement, side by side, looking into each other’s faces. I saw his eyes go red as the veins in them gave out, and I felt a stab of pain in my own head, and I thought, That’s it. The last thing I thought about was…was you. I think I spoke to you both, as I lay there. I closed my eyes, waiting…And when I opened them again it was night, and your father was gone.”

Jack had a million more questions, but he could see that his mother was finding this difficult.

“I never saw him again.” She shook her head, smiled at Jack, and hugged her daughter for the hundredth time.

“And when you woke up, you were changed?” he asked. Meeting Rosemary and the others, seeing what they could do, had been incredible. But sitting here now and realising that his mother was one of them shocked him to the core.

“Not that I noticed right away. It took a while for whatever happened to us all to really come to the fore. That day I spent wandering the streets, trying to find help, trying to find somewhere not clogged with bodies. I called for Graham, kept calling. My phone didn’t work, so I tried some of those I found dropped in the street. They were all dead, too. The electricity was already off. It’s never been back on since. Later that day, the sounds of shooting began. I hid in a hotel, and I was there for several days. There was bombing, most of it far away, some quite near. I saw planes flying high overhead. I don’t know what they were targeting, and for a while I was afraid they were going to just bomb the whole city.

“Some of the blasts blew glass from the window, and I got this.” She touched the scar beside her nose. “It hurt terribly, but as I touched it in front of the mirror…I knew I could do something about it. And it was as if knowing I could do something helped, because the cut started to heal. It took ten minutes. I wasn’t surprised or upset, shocked or scared. It felt natural, and if anything, I was a little annoyed that I couldn’t heal it any better. But that was right at the beginning, and my ability has improved with time.

“I waited, expecting help. But when I saw people moved through the streets, I was suddenly too scared to call to them. And it was Rosemary who found me.”

Emily seemed content to cuddle into her mother and hear the sound of her voice. She even seemed sleepy. But Jack was filled with more questions, many more, so many that he wondered whether they would ever be able to talk normally with each other again.

There was one question screaming to be asked.

“Dad. Reaper. Please tell me.”

She looked at him for a long time, studying his face. “I didn’t know he was still alive until six months ago.”

“He didn’t try to find you?”

She shook her head. “He’s not Graham anymore, Jack.”

“Not my daddy?” Emily asked.

“No, baby. He’s changed much more than anyone else I know, or have heard about. I saw Reaper once, from a distance, and though I recognised him, I also knew he was someone else. And everything they say about him…” She frowned and looked away.

“You’re still wearing the locket he bought you,” Jack said.

His mother smiled sadly and fingered the jewellery. “Of course. My husband gave me this, and I loved him very much.”

“Rosemary left London to get me so that I could speak to Dad. Persuade him to join his Superiors with everyone else and fight their way out of London.”

His mother seemed genuinely shocked, and she sat back and stared up at the ceiling for a while. “Everyone’s so desperate,” she said. “It’s tragic. There’s so much good in what’s left of this place, but no hope at all.”

“I’ll speak to him. I’ve already said I would, but I insisted on coming to you first.”

“I’ve no hope left for him, Jack. I’ve heard about the things he’s done. He’s very, very dangerous now. You understand? He’s…” she trailed off again.

“He’s killed people.”

“I cure, he kills.” She was going to ask him not to go, he knew that. The request would come soon. But the more his mother betrayed loss of hope for his father, the more determined Jack was becoming to talk to him.

“He won’t hurt me,” Jack said.

“Your father died when I was lying beside him on that pavement. The man you might find, Reaper, is someone else. Please, son, don’t-”

“Mum.” He noticed that Emily was asleep now, and he moved closer so that he could hug them both together. “I’ve got to try. You see that? I’ve spent two years trying to find my way here. I can’t just abandon him now.”

“The Choppers, the soldiers, there’s just no way out for any of us.”

“It’s not for anyone else I’ll be doing it,” he said. “It’s for us: you, Emily, me. We need him. I need him. I need my dad.”

“He’s not your dad anymore,” she said quietly. Then she sighed, put her arm around him, and hugged him back. The three of them sat there for a while, saying no more, content just to be with each other. Jack was overjoyed. But the joy was shadowed by the knowledge of what he had to do next and the terrible fear that he might fail.

Sparky and Jenna came down, and Jack introduced his mother to them as Susan. He told her they were his best friends.

Rosemary was with them, and when the women spoke it was with a reserve that perhaps had not been there before. That was not Jack’s fault. And truly, he did not care. Rosemary had helped them and healed them when it was needed, but she had also led them willingly into danger and between the literal jaws of death. And the more he thought about how things had worked out so far, the more he believed she had used them all.

Jack took a moment to look around the hospital. After a few minutes, his mother finished talking with Rosemary and came to join him. Hidden away in the curtained area were several terribly sick people, and his mother said she had no idea what ailed them. Her gift was healing, but only physical alterations responded to her particular touch-wounds, cuts, and broken bones. Rosemary was slightly different in that she could also sense a sickness inside and, if it was something out of place, or something that should not be there, heal it. She had taken cancers from people, fixed faulty heart valves. But neither woman could combat the invisibly small invaders of infection.

“So aren’t these all Irregulars?” he asked.

“Yes. Everyone in London now is an Irregular, apart from the Choppers and those in their employ. But they came in after Doomsday. Those of us who survived the Evolve virus…yes, all changed.”

“So what do they do?”

His mother pointed at an old man on a bed close to them. “Richard was a Pleader. In the right conditions, he could exert his will and desires on the chaos around us, and coax it in a certain direction.”

“Change the future?”

“In small leaps, and on a very small scale. But no more. Whatever he has is killing him.” She sounded very sad. “Over there, that big lady, she had hearing better than a dog’s. Massive audio range. She’s deaf, now.”

“Is it the same illness that Richard has?”

“It looks the same, but I just don’t know. I’m no doctor, and it was Doomsday that made me a healer.”

“We saw people out on the streets, naked and raving. Like animals.”

“The same,” his mother said. “We’re seeing it more and more.”

“The Irregulars are starting to die,” Jack whispered, and his mother said nothing to contradict.

Emily ran up to them from where Jenna and Sparky were standing. Jack looked at Richard and the other dying people, treasuring their reunion even more.

“We met the Nomad,” he mentioned, thinking of how she had picked on him and the taste of her finger in his mouth. He felt his mother tense.

“You really saw her?” she said, aghast.

“She said that was her name. And she was…strange.”

Susan shook her head. “Most people don’t really believe in her, even now.”

“Jenna does. She’s collected all the stories. She think she’s Angelina Walker, the woman who crashed into the Eye and released Evolve.”

“The first vector.”

“That’s what she called herself, yeah.”

“What did she do? What did she say?”

Jack was not sure why he lied. But when he said, “Nothing, really,” and glancing down at Emily, his sister gave him a little smile. He knew then that he’d made the correct decision.

“Strange,” his mother said.

“Huh!” Jack said. “Strange? Did I tell you about the lioness? And the wolves we heard, and the flowers in Tooting?”

She smiled and shook her head. “No, but I’m sure you’re going to.”

“I want Emily to tell you, Mum. I want her to show you.” He held Emily’s hand. They’d already talked about this, and now the physical contact gave him double the strength he needed. “I want you and Emily to get out, the way we got in. Rosemary’s already said she’ll take you. She has a gun, and knows where she can get more.”

“Guns, Jack?” She used her old scolding voice, and Jack almost smiled. Almost.

“For the dogs, Mum. And…anything else that might try to stop you.”

“And you?” Her voice quavered. She’s afraid of losing me again, he thought. And he understood. The temptation to leave was there, but he had to preserve faith in their father, a faith he could never lose without at least trying.

“I’ve already told you what I’ll be doing, Mum.”

“I like that word,” she said. “‘Mum.’ It’s a good word.”

“I always knew I’d get to use it again.”

“And Dad,” Emily said. “That’s another good word. Jack says it has power.”

His mother’s eyes opened wider, and he saw something that might have been hope. Or if not that, then acceptance of his need to try. She came to him and rested her head on his shoulder.

“Be very, very careful,” she said. Pleaded.

“I will, Mum. Sparky and Jenna are coming with me.”

“Are they special forces?”

He laughed. “Not quite. But we’re a good team.”

She nodded, squeezed his hand, and then parted. “I have to speak to my friends down here, tell them…something. Not the truth. I couldn’t do that to them.”

“Will leaving…?”

“Compared to everything else we’ve been through?” She looked around, smiling at a patient walking with the aid of a wheeled frame. “It’ll be sad, rather than hard.”

“Sis, you look after Mum, won’t you?”

“You betcha!” Emily stood slightly in front of their mother, like a bodyguard preparing to take a bullet. Her face was so stern that Jack laughed out loud.

The thought of leaving his mother so soon after finding her again was incredibly painful. But the longer they remained together, the less inclined he’d be to leave at all. And he owed his father everything.

“That camera,” he said to Emily. “It’s precious. It’s almost priceless, for all the people we’ve seen in London. You know that, don’t you?”

“Of course I do! I’m not a bloody kid, you know.”

“I know you’re not, Emily. You’re my hero.”

“See, Mum?” she said, beaming proudly. “Jack’s hero!”

“So when you get out, put the camera somewhere safe and sound. Don’t take it home with you. When I come out with Sparky and Jenna, we’ll retrieve it and do what we can.”

“And Dad?” Emily said.

“I’ll do my best.”

“Why does he call himself Reaper now?” his little sister asked.

“Because he’s forgotten who he is. I’m going to remind him.”

“Please keep them safe,” Jack said to Rosemary.

The old woman smiled. “Keep yourself safe. Good luck with Reaper.”

“His name’s Graham. And I’m looking forward to seeing my father again.” Jack knew what she wanted to hear: I’ll speak to him, persuade him, plead with him if I have to. But he could not say that yet, because his priority was completing his family. Perhaps the two aims would run side by side, or maybe they would collide. Time would tell.

Jack, Sparky, and Jenna watched them leave the underground hospital. Jenna put an arm around Jack’s shoulder.

“Wimp,” Sparky muttered, and Jack coughed, half-laugh, half-sob.

Jack saw his mother and sister pass out of sight, and he could not fight away the feeling that he would never see his family again. Standing there with his two best friends in the world, he had never felt so alone.

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