Crouching on his haunches, with his spear resting on his knees the old bushman did not see the three gaunt hyenas padding around him, or the shimmering haze that marked the joining of the land and sky. He did not hear the wind rustling the long grass or the distant cries of the bustards flying overhead. He did not see or hear these things because his body was as empty of life as a corpse.
The Masai called it Ukomo Mlango, the Death Sense, and it was a magic of the deepest kind that only he, of all his ancient people, could perform. Although his body was now rigid and uninhabited, his mind had ranged from the heights of the Muhale Mountains through the Ngorongoro crater and up to Mount Kilimanjaro. He had flown high as an eagle and raced across the wide plains as an impala, and now his spirit was floating along with the wind, resting inside the candle-flicker mind of a butterfly.
He usually enjoyed Travelling with insects because their minds were uncluttered and simple; there was usually enough room to relax and watch the world fluttering or buzzing by. Today, however, there was something subtly different about the Weave of the world and he was troubled.
He picked out a twinkling thought strand and stirred it around, trying to distil the impurity from the thought. Symbols bloomed over the disturbance, which he scrutinised, just as a scientist would peer over an experiment. He ignored the crude glaze of industrial pollution and found, within an emotion that no human language can define, the infection.
It was barely the seed of an idea, as fleeting as the half remembered face in a passing crowd, but the old bushman knew that ultimately it would blossom into an unnatural delirium. He performed this working again and again, and his hope that somehow he had made a mistake dwindled to nothing.
Grimly he pushed into the centre of the swirling galaxy of thoughts and felt himself taking the form of the butterfly. There was a moment of tumbling confusion before he felt the air rushing over his delicate wings. He fluttered down to the river and followed its long, winding course back to where the hyenas were guarding his body.
The butterfly flew on to the old bushman’s nose and his eyes flickered open. He drew a deep ragged breath which startled the hyenas and they scampered away. Then, after looking back over their shoulders at the man struggling to his feet, they melted into the grass.
Amongst the shouting chaos on the top deck of the school bus Joshua Bennett sat hunched over his precious notebook. He was drawing an intricate pattern on the cover which mirrored the beads of rain chasing each other down the window beside him. When he was satisfied with his doodle he flicked through the book, found the first blank page and began to write.
Over the past few years he had developed a code. To begin with it had been for secrecy, to stop his sister from making fun of his poems and stories, but these days he found it often allowed him to describe things that words couldn’t quite express. Even now, as he jotted down the mundane events of a typical Wednesday at school, his invented language conveyed far more than the mere facts.
For instance, he didn’t need to draw any extra symbols to express how he felt about doing so well in the school cross-country competition because every nuance of his satisfied pleasure was implied exactly by the ones he had used to describe the race itself. Every other event from the day was tinged with this effortless depth of meaning and the final line was almost alive with delight as he noted that he had not seen Christopher Crumb all day.
The bus swung around a corner and he flinched as the thin branches of a tree rattled and scraped against his window. He pulled himself to his feet, swung his bag over one shoulder and bumped his way down the stairs.
The driver jerked the bus to a stop and Josh splashed out into the rain. Now that he was walking his legs felt stiff from the cross-country and a sudden gust of wind blew his hood down. Rain immediately soaked his hair and face so there was no point in pulling it back up, but he smiled to himself, despite all his damp aches, as he thought of the steaming mug of tea he would make for himself when he got home.
A sudden ache of guilt caught at his cheeriness. A year ago he had never smiled while walking from the bus stop to his house. Every journey had been so dreadful that Josh had often found himself hardly able to breathe until he got home and established that his mum had survived another day. He knew his dad would have contacted him at school if the cancer had stolen its final prize, but that had never lessened the sickening anticipation that had grown with every step as he got closer to home.
When she finally did pass away, his dad had met him at the gate and Josh had known instantly what had happened. He’d dropped his school bag and staggered along the final few yards of the pavement. His dad had wrapped his arms around him and clenched him to his chest, jerking slightly every time he sobbed.
“She wouldn’t have wanted us to be unhappy.” His dad’s voice had been thick with grief, but the words had comforted Josh because he had known they were true.
Now, as he walked home in the rain, these memories extinguished the last of his good mood and he mumbled his dad’s words over and over again, chanting them in a futile attempt to shake off his sudden gloom.
He didn’t notice the three dark shadows creeping up behind him until his hood was wrenched violently backwards, making him fall onto the wet pavement. His coat slipped up over his head and he ended up on the ground with his shirt soaked through and clinging to his skin.
“Gotcha,” said the voice that Josh feared and loathed more than any other in the world. “Are you getting wet?” The voice was quite soft and nasal, but the body it emerged from was an enormous, hulking thing that loomed over Josh.
“Yeah… Are you getting wet, eh?” Someone, either Lee Manners or Carl Black, chuckled nastily. Josh tightened his grip on his bag, desperately hoping that Crumb wouldn’t find his notebook.
Josh remained silent and eyed his coat. He wondered if he could grab it and run away before the swaggering bully realised, but it was pointless because one of the lurking shapes behind him would catch him and then things would just get even worse.
As if reading Josh’s mind, Crumb took a step back and started to rifle through the pockets of the coat.
“Give it back!” Josh’s outburst was involuntary and without thinking he struggled to stand up. Someone was too quick and he was roughly thrown to the ground again. Crumb didn’t even seem to have noticed.
“What do we have here? A phone?”
“Don’t!” Josh’s eyes were blurry with the rain or tears.
“Don’t what? I’ll just borrow this if you don’t mind.” Crumb threw Josh’s coat back at him and walked away engrossed in his spoils. Lee and Carl laughed viciously and followed.
The warm, dull aches from the cross country now felt like shivering coldness and his Adam’s apple stung where the zip of his coat had cut into his skin. He stood up wearily and shook the water off his bag. He tried to unzip his coat to put it back on, but his fingers were too cold and didn’t seem to work properly. So he pulled it over his head and wriggled into it like a jumper. It was wetter than he was and he shuddered as water dribbled down his back.
“Josh? Josh! Are you all right? You look awful.”
Katrina Sandler appeared around the corner. Her heavy gothic makeup was meant to make her look tough and unapproachable, but Josh saw beneath the mask and found a friend.
“Oh, Kat. Hello. I…” Even though he felt so rotten, he could feel his face redden with embarrassment. Although they had grown up together, he had started to feel peculiarly tongue-tied whenever he saw her.
Kat shook her head sympathetically. “Someone’s got to teach him a lesson. Come on, let’s get out of this rain.”
Some of Josh’s good feeling returned as Kat linked her arm with his and they walked in companionable silence. The familiar peachy scent of Kat’s perfume made him feel even better, and the hopeless anger and shame began to loosen their grip on his stomach.
Kat smiled at him when they arrived at the driveway to her house.
“Well, I’ll see you later. Don’t let that fat jerk bother you.”
“No. I won’t. I’ll be okay.”
“Do you want to come in for a cup of something? You’ll be able to warm up and get dry. There’s no one in yet at your house, is there?”
“Ha. I’m not asking you for a date!”
Josh flushed from his scalp to his toes. He thought he could feel his embarrassed heat making his damp clothes steam. “No, I’d better go. I’ve got to feed the cat.”
Kat raised a pencilled eyebrow and smiled.
“Okay then… See you later, Josh. Take care.”
“Yeah. And you.”
Josh stood in the rain and watched as Kat went inside.
Josh’s house was a huge, sprawling building called ‘The Rectory’. He thought it was a great house to live in because it had narrow passageways and tiny box rooms where he could hide for long afternoons with a book. He loved the solitude that allowed him to really lose himself in a story, either woven from a novel or his own imagination. His favourite room, of course, contained only an enormous wardrobe.
The house had a large garden that was sunny and green in the summer and dark and mysterious in the winter. Josh loved it both ways, but sometimes in the winter it could be rather forbidding. Tonight, in the gloaming, the garden had taken on its most fearsome aspect.
Josh hurried up the path and was just turning to go around the side of the house when he heard something behind him. A privet hedge had been allowed to grow high and rampant along the side of the garden path, and there was a definite rustling within it that made Josh quicken his step.
There was nothing frightening there, he told himself. It was just a bird or a squirrel. Or, an unbidden and unshakeable thought suggested, perhaps it was something shaggy and ravenous that preferred to live in the shadows.
The hedge grew very close to the house at the side, and it had turned the approach to the backdoor into a dark tunnel. Josh paused for a second at the entrance and peered back into the hedge.
He needed no more prompting. He ran to the door and fumbled with his key, forcing it into the lock and twisting his cold, wet fingers around it.
The rustling was closer.
The key turned.
He fell into the house, slammed the door shut, shot the bottom bolt of the door and collapsed.
Josh lay still, straining to hear anything above his laboured breathing and it suddenly occurred to him that it was probably Christopher Crumb tormenting him again. While he had been outside he had imagined nothing less than a glisten-eyed monster slavering for his blood, but in the fluorescent light of the kitchen his terrible imaginings lost some of their power.
“Who’s there?” Josh’s voice cracked slightly. Was there something snuffling at the bottom of the door?
Josh got carefully to his feet, and a ripple of fear trickled through him as he saw the dark reflective windows of the kitchen. He couldn’t see anything out of them, but he knew that things outside would be able to see him. He remembered a horror movie in which someone had thrown open some curtains only to see a werewolf standing directly at the window.
“Stop it, Josh,” he said aloud and was dismayed to hear his voice sounded rather feeble in the big room.
He dumped his schoolbag on the table and hastened out of the kitchen to find the cat.
After a few minutes of searching, Josh had forgotten about the werewolf or whatever it was, and his fear had been replaced by frustration and annoyance. Feynman, the cat, was nowhere to be found. He had looked in all the usual places and was beginning to think that the stupid cat might be outside, probably making rustling noises in the hedge.
He unbolted the back door and pulled it open.
Standing before him, both of them wet and bedraggled were two things. One was Feynman, the cat, who padded in slowly as Josh opened the door. The other made Josh jump back in surprise. It was a combination of seeing something he had not expected to see and not expecting to see something so strange.
Through a bird’s nest of a beard and cartoon-clown hair Josh could just about make out a man’s face.
“Good evening, Joshua Bennett!” The apparition boomed.
Josh managed a tiny mewling sound.
“I do apologise for my appearance, but I have been living for a long time in a manner I’m not used to, I’m afraid. It has taken me considerable time to work out how all this works.” He performed a manic dance, apparently showing off the control he had over his arms and legs .
“How… how do you know my name?”
“I know everything about you.” The tramp said matter-of-factly. His loud but lucid voice was at odds with his appearance. He was dressed in the remains of a tuxedo, and on his feet wore shoes that he had obviously fashioned himself from newspaper and twigs. Perched on top of his matted hair was a sodden handkerchief.
“How? Who are you?” Josh wanted to shut the door, but Feynman was slithering about the tramp’s ankles. This was odd in itself as the cat normally only used humans to sharpen his claws. For a moment Josh thought he could hear a purring voice inside his head gently cajoling and coaxing him like a hypnotist. He tried to concentrate on that inner voice, but the words slipped away without being heard.
“My name is Trevor Lewis Oakhampton, I think. Pleased to make your acquaintance, Joshua Bennett.” He stuck out a grimy hand for Josh to shake. “That’s right isn’t it? That’s the way you greet each other for the first time?” He grinned earnestly.
Joshua nodded and carefully shook the proffered hand. There was so much eager sincerity in what he could see of the unfortunate man’s face that Josh wanted to invite him inside and out of the pouring rain. He was too sensible to do that, however, so he reached behind the door and offered the tramp his sister’s pink umbrella.
“Well, thank you very much.” Trevor looked momentarily perplexed, but carefully accepted the umbrella and examined it minutely. Suddenly, as if struck by a flash of inspiration, he extravagantly lofted it over his head, but completely failed to open it.
“But…” Josh couldn’t work out how to explain about the umbrella and gave up.
Neither of them spoke while Trevor crouched to stroke Feynman and Josh got more uncomfortable as he tried to think of something to say. He began to wonder what his dad would say if he got home to find his house besieged by this unkempt visitor.
“I’ve come to talk to you about the plight of the Earth and your place in her future.” Trevor said suddenly, straightening up again.
“Really? What can I do?” Josh asked with the dawning realisation that this man was obviously a new-age eco-warrior campaigning for the abolishment of roads or something.
“You can do an awful lot. You’re very special. There is an imbalance in the Weave and as you are the successor to the Shramanah, it is your responsibility to set things straight.”
“Shra-man-ah.” He said exaggerating each syllable, as if that would help. “It doesn’t matter that you don’t understand at the moment. In fact it’s probably for the best. This meeting is just to speed up the building of the initial bridge to your world and I did that when I touched you.”
Josh stared at his hand and even though it didn’t look or feel different, he discretely wiped it on his side. He wondered why he didn’t feel threatened by the unravelled lunacy that he was being subjected to. The purring in his mind returned for a second, distracting him from his worry.
“Are you sure you’ve got the right person?”
“Of course.” The answer was final and certain.
“But I really don’t know what you’re talking about. What is this Shramanah thing?”
“Yes, okay, but what does that mean?”
“You will find out soon. Now is not the time for explanations. Exciting times lie ahead for you, young male Homo Sapient, and you will be tested.”
“There are many to be healed and introduced back into the embrace of Gaia. And you need to become whole once more.”
“Wait a minute. What’s Gaia?”
“You will see soon enough. For now I suggest that you feed the cat. He is very hungry.” Feynman was glaring at Josh, and the mental purring had started to take on an accusing tone.
“I was going to. I was just looking for him.”
The tramp pulled his handkerchief off his head and wiped the rain from his face. “Good, then. Well, that’s all I wanted to tell you. When we meet in my world I will explain more. Good day, Joshua Bennett.”
He smiled an all too brilliant smile, replaced his handkerchief and walked off down the path.
After the tramp had gone Josh glanced at the kitchen clock to find that it was nearly half past six. His dad would be home at seven and he hadn’t fed the cat or done any of the other jobs that he was supposed to.
“Feynman!” Where had the cat gone now? He remembered her coming in and wandering out of the kitchen, so he followed his train of thought into the hallway and stopped dead still.
The door to his dad’s study was completely out of character with the rest of the house. Although it was covered with the same dark panelled wood as the other doors, it had a surround of grey steel and an electronic keypad at the side. Josh had never been allowed inside, but now the door was slightly ajar and light spilled out through the cat-sized crack. Josh was sure it had been closed when he had been in the hallway five minutes ago. He tiptoed to the door and, after telling himself he was just looking for the cat, he peered into the forbidden.
He had often wondered what his dad had hidden away and his imagination had never failed to provide something spectacular. So he was slightly disappointed with what he saw. Down a short flight of stairs, banks and banks of computer screens poured their digital fluorescence into the study, which was twice the size of the living room. Some of the screens presented lines of green code scrolling up and down apparently at random; others contained complex three-dimensional diagrams or architectural drawings. But the screen that attracted Josh’s attention above all the others stood on his father’s desk, alone.
He remembered a painting he had once seen that he thought was called ‘The Scream’, or something like that, and the kaleidoscopic image on this central monitor reminded him of that painting. There was a desperation to the swirling pixels that mesmerised Josh and before he really knew what he was doing he had gone down the stairs and across the study to stare into the screen.
He could make out familiar symbols revolving around the central agonised face. Symbols that flowed from shape to shape; symbols that Josh recognised because they were all from his own secret code language.
Without knowing why Josh reached out gingerly and touched two of the ephemeral symbols and they solidified with a glow and dropped to the bottom of the screen. The other symbols pulsed a deep crimson and changed their meaning.
Who is there?
Josh did not know exactly how he was communicating, but it was clear in his mind. He selected some symbols to indicate that he was a friend.
At last. I need your help, friend, for I am a prisoner.
“Of my father’s?”
Who is your father?
I do not know your names for people. Do you know what he does?
“Not really. He’s an engineer for a computer software company.”
Then I think that your father is one of those who are trying to help me, but he does not understand like you do. None of them do. I have been trying to communicate with these people for nearly a year and although their technology is advancing more rapidly than I thought possible, their understanding is not. You must be very special, Josh.
“Who are you?”
Your father thinks I am called Geigerzalion. I do not know my true name.
“Have you been a prisoner for so long that you’ve forgotten?”
When I said I was a prisoner, I did not mean it in the sense that I am imprisoned by anyone. No, I am more of a castaway than anything else. And I sense that I have been so for eons.
“A castaway? Where?”
I do not know. I feel as though I am in a cold, cold place, but I have no memory of how I got here or for how long I have been here.
“Then how are you communicating with me?”
There are some threads of light where I am. I can travel along these threads and sometimes they lead to windows to your world.
“Where is your world?”
I have little time. My powers are weak and it drains me to communicate in this way.
Josh realised that this communication was taking its toll on him as well. Sweat dribbled down his temples and his forehead was furrowed with concentration. He had a fleeting feeling that there were many levels of meaning in this conversation and he was only consciously processing one of them.
Please, will you tell your father you can speak with me?
“I’m not supposed to be in here. If I tell him…”
You will not be in trouble, Josh. Your father will be overjoyed that you have made such a contribution to his work. He will reward you. As will I.
Josh’s eyes blurred a little and a moment of dizziness unsettled him. Thinking had become difficult, and something told him he shouldn’t be in the study. The symbols glowed a bright scarlet and started to spasm all over the screen.
He backed away from the desk.
“I’m…I’m sorry.” He muttered, but the symbols didn’t change. The tormented face now looked more desperate and Josh stumbled back further, and then fled.
He ran up the stairs and into the hallway slamming the study door shut behind him.
Nothing else unusual happened before he went to bed that evening. Josh had just finished feeding the cat when his sister, Jackie, came home, followed almost immediately by his dad.
It was Josh’s turn to cook tea, which they ate around the kitchen table. His dad, as usual, tried to strike up a conversation, which was pointless because Jackie could never be bothered to speak to her dad unless she wanted money or a lift somewhere, and Josh was too involved in his own thoughts.
“I do so like these little chats we have in the evenings. Well. I thought I’d sell the house and go and live in Brazil.”
“Where I’ll be able to sell my children into slavery and live off the proceeds. Is that okay?”
“Well, that’s settled then.”
After tea his dad fell asleep in front of the telly and underneath the newspaper while Josh and Jackie washed the dishes without saying a single word to each other. Then, after Josh had checked all the doors and windows were locked and made sure his dad hadn’t fallen asleep with a full mug of tea in his hand, he wandered off to bed.
He spent an hour or so writing the events in his notebook as accurately as he could remember them, but for once his code seemed to fail him. Now he had seen the symbols in motion he realised that there was something missing from his static page-bound scribblings.
A hollow excitement kept him awake as he lay in bed and he began to wonder if someone was playing an elaborate trick on him. It was certainly Toby’s style and the more he thought about it the more the idea made sense. Toby was really awesome with computers and could probably have hacked into his dad’s study. And maybe he had caught a glimpse of some of Josh’s notebooks.
He thought about ringing his friend and looked at his clock. It glowed red in the darkness and he sighed gloomily as the time changed to one o’clock. He would be really tired in the morning. Then the clock flicked off completely for a couple of seconds and came back on showing letters instead of numbers. It read “H:AV” instead of “1:00”.
Josh stared at the letters and rubbed his eyes.
The clock changed again, this time it showed “E:YO”, then “U:TO”, then “L:DY”, “O:UR”, “F:AT” and “H:ER”. These repeated over and over.
After a few minutes the clock reverted back to showing the normal time and Josh screwed his eyes shut and tried valiantly to get to sleep.