Upon opening her eyes, Kabela saw a man wearing a pair of circular glasses lacking the glass looking at her with concern. She felt cool and damp, particularly on her forehead.
‘You’re awake, good. I’ll let...’ but the voice thinned and phased out as she tumbled back down.
She dreamed of Cobbold and Andrew and Billy and Max; she dreamed of Brac, of red fires snapping and curling upwards. The fires started to shrink, then were sucked into the town, then the town itself was sucked into the ground, and then only the ancient stone foundations were left, standing tall and strange against her dreamy skyline. These narrowed to a sliver, then a wink, and then they too were gone, leaving only the rocks, but the rocks seemed to be boiling - what a strange dream.
Using dream-rules to do so, Kabela leaned closer, studied the boiling rocks. They were bursting and splitting to reveal more rocks inside that in turn cracked and crumbled and burst their shells. Careful to avoid the spitting shards, she leaned closer still.
Yes, it wasn’t just the rocks: there was something else too, something moving, something approaching, and approaching fast. She could feel it, scrabbling and clawing its way up, and she heard a rhythm, but then the sun, which was apparently in this dream as well, leapt close and sandblasted the back of her skull yellow. Nursing a dream-headache, Kabela watched as the rocks faded away, and the sky made its presence known, a dazzling blue -
Not quite as impressive, but still blue.
‘Max. You know. I thought you were...’
‘Yeah. So did I.’
A pause. ‘They tell me he’s safe. Seems among other things Jessie makes a habit of saving lives.’
‘Jessie?’ said Kabela, then frowned: while Max may not care that she was speaking in grunts, she did.
‘Jessie’s fine. Recovering. Andrew got her in the arm. I don’t think he ever meant to kill her.’
And now Kabela couldn’t speak because the words weren’t available. As, while Andrew hadn’t meant to kill Jessie, before her was one man that he had meant to kill. And if he had done so, that would have been it, in so many ways. Max saved Kabela the trouble of asking the question.
‘Even an expert marksman can’t shoot through a mass of mutants. They charged, surged in as he fired, I imagine you saw. Unfortunately, since you were on the ground at the time... well, you’ve got a few bruises, but you’re awake now, that’s what matters. As for who Andrew hit, someone called... Neville, Neville Franks... took the bullet. In a growth he claims to have wanted to be shot of for some time now.’ Max’s mouth twisted. ‘Actually, from what I’m told, he’s quite pleased about it all.’
While the name sparked something, her memory wouldn’t catch. Her mind was once more a knotted grey mess, a state that Kabela suspected had become its natural one.
She decided not to linger on this; instead, slowly, and wincing with each ache that jabbed her body, she sat up, amid a cascade of blankets. She was pleased to note that she was still clothed, then retracted the emotion when her nose started working.
Smelly clothes aside, she saw that she was on a mattress spread out on the rocks, housed in a building that tilted at what appeared to be a straight forty-five degree angle. That was the only notable thing about her surroundings really, though admittedly it was quite notable. The rest: a small table, a metal jug, a chair for Max. Fresh sunlight washed them all through a line of empty windows.
Now to try speaking again. ‘Billy’ - Christ, it was worse, it felt like someone had given her a massage with a pneumatic drill - ‘Max, is Billy OK?’
It was presently impossible for her to have pinched Max’s face, but he reacted as if she had. Then: ‘Billy’s - recovering too.’ A sad little pause. ‘It might be a while.’
Studying his rugged face, leathered skin and beaten brown, scored with cracking lines, Kabela grew concerned at her thinking. Thinking that a light much like this one, when combined with his piercing blue eyes, gave Max a dashing, almost handsome quality. The striking contrast of the dark with the bright.
Fully aware that this was a sign of encroaching madness, she struck out for a distraction, and voiced the first thought that came to her.
‘He hurt you, didn’t he.’ Both knowing that ‘he’ wasn’t Andrew. No, the person that Andrew had hurt the most was not his intended victim.
Max’s reply was all the confirmation needed. ‘It might be a while.’
She gave him a friendly punch on the arm, which she instantly regretted. Through a clenched facial expression that she hoped resembled a grin, she said, ‘Hi, welcome to the human race. You’ll find we’re not invulnerable.’
The look that Max gave her was unreadable, and he gave it for a good few seconds. Then he got up.
‘Can you walk? Jessie wants to speak to us both.’ He snorted back a laugh. ‘Seems Brac’s got one last kick in it before we can finally lay it to rest.’
Prisoners, that’s what they were. Their guard - a huge mutant in a T-shirt several sizes too small - didn’t need to say it for Kabela to know it. The sky was a melting orange as he escorted them through Elara.
According to Max, she’d been unconscious for two nights, the third well on its way when she finally woke up. Given that this was Max, that had stretched their conversation to its limits, but Kabela didn’t mind, because there was plenty to look at. Rusty barrels crackling with low fires for one; for two, the figures that huddled around the barrels. In those huddles, Kabela saw a variety of shapes and expressions, and heard a range of whispers that became one with the hissing fires. As they passed one barrel, a figure nodded her way and tapped two fingers to his forehead - the non-glasses gave him away. They swapped smiles.
By the time they came to enter a huge civic-looking building, the sky had dimmed with night to a soft red, and swirls of lazy clouds gave it blueish purple highlights. Beautiful.
This was in contrast to the building that they now stood in. When compared to the rest of the tipping town, it was relatively flat, when compared to the standards that Kabela required of buildings that she entered, it was rather worryingly not.
Oh, and half of it was missing.
There was movement to her side, and she turned to see the guard and his T-shirt fade into the gloom. She could still sense his presence though, and others’ too; alert, waiting. Fair enough: in all honesty, she and Max had been treated with more respect than she suspected that they deserved.
Now she took the opportunity to look around properly - but not up, at the ceiling’s slope, and not over there, where doorways led to stars - and saw more burning barrels, lighting the place in an orange light that chased skittering shadows up the walls. And, in the room’s centre, an impressive desk that suggested they were waiting in what had once been some kind of reception lobby. Though why the desk had survived and every other bit of furniture hadn’t was a mystery that would have to remain so.
From one of the doors that still led to other rooms, a murky figure approached and soon resolved into Jessie. She’d been forced to make a concession to clothing by her arm: it was wrapped in a sling. She also trailed a couple of lackeys who in turn were dragging three chairs. When Jessie arrived, the lackeys busied themselves arranging the chairs in front of the welcome desk, two of which Kabela saw were boring and wooden. One, however, was a green deckchair that looked particularly comfortable.
Which it was, because after a gesture from Jessie, Kabela promptly sat in it.
‘Glad to see you’re up and about, Ms Kabela. For a while, I had worried you’d been trampled to death.’
Nope. But when those mutants had charged, Max had worried similarly - although admittedly that worry had come attached to concerns for Billy’s safety.
‘To business, then,’ said Jessie. ‘You understand, of course, why it’s only you two here. Your male friend, Mr Mark, he needs no explaining. We have him... secure.’ No no no, Max did not like that pause. That pause was pregnant and the thing inside it came with claws. And Kabela’s face - but Jessie continued. ‘Anyway. As for the boy - well, I couldn’t deny a request from my pretty eyes.’
‘He needs rest,’ said pretty eyes.
‘Indeed. So. Here’s how it goes. You’re each of you alive not because of any attachment I have, or what pretty eyes has told me, no: I simply do not like death. Enough of that goes on already without me contributing. However’ - Jessie’s finger made a point - ‘make no mistake, you are my prisoners, and will remain so until further notice. Got that?’
For the time being, Max chose not to argue. Kabela’s eyes narrowed before she nodded.
‘Good. Let’s not dwell on it. Truth is, all this talk about Brac, it’s brought back some memories. See, Ms Kabela, Brac used to be my home. And after pretty eyes told me what happened to the place...’ A nice, normal smile that Max now knew for a front, then: ‘Well, I’m in the mood for a story. And you two are in the mood to listen.’ Not a question.
Besides, Jessie was right. Max wouldn’t object to hearing the rest of her tale: thus far, while Kabela was out, Jessie had given him scraps and nothing more. So:
‘All of us here in Elara once lived in Brac.’
And while the woman spoke, Max became aware of figures gathering round in the flickering gloom. But not to keep watch on the prisoners; to listen. As his and Kabela’s T-shirted guard squatted down to the side, Max was put in mind of a mother telling her children a bedtime tale. Then he thought of Billy, and immediately concentrated hard on what Jessie was saying.
‘We aren’t that many - a fair proportion of us were there at your, well, let’s say capture and leave it at that - but each of us used to be citizens of that good town. Spicerat?’
Oh, spicerat. One of the lackeys from earlier was proffering a plate of skewered things, honeyed and glazed to a crisp, with pronged tails ready to snap. Tempting, but meat and therefore no longer for Max. Not for Kabela either, judging by her expression. Though there was one connoisseur of all things rodent that Max thought with sadness might appreciate what was on offer.
Jessie did too, scooping and stuffing and through munches smiling happily. ‘A fine delicacy. Nicely done, my compliments to the chef. What was I saying? Yes, Brac. We all lived there. Ruled by, as I now understand, Andrew Mark’s father. What was his name... James? No, Jan- something. No. It’s gone. Oh well.
‘Whatever he was called, he was a decent enough fellow. Back then, Brac was still searching for other survivors, other towns that it might establish contact with. And everyone you see here, me, the rest, we made up one of the search parties. “Four weeks,” Mr Mark said. I remember that clear as day. “Out for two weeks, back for two weeks.” I’ll grant you, not the most efficient way to search, and anyway, we were far too many, but we were none of us experts, none of us really knew what we were doing. Trouble was, well, that was the trouble. No maps, no guides, and’ - Jessie coughed on a particularly uncooperative tail - ‘well, we got lost. Four weeks turned into what we guess was about ten months. In that time, we naturally found no other towns, but I did manage to give birth somewhere along the way. Not bad, eh, pretty eyes? Dad’s gone, but Neville’s not: say hello, Neville.’
The gloom bowed as Neville did as he was bid. In his mind, Max painted the finishing touches on a picture.
‘The other thing to happen was that we encountered another search party - we didn’t know it then but we were actually stumbling back Brac-way - and these guys had different a problem. See, the rocks had got on to them, and their problem involved things happening in places where traditionally you wouldn’t expect things to happen, if you know what I mean.
‘And soon after, their problem became ours. I was given these fine warts, others got more elaborate gifts. Still, this other group were slightly better at orienteering than us, and they knew the way home. Which, after a while, is the way we went.
‘Unfortunately, old Mayor Mark had passed on by that stage. In his place, we had young Andrew, confused, just a little scared, and with a real nasty dislike for muties. Yeah, we took the hint all right.
‘And we ended up here. The skeleton of an old city seemed as good a place as any to settle down in, had a real nice feel about it actually, and there was a steady supply of food that headed through it as well. Of course, later we found out about the world’s eye. You know, I’ve always meant to head out there, specially with it being right on our doorstep, so to speak, but... well, the truth is, most of us kind of like it here. I get to play leader, there’s a fantastic view out my window each morning, and if there’s one thing the rocks have taught me, it’s that when you’ve got yourself a good thing, you hold on to it tightly and you do not let it go. So, yes, maybe one day, but right now, this is home.’
Jessie crunched a spacerat. Max stood back and viewed his recently completed picture.
‘Something on your mind, pretty eyes?’
‘Yes. Your son. Your first son, I mean. You left him in Brac?’
‘Correct. If there’s one thing I regret, it’s that. I wish I could have taken Neville, Neville Senior, with me. By the time I came to leave it, I have a feeling that Brac wasn’t all it could have been. But the Franks family... we’re strong. Neville will have found his way eventually.’
And then it hit her, visibly so. ‘Wait, how the hell did you know I had another son?’
‘Met him. When I was in Brac. He was a guard.’
Jessie’s voice was suddenly hungry, despite all the spacerats. ‘Tell me about him, Max. What was he like?’
Since he had no reason not to, Max obliged the wart woman. He couldn’t bring the story that he told to a firm close: Neville was probably dead, but then, this world was full of improbabilities. So who knew.
If the faint smile on her face was anything to go by, Jessie did. ‘Thank you,’ were the words she had for Max, and that was left at that.
Kabela. Reclining in the deckchair that Max hadn’t been quick enough to get.
‘Yes, dear?’ said Jessie.
‘Why were you only going to let Max through Elara?’
‘Oh, that. A silly thing, really. Doesn’t matter now anyway, given how you’re all staying here till I work out what to do with you.’
‘So why?’ asked Kabela, leaning forward. Max eyed the deckchair: it did look rather comfy. ‘Was it because of Max’s mutation?’
‘His mutation? His mutation?’ When Jessie laughed, Max smiled with her. So concerned about difference. ‘Why, my dear, we’re all mutated. Been that way ever since we crawled from the slime on our bellies. Before then.’ She grinned. ‘But what about the rocks, you’re thinking, right? Well, granted, it may be what the rocks do, how they bring things down to their level - mutate things, change things - but that’s not doing anything new. It’s just that with the rocks, well’ - Jessie tapped her head - ‘they change things up here too. And trust me, Ms Kabela, while the extent may vary, up here is a place where the rocks are within us all.’
Kabela’s look said: yeah, yeah, whatever; Kabela said: ‘So why? Why tell us to go back?’
Grinning again, Jessie sent a sly wink Max’s way. Max took it and rolled his eyes: such creatures in this new world!
‘Why, you say?’
‘Yes, why, I say! I’d like to know! Tell me!’
The wart woman spread her arms, and her grin now rivalled Andrew’s most mischievous. ‘Why? Because I felt like it.’ A shrug. ‘Why not?’
While Kabela spluttered and searched for an answer that she wouldn’t find, Max was out of his chair, striding back to his room. Mr T-Shirt materialised at his side, and the naked woman’s mad chuckles chased them both into the night. Yeah, yeah, whatever. Billy was waiting, the world’s eye called come on in, and it was high time he put his escape plan into motion.