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Tim Lebbon

CONTAGION

This one’s for Dan the Man.

CHAPTER ONE

SEVENTEEN

Jack viewed the endless stars, the incredible depth of space, and the sense of eternity surrounding him, but he was not afraid. He belonged in this universe deep inside himself. With effort, he would flex it to his will.

He moved quickly, flitting from star to star and orbiting briefly as he considered the gifts they might bestow upon him. Some he recognised, because he had used them before. Others were mysterious, massive and cold, closed to him for now. He did not like such mystery, but now was not the time to probe them.

A few were ready to reveal themselves, and it was these he sought.

“Get a bloody move on!”

Jack blinked away the voice, frustrated. Leave me alone! He drifted through those interior constellations, closing on one blue star that seemed to pulse each time he blinked. The blueness belied its deep, hot heart, and he plummeted, delving inside and surrounding himself with its wonder.

“For shit’s sake, Jack!”

Sparky, shut up! he thought. He wanted to speak, but feared that might break his concentration. When he rose, he had to drag their salvation with him.

He felt a hand grasp his arm and pull him down, and as he struck the hard ground, gunshots echoed across the vastness of his perception.

Okay, now, here we go, I’m ready to

In the distance, something red. It was unlike anything he had seen before. It seemed to swell, as if reacting to his noticing it. A deep, bloody red object, too large for a star, larger than many constellations, and seeing it brought him suddenly, terrifyingly close. The red thing was covered with swirling storms and tumultuous explosions, and more than anything it showed him the sheer scale of this inner world he had discovered.

No, not discovered. Been given. Because this had been thrust upon him, and any sense he had of control was surely balanced on a knife-edge.

“Jack, we’ve got about three seconds until—”

One

Jack circled the red object, and it throbbed. Each pulse matched the beating of his heart.

Two

He pulled away, rising up and out of himself. The red giant watched.

Three

And as he emerged into the chaos of the toxic city of London once more, he realised something awful.

That red thing within him was alive.

Gunfire stitched the wall above their heads. Smashed brick rained down on them, some shattered shards kissing across Jack’s forearm. Blood weeped. It made him shiver.

Sparky was staring at him, depending on him. Behind him, Jenna was sheltering Rhali with her own body, the girl still weak and confused from her terrible incarceration at Camp H.

They were trapped beneath an old brick railway arch, pinned down by three Choppers who had almost literally driven into them. As he and his friends had run for cover, Jack had barely had time to be glad that his sister and mother were already out of London. And then the gunfire had begun. There was no demand that they surrender, no negotiation. These Choppers had been told to shoot on sight and were glad to do so.

With each fusillade of bullets they’d been forced deeper beneath the arch as the Choppers ventured closer, their angle of fire changing. Behind them, heavy steel gates and gratings cut off any hope of retreat. The space beneath the archway smelled of damp, piss, and hopelessness.

But Jack was far from helpless.

He stood, took in one deep breath, and shouted.

His voice bore weight and heat. He pushed the power that had changed his father into the monster called Reaper, and the air before him blurred with the terrible energies unleashed. Combined with the heat of the new talent he had just touched, the destruction was awful. Loosened bricks were smashed from the high arch’s outer curve, shattering in the air and peppering the buildings across the street with molten shrapnel. Windows burst inward, glass shards melted, doors smashed open, and several vehicles resting on flat tyres were flipped onto their sides and crushed against the buildings—a pub, a betting shop, several boarded-up homes. Window frames ignited. Car tyres flowed.

Jack knew there were three Choppers hiding behind these vehicles, but he felt very little remorse. Not then. That, and the guilt, would come later.

As his incredible shout faded, its echoes were replaced by the musical tinkle of falling glass and the patter of brick fragments. A Mercedes that had been crushed against the pub’s front wall tilted, creaked, then fell back onto its tyres with a dull crash. Its heated metal ticked and groaned as it cooled. A shape slid down the wall behind it, leaving a dark smear against the brickwork. Night hid the full scene from Jack, and for that he was glad.

“Bloody hell,” Sparky said.

“Keep down,” Jenna said. She shifted forward, signalling to Rhali that she should stay back as far as she could.

“Jenna, careful!” Jack said. She went to her knees to look out into the dark street. There was moonlight, and a starscape that made Jack feel uncomfortable. And he knew also that there were night scopes and heat detection equipment, and that any Choppers watching would not have been shocked into immobility at his display of power. His father’s use of it had killed many of their comrades, after all.

“I think they’re down,” Jenna said.

Down. She could have said dead, Jack thought. Or crushed, or smeared across the road. But instead she tells me that they’re down. He could have searched for a power and sensed outwards, perhaps, looking for signs of pain or indications of life. But right then he had no wish to revisit that constellation of potential still growing inside him. Not when that red thing was there as well.

“Then let’s get the hell out of here,” he said. “We need to hide low ’til daylight, plan what to do.”

“Finding Lucy-Anne is what we do!” Sparky said.

“Yeah,” Jack said. He looked at Rhali and smiled. She did not smile back. He wondered what damage she must have suffered, physically and mentally, at the hands of the Choppers and their sick leader, Miller. Perhaps soon he would ask. “But first we’ve gotta find somewhere to rest. We can’t run into another Chopper patrol, not now. They’re out for revenge for what’s happened to their mates, and…”

“And you’re tired,” Jenna finished for him.

“Yeah. Exhausted.”

“Pussy,” Sparky said.

Jack smacked him playfully across the shoulder, and they hurried quickly along the street. He did not once look back. But that could not stop him from thinking of the people he had just killed.

During his brief time in London he had already witnessed so much violent death. One death was too many for someone of his age, but he had seen many more than that—Choppers killed by Reaper, and Fleeter, and other Superiors in their ongoing game of cat and mouse in the remains of London; Irregulars caught in the crossfire; and the shelved and jarred remnants in Camp H, grim evidence of Miller’s inhuman vivisection of the Doomsday

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