HENRY AND THE ESCHATON
‘I’ve got a plan, little babe.’
‘It’s your strong point, Ed. I’m not surprised. Go for it.’
‘Tobias had a way with it, and you’ve managed to travel through it.’
‘I was lucky to get back, too. I break out in a cold sweat just thinking about it.’
‘That isn’t what I have in mind exactly.’
‘It’s not one of those time-paradox thingies is it, like I go back in time and assassinate Hitler as a kid, so we don’t get the Second World War, Nazis, the Holocaust and so on?’
‘No. The idea of you shooting a kid is not something I can conceive of anyway. What I was thinking about was the trick Tobias used to stop time around him. Have you tried to do it?’
‘Er … no. You want me to?’
‘Give it a crack, babe.’
Henry and Ed were in the upper chamber of the keep at Belvoir, looking out over the surrounding woodland. It was late afternoon with the sun approaching the horizon. It would be dark in just an hour or two.
Henry concentrated, but was at a loss. While he had managed directional travel through time, this was an entirely different thing being asked of him. He was supposed to stop time for himself and exist in his own personal bubble of causality, yet he had no idea how Tobias had pulled it off. All he could do was strain to extend his control over his new senses. Maybe he would find some temporal finger-hold to cling on to.
‘You’d think you’re on the loo.’
‘Thanks, that’s really helpful.’
‘Shall I go away and leave you in peace?’
‘No, no. I need you here in case it works. I have this idea of shoving your gun barrel up your butt if I manage to pull it off, so when I restart time you’ll know how successful I was.’
Ed looked slightly panicked at that malicious suggestion. ‘You wouldn’t!’
‘Don’t tempt me.’
‘I’ll shut up.’
‘You do that.’
Henry went over to the window and gazed out on the castle below. He fixed on a very fit commando doing push ups in a corner of the courtyard. The soldier, nice to look at more than anything else, with a broad back and flexing muscles, sent him off into a reverie.
He discovered he had a sense of various objects’ motion through time, but that wasn’t the same as becoming aware of the general drift of time in which he himself was caught. How to accomplish it?
Maybe it was about viewpoint. Henry had been taught by Tobias how to move his consciousness independent of his body. Could that be part of the trick? He opened his field of mental view and found himself rising through the atmosphere over the castle into the darkening Rothenian sky till he felt himself perched high above the earth.
Wow! This was the weirdest. Some trip! He discovered he could project his consciousness farther through the emptiness of space. He began to sense the motion of the solar system, of the neighbouring stellar arm, even of the rotating galaxy. He was alarmed at how suddenly his consciousness extended into star fields and interstellar blackness. He almost panicked. But his mind was searching now for the operating principle behind the whole process. Noticing a flow of motion coming from a distant point, he seized on its direction and paced it. Suddenly he snapped back into the room in the castle of Belvoir with a sense of the expanding universe and how it affected each and every molecule.
Henry laughed. It was so simple, like swimming. Ed looked at him, puzzled. Henry let the stream run past him, no longer floating with it. As he trod time instead of water, everything stopped around him. Down in the yard the hunky commando was arched in the middle of a press-up. A pigeon was suspended in mid-air over the gatehouse. It didn’t take too much effort for Henry to hold his place, though he knew he would eventually get tired.
Smiling, he contemplated carrying out his threat to Ed’s butt. Instead, he took a marker out of his pocket and scrawled HENRY+ED=TRUE! across the whitewashed wall opposite Ed’s frozen face. Then he let go and allowed himself to be swept forward once more with the flow of time.
‘Jesus! You did it! You little marvel!’
‘By the way, I love the message. Isn’t that the same one you scratched on your carrel desk in the sixth-form block back at Medwardine?’
‘Romantic of you to remember. Ah, we were such kids then.’
‘Well that’s Part One of my idea. You want to hear Part Two?’
Ed began his explanation, and soon Henry’s guffaws were echoing down the spiral staircase of the keep.
Dusk fell over northern Rothenia. Sentries with night-vision lenses scanned the environs of Belvoir castle. A Pave Hawk hovering far overhead sent aerial images down to the king’s command centre. But mostly people looked to the small figure in the colonel’s uniform sitting moodily in the corner as the one most likely to give them warning of imminent attack.
‘Anything, Henry?’ Rudi asked for the third time in half an hour.
‘Yes, but nothing I want to hear. As I said before, he’s able to screen a lot of his thoughts and actions from me. Yet he is active. It’s just not in the direction of Belvoir.’
‘Oh … that’s a bit worrying. But we’ve made our dispositions elsewhere and we have to rely on the safeguards we’ve put in place. Still, I’d better do a status check. You and Ed go and walk the perimeter.’
Henry and Ed found Team Ultra sitting together companionably at the section of wall they had volunteered to man. Davey’s camp clowning had subsided and he looked wan. Henry squatted next to him and snuggled up. An arm went round his shoulders to hug him tightly.
‘Fine. How’s you?’
‘Scared, if you must know. What are we facing, Henry?’
‘Nothing we can’t overcome, Davey babe. You’ve got good guys at your back, which is half the trick of victory. Just follow orders and don’t fire till Terry gives the say-so.’
Davey attempted a pale smile. ‘Do colonels call private soldiers “babe”?’
‘Only if they’ve had sex with them.’
‘I’m discovering that going to war with your boyfriend at your side is not an easy thing to do.’
‘What, are you worried about Terry getting hurt alongside you?’
‘Er … not that so much. I just can’t get used to taking orders from Major Terrence O’Brien.’
‘Oh yeah, you’ve got an odd sort of relationship.’
‘More of a corporate alliance.’
‘Don’t do yourself down, Davey. You two are pretty much devoted, or so it seems from my point of view.’
‘No, no! I wasn’t saying that. There’s no problem in the romantic department, or the sexual one either for that matter. It’s more that we demarcate our business interests and domestic spaces pretty carefully. We’re like that. So many days at my pad in Covent Garden, so many at his flat in Docklands, alternating with the parents … though given a choice I’d rather stay with his mum and dad any day. The point is, I have my space and ventures and he has his. Apart from holidays, we operate as an equal partnership. But here, I’m very much in his shadow and under his command.’
‘Which is why you’ve been sending up the whole business so mercilessly.’
Davey looked a little shamefaced. ‘Maybe. I’m sorry if that's the way it came over.’
Henry chuckled. ‘I can forgive anything of the soldier who thought up the idea of the “Ultra Team”. It won’t be for long, Davey. And when the shit starts flying, you’ll be glad Terry’s around to give orders.’
‘Thanks, Henry. I appreciate that.’
Henry passed on, exchanging jokes and chit-chat all along the line. It was what he’d learned to do commanding the Sixteenth Infantry Battalion of the Rothenian National Guard, his own unit. His men needed to see their colonel calm and relaxed, and Team Ultra were no different.
He ended up next to Terry, who was leaning against a column of broken masonry, coolly smoking a cigarette. ‘I can see why so many soldiers are smokers, Colonel babe. With no certainty that you’ll see tomorrow’s sunrise, you don’t give much of a toss about healthy living.’
‘Did Ed discuss his idea for a strategy to deal with the Hellhounds?’
Terry choked on a mouthful of smoke. ‘Oh yeah. I appreciate the military importance of outflanking. And you're sure the Antichrist can’t do the time thing himself?’
‘Yup. For all his power, he’s tied to the circles of this world, unless of course he conquers here at Belvoir. Then who knows if there will be any limits to his ambitions and capabilities.’
‘So all the more important for us to win here, right?’
‘We’re not just fighting for ourselves, and that’s a fact.’
The three boys were crouched over the spear, Damien frowning and Reggie getting frustrated. Only Mattie Oscott was his usual phlegmatic self.
‘We’ve tried everything,’ Reggie groaned as he slumped, ‘or at least everything I can think of: shouting at it, shaking it, spinning it both ways, spitting on it, taking the top off. Nothing!’
Mattie pondered. ‘We could throw it.’
Damien shrugged. ‘Where? They won’t let us out. The place is closed down. Sumfink’s up tonight. Me dad’s got his gun strapped on, the big one with the automatic setting. There’s army troops in the woods.’
Mattie picked the spear up a bit too quickly.
‘Hey! Watch it! Nearly had me eye out.’
Reggie got up too. He was feeling a little odd. Damien noticed and went over to hold his friend. ‘You got one of them attacks coming on?’
Reggie nodded and then put his hand to his face. ‘Nosebleed! Get me a hanky!’
Damien ordered him on to his back as the blood streamed over Reggie’s fingers. Mattie knelt to help, putting the spear beside Reggie and offering a handful of grubby paper tissues.
‘Danks!’ said Reggie nasally.
After a couple of minutes the emergency was over. Reggie struggled to his feet, putting a bloody hand on the spear shaft as he did. The weapon glowed and sparked.
‘Knew yud work it out!’ laughed a naked, horned boy sitting cross-legged on Damien’s bed. The other three whooped with joy. ‘Lance!’
Reggie added with a blush, ‘Can we get you some clothes?’
‘Clothes? Never worn ‘em.’
Damien objected. ‘It’ll be easier dealing wiv adults if you’re dressed. Oh, and lose them horns!’
Lance grinned and complied.
Damien could see the other boy was quite similar to himself in dimensions. He dug into his wardrobe, throwing out jeans, tops, underwear and socks from the vast collection his fathers bought him.
Lance was bemused at underpants, falling over with a giggle when he tried to fit both legs through one hole of a pair of briefs.
Deciding he needed help, Damien took charge of dressing him. The end result was a remarkably handsome youngster wearing the latest GAP fashion. ‘An’ you can use me new Converse low-tops, too!’
‘This is cool!’ Lance admired himself in the mirror. ‘Bit scratchy, though, donchya think? Shoes make my feet feel heavy. Not sure I like it, but I can get used to it, I guess. Can we do play?’
‘Sure. Ever used a PS3?’
‘No. What is it?’
‘Are you in for some fun!’
For the next hour the room was full of laughter and jokes. Lance had a singular capacity for getting on with each and every one of the Mendamero Men, as the episode below the pool had already demonstrated. He engaged Reggie intellectually, and soon had the more stolid Mattie doubled over in stitches. To Damien he was like a twin brother in disposition, yet he neither clashed with Damien nor attempted to rival his natural gifts of leadership. The two seemed mentally attuned. Actually, Reggie had concluded, telepathy was not necessarily out of the question, given what Lance was.
Reggie indeed was increasingly intrigued by Lance. It was not just for his supernatural powers and status. Reggie was becoming more and more aware of other boys’ bodies. He was intensely fascinated by the tight, muscular curves of buttocks, the smooth sheen of skin, and the sensuality of that remarkable piece of equipment hanging between the legs. Lance had the most entrancing face and body he had ever seen.
Though not fully aware of what was happening to himself, Reggie was stumbling into love for the first time. He had sensed the beginnings of such feelings for Damien. Now the idea of Lance absorbed him utterly. He wanted and needed to know more about his new friend. Sitting next to the boy while tutoring him in Death Crash 2008 and half-mesmerised by Lance’s extraordinary scent – like incense burning on a seashore – Reggie began probing for answers. ‘Do you enjoy living in a spear?’
‘I don’t live there, Reggie. They just put me in it for a bit.’
‘Oh y’know … stuff. They give me these jobs no one else will do. It’s why they won’t allow me to grow up.’
‘That’s not fair.’
Lance replied with some heat, ‘S’true! It isn’t! And they won’t let me have friends. But this time I worked it so the job involves kids. Hah!’
‘Why do you have to be a kid? I don’t get it.’
‘Oh, they say that to do what I do and stay sane, I need the “… resilience and clarity of an undeveloped mind”.’ Lance pronounced the last phrase in an exaggerated manner, as if he were quoting an adult.
‘You put up with it?’
‘Do I have a choice? One day they said I’d be given the gift of maturity. But I’ve been waiting so long now.’
‘So what’s this job you’re doing?’
Reggie caught a sudden suspicious glance from his new friend. ‘Can’t say.’
‘But you’re a Mendamero Man.’
When Lance sighed, a quite genuine expression of dispiritedness, Reggie’s heart went out to him the way it had to Damien when he arrived in school as a new boy. ‘Wish I could, Reggie. You guys are so great, my first real friends. But I gotta do my chores. Sides, it is very important. Lots of people depend on me, and one person in particular.’
‘Hmm? You mean Damien?’
‘No. The one I mean is a nice guy who’s suffered the way I have and been cheated. Now I’m gonna put it right for him. He’s what Daimey calls a mate too. And if I do well on this job, I’m thinking maybe I’ll get my reward at last.’
Reggie hugged Lance’s arm spontaneously, then apologised as Lance’s racing car went off the circuit and ploughed into an overpass. But Lance smiled and said he didn’t mind at all. Reggie’s heart fluttered in his chest like a bird trapped in someone’s cupped hands.
Henry was pacing the command centre when the first inkling of trouble reached him. He had been patrolling the surrounding woods with his mind – which was the best way he could explain it to himself – when he was alerted by a sudden blank in his perception.
‘Rudi! Unexplained activity NNW of the castle. Less than five hundred metres. I think the bastard has airlifted an attack force in.’
There was no alarm claxon. Instead, communications sergeants began issuing urgent instructions from the king, who was standing over their console with his arms folded. ‘Get out there, Henry! They need you!’
Henry was off at a run, strapping his helmet on as he went. He checked his magazine for the tenth time that evening.
Not wanting to alert the attackers that they had been detected, Rudi had not powered up the lights, but the troops were readying. The section of the defences exposed to immediate danger was garrisoned by a commando unit which was already using night sights to sweep the area Henry had indicated. That part of the wall, still largely intact, boasted large medieval cannon ports in which heavy machine guns had been mounted.
Henry was asking himself why the Enemy would attack there, rather than on the western side where the walls had mostly tumbled, when his question was partly answered for him. The captain in command of this stretch tapped him on the arm and indicated movement on the fringe of the woodland. Henry could see things like giant upright armadillos toiling slowly but purposefully through the trees.
‘What in heaven’s name …?’.
‘When the time comes, captain, concentrate your fire. I have a feeling they may not be easy to take down.’
The creatures lumbered forward awkwardly, as if they were not used to walking. They seemed careless of observation. Just before they reached the lip of the castle ditch, white parachute flares rocketed into the dark sky to etch the whole surroundings in brilliant light and shadow. Immediately afterwards the arc light flared into life.
Men gasped with shock. The things had grotesque faces under cowls of armour and several limbs ending with formidable pincers. They carried wicked-looking halberds clenched in their upper claws.
The full horror of their appearance was reserved for Henry, who could see in every one of the monsters’ faces a caricature of Gerry Wilmot. He knew it for the Antichrist’s grotesque joke, directed at Mendamero personally.
Orders crackled in helmet radios, and suddenly the night was ripped apart by red tracers from powerful M242 Bushmaster chain guns adapted to fire from the cannon ports. The heavy slugs punched at short range into the things, hurling them down. Amazingly, they scrambled ponderously back on to their feet and moved forward again. It was like the effect of a water cannon on street rioters.
‘Dear God!’ choked a lieutenant. ‘How can we stop the things?’
‘Concentrate fire! Get those RPGs in action!’ Henry commanded.
Suddenly he became aware of Ed and Rudi at his side holding ammunition boxes. Behind them came a detail carrying yet more.
‘Any luck?’ Ed shouted over the racket.
‘Barely making an impact on them. What’ve you got there?’
‘Something we’re not supposed to have. Hey! Look! That was a kill!’
A monster which had lurched to the lip of the ditch stumbled into the crossfire of two M242s just as a rocket-propelled grenade burst behind it. It erupted into gouts of red flesh, bringing forth a cheer in answer to its dying croak.
In the meantime, several others had rolled up like hedgehogs and tumbled down the bank into the forest of stakes waiting for them at the bottom. While they could not be harmed by the stakes, they made heavy weather of trying to push their way through. One or two began slashing at the wood with their halberds.
The king took command. ‘New ammunition, men! This is the last chance to stop them before it’s hand to claw!’
Boxes were broken open and new belts began feeding into the guns. Ed strained to see if there was any effect. When it became clear what was happening in the ditch, he gave a thumbs up. Grinning hugely, he shouted over the appalling noise, ‘Depleted-uranium bullets, babe! They’re designed to destroy the most modern tank armour, and they’re carving the bastards up nicely! Just hope we’ve got enough. We’ve brought the entire national stockpile in these boxes.’
The ditch was now a killing field, the monsters stumbling into a lacerating fire of penetrative ammunition and grenades. The commandos, finally given the means to destroy their adversaries, were doing so with total efficiency.
‘Henry? It’s time!’ Rudi was holding in his hand a heavy canvas bag which he offered to his friend.
‘Yes. This Antichrist is an amateur. He thinks he’s drawn off the defence by his frontal assault, as if we couldn’t anticipate his strategy.’
‘He’s arrogant, Rudi. You can’t learn soldiering from books, as I know all too well.’
‘Then get over to the …’
An appalling human scream came from the east range, shrieking in its agony over the howl of a gigantic wolf pack in full cry.
Lance put down the controller of the PS3.
‘Tired?’ Reggie asked.
‘No, but I gotta go soon.’
‘What? Back in the spear?’
‘Guys, we gotta have some talk. Daimey, I’m a Mendamero Man, aren’t I?’
‘Yuh. You’re our mate. You’re in our gang.’
‘So ya trust me, donchya?’
All three looked at each other and nodded.
‘Okay. Then believe me when I tell ya tonight is gonna be tough for everyone, and there are gonna be things happening you’ll not like. But if you’re brave, it’ll work out, even though it seems really bad. I wasn’t supposed to tell ya all this, but I am your mate, and you gotta know at least that much.’
‘What have we got to do, Lance?’
‘Keep me close by ya, Daimey.’
‘What, like when you’re back in the spear?’
‘That’s right. In a bit you guys are gonna be in the middle of a battle. Put me somewhere close at hand but not visible. Then, when I tell ya, Daimey, strike hard. You’ll know where. Got it?’
‘Er, yuh. I think so. Can’t yer tell us any more, Lance?’
‘Time’s up. See ya. Remember, okay?’ Looking torn between the need to go and his longing to stay, he sadly bowed his head and vanished, empty clothes falling to the floor.
Damien went over to the spear and picked it up, balancing it across the palm of his hand.
‘Whadda we do, Daimey?’ Mattie asked.
‘What Lance said. Where can we put the spear so it ain’t obvious but it’s still ready to use?’
Mattie and Damien looked around. Reggie in the meantime took the opportunity to delve in the pile of discarded clothes. Finding the briefs Lance had worn, he shoved them in his pocket.
Damien decided on placing the spear under one side of his bed, where the PS3 was. He frowned, biting his lip. Something bad was about to happen. Since it was not in his nature to sit on his hands, he ordered Mattie and Reggie to stay put. He was going to scout.
His first thought was for the queen. Stepping out on the landing he looked across to the farther wing. He was immediately alarmed. There was no security man on duty!
Grabbing his mobile from his pocket he speed-dialled his dad. It rang and rang. At last he heard it click. ‘Dad! We got trouble!’
He had barely given the warning before a large hand knocked the phone from his hand and covered his mouth.