Just beyond the orbit of the Earth’s moon, a massive black vessel hung in the darkness of space, its segmented superstructure pulsing with blood-red light as coronas of crimson lightning danced over the giant curved pylons that spread out from its hull. The colossal structures moved in a rhythmic pattern, giving the enormous ship the appearance of something mechanical and yet alive. Somewhere within the vast superstructure, a consciousness quite unlike any other began to stir, sensing that the moment it had so often dreamed about during its long, cold journey was at hand. The moment was coming very soon, the mind trapped within the vessel told itself, a moment for which it had waited an eternity. Soon, the cursed Illuminate would die screaming and take the planet below with them.
The Primarch had arrived.
* * *
Sam ran between the abandoned vehicles, the sharp coldness of the early spring air filling his lungs. In the predawn gloom, the buildings that loomed over him on either side of the street were little more than dark shapes in the mist. Sam began to run faster, pushing himself harder and harder, searching for the limits of his endurance. He felt an unnerving crawling sensation in his legs as the alien nanites deep inside him reconfigured his musculature to match the demands that he was putting on his body. He pulled to a halt. He had been running as fast as he could for the best part of an hour and, while he wasn’t short of breath, he couldn’t get used to the strange feeling in his legs.
“This isn’t going to stop feeling weird anytime soon,” Sam muttered to himself under his breath.
There was no doubt that he was in better physical condition than he had ever been before the Voidborn invasion, but that did not begin to explain the feats of superhuman endurance he now seemed capable of. He had no real comprehension of how he could do these unbelievable things, but he knew exactly what had happened to make him like this. It had been three months since his father, Suran, one of the last survivors of the Illuminate, had died. The Voidborn’s most ancient enemy had, in his final moments, passed something on to Sam, something that Sam still did not properly understand.
He stood there for a moment, listening to the sounds of the city. Just a couple of years ago there would have been a nonstop barrage of noise in this part of London. Now all he could hear was the dawn chorus as the birds that roosted unmolested in the abandoned buildings around him began to stir. It was strange to think that you could actually miss traffic noise, Sam thought to himself. Suddenly, he heard the crunch of gravel underfoot from somewhere behind him. He froze, and listening more carefully, he quickly realized that someone or something was moving nearby. The rest of the audible world seemed to drop away as he slowly turned and focused on the sound, which stopped abruptly, as if in response. He could just make out faint, short, controlled breaths. His heart beat rapidly and his eyes narrowed as he peered into the gloom, trying to spot whoever it was that was following him. He sniffed the air, the lining of his nose tingling as his senses were assaulted by the scents all around him. He sniffed again and a crooked smile slowly spread across his face.
“You can come out, Mag,” Sam said. “I know you’re there.”
A small figure detached itself from the shadows behind one of the vehicles fifty yards away and walked toward him.
“Getting hard to sneak up on you, Riley,” Mag said, pulling her hood back to reveal the long white hair underneath. The skin of her face was unnaturally pale
and a branching network of dark veins ran back from the corners of her jet-black eyes and into her hairline. At the ends of her fingers were inch-long, translucent crystalline talons that she flexed unconsciously as she walked. These strange deformities were relics of her exposure to the alien bioweapon that had been released in Edinburgh and had subsequently given birth to the horrifying hybrid creatures they now knew as the Vore. She was one of a handful of the city’s sleeping inhabitants who had been only partially transformed by the weapon; the rest had not been so lucky.
“Yeah, well, you taught me everything I know,” Sam said with a grin as she approached.
“You do realize there’s no one else around,” Mag said, gesturing toward Sam’s face. “Why don’t you cut yourself some slack and relax for once?”
Sam sighed and then gave a quick nod, his features shifting as his skin turned paper white. Glowing blue lines started spreading back over his skull as his hair disappeared, replaced by a series of bony, crested ridges.
“Now you look a bit more yourself,” Mag said with a smile. “Are you still getting the headaches?”
“No, they’re pretty much gone,” Sam said. “I hardly even need to focus anymore.”
“You’re getting a lot faster too,” Mag replied. “It’s getting to the point where I can’t keep up with you. Do you feel like you’ve got any more control of it?”
“Not really, to be honest,” Sam said, shaking his head. “It just seems to kick in when I need it. If I am controlling it, I don’t know how. I still don’t understand exactly what it was that my dad . . . what Suran did to me. I spend most of my time just wishing I could turn it off.”
“Aye, well, tell me about it,” Mag said. “At least you actually have the option of looking normal.”
“Yeah, you’re right. Sorry, poor me,” Sam said.
“It’s okay. I got used to this eventually,” Mag replied, raising one of her clawed hands. “So will you. At least I’ll never need to pay for a manicure.”
“Guess I’ll be needing fewer trips to the hairdresser too,” Sam said, running his fingers over the ridges on the top of his skull.
“I still think you should tell the others, you know,” Mag said, sitting down on the bonnet of one of the abandoned cars that littered the road.
“Look, we’ve already been over this,” Sam said, with a slightly exasperated sigh. “I’ll tell everyone what’s happened to me when I’m ready.”
It had not actually been his choice to tell Mag about his bizarre transformation. She’d smelled the change on him. He had made her swear a solemn vow not to tell anyone else about it. Since then she had respected his wishes, despite making it very clear that she didn’t agree with his decision.
“If they can see past all this,” she said, gesturing toward
her own face, “and see the person underneath, surely they’ll be able to understand what’s happened to you. They’ll understand that this wasn’t your choice. Perhaps you don’t give them enough credit. I mean, let’s face it: we’ve all seen our fair share of weird over the
past couple of years.”
“I know all that, but . . . they’ve got enough to worry about without me telling them that I’m not even sure if I’m fully human anymore. And do you think they’re going to trust me if they find out that I’ve been hiding what I really am from them?”
“They see you as their leader, Sam,” Mag said, frowning and shaking her head. “You owe them the truth. You might not want to tell them, but it’s going to be a lot worse if they find out some other way.”
“I said I’d tell them when I’m ready!” Sam snapped, before turning and walking away.
“Hey!” Mag said, following him. “I get it, all right? How do you think I felt the first time I looked in a mirror after waking up in Edinburgh? The thing you need to remember is that you have something I didn’t back then, Sam. You have friends. People you can lean on. People who care about you. You talk about trust—well, they already trust you. Now you have to trust them.”
“I know. Look, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bite your head off,” Sam said quietly. “I just don’t know how much more of this I can take. We’ve all lost so much over the past couple of years and for what? We’re no nearer to defeating the Voidborn than we were a year ago, we have way more questions than answers and the price we’ve already paid in blood is too damn high. I’ve watched friends die. I’ve held them as . . .” He paused, taking a deep breath and then looking her straight in the eye. “How can I lead anyone, Mag? How can I ask anyone to follow me when I don’t even know what I am anymore?”
“You’re Sam Riley, that’s all I care about. That’s all your friends care about. That’s all that really matters.”
Sam looked at her for a moment, seeing his own reflection in Mag’s dark eyes.
“You’re right,” he replied with a sigh, nodding.
“Always,” Mag said. “Have you seriously not figured that out yet?”
“Oh, it’s definitely starting to become clearer,” Sam replied, smiling. “Come on, let’s head back to camp.”
“Race?” Mag asked with a grin, not waiting for his reply before she turned and sprinted away down the street.
* * *
“Hey, guys.” Jay put down the welding torch he’d been setting up next to the military four-by-four parked just behind him and waved as he saw Sam and Mag walking across the compound toward him.
“You still wasting your time on that thing?” Mag asked, shaking her head.
“This thing is going to be the sweetest ride in London
by the time I’ve finished with her,” Jay said, patting the hulking vehicle on one of its armored panels. “You’ll see.”
“Didn’t we go over the whole ‘no petrol’ thing?” Sam asked, looking confused. The fuel in the vehicles that still lay scattered around the city had long since decayed to the point of uselessness.
“Yeah, but the Servant’s been helping me out with an alternative power source.” Jay felt under the edge of the bonnet for the release catch before lifting the hood to reveal a glowing Voidborn power unit mounted to the engine block. “So, as you can see, in actual fact this beauty is the only fully working set of wheels in London. You may submit your begging requests for a ride in her in writing.”
“Great, Jay at the wheel of a Voidborn-powered vehicle,” Sam said, a mischievous smile playing across his lips. “What could possibly go wrong?”
“Also, I don’t know if you noticed or not, but the roads are a little . . . congested around here,” Mag said.
“Which is exactly why I need to reinforce her bumper,” Jay said, gesturing to the welding kit.
“Listen, do you think you could give me a hand getting everyone together in the common room?” Sam said. “There’s something I’ve got to tell you.”
“Everything okay?” Jay frowned.
“Yeah . . . no . . . sort of,” Sam replied, looking slightly uncomfortable.
“I knew it,” Jay said. “There’s been something bothering you ever since we got back from Tokyo. I kinda just assumed it was to do with . . .” He glanced over at the wooden crosses that marked the row of graves on the other side of the compound.
“No, it’s something else,” Sam replied. “Something’s happened and . . .” His voice trailed off.
“Come on, man, tell me. What is it? What’s wrong?”
“It’ll be easier if I speak to all of you together,” Sam said.
“Okay, I’ll go round people up, but you’re starting to seriously worry me,” Jay said, his frown deepening.
“I promise I’ll explain everything. I just don’t really want to have to do it more than once.”
“Do you know what this is about?” Jay asked Mag. She glanced at Sam and he gave her a nod.
“Yeah, I do,” Mag said.
“So whatever this is, you could tell Mag but you couldn’t tell me?” Jay asked Sam. “Great, thanks, man.”
“Come on, Jay, it wasn’t like that . . . ,” Mag said.
“Yeah, whatever,” Jay replied, his irritation abundantly clear. “Look, don’t worry about it. I’ll go get the others. See you inside in ten.”
Sam went to follow Jay as he strode away, but Mag stopped him, placing a hand on his shoulder.
“Let him go,” she said. “He’ll understand when you explain what’s happened. They all will.”
“I hope you’re right.” Sam watched Jay march toward the buildings on the other side of the compound. “I’m going to get Stirling. He needs to be there to hear this too.”
“Okay, I’ll see you inside,” Mag said. “Don’t worry, it’s going to be fine.”
Sam walked toward Dr. Stirling’s lab. He glanced up at the two Voidborn Motherships that hovered above the city. The undersides of the enormous circular vessels were occasionally lit up by bright flashes of light as teams of Voidborn Drones worked to repair the damage that had been caused to both ships during their cataclysmic battle over Tokyo just a few months before. Both of these vessels were now under the control of the former Voidborn entity known as the Servant, and she in turn took her orders from Sam. It was strange to think that he, a fairly unremarkable teenage boy before the Voidborn invasion, now had total command of enough firepower to wipe out any of Earth’s once mighty armed forces in a matter of hours. Not that the Voidborn had needed any of that weaponry when they had arrived on Earth. They had simply activated a control signal that instantly reduced people across the planet to nothing more than mindless slaves. Sam and his friends were still no closer to figuring out how to reverse that process and deep down Sam was beginning to doubt that they ever would. Despite the intensity with which they had fought the Voidborn, they all knew their victories amounted to little more than pinpricks as far as the Voidborn fleet that controlled
the rest of the planet was concerned. They may have won a couple of battles, but it felt like they were still a very long way from winning the war.
As Sam approached the entrance to the lab, Dr. Stirling suddenly came dashing through the door with a deep frown on his face. He caught sight of Sam and hurried over to him.
“Sam, I need to speak to the Servant immediately. Could you summon her for me?”
“Of course,” Sam replied. “What’s wrong?”
“It’s probably easier if I just show you,” Stirling said. “Come with me.”
“I was actually just trying to get everyone together,” Sam said. “There’s something I need to tell you all. Can it wait?”
“No,” Stirling said, his frown growing deeper, “I don’t think it can.”
Sam saw something he had never seen in Stirling’s eyes before, something that suddenly made him very nervous indeed.
Stirling headed back inside the lab, beckoning for Sam to follow. Sam gave a silent mental command as he headed into the brightly lit interior and a moment later a shimmering cloud of glowing golden dust appeared in the air beside him. Within seconds, the swirling vortex solidified into the shape of a tall woman with metallic skin and glowing yellow eyes.
“How may I assist you, Illuminate?” the Servant asked, falling into step beside Sam as they both followed Stirling through the lab toward an area of the room that was curtained off.
“It’s Doctor Stirling,” Sam replied as the old man pushed the curtain aside and stepped through into the area beyond. “He needs your help with something.”
“What is the nature of his problem?” the Servant asked calmly.
“I have no idea,” Sam said, heading through the curtains, “but I think we’re about to find out.”
Lying on beds along the far wall were four enslaved humans that had been brought there from one of the countless thousands of buildings around London that now served as dormitories—or perhaps, more accurately, storage facilities—for the dormant masses. They were cared for and fed by the Voidborn under Sam’s control, only rousing from their unconscious state to carry out the bidding of their alien masters. The rest of the time they remained in a comatose state, lying in endless rows, awaiting the next command. Stirling had never stopped working on finding a way to reverse the process and free them from Voidborn control, but he had made no real progress. Whatever it was that the aliens had done to take control of people all over the globe, it was beyond the capacity of human technology to understand it, let alone fix it.
The four enslaved people were secured by waist straps to the beds, and they writhed and twisted slowly and silently, as if in the grasp of some agonizing torture.
“What’s happening to them?” Sam asked Stirling quietly, deeply disturbed by the unsettling way the people in front of him were moving. Their hands clawed at the air above their beds, their backs arching against their restraints and their legs slowly kicking under the sheets, almost as if they were trying to fight off some invisible attacker in slow motion.
“I have no idea,” Stirling said, shaking his head. “It started a few minutes ago. Here, look at their faces.”
Sam moved nearer to the closest victim, a young woman, feeling the hairs on the back of his neck stand up as he looked down at her face. He was met with a gaze of pure, undiluted terror, her mouth fixed in a silent scream. Her wide-open eyes were a perfect jet black.
“Is this happening everywhere?” Sam asked. “Are all the Sleepers like this?”
“That was exactly my question for the Servant,” Stirling replied.
Sam glanced over at the Servant, who stood in silence for a moment before speaking.
“Drone interface complete. This phenomenon is spreading across the city,” the Servant announced. “At current rates the entire human population under my care will be affected within seven minutes.”
Sam suddenly felt a cold pit open up in his stomach as he stared into the woman’s blank eyes.
“Tell me this isn’t the Vore,” Sam said. “Tell me they’re not changing.”
The Servant walked over and placed a hand on the woman’s shoulder.
“I detect no trace of the Illuminate weapon that created the Vore,” the Servant replied.
“You’re sure?” Sam asked. They couldn’t afford to make a mistake. The Vore had completely overrun Edinburgh and only a tiny handful of people had escaped. A single bite from those creatures was enough to spread the infection and start the victim’s inevitable transformation into one of the Vore. If the same thing happened in London . . .
“Yes,” the Servant replied, “though I can offer no explanation as to what is affecting these humans in this way.”
“Whatever it is, we have to assume it is more than an autonomous response,” Stirling said, gesturing over to one of the other beds where a man was lying, clawing at the air. Attached to his scalp was a grid of adhesive pads with wires trailing from them. These wires were plugged into a complicated-looking machine on a trolley.
“I had this patient hooked up to the EEG machine so that I could monitor his brain activity,” Stirling said. He typed something on the keyboard below the monitor and tapped the waveforms that appeared on the screen. “This is the normal activity we saw in the Sleepers until
just a few minutes ago. This is similar to the activity one might see in a coma victim or someone under the effects of a general anesthetic. This,” he said, pulling up another window, “is this man’s current brain activity.” The gentle waves that had been displayed a moment before were gone, replaced by a jagged sawtooth pattern. “This is the sort of activity one would normally associate with a fully conscious person who is experiencing extreme trauma.”
“So they’re awake?” Sam asked, looking down at the man’s agonized expression. There was no hint that he had any awareness of his surroundings.
“Not in the traditional sense,” Stirling replied. “Their brains are experiencing the nearest thing to consciousness that I have seen since the invasion, but exactly what they’re experiencing . . . I have no idea.”
“So this could be happening everywhere?” Sam asked. “I mean, all over the world?”
“I don’t know,” Stirling said. “The Servant lost her connection to the rest of the Voidborn consciousness when you assumed control of the first Mothership. The only way to know for sure is to see for ourselves.”
“Then we should go and take a look,” Sam said. “We need to know if this is a localized attack or part of something bigger. We also need to know if there’s anything we can do to help the Sleepers in the meantime. We may not understand what’s happening to them, but you only have to look at them to see it’s something horrible. Is
there anything you can do right now? Maybe put them back to sleep somehow?”
“I can’t risk sedation,” Stirling replied. “If I try to return them to their previous resting state without knowing what’s happening to them, I risk doing more harm than good. Neurological conditions, as a rule, do not lend themselves to quick fixes, I’m afraid.”
“Okay, do what you can,” Sam said, feeling a creeping sense of dread as he stared at the figures lying on their beds, writhing in silent agony. “We can’t leave them like this, that’s for sure, and I don’t even want to think about what might happen if all seventy million frightened Sleepers woke up at once.”
“Of course,” Stirling replied with a nod. “I will inform you of any progress that I make in my investigations.”
“Stay here and give Doctor Stirling whatever help he needs,” Sam said, turning to the Servant. “I’ll go and fill the others in on the situation.”
“Understood,” the Servant replied.
Sam hurried back through the curtain and out of the lab building, feeling an all-too-familiar sense of frustration at the fact that they were still no closer to comprehending exactly what it was the Voidborn were doing here on Earth. The alien creatures had seemed content to leave London unmolested since Sam had taken control of the first Mothership during an intense battle in the skies above the city. Sam and the others had breathed
a huge sigh of relief, but he still couldn’t shake a nagging feeling that they weren’t so much being avoided as ignored. They had no clue what the alien invaders were doing anywhere else in the world and, truthfully, the Voidborn forces under Sam’s control in London were no match for the fleet of ships their enemy still had stationed across the rest of the planet. Sam knew that they couldn’t afford to lose hope, but there were times when the scale of the task that confronted them seemed too vast to comprehend.
He walked through the doors leading to the accommodation area and followed the corridor beyond to the common room. His friends, the last free humans on Earth—at least as far as they knew—were sitting around the room. Anne and Will sat on one side studying a printed circuit diagram spread out on the table in front of them. Will was looking slightly confused as Anne ran a finger over the drawing and explained something quietly to him. Liz and Nat were on the other side of the room, chatting to each other as they busily cleaned the components of the field-stripped assault rifles that lay on a cloth on the low table in front of them. The two best friends were as inseparable as ever. Jack and Jay were sitting on one of the motley assortment of scavenged sofas arranged in the center of the room. Jack punched Jay gently in the arm and laughed as he finished telling him yet another of his terrible, slightly smutty jokes.
Sam stood for a moment and listened to them talking and laughing with the easy familiarity of people who have been through hell together and lived to tell the tale. It was hard to believe that he had only met them all just over a year ago; now they felt like his brothers and sisters.
“Everyone’s here,” Jay said, standing up and walking toward him.
“Thanks,” Sam said. “Listen, I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you about this before. It’s just . . . well . . . it’s difficult.”
“Ah, don’t worry about it,” Jay said with a crooked smile. “I might have overreacted a bit. I’m just worried about you. At first I thought you were upset about what happened to Rachel. I know how close you were. I loved her too. But that’s not what’s bothering you, is it?”
“I’ll explain everything in a minute, I promise,” Sam said, “but something else is happening that we need to talk about first.”
“Something bad?” Jay asked.
“It’s definitely looking that way. Come on.”
Sam walked over to the middle of the room and waited a few seconds for the others to fall silent.
“Morning, guys,” he said. “I’ve just spoken to Doctor Stirling and—”
Sam stopped and gave a startled gasp, his eyes widening and his head tipping back as he dropped to his knees, his arms going limp at his sides. His mouth flew open and an unearthly howl of agony burst forth. His eyes flared
with a bright blue light that spread like a web, first across his face and then down his neck. The others looked on in horror as Sam tipped forward and fell to the ground face-first. Jay rushed over to him and gently rolled him over. The bright blue light was fading from Sam’s unconscious, vacant eyes. His hair was completely gone, replaced by a pattern of thick cranial ridges covered with glowing blue lines that ran all the way back from the corners of his eyes and over the sides of his pale-skinned skull.
“What the hell is happening?” Will stared down at Sam as the others, still in shock, gathered around their friend’s prone body.
“I’ve got no idea,” Jay said, fear creeping into his voice. “Somebody needs to go and get Stirling, NOW!”
Nat sprinted out of the room as Anne knelt beside Jay and looked into Sam’s eyes. She turned her head to one side and put her cheek just above his open mouth.
“Oh God, he’s not breathing,” she said, her hands flying to Sam’s limp wrist. “I’ve got no pulse either. Will, start compressions.”
Anne placed her mouth over Sam’s as Will pushed Jay aside and dropped to his knees, lacing his fingers together over the center of Sam’s chest. He began to count rhythmically while he pressed down hard on Sam’s sternum. Jay backed away, giving Anne and Will room to work. Of all the people in the room, they were the ones that Stirling had given the most extensive medical training
to; there was nothing Jay could do for Sam right now that they couldn’t do better.
“Still nothing,” Anne said after thirty seconds, an unmistakable note of panic in her voice. “Keep going.”
“Why does he look like that?” Jack asked, staring at Sam with a bewildered expression. “What’s happened to him?”
“Yeah, Mag.” Jay turned toward her, his features twisted. “Any idea why Sam suddenly looks just like one of the Illuminate? Is this what he was going to tell us? Is this the secret you’ve been keeping?”
“Yes,” Mag said quietly. “It happened in Tokyo when we were fighting Talon. He made me promise not to tell anyone.”
Jay thought back to the final battle between them and the insane Illuminate warrior. In the last moments of the fight, something had happened to Sam and he had transformed briefly into the cloud state that the Illuminate could choose to shift into. Jay had asked Sam about it afterward, but Sam had insisted it was just a one-time thing, some strange power his father, the only other living member of the Illuminate race, had passed on to him at the moment of his death. Clearly, whatever it was that Suran had given him, the transfer had been more permanent than Sam had been prepared to admit.
“God damn it, where’s Stirling?” Jay hissed, seeing a panicked glance pass between Anne and Will as they fought to save his best friend’s life.
It wasn’t until nearly a minute later that the doors to the common room flew open and Stirling and Nat sprinted through. Stirling ran over and placed the large plastic case he’d been carrying on the floor next to Sam’s body. His frown deepened as he saw the transformation Sam had undergone.
“Anything?” Stirling asked as he popped the clasps on the case. Anne just shook her head in reply.
“Okay, everyone stand back,” Stirling barked, pulling the defibrillator paddles from the case, which gave a high-pitched whine as the machine began its brief charging cycle.
“Clear!” Stirling yelled as he placed the paddles in what he hoped was the correct position on Sam’s chest. If the physical change he’d undergone had affected his internal organs in any way, there was no guarantee that the shock wouldn’t do more harm than good, but they were fast running out of options. Anne and Will leapt back from Sam, and Stirling pulled the triggers on the handles. Sam’s body jerked, his back arching up off the floor as the machine tried to shock his heart back into its normal rhythm. Anne quickly grabbed Sam’s wrist again while Stirling pulled the paddles clear.
“No pulse,” Anne said, her voice cracking with emotion.
Stirling gave a nod and glanced at the display inside the case, silently willing the machine to recharge more quickly.
“Charging . . . charging . . . charging . . . clear!”
Sam’s body convulsed again.
“Nothing,” Anne said, tears welling up in her eyes as once again she vainly searched for any sign of a pulse.
“Come on, Sam,” Stirling muttered under his breath as the defibrillator ran through its charging cycle yet again. “Not after everything you’ve been through, not like this.”
The charging display lit up.
There was a sudden explosion of blue light and a concussive wave that plunged the room into darkness and blew everything away from Sam’s body, people and furniture flying through the air. Seconds later the room was bright blue, lit by the glow of an energy field that cocooned Sam within a crackling dome. Jay was the first to his feet and he ran back toward Sam, the crackling of the field intensifying as he approached.
“Jacob! No!” Stirling yelled.
Jay was two yards away when a bolt of energy shot from the dome’s surface and struck him squarely in the center of his chest, hurling him backward with a crunch onto the splintered remains of a chair. Mag ran over to where he had landed, being sure to stay a safe distance from the shimmering dome in the center of the room. Jay gave a pained groan as the others began picking themselves up off the ground.
“Are you all right?” Mag asked, squatting beside him.
“That really hurt,” Jay croaked, sitting up. He looked slightly pale but otherwise none the worse for wear.
“Is everyone else okay?” Stirling yelled as the others slowly got to their feet. They all appeared to be relatively unharmed, barring some scratches and bruises. Stirling cautiously approached the humming energy field, listening carefully as, once again, the crackling sound started to rise in pitch.
“Right, so that’s near enough, is it?” Stirling muttered to himself, before turning and addressing the others. “Nobody get any closer to this thing. You all saw what happened to Jacob.”
Stirling peered through the translucent surface of the glowing bubble. He watched for several long seconds and was finally relieved to see Sam’s chest rise just a fraction and then fall again. His breathing was shallow, but at least he was breathing.
“What is that thing?” Jack asked, his face lit up by the glow from the field.
Without warning, the Servant appeared from thin air, her body simply materializing from within a swirling golden cloud of Voidborn nanites. She walked toward the field and it discharged again, sending a bright blue arc lancing between the surface of the glowing dome and her chest. The Servant continued to advance, the coruscating beam of energy dancing across her torso as she placed a single hand on the field, apparently
unconcerned by the assault. A few seconds later she removed her hand from the field and walked back toward Stirling.
“Please do not approach me,” the Servant said calmly. “The outer shell of this configuration is currently at a temperature of seven hundred and forty-nine kelvin.”
She was standing several yards away from him, but Stirling could indeed feel the heat radiating off her body.
“I detected a surge of unprecedented power with an unknown quantum signature,” the Servant said. “The energy field currently surrounding the Illuminate would appear to be responsible.”
The Servant had referred to Sam as the Illuminate since they had first encountered her, but this was the first time that the name appeared to be a true match for his physical form.
“Unknown signature?” Stirling asked, frowning. “So this isn’t something created by Illuminate technology?”
“I no longer have access to any of the Voidborn data archives on Illuminate technology. I cannot tell you whether this is a phenomenon that the Voidborn encountered prior to the point at which I was severed from their collective consciousness.”
“In other words, you have no idea,” Anne said, staring at the glowing bubble.
“That is correct,” the Servant replied. “I do know that none of the technology on board either of the vessels
under the Illuminate’s control is capable of breaching a force field of this power.”
“So we’re not getting in there anytime soon,” Jay said. “There’s something I need you to tell me: do you know what happened to Sam in Tokyo too? Why he looks that way?”
“I am forbidden from discussing that subject with you,” the Servant replied.
“Forbidden?” Jack said. “Forbidden by who exactly?”
“The Illuminate,” the Servant replied calmly.
“There’s no point trying to get anything out of you, then,” Jay said, as he stood up with a wary glance at the crackling energy field surrounding his friend. He turned and pointed at Mag. “So it looks like it’s up to you to fill us in.”
“Look, I don’t know much more than you do,” Mag said, holding her hands up in front of herself defensively. “I knew something had happened to him in Tokyo. I could smell it on him. It’s hard to explain really, but I knew that something was different about him.”
“She’s right, Jay,” Nat said. “We all saw it. Sam wasn’t the same when he came back from Japan. He didn’t talk to anyone as much as he used to and he started spending a lot more time on his own. I just put it down to what happened to Rachel and finding out the truth about his dad, but . . . well . . . looks like there might have been a bit more to it than that.”
“Well, we all knew he had absorbed some of the
Illuminate abilities from his father in Tokyo,” Stirling said. “He told us that was ultimately how he was able to defeat Talon, but he insisted he had lost all access to those abilities as soon as that fight was won. I gave him a thorough physical examination when he returned and he appeared completely normal. It’s starting to look like he may have retained access to those abilities after all.”
“I ended up following him when he left the compound a couple of weeks ago,” Mag said. “He told me he was going out on a scouting run to check on a couple of the Sleeper dormitories on the other side of the river, but I could tell he was lying. I was worried about him, so I followed him to a warehouse a few miles away and caught him without his mask on, so to speak. He made me promise not to tell anyone. He didn’t understand what was happening to him and he was scared about how you might all react if you saw him like this.” She waved a hand toward the energy bubble. “I know what it’s like to feel like that, so I agreed. He knew he couldn’t keep it a secret from you guys forever; in fact, he was about to tell all of you about what had happened to him. That’s why he wanted to get everyone together, but then this thing with the Doc, whatever it was, came up and he never got the chance.”
“You should have told us,” Jay said angrily, “both of you. I don’t like being lied to, especially by people I thought I could trust. We might have been able to help
him, to stop this from happening if we’d known, but now it’s too late, isn’t it?”
“I told him that,” Mag replied. “I didn’t make the decision not to tell anyone, so don’t make this my fault.”
“Well, I don’t see anyone else to blame around here,” Jay said with a nasty edge in his voice. “Unless there is someone else who’s responsible and you’ve decided to keep it a secret from us. Who knows?”
“That’s not fair!” Mag snapped back. “Maybe you should ask yourself why he decided not to tell you if you’re such a good friend to him.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“Stop it, both of you!” Liz said. “This isn’t helping anyone.”
“Elizabeth is quite right,” Stirling said calmly. “You can argue about the rights and wrongs of the situation later. Our priority now is to understand what has happened to Sam. It seems more than coincidental that this should have occurred at the same time as the Sleepers becoming so agitated.”
“Agitated?” Jay said. “What do you mean?”
“Are they waking up?” Liz asked, sounding surprised.
“No, it’s more complicated than that,” Stirling said. “It’ll be easier to show you all than explain, but we’ll get to that shortly. Let’s deal with Sam first.”
“Damn right,” Jay said. “We can worry about the Sleepers later.”
“I agree,” Liz said. “We can’t leave Sam like this. We’ve got no idea what’s happening to him in there. We have to help him before . . .” Her voice trailed off as she stared nervously at the humming energy bubble that surrounded their friend.
Stirling looked down at the unconscious boy trapped inside the blue force field. His face was still recognizable as the young man he had come to know and respect over the past couple of years, but there was no way of knowing if the person inside the body would be the same. Mag was right: he had been more withdrawn over the past couple of months, but Stirling had just put that down to posttraumatic stress, an understandable consequence of the desperate final battle with the Illuminate warrior Talon. Now he had to consider the possibility that there might be more sinister reasons for Sam’s behavior. Was Sam still really Sam at all?
“Clearly we can’t move him,” Stirling said, “so the best we can do for now is monitor him in situ and hope that his condition doesn’t worsen.”
“And if it does?” Anne asked.
Stirling glanced in her direction. The look on his face was the only answer she needed.