From Chapter 2
[Ferren and Miriael are travelling from tribe to tribe, persuading all Residuals to join the Residual Alliance. They’ve taken shelter overnight under a deserted overbridge. In the morning, they wake and eat and plan their next move, when …]
‘We’re unstoppable!’ [Ferren] talked between mouthfuls as he chewed. ‘Seventeen tribes already in the Residual Alliance – this next will be our eighteenth! And we haven’t failed with a single one! Who’d have guessed? … We must’ve covered almost the whole continent!’’
Miriael smiled. Ferren was a quick and clever learner, but he still had a poor sense of geography. ‘No, only a tiny part of it. A hundred miles in every direction.’
‘Oh.’ Ferren digested the information as he digested a handful of nuts. ‘This is the furthest east we’ve been so far, isn’t it? Have you ever seen the sea before?’
‘Yes. Looking down from high up, of course.’
‘How big …’ He broke off, frowned and stared.
Miriael was aware of it too. She spun around to face the pylon of the overbridge behind her. No doubt about it! The metal of the pylon was thrumming with tiny vibrations. In fact, the other pylons, the underframe and the deck above their heads all seemed to be vibrating.
Ferren sucked in breath. ‘Something’s coming! That’s what it is! Coming along the overbridge!’
He sprang instantly to his feet, and Miriael rose too.
‘I’ll see what it is!’ he cried. ‘Must be big!’
He mounted the concrete base of the nearest pylon and began shinning up like a monkey. Obviously he was going to take a look out along the top of the overbridge.
Must be big. His words echoed and re-echoed in her mind. As big as a transport convoy, for example. And she could recognise the direction from which the vibrations were coming …
She shook her head at her own stupidity. She’d been so sure that Heaven’s warrior angels would have defeated the Humen force last night. Instead, they’d failed! Whatever was approaching from the south was still approaching. And it was starting to sound even bigger than a transport convoy.
Looking up, she saw that Ferren had already completed his reconnaissance. She waited impatiently as he made his way back down.
‘Well?’ she called out when he was still ten feet from the ground.
‘I can’t tell, but a lot of them. Moving fast.’
‘We have to get away now.’
He jumped down and landed heavily. ‘If we can get away at all.’
The plain they had come across offered no cover. Coated with fine, grey powder, the surface was everywhere as hard and smooth as glass. They had seen many similarly unnatural effects of terra-celestial warfare during their three months’ travels.
Miriael crossed to the other side of the overbridge and surveyed their route ahead. For hundreds of yards, the surface continued unchanged; then suddenly grass sprang up. There was no telling if the grass grew tall enough to hide them.
‘It’s our best chance,’ she announced.
Ferren had collected their breakfast things and came up beside her with his pack on his back.
‘I don’t like it,’ he said, and grimaced. But he made no other suggestion of his own.
She set off running, and Ferren ran after her. With his short, powerful legs moving at twice the speed of her long, slender limbs, he soon overtook her. She focused on the grass ahead and willed herself to go faster.
Ferren, though, was looking south along the overbridge as he ran. ‘They’re too close!’ he cried, and pulled to a stop.
Miriael looked over her shoulder where he was looking – and her heart sank. The Humen force was very close, and it wasn’t a mere transport convoy but an army. Now visible over the sides of the deck on top, it advanced at a tremendous pace, a vast black horde glinting with shiny metal. She could see where it began, but not where it ended. No wonder the attacking angels had failed to halt it!
‘Back!’ Ferren reversed direction. ‘We’ll be seen!’
He was right. The grass was still several hundred yards away, and there were surely thousands of eyes that might turn to them at any moment. She could only pray they hadn’t been seen already. If they spotted her angel’s wings …
Ferren waited for her to catch up, and they ran back together. The deck of the overbridge soon screened them from the army on top once again. But the army on top wasn’t the only problem; further in the distance, Miriael noticed clouds of grey dust billowing along the sides of the overbridge. Clearly, more Humen forces were advancing at ground level.
‘What now?’ cried Ferren as they came in under the shelter of the overbridge again.
Miriael recovered her breath. ‘Did you see those dust clouds?’
‘We have to stay hidden from the sides as well as the top.’
‘What about here?’ Stepping across to where the concrete bases of two pylons didn’t quite meet, he indicated the narrow channel running between them. ‘I used to sleep in those spaces once. Could you fit?’
She eyed the channel, which was barely two feet wide by two feet deep, and shook her head. ‘My wings.’
He looked from the channel to her wings and back again. ‘No, I suppose not. We’ll have to use my other kind of sleeping place, then.’ He pointed up to the underframe that supported the deck high above their heads. ‘Up there.’
‘We hide from them by going closer?’
‘Yes. Can you climb a pylon?’
Miriael wasn’t too sure about the abilities of her physicalised body. ‘I’ll have to, won’t I?’ she said grimly.
The climb was a great struggle for her. The pylon had projecting bolt-heads that she could hold onto, but her fingers didn’t have much strength for gripping. Nor did the necessary movements of her arms and legs come naturally; climbing like this, she had to work out how to use them in a whole new way. Ferren came up behind and guided her feet into place. Once, she slipped and trod on the top of his head.
All the time, the pylon and bolt-heads thrummed and quivered under her hands. No tiny vibrations now – now it was as though the structure wanted to shake her off and jump right out of her grip. The approaching army must be almost upon them!
‘Hang on!’ Ferren called out as she came at last to the bottom of the underframe.
She hung suspended as he clambered past her on the other side of the pylon. In the next moment, he had swung himself up into the frame and was leaning down towards her with an arm extended.
‘Take my hand!’ he cried.
She could hardly hear his words for the drumming in the metal all around, but she understood the gesture. She took hold of his hand, and he hauled her up into a crisscross forest of struts and braces. She found herself on all fours balancing on a horizontal girder.
‘Further in!’ he yelled, and she followed him as he crawled into the depths of the underframe.
Here, relatively little light entered from below. The darkness was broken only by cracks of light shining through slots in the metal plates of the deck over their heads. The deck was so close, she might have touched it with her fingers if she’d dared let go of the edges of the girder.
Everything was shaking all around. The noise built up and up, the front line of the army was almost upon them –
Then the darkness deepened as a sudden blackness blanked out the cracks of light. The Humen and their machines were marching and rolling right on top of them.
Ferren had travelled inside the belly of a thunderous, clanking mechanical monster, he had been in the middle of an almighty battle between Heaven and Earth – but he had never heard anything as loud as the din of the Humen war machines on the metal plates of the overbridge. Wheels, engines and caterpillar tracks passed over a mere couple of feet above his head.
He lay face up on his back, hands clamped tightly onto the girder beneath him. Everything was going blurry around the edges. The intensity of the vibrations shook him until his teeth rattled; the girder shuddered so violently, he was afraid of falling right off. Grit and dirt rained down on him until he had to screw his eyes shut.
With his eyes shut, the tremendous noise seemed to come even closer. Now it pressed directly into the bones of his skull, beating and battering, slamming and hammering. He couldn’t think, he had no mind – there was only the overwhelming. annihilating tidal wave of sound.
KERLANNG! KERLANNG! KERLANNG!
BRA-LUNNK! BRA-LUNNK! BRA-LUNNK!
He felt every sound as though it ran right over him. In a stunned sort of daze, his imagination began to create different sources for the different sounds. A grinding and grating meant caterpillar tracks … a high-pitched squeal was the stressed metal of axles and drive shafts … a deep, booming rumble came from massive wheels …
On and on and on it went. His muscles ached from staying clenched so long.
It was later, much later, when the sounds changed. Emerging from his daze, he registered the tramp of marching boots. The machines had gone past, and only the foot-soldiers of the Humen army remained. There were thousands of them all pounding the deck to the same marching rhythm, but the noise they made was like a lull compared to the thunder of the machines.
He registered something else too: no longer were bits of grit and dirt falling on his face. He opened his eyes a little, then a little more. Daylight was once more entering through the cracks between the plates of the deck. It shone through in the brief intervals between marching soldiers, flickering on and off from moment to moment. Ferren had the impression of an endless horde of shadows sweeping across over his head.
He also became aware of how hot it was. The passage of the Humen army had somehow warmed the air to a sweltering heat. Even the girder on which he lay seemed warm. But it was no longer shaking, and he no longer needed to hold on tight.
He raised himself on one elbow and looked round. Miriael was still there, stretched out on the same girder as himself. She too had propped herself on one elbow, and appeared to be gazing down through the underframe to the side of the overbridge.
He crawled along the girder towards her. Head-to-head, he hoped to make himself heard above the noise.
She saw him and smiled. ‘Good hiding place here.’
Ferren half-caught the words and half-read them on her lips. He brought his mouth up to her ear and raised his voice. ‘What are you looking at?’
She pointed by way of an answer, and he followed the line of her finger. To the side of the overbridge, a great cloud of grey dust billowed up from the ground. Of course, the Humen army had been advancing at the side of the overbridge as well as on top. When he stared into the dust, he saw dark, silhouetted shapes going past.
‘They can’t see us, can they?’ he asked.
‘No.’ A worried expression came over her pale face. ‘But I wish I could see them.’
Ferren took a second look at the shapes in the dust. They were foot-soldiers of some kind – but what kind? Unlike ordinary Hypers, they advanced over the ground in great, springy, six-foot strides. They seemed taller than ordinary Hypers too.
‘What are they?’
The angel shrugged. ‘No idea. They must be some new development. I saw new kinds of machine going past as well.’
‘Like nothing I ever heard about. They must come from another part of the continent. Maybe the North-West Basin or the Perth Complex.’
Ferren continued to stare into the dust cloud, vainly trying to pierce through the murk.
‘I could go and take a look out,’ he suggested at last, and pointed to the pylon at the side of the underframe.
‘Will you see any better from there?’
‘I think they’ve mostly gone past now.’
It was true, there were fewer shapes in the dust cloud now. But suddenly a new sound came to their ears, like a thud of giant footsteps. Ordinary soldiers were still marching past on top, but the new sound rose above the tramp of ordinary boots.
Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg!
Miriael’s expression of puzzled alarm was a mirror of Ferren’s own feeling. Louder and louder the footsteps rang out on the metal plates of the overbridge.
He moved one way along the girder and Miriael the other, both seeking something to hang onto. All around, the overbridge was resonating like a gong.Ferren found a vertical strut and wrapped his arms around it. Looking in the direction of the approaching steps, he fancied he saw the deck bulging downwards under the weight.
Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg! Thrungg!
For one brief moment, there were no shadows of ordinary soldiers marching across on top, and light shone uninterrupted through the cracks. Then came the greatest shadow of all. A giant footstep descended directly over Ferren’s head, darkening the underframe far and wide. Instinctively, he ducked and crouched lower. Perhaps he was only imagining the deck buckling and bowing, but he didn’t imagine the rivet that snapped and popped and went zinging past inches in front of his nose.
Thern followed another thrungg! as the next footstep came down five yards away; then another and another. Ponderous step by step, the sounds receding.
The relative hush was balm to his ears. Whatever had just gone past must have been at the very back of the Humen army. There were no more ordinary soldiers, and no more of the strange, striding soldiers by the side of the overbridge. In fact, the dust cloud there was starting to die down.
He moved back close to Miriael, whose brows were knit in a troubled frown.
‘Did you feel it?’ she asked at once.
Ferren didn’t understand. Of course he’d felt the shaking of there overbridge — how could he not?
‘I mean, like a pressure inside your head,’ she explained. ‘Like some great mind passing over. Some vast intelligence buzzing with a million calculations.’
‘No. I didn’t feel that. What was it?’
She shook her head. ‘I don’t know. I can guess where it’s heading, though.’
Ferren, when he thought about it, could guess too. ‘North to the Bankstown Camp?’
‘Exactly. The Humen must be sending reinforcements to rebuild their power there. I expected it to happen eventually – just not so soon.’
Ferren recalled the great battle fought over the People’s Home Ground three months ago. ‘But their leaders were all destroyed. We saw them.’
‘Their Doctors? Yes, but leaders can be replaced. There are other Doctors.’
Ferren said nothing for a while. Sounds of the army and the giant footsteps continued to diminish into the distance. Suddenly he came to a decision.
‘I’ll go and take a look now,’ he announced, and started off along the girder. He made his way past Miriael and on towards the pylon.
‘Don’t –‘ Miriael began, then changed her tone. ‘Just check there aren’t any stragglers following behind.’
He grinned and nodded. When he reached the side of the underframe, he stuck out his head and scanned all around. The dust was still rising from the ground two hundred yards ahead, but the strange soldiers were hidden inside the billowing cloud. There were no stragglers.
He hauled himself up on the outside of the oveerframe and came up level with the top of the overbridge. He looked along theroadway — and whistled in amazement.
Two hundred yards away, a gigantic figure lumbered along at the back of the Humen army. It was seventy or eighty feet high, like a tower against the s, .thick and heavy and lumpish – yet it had arms, legs and a head in the form of a human being.
‘What is it?’ Miriael had emerged from the side of the underframe and was climbing up after him.
‘It’s a monster.’ He took in the vast white medical coat that covered the figure down to its knees. So different to the puny, wheelchair-bound figures he’d seen in the past … but there was no doubt about it. ‘It’s a new kind of Doctor!’