Forager - by Peter R Stone
The Custodians' G-Wagon four-wheel-drive was the last thing I expected to see when I strolled into the large Recycling-Works yard a couple of minutes late for my shift. My boss, a balding, tall guy whose once-impressive muscles were slowly turning to flab, was talking – more like bowing and scraping – to the Custodian sergeant while three privates stood beside the G-Wagon with their Austeyr assault-rifles slung over their shoulders. The Custodians all wore their usual camo-pattern fatigues and were fitted out with kevlar bulletproof vests, and helmets.
Panic surged through me with such intensity that I had to fight the urge to flee, for they could be here for one reason and one reason only, and that was me. I must have slipped up somehow, a slip up that had allowed them to discover the secret I had gone to such lengths to hide from them my entire life. Now they would haul me away to their chop-shop and dissect me like a frog.
I glanced about frantically for my four workmates and spotted them slouching beside our battered old truck, their eyes darting about nervously. They too were unnerved by this unexpected arrival of a team of Custodians, and despite not knowing why they were here, I'm sure a whole host of minor misdemeanours they had committed were flying through their minds, as they wondered if they had been caught out.
My boss noticed I had arrived. He bowed deferentially to the sergeant and hurried over to me, puffing slightly from the effort. "There you are, Ethan."
"What's going on, Boss," I asked, unable to stop my voice quivering slightly, "Why are they here?"
"Starting from today, they'll be accompanying you on your foraging trips," he explained as he glanced back at them nervously.
"For what possible reason?"
"They said that due to increased Skel attacks on our foraging parties, the brass have decided that all foraging teams will be accompanied by Custodian squads from now on."
Just the thought of the Skel was disconcerting, and encountering the degenerate, demented savages out there in the abandoned ruins of the city of Melbourne gave me recurring nightmares. Nightmares of their mad eyes, fetid breath and body odour that reeked of decaying flesh, and their suits of armour made from the bones of the dead.
All the same, on the few occasions they had attempted to ambush my workmates and I, we had either driven them off or slain them, using prohibited weapons we had found while foraging.
"Boss, we don't need Custodians to keep us safe, we're more than capable of looking after ourselves," I protested as a profound sense of relief flooded through my entire being - the Custodians were not here because of me! My secret had not been discovered.
"This ain't negotiable, Ethan," he snapped, glaring at me from beneath busy eyebrows, "And don't give them attitude or lip; Custodians ain't known for their patience. Now come, let me introduce you."
Fuming inwardly, I followed the boss over to the Custodian sergeant.
"Ah, excuse me Sergeant King, this is Ethan, Ethan Jones. He is the leader of this foraging team," said my boss.
All the other foraging teams had already been dispatched, one every fifteen minutes, starting from six in the morning.
The sergeant had about five years on me I reckoned, and was one mean piece of work. He had a six-foot, well proportioned, muscular body (unlike mine - I was still in the lanky stage), and a pockmarked face that leered at me as though I had just been dredged up from the gutter.
"As I'm sure your boss has informed you, Mister Jones, we'll be accompanying your team on your foraging missions from now on. But don't mind us, just go on your business as usual. Our purpose is to keep you boys safe out there, not get in your way," the sergeant growled.
I bit back the first dozen answers that popped into my head, What a load of a baloney, What do you take me for? I wasn't born yesterday, and a selection of one or two word responses that normally never graced my lips, and finally settled upon, "Understood, Sergeant."
"I trust you have some system for determining where to forage each day?"
The way he accentuated the word 'system' sent thrills of fear surging through me again. Perhaps I had been too quick to think the danger had passed. "Ah, yes, past experience has given us a pretty good indication of where to look," which was true to a limited degree, "but today we're going to continue stripping out the apartment blocks we hit in Carlton yesterday."
"Alright then, lead the way," the sergeant ordered before he strode back to the G-Wagon.
My workmates met me before I reached our truck, their faces full of questions and complaints. I held up my hands to stall them. "Stow it, guys. We'll just have to get used to it, 'cause there's nothing we can do about it. Now hop in the truck."
Michal, our driver, clambered into the truck first, having to duck his head down just to get through the door since he easily topped six-foot-four; and at seventeen I suspected he hadn't finished growing. I clambered in beside him while Leigh, David and Shorty climbed into the back seat.
As they did so, Michal looked down at me, clearly displeased. "You gotta be more careful, mate."
"Me?" I asked, not having the slightest inkling of what he was referring to.
"Yes, Ethan, you," he confirmed as he turned the key in the ignition and pumped the accelerator gently to get the engine started. The truck was pretty old and I doubt there was a single part of it that hadn't been replaced or refurbished at some stage. "I'd wager my bottom dollar they're here 'cause they want to find out why our team brings in more metals than the others."
Our team was one of many that foraged in the ruins outside for non-corrosive metals, such as gold, platinum, copper, bronze and lead, that had survived the decades since the Apocalypse. We would take them back to the Recycling-Works where they would be sorted, melted down, and then handed over to the manufactories.
"What do you mean, Michal?" I replied, feigning ignorance.
"Them other three goons," he whispered as he jerked his head back to indicate our three workmates, "they ain't too bright. They think you just know the best spots to look, but not me, no. I've seen you."
That sent icy tendrils of dread creeping back into my gut. "Seen me what?"
"You can drop your act with me, okay?" he said softly as he shifted the truck into gear and drove it out of the Recycling-Works yard and towards the town gates. "I've heard about people like you, and you're secret's safe with me. Just don't hit pay dirt today, 'cause those Custodians, they're not here to protect us from the Skel like they claim, otherwise they'd have brought a Bushmaster instead of that G-Wagon."
He was right, and I knew it. The Custodians always rode in their Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicles when going into situations they perceived as potentially dangerous. That they came in an unarmoured G-Wagon today proved they were not expecting to encounter Skel as they claimed. So that was just a smokescreen to cover their true intention - which was to find out which of us had my aberrant, mutant ability: the ability I used to locate the metals we were looking for.
What was wrong with me - what kind of fantasy world did I live in? I chided myself. How on earth had I convinced myself I could get away with bringing back a load of non-corrosive metals every time, never once coming back empty-handed. We told the boss we just knew where to look, not to mention being extraordinarily lucky. But that kind of naivety really showed just how out of touch I was with reality - or was it the arrogant thinking typical of teenagers, thinking we could get away with anything. For the Custodians were relentless in hunting down those with genetic mutations. Ninety-nine percent were detected before birth and resulted in the unborn child being terminated. Anyone else found with such mutations were taken away and never seen again.
These ruminations triggered one of my strongest childhood memories. I was five-years-old and following some boys from my block of flats to school, merrily humming to myself. An old Chinese gentleman had suddenly popped out from behind a pillar, grabbed me and pulled me back into the shadows with him. He had knelt down and forced me to meet his gaze. "You must hide your ability, child," he had said. "Hide it from everyone, even your family - do not trust anyone! Because if the Custodians find out you have it, they will haul you away and dissect you like a frog. You understand me, child? Like a frog!"
And then he walked off, leaving me shaking in fear - of him and of what he had said. I had already known I was different, and I most definitely did not want to die like that!
"So where are we heading today, boss?" Michal asked, snapping me out of my reverie.
"Back to where we went yesterday. There's still plenty of copper we can strip out there," I said. Normally there was not much to find in the way of useful metals that close to the CBD - Melbourne's Central Business District. That whole area had been stripped virtually clean by foragers over the decades. However, yesterday I had struck pay dirt when I found an old apartment block that still had copper pipes rather than the plastic ones they had used in later years.
"Hey Jones, why do you reckon the Custodians are going to accompany us on our trips from now on?" asked Leigh.
I twisted the rear-view mirror so I could catch a look at him as I answered. Leigh was a wiry built individual with spiked auburn hair, and was eighteen-years-old like myself. He was a typical school dropout - not bright and full of lip. We had to watch him near authority figures to keep him in line before he got himself into too much trouble. "To keep us safe from Skel attacks, according to them," I replied.
"Oh come on, Skel? I'd bet my bottom dollar they're here to make sure we 'behave' out there, to rob us of the only freedom we've got left," Shorty retorted angrily. Shorty was our youngest member, having recently dropped out of school. With long white-blonde hair, he was a whole head shorter than I, but was as nimble as a monkey. He could climb anything and get through virtually any gap or hole.
"They probably think we're doing drugs or having wild sex parties out there," said Leigh.
"I wish!" Shorty agreed rather too enthusiastically.
"Which one?" David asked, laughing. Of Chinese origin, David was our Mr. Fix-it, an absolute whiz with anything mechanical, whether putting them together or pulling them apart.
"Um, both?" Leigh replied, grinning.
"And where do you suppose they think we're finding the drugs and women?" Shorty demanded.
"You'd be surprised," David answered seriously from where he sat watching out the window. "Before you joined us, Shorty, we found a whole stack of sealed tins packed with airtight bags of drugs."
"Fat lot of good that haul did us, Jones made us burn the lot," Leigh protested.
"He what?" said Shorty, staring at me as though there was something seriously amiss with my head.
"That was for your own good!" I protested, remembering the horrified expression on Leigh's face when I gave the order - and then stayed to make sure they followed it.
"But...but if you'd sold it you'd have been set for life! You know, I've got some contacts..." Shorty complained. He was definitely on the same page as Leigh.
"Selling drugs is an automatic death sentence, Shorty," I shot back at him, "and don't get me started on how they can totally mess up your life."
"Custodians are a confounded waste of space, can't they find something useful to do with their lives apart from ruining ours?" Leigh moaned. "Hey Jones, let's introduce 'em to some real Skel today - bet they soil themselves and go runnin' home to mummy."
"Yeah, that's the ticket! Do it Jones, do it!" Shorty said, practically bouncing up and down in his seat.
"As attractive as that sounds, I wouldn't wish Skel on anyone, not even Custodians. We are supposed to be on the same side, remember?"
"Yeah, but do they know that?" Shorty asked pointedly.
"Pipe it down guys, the gates are up ahead," Michal announced firmly as the massive metal gates loomed up ahead. A twelve-foot high, outwardly-curving concrete wall, topped with spikes and barbed wire, ran the perimeter of the entire town. There were only three exits, each with two tall metal gates that rarely ever opened, as the only people permitted to leave the town were foragers and the Custodians, and the latter virtually never did so. Well, until today that was.
We stopped at the gates so that Michal could show the Custodians guarding the gates our papers. They examined them carefully and then strolled down to talk with the Custodian squad following us. Using the rear-view mirror, I watched them talk with Sergeant King for a few minutes, before they returned and gave back our papers. The gates swung slowly open on well-oiled hinges and Michal finally drove out of Newhome with the Custodians' G-Wagon close behind.
We crossed the 250-metre wide no-man's land that surrounded Newhome where all the buildings had been demolished, so that no one could approach the town unseen by the guard towers on the walls. Heading for Victoria Street, we entered North Melbourne’s eerily quiet and empty streets of slowly decaying buildings in the process of being overgrown by shrubs, creepers, trees and wild grasses. Wrecks of rusting vehicles littered the roads as well, but not in great numbers, for most of the city folk who had survived the bomb had taken their cars when they fled to the country after the water, gas and electricity cut out. Unfortunately, most of them had died of starvation, malnutrition and disease, for the country towns that had not been bombed were unable to cope with the influx of a couple of million people.
The buildings in this part of the city were relatively intact, apart from having their windows blown out when the nuclear bomb hit Melbourne, or due to vandalism or foragers. The bomb that had hit Melbourne must have had the wrong co-ordinates, for it had hit the southeastern suburbs, leaving the city's Central Business District mostly intact. I could see it now, dominating the skyline ahead of us, a motley assortment of skyscrapers of varying heights and designs. We had only been in there a few times, for many of the buildings looked structurally unsafe, plus, there were 'things' in there - I hesitate to call them people - that made the Skel seem friendly. Besides, there are still plenty of resources to scrounge up from the suburbs.
As we drove I pondered what Shorty said; that the Custodians were with us to curb the only freedom we had left. I wondered if he was right - perhaps Michal and I were being paranoid. Yet if he was right, that meant it was for naught that I had spent years of effort downplaying my intellect and abilities in school so that I could flunk school and get a job as a forager. Only foragers were allowed out of Newtown on a regular basis, and I needed that freedom. While foraging was the only time I could feel free and alive, for it was only out here that I could use my special abilities without danger of being caught. Alas, thanks to the Custodians, that was no longer the case.
I had another dream; one I kept on the back burner of my mind, and that was to go AWOL one day when we were foraging and never come back. However, I couldn't do that in the immediate future, for Younger Sister was ill and I was the only one in our family willing to buck the system to help her out.
With our truck in the lead, we eventually reached Victoria Street and headed east through a ghost city of eerily silent shops, hotels, and office blocks, and finally into Carlton, where we found the ten story apartment building we had raided yesterday. Michal drove around the rusting shell of a semi-trailer and turned off Victoria Street into an extremely picturesque side street. Trees flourished down the length of the street, casting it into shade. Sparrows fluttered about the ground and twittered in the branches, while crows cawed from rooftops. It was one of the most peaceful and tranquil spots we had encountered, though sadly, it was in appearance only, for Skel could be found anywhere in Melbourne’s ruins.
The G-Wagon pulled up beside our truck. Sergeant King and two of his goons climbed out, leaving the driver inside the vehicle. As they glanced about nervously at the trees and high-rise buildings that crowded around us, the typical arrogance that radiated from Custodians was absent. In fact, they weren’t just uncomfortable, but nervous too, and that gave me a great deal of pleasure. This was quite probably their first time outside the town.
"What next, Jones?" the sergeant barked.
Picking up a crowbar, I pointed at the ten-storey apartment block to our right. "We worked the first two floors yesterday, so we'll be hitting the third and fourth today. Are you coming in with us?" And as an afterthought I added, "Hopefully there won't be any Skel in there."
King's eyes widened ever so slightly. "Ah, no, it is imperative that we remain out here and guard the vehicles."
‘Guard the vehicles?’ What a convenient excuse to stay outside where they felt safer. It also enabled them to watch the monitoring device they had brought in order to catch me if I used my 'gift.' Well, news to them, I wasn’t going to comply. On the other hand, knowing that I could not use my ability today made me feel naked and exposed. If they weren’t here I would have already scoped out the immediate area and would know if there were any Skel waiting in ambush. I looked up at the ominously dark apartment building that reached up to blot out the clouded-over sky, and at the trees and bushes that ran wild throughout the street, all of which made perfect hiding spots. And I shivered. Today we would have to do it the hard way.
"You ready, Ethan?" Michal asked as he hefted a sledgehammer over his shoulder.
"Coming," I answered, and then turned to say one last thing to the valiant Custodian leader. "Oh, Sergeant, try not to stand too close to the building, because we'll be tossing all the copper we find straight out the window. We don't want a stray piece striking one of you guys on the head, eh?"
King glared at me, fully aware that I was both warning and mocking him at the same time. "Point taken," he sneered.
I hurried after the others. They were already tramping into the apartment block's darkened foyer. Bringing up the rear, I walked carefully over a floor covered with shattered glass and caked with wind-blown dirt. I hesitated a moment for my eyes to adjust, noticing that although weak light came in through the windows, the far end of the foyer with the now silent elevator shaft and stairwell was shrouded in pitch blackness.
Shorty moved to the fore and switched on his powerful torch, playing its beam over the room. Following him, I reached out a hand to stay him and then began clicking my tongue on the roof of my mouth. I had never used flash sonar, more commonly known as echolocation, in such a mundane manner outside Newhome before, but with the Custodians waiting outside, I was not going to do it the way I normally did it - for I was paranoid the Custodians could have some form of ultrasonic detector in the G-Wagon. I had never heard of them having such a thing, but I couldn't be too careful.
"Whatever are you doing, Jones?" Leigh demanded.
"Shh, I can't hear nothing if you keep yabbering," I snapped, and went on clicking.
By listening to the echoes of my tongue-clicks with my extremely sensitive hearing, I quickly ascertained that there were no Skel in the room; however, a metallic object that had not been there yesterday was near the elevators. I grabbed Shorty's hand and moved the torch beam over to the object I had detected. It was concealed by a dirty, torn rag, but the thin metal wire than ran from the object to the other side of the room twinkled in the torch light.
David took a few steps forward. "A Skel booby trap?"
"That's my guess," I confirmed, resisting the urge to flee the room as fast as I could. I hated Skel booby traps.
"That means Skel are nearby - we gotta get out of here!" Leigh said in panic as he backed towards the door.
"Not necessarily, just that they're in the general vicinity," I said.
"That bomb wasn't there yesterday, which means they saw us and put it there on the off chance we'd be back. And here we are, so let's get out of here!" Leigh wailed. Sometimes he really got on my nerve.
"I reckon they'll be laying low with those armed Custodians out there," Michal mused quietly.
"David, is it easy to disarm it, or should we just step over the trip wire?" I asked.
“I ain’t stepping over no wire,” Leigh declared.
"It looks simple enough - keep the torch on it, will you Shorty?" David said as he picked his way slowly over to the rag-covered bomb.
"And we're just going to stand here while he pokes at it?" Leigh asked incredulously, his voice reaching an octave higher.
"Relax Leigh," David laughed, "There's nothing to worry about with this one."
"That's what you said with that spring-loaded spear gun..." Leigh said as he backed quickly towards the doorway.
"Done!" David announced suddenly. In that impossibly small amount of time he had removed the trip wire, pulled the bomb apart and even removed its detonator.
"You’re a miracle worker, Mister Chen!" I said as I stepped forward and clapped him on the back. "I knew there was a reason we'd brought you along."
"Ha ha," was David’s response.
I took the detonator from him and stuffed it in my pocket. Never knew when something like that might come in handy. "Right, up we go!" I announced as I strode without hesitation towards the stairwell.
Leigh was beside me in a moment. "Just keep doing that clicking thing, okay Jones? I'd rather not get blown up today."
"Just today?" I asked as I pushed open the door to the stairwell and let Shorty take the lead, his torch panning left and right. "Okay guys, ninja mode." I had spent many hours teaching the guys how to move silently through any environment. It was something I had worked on throughout my school years - trying to walk so softly that I could not hear my own footsteps - a task that had proved impossible due to my extremely sensitive hearing.
Shorty lead the way up the stairs while I followed, clicking at random intervals in the silence of our passage. To our relief, no more booby traps awaited us in the stairwell.
We left the stairwell on the third floor and entered a long corridor with apartment doors on both sides. Those on the right overlooked the side-street where the truck and G-wagon were parked. I checked out the first two rooms with tongue-clicks to see if there were any more booby traps or Skel waiting to jump us. Finding neither, we set to work.
Shorty, David and Leigh took the first apartment, while Michal and I took the second. The door was already hanging off its hinges, so getting in was a cinch. The foyer, lounge and dining room were combined in one long room, with muted sunlight filtering in through the aluminium window frames devoid of glass. And as to be expected, the room was an absolute mess. Plaster panels were hanging from walls and had fallen from the ceiling, exposing rotting wooden beams; threadbare sofas that revealed more of their rusting skeletal frames than their original form were tipped over; and dirt and leaves covered everything.
Michal switched on a battery powered lamp, lead us to the bathroom, and put the lamp on the floor. We set to removing what was left of the plastic and plaster walls with sledgehammer and crowbar, and then got stuck into the copper plumbing. After a century of neglect there was no point trying to separate the pipes from their couplings, nuts and unions, so we just cut them with a hacksaw, or in Michal's case, smashed them apart with his sledgehammer - brute strength had a subtlety all of its own. It was demanding work but we were well versed in it and soon had all the copper on the floor.
We scooped it up and headed over to the lounge room windows. Looking down, I saw Sergeant King and two Custodians standing at ease by the G-Wagon. The other private was still in the vehicle, probably with his eyes glued to the dashboard. A smile creased my lips as I imagined myself 'accidentally' tossing the pipes so far out the window that they hit the sergeant on the head.
"You thinking what I'm thinking?" Michal asked. The corners of his mouth were twisted up in a smile.
"Absolutely, and you know, it just may be worth dying for," I laughed, before turning to shout to the Custodians below. "Incoming!"
We tossed the pipes out the window. This was one part of the job that always gave me immense pleasure - if not a headache as well. The noise made by that many copper pipes when they hit the ground from a third story drop was rather substantial. And even though they had been warned, the Custodians still jumped.
The next job was to strip the copper out of the toilet, but even as I contemplated doing so, a painfully loud bang shattered the still morning air.
The Custodians had heard the sound too, for they had unslung their Austeyr assault-rifles and were looking apprehensively towards Victoria Street.
Michal looked worried too.
"Come on, let's check it out," I said as I darted from the apartment. Having heard the explosion too, our other three teammates joined us and we hurried down the corridor together.
I sent a quick look at the others as we ran, "You guys finished stripping out that bathroom yet?"
"Well..." David answered sheepishly.
"Shorty..." I growled.
"Hey, why do you always blame me?" Shorty complained with mock indignation.
"If the boot fits..."
"Yeah, yeah," Shorty mumbled.
We reached the last apartment and barged in, picking our way quickly across the ruined lounge room. Glancing cautiously out the window that overlooked Victoria Street, I was shocked to see two large black cars under attack by Skel. The cars had been heading west towards Newhome and had run straight into an ambush. The lead vehicle had triggered a bomb - its front end had been virtually blown off and its driver and passenger killed.
The second vehicle had been more fortunate, having escaped the bomb's effects. Its driver and front-seat passenger were using their open car doors as cover while they fired their handguns every time they thought they spotted a Skel.
Their situation, however, was a hopeless one, for Skel armed with crossbows were furtively approaching the car on both sides of the road, using a rusting bus and two derelict cars as cover.
"We've got to help them or they'll be overrun by the Skel in minutes," I said as I sprinted out of the apartment.
The others raced after me, with Leigh at the back and grumbling as usual. "What's with the 'we' Jones, this ain't got nothing to do with us. Let's get out of here! I ain't never seen that many Skel in one place before!"
"Can we vote on it?" Shorty asked as we practically flew down the stairs and out of the building to reach Sergeant King.
"Sergeant," I said between gasps for breath, "Skel have ambushed two cars a hundred metres up the road. We've got to help them."
"We've got to do no such thing, Jones," the sergeant barked back, clearly offended that I should have the gall to tell him what to do. "Saddle up people, we're out of here."
I reached out a hand to stay the sergeant. "Sir, those cars - those people - are heading for Newhome. Surely it's our responsibility to find out where they're from and what they want."
"Jones, this is a foraging operation, not a combat mission. I'll call in reinforcements but for now, we've got to go. This is not our fight."
"That'll be too late!" I stressed, fully aware that we didn’t even have time to stand here arguing. "Sergeant, the guys and I have fought and killed Skel before, so this isn’t new to us. And,” I hesitated here, knowing that I was stepping on dangerous ground, “we are going to help them whether you come or not."
Without waiting for King's response, I rushed over to our truck and motioned for my team to join me. "Kit up mates; looks like we're doing this one on our own."
"Jones..." Leigh began to protest, his eyes wild.
"Shut it," I snapped as we unlocked and opened a large storage box between the truck's cab and bed. We quickly retrieved five seven-foot-long laminated bamboo and wooden bows (Shorty's was five-foot) and quivers full of specially sharpened arrows that could normally penetrate Skel bone armour. After months of searching I had found the bows and arrows hidden in the basement of martial arts weapons store. We strung the bows with practised ease and slung the quivers over our backs.
King's eyes were practically popping out of his head. "Civilians are forbidden to possess weapons of any kind! Now hand them over, get in your truck, and follow us. And that's an order!"
The crack of handguns firing could still be heard around the corner, but we were going to have to hurry or there would be no one to save. "Sergeant, it's a different world out here and requires different rules to survive." I turned to my team. "Come on guys. When we get to Victoria Street - Michal, David, Leigh, you go left, Shorty and I'll go right."
We had taken no more than a few steps when King called out again.
"Okay! You've made your point, we'll rescue your blasted visitors. But you guys can back us up. And when we get back home, there'll be a reckoning over this, Jones."
Having almost reached the corner, I turned back to face King. "Sergeant, what my lads and I are going to do is enter the buildings on either side of the road and then pop out behind the Skel and give 'em a taste of their own medicine. I strongly suggest you follow us."
The sergeant looked at the decrepit, decaying buildings and shook his head. "Hand-to-hand fighting with Skel in dark buildings is not what we signed up for. You wanna risk going in the buildings, go ahead, but it's straight down the road for us." With that, the sergeant called the driver out of the G-Wagon and ordered his men to form up on him.
Now that the driver was not in the G-Wagon, I was no longer afraid that he could be monitoring an ultrasonic detector - if there was one. I could finally use my flash sonar to its full potential - the tables had just turned on the Skel.
Skel always ambushed their victims, and they excelled at it. Attacking them frontally was suicide. However, every time my foraging team had gone up against them, we had overcome them by ambushing them in turn.
The lads and I raced over to the corner of the apartment building and looked at the scene unfolding on Victoria Street. Not much appeared to have changed; several Skel were still trying to get the drop on the two men from the second car, who would be out of ammunition soon, and then it would be over.
Keeping my back to the four Custodians who were running up behind us, I shouted several times with my voice pitched above the audio range that dogs could hear. Anyone watching me would have heard nothing and assumed I was yawning rather violently.
My brain automatically processed the ultrasonic echoes of my voice in a way similar to normal vision, except it allowed me to see in the dark, in shadows, and even through many materials to some degree or another. I could see someone’s heart beating in their chest, for example. There wasn’t any colour of course – the ‘vision’ created by the ultrasonic echoes had a semi-transparent, surreal effect to it. The louder I shouted, the further I could ‘see.’
That I could create and use ultrasonic echolocation in the same way that bats did was my abnormality. The Custodians said such abnormalities were nuclear-radiation caused mutations of the human genome that would pollute and destroy humanity if not ruthlessly exterminated. Personally, I thought of it as a gift, and thought everyone could benefit from it.
Now that I was much more aware of our surroundings, I quickly and inconspicuously whispered instructions to Michal. "Michal, see the corner building that overlooks the cars? There are two Skel with crossbows hiding behind the second window to the left, on the second floor. You three take them out and then provide covering fire for the rest of us from the window."
"Got it," he whispered back. Having one trustworthy person who knew about my gift was turning out to be not so bad after all.
There were four Skel creeping up on the second car: Shorty and I would slip around behind them and hit them in the rear.
Another six Skel were hiding amongst the ruined bus and cars, popping up now and then to fire their crossbows at the car’s defenders. As they were directly in front of the Custodians line of approach, I decided to let the Custodians deal with them.
"Okay, let's go!"
Michal, Leigh and David crept silently down the left side of the street, crouching low so as not to be seen as they headed for the corner building's doorway.
Shorty and I bolted across the road and into the abandoned shop on the opposite side. We dashed around rotting wooden bench tops, and over rusting metal chairs strewn about the floor, all the while treading carefully so that we made as little sound as possible. We ran through a kitchen that had been stripped clean of anything even remotely usable by vandals and foragers, and then out a side door into an enclosed courtyard shared with the adjacent single story brick building.
We pushed open the rotting wooden door of the adjacent building and rushed inside, hurrying through several rooms until we reached the foyer. The front door and all of the windows were gone, giving us a fairly good view of the street. In fact, a Skel was using the doorframe as cover from the Custodians, who were advancing up the road, firing short bursts from their assault-rifles.
The sight of the Skel standing there, waiting for his opportunity to murder innocent people, filled me with revulsion and anger. The disgusting savages did no work themselves, but constantly raided civilised towns and settlements to steal supplies, food and livestock, and abduct captives to be their slaves. It was from the bodies of the slaves - none of which lasted long - that they took the bones to make their armour.
I used hand signals to tell Shorty to take out the Skel to the left of the doorway outside. I would deal with the two to the right. But first we needed to eliminate the one in the doorway.
Dropping down to one knee so that my seven-foot bow would not touch the ceiling, I withdrew an arrow, fitted it to the bowstring and raised both arms above my head. As I lowered my arms, my left arm extended to its full length while my right hand drew the arrow back to my ear. I fired and the modified arrow flew straight and true, striking the Skel in the back, penetrating his hardened bone armour and lodging itself in his heart. The man collapsed to the ground like a marionette with its strings cut.
"Come on, let’s go!" Shorty hissed from beside me, his shorter bow drawn and ready.
I notched another arrow to my bow and nodded to Shorty, who sprang lithely through the doorway and turned left to despatch the Skel hiding just a few metres away. I ran out after him but turned to the right, expecting to see the backs of two Skel who were advancing on the second black car.
However, the closest one must have noticed his fellow collapse for his crossbow was aimed at my head. I didn’t have time to shoot at him, so I dodged to the right and thrust my bow inside the crossbow's mechanism and twisted up so that the weapon was no longer pointing at me.
The Skel screamed a hideous war cry and threw his bodyweight forward as he tried to untangle his weapon from mine. As I struggled to overcome him, I remembered why I loathed fighting these psychotic savages so much. Visible through his garish human-skull helmet, his eyes were wide open and bloodshot. His few remaining teeth were black and yellow; his breath stank, and he reeked of open sores, decay and filth, causing me to gag. His entire body, with the exception of his neck, was protected by hardened human bones; a human ribcage protected his chest, a pelvis bone covered his stomach, and smaller bones were strung between them with wire to cover any gaps. Even his arms and legs were encased with bone.
I tried to kick his groin but he noticed and countered my kick, driving his armoured shin into mine, denting it deeply. The pain was so overwhelmingly intense that I couldn’t breathe and my vision began to fade, causing me to stagger back, favouring my injured leg.
The Skel yanked his crossbow backwards, separating it from my bow. He swung it towards me, but before he could shoot, an arrow swished past my ear and embedded itself in the Skel's left shoulder, causing him to almost drop his weapon. I sent a mental 'thank you!' to Shorty, for he had just saved my life.
Having regained my breath, I threw my bow at the Skel's head, tore the crossbow from his hands, and then rammed it stock first into his skull-face armour three times in quick succession. Bone armour cracked and shattered, blood flowed, and the Skel fell against the wall and slid to the ground. It would be some time before he regained consciousness.
Glancing about apprehensively while using flash sonar, I saw that the two men who had been using the second car's doors as cover were lying on the road with crossbow bolts in their chests. The 4WD had two more passengers, and they were hiding on the vehicle’s floor between the front and back seats.
I watched the third Skel reach the second black car, fling open its rear-passenger door, and lift his crossbow towards the two people hiding on the car floor.
Luckily, the crossbow I had appropriated was still loaded, so I raised the weapon to my eye, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The bolt hit the Skel in the side of the neck and he collapsed, his bone armour clattering noisily when he hit the ground.
With my Skel opponents dealt with, I paused to survey the battle. Michal, David and Leigh had overcome the Skel across the road in the second story window and were kneeling and preparing their bows to provide covering fire. The Custodians had not fared well against the Skel, I realised with a pang of guilt. Two were down, slain by crossbows or rusty iron clubs, and King and his last man were desperately trying to fend off the last two Skel, who were hacking away at them with animal ferocity. The Custodians must have run out of ammunition for they were using their guns as clubs.
A massive Skel smashed King's gun out of his hands with such force that the lieutenant was knocked over. The Skel lifted his spiked club to finish him off, but five arrows hit him in the back in quick succession, courtesy of Michal, Leigh and David. Four arrows stuck in his bone armour without causing injury, but the fifth penetrated his armour and hit his spine, and he keeled over with a scream of rage. Shorty fired several arrows at the last Skel, and looking like a pincushion, the nomad finally went down when one of the arrows struck him in the neck.
All Skel accounted for, I tossed down the crossbow, retrieved my bow and hurried to the second black car. It was the biggest four-wheel-drive I'd seen, larger than the Custodians' G-Wagon. We didn't have many cars in Newhome, and certainly none like this one. I wondered where these people were from. I was distraught that for four of them, our rescue effort had been too late. On the other hand, I was relieved we'd been able to save the two who were still hiding in the floor space between the front and back seats of the car.
I limped slowly over to the car so that I wouldn't appear threatening and stepped past the open rear passenger door. Crouching on the floor between the front and back car seats was a middle-aged Asian man with his black hair cropped short, wearing a black suit and exuding an air of authority. I hazarded a guess that he was not Chinese.
I realised he was studying my face as closely as I was studying his. Perhaps he was unsure of our intentions. "And who are you with, young man?" he finally asked with an accent so peculiar that it took me a moment to work out exactly what he had said.
"We're from Newhome, and Sir, you're lucky that we just happened to be in the area today."
His face lit up with hope and he reached out to take my hands. "From Newhome? That is most fortunate!"
"So you are on the way to Newhome? That's what I thought. I'm so sorry we couldn't get here soon enough to save your companions," I said as I helped him step down out of the car. His hands were shaking slightly, but I was not surprised considering how close he had come to being killed by a Skel a minute ago.
The man bowed apologetically. "Please forgive me, but I do not speak English. I am from Hamamachi."
I stared at him in confusion regarding his claim that he couldn't speak English, for apart from his weirdly disturbing accent, he was doing just fine so far. "Oh, you're from the Japanese colony over near Inverloch," I said. From what I had heard, the colony had been established around the same time as Newhome. It had been founded by a Japanese whaling fleet that had been working the South Pacific when the bombs rained down. And rather than return to Japan, which was said to have been completely destroyed, the fleet made landfall near Inverloch and set up a colony there.
Having helped the Japanese man out of the car, I handed him over to Shorty, and then turned back to the car to help the remaining passenger get out. And then I froze, dumbfounded, for sitting on the floor between the chairs was a teenage girl, fifteen-years-old at a guess, and everything about her blew my mind. Over a black top and a pink-and-blue lace skirt she wore a faded light-blue jacket with black zebra stripes; she wore knee-high black boots over torn pink leggings; and around her neck was a black dog's collar, from which hung a silver bell and a pair of golden rings.
Her black hair was cut to about jaw-level and curved in towards her face, while her fringe, which had been died dark pink, reached below her eyebrows. A pair of much longer strands of hair, also pink, cascaded over her shoulders. The nose ring was another unexpected touch.
However, it was her dark brown eyes that caught my attention - they were completely encircled by thick, black eyeliner, and were studying me intently.
I don't know how long I stood there staring at her, and her me, but she finally flashed me a shy yet encouraging smile as she reached out a small, delicate hand. "I'm Nanako."
"Nice to meet you, Nanako - I'm Ethan," I replied hesitantly as I helped her out of the car. Nice to meet you? I berated myself. She had just watched Skel murder four of her companions and had been seconds away from being butchered herself, and that was all I could think to say?
I didn't realise how just how petite she was until she stood beside me - the top of her head only just came up to my chin. I stood there, holding her small hand, too confused by her strange appearance to form any coherent thoughts let alone speak, while she stood there looking up at me.
"Thank you for coming to our rescue, Ethan. I was terrified those Skel were going to..." her voice tapered off. I noticed that she spoke with the same, peculiar intonation as did her companion.
"It's okay, it's all over now," I assured her.
"Are you the one who shot the Skel that was about to kill Councillor Okada?" she asked.
"Yes, that was me," I confirmed. "And by the way, you speak English very well."
She tilted her head slightly to one side, and this time with a broad Australian accent, said, "I wasn't speaking in English."
"You weren't? Then what language were you speaking in?" I asked, perplexed. If she hadn't been speaking in English, how on earth could I understand what she was saying?
"I was speaking in Japanese," she replied, eyeing me curiously.
"Jones, get over here!" bellowed Sergeant King, interrupting any further attempts at conversation. "And bring the girl; I need her to translate what this guy is trying to tell me."
The sergeant was attempting to talk to the Japanese gentleman, Councillor Okada, but was getting nowhere, if the frustrated look on his face was any indication. Nanako and I hurried - well, Nanako hurried and I hobbled – towards the sergeant, who was getting a long gash on his arm bandaged by the only other surviving Custodian.
“You’re limping, Ethan, are you hurt?” Nanako asked with genuine concern as we joined the others.
“I’m fine, it’s just a bruise,” I assured her, surprised she had noticed.
Nanako nodded in understanding, and then began to translate what her companion, Councillor Okada, was saying to Sergeant King.
Councillor Okada and Nanako were representatives from Hamamachi, the Japanese colony near Inverloch, and were on their way to Newhome in the hope of initiating trade between our two towns. They had brought with them some of the goods they produced in Hamamachi; primarily electronic items such as microwave ovens, personal computers, mobile phones and cameras. He also expressed his very deep gratitude that we had arrived in the nick of time to save them from the Skel.
The weird thing about listening to Councillor Okada speaking and Nanako translating was that I understood everything he said before she translated it. And yet somehow, I could barely differentiate the difference between the two languages, apart from the peculiar accent. Was this was another attribute of my mutation - that I could discern the meaning of any spoken language, even though I had not learnt it? Surely that could not be so, but what other explanation was there?
It was a hypothesis I could not test easily, as no language other than English was permitted in Newhome, since the Custodians had banned multiculturism. Not multiethnicity, mind you, as Newhome boasted a number of different ethnic groups: the good old Anglo-Saxon 'Aussies' like me, Koreans, Chinese, Vietnamese, Greeks, Italians, Indians, Turkish, and others. However, it was forbidden for the ethnic groups to follow or practise their own culture and customs, for as had been drummed into our heads at school:
Multiculturism leads to division,
Division leads to conflict,
Conflict leads to violence,
Violence leads to war.
War leads to extinction.
That war lead to extinction was a lesson not lost on us survivors of World War Three, where the human race was virtually annihilated.
All the same, each ethnic group in Newhome rebelled against the banning of multiculturism in their own way, primarily by only marrying people of their own race, hence generations after the Apocalypse, the different racial groups were still distinct. For all we knew, each ethnic group in Newhome could be the only survivors of their race in the world.
"Right!" Sergeant King declared once he had garnered the needed information from Councillor Okada. "We must return to Newhome immediately, otherwise more of those abominations may find us. We will take the bodies of my men and the Japanese escorts back with us; I'm not leaving them for those vultures."
"Michal, fetch our truck, and Leigh, help him get all the bodies in the back," I said, agreeing with the need to rush.
"We have to bring the trade samples from the wrecked car too," Nanako said, pointing to the Japanese car that had triggered the roadside bomb.
"No probs, we'll see to that, too," Michal shouted back as he ran back to retrieve our truck.
"And we must destroy this car, we cannot leave it for them," Councillor Okada said as he helped Nanako lift items out of the destroyed car's boot.
"Lieutenant King, Councillor Okada says we must destroy this vehicle," Nanako translated.
I pulled the detonator from my pocket and threw it to David. "Reckon you can manage that if you retrieve the Skel bomb you disarmed back there, David?"
"On it!" David shouted and ran off after Michal.
Sergeant King sent the private off to bring back the G-Wagon, and then he, Shorty and I helped Councillor Okada and Nanako - who was surprisingly strong for her diminutive size - to unload the samples from the lead car.
"You wounded, Jones?" King asked when he noticed my limp.
"Just a bruise, Sir," I replied. Actually, a dented bone and a bruise, and it still hurt like blazes.
"You boys handled those Skel like professionals, Jones."
"Thank you, Sir," I answered cautiously.
"It wasn't a compliment, Jones - makes me wonder what you boys have been doing out here."
"Sir? Surely the amount of metals we bring back answers that question," I replied, trying to rein in my irritation at his veiled accusation. What did he think we were doing, planning a revolution?
"Which is three times more than any other team does."
"In that case, Sergeant, perhaps you need to be asking the other teams what it is they have been doing out here?" I shot back as fear and trepidation took a hold of me again. Was he trying to find out if one of us could find metals through echolocation?
He glared at me. "Got an answer for everything, haven't you, Jones."
"We're just doing our job, Sir."
King made to leave, but turned back. "Oh, put your bows and arrows in the back of the G-Wagon."
I suddenly felt very vulnerable - how could we forage safely without our weapons? "You're taking them from us, Sir?"
"Let's put it this way - if the other Custodians find them in your truck when we get back, you'll be in a world of hurt just for having them, and so will I for letting you use them."
"I understand, Sir," I said, acquiescing to his demand. We would part with our precious bows and arrows.
Michal reversed our truck down the road until it drew level with the wrecked car. We loaded the trade samples in the back, and then reverently placed the bodies in there too, covering them with cloths we had brought with us. Once that was done, David crawled beneath the wrecked Japanese 4WD and rigged the Skel homemade bomb and detonator to its petrol tank, setting the timer to five minutes. We were lucky the Japanese still used petrol, it made destroying the car a lot easier. All Newhome vehicles had solar powered batteries.
Our three-vehicle convoy was on its way to Newhome: Sergeant King lead the way, driving the G-Wagon himself; next came the Japanese car and its two passengers, driven by the Custodian private; and we brought up the rear with our weather-beaten truck and its cargo of trade samples and our slain comrades.
We hadn't gone far when David's bomb went off, assaulting our ears with a massive bang as well as sending a huge, angry fireball shooting into the sky behind us. I guess there wasn't much left of that car now.
"Man, did we kick some or what!" Shorty exclaimed excitedly. We had fought Skel four times over the past two years, but there had always been less than six of them, not a dozen like today.
"That's 'cause we rock," Leigh added, his face also flushed with excitement - quite in contrast to his pre-combat expression.
“You did good, guys,” I said. However, the bodies in the back of the truck drove home an unpleasant thought - if the Japanese had not come when they did, the Skel would have attacked us instead, and, as I hadn't been using flash sonar, that would be our bodies in the back of the truck.
I brought my left leg to my chest and gingerly explored my shin. The dint in my bone was quite noticeable and even now, the leg throbbed with pain. Associated with the injury were memories of the Skel who had caused it, sending shudders of revulsion through me.
Looking to the Japanese car in front of us, I was surprised to see the girl turn and glance at us - well, not at us but at me. Her brown eyes locked with mine for an instant, and an expression I could not decipher fled quickly across her round face before she turned away again.
Suddenly a crystal-clear image flashed into my mind of several pairs of slippers, shoes and high-heeled black boots, laid neatly in rows in a foyer boasting a polished wooden floor. Following the image, I was hit by an overwhelming feeling that this exact situation, right down to its smallest detail, had occurred previously. I instantly rebelled against this, for I could not possibly have been in this situation before, with the Skel, Custodians and two Japanese people I had just met. And as I tried to wade through the implications of what I had just experienced, a sharp metallic taste erupted in my mouth, followed immediately by a sensation of falling from a great height.
I grabbed the truck's dashboard to steady myself, but almost as soon as it had started, the sensation ceased, after which intense pain exploded through my stomach, and then vanished. And as if that wasn't enough, the unnerving episode concluded with every nerve ending in my entire body spiking with adrenalin.
The entire episode, from image to adrenalin spike, had taken perhaps a few seconds, but the after effect was weird - I felt like I had just awoken from a very deep and exhausting sleep.
"You okay, Ethan?"
I looked at Michal, who was glancing at me as he drove.
"I...uh, I'm just tired, I guess," I replied. I mean, what else could I say - I had absolutely no idea what had just happened to me, it defied all logic. Even the image made no sense, for I had never seen that polished floor, shoes, boots or slippers. Was my mind flipping out due to the most stressful day of my life, or, and I shuddered to consider this disturbing possibility, was it a premonition of some kind?
Whatever it was, I never, ever, wanted to experience it again.
"Hey, check it out, that girl keeps glancing at us," said Leigh as our three-vehicle convoy reached the end of Victoria Street and turned right to head north up Dryburgh Street towards Newhome's east entrance.
"Did you see way she dressed? She looks like a doll!" Shorty exclaimed.
"And her hair, I mean, what's with the pink?" Leigh said, laughing.
"Hey, don't knock her, mate. I wish our girls were allowed to dress and do their hair like that," David sighed.
"Can you imagine the Custodians reaction? They'd go psycho," Leigh said.
"Hey! You reckon all the girls are like her where she comes from? What's the place called?" Shorty asked.
"Hamamachi," I replied.
"Right - 'cause if they are, next chance I get I'm going AWOL and heading straight there, and I ain't never coming back," Shorty vowed, his face alight with the possibilities flowing through his mind.
"She's not looking at us," Michal said after a moment. "Only at Jones."
That brought a chorus of ribbing and jokes from the three in the back seat. I looked at Michal and sighed, but truth be told, the corners of my mouth did turn up ever so slightly. My life would be ever so dull without those three clowns to liven it up. The 'Dour Duo,' that's what they called Michal and me, and I guess that summed us up pretty well. Though I had not always been so glum. Back in the days before the accident and subsequent operation, I used to be rather chipper, as far as I could recall.
And Michal was right; it wasn't 'us' Nanako was glancing at, as Leigh supposed, only me. Moreover, on a couple of occasions it was more like a long stare, causing me no small amount of discomfort. I had seen very few girls in my life, apart from my sisters, and of course glimpses of those who attended the Solidarity Festivals that were held several of times a year. (These festivals were official events run by the town council, where the townsfolk celebrated the unity, harmony and values unique to Newtown.) Girls were not permitted to attend school, but had to stay home and learn practical skills from their mothers such as needlework, food preparation, and house cleaning. For that reason, I didn't know how to respond to Nanako's attention, and I was the one who broke eye contact in each case.
Why was she looking at me anyway - was it because I saved her life? Perhaps she thought I was an accomplished soldier? If that was the case, she would soon learn the truth - that I was nothing but a school dropout and lowly forager.
As Dryburgh Street merged into Macauley Road, I ran my fingers absent-mindedly along the scars on the left side of my head. My hair covered them now, but when I got my next buzz-cut, they would be visible for the whole world to see again.
When we reached the east entrance, some rather astonished Custodians spoke at length with Sergeant King before giving the vehicles a once over. Satisfied, they opened the gates and let us through.
King led us through streets lined with ominous row after row of ten-story grey blocks of housing flats; past the commercial district with its market stalls, green grocers, hardware and department stores, clothing shops - frequently by everyone except the North Enders; past greenhouse enclosed market gardens, and finally to the imposing walls of North End. This was where our world ended and the VIPs began - a world that could have been mine if I chosen to live in it. However, to my way of thinking, a well-to-do prison is a prison nonetheless.
Our convoy stopped before North End's gates. King got out to talk to the officer in charge and then sauntered over to our truck. "Hop out boys, we'll take it from here."
"What do we do now?" I asked King as we clambered out of the truck, seething with anger at the impertinence of these stuck-up North Enders. They wouldn't even let us drive our own truck in there!
King rewarded us with a forced smile. "You get the rest of the day off."
"Our pay better not get docked because of this," I grumbled louder than I should have.
The sergeant looked me in the eye and raised his eyebrows. "Is that right?"
I knew I should have backed down, but I was sick and tired of kowtowing to these Custodians. "You've got our truck, Sir, so we can't go back to work."
"Tell you what, since you're so concerned about it, I'll give your boss a call later and fill him in."
I did not know if he meant it or not, but I gave him the benefit of the doubt. "Thank you, Sergeant."
"Right then, you lot are dismissed. But don't worry, I'll have your truck back to the yard by day's end, so it's work as usual tomorrow. Now, Jones, a word with you," King said.
My teammates backed off leaving me standing alone with King. I tried to meet his gaze but instantly regretted it. Now I was going to pay up for today's list of misdemeanours.
"Not only did your team have weapons - which by itself can get you a three year prison sentence - but you disobeyed my direct orders today and put my squad and your team at risk," King growled in my face. "Give me one reason not to lock you up right now, Jones."
I had gotten away with blue murder today and I knew it, but one wrong word now could put me away for years. "My sincerest apologies, Sergeant, but had we left when you said, Councillor Okada and his translator would have been killed. We would have never known about Hamasaki's attempt to trade with us. As soon as I saw their big black cars, I knew something important was going down."
"The results never justify the means, Jones," was King's retort.
"And we did save your life, Sir," I added somewhat hesitantly.
"Which was only placed in jeopardy by your disobedience and recklessness!"
"As I said, I'm sorry, Sir."
"Just make sure you never pull a stunt like that again, you hear me, Jones?"
"I won't, Sir," I assured him.
"You'd better not. Now get out of my sight," King said before he strode away to join his fellow Custodians.
I watched the sergeant go, mystified by his inexplicable behaviour. I had never heard of a Custodian letting someone who had committed such blatant misdemeanours off with nothing more than a verbal dressing down.
I rejoined my work mates and Michal grabbed my arm and pulled me to him, "What's wrong with you today, Ethan, you wanna get locked up or something? Why King hasn't already done so, I don't understand."
"I just couldn't let the Skel kill those Japanese," I began to argue.
"I'm not talking about that," Michal cut me off, "I'm talking about you giving lip to King."
"Hey, don't cramp his style," Leigh laughed as he slapped me on the back, "He gave that Custodian what's what, he did."
"Be more careful, okay?" Michal said as he shoved Shorty back with a hand on his face.
I nodded, and as a group we turned to make our way home. As we walked away, I looked back one more time to see if the Japanese girl would glance at me again. To my surprise, she was turned around in her seat and was watching me, a concerned expression on her face. I wondered if I should wave or something, as I'd probably never see her again. Not knowing what to do, in the end I just walked away, returning her stare until she was out of sight.
"Hey all, let's head back to my pad and watch the box and play cards," Leigh suggested excitedly. Like me, Leigh had been working long enough to be able to rent a two-room flat. (No one owned property in Newhome: it all belonged to the town. Everyone was required to rent their flats for their entire working lives.)
The others all replied in the affirmative to Leigh's invitation, but having the rest of the day off afforded me an opportunity to do something I was rarely able to do – and that was to see Younger Sister during the daytime.
One hour later, I was behind my parent's block of housing flats with a small bag on my back. I checked carefully for Custodian patrols, for if they caught me scaling up the back of the flats and creep into a woman's bedroom, I would be in a world of trouble. For no male was ever permitted in a woman's bedroom, except for her husband, and then only on nights when he…well, I’m sure you get my drift.
Seeing no Custodians, I began my ascent to my family's third-floor flat. Using balcony floors and railings, I could climb quite quickly, hauling myself up from one floor to the next. Of course, if anyone looked out their back window at that moment they would see me, as could the inhabitants in the next block of flats, as the blocks of flats were built quite close to one another.
I reached the third story and clambered over the balcony railing, which was covered with doonas – mother always hung them out to air them – and threaded my way through the clothes' horses covered with drying garments.
I slipped into the women's bedroom, for the door was never locked, and quietly closed it behind me. Waiting for my eyes to adjust to the darkness, I could hear Mother and Elder Sister moving about in the kitchen, and the shallow breathing of Younger Sister in bed.
"Got the day off, have you?" Younger Sister asked.
My eyes had adjusted enough to so that I could see her now, so I sat on the edge of her bed, the one closest to the windows. Elder Sister's bed was next to hers, and Mother's was beside the door. With two tallboy chests of drawers against the wall opposite the beds, there really was little space left in the room.
A plate with a salad sandwich sat virtually untouched on her bedside table. "Yep, our truck's in for repairs, and we can't do much without it," with was close enough to the truth.
"You'll have to put it in for repairs more often, so I can see you more," she said smiling.
I looked at her pale face and the painful sores at the corners of her mouth. She was only twelve, but had spent much of her life in her bed, too sickly or weak to do much else. "Sounds like a plan, but hey, I've got some stuff for you."
I opened the backpack and took out a tube of antiseptic cream. "This is for your sores." Next, I took out two plastic containers and some mandarins. "And here's some grilled chicken, tofu, fresh rice, and vegies." The women of a household always served the best food to the males, eating the leftovers or less costly food themselves. So when I ate with my folks, I always ate half what they gave me and left the rest on the plate, so that my mother and sisters could divide it amongst themselves later. On the other hand, my father ate every scrap they served him.
Younger Sister looked distraught. "Oh no, I can't eat it, Older Brother – it's your food!"
"Yes you can," I smiled encouragingly, "I bought it for you - besides, I've already had my lunch." I opened the containers and laid them out for her, handing her the plastic fork.
"But chicken is so expensive," she complained.
As all of our food was grown in Newhome, so we rarely had any meat - except for fish, of course. The only 'animals' raised here for food were chicken, bred by the thousand in the poultry shed. All the same, it was expensive.
Younger Sister stabbed a piece of diced chicken breast, nibbled at it, and then put it back.
"What's wrong? Isn't it nice?" I asked, feeling the horrible frustration and helplessness I always got when she refused to eat.
"It's nice, but, I'm just not hungry," she said softly, refusing to meet my gaze.
I looked at the nutritious food I had laid before her and despaired. "Please Younger Sister, for your health - please eat."
She took a small bite of carrot and returned the rest to the container. Next was a bite of rice, after which she lay back against the bed head.
"You can't stop there, you've barely touched it," I said, trying, but failing, to knock the frantic edge off my voice.
"I'll have some later," she said, which probably meant she wouldn’t eat it at all. And that created a problem, for if Mother found out I was bringing her food she would not be impressed. On the other hand, she had never eaten much of the food I brought her, and Mother had not mentioned it yet.
I took her hand in mine and brushed my thumb gently over her upward curving nails, and decided to talk about something other than her refusal to eat, which was driving me insane. "You've been reading those books I got you?" I asked. Sometimes I found contraband books when I foraged for metals, and would smuggle them to my sister to read.
"I read them all; and the fashion magazines too. I can’t believe the world used to be so full of life, Older Brother - people free to go where they liked, wearing such bright and colourful clothes, and having the most remarkable adventures.”
"It was a different world back then, that’s for sure,” I said softly as I gently rubbed antiseptic cream into the cracks at the corners of her mouth. "You've got to rub this in four times a day, but not near meal times, okay?"
I stood. "I better go before Mother or Elder Sister comes in and sees me here."
“Please, don’t go yet,” she pleaded.
I could never say no to her, so sat back on the bed. We chatted softly about the books she had read, and of the things that I found when I went foraging. Finally, I really did have to go. I lifted her chin until her brown eyes met mine. "Please, for me, eat the lunch I brought you?"
She looked down at the barely touched food. "I'll try."
Powerless to help her, and driven to distraction by it, I caressed the back of her too-pale cheek with the back of my fingers, and then without a backward glance, slipped out of the bedroom, over the balcony, and climbed down to ground level.
Mother had rung me this morning and insisted I have dinner with the family tonight, so perhaps I would have an opportunity to talk to father about Younger Sister's health. She needed to see a doctor, but my chances of getting father to agree to that were slim.
That evening I sat with my father in the family dining room at a table that could seat six, but due to our town's custom of women waiting on the men while they ate, Mother and Elder Sister stood at the doorway where they would remain until summoned. The combined dining/lounge room was rectangular, stretching to the full width of the flat, with monotonous, unadorned duck-egg blue walls. The lounge, which was to the right of the front door, had beige sofas and a 42" flat-screen TV. The dining room, which was to the left of the door, contained the dining table and a large wooden hutch full of Mother's precious collection of china cups, bowls and plates.
I finished a bowl of lentil soup and got stuck into a slice of homemade wholegrain bread topped with melted tasty cheese. Glancing at my father, I wondered what frame of mind he was in today. People said I took after him in appearance: I had his square jaw, high cheekbones, and full head of thick auburn hair. We were even the same height, though my figure had yet to fill out. Personally, I would like to think our similarities ended there, for he adhered religiously to Newhome's customs and traditions, and was fully devoted to the councillors who ran the city. He had little patience and no time for those who did not share the same viewpoint, and as we rarely saw eye to eye, we didn't get on.
"Son, I heard we had some visitors from another town today," Father said gruffly between bites.
"Yeah, two people from the Japanese colony over near Inverloch. It was my foraging team and Custodian escort that found them and brought them here," I replied.
I thought he would be at least a little impressed by my claim to fame, but his expression as he actually met my gaze was not a complimentary one.
"You stay away from them, you hear?" he ordered.
I could not be bothered getting into another 'I'm over sixteen now, Father,' argument, as we normally did after he ordered me to do something I considered unreasonable, so I settled for, "Don't worry, the Custodians took them straight to North End."
"Good," he grunted as he served himself another dish of vegetable casserole.
I figured now was as good a time as any to broach the subject of Younger Sister. "Ah, Father, Younger Sister's condition is not improving; I think she needs to see a doctor."
"Younger Daughter just needs to snap out of it and pull herself together," he said to me, before aiming the next comment at Mother, who continued to stand deferentially at the doorway. "She's just lazy; it's as simple as that."
I wanted to scream, or thump him, or both. How could he be so obstinate, so obtuse! "Have you seen her lately, Father? The sores on her mouth, her white skin, her shallow breathing; and I've never seen nails grow upwards like that before. There is something wrong with her."
"Ethan, you're young and naive. Those things are all bedsores caused by lying about all day. Mother needs to stop mollycoddling her and show her some tough love. Otherwise, no one's ever going to want to marry her and I'll be stuck with her for life - a leech sucking up my money forever. Besides, we can't afford a doctor."
I glanced at Mother, whose eyes were glossing over with tears, while I trembled with rage at these callous insults towards my beloved sister - and from her own father! I wish I could put him through what she goes through just for a day - and then he'd change his tune soon enough. "Why can't you afford it, where does all your money go?" I complained angrily.
Mother's eyes widened in shock and she shook her head ever so slightly, warning me away from this conversation. Unfortunately, it was too late; Father pushed his plate away and turned to face me, trembling with barely controlled rage. "Where does all my money go? You really want to know, do you, Son? Okay then, every spare cent I earn, after the food and rent, goes to pay back a fifteen year loan I had to take out."
"Take out - take on what?" I pushed. I was too angry to heed Mother's warning.
"On you!" my father shouted in my face. "For your operation - remember that? For the brain surgery you needed after that ceiling fell on your head two years ago!"
Suddenly I felt like the world's biggest fool. "I...I didn't know. Father, why didn't you tell me?"
"I did what had to be done, what's to tell?" he huffed.
My shoulders slumped in resignation, but I tried one last half-hearted attempt to help Younger Sister. "In that case, let me help pay off the loan, or at least, pay for a doctor for Younger Sister."
That, apparently, was the worst thing I could have said. "I do not need your financial aid like I am some...some charity case!" he bellowed.
Head bowed in defeat, I tucked into my dinner until half was left, gave my mother a meaningful glance, and then bade them farewell.
My father's anger would simmer for the rest of the evening, but tomorrow he’d act as though the whole conversation had never happened.
I couldn’t turn my emotions on and off like that, so I walked away torn by powerful, conflicting emotions. I was angry with my father for being so obstinate, refusing to acknowledge my sister's health problems. His arrogance and pride was robbing her of a normal life. On the other hand, I felt so guilty for believing Father didn’t care for me, when he obviously did since he had taken out that massive loan to finance the operation that had healed me of the epilepsy caused by the accident.
When I got home I climbed the apartment block's ten flights of stairs to get to the building’s flat roof, using the exercise to clear my mind and rid my body of tension.
It was refreshingly cool up on the roof and comfortably shrouded in near-darkness. The only light sources on the roof were the light above the stairwell exit, and starlight.
I collected the disassembled parts of my contraband binoculars, which I had hidden in three different places on the roof, and fitted them back together. One advantage of being a forager was that you could find almost anything in the city ruins.
I sat down on the long side of the roof that faced north and dangled my legs over the edge. I used the binoculars to zoom in on North End – sometimes I looked over the city walls at Melbourne’s darkened ruins, but spying on North End was more fun. It was like another world in there: with larger and better-furnished apartments; immaculately kept, multicolour brick footpaths instead of crumbling and cracked ones like ours, and jungle gyms built like castles in the schools. There were cinemas with facades lit up with sparkling lights; nightclubs where you didn’t have to line up to gain access; and, to top it all off, no curfew. There were also multistorey buildings devoted to scientific, genetic and engineering research and development; and the council offices themselves were magnificently opulent.
I often wondered what my life would be like had I chosen to live in there instead of out here. My life as it was, wasn’t a particularly happy or fulfilling one, for there was a deep, aching hole in me that gnawed endlessly away at my mind and emotions, threatening to pull me into a miry pit from which there was no escape. I hadn’t always been like that. Before the injury and operation, I had been more positive and resilient.
The only time I felt at peace was when I was out there, rooting through ruins looking for metals, and, ahem, doing all the other extracurricular activities we engaged in once we’d filled our truck. We had archery competitions, practised stealth techniques by playing hide and seek, explored old buildings, and once we even found an amazing stash of guns. My, that was fun - there's an old billboard out there that will never be the same. We also unearthed and read old books and magazines that had not perished over the decades.
Returning my attention to North End, I watched men and teenage boys wandering paved streets as they chatted and headed to nightclubs to play cards, billiards, bowling, and drink. The clubs were all-male affairs of course - no woman was permitted on the streets after dark, not even with a chaperone.
As I searched aimlessly through North End, I almost dropped my precious binoculars when I spotted the Japanese girl, Nanako, sitting on the flat rooftop of a North End apartment block. She was sitting against the stairwell exit and cradling her knees, which she had drawn to her chest. I zoomed in closer and gasped when I saw that she was crying, with black eyeliner running down her cheeks.
I felt for her, and wondered why she seemed so forlorn, as though weighed down by an impossibly heavy burden. What could crush the spirits of a girl her age? Perhaps it was merely the consequence of such a terrible day, being ambushed by Skel and watching four of her people be slaughtered, but I doubted it. What troubled her seemed somewhat darker than today’s events.
I sighed: it seemed I wasn't the only one weighed down by life.
My reflections were interrupted when I heard several pairs of feet scurrying up the stairwell behind me, followed soon by the door banging open.
"Ha! Told you he'd be here," Shorty laughed as he emerged, after which he began doing cartwheels around the roof. (A roof that, if you recall, is ten stories up and has no guardrail.) Leigh, David, and Michal emerged next, each smiling broadly when they saw me.
Okay, I admit it, there was one other time I forgot about the emptiness that haunted me, and that was when I was with these four goofballs. "Hey guys, what happened, got sick of cards?" I asked as I stood and went over to join them.
"Not the same without you, mate," Leigh said as he thumped me on the back.
"And," David added as he took off his backpack, "it's not windy tonight, so I suggested that we - wait for it - have another paper plane war!"
"And there’s nothing like seeing them Custodians picking up the planes in the morning and scratching their beefy heads, trying to work out where they came from," Shorty laughed after he cart wheeled over to us.
"Hey Jones, if the Custodians catch you with those," Leigh said, indicating my binoculars, "you're going to be in trouble with a capital 'T,' mate."
"Hey, can I have go?" Shorty asked, smiling deviously.
"Why? What do you want to look at?" I asked, suspicious.
"You can see right into people's apartments, yeah?"
"I guess so."
"Into women's bedrooms," he continued in a most conspiratorial manner.
"Probably," I replied, trying hard to remain serious.
"Then hand 'em over, Jones me boy," Shorty said as he held out a small hand.
"Ain't no way you're using my binoculars to be a Peeping Tom," I said. However, there was another reason, too; I didn't want him to see Nanako crying.
"A peeping who?"
"It's an expression. It means...oh, never mind," I said.
"Please," Shorty begged.
"There's a reason why these things are banned," I pointed out, looking down at his over eager face.
"Yeah, and that’s to stop us spying on North End and seeing what we're missing," said David, flicking his head to the north.
"I won't do that, honest," Shorty declared sincerely.
"I’ve no doubt that’s the real reason, David,” I said, for he'd hit the nail on the head. “But Shorty, seriously, would you want people spying on your mother and sister in their bedroom?"
"Ewww, of course not. Look, I promise I won't spy on anyone, I'll observe them purely for educational purposes."
"I - ain't - letting - you - use - 'em."
"You're no fun," he pouted.
David held up a sheet of blank paper and shook it. “Guys, focus - paper plane time!”
“I’m in, hand over a sheet,” Michal said.
We mobbed David and grabbed sheets of paper, moved back to the stairwell exit so that we could see, and set to work with frenetic zeal. Several minutes later, we stood in a line one step back from the edge of the roof.
"Putting a stone in the nose of your plane is cheating, Shorty," David said.
"Hey, what? Why, that would be dishonest, David. I give you my word that there is no stone in my plane."
I leaned forward and clicked my tongue a couple of times. "Will you look at that, David, Shorty's telling the truth - he didn't put a stone in his plane."
"He put in a piece of metal," I said.
Shorty looked up at me. "I don't like that clicking thing you do, Jones."
"We throw on the count of three!" David announced. "Three, two, one, throw!"
Five paper planes were thrown off the roof. Shorty's lead-nose plane flew straight and true, flying maybe twenty metres before it hit the road down below. Leigh's landscape-orientated plane was blown straight up by the slight updraft coming up the front of the building and disappeared behind us. Mine corkscrewed in a northerly direction, while Michal's long, narrow plane almost gave Shorty's a run for its money. However, the plane that got our attention was David's - tiny red and green lights at its wing tips blinked on and off as it sailed off into the night.
"David, how did you...?" Michal stammered, voicing what we were all thinking.
"David, it's a piece of flat paper! How did you get lights in it?" Shorty demanded, upset his winning throw had been upstaged.
"Round two!" was David's come back.
We made paper planes of all shapes and sizes and tossed them off the roof for another fifteen minutes, littering the ground below with over two dozen of them, but then called it quits. If a Custodian night patrol was to spot which roof they were flying off, we'd find ourselves in a spot of bother.
I bade the others good night and sent them back down the stairs, mostly because I had to disassemble the binoculars and hide the pieces, but also because I wanted to check on the Japanese girl.
She was still there, sitting with her back against the stairwell exit, but she had put on a pair of very odd-looking goggles - they were opaque and had a button on the side, which she kept pressing from time to time. I must confess I was perplexed, for I've never seen anything even remotely similar to those goggles.
I was about to call it quits when for a second time today, a vision-strength image burst into my mind; this time of a narrow walking track in the bush I had never seen before. Gum trees grew on both sides, while the track was overgrown with ferns, wild grasses, sticks and leaves. Once again, a powerful feeling of déjà vu persuaded me that this experience, of seeing this image while standing on the roof, had happened before. Bewildered, I tried to reason that it couldn't possibly be true, but then came the metallic taste in my mouth, and the sensation of falling from a great height. And as had happened this morning, that was followed by intense stomach pain and every nerve ending in my body spiking with adrenalin.
I half sat, half collapsed on the roof, breathing heavily as I waited for the after affects of the horrific experience to fade away, wondering yet again what was happening to me.
I had been in the bush on foraging trips in the past, but never on a bushwalking track. Was this a premonition of the future, of an event that was going to happen?
Weary and confused, I lingered on the roof for another hour, until exhausted and sleepy, I stumbled down eight flights of stairs to my flat.
I must confess I was surprised when I strolled into the Recycling-Works yard the next morning and saw our truck there, looking unaffected by its trip into North End. As I walked over to join my workmates, I ran my eyes along its battered body, memories of yesterday’s encounters with the Skel and Japanese running through my mind. I hoped today would be a bit more low key.
There was no sign of Sergeant King and his Custodians; in fact, we might even be sent a different squad since King lost half his men yesterday.
As if summoned by my thoughts, a Custodian Bushmaster Protected Mobility Vehicle roared down the street and backed slowly into the yard, parking parallel with our truck. The Bushmaster looked like a box on wheels, but from what I had heard, it was bullet proof, impervious to mines, and coated with fire retardant paint. It was also very, very old – all our Bushmasters pre-dated the Apocalypse, and just about every part of them had been reconditioned or replaced at some stage over the years.
"Looks like they're expecting Skel today," Michal commented dryly.
"Yeah, got a bit of a shock yesterday, they did," Shorty laughed.
“Two of them got a bit dead, too,” I added, reminding my lads of the cost of yesterday's encounter.
The Bushmaster's rear door swung open on well-oiled hinges - and wouldn’t you know it - out stepped Sergeant King, ready and willing to face the Skel again. My respect for the guy went up a notch.
The Recycling-Works boss rushed outside to talk to King, no doubt thanking him for his squad’s wonderful effort in saving my team yesterday. I wonder what he'd say if he found out it was the other way around.
Hearing feminine footsteps in the street outside piqued my interest, so I span around and froze in shock when Nanako walked into the Recycling-Works yard with Councillor Okada several steps behind her. In her hands was a small, black box wrapped in a checked-pattern handkerchief.
Upon spying me, her petite, round face lit up with joy and she ran over to me with lively steps. With a smile creasing her slightly upturned mouth, she bowed briefly, held out her hands, and said, "I made this for you."
I looked down at the beautiful lacquered wooden lunchbox in her hands, and had no idea what to do. Just seeing her, a single girl, out here in Newhome's streets - although with a chaperone - was a concept so unfamiliar that it left my mind spinning with confusion.
"For me?" was all I could think to say.
"It's obento," she said, nodding to encourage me to accept it.
Michal gave me a gentle shove in the back, whispering, "Go on, accept it, you drongo."
I stumbled forward a step and received the beautiful lunchbox, trying not to stammer as I replied, "This is wonderful, thank you, Nanako."
Sergeant King chose that moment to interrupt, sending a questioning glance towards Nanako and Councillor Okada. "Okay boys, the day's not getting any younger. Saddle up and move out!"
We clambered into the truck and as Michal drove us out of the yard, Nanako walked to the gate with Councillor Okada, where she stood quietly, watching us drive off. I flashed her a warm smile and waved, clutching her unexpected gift with my other hand. She bowed, and held it until we were out of sight.
As we headed for the town gates, I wondered what had prompted her to gift me such a gift - did she feel indebted to me for saving her life yesterday? If that was the case, I had to tell her that she didn't owe me anything, for it had been my honour to save her from the Skel.
It took us several stops and most of the morning to find a source of non-corrosive metals to strip out, for there was no way we were going to return to the Victoria Street apartments, and I couldn’t risk using flash sonar. We eventually found a virtual goldmine in a street of ransacked one-story houses - they still had their external gas hot water systems.
The Custodians gave the work site a quick once over when we arrived and then retired to the Bushmaster, where one of them operated the roof mounted machine-gun at all times.
The morning dragged by so slowly, but after we had removed and pulled apart several hot water systems to cannibalise the parts we wanted, my watch chimed one o’clock.
My workmates and I ripped off our gloves, wiped our hands clean with anti-bacterial paper towels, and climbed onto the truck’s bonnet and roof to eat, just as we did every day.
Sitting cross-legged on the bonnet, I carefully untied the handkerchief from the lacquered lunchbox, aware that my workmates looked on with baited breath. I lifted off the lid and gasped – for the partitioned tray inside was filled with a whole host of painstakingly prepared delicacies, the likes of which I had never seen. There were tomato slices with sculptured rabbit ears, marinated chicken pieces, slices of bread curled about beans and tendrils of fried fish, and even rolls of scrambled egg. Beneath this tray was a another, this one filled with fruits and vegetables, each imaginatively presented.
“Well, do we share?” I asked.
“Get real,” Michal laughed, “She made it for you, Ethan - we ain’t going to touch it.”
"Hey, speak for yourself," Shorty complained.
"Yeah, I think I'd sign up for some of that," David agreed.
Michal glared at the others and they quickly backed down.
“I think she likes you,” Shorty ribbed me with a knowing smile.
“Well, come on, if you ain't gonna share it, taste it and tell us what it's like,” David demanded impatiently.
And so began the mostly delightful culinary experience of my life. “It tastes even better than it looks!” I declared enthusiastically with my mouth full. As I ate, I imagined a young, petite Japanese girl getting up early this morning, buying fresh food from the market, and slaving away in her apartment's kitchen as she prepared the lunch. And this is the bit that blew me away – she did it for me. I also thought of her walking all the way to the Recycling-Works to deliver it by hand - she must have asked someone where I worked, including when I started my shift. I was deeply moved by her gesture – and with the strict segregation of males and females in our society, I wondered if this was the first time something like this had happened in Newhome.
Shorty said she liked me, but how could that be possible when we had just met and had spoken only a few words to each other?
Having consumed the obento to the very last morsel, I packed up the lunchbox and made mental plans to drop it off at North End's gates this evening with instructions to return it to her. She had clearly brought it with her from Hamamachi and as it looked quite valuable, she would want it back.
"Ethan, I've been thinking about yesterday, and something bothers me," Michal said when we had both finished eating.
"Excluding yesterday, we've fought Skel, what, four times in two years? It's always been in the outer suburbs, and there's never been more than three or four of them. Now, what I want to ask you is: have there been other occasions where you 'detected' Skel and steered us away from them?"
Michal was on the ball all right. The times we fought Skel was when they tried to jump us while we were in the act stripping out a place. "Yes, on several occasions. And to answer your next question, it was always in the outer suburbs."
Michal met my gaze. "So why were there twelve of them yesterday, and practically on Newhome's doorstep?"
"Yeah, I’ve been pondering the same thing. I hope it was just a one off, but life isn’t ever that simple, is it? We'll have to keep out wits about us, just in case," I replied.
Glancing at the other three sitting on the truck's cab, Michal indicated Leigh, who was staring into space with a dreamy expression on his face.
"What's up, Leigh? Never seen you this quiet before – can’t find something to grumble about?" I teased.
"Leigh's doing something he shouldn’t be," David answered somewhat testily.
"Like what?" I asked, curious. Whatever Leigh was doing, David was consumed with jealousy.
"You don't want to know, Jones," Shorty said with a giant smirk, before adding with a whisper, "but he's not being a model citizen at the moment."
"Please don't do anything stupid, Leigh," I implored him.
"Too late for that!" Shorty laughed.
"Keep your voices down, you drongos!" Leigh whispered harshly when he realised we were talking about him.
I grabbed Leigh’s forearm and made eye contact. “I don’t know what you’re doing, Leigh, and I don’t want to, but whatever it is, cut it out before it’s too late, you hear me?”
“Whatever!” Leigh snapped back.
I don’t think my message got through to him, so I gave up and jumped down from the bonnet and stretched. "Let's get back into it, guys. We don't want the Custodians keeping tabs on the length of our lunch breaks."
I got to work a bit earlier the following morning as I was secretly hoping Nanako would bring me lunch again, though not because of the meal, but because I wanted to see her again. She was the first though on my mind when I woke, and I couldn’t deny my intense attraction to her.
These feelings, however, confused me, for what was I hoping to achieve by seeing her again? She would return to Hamamachi with Councillor Okada soon, abandoning me to rot in this prison with a hole in my heart that only her presence could fill. I had read about romance in novels I had found in Melbourne’s ruins, but it hadn’t ever occurred to me that I might experience it myself, since all marriages in Newhome were arranged by the children's parents and were typically devoid of romantic love.
My teammates were already in the Recycling-Works yard, lounging against the truck as they waited for me. Sergeant King and his squad were here too, talking quietly amongst themselves, their box-shaped Bushmaster parked near our truck.
"Hey Jones, you wet the bed or something?" Shorty teased.
"You've never been here before nine o'clock before," he replied.
"First time for everything," I laughed as I joined them. However, I wasn’t really listening to the guys, as I was straining my ears in the hope of hearing Nanako’s small footsteps.
And then I heard them – her graceful footsteps coming down the street as she and Councillor Okada approached the Recycling-Works yard. A moment later, they stepped into the yard, the obento lunchbox cradled carefully in her arms.
I stepped towards her, eagerly anticipating the chance to speak with her again, but I had taken only a few steps when a Custodian G-Wagon roared down the street, and with a screech of breaks, drove into our yard. Three Custodians leaped out, unslung their semi-automatic rifles, and headed straight for us.
Nanako and Councillor Okada stepped quickly back into shadows thrown by the gate. I moved back towards my teammates, face white with terror, for surely this was it – I had been found out.
"We are looking for a Leigh Williams," the Custodian commander, a tall, wiry corporal, stated when they were practically in our faces.
I was so sure they were here for me that it took a moment for their words to sink in. "Sorry, did you say Leigh Williams – but for what reason, Sir?" I asked, hoping against hope that Leigh had not done something exceptionally stupid.
The corporal gave me a withering look and barked, "Is he here?"
To my relief, Sergeant King chose that moment to join us. "Can I help you, Corporal?" he asked as he saluted.
"Sir, I have a warrant for the arrest of one Leigh Williams, for allegations of serious sexual misconduct," replied the corporal as he returned the salute.
"Let's see it then," King demanded.
The corporal handed it over and waited impatiently, aware that King was a higher rank, but empowered by the warrant to carry out his task without obstruction.
"All seems in order," King announced after giving the warrant a quick once through. "Mr. Williams, you will surrender yourself to Corporal Thompson."
I stared at King as though he had gone mad - why wasn't he sticking up for Leigh? He outranked the corporal, surely he could do something.
Eyes wide with fear, Leigh stepped haltingly towards the corporal, glancing back at me as he did so. I don't know what he thought I could do, but I couldn't believe he had been so stupid as to sleep with a woman outside wedlock.
"Wait a minute, there must be some mistake, Sir," I said far to aggressively as I stepped forward.
The corporal and his men couched and aimed their assault-rifles at me, thumbing off the safeties. "Step back, Civilian!" The corporal ordered.
I locked eyes with the stuck-up, officious, pompous corporal and refused to budge. Leigh was my friend and one of my team - a valuable member and we needed him! I was going to press the issue when strong hands grabbed me and hauled me back against the truck's bonnet.
"What the..." I began to snarl, but stopped when I saw Michal was the one who grabbed me.
"Don't be a drongo, Ethan, they were about to pop you!" he hissed.
"Has been an absolute moron," he replied softly.
"You mean he's really been doing what they’ve accused him of?" I whispered back, shocked. I watched as the Custodians snapped cuffs on Leigh and marched him to their G-Wagon.
"Remember what David and Leigh ribbed him about yesterday?"
"Well, Leigh and his neighbour's daughter - well, someone must have ratted 'em out."
"Oh good grief," I despaired, as the G-Wagon reversed out of the yard and drove out of sight. I immediately ran over to Sergeant King, who was returning to the Bushmaster as though nothing had happened. "Sergeant King!"
The brawny Custodian stopped but didn't turn around. "What is it, Jones?"
"What'll happen to Leigh now?"
He turned and appraised me with clear disapproval. "You know, Jones, I'm beginning to think you've got a death wish."
"The little stunt you pulled back there? And attacking the Skel virtually single handedly two days ago? You'd better ramp it back, boy, or we'll be scraping you off the road before you know it."
"But Sir, isn't there anything you can do about Leigh?" I pressed, ignoring his accusation that I was reckless.
"Mr. Williams and the woman with whom he has been accused of engaging in sexual misconduct will face the magistrate today. If sufficient evident is presented to prove their guilt, they will be sentenced according to the law," King explained, annoyed that I would not let the matter drop. "Now enough of this, to work - and that is an order."
I fumed at King's cold indifference to the mater, but more than that, I was terrified for Leigh, for the typical sentence for sexual conduct outside marriage was the death penalty. At least for the woman: if the man was lucky, he may have his sentence transmuted to some lesser punishment.
Dispirited and concerned for our friend, we clambered into the truck and drove off towards the gates with the Bushmaster right behind us. However, as we did so, a thought thrust itself past the fearful and angry thoughts consuming my mind - Nanako!
I turned in my seat just in time to see her step out of the gate’s long shadow, disappointment etched on her face, for in her hands was the obento lunch she had gone to such lengths to prepare and deliver.
I had a frantic impulse to tell Michal to stop the truck so I could quickly receive her gift, but with the Custodians behind us, plus King's displeasure that we were running late, I resisted the urge and slumped back into my sea, leaving Nanako behind.
That I had let her down so dreadfully weighed heavily on my heart, and the memory of her sad face as she watched us drive away tore a hole right through my heart.
What followed was one of the most unpleasant days I could recall. All day I fretted endlessly over Leigh and his girl’s fate: had they seen the magistrate, was there sufficient evident to convict them? Would the magistrate punish them to the full extent of the law, or would he uncharacteristically show compassion?
Furthermore, I couldn't stop wondering what Nanako was thinking and feeling. How early had she risen this morning to buy the food to make the lunch? How long had she spent preparing it, adding personal touches like rabbit ears on the tomato and apple slices? Only for me to get so caught up in the morning's trauma that I complete forgot about her. I recalled how dejected she had been when she cried alone on the roof two nights ago, and feared my actions had only added to her misery.
To make matters worse, another of those strange turns visited me as we worked. This time I saw a beaten-up ute that was parked in a derelict factory courtyard overgrown with shrubbery and wild blackberry bushes. And as before, although it felt as though I had seen this place previously, I knew for a fact that I had not. It seemed these bizarre turns were here to stay, and as they were accompanied by a massive adrenalin spike, I decided to label them 'spike attacks' for want of a better name.
The workday finally came to an end and we drove back to Newhome in silence. Michal parked the truck and the four of us rushed into the Recycling-Works, signed off in the log book, and hurried to find the boss.
He was in his office, a poorly lit room on the second floor, with dirty, virtually opaque windows that overlooked the scrap metal yard. He pushed back his chair and stood when we knocked at his doorway. "Come in, boys."
We filed in one at a time, careful not to knock over the piles of log books, scrap metal records, connotes and delivery receipts that crowded the floor in ungainly piles.
"You've come to find out about Leigh, I suppose," he said, running his hand slowly through his balding head.
"Yes Sir," I replied, a sinking feeling in my gut, "Did he see the magistrate today?"
"I'm afraid so."
"And?" Shorty prompted, concern etched over his normally jovial face.
"I'm afraid the magistrate found Leigh and a Miss Amelia Lin guilty of unlawful sexual conduct, and, ah, both were sentenced to death."
"What?" we all shouted in horror.
The boss held up his hands. "Wait! Leigh's sentence was transmuted to six years hard labour in one of the prison manufactories."
I think I almost fainted with relief at this news, Leigh was going to be alright! Yet at the same time, we wouldn't be able to see him for six long years. Our foraging team would also be one member short.
"What about the girl, Boss?" Michal asked softly.
The boss avoided our eyes. "I'm sorry, she was executed by lethal injection at midday."
My spirits sunk to a new low. "How old was she?" I whispered.
Outrage drove back the funk that had taken a hold of me today. "What kind of society do we live in that executes sixteen year old girls for falling prey to temptation?"
"Be careful, Ethan, verbalising such thoughts could be considered treason," the boss cautioned me.
"But Sir, how can they possibly justify such a sentence? It's barbaric!"
The boss sank slowly onto his chair, and still not meeting my gaze, answered the question. "You know what their answer will be, Ethan. 'Justice must not only be done, but must be seen to be done, otherwise the very fabric of our society will unravel and revert to anarchy.'" He looked up. "Now listen to me, Ethan - all of you - I know you are angry and disappointed with today's proceedings, and you'll find a sympathetic ear with me, but once you step outside my door, keep your mouths shut. The last thing I need is for the rest of you to end up in prison. Do you understand?"
It took a moment to get my anger under control, but the boss spoke the truth and I knew it. I hated the system, but there was nothing I could do about it. And he was right, to even criticise it would see me in a prison manufactory alongside Leigh. However, at least that way I would get to see him sooner than six years.
Our spirits crushed, my three teammates and I wandered back down the stairs and into the Recycling-Works yard.
"I'm going to go to the Foragers Club and get sloshed," Shorty said dejectedly as he looked up at us. "Who's coming?"
"Okay," David agreed, though with some reluctance. He looked like he would rather be by himself.
I grabbed Shorty's arm. "There's got to be a better way of dealing with this than getting drunk. Why don't we go for a long walk or something."
"I’ll pass on the walk," Shorty shot back, "Look, why don't you come with us for a change, Jones?"
"Sorry guys, I'm heading home," I said. I could think of a million better things to do than destroying brain cells and waking in some random location as sick as a dog.
"I'll keep an eye on 'em," Michal said.
"Thanks mate," I said, appreciating Michal's maturity, which always shone through at times like this.
I got back to my small two-bedroom apartment half-an-hour later, showered, and was donning clean clothes when my phone rang. I watched it ring for some time, willing the person on the other end to give up and leave me in peace. But it just kept on ringing so I picked it up. "Ethan speaking."
"Good evening, Son. You must come over at once," my father said in a tone that brooked no argument.
"Sorry Father, but I've had a really bad day and I need a quiet night tonight."
"Out of the question," he snapped. "Special guests are joining us for dinner tonight, and your presence is required. Be here in ten minutes."
"Special guests - Father, really, I'm in no condition to be socialising tonight."
"The young woman I have chosen for your wife, and her family, are joining us for dinner. I figured you would like to meet her before the big day."
I think my reply came out as a strangled squeak. All brides in Newhome were chosen by the bridegrooms' fathers, so I knew this day would come, but certainly did not expect it to come today. I had told Father on numerous occasions that I had no desire to marry before the age of thirty. "Very well, see you soon."
I hung up the phone and stood there, dumbfounded. I really, really didn't want to do this today. The legal marriageable age in Newhome was sixteen years, and though most girls got married close to that age, the men did not. They normally married between the ages of twenty and thirty years. So why then was my father in such a rush?
It was a short walk to my parents flat, for their apartment block was directly behind mine. As I walked there, I realised my mind was not pondering the girl my father had chosen for me to marry, but was instead fixed upon a mysterious Japanese girl whom I feared I had inadvertently snubbed this morning, and on the fate of my friend who was the spend the next six years in prison.
When I entered my parent’s home I assumed for a moment I had entered the wrong flat, for sitting at the dinner table on the far side of the room was Sergeant King, albeit in civilian clothes. Seated at the head of the table next to him was a man who was obviously his father for they shared the same large, muscular frame and facial features. At King senior’s left sat two women who had their backs to me - one woman had greying hair and the other had brown.
My initial reaction to this scene was one of stunned confusion, but upon observing my father and younger sister sitting at the opposite end of the dinner table - which had been extended to seat ten - my world collapsed about me. For the only logical conclusion I could reach from this unlikely scene was that the girl my father had chosen to be my wife was Sergeant King’s sister!
With a flash of revelation, I realised why King let me off with just a verbal warning today – he couldn’t have come home today and told his father that he had locked up his sister’s husband-to-be, now could he?
“Come in, Ethan,” Father said as he rose to his feet to welcome me in.
The others stood and were introduced to me by my father. The sergeant's father, Aiden King, shook my hand with a vice-like grip that almost crushed mine. The sergeant himself - Liam - studied me with a rather disturbing intensity as his handshake crushed the few bones in my hand that had survived his father's grip. I could not even begin to imagine what thoughts were going through his mind right now, as surely I was the last person in Newhome he wanted as a brother-in-law. Mrs King, who glanced at me briefly as she gently shook my hand, was nearly as tall as I was.
My bride to be was introduced to me last. Her name was Sienna, and although in her mid teens had already reached her mother’s height. She had a strikingly beautiful face – she was lucky she had her mother’s looks and not her father’s - long brown hair, and a slim figure, which like mine, had not yet filled out.
The introductions over, I sat on my father’s right, opposite Younger Sister, while Mother and Elder Sister brought in the pumpkin soup entrees in fine-China soup bowls.
As we slowly sipped on pumpkin soup made as only my mother could make it, Mr. King Senior began his assault. "Your father has told me much about you, Ethan, but I would like to hear from you too. So tell me, what do you consider to be the most important things in life?"
I shot my father a piercing glare - he had obviously been communicating with Aiden King for some time, so what was with the mere ten-minute warning he gave me? Did he think I would have gone AWOL if he had given me advance warning? Well, honestly, I may well have done exactly that.
"Family," I replied to Mr. King Senior. "Our family is the most important thing in life, with friends coming a close second. And not to use them and take advantage of them, but to give generously as well as receive, to put their needs and concerns equal or above my own."
"A respectable answer," Aiden replied, though I got the clear impression it was not the one he was looking for. "You are on a metals foraging team, correct?"
"That's right, Sir. That's been my vocation since leaving school.”
“I believe it is in that capacity that you have already met my son,” Mr. King Senior replied.
“That's correct, Sir. Sergeant -I mean - Liam, is in command of the Custodian squad assigned to my foraging team,” I explained.
"It's lieutenant now, actually. Liam's valour against the Skel who ambushed those two cars from Hamamachi earned him a promotion and a service medal," the sergeant's father announced proudly.
"Is that right?" I replied as I glanced over at Liam, who met my gaze squarely, almost daring me to contradict his father. I wondered what story he’d spun to his superiors when he made his report. Of course, I couldn't exactly be angry or resentful for his lies and commendation, since those lies were the very thing that saved my teammates and I from being imprisoned for having illegal weapons.
Completely missing the scepticism in my voice, King Senior continued proudly. "My son's goal is to achieve the rank of major so that he and his wife can live in north end. After that he will continue his ascent through the ranks until he achieves the rank of general."
King had a wife? I found that thought rather unsettling - I hope the poor woman was as tough as nails.
“What are your plans for the future, Son?”
I ain’t your son, I wanted to snap back, but aware of my father’s iron gaze fixed upon me, I answered civilly. “Just the dreams of teenager, Sir,” I answered vaguely, for I couldn't exactly tell them my plans for the future were to help Younger Sister regain her health, and then run away during a foraging trip and never return.
A swift kick under the table from my father seemed to communicate that I had given the wrong answer, so I tried harder. “Well, I guess my plans for the future are to get married, have kids, and raise them to be responsible, productive citizens.”
King Senior was frowning, as was Liam - still the wrong answer. Whatever did they want me to say?
“Come on, Son, don't be modest. Foraging is obviously a stepping-stone you are using towards your future career. Tell us what it is," he pressed.
I could shoot my father for not letting me prepare for this, for how could I possibly answer that question without lying? I decided to veer the conversation off on a tangent. "Well Sir, as you probably guessed, foragers have a whole host of job opportunities available to them, but before I into all that, may I ask Sienna some questions?”
“Go ahead,” King Senior said, though clearly annoyed by my blatant attempt to dodge his question.
“Thank you, Sir,” I said, before turning to Sienna. “What are you looking for in a husband, Sienna?” I asked, lost to think of anything else to say, for the truth was that Sienna was not the girl I wanted to question. It was to Nanako that I wanted to talk. I wanted to ask her; how long she would stay in Newhome, how old she was, where she had learned to cook and where she picked her broad Aussie accent. More, I wanted to know why she was interested in me and why she was crying on the roof that night.
"Sienna is looking for a reliable, dependable husband with a…” her father began.
I held up my hand, rudely cutting him off. “If you don’t mind, Sir, can Sienna answer the question please?”
King Senior glared but nodded his consent all the same. And this time I ignored the painful kick I received from my father. I wondered how many bruises my leg would sport by the evening’s end.
Sienna spoke haltingly at first and then with more confidence as she went on. “My goal, my dream, is to live in North End. What I want in a husband – in you – is for you to work your way to the top of your profession as quickly as you can, change to a more challenging vocation, work your way to the top as before, and keep doing this until a door opens for you to get a job in North End.”
Was this to be my future? To marry into the King family to a beautiful yet manipulative and controlling wife, whose only purpose in marriage was to use it – that is, to use me - as her ticket into North End? North End, the very place I had been avoiding my whole life.
I could tell already that I would never be good enough for Sienna, and for the first time I resented Newhome’s custom of father's choosing their son's wives. I didn't want this.
What I wanted was to get to know another girl - a girl with a nose ring and pink hair, with a captivating face and eyes in which I could drown. I wanted the girl who had spent hours preparing me the most amazing lunch - the girl who was smitten with me for some inexplicable reason.
I wondered how things were done in Hamamachi. Would her father choose her husband? I wished my father had arranged for Nanako to be my wife instead of Sienna. Unfortunately, such thoughts were vain imaginings, and I knew it.
"Is everything alright, Ethan?"
I realised I had zoned out while Sienna was speaking to me, staring blankly into space as she droned on. Great, our first conversation and I had already zoned out – what did this reveal of our marriage to come? "My apologies, I've had a pretty stressful day." Thoughts of Leigh, shocked and terrified, filled my mind, along with the image of Nanako's despondent face when I drove away without receiving her hand-made obento lunch.
Sienna nodded in understanding, and then glanced at my father and her brother before continuing. “When your father contacted us with this marriage proposal, he said you have great intelligence and potential and that there is nothing you could not do if you set your mind to it. And my brother, having met you, is of the same opinion.”
I didn’t see that compliment coming - had I done the impossible and impressed Lieutenant King on the day we rescued the Japanese? I sent a fleeting look in his direction, which he returned with an unfathomable expression. I found it hard to believe that after his put downs and derisive looks, he was willing for me to become a member of his family.
At this point my mother and older sister brought in the main course – roast chicken with oven baked turnips, potato and carrots, and garnished with a side salad. She had spared no expense to impress the King family.
After the meal, my father and Mr. King Senior conversed at length, with some input from Liam. I found it too hard to focus on what they were saying and did not get involved.
When the King family bade their farewell, my father and I accompanied them to the door, where it was decided our families would dine together again tomorrow night, to finalise the wedding plans. Now that Sienna was sixteen, Mr. King Senior wanted her to marry within two months.
I got to work early again the next morning, after spending a restless night worrying that Nanako wouldn’t bring me lunch today. I stood next to our truck with Michal, Shorty and David as we waited for King and his Custodian squad to arrive.
A horrible feeling of unease worked its way through me, beginning in my mind and spreading into my stomach, where it remained. It would evaporate instantly if I could but hear Nanako’s footsteps in the street outside, but regardless of how attentively I listened, she did not come.
The Recycling-Works glass doors swung open and a barrel-chested man with a shaved head and wearing a forager's get-up strode purposely towards us.
“Who's he when he's at home?” Shorty asked suspiciously.
The man, who was at least ten years older than I was, stopped when he reached us. “Okay guys, gather around.”
“Who are you?” I demanded. With the Custodians joining our foraging trips, Leigh’s arrest, and the shock announcement that I was about to get married, I wasn’t in the mood for any more surprises.
“I'm you're new team leader. The name’s Cooper, but you can call me boss,” he announced in a no-nonsense voice.
So much for no more surprises.
“Excuse me?” Shorty demanded angrily.
Cooper stared down at Shorty and answered him curtly. “Concern has been raised over the reckless behaviour of your previous team leader, and so due to my extensive experience in said role, I have been assigned to replace him.”
“I'm standing right here,” I shot at him, wondering who on earth had decided to lumber us with him, when I recalled Sergeant King accusing me of those very same words. So, this was his doing. Perhaps he was afraid he was about to lose his future brother-in-law and his sister’s ticket into North End.
“Good for you,” he snapped.
“Forget it, Cooper,” Shorty said, deliberately drawing out his name. “We’ve got a team leader and he’s done alright by us these past two years. You can go back to whoever gave you your marching orders, and tell ‘em to stick ‘em up…”
Michal might have been tall, but he was fast too. His hand clamped over Shorty’s mouth before he could finish. “Shorty’s got a point, Cooper,” he said in a more polite tone, “what we need is another worker to replace Leigh, not a new leader. Who gave you your orders?”
“Sergeant King,” he replied.
My suspicions had been correct. I felt like the proverbial camel whose back was broken by too many straws, and this insult felt like the last straw. All of our freedoms while foraging were gone now. Not only were Custodians following us everywhere we went, ensuring we no longer got up to extracurricular activities, but now this stooge was going to be with us every moment of every work day.
The thought also occurred to me that as King had appointed him, Cooper might be a Custodian informant.
“So, we’re all good now?” Cooper asked condescendingly.
“Super,” David replied while glancing at me, hoping I could do something to get rid of this clown.
“Right then, here’s the way I do things,” he began. “Rule number one, and this is hard and fast - we are a foraging team, not a Custodian squad - we do not engage Skel in combat for any reason. If you see a Skel, sound the alarm and retreat to the Custodians. Rule number two, my word is law. If I say something, you do it – straight away, and without fussing. Rule number three, we are out there to collect metals, and nothing else. If I so much as catch one of you guys even peeking at anything else, I’ll bust your chops.”
The Custodian Bushmaster chose that moment to arrive, backing carefully into the yard until it was next to our truck. As Cooper rushed off to speak to King, I motioned for the guys to come closer. “As long as this Cooper guy is with us, don’t ask me to do tongue-clicks to find things, okay?”
“Why?” David asked.
“If the Custodians hear about it, they may suspect Ethan is something other than what he is,” Michal explained.
“But blind people can do it,” David pointed out.
“I know,” I replied, “but I ain’t blind, so just don’t mention it, okay?”
“So what the blazes are we going to do to spot Skel booby traps?” Shorty demanded.
“We’ll just have to be careful, like usual.” I didn’t tell him that before the Custodians joined us, I had been bouncing ultrasonic shouts off our surroundings to check for traps. Now we were really going to be in the dark.
King approached us with Cooper in tow. "I hear you boys have met your new team leader."
We shifted about in agitation, but none of us said anything. I made eye contact with my future brother-in-law and wanted to protest, to scream blue murder, but I knew it wouldn’t achieve anything so I kept my mouth shut.
"Right then, let's get this show on the road," King said once it was clear that we were going to take the leadership change lying down.
"I'll drive. Who's got the keys?" Cooper asked smugly. Michal handed the keys over.
I could have said something, but was too focused on what I was hoping to hear - Nanako's footsteps. What if she came while we were driving off, resulting in me snubbing her efforts for a second day in a row?
"Jones, get your butt in gear!" Cooper bellowed.
I glanced at my watch and my hopes floundered on the rocks of despair when I saw it was five past nine – she wasn't coming. So I had hurt her feelings yesterday and extinguished her interest in me. I know nothing could have come of it, but I wanted to talk to her, even if only briefly. Deflated, I walked to the truck and sat beside Cooper. Thanks so much, Michal for sitting in the back and lumbering me with the guy. I stared daggers at my friend in the rear vision mirror, and he rewarded me with the barest hint of a smile.
Cooper drove to a street in Carlton with a crumbling, weed-overgrown footpath and an asphalt road that was cracked and pitted. The houses in this street were over two hundred years old, and being made of brick were still structurally intact, although much of the woodwork was rotting away, and all windows were smashed or blown in.
"Right boys," Cooper said after we climbed out of the truck. "The Recycling-Works says we're running low on lead, so kit up and we'll strip these houses bare."
I glanced at King when the Bushmaster pulled up in front of the truck. He was watching me keenly, wondering how I would react to having lost my position as team leader. "We've already done this street, Cooper." I said.
"Is that right, Jones? In that case, follow me and I'll show you all the spots you missed," he said patronisingly.
"We didn't miss anything," I assured him flatly.
He patted me on the shoulder. "Ah, the arrogance of youth. Now follow me. After I've shown you the places to find lead, we'll split up and tackle the houses two at a time."
Cooper unhooked a ladder from the side of the truck, placed it against the nearest house, and addressed us as though we were fresh out of school. "You'll find lead sheet used as flashing around the sides of the chimneys and electrical wire connections to the houses." He clambered to the top of the ladder, and then stopped, surprised. "Oh, those spots have been stripped."
After that, he led us throughout the house, looking for lead sheeting in the cornices, around the bases of down pipes, in the conductor heads and window frames, and so on, until he had exhausted every possible source of lead – of which he didn’t find a single scrap.
"Told you we didn't miss anything," I said.
Cooper glared at me. "You know Jones; foraging teams have been working these suburbs for a hundred years, so how do I know that you're the ones who stripped this house?"
My teammates, who had been gloating at our victory, glanced unsurely at one another - how were we going to prove we'd done it?
I so wanted to smash my fist into Cooper’s cocky, know-it-all expression, but I somehow - only just - managed to resist the urge. "Take a look inside the roof above the laundry manhole," I replied. "You'll find some things we found but left behind, you know, since Newhome citizens aren’t allowed to touch them."
Cooper grabbed the stepladder and stomped back into the house. He returned a moment later with three rifles wrapped in plastic. "You're supposed to return all firearms to the Recycling-Works so they can be given to the Custodians, something I’m sure you are aware of."
"Proves we're the ones who stripped the house, doesn't it?" I answered, ignoring his comment completely.
Cooper stuck his face an inch from mine. "I don't like you, Jones." With that, he stomped off to present the rifles to the Custodians, three of whom were standing beside their vehicle, chatting amongst themselves.
My teammates and I gave each other inconspicuous high-fives.
"Score one for our team, Jones," laughed Shorty.
After that, we drove around our assigned sector of Melbourne’s ruins, striking out time and again. After eating our lunches in the truck -apparently, you don’t need an actual lunch break if you don’t do any physical work - Cooper found an old restaurant with thin lead sheets used to waterproof the floor.
My teammates would not speak to Cooper as we worked, except to answer direct questions, and they always called him ‘Cooper,’ not ‘Boss,’ which annoyed him no end. To rub salt in the wound, they called me 'boss' instead. My friends were the best. For myself, I was so deep in the doldrums because Nanako didn’t show up this morning that I barely spoke a word.
When I got home that evening, I had a quick shower and dressed in my neatest casuals, for I had to be at my parent’s flat in half-an-hour to finalise the details of my pending marriage.
However, the thought of being married to Sienna King for the rest of my life gave me the shudders. To be honest, I knew that very few marriages in Newhome contained loving relationships, but all the same, I had always hoped to respect and get on with my wife. I couldn't see that ever happening with Sienna.
A knock on my door snapped me out of my depressing reverie. Thinking the guys had dropped over for a visit, I pulled the door open and my heart stopped.
For standing in front of me was Nanako, wearing long pink and black striped socks that reached to her thighs and an oversized men’s blue and black flannelette shirt, which she wore as a dress. She was holding two plastic bags full of fresh food.
Peering up at me from beneath her pink fringe, Nanako held up the bags and smiled warmly. "Hi Ethan, I've come over to cook dinner for you tonight."
I don’t know how long I stood there staring at her, working my way frantically through the plethora of conflicting thoughts her suggestion sent zooming through my mind. Foremost was of course the liberating relief that came from realising I had not hurt or snubbed her yesterday morning. Second was the sheer delight that I finally had an opportunity to spend time with her. This was followed by panic because I was due at my parents’ house shortly and there was no way I could fit dinner with Nanako and with my parents into the one evening. Then of course was the gut wrenching fear associated with the knowledge that it was not permitted for a single guy to be alone anywhere or at any time with a woman who was not a family member.
I realised I had to turn down her offer and send her away, but as I stood there looking down into her innocent, hope filled face as she held the two bags of food, I knew I couldn’t let her down again.
“That sounds wonderful - please, come in,” I said as I stepped back to let her into the flat. As she walked past me, I noticed Councillor Okada standing a couple of doors down, either playing the part of chaperone, or watching to make sure she arrived safely at her destination, if not both. I wondered if I should ask him to come in too but he bowed politely and walked off before I had a chance to do so.
Nanako had dumped the bags of food on my miniscule kitchen bench – the kitchen was beside the front door - and was digging through the drawers and cupboards beneath the stove and bench.
The view of her of slender thighs exposed between the striped long socks that reached over her knees and the shirt was so mesmerising that it took a great deal of effort to find my voice. “Sorry, I don’t have much stuff.”
“Oh, that’s fine, I’ll make do,” she reassured me cheerily as she pulled out two dinted saucepans and a battered wooden chopping board that I had bought second hand at the market.
"I have to make a phone call," I said as I reluctantly tore my gaze from her thighs to look at her beautiful face.
"Oh - I haven’t interrupted your plans for this evening, have I?" she asked while chopping carrots with a speed I wouldn't have thought possible. I would have chopped my fingers off if I tried that.
"Oh no, it’s just some minor thing I can reschedule to another night," I reassured her. Yeah, a minor thing like working out my wedding date. "I'll be right back."
My flat was narrow but long, extending from one side of the block of flats to the other. Opposite the kitchen was the enclosed bathroom with shower, basin and toilet. Next was the dining room with the dining table and an old tatty two-seat sofa that faced the TV. The dining room morphed into the bedroom, occupied solely by my double bed. Next to the bed was the rear window and back door that lead to the balcony.
I grabbed the phone from the shelf next to the bed and rang my father. This was not going to go well.
"Jones residence," my father answered.
"Hello Father. Look, I'm sorry but something very important has come up and I can't make it tonight."
"Do not be absurd, Ethan. The King's are already here and your mother and sister are ready to serve the meal. Get over here right now," he ordered brusquely.
My head burned red hot from the pressure of the fix I had gotten myself into, for I knew that the correct thing to do would be to obey him, but when I glanced at Nanako studiously preparing our dinner, I realised I would have to defy father for the first time. "Father, I am otherwise detained and it’s not something I can get out of."
"What are you talking about, Son? Are you suddenly bereft of your senses? You knew the King's were coming tonight to finalize the wedding’s details - how can you be otherwise detained?"
"I'm sorry, Father, but as I said, even if I wanted to come, I am unable to do so. Please pass my apologies to the King's as well."
"Wait a moment," Father snapped, and he must have placed his hand over the receiver, for I heard nothing for a couple of minutes, and then, "Son? I have passed on your message to the Kings, and they are most displeased, as they should be. However, after much apologising, they have agreed to return tomorrow night."
I let out a huge sigh of relief, as I thought he was going to keep insisting that I came over until I caved in. "Right, thank you. I will be there. Again, please apologise to the Kings."
My father slammed down the phone before I finished talking, causing me to wince. I was going to get a major dressing down tomorrow night - something to look forward to.
My face was boiling hot and my conscience felt as though it had been pierced by a red-hot poker, but I returned to the kitchen and leaned against the fridge to chat with Nanako as she prepared the meal.
"Is everything okay?" she asked.
"It's all sorted," I assured her as I watched her pop small balls of fish meat into a saucepan bubbling with boiling oil. “Doesn’t Councillor Okada need you to translate for him tonight?” I asked.
“I told him I wanted the night off,” she said as she started peeling potatoes.
“And he let you?”
“Of course,” she replied, as though the answer should have been obvious.
“How is it that you speak English so well but he doesn’t?”
“I went to school at Inverloch,” she replied. “My parents thought it would be good if I could speak both languages.”
“They were right - imagine the trouble we’d have trying to communicate if you only spoke Japanese,” I laughed.
“We’d still find a way,” she said meaningfully as she met my gaze.
I wasn’t sure where she was going with that so I quickly changed the subject. “How do you know where I live?”
“Councillor Okada asked an official for your address, said he wanted to drop by and say thank you,” she replied.
“That was okay, wasn’t it?” she asked, suddenly concerned.
“Of course,” I assured her, giving her an encouraging smile as well. “Hey, do you have any brothers or sisters?”
“One of each,” she replied. “My brother is ten, and my sister eight.”
I waited for her to return the question, but when she didn’t, I volunteered the information anyway. “I have two sisters, one twenty and the other twelve.”
She nodded as she continued cutting vegetables.
"What are you cooking?" I asked, my interest piqued by the appetising smells filling the flat.
"Oden," she replied. "It's a Japanese winter dish. I was lucky to find some of the ingredients in North End and most of the others in the markets. I had to make my own fish cakes, though. And although we eat rice alongside the dish, we'll have to make do with bread rolls since Newhome doesn’t grow rice."
"You're an amazing cook, the obento you made me was the best lunch I've ever had."
"Oh no, you are too kind - my cooking is not so good."
"You're too modest," I laughed. "Where did you learn to cook?"
"I’ve had a lot of practice," she replied.
Suddenly, I could contain my curiosity no longer. "Nanako, if you don't mind my asking - how old are you?"
Her dark brown eyes peered out from beneath her pink fringe. "I'll be nineteen in a couple of weeks."
I was dumbfounded – she was years older than she looked and older than me as well. "You sure hide your age well - I figured you were fifteen at the most. In fact, you're a couple of months older than I am. I turn nineteen in the middle of February."
"Then we are virtually the same age," she said, rewarding me with another of her winning smiles.
“Yeah, amazing hey?" I laughed, before asking, "What do you do in Hamamachi, are you, you know, the town’s translator or something?”
She shook her head, “Oh no, there are quite a few of us that speak English. Actually, I’m a forager like you.”
“Really? What a small world. Where do you do your foraging?” I quizzed. Maybe they came to Melbourne sometimes, and if so, perhaps we could bump into each other from time to time.
“Mostly abandoned country towns, but I’ve been to Melbourne’s eastern suburbs too, looking for anything old tech - mobile phones, computers, tablets, and books, of course.”
“Books from outside Newhome are banned here,” I said sadly.
“Something about their having the ability to put subversive ideas in our minds. All the same, it doesn’t stop me reading them when I’m out foraging,” I admitted slyly.
“How long have you been foraging, Ethan?”
“What did you do before that?” she queried as she began to add a number of ingredients into the larger saucepan - boiled eggs, potatoes, carrots, white noodles, her hand-made fishcakes, and a vegetable I hadn’t seen before, kind of like a large white radish. She must have bought it in North End for I had not seen it in our markets.
“It’s a long story,” I answered.
“I don’t mind long stories,” she hinted.
I didn’t want to go there, but as she wouldn’t let the matter drop, I didn’t have much choice. “Honestly, I don’t remember. After I left school at fifteen I started foraging, but soon afterwards, I suffered a head injury that caused me to have amnesia and very bad epilepsy. All I recall is waking up in hospital after having an operation that stopped the seizures. My memory of that year didn’t return though, unfortunately.”
“When was the operation?”
“And you don’t remember anything about that year? About what you did before the accident or the time in hospital?” she quizzed.
“Not a thing.”
“Have you tried triggering the missing memories, like going back to the hospital?”
“I’ve been back a few times for check-ups,” I answered, “but it didn't trigger any memories. I don't think there's anything left to trigger, the accident did too much damage.”
We kept making idle chatter until the meal was ready. As she cooked, my gaze kept straying to the tantalizing glimpse of her slightly exposed thighs. I tried to fight the impulse, but try as I might, failed miserably. I was afraid that she might catch me ogling her legs and cause me to die of embarrassment. Fortunately, if she noticed, she said nothing but acted as though my behaviour was nothing out of the ordinary.
I must admit that I was a rather confused when she set two places at my small dining table instead of one - two bowls, two cups, and two plates stacked with bread rolls. She indicated that I should sit and after sitting opposite me, served the oden into both of our bowls. This was a most pleasant surprise – she was going to eat with me instead of waiting on me and eating later, as did Newhome’s women. She handed me two wooden sticks.
"You want me to eat with chopsticks?" I asked.
"Yes please," she replied mischievously.
“But I’ve never used them before,” I complained.
“You’ll do just fine.”
I picked up the chopsticks and dug into the oden, while she did the same. To my astonishment, I realised I could use the chopsticks quite proficiently. The oden’s ingredients had been cooked in a soy-flavoured soup, giving them a unique flavour, even the potatoes and boiled eggs.
As I watched Nanako noisily slurping down noodles, I could never recall having felt this happy or complete before. I gave her a heartfelt smile, which she immediately returned. An unbidden thought popped unexpectedly to my mind: I imagined I married Nanako instead of Sienna, and we ate together like this every day. The glimpse of this impossible future was one of joy instead of frustration.
I picked up a large piece of radish, which had changed during cooking from opaque white to translucent brown, and as I did, another 'spike attack' tore through me ruthlessly. Not wanting to concern Nanako, I tried to hide it by concentrating on eating until it passed. The image that accompanied this attack was a bathroom mirror and a cluttered basin, including two toothbrushes, soaps, shampoo and conditioner, washing-cloths, and cotton balls. My mind was yet again convinced I had experienced this exact moment before, eating Oden with Nanako while seeing this vision, but my rational mind dismissed this as mere nonsense. What was going on in my head, I wondered.
My next scheduled check-up with the hospital's neurologist was in two days, so I figured I should tell him about these turns.
"You okay, Ethan? You've gone quiet all of a sudden."
"Sorry, we can't have that, eh?" I laughed, hoping she hadn't noticed anything out of the ordinary.
She studied me intensely, as though trying to see into my mind. I did not want to mention these strange turns that defied all logic so I asked the second question I had been dying to ask her. “When are you and Councillor Okada returning to Hamamachi?” I was dreading that she might may answer that she would return tomorrow, for she had brought such light into my gloomy, dark life and I didn’t want her to go.
“Your town council is preparing a selection of items that Newhome manufactures and wishes to offer in trade with Hamamachi. As soon as they are ready, your Custodians will escort the samples and Councillor Okada back to Hamamachi.”
“But what about you? Aren’t you going with them?” I asked, thinking she had left her name out by accident.
“No, I’m not going back, because there's something in Newhome I want,” she said, a smile tugging at the corners of her slightly upturned mouth.
I wracked my brain, trying to think of what she was referring. “Oh, and what is this thing you want?”
She giggled. “Oh Ethan, you’re a smart guy, but sometimes you aren’t too bright.”
I think there was a compliment in there somewhere, and a massive hint to what she wanted, but try as I might, the answer alluded me. “You’re not going to tell me what it is?”
“Nope, you’ll have to work it out by yourself.”
“Well, whatever it is, I’m glad it’s keeping you here,” I said.
“And why’s that?” she asked, leaning forward slightly, her gaze suddenly intense.
I blushed, turning bright red in the process, no doubt. “Ah, so you can keep making me these marvellous meals.” And so I can keep seeing you, and talking to you, and daydreaming about the impossible, I added in my mind.
“Is that right?” she smirked playfully. “In that case, I’ll make you udon tomorrow night - you’ll love it.”
“Can we make it the day after? I have to go out tomorrow night,” I said as I served myself another potato and fish ball.
“Really - where are you going?”
I squirmed in my seat and looked at my hands as I replied. “My father has chosen my bride and our two families are meeting at six tomorrow night to finalise the wedding date.”
Nanako choked and sprayed a mouthful of water over the table, her eyes wide with horror and dismay. “Who is this girl?”
I could only glance at her as I replied reluctantly. “Remember Sergeant King, the leader of the Custodians who helped rescue you on Monday? It’s his younger sister. I met her last night for the first time. All she cares about is using the marriage to help her get into North End. My father apparently told her father that I am capable of accomplishing anything.”
"Do you…love her?" she asked, her voice quivering as her eyes bored holes through mine.
"No, of course not," I replied without hesitation.
"Then tell your father you won't marry her."
“I can’t,” I replied sadly. “All marriages in Newhome are arranged by the fathers. The children have no say in the matter.”
“When do you think the marriage will take place?" she queried after a long pause.
"Probably within the next two months."
At that news, her face paled quite considerably. “Where are you meeting with them tomorrow night?”
“At my parent’s house.”
She nodded a couple of times, and then rose and collected the used bowls, plates and chopsticks. She took them to the sink and washed them, making no further attempt at conversation. I put the leftovers in a plastic container and left them on the bench to cool down.
After that, we adjourned to the sofa and although I tried to draw her into conversation, I soon gave up for if she responded at all; it was never longer than a one-syllable word.
Her reaction was clearly something to do with my telling her that I was getting married, but I could not understand why she was reacting like this, for surely marriages were determined in the same manner in Hamamachi? I had figured her interest in me could be to repay the debt she owed me for saving her life, but with the cryptic comments she had made tonight, I suspected it was not the case. And if it wasn’t, then what was her purpose in pursuing me?
"I had best head back, it is getting late," Nanako said as she pulled from a pocket what appeared to be a working Smartphone.
I watched in childlike wonder as she activated the phone. "Councillor Okada? Owata. Hai hai, ja, mata."
"Your phone works," I virtually squeaked when I found my voice.
"Certainly does," she said, smiling sadly.
"But, their batteries are all dead, the digital programming has perished, and there are no satellites to connect them to," I protested.
"That was true, but we have learned how to repair them and make our own batteries. We even found a suitable satellite that survived the Apocalypse."
"I'm impressed," I practically drooled. "Hey, if I had one too, could we talk to each other, you know, whenever we wanted to?"
She nodded, though without enthusiasm. "Of course. You know, it’s these phones that your town council wants more than anything else we manufacture."
There was a sharp rap at the door - Councillor Okada had arrived. I don't know where he had been this evening, but it was obviously close by.
I hurried to the door, opened it and returned the councillor's polite bow. As Nanako joined him, I studied her downcast face and wished there was something, anything, I could do to lift her spirits again. "Thank you for a wonderful evening and gorgeous meal, Nanako."
She rose to her toes and pecked a light kiss on my check, and then walked off with the councillor.
After I closed the door, I slid to the floor and just sat there, at a loss. I touched the cheek she had kissed, my emotions and thoughts swept into a storm of confusion. I hated to see her so sad, for it tore me up inside, as did the fact that the night ended on such a negative note.
I hadn't even confirmed if she was still coming over the evening after the next.
Morning sunlight was streaming through the windows when I woke on the floor beside the front door. I don't know how many hours I had sat back against the door last night, but I must have fallen asleep eventually. I was stiff and sore, but not overly so as I often slept on the apartment block's concrete roof.
Tormented by the troubled, miserable expression on Nanako's face last night, I had zero interest in food. I drank a glass of water and threw a couple of pieces of fruit and a bottle of water into my backpack. I didn't pack food for lunch as I figured I'd be in no mood to eat at lunchtime either.
That done, I left my flat and headed for work. It normally took fifteen minutes to walk there, but I stretched it out to half an hour so I wouldn't arrive early. I had no interest in talking to anyone today, especially not In-Your-Face-Cooper.
My walk was plagued with thoughts of last night, of how a perfect evening with the most amazing and beautiful girl ever, had turned sour when I told her I was getting married. But why? We had known each other only a few days, so why did this news have such a strong effect on her? I mean, she intrigued me greatly, but there was nowhere our relationship could go from here. Surely, she could see that too.
However, what did her reason for not leaving Newhome with Okada-scan mean? She said she wouldn’t leave yet because there was something she didn’t want to leave behind. What was this mysterious ‘thing?’
I was still lost in this mental quagmire when I saw Lieutenant King waiting for me at the Recycling-Works gates with a savage scowl on his face. This wasn't going to be a good day.
"That was some stunt you pulled last night, Jones," he hissed when I reached him.
Still feeling somewhat distressed, I was in no mood to placate him. "My apologies, Lieutenant, but I was otherwise detained," I replied, the tone of my voice bordering on insolence.
"My father was most displeased - don’t pull anything stupid stunts like that tonight, you hear me?”
“I will be there as arranged, Sir,” I assured him.
“You’d better be. Now hop in your truck and let’s go.”
As I walked over to my teammates, Michal saw my dour expression and raised an eyebrow, but I just shrugged in response; I wasn’t going to say anything in front of the others.
“Ok scavengers, pack them behinds into the truck,” Cooper ordered us as he reached for the driver’s door.
“We’re foragers, not scavengers,” Shorty protested.
“A kettle by any other name is still a kettle, Shorty. We go out into a dead, ruined city and scavenge amongst the decaying ruins for scrap metal. Calling us ‘foragers’ is just some drongo’s attempt to make us think more highly of ourselves than we ought. Now, let’s go.”
On a normal day, I would have taken issue with Cooper’s deriding comments, but I didn’t have the heart for it. I climbed in next to him and we set off for the town gates, the Bushmaster roaring after us.
There was no sign of Nanako, just as I expected.
Once out of the town, Cooper drove us east, following exactly the same route he took yesterday. We drove slowly Dryburgh Street and then towards the CBD itself, past rusted out cars and trucks, through shrubbery and wild grasses that flourished in every crack in the roads and sidewalks until we reached the restaurant we had worked on yesterday.
Cooper backed the truck up to the restaurant’s concrete steps and we clambered out and put on our utility belts. The Custodians parked the Bushmaster in the middle of the street, one private popping out the roof hatch to operate the machine-gun, while King and another private exited the vehicle by its rear door. They glanced about the street once, and their thorough investigation complete, gave us the go-head to begin work.
“David, you’re upstairs with me,” Cooper snapped, “You other three finish tearing out the lead sheeting from the kitchen floor.”
With Michal wielding his sledgehammer and Shorty and I our crowbars, we traipsed up the concrete and into the shell of the restaurants foyer. All the windows were gone and the customer-service counter's wooden frame had rotted away, leaving the plastic top lying on the floor amidst a carpet of leaves, twigs, dirt, and plaster that had peeled from what was left of the ceiling. We threaded our way across the restaurant's dining room, which was an even great mess than the foyer. The wooden tables had rotted quite badly - most of their legs had collapsed, and the chairs had fared no better. Chunks of plaster had fallen on everything, and the place stank of mildew and mould.
Switching on his torch, Shorty led us to the large kitchen out the back, where we surveyed our previous day's handiwork. After moving aside the ovens and ranges we could shift, we had ripped up most of the disgustingly filthy linoleum floor tiles yesterday and had began to pull out the grimy, thin lead sheets beneath - a common waterproofing system used in commercial kitchens. Several kilos of lead had already been removed and rolled up, but we were only part of the way through.
I grabbed Shorty’s torch and panned it back and forth as I considered which section of the floor to tackle first, when an uneasy feeling rose in my gut. "Hold up, guys," I said quietly, examining our surroundings with more than casual interest now, for if I wasn't mistaken, the room had been tampered with ever so slightly. "I don't recall the freezer door being open yesterday, and I’m sure we put those rolls of lead in front of it, not beside it."
Michal hefted his sledgehammer and we approached the walk-in freezer as quietly as we could, when suddenly, Cooper started screaming “Skel!” at the top of his voice and we could hear his heavy boots thumping on the floorboards above.
At the exact same instant, the walk-in freezer door swung open and a horrifying, skeletal apparition burst into the room, made all the more terrifying due to the flickering torchlight and the cow horns protruding from the sides of the Skel’s skull-helmet – he looked like a demon from the depths of hell. The Skel was one of the biggest I had seen, and he charged us while brandishing a converted axe and yelling obscenities. Shorty and Michal fell back in shock, but I noticed he was timing his swing to hit Michal, not me. Therefore, I did the last thing the Skel expected - I charged inside his swing and swung my crowbar at his throat. Unfortunately, his arms collided with me and threw off my aim so that my blow only glanced off his skull-protected face.
The good news was that my attack had given Michal time to recover his balance, step forward and deliver a mighty swing of his sledgehammer to the Skel's head. The cow horn-adorned human skull he wore as a helmet exploded and he went down with a massive thud.
However, before we could breathe a sigh of relief, the door at the back of the kitchen was smashed open, allowing brilliant sunlight - and two more Skel - into the room.
"Run!" I shouted.
Shorty and Michal didn't need any convincing and sprinted out the kitchen while I brought up the rear. The Skel, one small and one large gave pursuit, two more nightmarish ghouls to haunt my dreams for the rest of my life.
As I darted out of the kitchen and into the dining room, a crossbow bolt missed my head by inches and imbedded itself into the far wall. I glanced back and cried out in fear when I saw that the smaller Skel was only a step behind, hands reaching out to grab me. I threw myself to the right while I twisted to the left and brought down the crowbar. It connected with my pursuer’s right arm, breaking the bone armour and possibly their arm as well.
To my surprise, a woman screamed in pain and uttered a stream of four letter words that would have made me blush had I not been in such dire circumstances - the smaller Skel was a female!
Refusing to let this astonishing find distract me, I regained my balance and rammed her with my shoulder, sending her reeling into a half-collapsed table. I would have followed this up with another crowbar strike but decided against that particular plan of action when the larger Skel barged out of the kitchen.
I turned and raced after Shorty and Michal, glancing back a couple of times to make sure he wasn’t gaining on me.
My teammates and I sprinted out of the restaurant and into the street, while at the same time, the Custodian operating the Bushmaster's roof mounted machine gun opened fire upon a target on the far side of the street.
King rushed over to us, gun at the ready, "Forget the truck - get in the Bushmaster!"
"Keep your eyes open," I shouted to Shorty and Michal as we ran around the truck to reach the Custodian's vehicle, "they've got us surrounded!"
Hearing a machine gun fire a short burst behind us, I glanced back and sighed with relief when I saw that King had gunned down the Skel who had pursued us in the restaurant.
We hurried to the back of the Bushmaster, where a Custodian held the door open with one hand while keeping his Austeyr assault-rifle ready with the other. Shorty and Michal clambered in and sat down next to Cooper, who was sitting at the front behind the driver’s position.
“Where’s David?” I demanded as I put one foot into the Bushmaster and safety.
Cooper refused to meet my gaze, “I don’t know, one minute he was behind me, the next he wasn’t.”
“You left him behind?” I asked incredulously, not believing what I was hearing.
Cooper glanced at me, guilt and fear etched on his face.
I think I hesitated for all of a second, and then the enormity of what he was saying exploded into my mind – the Skel had David! My teammate and friend had been caught by those abominations, who were even now no doubt carting him away to a fate far, far worse than death.
I backed away from the Bushmaster and confronted King, who had just come up behind me. “What are you doing, Jones, get in the vehicle!” King shouted.
“They’ve got David!”
“That’s unfortunate, now get in the Bushmaster!”
“We have to save him!” I barked back at him.
King glanced quickly about, taking in the buildings, wrecked vehicles, shrubs and weeds that surrounded us, and shook his head. “Look, we have no idea where they’ve taken him, and it’s far too dangerous to go rooting around trying to find him. We have to get out of here.”
As if to emphasize his point, a crossbow bolt hit the Bushmaster’s door right beside King’s head with a loud bang. The Custodian with the roof-mounted machine gun fired back at where he thought the bolt had come from, bullets shattering bricks beside a second story window in the building across the road.
Without thinking, I struck a pressure point on King’s right forearm with a knife-hand blow, ripped the Austeyr assault-rifle from his hands, and darted back towards the restaurant. I couched the gun against my shoulder as I ran, and noticed that King had set the gun on full automatic fire. That was no good, as I could empty the gun’s thirty-round magazine in a second, so I flicked the automatic lockout back to the exposed position, so that the gun would fire in semi-automatic mode. I don’t know how I knew this feature of the gun, but as soon as it was in my hands, they knew what to do, almost like instinct.
I glanced all about as I ran, letting rip with ultrasonic shout after shout, the flash sonar enhancing my vision so that I could ‘see’ into every shadow and darkened room, and through every shrub and bush. If the Custodians were somehow monitoring the sound frequencies and spotted me using flash sonar and it cost me my life, then so be it. I had to save David - period.
I figured the Skel would have taken David out of the restaurant through the kitchen, so I would have to find a way to get behind the restaurant’s back yard. However, before I could do that I had to do something about what the flash sonar had revealed – the entire area was crawling with Skel. Many of the buildings around us had Skel crossbowmen hiding in them, using shadows to remain concealed, Three more of the degenerate nomads, armed with Molotov cocktails, were scurrying towards the Bushmaster from the other side of the road, using wrecked cars, shrubs and wild grass as cover.
And to top it all off, two hundred meters back down the road we had used to get here, several Skel were hiding several bombs which would immobilise or destroy our vehicles if we retreated back the way we came.
As much as I wanted to go straight to David’s rescue, those three with Molotovs had to be dealt with first. So instead of continuing towards the restaurant, I ran across the road instead, ducking two bolts fired at me from second story windows. When I got behind the wrecked cars, I ran quietly back towards the Bushmaster and the three Skel stalking it. I found them as they were preparing to lob their nasty weapons – the Custodian operating the Bushmaster’s machine gun had no idea they were there and that he was about to be doused with burning petrol. I opened up on the three skeleton-encased warriors before they could throw, and put them down with three shots to their unarmoured throats. That done, I ran back towards the restaurant, and was almost shot by the Custodian, who thought I was a Skel. He jerked the machine gun away at the last second, sending a stream of bullets whizzing past my head.
My flash sonar detected two Skel hiding in the restaurant’s darkened foyer. Rather than trying to take them on frontally, I ran to the adjacent fast food joint beside it and leapt inside. I dashed past the smashed service-counter and then popped silently through a gaping hole in the wall adjoining the restaurant, and found myself back into the restaurant’s dining room and behind the two Skel in the foyer. Two more shots and they were down - one dropped soundlessly but the other held his neck and screamed ceaselessly while thrashing about on the floor.
My line of retreat now secure, I went back into the fast food joint through the hole in the wall, and hurried through its narrow kitchen, the empty room behind it, but when I tried to push open the aluminium back door, found it to be stuck fast. I turned to the window beside the door and as quietly as I could, shifted aside the window frame's head jamb, which had collapsed, and after checking that no Skel were on the other side, slithered through the gap.
The back of the fast food shop was a jungle of trees, bushes, and weeds jostling to get the most exposure to sunlight. I paused, quietened my breathing, and focused on what I could hear. I immediately heard several gruff Skel voices coming from the restaurant’s back yard beside me. Three were discussing setting up a trap to ambush whoever was pursuing them, for they had heard my gunshots, and the fourth appeared to be reporting their situation, though to whom I had no idea.
I threaded my way through the trees, bushes and weeds until I reached what was left of a chain-link fence, which marked the back of the property. Forcing my way through the fence brought me into the backyard of another building. I ran to my left and scaled a crumbling brick fence, so that I was now directly behind the restaurant's rusty chain-link fence and backyard.
I could see four Skel - and - David!
The Skel closest to me was holding David upright with his left arm, using him as a human shield, while his right held a knife near his throat. Another Skel was over near the restaurant’s back door to the right, and the other two were on my left, hiding in the bushes. The good news was that they all had their backs to me.
I had to disable the Skel holding David first, so I scampered up a tree over hanging the chain-link fence and braced myself in its lower branches. I took aim with the Austeyr, took in a deep breath, and then fired a shot through the Skel's right wrist. The nomad bellowed in pain and dropped both the knife and David. Next, I put a shot through the neck of the Skel over near the restaurant's back door, and then I jumped from the tree, slamming the gun's stock against the skull-armoured head of the Skel who had been holding David.
That took care of him but the other two chose that moment to burst from where they had been hiding. I put down the closest one first, but the second one fired his crossbow at the same time that I fired at him.
The crossbow bolt struck me just below the left collarbone with the force of a sledgehammer, sending me staggering back to collide with a pile of rotting wooden pallets, where I slid slowly to the ground. Seeing the bolt sticking out of my chest felt more surreal than real, but the truth sunk in - I had been shot! I wanted to surrender to the waves of pain washing through me and fall unconscious, but remembering that David was at my feet helped keep me focused.
I reached a hand out to David’s throat, and was relieved to find a healthy pulse. Hopefully they had only knocked him out, for I could not see any wounds on his person.
I also spotted a small palm-sized object next to the Skel who had been holding David, so I grabbed it and popped it into my pocket.
I could hear more Skel approaching me from other buildings, but even closer were two pairs of footsteps rushing towards me through the restaurant’s kitchen – footsteps that I instantly recognised. They belonged to King and Michal.
Knowing that help was nigh, I put down the gun, stuffed a wad of my shirt in my mouth, and yanked out the crossbow bolt in one swift motion.
Everything went black.
"Jones, wake up!"
I jerked awake to see King's ugly face two inches from mine. To say that he was angry would have been an understatement – he was ropeable. I looked around frantically for a moment, wondering where I was. Then it came flooding back – I had rescued David but had been shot in the process. The four Skel I had despatched still lay sprawled about me, but Lieutenant King and Michal had found me at last. Michal was picking up David and slinging him carefully over his shoulder in a fireman's lift.
"David...?" I asked.
"He's going to be fine, but we've got to get back before more Skel find us," King snapped as he grabbed my right arm and hauled me roughly to my feet. The pain from being jerked upright so brutally almost caused me to black out again. “I’m sorry, did that hurt?” he mocked as he pointed to the crossbow bolt wound. "Now press here - I don't want you flaking on us on the way back, ‘cause then I’d have to carry you, and at the moment, I'd rather drop you down a well than do that."
I saw he had placed a sterile gauze pad over the wound, so I pressed my right hand against it down to slow down the blood flow.
With Michal leading the way back through the restaurant towards the Bushmaster and our comrades, it took all my strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and that was with King practically dragging me along with him. He was armed with a pistol, but his reappropriated assault-rifle was slung over his back.
I figured I must have lost a lot of blood going by how weak I felt, and a glance at my shirt confirmed my suspicions - it was soaked red.
As we left the restaurant’s dark kitchen we heard voices of several Skel who had just entered the kitchen behind us.
"Faster!" King snarled.
Somehow, we made it through the restaurant and safely back to the street, but had to give our faithful truck a wide berth as angry flames devoured it.
“Cover us!” King shouted to the Custodian operating the machine gun on top of the Bushmaster. The private immediately began firing short bursts at the restaurant over the top of the burning truck - and just in time too - as a group of Skel were just then beginning to charge out of the building behind us. The machine gun fire had them soon scampering for cover.
After Michal carried David carefully through the Bushmaster's rear door, King helped me inside and onto a seat. He slammed and locked the door behind us.
The Custodian operating the machine gun suddenly dropped back inside the vehicle, a crossbow bolt embedded in his shoulder. The other Custodian private grabbed a med kit, quickly removed the bolt and bound up the wound.
King bellowed at the driver, “Go, go!”
Remembering the roadside bombs the Skel had placed on the route we had come, I grabbed King's arm feebly. "Don't go back the way we came, keep going east and then circle back using a different route."
"Belay that order!" King shouted to the driver, and then to me, "Why?"
"This was a meticulously laid trap, King. You think they're not expecting us to flee back the way we came?"
He glared at me for a moment, and then told the driver to do what I suggested. The Bushmaster's idling engine roared into life and it quickly picked up speed at it surged eastwards down the street.
I suddenly remembered what had transpired to bring about this debacle - Cooper, our new team leader, had fled the Skel with no thought to David's safety. The coward was still sitting there behind the driver, shaking with fear. I snapped and flung myself at him, striking him weakly in the face with a bloody fist. I couldn't get another blow in because I doubled over in pain and collapsed on the Bushmaster’s narrow floor space.
Strong hands grabbed me and pushed me roughly back into my seat. It was the Custodian with the med kit.
"Don't worry about me, check on David."
"Already have. He's got a concussion and we can't do anything more for him here. We need to get him checked out at the hospital. Now sit still so I can tend to you. What happened, were you shot?"
“By a crossbow,” I replied, relieved to hear that my efforts to save David had not been in vain. He was going to be okay.
The Custodian peeled back my shirt and applied a new sterile gauze pad, after which he bandaged up my shoulder and put my arm in a sling.
When he had finished, King swapped seats with the Custodian so he could sit across from me. He sat there for several minutes, glaring at me as the vehicle drove at high speeds away from the ambush site, rocking and bumping us as it passed over broken asphalt and shrubbery that was attempting to reclaim the road.
King finally found his voice. “You’re a damn fool Jones, not only did you almost get us all killed, but you assaulted a Custodian and stole his weapon! You’re looking at ten to fifteen in a hard labour manufacturie.”
Everyone was watching our exchange, both my teammates and the Custodians; they had all seen or heard me assault King, take his assault-rifle, and then rush off alone to save David. My three conscious companions looked on aghast when he mentioned the lengthy jail term.
I think my face went a shade paler as my world completely collapsed about me – ten to fifteen years in prison? All my hopes, all my dreams, my entire life as I knew it, was gone. Still, to save David from the Skel it was a price worth paying. “Sorry, Sir, but I couldn’t let them take David.”
King leaned closer. “So I noticed. And you know, Jones, here’s a little news flash for you - I may not arrest you for what you did today.”
I looked at him doubtfully. “Really, Sir?”
“You're an enigma, Jones - a puzzle that doesn't make any sense. For example, explain how you disarmed me with one strike - where did you - a forager - learn how to do that?”
“I don’t know, Sir - when you, ah, hesitated to go after David, my instincts just took over.”
“Cut the bull, Jones. You delivered a perfect knife-hand strike to a pressure point on my arm. Now who taught you how to do that?”
I could see what was worrying him; civilians were not permitted to learn the martial arts. “I’m serious, Lieutenant, I don’t know how I knew that. It just…happened.”
“Okay, next question,” King said as he leaned even closer. When did you do an advanced gun handling course?"
"What do you mean?" I must admit that he had stumped me with that question.
"There are perhaps half-a-dozen Custodians who could handle an Austeyr assault-rifle with as much skill as you demonstrated back there."
I shook my head. "I just aimed and pulled the trigger."
"I said to cut the bull, Jones! You changed the gun to semi-automatic fire, couched it against your shoulder like a pro, and took down Skel with one shot kills. Even I can't do that."
"Lieutenant, seriously, I just grabbed the gun and used it. I’ve never done any form of gun handling course. I took up foraging as soon as I left school, and apart from the year I spent in hospital after my accident, that's all I've ever done," I assured him.
“A ceiling collapsed on me when I was foraging back in 2120, Sir.”
“And you spent a whole year in hospital for that?” he queried sceptically.
“What do you mean ‘apparently,’ did it happen or not?”
“After the accident I suffered from amnesia. I have no memories of that year, Sir,” I answered, wondering where he was trying to go with this.
King leaned even further forward. If he leaned any closer we’d be bashing our heads together every time the Bushmaster went over a bump. “Did it ever occur to you that you may have been a Custodian before your accident?”
“No Sir,” I said, shocked by the suggestion – what a horrid thought! “My memories of leaving school and going straight into foraging are intact. It’s the memories of the year after that time that are missing. Besides, what you suggest is impossible: once a Custodian, always a Custodian, right?”
Which was quite possibly the worst thing to have said; now King was probably back to suspecting I was part of some underground resistance movement, training its members to taking on the Custodians. As if.
"Unless you bombed out during boot camp, or were discharged due to medical reasons – and with an injury like amnesia, you would have been," Lieutenant King answered as he leaned back into his seat, but he wasn’t finished. He narrowed his eyes suspiciously as he continued, "As I said, something about you just doesn't add up, Jones. When I get to the bottom of it I’ll decide whether or not to arrest you for today’s discretions."
Actually, I suspected the primary reason he was not arresting me now was because I was to marry his sister. What would his father say if he came back from work today and informed him he had stuck his sister’s ticket to North End in prison for ten to fifteen years?
Though to be honest, I had to admit I was extremely surprised I had known instinctively how to use King's gun, since I've never touched one before. At least, I had no memories of ever having done so. What if his suspicions were well founded, what if I had joined the Custodians or had been part of some underground, paramilitary resistance group? Both thoughts sent shivers down my spine.
"Everyone, listen up," King said as he snapped his fingers to get our attention. "Regardless of what you think you saw happen today, Jones did the Lone Ranger thing and rushed unarmed off to try and save David. I went after him with Michal, I killed the four Skel who had taken David and wounded Jones, and then Michal and I brought them both back. Is that understood?"
As everyone responded in the affirmative, I wondered what rank King would be next time I saw him. The thought occurred to me that if he were to stick with me, I would catapult him to that esteemed rank he sort in next to no time.
When we got back to Newhome we found it a hive of activity – Custodians squads in Bushmasters and G-Wagons were patrolling the no-man’s land that surrounded the town, for several other forager teams - what was left of them, anyway - had returned before us, as they had all been ambushed by Skel too.
The town hospital looked like a field hospital in a warzone. Wounded Custodians and foragers filled the operating theatres, emergency department, and intensive care unit. Some suffered burns from Molotov cocktails and burning vehicles, others had been shot by crossbows or hurt by booby-trap bombs, and others had broken bones or other injuries caused by Skel hand weapons. Doctors and male nurses rushed back and forth with a frantic sense of purpose.
Our foraging team and Custodian squad were the ‘lucky ones,’ as most of the foragers in the other teams had been wounded, killed or captured, and the Custodians hadn’t done much better. Four more foraging teams had yet to report in. This was truly the darkest day in Newhome’s recent history. And the thought of some of our brave, faithful men captured by the Skel weighed heavily upon our hearts - no one deserved to receive such an appalling fate.
The technician who X-rayed my wound said I was lucky because the crossbow bolt had not done any serious damage, somehow not penetrating as deeply as perhaps it should have. When I told him it had been fired at point blank range, he said he suspected that the crossbow string had lost much of its tension. For the first time, I was relieved the Skel did not maintain their weapons properly.
After that, they stitched up the wound, wrapped my chest in bandages, and gave me a blood transfusion.
I had been transferred to intensive care and was attempting to snatch some sleep, a difficult task due to the noise resulting from patients filling every bed, visiting family members, and hospital staff, when wouldn’t you know it, Lieutenant King made a house call.
“Leave us,” he snapped at Michal, who had been keeping me company.
Michal nodded and quickly retreated to join Shorty and David - his bed was at the other end of the room.
“Do you feel as bad as you look?” King asked gruffly as he stood stiffly before my bed.
“Mostly likely, Sir.”
“I suppose you’ve heard the Skel hit all of our foraging teams today. Two teams haven’t even come back, which means they must have taken out the Bushmasters as well. All of the foraging trucks were lost.”
“Yes, I had heard that, Sir.”
“Any ideas why the Skel have done this?”
“It could be in revenge for us wiping out their twelve-man party on Monday,” I suggested.
“But that’s not what you think, is it?”
“Don’t pussy-foot with me, Jones, out with it.”
“I think what happened today, and even last Monday’s attack on the Japanese cars, are all part of a greater plan against Newhome, though what they hope to achieve I have no idea,” I answered carefully, expecting him to refute the idea.
His face, however, remained neutral. “Okay, Jones. Let’s say I buy this theory of yours, but there’s one big problem with it.”
“Which is, how did a loose collection of nomadic tribes manage to co-ordinate such a carefully thought out plan to attack all of our foraging teams on the same morning – teams that were spread all around Melbourne,” I said, finishing what he had begun to say.
“Exactly – any ideas how they did it?” he asked.
“This is how,” I said as I opened my right hand to show him what I had been holding all that time. (Michal had retrieved it from my trouser pocket earlier.)
King’s face became almost as pale as mine as he reached down to take the Smartphone from my hand. “Where did you get this?”
“From one of the Skel, Sir.”
“Good work, Jones, I’ll be off now,” he said as he turned to leave.
“The conclusion you’ve reached isn’t necessarily the correct one,” I said quickly.
He turned back to me. “And what conclusion is that?”
“That Hamamachi is supplying Smartphones to the Skel, Sir.”
King stared at me long and hard. “You know about Councillor Okada offering to trade Smartphones with us? That information is classified.”
Classified because they intended to offer the imported phones only to North Enders and Custodians, no doubt.
“I noticed our Japanese visitors had working Smartphones when we rescued them,” I said, for I could not admit she had been alone with me at my place last night.
“Then how else do you explain the Skel having them?” he demanded, holding up the phone, which to all intents and purposes was identical to the one which Nanako had.
“If Hamamachi is willing to trade them with us, I’m sure they must be trading or selling them with other Victorian towns. And who knows, maybe someone else has worked out how to repair them too.”
King nodded but he did not look at all convinced. His face suddenly softened and he asked, “Will we see you tonight? Or has a doctor told you to remain in hospital for a few days?”
“Forget doctor’s orders,” I assured him with far more gusto than I felt. “I will see you tonight.”
"Oh, one last thing." The softness I had seen on his face a moment ago vanished.
He leaned closer. "I checked the log of Custodian recruits from late '79 to early '80 - and you're name isn't in it."
"I already told I went straight into foraging, Sir."
"As far as you remember, right?"
"This amnesia excuse is only going cover you so far, Jones. I'm going keep digging till I get to the bottom of this, and if I find that you've learnt gun handling skills illegitimately, I’m going to nail you to the wall," he menaced, and then stormed off.
Michal rejoined me a few minutes after King had left. "What did he want?"
"He wanted to know my thoughts about why the Skel attacking all our foraging parties today," I replied.
"You're kidding," Michal exclaimed, "King asked for your opinion?"
"I know, right? Last thing I ever thought he'd do, though true to form he mixed in a few threats too. Hey, is David awake yet?"
"He is, but he won't say anything, just stares into space."
I reached over and ripped the drip's needle out of the back of my left hand, and pressed a tissue over the hole until it stopped bleeding.
"What are you doing, Ethan?" Michal asked with concern.
"Help me get dressed, with you? I want to see David and find out what's up." I hoped he didn't have amnesia or something like that. There wasn't a day that went by that I didn't regret the gaping hole in my mind of eleven months I had no memory of living.
Michal stared at me for a moment as though I was out of my mind, but then came over and helped me out of bed. My clothes had been stuffed unceremoniously into a large brown bag and placed in a cupboard beside my bed. Michal helped me out of the hospital gown and into my clothes, but as the nurses had thrown away my blood soaked shirt, he gave me his jacket to wear. It was several sizes too big, but was clean at least. Getting my left arm into the jacket was agonisingly painful, but I gritted my teeth and put up with it. Adversity was something to cope with and overcome, not pander too.
"I need a sling," I said, searching the cupboard beside my bed.
"Hang on, I'll be back," he said before disappearing into the swirling crowd of doctors, nurses, patients and family members. I hadn’t contacted my family, for I had enough on my mind without them fussing over me too.
Michal returned a moment later with a sling and helped me put it on.
"Mr Jones, what do you think you're doing?" a young nurse demanded as he approached us. All nurses and hospital staff, except for those in the maternity ward, were male.
"Checking out," I replied.
"You need to remain under supervision for at least twenty-four hours," he insisted.
"Look, I'll rest better at home, and you've got your hands full, right?"
Realising I could not be swayed, he held up his hands. "Fine, but let me at least give you your course of antibiotics."
I yielded to his request and waited while he went to fetch them. He returned a moment later with a bottle of pills and gave me instructions to take them twice a day with food.
That done, Michal and I went over to see David. He was lying down with his head wrapped in thick white bandages, and was staring straight ahead with a blank expression on his face, just as Michal had told me.
Shorty was sitting cross-legged on the foot of the bed, but clambered off to greet me as we approached. "What are you doing walking around, Jones? You're whiter than a ghost."
"I've spent enough time in hospital beds," I replied, and then stepped over to David, overjoyed to see him safe. I had panicked so badly when the Skel had taken him, terrified by the fate he would meet at their hands.
I lay a hand on his shoulder. "Hey mate, how you feeling?"
"Why'd you save me, Jones," he asked while continuing to stare straight ahead.
"What kind of question is that?" I asked, confused.
"I'm the one who told them," he replied, clearly stricken with grief.
I glanced at Shorty and Michal, but they just shrugged their shoulders. "Told who what, David?"
"The Custodians, I'm the one who told 'em about Leigh sleeping with his neighbour."
Although I heard what he said, I simply could not accept it. "You what?"
"He's always flaunting the law and bragging about it. And then he starts going on and on about how he's sleeping with this Chinese girl next door, and I got so angry, and jealous too I guess. So I just went up and told a Custodian about it. I didn't even think of the consequences."
"David, Leigh's in prison for six years, and the girl is dead!" I finally managed to blurt out, shock from his confession sending my mind reeling.
Shorty, who was closer to Leigh than a brother, simply snapped. "You absolute and utter idiot, David! I hate you!" He suddenly bolted for the door with tears streaming down his cheeks.
I grabbed Michal's arm. "You wanna follow him and make sure he doesn't do anything stupid?"
Michal left and then it was just me and David, feeling somehow alienated and alone although in a room full of people. I sat down on the edge of his bed and let my mind wander through memory lane, thinking of all the good times the five of us had had together, laughing, crying, talking, exploring the ruins, playing cards, even crying on each other’s shoulders. And now it had come to this.
After many minutes of reflection, I reached out and turned David’s head so he met my gaze. "David, you're just going to have to deal with what you did, and when Leigh finally gets out, you gotta fess up and ask how you can make amends, okay?"
There was no response, he didn't even blink.
"Look, you stuffed up, and you stuffed up real bad, but I got shot saving your life today pal, so don't you dare waste that, you got me?"
David's eyes finally focused, first on my face, and then on my arm in the sling. Understanding what I was saying, he nodded slowly.
"Promise me you won't waste it," I demanded.
"I promise, Jones," he whispered, and then, "Jones?"
"That's better," I affirmed him as I gripped his hand.
When Michal returned an hour later, he found David asleep and me sitting in the chair next to him.
"Shorty's okay, he just needs some time alone," he informed me.
I stood slowly from the chair but hand to grab the bed to steady myself, "Cool, thanks."
"And where do you think you're going?"
"Have to be at my parents by six."
"And you're going to walk there? In your condition?" Michal asked sceptically.
"Well, I'd rather take a bus but can’t do that since Newhome doesn’t have any," I replied in mock frustration.
"How about you sit back down for another half hour and after that I'll get you there in fifteen minutes."
I fixed Michal with a withering glare. "I ain't going by wheelchair."
"This is no time for misplaced pride, Ethan, but don't worry, I've got a better idea. Stay here, I'll be back."
I gave him a mock solute as he sauntered off.
Michal delivered me to my parent's apartment block by six, and as he promised, didn't hurt my pride by wheeling me through Newhome in a wheelchair. Rather, he had dredged up a two-seat tandem bicycle and he rode while I simply sat and pretended to do so. He had even fetched a clean set of clothes from my place. I honestly don't know what I would have done to earn a friend like him.
Walking up the three flights of steps to get to my parents flat turned out to be the most exhausting leg of the journey.
"You're late," my father scolded me when he opened the door and let me in. He gave no indication if he noticed my arm in the sling or not. In typical form, his mind was fixated one thing - marrying me off to Sienna King.
The King's had already arrived and were seated in the same manner as they did two nights ago. Mother and older sister were standing by the kitchen doorway, waiting for me to arrive so that they could serve the appetizer. Mother's eyes widened in genuine concern when she saw me, for apart from the sling, I was obviously very pale. In deference to the formal setting, she did not speak, but I knew that once the King's left she would be fussing over me and bombarding me with questions.
As father returned to his seat, I greeted the King family formally, and then lowered my aching body in the chair on his right, directly opposite younger sister, who was holding her hands to her mouth in shock at my appearance. I tried to flash her an encouraging smile, but I don't think I was quite up to the task.
"Liam's been telling us about the Skel attacks on our foraging teams this morning," Aiden King said when I turned to face him. "Sorry to hear that you got caught up in that, Son. How are you feeling?"
"A bit worse for the wear, Sir," I replied. Actually, now that the hospital's painkiller had worn off I just wanted to lie down and die. Well, not literally. I glanced at Sienna, thinking she'd be concerned that I'd been injured; however, she was examining me with little more than casual interest. That horrible sinking feeling returned to my gut - I was to spend the rest of my life with this girl?
A knock at the door interrupted my train of thought. I watched as Father rose and went to see who it was.
"What are you doing here?" my father snapped quite rudely at the mystery visitor.
"I came with the councillor from Hamamachi as his translator," replied a somewhat familiar voice. My spirits rose when I realised it was Nanako, but my initial excitement was followed immediately by confusion - what on earth was she doing here?
"No," I heard my father say as he tried again, "What are you doing at my home?"
"Oh, I'm looking for Ethan. Is he here?" my small Japanese friend asked, trying to see into the flat past my father's broad frame.
I had parted company with Nanako last night on a very negative note, and had spent the rest of last night, and all of today, down in the dumps because of it. So this was an opportunity I wasn't going to waste. I rose from my chair and stepped to the left so that she could see past my father and see me.
Her eyes widened in alarm when she saw the sling, and then, to my amazement, she slipped lithely past my father and rushed over to me. "What happened, Ethan? Are you alright?"
"We got jumped by Skel while foraging today," I replied.
She laid her petite, bronzed hands lightly upon my bandaged arm. "And you were hurt?"
I was aware that both families were staring at us in a mixture of confusion and disdain - all but Lieutenant Liam wondering how I happened to know such a strange and no doubt unmarried young woman. And me? I didn't care one iota - I shut them out and gave her my whole attention. I pointed to the crossbow bolt wound, "I, ah, got shot by a crossbow."
"That’s terrible, Ethan!” she exclaimed, her eyes brimming with tears. “Why aren't you in hospital?"
"They let me go," I said, which was kind of what happened.
"But aren't you in pain?"
"Well, you know, just a tad," I said, pride stopped me from admitting the truth.
"Oh Ethan, this is no good, you could have been killed! Promise me you'll find a safer job."
I was surprised by the depth of concern she was showing - she really cared for me. "I'll think about it," I replied as I glanced at Lieutenant King. The fact was, with all the foraging trucks gone and the Skel besieging the town, there would be no foraging for some time.
Nanako gestured to my chair. "Here, you'd better sit down, Ethan, you look so pale."
"Let me introduce you to everyone first - everyone, this is Nanako. She's the translator who came from Hamamachi on Monday," I said, after which I introduced each member of the King and Jones families to her. She bowed politely to each in turn.
When I got to Liam, she said, "I am honoured to meet you again, Sergeant King."
"It’s lieutenant now, actually," Liam replied, clearly uncomfortable with this situation. "And, you’re welcome."
My father had not moved from the door, which he was still holding open, clearly hoping Nanako would leave.
I, however, wanted her to stay. "Does anyone mind if Nanako joins us for dinner tonight? She is an esteemed visitor to our town, after all."
King senior and my father begrudgingly muttered their approval, resentful that I had forced them to do so by asking if Nanako could join us while she was still with us, for had they refused, they would have lost face.
I ushered Nanako to the seat beside younger sister, so that she would be opposite me. As soon as she sat down, Sienna and her mother grimaced as though she was something the cat had dragged in. My opinion of Sienna slid down a dozen more notches.
I returned to my seat as Father closed the door and sat beside me. He kicked my shin under the table, glared at me, and then nodded to my mother and sister, who disappeared into the kitchen. They returned a moment later with bowls of tomato soup.
"This is scrumptious, Mrs Jones," Nanako said to my mother after she tasted it. "What ingredients did you use?"
Everyone gaped at Nanako in disbelief - she, a female, had spoken at the meal table without receiving permission to do so from one of the men. My mother looked to my father, unsure of what to do. Although clearly displeased at Nanako's lack of manners, he nodded his permission.
"It is an English recipe," my mother answered quietly, "I put in tomatoes, butter, chicken stock, tarragon, basil, sour cream, salt and pepper."
"I recognised the basil, but tarragon? What a fantastic idea, it really adds to the taste," Nanako replied enthusiastically.
Mother smiled bashfully.
Nanako noticed younger sister stirring her soup and taking the occasional sip. "You're Meredith, aren't you?"
Younger Sister's eyes widened in alarm, and she looked to father for permission to reply.
"Go on," I encouraged her, cutting in before father had a chance to respond.
"Yes," she replied shyly.
"You're very pretty," Nanako said, smiling warmly.
Younger Sister looked embarrassed but at the same time, I could tell that she was moved by the compliment.
Nanako studied her with knowledgeable eyes, and I guessed that she could see that Younger Sister was not well. She had tried to cover the sores at the corners of her mouth with makeup, but they were still visible.
When the soup had been consumed, Mother and Older Sister brought out heated dinner plates bedecked with roast chicken, potatoes, pumpkin, and beans.
The tomato soup was the first thing I had eaten today, so I tucked into the roast dinner with gusto, grinning unashamedly at Nanako while I ate.
Glaring with disgust at my undignified display of affection towards Nanako, Sienna King touched her father's arm deferentially, and he nodded, giving her permission to speak.
"Nanako, is that how all the girls in Hamamachi dress?" she asked with contempt and stressing the word 'girl.'
Nanako glanced at her attire. She was wearing the same clothes she had worn on Monday, the faded black and blue zebra stripped jacket, black top with blue and pink lace skirt, torn pink leggings and black boots, and as usual, the dog collar with bell and two gold rings. "This outfit’s typical of what we were wearing three years ago."
"I see. And if you don't mind my asking, how is it that your parents allowed a child such as yourself to act as translator for Hamamachi's emissary? Shouldn't you be at home?"
My respect for Nanako increased even more when she refused to respond in similar fashion to Sienna's attack. "Oh no, I travel a lot - you know, to other Victorian towns. And I serve one month a year in our Militia. And by the way, I'll be nineteen at the end of the month."
Sienna's eyes just about popped out of her head, for she had believed Nanako to be her junior, not her senior by two years.
"What is this Militia you mention?" Liam suddenly asked.
"It's our security force," Nanako replied between bites, "You know, like your Custodians."
King looked at her doubtfully. "And you serve in that?"
"In what capacity?" he demanded. I got the impression this had suddenly become an interrogation.
"My platoon patrols the outer lying areas of the town, you know, to provide security against raiders or Skel who try to steal our supplies or abduct our people."
"But you're a girl," he protested rather too strongly.
"So what?" she shot back at him with such feeling that everyone present flinched. "All Hamamachi citizens aged 15 to 55, whether male or female, serve in the Militia one month a year."
“So you don't have any full time security forces?" Liam asked, surprised.
"Apart from the Rangers, only the senior Militia officers serve full time."
"They're a special unit that specializes in countering Skel incursions and retrieval of kidnapped citizens, stolen supplies and livestock - stuff like that," she answered.
"Interesting," Liam murmured, nodding thoughtfully to himself. No more questions came so it seemed the impromptu 'interrogation' was over.
"Mrs Jones," Nanako said to my mother as she waited on us by the kitchen door, "The roast chicken is just amazing, I love the way you've brought out the skin's flavour with herbs and spices. And I love these roast veggies too."
"Thank you," my mother replied, glancing at my father, hoping she had done the right thing by replying.
"Oh, and by the way Ethan, did you enjoy the Japanese meal I cooked for our dinner at your place last night?" Nanako asked me innocently.
While I gagged on a mouthful of roast potato and sprayed it all over my plate, everyone else's mouths dropped open in shock. In fact, you could have heard a pin drop as all four King's, disbelieving what they had heard, looked to me to hear my response.
My face was burning hot - I could not believe Nanako had just gone and blurted that out in front of everyone! "Ah, yes, it was delightful," I finally managed to reply.
This response was met with stunned silence too.
It was my father broke the uncomfortable silence, speaking just loud enough for all to hear as he spoke to me while pointing at Nanako. "So when you rang yesterday and said 'something very important's come up,' this ‘'something very important’ was having dinner with her?"
My eyes darted frantically between my father, Nanako, and Aiden King. I wanted to avoid my father's wrath, and did not want to insult the Kings, but I also refused to insult Nanako's generous hospitality by playing down how much having dinner with her last night meant to me. "Yes Father, that's correct."
Sienna and her mother gasped in shocked outrage, their hands flying to their mouths.
Aiden King pushed back his chair and rose slowly to his feet, his voice trembling with anger as he addressed my father. "Is this how you raised your son, William, to completely disregard courtesy, respect and honour? To be so flippant of his responsibilities?"
My father stood, his mouth working silently like a fish out of water as he glared daggers at me. "I'm sorry, Aiden, I don't know what's come over him, he's never behaved in such a manner before," he practically whimpered.
"Well, I would have you know that I have never been so offended in my entire life!" Aiden growled as he motioning his family to their feet. "Come Sienna, Wife, Elder Son, we are going."
Leaving their half-eaten meals behind, the King family strode with exaggerated self-importance towards the door.
I stood as well, knowing that I should say something in an attempt to salvage this situation, but having no idea what it should be, and in fact, having no desire to do so.
"Son, apologize at once!" Father ordered me.
I sent a fleeting look at Sienna's haughty posture as she headed for the door, and then at Nanako's caring, kind face, and I knew I could not. The thought of marrying Sienna had scared the daylights out of me, and so this situation, although it brought dishonour to my family and I, was an absolute windfall for me. I shook my head.
My father took a menacing step towards me but froze when Aiden King yanked open the front door and turned to face him. "And in case you hadn't worked it out, William, the marriage is off."
I became aware of a menacing presence at my shoulder, and almost jumped when I saw Lieutenant King standing less than an inch from my.
"Were you alone with that girl last night, Jones?" he asked far too quietly.
"Councillor Okada came with Nanako," I replied - an answer, which if interpreted literally, was the truth. If I had answered in the affirmative, King would have arrested us both on the spot.
"You'll pay for this insult to my family's honour, Jones, I'll see to it personally," he whispered into my ear before striding out of the flat and slamming the door behind him.
My father was quivering with rage. I had never seen him this angry before, and to be honest, I was scared. I had no idea of what he was capable of in this mood.
"What have you done, Ethan?" he shouted as he took another step towards me. "All of my efforts - weeks of negotiations and discussions - to find you a wife who could elevate your station, who could give you the motivation you need to make something of your life, and you throw it all away. And for what - to have dinner with her?" He pointed at Nanako but did not even grace her with a glance.
Nanako stood and made her way unobtrusively around the far end of the table and came to stand beside me. I was thankful for her silent support, although she appeared as shaken by my father's naked aggression and hostility as I was.
"I know you meant well, Father, but why couldn't you have discussed it with me instead of springing Sienna King on me at the last possible moment. She knew all about me but I was completely in the dark," I answered as strongly as I dared, which wasn’t particularly strongly at all.
"What's that got to do with it?" he bellowed. "I met your mother on our wedding day. You should have considered yourself lucky I agreed to the King's request to let the two of you meet before the wedding. Now go this very minute to the King's residence and apologise for your insulting behaviour and beg their forgiveness."
I did not want to deal with this issue today, I was sore and tired and just wanted to go home and sleep. "Look Father, please don't think I didn't appreciate the effort you went to in all this, but I don't want to marry Sienna King."
"What you want has nothing to do with this, Son. To marry a girl above your station like Sienna is an opportunity you will never get again – especially once word gets around about what you’ve done. Now off you go."
I didn’t move.
"I gave you an order, Ethan," he yelled.
To defy my father on any issue, and especially on a major one like this, went against everything I had been taught, yet I still wouldn’t move.
"Now, Ethan!" he shouted furiously.
"Sorry, Father, I just can't do it," I practically whispered.
He took a big step towards me and pulled back his hand to strike me across the face, but little Nanako, a full head shorter than either one of us, suddenly jumped in front of me and dared him to strike her instead.
Father stood there, blinking and shaking uncontrollably, wanting to strike her but unable to bring himself to do so.
"Get out of my home, you confounded nuisance of a girl!" he finally managed to say, his voice shaking with rage.
"What are you going to do if I refuse, Mr Jones - call the Custodians and ask them to throw me out?" Nanako shot back vehemently.
I looked down at Nanako in surprise - where had that burst of emotion come from? One thing was for sure, though, she had backbone. Far more than I had, I was ashamed to admit.
Father glowered at her for a moment, and then abruptly stormed from the apartment, slamming the door behind him.
Exhausted from standing too long, and from a confrontation that was going to come back and bite me, I slumped back into my chair.
Nanako pulled out a chair and sat beside me this time. "Are you okay, Ethan?"
"Jury’s out on that one," I replied.
My half-eaten roast dinner was before me, a victim of tonight's conflict.
Nanako picked up my fork and handed it to me. "Eat."
"Lost my appetite," I answered.
"Ethan, you need to get your strength back, so eat."
I stabbed a roast potato and lifted it to my mouth. "You too, little one," I said to younger sister, who was sitting there wide-eyed. She sheepishly began picking at her dinner.
My mother came over and sat across from us. "Son, of all the things to defy your father on, why did you have to choose this one?"
"Sorry mother, but I won't marry that girl."
"Got too much of your father's stubbornness in you," she sighed in resignation, and then turned to Nanako "Thank you, young lady."
"For what?" Nanako asked gently.
"For the kindness you've shown to my son this evening – which was far more than his own family did - I ashamed to say." With tears in her eyes, she turned to me. "Are you in pain?"
I nodded. Mother flicked her head at Older Sister, who disappeared into the kitchen and returned with painkillers and a glass of water, which she dumped unceremoniously in front of me. I got the impressive she agreed with Father.
I swallowed the tablets and tried to eat a dinner that had lost its appeal.
"Son, you two had best not be here when he returns," my mother said once I had eaten all I could manage.
"Yeah, I know," I agreed. I had seen enough conflict for one day, first with the Skel, then King, and now this evening's episode. The thought of having to walk home, however, was a most unpleasant one.
"I'll get Councillor Okada to gift you a lift to your apartment. It's too far to walk in your condition," Nanako declared as she pulled out her Smartphone.
"In his car?" I asked incredulously.
She nodded as Councillor Okada answered the phone.
Looked like I was going home in style.
Councillor Okada drove me home (more like drove me around the corner) in his incredible black four-wheel-drive car, complete with a touch screen navigation computer in the dashboard, air conditioning, and a host of other features I couldn’t even begin to guess at. We sure had nothing like this car in Newhome.
When we reached my flat, Councillor Okada bowed and made to leave, but I reached out a hand to stay him. “Councillor Okada, can you please come in, there’s something I want to discuss with you.”
Nanako was clearly disappointed we wouldn’t be alone, but translated my request nonetheless. Inside the flat, the councillor and I sat at the kitchen table while Nanako dragged over my large footrest and knelt on it.
This was my first opportunity to speak with Councillor Okada since they had arrived. When I had met him in the ruins I had thought him to be middle aged, but I could see now that I had misjudged his age, just as I had with Nanako. Although his skin was youthful, his hair was flecked with grey, so I guessed he was probably approaching fifty.
Nanako made us all a cup of tea, and after engaging in some pleasantries, I began to share with Councillor Okada what was on my mind. Nanako translated quietly in the background. “The reason I wanted to talk to you, Councillor Okada, is that one of the Skel who attacked us today had a working Smartphone that looked just like the one Nanako has."
Nanako sprayed a mouthful of tea all over the table in shock. Councillor Okada’s reaction was a little more controlled. “How do you know it was working?” he asked in Japanese, and just like before, I somehow understood every word.
“Its screen was lit up and covered with icons,” I replied.
“That’s impossible," he declared adamantly.
"I brought it back with me.”
"Where is it? I must see it at once," he demanded, clearly alarmed.
“Sorry, I gave it to Lieutenant King."
The councillor looked crestfallen. “I really wish you had let me see it first, Ethan. I want to know what satellite service it is connected to."
“You could ask Lieutenant King to let you see it?” I suggested.
“Out of the question,” he replied, “that would reveal you have divulged this sensitive information to me, and that could land you in much trouble.”
I nodded, touched by his consideration for my wellbeing. “Do you trade the phones to other towns?"
“Of course, the Smartphones are our most desired commodity. Every town we trade with has purchased them from us,” he replied.
“So the Skel must have stolen the phones from their victims,” I deducted. “Unless you trade with the Skel too, but you wouldn’t do that, would you?”
“Of course not - we shoot them on sight,” he replied indignantly. “But to answer your suggestion; stealing the phones cannot be the solution, for the phones need to be recharged constantly.”
“And how is that done?”
“The recharger plugs into any electrical outlet,” he said, his forehead creased in deep thought. “And I’m sure the Skel have no access to electricity, due to their nomadic lifestyle.”
“I think, Councillor Okada, that we have all massively underestimated the Skel. If they are recharging their stolen phones – and they must be – it means they have appropriated a source of electricity.”
"If you are correct, Ethan, this bodes ill for all Victorian towns. When I return to Hamamachi, I will send out a Ranger team to investigate this matter." To Nanako he then added, "What a tragedy our most experienced Skel counter incursion team was lost a couple of years ago."
"Lost, how?" I queried.
"Four members of the team were killed and the fifth gravely wounded," the councillor replied.
"By Skel?" I asked, suddenly afraid. If Skel had wiped out Hamamachi's veteran Skel hunting team, what chance did anyone have?
"No, they had all been shot. By whom, we do not know," he answered.
By that point of the conversation my eyes had become too heavy to keep open, and my head was bobbing towards my chest.
I hadn't even realised I had fallen asleep until Nanako shook my right shoulder ever so gently. "Into bed with you, mister, you can't even keep your eyes open." I don't know how long I had been asleep in the chair, for it was almost dark now and there was no sign of Councillor Okada.
I stumbled over to my welcoming bed, where Nanako helped me take off the sling and my shirt. I climbed under the covers and lay down.
"You did that on purpose," I said drowsily as I tried to keep my eyes open.
She knelt on the floor and propped her elbows on the bed beside the pillow. "Did what on purpose?"
"Told everyone I had dinner with you last night so that you could sabotage the proposed marriage," I replied, staring into her thick-eyeliner encircled dark-brown eyes.
"Maybe," she said, smiling mischievously.
I wanted to reply, but oblivion reached out and sucked me down into its depths; her sweet, round face the last thing I saw.
Throbbing pain in my chest woke me just as the sun's first rays began to light the darkened night sky. I wish I could have actually seen the sunrise, but my apartment spent much of its life in the shade of one adjacent blocks of flats or the other.
My first thought was to look for Nanako, which was absurd, for of course she wasn't still here. Nevertheless, I couldn't stop myself glancing around the flat to confirm it. She must have gone home with Councillor Okada last night before the curfew took effect.
Getting out of bed was an exercise in pain as well, since every muscle was as stiff as a board and ached as well. Yesterday had not been a good day for the ol' bod. I finally managed to sit and swung my legs over the side. My wound hurt such that I wondered if I should have stayed in hospital another day, but if I'd done that I would be still be on course to marry Sienna.
Relief surged through me as the truth liberated my mind - I was free of that dark, horrid future. To think how I close I came to becoming someone's stepping stone into North End - to being trapped there myself.
On the other hand, as I pondered the all-out Skel assault upon our foraging teams and Custodian protectors, I became very troubled. What was going to happen now? They had destroyed all the foraging trucks and even two Bushmasters. And as long as the Skel remained out there, surrounding the town, we couldn't send out any more foragers.
I wondered if the Custodians would mount of offensive against the degenerate nomads, but surely such an attack would be suicidal for the Custodians had no experience with Skel ambushes.. And if the Custodians were wiped out, what would stop the Skel breaking into Newhome and kidnapping and murdering its citizens until their black hearts were content. The town's future, and that of the surviving foragers, was shrouded in the swirling fog of uncertainty.
I had finished dressing when I heard three pairs of boots tramping towards my apartment and smiled in spite of myself - my teammates had come to pay me a visit.
"Hey guys, what's up?" I asked when I let them in.
"Well, you are," Shorty complained as he stepped past me, "Now I gotta pay Michal twenty bucks."
"Ha-ha, that’ll teach you from making bets about Ethan's habits," Michal laughed as he followed him in. David brought up the rear, downcast but his head no longer swathed in bandages.
"How you feeling, David?" I asked.
"Like my head's been hit by a sledgehammer, which is kind of accurate, I guess," he replied.
"And how are you, Mister Lone Ranger," Shorty teased me as he headed for the fridge.
"I've felt better."
"Take a seat," Michal said as he shepherded me towards the dining table. "Breakfast is on us this morning."
I sat but sent a worried glance in their direction. "Not gonna give me food poisoning or something, are you?"
"Hey, it's us," Shorty protested in mock indignation.
"That's what I'm afraid of," I laughed, and then wished I hadn't because of the waves of pain that radiated through my chest.
Somehow they managed to throw together an edible breakfast for four. Grabbing a couple of plastic chairs from my balcony, the four of crowded around my 2-person dinner table. I observed that although Shorty was ignoring David, he was at least tolerating his presence, which was a start towards reconciliation.
"Hey, did the Recycling-Works ring you last night, Jones?" Shorty asked while stuffing scrambled egg in his mouth.
"All foraging has been suspended until we are advised otherwise. But it's not all doom and gloom - the good news is that we have to report to work as usual tomorrow morning and assist with recycling."
I cocked an eyebrow at Shorty. "Did I detect a slight trace of sarcasm there?"
"Absolutely not," Michal chortled. "But you don't need to worry just yet, Ethan, the boss said you can take off as long as needed to recover from your wound."
"Without pay, no doubt," I grumbled.
"Nothing in this world's free," David chimed in.
I sighed. "I lose the flat if I'm out of work for long, so I guess I'll have to turn up as soon as I've got the strength to walk there."
"Hey Ethan, seriously, where did you learn to use a gun like that?” Michal asked quietly. “I couldn't believe my eyes when we caught up to you yesterday. You were sitting next to David, covered in blood, and surrounded by dead Skel."
"As I told King, I just grabbed the gun and somehow instinctively knew how to use it. Kind of eerie, when I think of it."
“That’s impossible, Jones,” Shorty said emphatically, “And to be honest, I wouldn’t believe Michal's tale if I hadn’t seen you disarm King and run off with his gun.”
"I thought you were dead," Michal confessed softly, his eyes boring holes through me. "You frightened the daylights out of me."
"Hey, it worked out in the end, thanks to you and King," I said, trying to reassure him.
Suddenly an image of a disassembled Austeyr assault-rifle flashed into my mind with crystal clarity. I had only enough time to register that the gun was being reassembled with practised movements by two hands - my hands - and then came the all too familiar feeling of déjà vu, with the rest of the 'spike attack' symptoms following immediately afterwards.
I tried to hide the attack by taking a sip of tea, and quickly dispelled the feeling that I had been through this exact situation before. I also pondered the image of myself assembling an assault-rifle, for I had never touched one before today. That these images could be premonitions of my future was not a pleasant thought.
At any rate, my check-up with the neurologist was today, so I would run these 'spike attacks' past him and see what he thought. He'd probably stick me in the loony bin.
“Hey Jones, you’re in pretty high spirits today, which is quite the surprise considering you got shot yesterday. So what gives?” Shorty asked. “Did that Japanese chick make you another lunch?”
David squirmed uncomfortably in his seat, the situation reminding him of what he had just done to his friend Leigh in a similar situation.
“Something like that,” I laughed, and then grimaced in pain.
Michal was staring at me intently. “David, Shorty, you two head off to work, there’s something I need to speak to Ethan about.”
"Don't mind me," Shorty grinned, not moving an inch.
Michal glared at Shorty with such intensity that he sprang from his chair, grabbed his bag, and left the flat with David.
“I dropped by last night just before curfew, planning to see if you were okay,” Michal said slowly.
As I had been fast asleep then, I’m not sure where he was going with this, but I could guess. “Oh?”
“And I saw Nanako slip out of your flat by herself and close the door quietly behind her.”
“She and Councillor Okada gave me a lift home after I had dinner with my parents, and they stayed for a while,” I said.
Michal was clearly hurt by my answer. “This is me you’re talking to, Ethan, not some gullible Custodian. Councillor Okada wasn’t there. He arrived a moment later in his car, picked up Nanako, and they drove back to North End.”
“Sorry mate. Look, they did drop me off and they did both come in, but I fell asleep at the table. When I woke up, it was a couple of hours later and Councillor Okada was gone. Nanako told me to get in bed and…”
“Whoa, stop, stop!” Michal panicked, holding up his hands.
“Oh, cut out the theatrics, Michal, this is me, not Leigh,” I said, rolling my eyes in exasperation. “She told me to get in bed and sleep, and that’s what I did. Next thing I knew it was morning."
Michal seemed to buy my story, but he still wasn’t happy. “Don’t go doing anything stupid with that girl, you hear me? She’s such an innocent little thing and doesn’t know Newhome’s draconian laws. Could you live with yourself if she was executed because you went and did something foolish?”
“I won’t,” I declared indignantly.
“Really? Well think on this then. If I saw her leaving your apartment by herself last night, the Custodians could have seen it too. And if not last night, perhaps next time. Don’t risk it, man.”
“I’ll be more careful,” I assured him.
"You'd better be," Michal said and then rushed out of the flat to catch up to the others.
I had an hour to kill before I had to leave for the hospital, so I set my alarm and lay down to rest. I would have to walk there, but would give myself extra time so I could go as slowly as I needed to.
I don't know why the hospital gives you an 11.00am appointment and then makes you wait two hours before you can see the doctor. Why not just tell me to come at 1.00pm instead?
When the nurse finally told me I could go in to the neurologist's consultation room, I was stiff and sore and just a tad annoyed.
The neurologist, Doctor Nguyen, who appeared to be in his forties, waved me to a chair by the window. "And what have you been up to, young Ethan?" he asked when he saw the sling.
"I took a Skel crossbow bolt in the chest yesterday."
"You did? Then what are you doing walking around? Why aren't you still in casualty?"
"Don't take this personally, Doctor, but I've had enough of hospital beds to last a lifetime."
"Yes, I suppose you have," he answered thoughtfully. "But tell me, how have you been these past six months - still seizure free?"
"Yes Sir,” I replied, "however, I’ve been having these strange turns, though they’re probably nothing."
"Tell me about them."
So I gave him a detailed description of the 'spike attacks,' and by the time I finished, he looked quite concerned. "What you’ve just described is a temporal lobe seizure," he said.
That was the last thing I expected him to say, and the shock hit me like a king-hit to the head. What if I ended up being incapacitated by seizures like I used to? What if the amnesia got worse? "Can they become grand mal seizures like the ones I used to get after my accident?" I asked.
"It’s very unlikely, but a possibility nonetheless. Now what I would normally do at this stage is send you off for MRI and EEG scans, however, that is not an option at the moment."
"Why not?" I asked, puzzled.
"The Custodians have made it mandatory that all CAT, MRI and EEG scans be shown to their hospital representative before being discussed with the patients," he said, angry at this invasion of doctor-patient confidentiality.
"Why is that a problem?" I queried, although I already knew the answer. It was another way the Custodians were trying to root out the mutants who had slipped through the cracks.
Doctor Nguyen stood, quietly closed the door, and sat again. "I went to great lengths to hide your, what shall I call it, unique ability, when you came here in November '20. I also used a handpicked team I could trust to observe patient confidentiality when we operated on you."
I think my eyes were just about popping out of my head. "You know?"
"Oh course," he said quietly. "Your brain, ears and voice box are very noticeably different from the norm, and very remarkable, I might add."
"Doctor, I don't know what to say," I whispered as I was almost overcome by emotion. All my life I had hidden my mutation, believing I would be reported should it be discovered - yet this doctor and the team who had operated upon me had kept my secret, and at great personal risk.
"You don't need to say anything, Son," he said warmly. "There are many in the medical profession who will do virtually anything to hide the batch of children who were biologically engineered back in 2102. The ultrasound technician who scanned your mother when she was pregnant was obviously one."
"Sorry, did you just say ‘biologically engineered?’” I asked, not believing what I heard. The Custodians declared my abilities a mutation - a freak caused by nuclear radiation.
“That’s right, why, what did you think caused you to be like this?” the doctor asked, curious.
“I thought it was a mutation caused by nuclear radiation,” I replied.
“Oh no,” he reassured me with a smile, “nuclear radiation may cause birth defects, such as cleft palates, extra fingers or toes, but that’s all pretty much in the past now.”
“So this was done to me deliberately? By whom and with whose authority?” I demanded, anger at this intrusion on my body welling up within me.
“For your own safety, Ethan, it is best you do not know the precise details of what happened. Suffice to say it was an unauthorised experiment done in secret by a geneticist, who regretfully took his own life and destroyed his work when what he did was discovered.”
“Do the Custodians know this?”
“The senior ones do, mostly certainly,” Doctor Nguyen said kindly.
“So why then are they trying to kill us?”
“Honestly, Ethan, that is not necessarily the case. All I know is that when the Custodians find any of the biologically engineered children, they take them to a secret facility in North End and they are never seen again.”
They could have been dissected by the Custodians in an attempt to see what made them tick, or they could be alive and imprisoned. The only way to find out would be to let myself get caught, and I wasn’t going to do that. I suddenly felt as though I didn’t even know myself – I wasn’t a mutant like I had always believed, but was deliberately altered to be like this – to have these abilities. On one hand I was angry that such a thing was done underhandedly, but on the other, I considered my abnormality to be the most amazing gift ever. I wondered why the geneticist had done it, what was his purpose? Was it to make us better adapted to survive in our Post Apocalyptic landscape? If it was, he succeeded most magnificently.
“So what do we do about these temporal lobe seizures?” I asked, changing the topic.
"What I will do for now, at least until the Custodians relax their grip on the hospital, is give you anti-convulsant tablets to take twice a day. These should stop these temporal lobe seizures. Start taking the tablets tomorrow, and make an appointment to see me again in four weeks. However, if you have a grand mal seizure, come to the emergency department immediately and request me by name. Don't let anyone else examine you."
I nodded as he wrote and handed me a prescription.
"There was one more thing I wanted to ask you, Doctor. The images I see when I have these temporal lobe seizures, what are they?" I asked hesitantly.
"They are memories."
"Memories?" I queried, shocked. "But if that's the case, then how come I don't recognise any of them?"
"Give me an example," he said.
"One image was of a polished wooden floor with slippers and boots, none of which I remember seeing before. Another was of a messy bathroom sink that is nothing like the sinks I've ever seen, and stuff like that," I thought I'd better not mention the gun, just in case.
Doctor Nguyen expired thoughtfully. "My guess, young Ethan, is that these memories are from the year you don't remember."
Now that statement had been baffled. "But my father told me that I spent all of 2120 in hospital."
"Goodness no, nothing like that. You responded very well to the operation and were discharged within a few days, if I recall correctly," he replied.
Fear blossomed deep within in my gut. I suddenly felt very, very disorientated. "So what was I doing for the rest of that year?"
"I suggest you ask your father."
"We aren't exactly on speaking terms at the moment," I admitted reluctantly. "How long was I in hospital?"
The doctor leafed through the pages in my file. You were admitted into hospital on the 16th of November '20, and checked out on 8th of December.
I rose slightly in my seat so I could see the hospital patient-discharge form the doctor was examining. I could see quite clearly where it said:
Patient: Ethan Jones
Discharged: 8 Dec 2120
Signed out by: William Jones
Relationship to Patient: Father
I had been in hospital for just over three weeks, from mid-November to early December. So where was I from January until November? And why was my father hiding it from me?
The doctor suddenly leaned forward and touched my knee gently. "There's one more thing I need to tell you, Ethan, since it appears your memories are starting to return. It was due to your father's insistence that I told you your head injury was caused by a collapsing ceiling."
"That's not what caused it?"
"No, you had been shot, though not when you were brought in. You had been operated on previously, but not by a neurosurgeon," he said.
I sat there for some time, trying to process the distressing information he had just dumped on me. I had been shot in 2120 - shot in the head! How on earth did that happen? Who shot me? Why did they shoot me? The disorientation I had experienced a moment ago threatened to become full blown vertigo.
"I know this is a lot to swallow at once, Ethan, and I wish I could talk with you more, but I have a list of patients to see today as long as my arm. However, you can stay in my office for as long as you need, I'll use the office next door for my next patient," Doctor Nguyen said as he rose.
I don't think I even noticed him leave, and I'm not sure how long I sat there in his office, trying to get my head around what he told me. My father said I'd been in hospital from January until December, 2120, but the doctor said I had only been here from November until mid-December. So what was I doing between January and November? Wherever I was, and whatever I had been doing, it had lead to my being shot.
I had an impulse to rush over and see my father to get the truth out of him, but gave up on the idea when I figured he would probably attack me or throw me out of his house.
I eventually left the hospital and began the slow walk back to my flat. I had not taken the prescription to the hospital pharmacy, for if I started taking the anti-convulsants the temporal lobe seizures would stop, and so would the memories. And I desperately wanted those memories, as they could be my only chance to find out what had happened to me in those missing months.
Lunch was leftover oden from the other night, which proved just as delicious cold as when hot. In fact, the flavour had been drawn out by sitting in my fridge for a couple of days.
I had just finished and was clearing the table when I heard Nanako and Councillor Okada walking down the landing towards my flat. I considered opening the door before they got here, but as I was supposed to be hiding my superior hearing, decided against it.
A moment later there was a knock at the door. Today Nanako wore over-knee socks, boots, jacket, and bike-rider's shorts - all black. The black contrasted magnificently with her pink fringe.
“You’re off early today?” I queried as she stepped inside, surprising me by rising to her toes and planting a kiss on my cheek.
“They didn’t request our presence today,” she replied, bowing to Councillor Okada who returned the bow and then went to lean against the railing with his back to us, rather than return to his car. “All the bigwigs have been called to some urgent meeting.”
"Probably trying to work out what to do about this new Skel threat,” I said as I closed the door behind her.
“You’re looking a lot better today,” she said as ran a petite hand down the side of my face, her gentle touch breaking down some of the mental and emotional walls I had built about myself over the years to protect myself from getting hurt. And thanks to Father and Elder Sister, there were a lot of them.
“Amazing what a good sleep can do for you,” I replied.
We retired to the sofa and sat facing each other.
“I dropped by this morning but you weren’t in,” she said.
“I had a check-up with the neurologist.”
“And how did it go?”
“Well, not so good. I’ve been having these strange turns lately, and he said they are a form of epileptic seizure,” I said.
Nanako’s face inexplicably paled. She leaned forward and lay a hand on my forearm. “Oh no, that’s not good. Are they dangerous like the seizures you used to get?”
“They’re not much of a risk, apparently,” I assured her, for she looked really worried. “And they can be controlled by meds I'm supposed to take twice a day. There is one good thing, though - every time I have one of these temporal lobe seizures, a memory flashes into my mind. And according to the doctor, the memories are from the year I don’t remember.”
Nanako suddenly grabbed my left arm with great excitement, but quickly let go again when I grimaced in pain. “Sorry,” she grinned sheepishly, “but that's wonderful! What things have you remembered?”
“Just a bunch of mundane items and places I don’t recall having seen before, like a polished floor, a beaten up ute in a factory courtyard, a messy bathroom basin, stuff like that.”
“Any memories of people?” she asked keenly.
“No, not yet.”
She was clearly disappointed. “Well, keep thinking of those memories, and try to trigger more of them, okay?”
“Don’t worry, I’ve been pondering the memories over and over, trying to work out how they fit into 2020,” I told her. Suddenly I remembered what I wanted to do this afternoon. “Hey, I’m going to pop over and visit Younger Sister, would you like to come?”
“Of course, but what about your father?”
“He doesn’t get home until five. All the same, we’re going to have to sneak into my sister’s room, as I’m not allowed to enter it otherwise, and she’s probably too tired to come out and talk to us.”
And so we headed over to my parent’s place, with the ever faithful Councillor Okada giving us a lift and walking us to the door.
I pulled out the key I'd been given to my parent's flat and then listened carefully, trying to work out where my mother and older sister were. Not being able to climb the back of the building like I normally did was a major inconvenience.
I could just discern sounds in the kitchen – sounds caused by two people. So I slipped the key into the door and opened it without making a noise. Glancing down at Nanako, I held a finger to my lips and crept silently into the house. To my amazement, Nanako proved to be rather adept at walking noiselessly.
I led us to the small hallway that lead to the kitchen and the women’s bedroom, and when the sounds indicated that my mother and older sister were on the far side of the room, we darted into the bedroom.
I quietly closed the door behind us and went and opened the blinds overlooking the balcony, letting light illuminate the dingy room.
Younger Sister opened her eyes and smiled when she saw us. “Ethan - and Nanako! This is a pleasant surprise.”
I saw the barely touched plate of sandwiches on the bedside table next to her and sighed. “You told me you were going to try harder to eat,” I chided her.
"Sorry," she said, avoiding eye contact.
Nanako sat on the bed beside her and smiled warmly. "How are you feeling, Meredith?"
Nanako peered closely at the sores at the corner of Younger Sister's mouth, and took one of her hands in hers, brushing her finger tips lightly over the slightly upturned nails.
"Do you sleep well?" she asked.
Younger Sister shook her head.
"Do you get leg cramps? Is it hard to breath when you walk about?"
My sister nodded in the affirmative for each questions.
Nanako looked over to me, as I stood at the foot of the bed. "She's anemic."
"She's what?" I asked, fearing it may be an incurable disease.
"She has less red blood cells than normal - it's from not having enough iron in her diet," Nanako explained, running a hand affectionately through younger sister's unkempt, long hair. "Has she been like this long?"
I nodded. "Too long."
"It's easy to treat," she assured us confidently.
"My father won't take her to a doctor," I said resentfully.
"You don't need a doctor to treat this," Nanako replied, and then gave her attention to my sister. "Do you want to be well, Meredith, and be normal like everyone else - like me?" Younger Sister nodded. "You'll have to be brave and eat a special diet, even if you don't like it. And if you do, you'll be healthy like the rest of us in no time."
"I'll do it," my sister affirmed her. She seemed completely smitten by the beautiful, confident Nanako, and I couldn't blame her. She was really quite something.
The bedroom door suddenly banged open and Elder Sister barged in, and then froze with eyes wide in disbelief. "Ethan! What are you doing here? And you brought that girl with you!"
Mother heard the disturbance and rushed into the room, scowling when she saw us. "Ethan, you know you're not allowed in here."
"We wanted to see Younger Sister," I replied simply.
"Then knock on the front door like normal people," Elder Sister snapped. "How did you get in here, anyway?"
"Walked right past you," I replied, and then turned excitedly to mother, "Mother, Nanako says Younger Sister is anemic and it can be treated easily with a special diet!"
Mother sighed. "Oh Ethan, you know your father won't allocate any more money for buying food."
"You won't have to, Mrs Jones," Nanako assured her, "You just need to buy some different foods to what you are used to."
"I can't believe we're even having this conversation!" Elder Sister snapped angrily. "Get out of our room, Ethan - and don't ever do it again."
"Please don't stop him visiting me," Younger Sister implored.
"You mean he sneaks in here often?" said my older sister. "Why didn't you tell us, Younger Sister."
"Mother knows," she answered softly, "and she never stopped it."
"Well, I wasn't sure, but I suspected it," Mother answered kindly. Like me, she had a real soft spot for my little sister. "I could not think of anyone else who could be buying her such expensive food so often."
"I thought you were buying that food for her, Mother," said my older sister as she glanced from mother to me, and back again. "I thought you were secretly taking money from Father to buy it."
"Oh, don't be silly," mother scolded her. She fetched a pad of paper and pencil and turned to Nanako. "Please go ahead, Nanako. What changes do I need to make to her diet?"
"You don't have any beef in Newhome, but instead of that you can have chicken, eggs and fish. Always eat wholegrain breads and cereals, and also spinach, lentils and peas, nuts, and dried fruits like prunes, apricots and raisins. And give her citrus fruit with each meal, it helps the body absorb the iron better," Nanako said as my mother wrote.
"Thank you, I will make these changes, just as you recommend," my mother replied enthusiastically, "But tell me, how do you know so much about food?"
"It is a Japanese tradition for mothers to instruct their daughters about nutrition and healthy eating," Nanako replied, "And our schools provide healthy lunches to the children - they are not allowed to bring their own food."
After that Mother and Nanako fell to talking about food and recipes, so I sat with Younger Sister and chatted with her, my heart brimming with joy that she was going to get well at long last. One of the heaviest burdens that had weighed my heart down for so long could now lift away.
We left my parent's flat at four-thirty so that there was no risk of us being there when Father came home from work. He was apparently still very angry this morning.
My Japanese friends drove me home again, and Nanako told me she would come back and cook dinner for me after she had gone shopping. While she was I gone I lay down for a much needed rest, my mind racing with thoughts about this Japanese girl who was taking such an interest in me. It was a most peculiar experience, which both excited and worried me at the same time.
As she had promised a couple of nights ago, Nanako cooked udon when she returned an hour later. It was a Japanese soup with thick white noodles, tofu, seaweed, her hand-made fish cakes, radish, and deep-fried prawns.
She served the udon in breakfast bowls, with salad and bread rolls served alongside it. “Sorry, the noodles aren’t the correct ones,” she said as we sat down to eat together, “but they are the closest thing I could find to them.”
“Smells fantastic,” I assured her as I picked up my chopsticks to eat. And while I sucked down the thick noodles with as much decorum as possible, Nanako slurped hers down with quite noisily. I was quite surprised at this sudden display of bad manners, but hid my reaction best I could.
“You like it?” she asked between slurps.
“Love it,” I replied. “You know, I wish you could cook for me every day.”
“You never know, maybe I will,” she answered as she locked her beautiful eyes with mine.
My face was getting hot, and I don’t think it was from the soup. And although it didn’t make any sense, I got the impression yet again that she was interested in me. Yet, that niggling doubt that she was doing these things to repay a debt for saving her life refused to go away.
"Nanako, there's something I've been wanting to tell you,” I began hesitantly. It was time to get that doubt out into the air, “I don't want you to feel like you owe me anything."
"You mean for saving me from the Skel?" she asked, her eyes sparkling humorously.
"Is that why you think I'm making these meals for you and spending time with you?"
"Well, it’s not what I’m thinking, per se. But I just wanted to make sure that you know you don’t owe me anything, that’s all," I explained clumsily.
She leaned forward, smiling broadly. "That's not why I'm doing these things for you."
"Then why are you?" I pressed.
"Because I like you," she replied, and then, looking down at her dinner, muttered softly under her breath, “Anata o aishite iru kara.”
I wasn’t supposed to hear that phrase whispered in Japan, but to my ears it was as clear as if she had spoken it aloud. She had said; “It’s because I love you.”
Now that was the one answer I hadn’t expected to hear, though to be honest, that such a beautiful, mysterious girl should profess that she loved me both flattered and confused me. It made me feel special and privileged, but baffled me because we barely knew each other, and because it was a love that could not be realised due to my town’s rigid customs.
"But you've known me for less than a week," were the only words I could think to say.
"As soon as I saw you on Monday – after you had helped Councillor Okada from the car, I knew you."
"What do you mean?"
She reached across the table and laid her small left hand on my right. A thrill raced up my arm and down the back of my head and spine, melting more of the walls I had built around my heart. "When I saw you, I saw an upright, honest man with a heart for others - a man of passion and capable of greatness. A man I wanted to know."
"I…don’t know what to say. No-one’s ever said anything like that to me before.”
“Then don’t say anything,” she smiled.
I thought of Father’s attempt to marry me off to Sienna King, and found myself suddenly wishing he would contact Nanako’s parents to arrange a marriage between the two of us instead. I wished this blossoming friendship could continue yet on a much deeper level. But sadly, it was impossible, for my father would never allow it, and surely neither would hers. I wondered what her goals were in pursuing me so openly, and refused to think it was a merely physical attraction.
Searching for answers, I decided to try the bold approach. "Nanako, are marriages in Hamamachi arranged by their fathers like in Newhome, with the children having no say in the matter?"
She shook her head emphatically, her pink fringe swinging from side to side. "In Hamamachi a couple either meets through an introduction arranged by the prospective parents - with no obligation to marry; or they meet and decide to marry entirely on their own, with no input from their parents."
You're kidding," I couldn't believe what I was hearing.
"I'm serious," she said, before lowering her voice and continuing, "Ethan, I've been to several Victorian towns and none of them are even remotely similar to Newhome. None of them have twelve-foot walls; their residents are free to come and go as they please; there are no exclusive upper class districts like your North End; and I've never seen anything like your Custodians, who seem more interested in controlling the people than in providing security against external threats."
I tried to absorb what she shared, and to be honest, I wasn't overly surprised, for I had long considered Newhome to be a prison for a population with very few freedoms.
"Do you know who established this town, because I'll bet it wasn't Austrailians," she asked.
Now that was a thought that had never occurred to me. "Who else could have established it? We're at the southern end of the Australian continent - what foreign power would have come all the way down here to set up a town?"
“It's a mystery, that's for sure - Councillor Okada is stumped by it too. He believes the submarine you have moored in the river beside the town may be the answer.”
"The submarine’s nuclear reactor provides Newhome with its electricity. Are you suggesting it isn’t from the Australian navy?”
"The councillor says its a Soviet built Whiskey Twin-Cylinder submarine, but that doesn't mean it's from Russia, for they sold them to a number of nations. And are you sure it has a nuclear reactor? The councillor said that the Whiskey-class subs had diesel-electric engines."
"All of Newhome's power comes from the sub," I answered, "There's an entire department here devoted to the maintenance of its nuclear reactor. From time to time they disconnect it from the city's power supply in order to replace one of its components. My friend David said it's to make sure no parts of the reactor ever develop cracks."
"So someone down the line must have replaced its engine with a nuclear reactor. But at any rate, our guess is that whoever came here in that sub established this town."
"Interesting," I replied, wondering if there was some way I could find out what nation the sub had belong to. I decided to file that topic for later consideration and returned to what we had been discussing previously, a topic that was of much greater significance to me personally. "From what age are you permitted to marry in Hamamachi? It's sixteen here."
"Its eighteen for us," she replied, "however, the age can be lowered to sixteen with parental consent and a magistrate's approval."
I reflected upon all she had told me about marriage, and pondered the mind boggling implications of Nanako being able to could choose her own husband. The implications of this filled me with a kind of nervous excitement, though I'm not sure why.
And, there was one more question I absolutely had to ask. "Nanako, you don't have, you know, a guy back home?" I asked.
Her confidence faltered and she broke eye contact, her hand slipping off mine. "No. I did have, a couple of years ago, but he...he said he never wanted to see me again."
I looked at her downcast face, and feeling for her, I reached out and lifted her chin until so that she met my gaze again. "Nanako, if I had a girl like you, I'd never ever, for any reason whatsoever, let her go."
Her eyes moistening, Nanako suddenly stood to her feet, "Sorry, I need to go to the bathroom."
She practically ran to the bathroom and shut the door behind her, leaving me at a loss. What did I do wrong? Did I say something inappropriate, or was this just a very sensitive issue for her?
And although I wanted to give her the privacy she sought, with my enhanced hearing I heard her slide down the bathroom wall to the floor and sob quietly, saying the same phrase over and over, "I can't go through this again, I just can't."
And then I knew what weighed so heavily on her heart, why she had sat crying so dejectedly on the apartments' roof her first night here. Some fool guy had broken her heart.
Determined to give her privacy, I collected the dirty dishes and washed them rather noisily. I put the leftover udon back on the stove and covered it, as it would need to cool down before I could put it n the fridge.
Nanako emerged from the bathroom five minutes later, her eyes puffy from crying. Outwardly composed, she bowed. "I'm sorry. We're having such a lovely evening and I don't want to go spoiling it by getting all emotional."
I reached out and awkwardly took her left hand in mine. "You have nothing to apologise for."
"Shall we watch some TV?" she asked, tugging me after her as she headed for the sofa.
I popped on the TV and we dropped onto the threadbare sofa, which only just accommodated two. She sat on my right and draped her legs over mine. She also lay her head on my shoulder and snuggled her arms against my chest. I put my right arm around her shoulders with some hesitation, and simply enjoyed being with her. And as we cuddled, a serene peace saturated every part of me, driving away the disturbing sense of emptiness that had been with me ever since I woke in hospital back in December '20 after the operation.
I thought it strange that although I had never seen my parents cuddle, hug or even touch, holding Nanako like this felt like the most natural thing in the world. I ran my fingers through her hair and then jerked them back in surprise. "You're wearing a wig!"
"You didn't know?" she asked, amazed.
"I had no idea," I laughed. "Can you take it off please? I want to see your real hair."
"Alright," she said, and carefully lifted off the pink and black wig before removing a stocking-like cap that had held her hair flat. That done, she shook her hair out until it fell naturally around her face.
The result was stunning. Her real hair was naturally black and worn in a bob-cut that was short at the back and long at the front. And like the wig, her fringe hung below her eye brows, which if anything, further enhanced the effect of the thick eyeliner surrounding her eyes.
"Why the wig? You look just as pretty without it," I declared as I ran my fingers through her hair, which was as smooth as silk.
"It's fashion," she answered simply, and then, "Hey, can you give me a leg massage?"
I looked at her in surprise. "A what?"
"You know, massage the muscles in my legs."
"But how do I do that?"
"Just start at the ankles and work your way up," she said.
I looked at her slim, shapely legs draped sideways over mine, and at the exposed length of thigh showing between her over-knee socks and shorts, and it seemed to me that what she was asking was quite improper. "Sorry, I really can't."
"Sure you can," she assured me as she rested her head on my shoulder again. "Go on, give it a try."
And so hesitantly, and buffeted by guilt for touching the legs of an unmarried girl, I took my left hand from the sling and starting at her ankle, began to massage her left leg. First I worked the Achilles tendon that joined the calf muscle to the ankle, and then worked my hand upwards, my thumb kneading the calf while my fingers dug into the muscle beside the shin bone. And as I worked, it occurred to me that although I thought had no idea how to massage someone's leg, it seemed second nature to my hand.
I worked my hand up to the back of her knee and gently massaged the pressure points there (and there was no way I was going to go higher than her knees) when her legs and arms began to twitch.
I looked down at her in surprise, and just as I suspected, she had fallen asleep.
I ceased massaging her legs - since I felt uncomfortable touching them - and pondered all the things she had done since I had met her. Her meaningful glances, making obento for my lunch, the oden and udon for dinner, her gentleness in caring for me when I got wounded, even standing up to my father. All of these things had captured my attention and interest. But this - to be so innocent and trusting to fall asleep on my lap - now she had gone and captured my heart as well.
I knew then that I wanted to be with her forever. And as I held her in my arms, I wanted to scream in frustration because of Newhome's rigid customs regarding marriage. Having spent my life expecting to be locked into a loveless marriage, it never occurred to me that I would meet a girl like Nanako. Was there anything I could do to be with her?
It occurred to me that if Nanako went back to Hamamachi, I could always abscond while foraging and make the dangerous trek alone to Hamamachi to be with her there. However, with foraging called off indefinitely due to the Skel besieging our town, I may never get a chance to do that.
And should I do such a thing, not only would my father disown me, but I could never risk returning to Newhome, for I would be jailed for having run away. And that meant I would never see mother or Younger Sister again.
Another thought popped into my mind - what if I could find a way to persuade my father to let me marry Nanako? It was an extremely long shot, especially in light of what had happened last night, and there was also the matter of the inexplicable animosity that had been displayed by my father and Nanako towards each other.
As I tried to dig my way through this impossible situation, my eyes grew heavy and I too fell asleep.
And began to dream.
Although I was dreaming, my mind entered a state of utter clarity to the extent that it felt like I was actually experiencing the dream. It was January ’20, and I had only been out of school for a few weeks – next month I would turn sixteen. I had run away from my foraging team, and was currently prowling quietly along the front of an old, dilapidated factory in one of Melbourne's eastern suburbs.
Directly ahead of me and to the left was the factory’s weed-overgrown car park, in which was parked a beaten old but functional ute. It wasn’t the ute that interested me, however, but the sounds I could hear of four young people having a riotously good time – laughing, cackling, and shouting in a foreign language.
I was wary of them – as I was of everything out here in Melbourne’s ruins - yet at the same time irresistibly curious, as I could hear male and female voices together. So I crept soundlessly into the wild blackberry overgrown car park and climbed without making a noise onto the bonnet of the youth’s ute, where I sat cross-legged and settled down to watch them.
The youths were teenagers of a similar age to myself - two were guys and the other two were girls. And they were having a hoot of a time watching four small lizards racing through four narrow plastic pipes. Whenever a lizard popped its head out the wrong end, they would slap their thighs and laugh rather boisterously. The little lizards garnered a similar reaction when they appeared out of the far end but then disappeared back into the safety of the pipe before they could be caught.
I was most surprised and yet extremely fascinated to see girls outside their homes without their mothers to chaperone them, not to mention mixing with boys on even terms.
The shorter of the two girls must have spotted me with her peripheral vision, for she suddenly spun around to face me and stood up, her slightly upturned mouth open as she studied me with a mixture of concern and curiosity.
She was by far the strangest and yet most fascinating girl I had seen – not that I had seen that many – with her clothes and hairstyle at complete odds to those worn in Newhome. Her hair was jet black except for her fringe and some longer strands which were died bright pink of all colours. She wore a black and blue zebra stripped jacket over a black top, a pink and blue lace skirt, torn and slashed pink leggings, black boots, and a dog collar with a silver bell around her neck.
"Hello," she said in English in a broad Australian accent.
"Hi," I replied.
"Have you been there long?" she asked, her dark brown eyes studying me intently.
I nodded. "A while."
"I didn't notice you come – are you by yourself?" she asked, glancing to either side.
"I can be pretty quiet, and yes, I’m alone."
Her three companions suddenly became aware of my presence, jumped to their feet, and came to stand with the first girl, clearly worried. The taller girl was dressed similarly but not quite so outlandishly, while the boys just wore jeans and t-shirts. The tallest boy pulled out a gun and aimed it at me, but the first girl stretched out a hand and pushed it away.
"So what's your name?" she asked, peering out from beneath her pink fringe.
"My name’s Nanako. But tell me, Ethan, where are you from?"
"From a town that’s about a day's walk to the west of here," I answered.
"Really? So why are you out here, all alone?"
"I kind of ran away," I replied, hoping the admission didn’t make me seem like an immature juvenile.
"From your family?" she asked, clearly surprised.
"No, not from them, from the town," I replied, thinking that should have been obvious.
Her eyes – which were encircled with thick, black eyeliner, opened wider in surprise. "You mean you can't come and go from your town as you please?"
"No, no one is allowed to leave the town."
"So how did you get away then?" she queried, taking a step forward. It appeared she wasn’t wary of me any longer.
"I'm a forager. I go out of the town into Melbourne's ruins with a team to collect scrap metal. When no one was looking yesterday I ran off," I explained.
She took another step closer, smiling warmly now. "We're a foraging team too, you know. We collect old mobile phones and such. But hey, I bet you’re hungry. How’d you like to join us for lunch?"
"Well, okay, sounds great," I said as I slid off the ute. The other three youths spoke to Nanako in worried, hushed voices in their own language for a moment, but she must have allayed their fears for they relaxed and joined her in fetching their lunches from the ute.
Nanako brought out a beautiful lacquered black lunch box wrapped in a handkerchief, and invited me to sit beside her as the four of them sat in a rough circle on the ground.
Feeling way out of my depth, I accepted her invitation and hesitantly sat beside her, and she gave me a rice-ball wrapped in paper-thin seaweed. I had never eaten rice before, and it tasted awesome - a refreshing break from potato and bread.
"My friends are Miki, Ken and Hiro, but they don’t speak English, I’m afraid," she said. "We're Japanese, by the way, from the town Hamamachi over near Inverloch."
I nodded politely to the other three Japanese youths, and they gave short bows in return. I reflected on my good fortune to have found such friendly people one day out of Newhome.
"Hey Ethan," Nanako said as she passed me a block of egg tied together with seaweed. "Why don't you come back to Hamamachi with us and join one of our foraging teams - maybe even ours - we can use all the foragers we can get."
"Can I leave the town when I want to?" I asked, worried that I may be walking into another prison.
"Of course," she answered, and then, after making meaningful eye contact with me, she added, "If you want to, that is."
My head jerked unexpectedly, tearing me out of the dream. For a moment I was so disorientated that I had no idea where I was. Nanako's presence, however, quickly brought me back to reality. She was still snuggled against my chest, her legs draped over mine, and fast asleep.
I don't know how long I had slept, but it had must have been at least a couple of hours for apart from the flickering light and shadows caused by television, the room was almost completely dark now as it was night outside.
My mind raced frantically as I tried to process what the dream meant, for it was clearly a memory from my missing year.
Although my father told me I had spent all of '20 in hospital, the neurologist told me this wasn't true - that I wasn't admitted into hospital until November that year. I had wondered what really happened that year, and now I knew. I had run away from Newhome in January '20 and headed east until I bumped into Nanako and her foraging team, and they had invited me to go to Hamamachi with them.
I guess I had been willing to run away at that time because it was before younger sister got sick. And perhaps father lied about what really happened because he was afraid I would run away again if I found out I had done so previously.
I ran my fingers through Nanako's silky black hair and contemplated the most puzzling revelation of the dream, that Nanako and I did not meet on Monday as I had supposed, but three years ago.
Now I understood why she kept staring at me after we saved her and Councillor Okada from the Skel. She must have been so surprised that out of all the people in Newhome who could have rescued her, it happened to be me. Yet at the same time she must have been so disappointed that I didn't recognise her.
But why didn't she greet me by name as soon as she saw me? If I had responded by saying I didn't know her, she could have explained to me how we'd met before. Instead, she had greeted me as a stranger. And in all the times I have seen her since then, she has not given me any indication that we had met previously. Well, except for being excited when I told her my memories were returning, and equally disappointed when I said I hadn't remembered any people yet. She was obviously hoping I had remembered her.
But why was she hiding the truth from me? Was there something she didn't want me to find out? Yet to think of it, her behaviour made more sense if she already knew I had amnesia. That thought, however, made me wonder what kind of relationship or friendship we had had after I went back to Hamamachi with them. I mean, I know she had been in a relationship with a guy two years ago - the one who dumped her and broke her heart. So at the most we could have been friends and probably workmates as well.
Yet, she most definitely had feelings for me now, for she told me that she liked me and also whispered under her breath that she loved me.
That I had gone to Hamamachi potentially solved another mystery. Nanako told us when having dinner at my parents' place that everyone in Hamamachi, from fifteen to fifty-five years of age, served in the Militia, so I must have served in it too. That would explain how I learned to use a gun and fight in hand-to-hand combat, confirming King's suspicions that I had been properly trained. It also explained my memory of assembling an Austeyr assault-rifle.
The doctor said I had been operated on before I was brought to him in November, so after I was shot I must have been operated upon in Hamamachi. And that led to another puzzle I desperately needed answers for - how did I get shot?
And this of course lead to the next question, and this one was quite significant - who brought me back from Hamamachi? Whoever it was, they brought me back to Newhome because they didn't have the means or knowledge in Hamamachi to treat me for the bad seizures I was having. So they must have suspected or known that Newhome had a better hospital and neurosurgeons.
I recalled the discharge paper from the hospital the neurologist had in his folder. It had listed my father as the one who had checked me out of the hospital. There had also been an admission sheet, but unfortunately, I hadn't been able to see any of its details. Suddenly, I had to know whose name was written on that sheet. There would be other information in that file I needed to know too, perhaps even a record or details of how I was shot.
I could sneak over to the hospital right now, pick its lock, and find out the information. I considered waking Nanako, confronting her with what my dream had revealed, and asking her if she knew the answers I sought, but would she tell me the truth?
My father had lied to me about what had happened in 2120 for two years, and although Nanako hadn't actually lied, she hadn't come forward to tell me the truth either. And that meant I couldn't trust either of them. On the other hand, I figured I could trust the hospital records.
I pulled my left arm out of the sling and stretched it out, grimacing from the pain that stabbed through my chest. I gently lifted up Nanako's legs, slipped out from beneath them, and placed them back on the sofa.
After that I changed into black jeans, a long-sleeve black top, and a black beanie. I stuffed a torch into my belt and armed myself with a set of lock picks I had smuggled in from the outside. That done I slipped out the front door and keeping to the shadows, headed for the hospital.
With my left hand in my pocket to minimize the pain I felt every time I moved the arm, I made my way to the hospital, having to go to ground twice in order to wait for Custodian patrols to pass by me. If they spotted me I could spend up to a month in prison for breaking the curfew.
Due to Newhome’s small size, I was soon in front of the hospital’s main entrance, which was of course locked. The emergency department would be open all night, and its entrance was to the left, but not wanting to be seen by hospital staff or patients, I decided to tackle the front doors, and soon had them open with the assistance of my lock-picks.
Taking great care to avoid bumping into any of the hospital’s night shift staff, I made my way to the neurology department, which was closed and only partially illuminated by the occasional light. Finding my file in the receptionist's office proved quite difficult using only a torch, as there were multiple metal filing cabinets, and piles of papers stacked everywhere, but I eventually found the cabinet that contained the files of patients admitted into hospital in ‘20. Filing by date instead of alphabetically, what was that about, anyway?
My hands were shaking when I found and removed my file - I had a good mind to put it back and walk away, but I had to know what secrets it could divulge.
I sat on the floor behind the receptionist's desk and began to go through my file. As the neurologist had said, there were no references to my bio-engineered abnormalities, or any copies of MRI or EEG scans they had taken of me.
The first disturbing thing revealed by my file was the report on the bullet wound, which said that I had been shot at point blank range. Fear’s cold tendrils snaked through my stomach and into my head. How had this happened? How could someone have gotten that close to me without me knowing about it or trying to stop them? Did someone try to kill me in my sleep, or while serving in the Militia? However, surely the latter could not result in a point blank shot?
Beginning to regret looking in the file, I breathed in deeply and turned the page. There was no point getting all worked up and worried about something that could not be resolved by guesswork. I kept shuffling through the file, looking for the patient-admission form, and finally found it. It recorded:
Patient: Ethan Jones
Admission: 16 Nov 2120
Signed in by: Nanako Jones
Relationship to Patient: Wife
I don't know how long I sat there, staring at the admission form, simply trying to comprehend the stupendous truth it had revealed. And as the truth sank slowly into my mind, my perspective of my life, of myself, slowly unravelled until I felt like I no longer knew myself.
Nanako was my wife?
That meant I must have married her after I went back to Hamamachi with her. Furthermore, she was the one who brought me back to Newhome to receive the operation that had stopped the grand mal epileptic seizures.
But if this was true, why did she leave me? If she was my wife, why did she abandon me and go back to Hamamachi without me. She didn’t even wait to see the results of the operation.
Anger at this betrayal slowly turned to rage, driving away the confusion and all other emotions.
I put my file back in the cabinet and I stormed angrily out of the hospital, forgetting to lock the front door. It was raining incessantly now, and the rain soon soaked through my clothes and bandages, chilling my body but not my mood.
The words, "Why, Nanako, why?" raced through my mind in an endlessly repeating loop.
Running on adrenalin alone, I dodged two Custodian patrols and eventually reached my apartment. Upon barging through the front door I saw that the flat was still lost in darkness with the flickering TV as the only light source, so I switched on the lights.
Nanako was still asleep on the sofa, a picture of gentle innocence. Yet also the picture of a girl who had abandoned her husband when he needed her most.
She stirred when I stomped over and stood over her, slowly opening her sleep-heavy eyes. She blinked frantically and gasped when she saw me. "What's wrong, Ethan, why are you soaking wet?"
"I just broke into the hospital," I snapped angrily.
"What, why?" she asked, wide awake now, and bewildered by the naked anger visible on my countenance.
"I dug out my file in the neurologist's office, and you'll never guess what I found in it. I was signed into hospital in November '20 by one Nanako Jones - relationship to patient: wife. Why didn't you tell me, Nanako, why didn't you tell me?" I demanded, deeply wounded and enraged almost beyond rational thought.
Her face paled and her eyes widened in shock. "I was going to tell you when the time was..."
"Why did you leave me, Nanako?"
She stepped off the sofa and reached for me. "Please let me explain..."
I stepped back from her angrily. "Why did you bring me all the way from Hamamachi to have the operation and then just abandon me?"
Tears filled her eyes but she still took a step towards me. "It wasn't like that..."
"You didn't even wait to see the result of the operation," I said, my anger suddenly dissipating as agonising heartache tore me apart. Tears streaked down my cheeks.
"I couldn't..." she began.
"You left me when I needed you the most," I almost shouted, cutting her off. "I woke up from that operation totally bewildered and confused, with a massive hole in my mind, not knowing how I had gotten there, knowing something was missing but having no idea what it was. And then I had to do two weeks of rehab with no one but male nurses who didn't care a fig about me."
"But Ethan, that wasn't my..."
"And you went back to home to Hamamachi without even leaving me with a letter or memento of you. And now two years later you come back, playing all these mind games, not once telling me that you are my wife."
And with that outburst, the sense of betrayal and heartache became so strong that I fled from Nanako and bolted straight out of the apartment. She ran after me, calling my name repeatedly, but I ran down the stairs and escaped into the welcoming darkness of the night, quickly losing her amidst the trees and shrubs that grew between the blocks of flats.
As I ran in the pouring rain my thoughts veered slowly into an entirely different direction. From what I had seen of Nanako this week, she seemed so genuinely kind and caring, with a strong sense of right and wrong. Her behaviour this week was at complete odds with the apparent callousness of her actions after I was wounded, of bringing me back to Newhome and then abandoning me to my fate.
I slowed to a jog, and wondered if I was I reading this situation all wrong? What if she had a perfectly good explanation as to why she left me and went home?
And then something she said hit me with the impact of a sledgehammer, driving me to my knees on the wet ground as the full implication of her words sank in. She said she had a man in her life two years ago, a man who told her that he never wanted to see her again.
And that could mean only one thing - that I was the one who said that to her. I told Nanako I never wanted to see her again. I was the insensitive fool and ugly brute who broke her heart. Yet even so, Nanako had proven without doubt this week that she was a woman of character who would stand up for me, even going head-to-head with my father. So there was no way she would have run back home with her tail between her legs just because I said that to her, especially considering I had said it while gravely wounded and ill. And even more so because I hadn't had the operation yet, the very operation she had brought me here to receive.
Something was missing. There was another piece of the puzzle, a piece that would explain everything when I found it.
And then I had it.
The missing piece was my father.
He had obviously been there, and he must have met Nanako. In fact, that would explain what he said when she came to the door. Not, 'Can I help you?' but 'What are you doing here?' And then there was the issue of the considerable amount of animosity between them.
And she had goaded him, asking how he was going to make her leave his home, even asking if he was going to get the Custodians to throw her out.
That was it - the missing piece. There was no way in the world a girl as devoted and loving as Nanako would walk away from her wounded, sick husband. She would have stuck it out right to the end. And that lead me to the obvious conclusion - my father had asked the Custodians to expel her from Newhome. And then taking advantage of my amnesia, he had the audacity to arrange for me to marry someone else when he knew full well that I was already married to Nanako.
I rose to my feet and headed for my parents' flat - I was going to have this out with him right now - forget the curfew.
I was utterly drenched, panting for breath, and exhausted, when I reached my parents flat a few minutes later. Running around at night in the rain was not what I should be doing when I needed to rest to recuperate from the wound.
I banged on my parents' front door with the flat of my hand.
"Who is it?" came my mother's frightened voice a moment later.
"Open the door, Mother, it's me," I commanded her none too kindly.
Mother opened the door and quickly pulled me inside.
“What are you doing out after curfew? You want to go to prison?” she scolded me. “And look at you - you’re soaking wet and as white as a sheet – are you trying to get pneumonia?”
“I have to see Father,” I replied as I stepped past her and strode towards his room.
“If you wake him in the middle of the night there’ll be all hell to pay,” mother said rushing after me.
“He’s the one who’s gonna pay,” I assured her.
My older sister stood in her bedroom door, putting on a night-gown, but I ignored her and barged into my father’s room, which until recently had been my room as well. I switched on the light and shook him roughly until he woke.
“What on earth are you doing, Son - do you know what time it is?” he barked angrily as he sat up.
I glanced at the bedroom doorway to make sure Mother and Elder Sister were there, for I wanted them to witness this, and then I launched my attack. “Why did you lie to me, Father?”
“What are you blabbing about, Son? Whatever it is, it can wait ‘til morning. Now go get out of my room!” he snapped.
“You aren’t going to fob me off this time, Father. Explain why you told me I was in hospital from January to December '20 when you knew it wasn’t true.”
His naked anger vanished instantly, replaced by wide-eyed fear. “What are you talking about, Son? I’ve never lied to you.”
“No? Then tell me why you hid from me the fact that I got married back in '20, you know, when according to you I was in hospital.”
His eyes narrowed suspiciously. “You’ve been speaking to that wretched nuisance of a Japanese girl, haven’t you? Don’t believe a word she says.”
“That ‘wretched nuisance of a Japanese girl,’ Father, is my wife! And for your information, she didn’t tell me. I saw my hospital file today, and it says that I was admitted to hospital by a Nanako Jones, with the relationship to patient listed as wife.”
His face now as white as a sheet, my father climbed out of bed and stood before me. “Okay, I admit I’ve been hiding a few things from you, but it was for your own good.”
“Lying to me that I had been in hospital for a whole year when I was actually in Hamamachi, not telling me I had married Nanako, and telling me a ceiling had fallen on my head when I had actually been shot, was for my own good?” I demanded heatedly.
“Yes, it was!” he shouted back. “When she brought you back to Newhome you were in a very, very bad way. Yes, you’d been shot in the head while in Hamamachi, but they didn’t have the medical expertise to treat you properly. You were having severe epileptic seizures every day and woke every morning with no memory of the previous day, or of anything that had happened after you started foraging back in January.”
“You had no right to hide any of that from me,” I fired back at him.
“There’s more,” he said, but this time he spoke softly, and with deep emotion. “Every morning when you woke, you were so confused and disorientated because of the amnesia. And every morning that girl would tell you that she was your wife and what had happened, and every time she did, you said the same thing - that you didn’t know her and couldn’t have married her because you weren't going to marry until you were thirty. And every time you said that, she’d start panicking and tried to make you believe her. Your answer was invariably to tell her to leave you alone and that you never wanted to see her again. Sometimes the nurses even had to take her out of the room just to calm her down. And when you woke the next morning, the whole cycle started again.”
“Father, the poor girl must have been scared out of her wits - she was only sixteen! You didn’t even have the common sense or courtesy to bring her home to meet mother and my sisters, did you? And you can’t use what I said when I was in that condition to justify what you did to her, and to me.”
“What did he do to her?” asked my mother, breaking all convention by actually entering Father’s room. She was shocked and enraged that Father had hidden all of this from her.
Father wouldn’t answer; he just stared at his hands.
“He got the Custodians to throw her out of the town,” I said, staring daggers at him.
“You did what?” my mother demanded, her face stricken with anguish.
Father’s head shot up. “I didn’t get the Custodians to her throw out of town - I got them to take her back to Hamamachi.”
“What’s the difference? You had her forcibly removed from me, her husband! And she’s had to wait until now for an opportunity to come back. And Father, you tried to marry me off to Sienna King when you knew I was already married to Nanako. What were you thinking?”
“It was for your own good.”
“You keep saying that. But you know what, from now on, stay out of my life, you hear me?”
“That poor, poor girl,” Mother said as she turned to me. “Where is she now, Son?”
With a dizzying sense of dread, I suddenly recalled all the horrid things I had just said to her, blaming her for abandoning me when she had been thrown out of town by my father.
Ignoring the utter exhaustion that permeated my entire being, I somehow managed to run from the room and my family’s apartment, but all the same, I couldn't get to my flat fast enough. I had to see Nanako and apologise for my insensitive and barbaric behaviour. But would she find it in her heart to forgive me, or had I gone and blown it for good?
As I slogged back through the rain, taking care to avoid a Custodian patrol, it occurred to me that she had been trying all along to tell me that we knew each other, by trying her hardest to trigger my memories of her.
She told us that the clothes she wore on Monday and again when she crashed my parents’ house on Friday, were in fashion three years ago. In fact, they were the same clothes she had been wearing when I first met her. On Tuesday she made me lunch and delivered it in her lacquered lunchbox. This lacquered lunchbox was the same one she had been using three years ago when we first met and she shared her lunch with me. No doubt the oden and udon dinners were further attempts to trigger my memories.
And her attempts to trigger my buried memories were successful. Starting on the day we had rescued her and Councillor Okada from the Skel, I began having partial seizures, each one accompanied by a memory from my time in Hamamachi. And now tonight when I fell asleep, in my dreams I recalled when I first met her.
So was her strategy to try to help me remember her rather than force the truth upon me? It made sense if that was the case, considering how badly I had reacted when I had amnesia and she told me the truth.
I continued to stagger towards my flat. I was so exhausted now that all I could do was put one foot in front of the other. My wound was also aching intolerably, which wasn't helping at all.
When I got to my flat, I reached out to twist open the door handle, but the door swung open as soon as my fingers brushed it. Alarmed, I entered my flat and called out to Nanako, but was met with silence. I hurried past the kitchen and bathroom and into the lounge room come bedroom, desperately hoping to see her waiting on the sofa for me, but she wasn't there. With my heart thumping furiously I checked the bathroom, but she wasn't there either.
Nanako was gone.
I sank onto the bathroom's cold floor tiles, fearing the worst. Had my callous accusations pushed her away for good? Had she gone back to North End to share her heartbreak with Councillor Okada, ready now to return to Hamamachi? A black despair took a hold of me and I collapsed against the bathroom wall beside the shower. If I could only turn back time and think things through instead of losing my temper and saying those truly terrible things to her. She was truly the most wonderful person I had met, and I had gone shoved her away - twice.
I sat there, cold and despondent, lost in thoughts of self recrimination, when I suddenly remembered what she did the first night she came to Newhome. After waiting two years for an opportunity to see me again, her hopes had been crushed when I didn't even recognise her. Downhearted and disappointed, she had retired to her apartment's roof to be alone.
I sat up, a glimmer of hope piercing the gloom that overshadowed my heart. What if she had reacted in the same way to the heartless way I had just treated her? If so, she could be on the roof of my apartment block right now.
I scrapped myself off the floor and stumbled out of my flat for the third time tonight, heading for the elevator. I decided I could break my vow to never use the elevator, considering how weak I was from the wound, and because of the urgency.
The short walk to the elevator felt like an hour, the elevator ride to the tenth floor an eternity. But it reached its destination at long last and the doors pinged open. Having regained a modicum of energy, I darted out of the elevator and into the stairwell, which was the only way to the roof. Stumbling up the stairs I soon reached the door to the roof.
I was beset with apprehension as I reached out to open the door - what if she wasn't here either? What if she had given up on me and gone back to North End or somewhere else in the dark? What if she didn't want to see me again?
I shook my head to clear it and gently opened the door, and a massive wave of relief swept through me when I heard Nanako's gentle sobs close by. I exited the stairwell housing and stepped around the corner, and there she was, sitting in the rain on the soaking wet concrete, back to the stairwell housing, and cradling her knees to her chest.
She looked up at me, eyes red from crying, black eyeliner streaked down her cheeks, and her hair plastered all over her face.
I dropped to my knees, wrapped my arms around her, and rested my forehead gently against hers.
"Nanako, I'm so sorry for all those horrid things I said to you, accusing you of abandoning me. I'm sorry I wouldn't listen to you - I should have known you wouldn't have left me by choice. I should have realised my father had the Custodians throw you out of the city." I paused and gently turned her face towards me so that our eyes met. "And most of all, I'm so sorry for telling you two years ago that I never wanted to see you again."
Nanako wiped her tear streaked cheeks with the back of her hand and turned her body around to face me, hope shining in her eyes. "Have you remembered when you said that to me?"
Ignoring the pain in my chest, I cupped her beautiful round face in my hands. "No, but I what I have remembered is when we first met, over in that warehouse car park where you and your three friends were racing lizards. You were wearing these clothes, shared your lunch with me, and asked me to come to Hamamachi with you."
Nanako was shivering from the cold, but she threw her arms around me and hugged me so tight I thought all my ribs were going to pop. "Oh Ethan, this is the best news ever! But how did you find out what your father did, and that you were the one who said that?"
"After I ran away from you I got to thinking, and began to put all the pieces of the puzzle together - all the things you have said and done, and then I knew what had happened. So I went to my parents house just now, woke my father and confronted him with it. And he told me everything, even what he did to you. Nanako, I cannot even to begin to imagine what you went through with all that happened."
"Before you got hurt, we had everything, Ethan," Nanako began. "After we met in January, we were inseparable. You lived at my next door neighbours' house but spent virtually every minute at mine with my family and I. You were able to join my foraging team too. We got married on the 7th of March '20 and moved into our own little flat. We were so happy, but then you got injured and lost all your memories, including all your memories of me and the times we spent together. The seizures you started having were so bad I was terrified I was going to lose you, so I spent all of our money to pay someone to drive you and me to Newhome, hoping its doctors could help you. They said they could, and your father promised to pay for the operation. I so was desperate for the operation to be successful, even hoping it could bring back your memories. But then those horrible Custodians turned up the day before the operation, dragged me from your hospital room, and drove me all the way back to Hamamachi.
"This trading venture with Councillor Okada was the first opportunity in two years to return here, as no one was willing to make the journey before then due to increased Skel attacks - the guy who took us to Newhome the first time never made it back. I wanted to come back by myself before then but my family wouldn’t let me.
"And, do you have any idea how hard these last few days have been? To finally be with you again after all that time, with my head full of memories of all the wonderful things we did together, but you didn't even recognise me. And then to hear that your father was trying to marry you off, taking advantage of your amnesia."
"I'll never understand what you've been through with all of this," I replied sadly. "There is one thing I would like to ask you, though, and I think I know the answer. When you saw me on Monday, why didn't you tell me who you were, that you were my wife?"
She took my face in her hands and squeezed gently, as though trying to convince herself this conversation was actually happening. "Before I came here," she began, "I suspected you hadn't recovered from amnesia, for if you had, you would have come straight to Hamamachi to find me. So when I got here and saw you didn't remember me, I wanted to see if you could fall in love with me again. I wanted to know if you could want to be with me again, not because you had to, but because you wanted to. So I followed the plan I devised back in Hamamachi, which was to try to trigger your memories of me by doing the same things I did when we met three years ago."
I grinned from ear to ear - I loved this girl. "So you made lunches and cooked dinners for me three years ago too?"
She returned the smile. "Yes, and anything else I could think of to make you mine." She paused, and added softly, "I want you back, Ethan, that's all I care about."
I took Nanako's small, bronzed hands in mine. My heart, my all, belonged totally to her. "Dear wife, if you want me, you've got me. I am yours, now and forever."
"I do, husband, I do," she said, rapture glowing through her tear and makeup stained face. She lifted her chin, removed the dog collar from her neck, and slipped off the two gold rings that had been hanging from it all this time. I noticed for the first time that they were different sizes.
Crying again, but this time with unbridled joy, she slipped the larger ring onto the third finger of my left hand.
I took the other ring and slipped it onto her corresponding finger.
"Finally," she expired, a peaceful, contented expression framing her face.
And as the rain continued sleeting down, we continued to kneel on the wet concrete with our foreheads pressed together and our arms wrapped around one another, savouring this moment, this reunion.
When her teeth starting clattering uncontrollably I took her hands and helped her to her feet, "We'd better get you inside and into a warm shower before you catch the death of a cold."
Hand in hand we re-entered the stairwell and made our way to the elevator. I figured I had a good enough reason to break my vow about not using it on this occasion too.
Completely worn out by the night’s emotional roller coaster ride and running about in the night, while already weak from my wound, I staggered through my door with an arm draped around Nanako’s shoulders.
She was so cold that her teeth were clattering uncontrollably, so we went straight to the bathroom. She started undoing the buttons on my shirt with fingers she couldn’t even hold still.
"Come on, we've got to get you out of those wet bandages," she said, putting my welfare above her own as usual.
I caught her hands and held them still. "A few minutes won’t make a difference to me, our first priority is to get you warm. I'll get the shower going, it's a temperamental little beast."
Nanako nodded and stripped out of her wet clothes while I fiddled around to get the shower to the right temperature, a difficult task at the best of times.
"Right to go," I informed her, holding back the plastic floral-pattern shower curtain.
She slipped under the steaming hot water and sighed deeply with blissful relief as the water cascaded down her beautiful, lithe body. I stood there drinking in the sight of her, still not quite comprehending that she was my wife.
"Don't just stand there," she said, holding out a hand, "get undressed and hop in."
I didn't need to be asked twice.
* * *
I was rudely awakened by the sound of my front door being kicked in. That I hadn’t woken by the sound of feet outside my door was an indication of our soundly I had been asleep. It was still dark, 4:30 am by the clock, and Nanako was lying half on top of me, with her head on my shoulder and right arm across my chest, and her legs entwined with mine.
We both struggled to sit up, blinking sleep from our eyes when four men with guns and torches rushed into the lounge-bedroom, slamming the door shut behind them. They shone the torches in our eyes, blinding us.
“Got ‘em!” Lieutenant King declared triumphantly from behind one of the torches. “You are both under arrest for sexual misconduct.”
“You’ve got this all wro…” I tried to say but got no further due to one of the intruders smashing the stock of his assault-rifle into the side of my head.
I came to with a thumping headache that felt like I was being stabbing me with a red-hot poker. It took me a moment to realise that I was gagged and on my knees with my hands cuffed behind my back. One intruder stood behind me, holding me upright by my hair and right shoulder.
The lights had been turned on, and I realised that I was still in my lounge-bedroom. Nanako was kneeling beside me, similarly restrained. She was watching me with her eyes wide with fear. We were both shivering, for she wore only a long t-shirt over her underwear, while I was in my boxer shorts.
The intruders were Custodians and all armed, though King was the only one standing in front of us. He stepped closer until he towered over me, staring at me with undisguised loathing. “You stupid fool, Jones. Did you seriously think you could cavort and sleep with this girl without us noticing? You’re dumber than I thought.
“Now the normal procedure after arresting you two is to take you to the magistrate in the morning, but we have a bit of a problem with that. You see, the sentence for sexual misconduct is death by lethal injection, but in your case, Ethan, the magistrate will no doubt transmute your sentence to several years hard labour; and because Nanako is from Hamamachi, he will probably just expel her from Newhome.” He knelt down and stuck his ugly face in front of mine. “And as I’m not happy with either of those cop-out transmuted sentences, my friends and I are going to administer the sentences you deserve right here and now. A bullet to the back of the head, and justice is done.”
I tried desperately to tell him that we were married, but the gag was so effective that I could make nothing other than muffled sounds.
King stood, removed his pistol from its holster, grabbed my pillow and folded it double. “I’m going to do her first so you can have the pleasure of watching her die, Ethan. That’s only fitting, isn’t it? Payback for what the little cow did to my family’s honour.”
I flung myself backwards towards my captor, but he jabbed me in the back with his right fist, driving the air out of my lungs, and continued to restrain me as before.
As King approached her, Nanako thrashed about and shouted desperately at him, trying to tell him something, but the gag made her words completely intelligible as well.
Not caring in the slightest, King walked behind her, placed the pillow against the back of her head, and pressed the gun into the pillow. Still trying to regain my breath, I tried again to loosen the grip of my captor, but the Custodian was holding on too tightly.
“Hold fire for a moment, lieutenant,” the fourth Custodian in the room suddenly interrupted. Until now had been standing quietly behind us, watching the proceedings, but now he reached out a hand to stay King.
“What is it, captain? You said I had your full support in this,” King complained to the man, who outranked him.
“They’re wearing wedding bands, both of them,” the captain pointed out.
King stepped back to look at our hands, clearly confused. “It’s a trick, sir, it has to be. They weren’t wearing them on Friday.”
Nanako nodded furiously and kept trying to get words past the gag.
“The girl’s trying to tell us something,” the captain added.
“Yeah, ’don’t kill us,’” King snarled angrily.
“Doesn’t sound like that at all. Un-gag her.”
“But sir,” King protested strongly.
“I know you have issues with her but it isn’t going to hurt to hear what she’s trying to say. Now take off the gag, and that’s an order,” said the captain emphatically.
King ungraciously untied Nanako’s gag and pulled it out of her mouth.
As soon as it was out, Nanako twisted around to address the captain, her words pouring out like a waterfall. “Sir, you can't execute me for having sexual relations with Ethan, because Ethan's my husband. We got married in Hamamachi in March '20, but he was very badly injured later that year and as a result got very bad seizures and amnesia. I brought him to Newhome to be treated, but Ethan’s father hated me and arranged for two Custodians to arrest me and drive me back to Hamamachi. I’ve had to wait two years for someone from Hamamachi to come here so that I could get back with Ethan. And that’s the real reason I came here, not to translate for Councillor Okada, but to get Ethan back. And because of his amnesia, it was only yesterday that Ethan found out that I am his wife, so that was when we put our rings back on.”
“Sounds like a load of codswallop to me,” King retorted, “Why didn’t you tell Ethan the ‘truth’ as soon as you saw him on Monday?”
“I wanted to trigger his memories of me, I didn’t want to force the truth on him out of the blue,” Nanako replied, though to the captain, not to King.
The captain indicated for the Custodian restraining me to remove my gag, and then asked, “Is what she’s saying true, Jones?”
“Yes sir,” I replied emphatically. ‘When I went to hospital yesterday I saw the hospital admission form from November '20, and it stated that Nanako was my wife. That’s how I found out.”
“I see. And did she trigger any of your memories?” he continued.
“Yes sir, since her arrival I’ve had a number of memories from when I was in Hamamachi, and last night I had a dream in which I remembered when I met her the first time. After the dream and finding out that we had gotten married, I confronted my father, and he admitted that he threw Nanako out of Newhome,” I replied.
“Lieutenant King,” Nanako said before the captain could reply, “Do you understand now why I stopped your sister marrying Ethan? It's because he's already married to me! If you want to blame anyone for what happened, blame Ethan's father, for he knew that Ethan and I were married but was taking advantage of Ethan’s amnesia.”
"Can you prove any of this," the captain asked us, sounding like he was slowly being swayed into believing us.
"Have a look at my file in the hospital," I replied, "You'll see that I was signed into hospital in November’80 by Nanako Jones, with her relationship to me listed as 'wife,' and signed out by William Jones, relationship: father." Just don't look first thing this morning, I realised with an inward gulp, for I had left the file lying on the floor, which would not look good for me at all. Hopefully the hospital wouldn’t report the break-in either, for I’d kind of left a large trail of crumbs.
"You can also ask Councillor Okada," said Nanako assured him, "for he knew Ethan very well before he was hurt."
King suddenly had an epiphany. "Nanako, you claim that Jones went to Hamamachi."
"Yes lieutenant, we bumped into each other when I was foraging in Melbourne's eastern suburbs and I asked him to come back to Hamamachi with me."
"Did he join the Militia?" King asked keenly.
"Yes, though he was promoted to the Rangers soon afterwards," she replied. “He developed entirely new strategies for dealing with the Skel that were adopted by the Militia and Rangers.”
“And they were?” King prompted.
“Never fight them frontally,” she answered, “instead, use stealth to get behind them and ambush them.”
That was news to me – I thought I had developed those strategies here in Newhome after I recovered from the operation. It seems there were some things that I hadn’t forgotten, such as my strategies for dealing with the Skel and understanding Japanese.
King looked me straight in the eye, and I knew what he was thinking. He finally had his answer about where I had learned to use a gun and fight hand-to-hand.
The captain looked at Nanako and me, still handcuffed and kneeling on the floor, shivering uncontrollably for the second time tonight. He sighed deeply and addressed the Custodians who were restraining us. "Alright, uncuff Mr and Mrs Jones and let them go."
Having set us free, the captain and the two Custodians strode for the door, making no attempt to apologise for having been about to murder us a moment ago. I was both overwhelmed with relief that we were still alive and incensed with anger at yet another injustice inflicted upon us by Custodians. How much longer did I have to live in this prison-town?
I rubbed my sore wrists and climbed painfully to my feet, lending a hand to Nanako to help her stand as well. My knees were killing me from kneeling for so long, and I'm sure hers were too. The poor girl was frightened out of her wits.
Before I could think of what to do next, King was back in my face. "Mention this little misunderstanding to anyone, anyone at all, and there'll be a little accident one day when you're out foraging. You reading me, Jones?"
I wanted nothing more than to mash my fist through his pockmarked face, but that would just give him the excuse he needed to lock me up, so with a monstrous amount of self control, I focused on breathing in and out and glared back at him.
And then, at the very that moment King turned to leave there was a enormous, thunderous boom which shook the building to its very foundations.
The captain steadied himself against the doorframe. "Earthquake?"
"No, an explosion," I replied. An explosion to the north, in fact, but I didn't add that detail.
The Custodians rushed out of my flat and onto the landing, looking about to check if my observation was correct. Nothing could be seen from down here on the second floor of the apartment block, but all their radios sputtered to life at the same moment. "Code 906. All Custodians report to North End in full battle gear immediately, repeat, Code 906." The message repeated every minute.
"You've got to be kidding!" King exclaimed.
"What's 'code 906?'" I called out to the Custodians as I quickly dressed into trousers, t-shirt and hoody.
"Let's go!" the captain ordered, completely ignoring me.
"Wait, captain!" I shouted, darting out to the landing.
"What is it, Jones?" the captain growled, looking back.
"What's 'code 906,' captain?" I demanded.
"Skel have broken into North End," the captain snapped back.
"What could the Skel possibly gain by doing that?" I asking, trying to prompt the captain to think things through rather than just rushing off. I was working on the assumption that the Skel were much more organised than we had previously thought, and that besieging Newhome was the first stage of some insidious plan of theirs. This was obviously stage two. But what would its goal be, to cripple the town perhaps? And to such an extent that the population would be forced to leave. If that was the case, then I could think of only two possible scenarios where the Skel could achieve that end. One was to destroy our electricity supply, and the other was to cut off our water.
Snatches of frantic despatches bleed through the Custodian radios:
"...used a captured Bushmaster to break down the gates..."
"Sir, we've got to go," King objected.
The captain waved him back and answered, "Supplies, livestock, slaves, the usual."
"They can get those from any Victorian country town without having to go head-to-head with a few hundred well armed Custodians," I pointed out.
"If there's something you want to say, Jones, out with it!"
In the distance the staccato sounds of guns firing intermittently could be heard: Custodians fighting back against Skel intruders.
"...building's on fire..."
"...fleeing civilians block line of fire..."
"Call the security detail guarding the sub, I'll wager my bottom dollar they don’t answer," I said quickly, deciding to put my hunch to the test. The Skel were going after the electricity, they had to be.
The captain made a call to the Custodian control centre on his radio, and was clearly not pleased with the answer. "They're not responding," he said darkly. "Okay men, looks like we've got a sub to save. Pretty much everyone else is already in or on the way to North End. Command are sending a few squads back meet us at the western gates - then we go in and go in hard."
"...bravo company unable to enter North End, gates and road clogged by fleeing citizens..."
"...request permission to retire..."
"...Skel have guns, repeat, Skel have guns..."
"You rush out through the main gates to save the sub and you're all dead," I said, raising my voice to make myself heard.
The captain did not look pleased at my constant interruptions. "And why would that be, Jones?"
"They will have already set up an ambush outside the gates, expecting you to do exactly that, sir. May I be so bold as to suggest a strategy?"
"I presume the city has a secret entrance on the west wall?"
He nodded. "Opposite the bridge, a hundred metres south of the western gates and the sub."
"Okay. I recommend you send your force out the secret entrance, advance to the river bank and then follow the bank to the sub. That way you'll come up behind the Skel who are waiting near the gates. When you find them, fire a flare and take them out."
"Your plan sounds good in theory, Jones, but how are we supposed to find Skel hiding in the dark?” the captain argued.
I wanted to keep my mouth shut and let the Custodians deal with the situation to the best of their ability, but it wouldn’t be enough and I knew it. And maybe my conscience wouldn't be particularly pricked if these Custodians met their end out there, especially a certain captain and lieutenant, but if the city lost power? That would be disastrous.
"...we're pinned down here..."
"...fall back, fall back..."
"Put me with the lead squad and I'll take point," I offered.
"No Ethan, you can’t, you're still hurt!" Nanako protested strongly as she joined me on landing. She was dressed now and looked a lot warmer than she had been a moment ago. "You're too weak to go rushing out to fight Skel - you can't even use a Austeyr in your condition."
"You think you can find them in the dark, Jones?"
"Yes sir, no question about it," I assured him.
"Sir, I believe he can - he had no problem in locating David Chen when the Skel took him," King said, surprising me by confirming my abilities.
“Ethan, don’t do this,” Nanako implored me again.
I cupped her face in my hand. “If I don't do this we may not even have a town by morning.”
"Then I'm coming with you," she answered back.
"There's no way I'm going to risk you out there," I declared, shaking my head at the alarming thought.
"Who do you think taught you how to fire a bow, Ethan?" she asked, looking up at me.
"You did?" I asked incredulously.
"Archery is a national pastime for us Japanese. And don’t worry about me out there, you taught me stealth techniques and how to fight Skel when we were in Hamamachi. So I am coming with you, whether you like it or not. I've just gotten you back after all this time, and there's no way I'm letting you go out there against those things without me to watch over you. Do you understand?"
I saw that arguing would get me know where so I nodded my consent, reminding myself that she had also been trained to fight by the Hamamachi Militia - a concept that was just so foreign to me, as no woman in Newhome had ever lifted a gun.
The captain seemed to be weighing up his options, and finally reached a conclusion. "Okay you two, come on. We'll kit you up with vests and guns when we get to the barracks."
Ten minutes later Nanako and I, along with four teams of Custodians, were driven to the secret entrance one hundred metres south of the western gates. We were wearing Custodian kevlar bullet-proof vests and helmets. Nanako was holding an Austeyr automatic-rifle, while I had a pistol with a couple of spare clips of ammo, and the flare gun.
"Right, time is of the essence," the captain announced once we had all dismounted. "Ethan, you've got point."
"Thank you, sir. Radios off everyone, and follow me," I responded.
The secret concrete door was swung inwards and without further ado I ran straight through it and into the night, with Nanako on my heals. My left hand was in my pocket and my right held the pistol. The moment I passed through the gate and ran towards the river bank I let rip with my flash sonar, hoping against hope that the Custodians didn't have any ultrasonic sensors mounted in the walls.
I started receiving the echo signals immediately, and as I suspected, the Skel had set up an ambush in between the gates and the wharf, but to my dismay there were around two dozen of them, far more than I had expected. To make matters worse, some of them even had guns, though single shot rifles, not semi-automatics like the Custodians had. All the same. Twenty-four Skel against sixteen Custodians was going to be ugly.
We reached the river bank without incident and crouched down. Spot lights illuminated the town walls but it was so dark out here that I could only just make out the faces of those clustered around me. I could almost smell the fear emanating from the Custodians - they were afraid of encountering Skel in the daylight, so they were absolutely terrified now.
"Captain," I whispered, "Give us a sixty second head start, then spread out and follow us as quietly as you can. When you see the flare go up, come on in as fast as you can. Nanako and I will hit the Skel the moment they turn to engage you. Just don't shoot us by accident, okay?"
"Understood, now go!" he ordered.
Touching Nanako's hand to make sure she was ready, I moved off silently alongside the gentle river bank, heading for the Skel, who were about a hundred metres ahead.
"I'm scared, Ethan," Nanako whispered as she advanced noiselessly beside me.
"Yeah, me too," I whispered back.
"So they are really there, outside the gates? I mean, you're using your echolocation, aren't you?" she asked.
I almost tripped at that question, and slowed my pace as we kept going. "You know about that?"
"Of course I do, silly."
Of course she did, she was my wife, I chided myself. I sent out a more steady, oscillating stream of ultrasonic shouts, and built up a more accurate 3D image of the Skel. "Okay, there's about two dozen of them, some with rifles, and, oh no!" I exclaimed, "They've got an oxy-acetylene torch and have just started cutting into the hatch at the stern of the sub. And they've got a whole satchel of C4. We'd better hurry!"
The submarine and wharf, which were normally lit up as bright as day, were lost in darkness; the Skel must have shot out all the lights.
To the sound of water gently lapping against the river bank to our left, and with the sixteen Custodians advancing twenty metres behind us, Nanako and I soon drew close to the Skel hiding in ambush. The closest were about ten metres to our right, hunkered down behind bushes and shrubs, with their backs to us as they were facing the gates. They were armed with crossbows, a couple of old rifles, and the usual assortment of home-made clubs.
I pulled out the flare to fire when I heard a Custodian suddenly exclaim far too loudly, "Captain, they've got a torch on top of the sub, they're trying to cut through!"
And the plan fell to pieces.
Having heard the Custodian shouting, the Skel ambushers span about and opened fire with crossbows and rifles towards the sound and then whipped out their hideous hand-to-hand weapons and charged en masse while screaming obscenities towards the now thoroughly frightened Custodians, a couple of which had been shot.
I tried to fire the flare but the nothing happened. A couple of further attempts got the same result - the gun was so old it couldn't even fire. Typical Newhome efficiency, things were not maintained properly. This was a disaster, the Skel would cut the Custodians to ribbons in the dark.
"It's a dud, it won't fire - I have to save them. Cover me!" I whispered to my wife as I grabbed my pistol and ran after the Skel as they collided with the Custodians, swinging their lethal weapons left and right like a farmer using a scythe to cut grass. Custodians screamed in agony and fell, while others fired frantic and ill placed shots at the nightmarish skeleton-armoured brutes who engaged them in the dark.
Into the midst of the swirling melee I ran, the only combatant who could actually 'see' what was happened. I could have closed my eyes and it wouldn't have made any difference, for as I kept letting off ultrasonic shouts I could detect everything around me in crystal clear 3D quality. I fired my pistol, seven, eight, nine times, emptying the clip in the necks and throats of the Skel as I weaved my way through them, being careful to avoid the wild shots sprayed around by the Custodians.
Seven of the monstrous apparitions went down, but two my bullets struck bone armour and ricocheted off into the night. That immediately changed the odds of the battle, but more Skel were running towards us.
I ejected the empty clip from the pistol, painfully withdrew my left hand from its pocket and grabbed another clip, but before I could slam it home and a Skel smashed a metal-studded wooden club into my stomach. The kevlar vest took the brunt of the impact and saved my life, but it was still like being hit by a sledgehammer. I was sent flying through the air and landed on my back, almost passing out from the pain that exploded from the crossbow bolt-wound. Winded from the blow as well, I rolled to the side, grasping for breath while waiting for the wave of pain to subside.
The Skel, a massive brute taller than Michal with goats horns attached to his human-skull helmet, stepped forward and lifted his club to finish me off. Suddenly a small figure wearing a kevlar vest too big for her darted forward and fired her assault-rifle at him on full auto - it was Nanako, looking out for me just as she had promised. As I lay there immobilised she threw herself bodily into the side of the Skel, knocking him off balance as he fell so that he landed beside me rather than on top.
That Skel would not be getting up again, so I rolled over to my stomach and crawled towards the ammo clip I had dropped behind me. I noticed that at least half the Custodians were down, but those still standing were fighting back with almost fanatical fervour, using their guns like clubs and firing whenever they found an opportunity.
Nanako gunned down another Skel barrelling towards us, her gun making an ominous click as it ran out of ammo. Just then a smaller, faster Skel smashed her gun out of her hands with a sweep of converted pickaxe. The Skel yelled a high-pitched fearsome war cry; it was female. I frantically tried to crawl faster to get the ammo clip so that I could come to my wife's aid.
Nanako ducked and then dodged two great sweeps of her opponent's weapon, and then jumped forward and to deliver a perfect knife-hand strike to the Skel's unarmoured neck. She followed this up with an elbow to the throat, sending her opponent staggering backwards. The Skel, choking and gagging, shook her skull-adorned head and lifted her weapon to charge again.
I finally retrieved my ammo-clip, so I slammed it home and fired one shot through the Skel's unprotected throat, and she collapsed to the ground like a puppet with its strings cut.
Nanako retrieved her gun and rushed over to me as I slowly regained my feet. "You okay? Are you hurt?"
"I'll live," I assured her, but truth be known, the fall had reopened the wound, causing it to bleed anew. And my stomach was going to be black and blue from that blow. I glanced over at the submarine and panicked when I detected they had almost cut through the top hatch. "We've got to get to the sub, they're almost through," I said to Nanako as I stood to my feet.
"Lead the way, I've got your back," she said as she couched the assault-rifle to her shoulder.
I ran as fast as I was able for the wharf, firing my pistol at several Skel who tried to stop me. Those I failed to bring down were finished off by Nanako who ran a couple of steps behind me. Behind us the five Custodians still standing had won the upper hand and were advancing cautiously along behind us.
I ran onto the concrete wharf and alongside the submarine, which had been docked here at this purpose-built wharf since the founding of the town. I had no idea who built the submarine, a huge vessel over seventy metres long. It's nuclear reactor gave off an echo signature remarkably different from any other metal I had ever echolocated.
I ran over the metal decking that lead from the wharf to the sub when Nanako tripped and fell headlong on the wharf, her gun clattering from her hands.
"Nanako?" I called out anxiously, terrified she'd been shot.
"I'm okay - go, get those Skel!" she called back in the dark.
Holding my pistol before me I carefully navigated the narrow decking that surrounded the conning tower, ran between two large, empty horizontal missile launch tubes, and then straight for the two Skel at the sub's stern. One was crouching down with the oxy-acetylene torch, which lit up the surrounding area with an eerie glow, making the two bone-armoured Skel appeared like avenging angels of death that had escaped from the underworld.
I was tempted to shoot the oxy-acetylene gas tank, but had no idea what effect such an explosion would have on the satchel of C4 explosives, so slowed to a walk and fired two shots at the Skel instead, dropping him to the submarine's decking plate.
The second Skel whirled around and upon spotting my silhouette in the dark, madly fiddled with the detonator's timer and armed it. He dropped the bag, pulled out a sword and charged at me while bellowing like a bull.
Panicking myself now, I rushed straight for him, firing my pistol as I did so. The first shot didn't even slow him, but the second caused him to lose his footing and fall with flailing arms off the top of the submarine and into the water, shouting obscenities all the while.
I holstered my pistol and fell to my knees beside the satchel. Using flash sonar I located the timer and turned it to face me.
It had a glowing red timer, which was at nine seconds and counting down.
I don't know if the C4 would damage the submarine if it went off here on its upper deck, but I couldn't risk it. And that meant I had to fling the bag as far as I could into the river, away from the sub. I stood and prepared to do exactly that, but the bag was heavy and my chest was in such pain that I doubted I could even manage to throw it off the sub.
Heavy footsteps bounded up behind me.
I span about and found myself facing Lieutenant King.
Lieutenant King, I realised immediately, was aiming his assault-rifle at my head.
We stared at each other for what seemed an eternity but could not have been more than a couple of seconds. I knew what he was thinking. If he put a bullet through my head now no one would ever know the truth. He could claim the Skel shot me or that I had been hit by a stray Custodian bullet. It was an opportunity too good to pass up.
Well, it was until we heard Nanako's light footsteps rush up behind him. Recognising what was going on, she immediately aimed her gun at King's head.
Realising that he couldn't get away with murder, he lowered his gun. As he did so, I showed him the glowing timer, which read five seconds.
In one smooth motion he dropped his gun, grabbed the bag and swung it around and around and then flung it far out into the river. "Hit the deck!" he shouted, and all three of us did exactly that.
The C4 exploded in a massive pyrotechnics display, creating a small tidal wave that dumped masses of water over us and rocked the sub violently from side to side.
And then all was quiet.
Disguising it as a yawn, I let off one last ultrasonic shout, and upon seeing that no Skel were left standing, I last surrendered at long last to the pain and overwhelming exhaustion that wracked my body.
Nanako was at my side in a heartbeat. I tried to convince her that I was alright but failed miserably - she saw straight through the lie.
After he got his breath back, King switched his radio back on and reported our success to Custodian HQ, who replied with the encouraging news that the Skel had began withdrawing from North End. They must have had a scout watching the battle for the sub who had reported the Skel failure to destroy it to the Skel in the town.
I was pondering how the Skel had managed to get their hands on Smartphones, guns, the oxy-acetylene torch and C4 explosives, when all began to go black.
Nanako was in the process of removing my kevlar vest to check on my condition, and quickly discovered that the left side of my chest was covered with blood. The last thing I heard was her demanding King get me medical treatment immediately.
Chapter Twenty Six
I came to slowly, as though waking from the deepest sleep on record. I was back in intensive care, in a hospital bed with a drip in the back of my left hand. There was a bandage around my chest and shoulder, and another around my head. In spite of my injuries I felt little pain, so I guessed I must be on pethidine again. I think that this time I won’t rush out of here, but give my poor body a chance to properly recover.
At was dark outside the windows, and the ward was a shrouded in semi-darkness, as the lights had been dimmed. Every bed I could see was filled and male nurses were quietly checking on patients who were worse off than others. Some patients were groaning, others crying.
Nanako was lying on the bed beside me, fast asleep with her head on my right shoulder. I ran my hand through her hair, simply glad to be with her.
She stirred and her eyes flickered open. “So, decided to rejoin us in the land of the living, have we?” she teased.
“Well, you know, thought I’d pop in,” I laughed, and grimaced from the pain that erupted in my chest and midriff. “How long have I been out?”
“About eighteen hours,” she replied, glancing at the timepiece on her wrist.
“And what’s the prognosis, will I live?”
“You lost a lot of blood, and they had to close your wound again. But you’ve had a blood transfusion and have been on the drip ever since.” She propped herself up on her elbows. “You gotta be more careful, Ethan, no more heroics from you for, like, forever, okay? You were so pale that I was afraid I was going to lose you.”
“Don’t worry, you’ve got my full co-operation there,” I promised her.
“They wanted to give you a CAT scan for the blow to your head, but I refused to let them do it. But wow, they tried so hard to talk me into it. I had to make up some story that you and I were dead-set against X-ray technology because we believed it would harm us.”
“You did well,” I said, impressed by her ingenuity. “What’s the situation with the town and the sub?”
“After we stopped the Skel blowing up the sub, the rest of them pulled out of North End pretty quick, I’m told. But so many Custodians and civilians have been killed or injured. North End’s hospital was overflowing so badly that they’ve had to bring many North Enders to this hospital, and they’ve even using a school as a temporary hospital as well.”
I shook my head, finding it hard to believe the Skel had become so bold as to attack our strongly defended town so openly. I hoped the Skel had paid dearly for their audacity.
“Can I ask a question?” I said after we’d been silent for a while.
“Of course you can, silly.”
“What was our wedding like?”
She drew herself up so that she was kneeling on her knees Japanese-style. “Would you like to see a photo?”
The excitement that rose within me was so strong that for a moment I forgot all about my injuries. “Would I like to see a photo – what kind of question is that? Of course I do, but do you have lots of them, you know, of the time I was in Hamamachi?”
She removed the weird goggles that were hanging from her neck. “I do, but I’m hesistant to show them to you, because I don’t want the photos to form the basis of your memory. I want you to keep pushing your mind until you remember all these things yourself. I don’t mind showing you this one photo, though, it’s kind of important, eh?” She put the goggles on and pressed her finger repeated against some buttons on the goggles’ frame.
After a moment she hesitantly held them against my eyes: she couldn’t put the strap on because of the bruise caused by the stock of Lieutenant King’s gun.
I gasped as soon as I saw the image. It was in 3D, with depth I hadn’t thought possible with digital media.
We were standing in front of a little old brick chapel hidden away in the bush, set in the midst of a landscape of long grasses, bushes and the occasional gum tree. It had a slanting slate-tile roof, wooden door, and stained glass windows. It must have been very lovingly maintained over teh decades.
But it was Nanako herself who rendered me speechless. She was wearing a magnificent red kimono, embroidered with cranes, trees and mountains in gold, white and green threads. Her hair was put up by golden hairpins, with a few stray locks hanging down the sides of her face. The joy and rapture she had obviously felt on that day had been faithfully captured by the camera, for she was glowing with happiness, complete with joyous smile and sparkling eyes.
I stood beside her wearing traditional Japanese men’s clothes. It included pleated skirt-like black-and-white striped hakama pants, a white undershirt, a black men's kimono, and a haori, a light-weight long black coat with wide sleeves.
"You look simply gorgeous, it must have been such a special day," I said a couple of minutes later when I took off the goggles and reluctantly handed them back, delighted to have a concrete image with which to associate to our wedding day.
"It was the second happiest day of my life," she said, smiling broadly.
I raised both eyebrows, suddenly feeling a little threatened. What could mean more to someone than their wedding day? "Really, what was the happiest?"
She lay back down beside me with her head on my shoulder and took my left hand in hers. "Last night, when you told me that you are mine, now and forever, and we put our wedding rings back on."
I slipped my right arm around her and within seconds, her arms and legs twitched erratically, indicating she had fallen asleep already.
It was hours before I fell asleep, but I didn't mind in the slightest. As I lay with my petite wife in my arms, a contentment consumed me and peace pervaded my entire being. It was something I hadn't experienced since waking from my operation two years ago. I no longer felt empty or incomplete.
I was woken by a familiar voice. Looking up I saw that my three workmates and friends had popped in for a visit. They must have heard what happened to me through the grapevine. According to the clock it was just after eight in the morning.
"This is new,” Shorty said with eyebrows raised when he saw Nanako sitting cross-legged on the bed beside me, holding my hand.
“So are the rings,” said Michal, observant as usual. “Did we blink and miss something?”
“Guys, I would like to formally introduce you to Nanako Jones, my wife,” I replied, unable to stop myself grinning like a Cheshire cat.
“Yep, I think we did,” Shorty said to Michal, and then to me, “Jones, what on earth are you talking about?”
I spent the next five minutes explaining to the lads about my going to Hamamachi in 2120, meeting and marrying Nanako, her bringing me back after the injury, being thrown out of town, and her plan to get me back.
"Great to see it work out for you too at last," Michal said sincerely.
Shorty and David murmured similar comments, but truth be known, all three of them were clearly awkward with Nanako around. I questioned Newhome's traditions again, that so rigidly segregated males and females. I remembered how relaxed and natural Nanako and her three foraging teammates had been together when I first met her, and concluded that Newhome had gotten lost somewhere in the past.
"So how you three going?" I asked.
"Saturday was a blast," Shorty said with heavy sarcasm, "Digging through piles of junk and sorting it into its component metals."
"Well I'm hoping the Skel's may count their losses and give Newhome a loss for a while," I replied thoughtfully.
"Don't count on it," Michal said dryly.
"We need to put a minefield outside the town and only deactivate it to let the foragers in and out," David suggested.
"What's that going to achieve?" Shorty responded curtly. "We have to find some way to drive the Skel out of Melbourne altogether."
"Maybe the Custodians will work out something?" Nanako suggested.
"I don't think they're that interested in what goes on outside the city," Shorty said quietly, sending a dirty glance in David's direction.
Nanako noticed the exchange and looked enquiringly at me.
"It's a long story, I'll fill you in later," I said.
She nodded and David looked most relieved. The last thing he wanted was to experience his shame in public again.
"Look, we've got to trot, we just popped in on the way to work, you know, to see how you were going," Shorty said. The three of them bade us farewell and threaded their way past the milling throng of nurses and family visitors.
After they left, I noticed that Nanako looked a little apprehensive.
"You okay?" I asked, brushing a stray strand of thick black hair back from her brow.
"I asked Councillor Okada to offer to bring your mother and sisters to visit you," she explained.
"Thank you, that was very kind."
She shook her head, "You don't understand."
"What do you mean?"
"They may not come now that they know who I am," she said."But no! Here they come now."
I still didn't twig what she was getting at, but she slid off the bed and walked around to the other side to meet my mother and sisters, who were approaching us with concerned expressions. Well, except for older sister, perhaps.
Nanako bowed low and waited, clearly troubled. She didn't need to have worried, though, for my mother, who was several inches taller than her, swept her into her arms and cried as she embraced her. "You poor dear, I'm so terribly sorry for the way my husband has been treating you. You must believe me that I didn't know you came to Newhome two years ago. And when Ethan said that his father had you expelled from Newhome, forcing you apart from your husband, my heart just broke for you, sweetheart. I just wish you'd come to see me as soon as you had arrived, and then none of this would have happened."
Nanako gingerly accepted my mother's hands, and said through eyes that had teared up, "Ethan's father told me that you refused to see me because you were angry he had married a girl from out of town."
"That man is going to pay dearly for his lies, Daughter," my mother said emphatically. I had never seen my mother like this before, she had always towed the line to my father unquestioningly. "As I said, I didn't know you were here. At the time my husband claimed a doctor had forbidden us to visit Ethan until after his operation. And now I know why he said that - it was to stop us meeting you. But, do you know what?"
Nanako shook her head.
"The moment you ran into our home the other night because you saw Ethan had been hurt, and when I saw how much you clearly cared for him, even standing up to his father, I wished that it was you he was marrying, and not that snooty King girl. So when Ethan told me that you were in fact already his wife, I was so overjoyed for him, and for you." She lifted Nanako's head. "I am so happy to have you as my daughter-in-law, Nanako, and I just wish there was some way we could make up to you all the pain and anguish caused you by my husband."
"I'm just glad it's all over now," Nanako assured her.
Younger sister stepped forward and embraced Nanako, saying, "And we're sisters, Nanako, isn't that just the best? And I'm already trying the new diet and I'm going to keep at it too, no matter how hard it is."
I was overjoyed to see my mother and younger sister welcome my wife into the family with such heartfelt warmth, but I think my heart stopped beating when older sister stepped forward a little stiffly and took Nanako small hand in hers. "Welcome to the family, Sister-in-law."
From there my mother and sisters spoke at length with Nanako, trying to catch up on three years of fellowship robbed them by my father's lies. I think they remembered I was there, and that I was injured, but I wasn't entirely sure...
I was discharged from hospital on Tuesday morning, and I insisted on walking home after being cooped up in a hospital bed for three days.
Back in my flat - our flat - I retired to the sofa while Nanako appraised the flat with a critical eye, considering the paint scheme, the faded second hand curtains, the towels, sheets and other amenities in the cupboards, even the sofa.
"You're still planning on living in Newhome? I mean, rather than the two of us going back to Hamamachi to live?" I asked, curious.
"Yep," she answered, digging through the kitchen cupboards.
"But won't you feel smothered by our laws and traditions? You know, like young women not being permitted to go to the market without an older woman to accompany them?"
I thought she'd be worried by such constrictions, but she just looked up and gave me that upside-down smile I loved so much. "I'll just ask your mother to come with me."
"Okay, but wouldn't our lives be much easier and if we went back to Hamamachi, that way you'll be free to do whatever you want," I suggested.
Nanako came and sat with me on the sofa, draping her legs over mine and taking my hands in hers. "We can't ever go back to Hamamachi, Ethan, not for any reason."
"Why ever not?"
"Ethan, do you know what caused your injury?" she asked carefully.
"My father told me I'd been hurt by a ceiling collapsing while foraging, but the neurologist I saw last Saturday told me that I had been shot," I replied.
She nodded. "Yes, but not just shot. You were shot at point blank range."
Fear's icy fingers gripped my stomach. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear where this conversation was going to go, but I couldn't stop now. "How did it happen?"
"You went out on a classified mission with your Ranger squad in July '20. When your squad failed to report in, they sent another squad to find out why. A day later they brought your squad back; four members were dead, and you were on death's door. They operated on you and put you in a forced coma, and somehow, you pulled through, although in a very unhealthy state."
"Did they give you any details on the mission?" I asked, the fear turning to dread. How could five Rangers be wiped out so easily.
"No," she answered gruffly, "Regardless of how many times I ask or how hard I pushed, they refused to give me any details of what had happened, except to say that you'd all been shot in the line of duty. But you know that's impossible, don't you?"
"What do you mean?" The dread was spreading up the spine and into the back of my head.
"There's no way anyone could creep up on you and shoot you in the head at point blank range, is there?"
I knew what she was referring to, and I agreed. That very thought was the cause of this dread. I shook my head. "No, if I was awake and on a mission I would be using flash sonar the entire time. And if I was asleep, even the faintest out of place sound would wake me."
"And leads us to the only possible conclusion to who shot you," she said.
"I was shot by someone I knew, someone I trusted completely," I replied, the dread exploding throughout my head.
She nodded. "All we know is that it wasn't one of your squad members, because they all came back in body bags. Now tell me, Ethan, have any of these memories you've been having given you even the slightest clue who it was that tried to kill you?"
"No, nothing like that, I've only remembered mundane things."
Nanako sighed exasperatedly. "That's a shame. But you understand now why we can't go back to Hamamachi? Someone there, someone you trusted, tried to kill you and probably the rest of your squad too. If we went back to Hamamachi to live, they may try to finish what they started."
I nodded thoughtfully. "Darn this amnesia."
"One more thing, please don't tell anyone else that your memories having started to return. It's possible they didn't try to kill you when you were in hospital in Hamamachi because of the amnesia."
"Okay, I'll do as you ask. But what about Councillor Okada, have you told him that I remembered meeting you?" I queried.
She shook her head. "No, I told him you found out who I was from the hospital admission form."
"You don't trust him?" Surely she trusted her faithful chaperone.
"I don't trust anyone: for even if you told someone who was trustworthy, they could accidentally let it slip in front of the wrong person," she explained.
On Thursday, while we were productively occupied with the task of repainting my flat’s ugly duck-egg green walls with a refreshing pale golden-yellow, Okada-scan dropped by our flat to let us know that he was returning to Hamamachi on Friday. The consignment of goods that Newhome was going to trade with the Japanese was finally ready to be delivered. He checked one last time that Nanako was content to remain in Newhome, and appeared genuinely happy when she said she would.
We returned to painting after he left, though with some difficulty on my part due to my arm being in a sling.
“You know you were speaking to Councillor Okada with paint on your nose,” I said to my wife.
“That’s because you put it there,” she replied.
I held up my hands in mock indignation. “Surely not I? Here, would you like me to wipe it off?” I picked up the small cloth we’d been using to wipe up accidents and spills, and gave her irresistibly cute button nose a bit of a rub. “Hmm, it seems to have dried. I’ll have to use a wet rag.” I dipped the rag in the wet paint and painted the rest of her nose pale golden-yellow.
“Somehow my nose doesn’t feel clean,” she said as she stepped forward and wrapped her arms around me. I embraced her in return and rested my chin on the top of her head when I felt her run the pain roller down my back. She stepped back giggling, something I hadn’t seen her do before. It had to be the sweetest display of mirth I had seen.
“These are my best clothes!” I protested in mock indignation.
“Lucky the paint is acrylic then, eh?”
“Absolutely, especially considering your nose is covered in it,” I laughed. And then, more seriously, “Have I changed much?”
“What do you mean?” she asked as she put the down paint roller.
“From when you knew me before,” I replied, looking down into her mesmerising brown eyes. “I mean, for me, getting to know you is all new, and I’m loving every minute of it, because you’re just the most amazing person I’ve ever met. But what about you, how do I compare to the Ethan you used to know? Are you disappointed?”
She embraced me again, though without the paint roller this time. “You’re still you, the same Ethan I fell in love with three years ago, if that’s what you’re worried about. You know, there’s a depth to you now that wasn’t so obvious when you were sixteen. Back then, life was one big adventure you wanted to explore. Now, you’ve realised there’s a serious side to life as well. And yes, because of this trial we’ve been forced to endure we’ve both changed, but now we're back together again, our wounded hearts can begin to heal and become whole again. From here it will only get better.”
A knock on the door interrupted our conversation. Expecting it to be one of my friends, I was most unpleasantly surprised when our visitor turned out to be Lieutenant King.
He tipped his head slightly. "Mr and Mrs Jones."
At least he had accepted that we were married now. "How can we help you, Lieutenant?"
He removed a sealed letter from his Custodian fatigues and handed it to me. "Orders from Custodian command, Jones."
I read through the letter and handed it to Nanako, who had come to stand beside me. "Why me, sir?" I asked the lieutenant.
The faintest trace of an empty smile tweaked the corner's of King's mouth. "Considering your considerable experience with the Skel, Custodian Command consider you the obvious choice to lead the trade convoy to Hamamachi."
"Ethan can't do it," Nanako declared emphatically after she had read the letter. Considering what we had discussed on Tuesday about why we had to stay in Newhome and never go to Hamamachi, this order from Custodian command couldn't have come at a worse time.
"This isn't an option, Mrs Jones," he snarled down at Nanako.
She looked at me for help, desperation filling her eyes. I gave my head the slightest nod - there was nothing we could do. In Newhome, the Custodians' orders were law.
"Fine, my foraging team and I will lead the convoy to Hamamachi, sir, but I have two conditions," I replied with resignation.
"You aren't in any position to make demands, Jones," King replied, almost amused that I had the presumption to say such a thing.
"Nevertheless, if you want this convoy to be able to fight off a Skel attack," I paused, "I request that you reinstate me as leader of the foraging team and replace Cooper with Leigh Williams. Oh, and we'll need our bows and arrows back. You can hide them under our vehicle's seats if you like."
"Leigh Williams is in prison."
"I need him, Lieutenant. He knows how to bring down Skel," I replied, refusing to budge an inch. The fact was the Leigh was the least capable of my team, but this was an opportunity to get him out of prison and I wasn't going to let it pass by. "Perhaps Custodian Command could offer him a pardon on the condition he accept this assignment, sir."
I could almost see the cogwheels in King's brain turning as he considered my requests. "Fine," he finally grunted, "I'll see what I can do. I will pick up you at 5:00am sharp tomorrow morning."
"What, are you going too, sir?" I asked.
This time King did smile, a cold, merciless expression. "Oh yes, did I forget to mention it? I'll be leading the Custodian team providing protection for the convoy."
"How long are we to stay in Hamamachi, Lieutenant?" Nanako asked.
"We drop off, pick up, and make the return journey. However, in regards to you two, since Mrs Jones has family there, you’re welcome to stay there until the next delivery run," he replied.
I looked him in surprise – he was going to let us stay behind if we so chose? What was this, compassion and understanding from Lieutenant King?
After he had gone, Nanako took my hand, dread clouding her lovely face. "We can't go, Ethan, we just can't."
"We don't have a choice when it comes to the Custodians," I explained.
"Can we run away then, just the two of us? Get out of the city and go somewhere, anywhere but Hamamachi."
"This town's like a fortress with one function, Nanako," I answered gently, "and that's to lock its population inside. Apart from being on a foraging team, there's no way out."
"Then you have to feign sickness, or break your leg or something," she said, becoming frantic, "Please Ethan, find a way out of this."
Shaking my head, I tried to put my arm around her to console her but she slipped out of my reach and fled into the bathroom, slamming the door behind her.
I could hear her sobbing, so I opened the door and slipped in after her. She was kneeling on the floor with her arms against the far wall, breathing far too rapidly to the point of almost gasping for air as she wept. If I couldn't find a way to calm her down she would be hyperventilating before I knew it.
I pulled my arm out of the sling, knelt beside her and wrapped myself around her, ignoring the pain from my chest. "It's going to be okay, Nanako, trust me, it's going to be okay."
She turned around within my arms and took my face between her hands. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be married to the guy of your dreams for just four short months, and then they bring him home on a stretcher one day, and he's covered in so much blood and with such a terrible wound to the side of his head that you can't even recognise him? Can you imagine what I went through?"
I shook my head. What this poor girl had gone through back then I couldn't imagine it, not at all. And my heart grieved for her.
"Ethan, I can't go through that again, I just can't," she said and then broke into tears again, burying her head and arms against my chest.
I remembered how my father said she kept panicking when I couldn't remember her after she brought me to the hospital here in Newhome, sometimes so panicking so badly that the nurses had to tear her away from me. But this time it was different, because this time I was with her and I wasn't going to let go of her for any reason at all. So I just held her, and whispered to her reassuringly, "We're going to be okay, Nana-chan, I'm never going to leave you again, okay?" And we stayed there for a long time, just holding each other while we knelt on the bathroom floor.
And it was with quantifiable sorrow that I realised that the joy we had felt earlier at the prospect of repainting the flat had completely vanished.
Nanako had composed herself by the time that Shorty rang a couple of hours later and reported that Leigh had been released from prison. I asked Shorty to bring him over, and then rang David and Michal, and invited them as well.
Michal and David arrived first. Michal commandeered our sofa while David leaned against the wall next to the TV. Nanako and I sat near the edge of the bed, me cross-legged, her kneeling. David was so nervous that he couldn’t stop fidgeting, and I have to admit that I was pretty tense as well. This confrontation between David and Leigh could get pretty ugly.
A quarter of an hour later Shorty knocked on the door and entered with a somewhat dour Leigh trailing behind him. Shorty grabbed one of the two dining table chairs, but Leigh just stood there staring at Nanako and me. Although he’d only been in prison for a few days, he had lost a few kilos and was sporting the beginnings of a beard and moustache.
“What kind of drongo forgets they got married,” Leigh said as soon as he saw Nanako and me. It would appear that Shorty had filled him in on current events on the walk here from the prison manufacturie.
“Welcome back, Leigh,” I replied dryly.
“He has amnesia,” Nanako pointed out defensively. I took her hand in an attempt to encourage her not to take offense at anything Leigh said.
“Whatever,” he snapped. And then to me, “You should have left me there, Jones.”
“For another six years?”
“Better than being out here,” he grumbled.
“I can have you put back in if you like.” Sometimes his constant negativity got to me, but honestly, I think on this occasion it was justified, and about to get a lot worse.
“David has something to say to you, by the way,” I said after a moment’s silence.
“Yeah, like what?” Leigh spat, turning to take in David who was to all attempts and purposes trying to squirm through the wall so that he could escape into the flat next door.
“Leigh, it was me. I was the one who told them,” David said softly, looking at the floor.
“Told who what?” Leigh asked, confused.
“The Custodians - I told them about you and Amelia. Look I’m sorry, I don’t know what came over me, I was just angry and jealous and it just suddenly blurted out.”
Leigh’s mouth dropped open and he glanced at the rest of us, thinking this was some kind of a joke, but when we returned his gaze with all seriousness, the realised David spoke the truth. And then he suddenly exploded into a frenzied rage and flung himself on David, punching and kicking him. David just put his arms around his head and took it without making a sound.
Nanako shook my arm, “Ethan, do something!”
“What happened to us, guys?” I asked clearly but softly.
Leigh pulled his last punch and stood there motionlessly, facing David and panting for breath.
“We’ve always been so close. We’ve prided ourselves on being closer than brothers, yeah? But look at us now?” I looked at Shorty, Leigh and David. “We’re letting ourselves be torn apart by jealousy, resentment, hatred and unforgiveness. And yeah, David stuffed up big time, but he’ll have to carry this on his conscience for the rest of his life – surely that’s punishment enough. But haven’t we all stuffed up at some stage or another?”
“Jones, in case you missed it, Amelia’s dead ‘cause of him, and she ain’t coming back,” Leigh bit back.
I pointed my finger at Leigh. “Don’t you dare go placing all the blame for her death on David. If you hadn't been sleeping with her in the first place, the Custodians' wouldn't have executed her and put you in prison. Now don’t get me wrong, I'm not saying I agree with that stupid, obscene law, ‘cause I don’t, but both you and Amelia knew the risks you were taking when you went down that path, didn’t you?”
Leigh glared at me.
“Answer the question, Leigh.”
“Alright! Yes, we knew the risk.”
“And yet you did it anyway. How long did you think you could have gotten away with it before her family realised, huh?” I pressed.
“But it wasn’t them who reported me, it was him!” Leigh shot back, pointing at David, “Someone who was supposed to be my friend.”
“Friends, even family members, make mistakes, and do things that hurt us, and we them,” I said, and thought of my father and the terrible damage he inflicted on my wife and I. Suddenly I was talking to myself as well as Leigh. “But we have to somehow find it within ourselves to forgive one another, and move on. Not one of us is perfect, Leigh, Shorty, David, me, not one of us.”
The tension bled out of Leigh's shoulders and he found something in the carpet to stare at.
"We five, no, we six," I said, putting my arm around my petite wife, "are a family. Let's not let anything come between us, not anything, not ever."
Leigh breathed out deeply and surprised us all by suddenly giving a brotherly hug to David, who returned the gesture. Leigh hopped off his chair and hugged them both. I wasn't sure, and they'd never admit it if questioned, but I thought I even heard some tearful sniffs.
Nanako squeezed my hand, and I squeezed hers back. This was one of those moments we six would never forget, a moment our friendship had been refined in the fiery forge of life's trials into a purer form of gold.
We left Newhome at six in the morning, when the morning sun was still very low in the horizon. The Custodians had given a G-Wagon to us foragers to drive, one that had been modified to seat five rather than the usual four. Michal was the driver and I rode beside him to navigate. Shorty and Leigh sat in the back, with Nanako between them. A trailer laden with goods and supplies to be traded with Hamamachi was attached to the G-Wagon. A large vinyl bag containing five sets of bows and arrows had been dumped on the floor between the front and back seats. Amazing, King had kept his word.
Following us was Councillor Okada and his large black 4WD, with David riding shotgun with him should he need breaks from driving. More items for trade filled the 4WD’s boot.
Bringing up the rear was King and his squad of Custodians, riding in their Bushmaster. One Custodian manned the vehicle’s roof-mounted machine gun, as usual.
I was very suspicious of the fact that the Skel managed to ambush the Japanese convoy on its way to Newhome with such accuracy.
So although we needed to travel east and then south-east to get to Hamamachi, I figured that route was too predictable. I sorely missed not being able to use flash sonar to find a safe passage, so had to rely entirely upon my knowledge of Skel behaviour and keep a sharp look out. So we left Newhome via the western gates, and initially headed west, then north, and finally south-east. But I also used minor roads rather than the major thoroughfares.
The journey of a 180km would have once taken only a couple of hours, but now took five times as long due to the condition of the roads. All three vehicles had to deploy their solar panels to charge their batteries, due to the distance travelled.
We hit the outskirts of Hamamachi just after four in the afternoon. I hoped desperately that coming back here would trigger more memories of my time here.
Just as Nanako had told me, Hamamachi had no walls. In fact, the outer areas of the town consisted of great, fenced off fields filled with grazing cows and sheep. These were watched over the occasional patrols of Hamamachi Militia. They either rode horse back or drove 4WD vehicles identical to the one Councillor Okada drove behind us, and unlike the Custodians, they wore civilian clothes.
As we drew closer to the town we passed orchards and farms, as well as fully enclosed greenhouse nurseries. Several homesteads were interspaced between them, and Nanako said that some of the farmers lived there. We passed a few Japanese on the road, either walking or riding. A few bowed respectfully, but most eyed us suspiciously. I guess the armoured Bushmaster made quite an imposing sight.
We hit the actual town itself, which unlike Newhome and its ten story blocks of flats, its houses were in the most part one or two story houses or flats. I was delighted to see that many had Japanese rice paper screens and doors, kept safely behind glass so that they remained intact. Rooves were typically made of clay tiles in a variety of glazed colours. Compared to the dull greys of Newhome, Hamamachi was a treat to our eyes.
Nanako directed us through the town until we reached the town trade centre, the TTC. It was a large two-story building, where all trade with neighbouring towns was conducted.
Upon seeing our arrival, a Japanese Militia squad opened tall wooden gates to the left of the town trade centre and ushered us into its loading dock, which was used for making deliveries to the town trade centre.
On the right and far sides of the loading dock's yard was the town trade centre; to the left was a parking lot that could accommodate vehicles of any size. Goods were loaded into the TTC at ground level through three roller shutter doors built into the far side. Two of these doors were up, giving me a glimpse of a large warehouse space behind, filled with row after row of shelving packed with boxes and crates of all descriptions. Two squads of Hamamacha Militia stood beside the roller shutter doors.
Japanese TTC workers indicated for us to drive the G-Wagon and 4WD to within a dozen metres of the loading dock and come to a stop side by side. They brought over two small forklift trucks with pallets to collect the items we had brought to trade. Councillor Okada got out and oversaw their efforts.
The Bushmaster pulled up roughly behind the G-Wagon's trailer but leaving a big enough gap to get a forklift in between them. King got out and stood slightly to one side, watching the TTC workers somewhat apprehensively as they began to unload the trailer and 4WD, placing the items we had brought on the forklift pallets.
The foragers stayed near the G-Wagon, ready to give a hand if needed, but Nanako and I moved off to the side so that we would not be in the way.
Seeing us there, and pleased with the unloading, Councillor Okada walked over to join us. "This is the beginning of a grand new era," he said, smiling proudly. "A time of goodwill and trade between Victoria's two most productive towns."
"What has Newhome sent here for trade, Councillor Okada?" I asked. I knew Hamamachi would be sending back a batch of Smartphones with us, but had no idea what we had brought. Any questions presented to King and his men before we left had been met with disinterested grunts.
"From Newhome we have brought boxes of seeds of your biologically altered fruits and vegetables, engineered to grow in Australian soil and at greatly increased growth rates. And also bio-engineered poultry, that much grow faster and bigger than normal."
I looked at the wooden crates and plastic and metal boxes being unloaded. "We brought live chickens?" I asked, surprised.
Councillor Okada laughed. "No, just embryos, in a refrigeration/maturation unit built specially to transport them here. Your geneticists are quite brilliant, Ethan-san - from just a few hens and one rooster they have given us this batch that contains of thousands of chick embryos."
"That's incredible, I didn't know that Newhome was doing that," I replied as I watched as several Japanese men struggle mightily to lift the black refrigeration/maturation unit from the back of the G-Wagon's trailer and place the unit upon a pallet, my mind balking at the sheer weight of the thing. It must have been at least 200 kilos.
An uneasy feeling crept into my gut and crept up my spine. Why would a refrigeration unit the size of a small refrigerator weigh so much? Curious to what type of metals they had used in its construction, I stepped closer and risked an ultrasonic shout, disguising it as a yawn.
I was expected to hear an ultrasonic echo indicating steel, copper, aluminium, plastic and fiberglass, but the most notable echo that returned was something else entirely.
It was uranium.
The guts of the refrigeration-maturation unit had been removed and replaced by a thermonuclear warhead - a hydrogen bomb. Special containers with thousands of very dead embryos were on a shelf above the bomb, so that on a cursory glance it would appear to be the real thing. The bomb had a jury-rigged timer. And as far as I could tell, it was armed.
The icy tendrils of fear that had been climbing up my spine erupted into the back of my head and I staggered back a step in shock. With an expression of utter disbelief and horror on my face, I slowly lifted my head until I could see King, who was only a couple of metres away from me.
To my surprise, he was watching me intently - he had no doubt seen my shocked reaction.
"King, what are you doing?" I demanded.
"You know, don't you," he hissed, glowering at me as though I was evil incarnate. "You're the accursed bio-engineered scum I've been searching for these past two weeks."
"Answer my question, King."
"I'm doing what needs to be done, Jones," he snarled.
"There’s no justification for genocide, King!"
"It's either them or us. They're behind the Skel attacks on Newhome and you know it. Now stand down and keep your mouth shut," he said as he returned to watching the TTC workers unload the rest of the boxes from the trailer.
“You said that Nanako and I could stay here after you left – you’re trying to kill us too,” I hissed.
“That was the general idea. Now back off and let me finish this and maybe I’ll let you two come back with us.”
A dozen scenarios involving me attacking King fled through my mind, but with my arm in a sling I rejected them instantly. Instead, I reached back and touched Nanako's hand, getting her attention. Turning my head half towards her so that I could also watch King, I made a massive effort and somehow forced myself to speak entirely in Japanese. "Nana-chan, please go quietly and without making a fuss, and warn the officer in charge of the Militia security detail that the Custodians have brought a bomb with them."
"What?" she asked, her voice wavering.
"Just do it, quickly," I insisted.
Nanako nodded and tried to walk nonchalantly towards the Militia sergeant who stood near the roller shutter door.
Unfortunately, King had noticed our exchange and putting two and two together, realised I was not going to play along like he had hoped.
In a blindingly fast move he drew his side arm and aimed it at Nanako. I screamed with rage and flung myself at him, knocking his gun aside so that the shot went wide. Nanako tripped over and flung herself behind the closest forklift truck, shouting in Japanese to the Militia sergeant all the while.
I tried to disarm King with a knife-hand strike to his arm but he was expecting it this time, sidestepping my blow and thumping the butt of his pistol as hard as he could against my chest, directly over the crossbow bolt wound. I can't even find the words to describe the agonising pain that speared throughout my chest in response to the blow. I collapsed to the ground at his feet and writhed about, trying to ride out the wave of pain and stay conscious.
Seeing that the secret was out, King turned to the Bushmaster and shouted, "Secure the dock!"
The loading dock instantly descended into complete and utter pandemonium.
King fired his pistol at the Militia sergeant, downing him with his second shot. At the same time, the Custodian on top of the Bushmaster opened up with his machine gun, cutting down two more Militia and forcing the rest to scatter. The last two Custodians came running out of the back of the Bushmaster and attacked the Militia squad who were guarding the gates. They killed two and wounded a third, who crawled back around the gates in an attempt to find cover. The fourth Militia used the gates as cover and fired at the Custodians, forcing them to run for cover as well. One used the Bushmaster's rear door while the other hid behind a parked car.
The surviving Militia returned fire, snapping off frantic shots towards the Custodians as they tried to find cover. Two ducked inside the TTC, where they would pop out, fire a burst, and duck back into cover. The remaining Militia hid behind stacks of wooden pallets and the forklift trucks.
Still lying at King's feet as he engaged the Militia, I looked around for my fellow foragers, and spotted them crouched down beside the G-Wagon, eyes wide with fear and confusion. They had no idea why the Custodians had suddenly opened fire on the Japanese.
I made eye contact with Michal and pointed at King and the Custodians, making a slashing motion across my throat with my finger. He nodded in understanding, opened the G-Wagon's rear passenger door, and reached in to remove the bag of bows and arrows.
I couldn't see my wife, but flash sonar revealed her location to be behind the forklift truck, where she was trying to help the Militia sergeant - a losing battle, as his pulse was dropping rapidly. I hoped that she had the sense to stay there and not try any heroics. (Words I should say to myself perhaps...)
Bullets wiped past and ricocheted off the Bushmaster in all directions as a new Militia squad rushed out of the TTC's doors, but they were mercilessly gunned down by the Custodian on top of the Bushmaster. The remaining Militia in the courtyard kept firing at the Bushmaster, but so far without any effect.
King stepped over to the fake refrigeration-maturation unit, unlocked it and flipped the lid open. He scooped out arm loads of the small plastic and metal containers that contained the now-dead chick embryos, and removed the metal plate beneath them. I clambered to my feet to see what he was doing, and was alarmed to see that he was attempting to change the timer on the detonator. It was set on three hours, but he was no doubt trying to make it blow sooner. No wonder he wanted to drop off, pick up, and leave straight away.
Continuing to use flash sonar by habit rather than conscious effort, I dodged slightly to the side to avoid a spread of bullets fired by a Militia that missed King and almost hit me. Stepping behind the lieutenant, I pulled a small, sharp knife I had hidden in my belt and tried to stab him in the back of the neck. Unfortunately, he sensed my movement and span around towards me so the knife plunged into his shoulder instead.
Still, it was enough to distract him from the bomb. He flinched off the next blow I aimed at his bull-like neck and booted me in the stomach, driving me back a few steps. I made to rush back at him but he grabbed the pistol with his left hand from where he had put it on the bomb casing and aimed it at my head.
That would have been the end of me except for Michal, who suddenly appeared behind King, knocking his arm away before placing him a crushing neck hold. The bullet glanced off the right side of my forehead, and everything went black.
I can't have been out for more than a few seconds, for I when I came too, I was laying on my side, facing King and Michal, who were still struggling back and forth. In what felt like a dream, I watched King's face go red and the veins on his neck bulge - he had literally a couple of seconds before Michal's hold rendered him unconscious. But to my horror, King shoved the pistol behind him, pressed it against Michal's stomach, and fired three shots.
A strange expression crossed Michal's face as he slid slowly to his knees and slumped to the ground, his life fading away before my very eyes.
"Michal, no!" I screamed, reaching a hand towards him. Michal glanced once in my direction, and his eyes glazed over.
I rolled over to my knees, and with blood pouring down the side of my face, crawled over to Michal while King went back to the bomb's controls. I checked Michal's pulse, but there was none, just as I feared. He was gone, and a part of my heart withered and died with his passing. I rested my hands and forehead on his shoulder lamented the loss of a friend who had always been there for me, who had helped me in my moments of inexplicable melancholy, and whom I had comforted when his family life had sapped him of the will to live. No longer would he join us when he got together on the roof to goof around, no longer would he be the brawn behind our foraging efforts, and no longer could his younger brother and sister look up to him, as he set them a role model worth following.
I couldn't believe this had happened. Today was supposed to be a simple delivery run, with the only potential danger being from the person in Hamamachi who had shot me two years ago. We weren't supposed to be going up against our own Custodians!
Sitting back on my haunches, I pulled a handkerchief from pocket and pressed it against the bullet graze on my forehead, hoping to staunch the blood flow. As I did so, Leigh popped up from behind the G-Wagon's trailer, an arrow fitted to his bow. But before he could fire, the gunner on the Bushmaster sent a hail of bullets at him. The arrow went wide and Leigh went down with blood spraying from his chest.
"No!" I screamed, not Leigh too.
Hearing my shout, the Custodian swivelled his gun around and lined me up in his crosshairs, but suddenly cried out and collapsed over his weapon with an arrow through his neck. By facing me he had exposed his back to my lads, and one of them had made the most of the opportunity.
The blood flow began to slow, I rose and staggered over to King and tried to stop him changing the detonator's timer. But I was so feeble that he fended me off with his right arm, even though weakened by the knife wound.
And then, as though in slow motion, I watched him complete changing the timer to five minutes and activate it. That done, King turned to face me and sent me sprawling to the ground with a strong push.
He grabbed his pistol with his left hand and aimed it at me. "You've no idea how much pleasure I'm going to get from killing you, Jones," he snarled.
He was about to pull the trigger, but before he could fire, Nanako jumped out from behind the forklift truck and ran towards him. Armed with a Militia assault-rifle she must have found on the ground, she unloaded the gun's entire clip into the lieutenant, jerking him about like a puppet on strings.
Bleeding from a dozen places, King crashed to the ground beside me. "I win, Jones," he whispered, smiling, as his life slowly slipped away.
"Not yet," I mumbled as I clambered back to my feet. In dramatic contrast to the chatter of the machine guns and ricocheting bullets, all had fallen deathly quiet. Another Custodian had an arrow through his throat, and the last one had been slain by gunfire.
"David! Grab your tool kit and get here pronto!" I shouted as loud as I could manage as I stumbled to the bomb, picking up my handkerchief and pressing it back against my bleeding forehead on the way.
Nanako darted to my side. "Ethan, are you okay? You look a right mess."
"It looks worse than it feels," I replied, "but we've got to deactivate this bomb or its lights out for us all in five minutes."
David ran over to me carrying his toolkit, which he had just fetched from the G-Wagon.
"What just happened, Jones? Why did the Custodians go berserk?" David demanded.
I pointed to the fake refrigeration/maturation case, and said softly, "David, tell me you know how to deactivate a hydrogen bomb."
David's eyes widened further than I thought was humanly possible. "The Custodians brought a...?"
I clapped my hand over his mouth before he finished shouting out his question. The last thing we needed was mass hysteria. "David, we've got less than five minutes, how do we disarm it?" I stressed urgently.
"We can remove the IHE from the physics package or..."
"The what from the what?" I snapped.
"Sorry, we can remove the insensitive high explosives from the warhead, or, we can remove the exploding bridge-wire detonator from the IHE, sorry, the insensitive high explosives," he said, his voice shaking.
"I have no idea what you just said, but can you just do it already?"
David stuck his head in the box and looked inside, "Okay, okay, this is doable. They've put just the warhead in here, it shouldn't be too hard to get to the IHE if we work quickly." He pulled his head out of the large box and reached quickly for his bag.
"Don’t move!" commanded a very, very agitated Japanese Militia captain. "Drop your weapons, put your hands on your heads, and lie face down on the ground, or we will shoot!"
Looking up I saw that we were surrounded by several very irate squads of Japanese Militia, some which had just arrived.
"We've got less than four minutes to deactivate this bomb or we all die," I shouted back in Japanese.
"Do as I say or we shoot!" he shouted back. Several of them raised their guns, their fingers already beginning to depress the triggers.
"Stop, Captain! These men are on our side!" Nanako tried to explain, but a squad of Militia snatched her gun and aimed their weapons at her as well.
I watched at the detonator's timer counting down the seconds with an almost morbid fascination, barely aware of the Militia captain shouting at me to lie down.
It was over. For all of us.
"Stand down!" Councillor Okada shouted with power and authority as he rushed over to join us from where he had been hiding during the battle. All the Militia present lowered their weapons slightly, some bowing deferentially to Councillor Okada as he took charge.
"What happened - why did the Custodians attack us? What is in that box?" Councillor Okada asked when he joined us.
"The Custodians brought a bomb," and I whispered the next part so that only the councillor could hear me, "a nuclear bomb, and it's set to go off in less than four minutes. You must let David and me disarm it right now."
"A what?" Councillor Okada asked in sheer disbelief. And then, in seeing that our serious expressions didn't change, he added, "No, absolutely not. I will get in our bomb disposal unit. And we must evacuate the town immediately!"
"There's no time to wait for your team, nor any point in evacuating, for no one could get far enough away from the blast radius," David replied.
I grabbed Councillor Okada's arm with a bloody hand. "You cannot get a better bomb disposal team than David and I, Councillor - trust, me, we can disarm this."
Councillor Okada stared at me for what felt like eternity but in reality was only a second or two, and then reluctantly nodded his consent. All the same, as David and I moved back to the bomb, he instructed the Militia captain to call in the bomb disposal unit. The rest of the Militia and TTC personnel moved quickly away from us.
"Right, we have to remove the exploding-bridge-wire detonator," said David, "but they've screwed a custom-made lid over the top of it. We need to get the bomb out of the box so that I can see where they are."
We didn't have time to do that, so I knelt down and leaned on the unit's casing, made a few ultrasonic sounds, and pulled David to me. "Don't argue, just listen. Put your fingers here, and here. Remove these two screws, and the two on the other side of the cover in the same place, and the lid will come off."
"Three minutes," Nanako announced quietly with a calm I didn't feel.
David nodded and set to work and quickly removed the four screws by touch and his electric screwdriver. We lifted off the lid, exposing exploding-bridge-wire detonator.
"Two minutes," came Nanako's countdown to doom.
Armed with the tools he needed, David lay half in the fake refrigeration/maturation unit and attacked the exploding-bridge-wire detonator wires one by one. I watched him work using echolocation, and marvelled how his fingers could work so deftly considering what was at stake if he failed.
Finally, he pushed himself off the bomb and slid to the ground, panting heavily. "It's done."
"The clock's still counting down," Nanako pointed out, terrified. Councillor Okada had noticed too, his face going white with fear.
"Don't worry, the wires aren't connected to the explosives nor the timer any longer, so its counting down to a non-event," David assured us.
Nevertheless, we all held our breaths and watched the counter tick down to zero, and although we all flinched, nothing happened.
"Now do you believe me? It's all clear," David said.
I wanted to give David a crushing hug, but didn't have the strength plus the throbbing pain from my head and chest were taking their toll, so I just sat on the ground beside him.
The surviving Militia whooped with delight and congratulated us for disarming the bomb. However, I don't think any of them knew just what sort of bomb we had just disarmed.
"David, where on earth did you learn how to deactivate a thermonuclear bomb?" I asked, completely in awe of his abilities.
David was staring at me as though it was the first time we had met. "From books and manuals I found in the ruins and smuggled home," he replied. "But Jones, you wanna tell me how you can see through metal?"
Having joined us, Nanako placed a finger against David's lips. "Such questions are best not answered, David."
He nodded, comprehending, and said no more.
The threat of the bomb gone, reality came crashing back to me. "Michal, Leigh!"
"I'll check on Leigh," Nanako said, and she darted away.
While I waited for her to return and crawled on my hands and knees over to Michal's prone form, and checked for a pulse again, even though I knew it was futile. His eyes were still open and he hadn't moved at all.
Nanako ran back and knelt beside me. "Leigh's pretty bad, but I think he's going to make it. Shorty, David and two Militia are looking after him," she said. I nodded, despair that we had lost Leigh turning to a sliver of hope. I don't know what I would had done if I had lost both Michal and Leigh.
We heard the approach of screeching sirens and several ambulances drove into the loading dock's yard. Paramedics swarmed out and rushed to treat the many wounded. I was struck by the thought that Hamamachi's peaceful trading centre had been turned into a battlefield. I would never forgive Newhome’s ruling councillors for this, never.
Although Councillor had stopped the militia from shooting us while we were trying to disarm the bomb, once Militia Command found out what had happened, we foragers were whisked away to be questioned - read 'interrogated' - in Militia Headquarters' spartan, bleak interrogation rooms.
Paramedics had treated my wound at the Trade Centre; they washed it, covered it with a sterile gauze pad, wrapped my head in bandages, given me pain killers, and then declared me fit for questioning. The bullet had apparently glanced off my skull, causing a rather painful flesh wound and a lot of blood, but that was all.
The room I had been taken to was small, having two chairs and a flimsy wooden table between them, and a large one-way observation window to my right. My interrogator was a stocky, middle-aged major in the Militia, and behind my chair stood a tall, muscle-bound private, just in case I got violent and out of hand. Yeah, right.
The major thumped his fists on the flimsy wooden table that separated us. "Let's go back to the beginning – why were you trying to destroy Hamamachi, Ethan Jones?"
"As I’ve told you many times, Major, I didn't know about the bomb."
"That is a lie! I put it to you that you and your foragers loaded it onto the trailer, knowing full well what it was, and its intended purpose."
I looked into his scowling, darkly tanned face, and wondered where this conversation was going to go if he wouldn't believe a word I said. "The Custodians loaded the trailer, Major. The G-Wagon and trailer are Custodian vehicles, we had nothing to do with them."
"You claim you didn't know about the bomb, Ethan..."
"I didn't," I snapped back.
"Yet you expect us to believe that you suddenly realised it was in the refrigeration/maturation unit because it seemed too heavy to you?"
"It's the truth – I’m a forager and therefore have a pretty good head for judging the weight of things. That refrigeration/maturation unit clearly weighed over two-hundred kilos."
"Alright, let’s assume for a moment that someone could have noticed the unit was heavier than it should have been. However, in no way would that have tipped them off that there was a thermonuclear device in there. Therefore, I put it to you, Ethan, that you knew the bomb was there all along, and suddenly had a change of heart when the enormity of what you Newhomers were about to do hit you."
"If I'd known the bomb was there before hand, Major, I would have done everything I could have done to stop the Custodians bringing it here. The proof of that is that my foraging team plus Nanako took down three of the Custodians, and that David and I disarmed the bomb," I said wearily, for this wasn't the first time I'd gone through this with him. The mention of my foraging team instantly brought back the painful memories of Michal’s loss. I wanted to go somewhere quiet and mourn his loss, not sit here being interrogated for something I didn’t do.
"Interesting you mention that you disarmed the bomb, for my next point was the matter of you and David knowing exactly how to do so. I put it to you that you knew how because you were Lieutenant King's backup plan in case something went wrong, except your conscience got in the way, didn't it?" the major accused.
"We didn't actually disarm it - we had to dismantle the detonator to stop it going off. If I had been in cahoots with King I would have known the activation/deactivation code, don't you think?" I shot back at him.
"You honestly expect me to believe a couple of school drop-out foragers knew how to dismantle a thermonuclear device? I dont think so!"
The throbbing pain in my head was becoming steadily worse. "Firstly, David and I dropped out of school deliberately because we didn't want our futures mapped out for us by pompous North End officials. Secondly, I have a gift for finding out how things are put together, and David is a genius when it comes to anything technical."
"You've been in Hamamachi before, haven't you, Ethan?" the major said, suddenly changing tack.
"And you joined the Militia and then the Rangers, correct?"
"Yeah, so?" I asked.
"And during your last mission, your fellow Rangers were all mysteriously killed and you were badly injured. From that you apparently developed epilepsy and amnesia, and were consequently taken back to Newhome by your wife to be treated in their hospital," he continued.
"What are you trying to say?" I demanded irritably.
"I put it to you that you are a Custodian spy and were sent here to infiltrate our military, learn everything you could, and then feigned the epilepsy and amnesia so you could be taken back to Newhome without suspicion. And today you came back, bringing with you a weapon with which to destroy us."
My head was throbbing unmercifully, so I put my elbows on the table and rested my head in my hands. "That's the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard, Sir. Perhaps you forgot that my best friend was killed by Lieutenant King? That another friend is in hospital fighting for his life, and that King tried to kill me too."
"Sit up, Ethan," the Major snapped.
"Have you forgotten that I was shot in the head today while trying to stop King detonating the nuke?" I replied, my voice coming out little louder than a whisper.
The major nodded to the private behind me, who reached forward and slammed me back against the chair's backrest. I bit my tongue to keep from crying out in pain.
"Let me break it down for you, Ethan: your entire defence is built upon your claim that you determined there was a nuclear bomb in the Refrigeration/Maturation unit when it was unloaded from the trailer, and immediately asked your wife to warn the Militia on duty. However, as what you claim is impossible, I accuse you of being a Custodian agent. It is on these grounds that you and your foragers will be charged with acts of terrorism and be executed."
I sighed deeply and glanced at the one-way observation window. I wondered who was in there listening to this pointless interrogation. I turned back to the major. "Look Major, you can ask me questions and throw your ridiculous accusations at me all night, but I really, really need to lie down, or I'm going to pass-out. Some more pain killers wouldn't go astray either."
Before the major could respond, he paused and listened to his ear-piece. He nodded, and then turned back to me, scowling. "Looks like you get your wish. Private, escort Mr Jones to his cell and have a doctor administer him more pain killers."
The private nodded and pulled me roughly from my chair by my right arm, sending pain shooting through my chest. I was too sore and tired to walk, but the promise of a bed was so appealing that I somehow found the strength to put one foot in front of the other.
### need to dwell on Michal’s loss
I was woken from a fitful, nightmare-plagued sleep by the sound of the bolt of my cell door being drawn back. Councillor Okada and a Militia private stood there, but before they could speak, Nana pushed her way between them and darted to my side.
“Ethan, are you alright? I can’t believe they haven’t taken you to hospital, considering all you did for them today,” she said as she examined the bandage wrapped around my head. “
I pushed myself up to a sitting position but regretted it instantly as pain stabbed through my head. I took her small hands in mine, and relieved to see that she was unharmed. “That’s not the way they see it, apparently,” I replied.
“You two will have ample opportunities to talk later, but right now you have to get going,” the councillor said as he stepped back from the cell door.
“Where are going?” I asked as I walked from the small concrete walled cell, one arm around my diminutive wife to steady myself. As we stepped into the corridor I saw Shorty and David waiting there. They nodded their heads in greeting, but appeared to be as bewildered as I was.
“Private Kada will drive you to within a couple of kilometres of Newhome,” Councillor Okada explained as we hurried down the prison block’s corridor towards the entrance.
“Why are you doing this, Councillor? Won’t you get in trouble with the other councillors?” I asked.
“All video surveillance has been disabled, and there has been an error with the timing of the shift change over of the prison staff. None of it can be traced to me,” he replied. “Why am I doing this, Ethan? It’s because I know you are innocent of complicity in the Custodian’s plan, and because I owe you my life two times over.”
We left the prison and stepped into the brisk night air. One of the Hamamachi big black 4WD was parked at the curb, its engine idling.
I did not know the time, but guessed it was around 2am. “But what of Leigh? We can’t leave without him,” I protested.
“Leigh is still in critical condition and cannot be moved. And don’t worry about him - I will keep a watch over him.”
“But…” I began.
“Ethan,” Nanako said with a sense of urgency, “Some of the councillors are convinced you three are Custodian spies, and they plan to execute you, Shorty and David, whether you confess or not. So please, get in the car, we have to go.”
Private Kada was already behind the steering wheel, so Shorty, David and Nanako quickly clambered into the vehicle; Shorty in the front and the other two in the back. I hesitated, and reached out to shake Councillor Okada's offered hand. “Thank you, Sir, I won’t forget this."
"Take good care of Nanako, young Ethan," the councillor said softly so that only I could hear him. "She is not as tough as she seems, but in reality, somewhat fragile."
The councillor clearly cared deeply for Nanako, and obviously knew something of her past which I did not. However, this was not the time to try to pry information from him. "You can count on me, Sir," I assured him as I climbed in the vehicle to sit next to my wife, who was sitting in the middle of the back seat.
The Militia driver took off as soon as I closed the door, accelerating to 80-klicks as quickly as he could. I had glanced out the rear window as we set off, and had seen the councillor hurrying towards another car.
"What are we going to tell the Custodians when we get back?" Shorty asked, twisting around in his chair to meet my gaze.
"I’ll work out something."
As darkened houses, buildings, and sheds flashed past my window, I turned to Nanako and took her hands in my own.
"Ethan, do we have to go back to Newhome?" Nanako asked in a whisper. "Can’t we just ask Private Kada to drop us off somewhere else? Somewhere away from all this, violence.”
“We could,” I whispered back, “But if there was even the smallest chance we could find a way to stop our two towns from destroying each other, would you take it?"
“Of course," Nanako replied without hesitation. "I'd do anything to save our families, friends, and all the innocent people caught up in this madness. It's just that I so wanted to live a normal, regular life with you in Newhome, without worried someone was trying to kill you. And I was so looking forward to us painting and redecorating your flat together, to waiting for you to come home from work every day, to making my own clothes, even to going shopping with your mother in the market."
"I'm sure we'll still have time to do those things if we go back to Newhome now, and that's where we need to go if we're going to try to work out a way to end this madness. I want to find out if Hamamachi is behind the Skel attacks, and if so, what is there in Newhome that is such a threat to them that they want to destroy it."
"Okay, let's do it," she agreed emphatically - her expression, however, was deeply troubled.
I put my arm around her and drew her closer to me so that her head was resting on my chest. I looked down into her beautiful round face, and the worry and concern that were etched there.
“We’re going to get through this, okay? And we're going to live that normal life in Newhome that you're looking forward to, without having to worry two towns trying to wipe each other out, or about people trying to kill me. I promise,” I assured her.
She searched my face for a long moment, and then rewarded me with her slightly upside down smile.
We sat there in the darkened interior of the large 4WD as the Militia private drove over the cracked, weathered freeway through an eerie, night time landscape. And as we went, I dreamt of a future not dictated by Custodians, but by ourselves.