Seven digital years prior...
They called it the Echo Quadrant. Close to Yggdrasil’s roots it lay, isolated and inaccessible to all but the most powerful and determined of forces. Around its borders lay harsh drops into who knows where, and terrible jetstreams of data, swirling and disorientating any who would dare step in their way.
Yet within, life went on as normal. Digimon lived and Digimon died as Digimon do. They had no reason to escape their little pocket world within a world, nor to yearn for more. Around the edges of this pocket world, the earth itself swelled and rippled, sending up huge pillars and walls that shifted constantly.
And on that day, on the highest and harshest of these pillars, from the centre of the great spiralling structure, came the roar.
It was a roar of pain, and it resonated throughout the keep; raw, visceral, and harsh. It rumbled through the ground, and was carried by the wind across the shifting stones, and was heard for miles around, causing the village residents from all around the quadrant to stop, frown, and wonder which hapless individual had been caught by the Nightmare Soldiers this time.
The keep itself was thrown into disarray; administrators and secretaries, all running around, trying to find the source. They rushed to the front entrance, rear entrance, and all the surrounding area in an attempt to find and destroy the intruder.
In all the chaos, it was an intern who reached Dallurmon’s office first. She was a pale Falcomon; ruff-necked, thick-footed and with a notch in her beak. She entered the room, and went on through, forgetting the proper etiquette in her panic.
She looked down, and froze. Blood. A pool of it, blue like ink, and seeping outwards, from behind the mercuric pool, and near the mirrored door at the end of the office.
Dallurmon was hunched over on his knees, letting out terrifying gasps and rocking back and forth, as blood poured from the stump where his right arm had been. It was laid out on the ground, still twitching, and still gripping a long, twisted pipe, which was humming slightly, the engravings on the metal faintly glowing.
“My lord! No!”
Falcomon rushed forwards, her feathered claws at her mouth. “We need to get you to safety! To...to the medics! They will-“
The Digimon raised his voice, spitting blood. “CLOSE THE DOOR!”
Falcomon jumped, but complied, pushing the heavy metal door backwards. The sounds of commotion above and below were blocked out, and the two of them were left in silence, save for the sound of Dallurmon’s ragged breathing. The blood was still spreading, already staining the marbled floor. Falcomon clenched her talons. “Lord Dallurmon...what happened?”
“Not...important...” Dallurmon gritted his teeth, and moved his left arm away from beneath his bloodstained cloak. A sword clattered to the ground, and he kicked it away, before backing up against a wall, his breathing growing more wretched.
Falcomon took a step, but he raised his palm, shaking his head. “No...no...”
He swallowed. “Child...can I trust you...?”
She nodded, standing stock-still. Dallurmon exhaled, and pointed, and her eyes followed his gesture to the arm still twitching on the floor.
“Take it. Take it away, and be rid of it. Hide it. Bury it. Toss it into the sea. I must not see it again for as long as I live.”
Falcomon shook her head. “I don’t understand...you can’t mean, your divine right hand-“
“I do! Of course I do! You must get rid of it!” Dallurmon stared up at the ceiling, his tattoos glowing a deep crimson. “I have had a vision. That infernal device will bring about the end of this world. I should have seen it, but it blinded me. It must be lost, far away.” He pulled off his cloak, reached forward and thrust it into Falcomon’s grasp. “Take it! Now! Before it blinds me again. Go through the window. Get out of here.”
The appendage was still now. Falcomon ground her beak, ran forwards and scooped it up in her wings, smothering it in the cloth. She looked back, to where Dallurmon was sat back, his head tilted.
“It’ll be okay, my lord. I promise.”
With the bloodstained cloak tied around her neck, she flung herself from the parapet, gliding roughly but slowly down the thermals beyond. Dallurmon watched as she went, feeling the stump of his right arm still pumping blue blood.
“It will destroy this world...it will bring about the end...the end by my hand...”
There was a banging at the door; shifting it, ever so slightly, and slowly. Dallurmon smiled. As the great metal door burst open and his servants finally made their way inside, he slipped into blissful unconsciousness.
April 20th, 1954
She stood by the bus stop as cars rushed past from both directions, throwing grit up in her direction, much to her disgust. She stayed well back, looking left and right and holding her elbows as her feet pattered against the ground.
She was alone at the bus stop, nicely dressed up although she had no idea why. She was tall for her age, with a round face and chestnut brown hair rigged up in a high ponytail, and oblong glasses which kept falling down her nose. She wore a yellow shirt and a sleeveless vest over the top, covered in red and white diamonds. Her feet danced upon the pavement in neat red shoes and knee-length socks, and around her wrist she wore a golden friendship bracelet with a bright pink heart. A bracelet from a friend who, as far as it seemed, was decidedly absent.
This was ridiculous. She didn’t know why she’d let herself be talked into this, but in the end her curiosity had won out. Besides, anything to get away from those dreaded aunts waiting for her back home. And, she reminded herself, she had integrity. She’d promised to be here and she would be here. Even if her friend was ridiculously late.
“Lizzie! You lovely person!”
Lizzie Taylor turned and found herself embraced in the gallootish hug of her best friend Yvonne. The first girl squirmed, waving her hands uncomfortably. “You’re late.”
Yvonne pulled back, and grinned. “I told you the other bus stop!”
“You definitely didn’t.”
“Really?” Yvonne scratched the back of her head, her round cheeks flushing. “My bad.”
Yvonne was a good deal shorter than Lizzie, with a good deal less in the way of fashion sense. She wore a pretty blue and green dress over which was draped a drab brown flying jacket that was several sizes too big for her, patched at one elbow. Her ginger hair was neatly tied up in twin pigtails, but that too was smothered by the grey flying helmet loosely balanced over it, and the pair of goggles permanently attached to her head. Her eyes had a golden hue to them, and she had a permanent grin. Lizzie found herself smiling hesitantly from the girl’s very presence, and she pulled her hands down, fingering her bracelet. “Are we heading off then?”
Lizzie set off, and so did Yvonne...in the opposite direction. Lizzie stopped, and stood, dumbfounded. “I thought we were going to the shops!”
“In a bit. I wanted to show you something first. Something cool.”
Exasperated, Lizzie rushed forwards, scowling, “I do wish you wouldn’t change the plans!”
“It’s not far from here.” Yvonne turned and started walking backwards down the village path, pointing towards the metal gate not one hundred yards away. “Come on, it’ll be fun! I told him we’d be coming.”
“This is going to be the blasted badger in the shed all over again. You always do this to me.” Lizzie muttered under her breath, but she started walking regardless before her friend got too far out of sight.
“And what do you mean, ‘him’?”
‘Him’ turned out to be a ‘them’; a group of people not too far away. Yvonne led Lizzie over the beaten pathways, then further into the bracken and long grass (and through, Lizzie noted, several nettle patches which she felt very ill-equipped for). Finally the two of them emerged in a clearing, amidst a collection of discarded metal and old wire fencing, hanging off its stakes like torn wrapping paper. Four other children stood alongside it, and the nearest one - a stocky black youth in a cream sweatshirt, with dark brown eyes and even darker hair - turned to face them both. He smiled, and waved. “Hi Yvonne.”
“Ali.” Yvonne tipped her helmet. “Sorry we’re late. Wrong bus stop.”
The boy put his hands in his pockets, and turned away. “Do you have to call me Ali in front of everyone?”
“Ali?” Lizzie was suddenly behind Yvonne, and she clasped her hands together out of instinct. She glanced sideways at her partner. “You know him?”
“Oh, be sociable for once.” Yvonne stepped back, grabbed the boy’s hand and thrust it into her friend’s, pulling the both of them up and down. “This is Alasdair. I’ve known him since I was a kid.”
Alasdair rolled his eyes, and gave Lizzie a weary, knowing smile. “Yeah, I’m as used to her ways as you probably are.”
Yvonne placed her hands in her pockets, and swayed, before looking at the other kids. “So, um...who are they? I wasn’t expecting anyone else.”
The other three were being decidedly less social about the whole affair. One was a very young Pakistani boy, about six or seven, in a white polo shirt and grey shorts. He stood with his arms folded against the fence, looking the other way with a stroppy expression. Lizzie noticed a plaster on his right cheek, and another on his right elbow. He huffed, and walked a few steps further away.
The other two were girls. One was tall and skinny, and wore a deep blue, ankle length dress, baggy at the sleeves but really quite pretty. Her black hair was full and impossibly curly, reaching just down to her shoulders, and just above her left eye she wore a small golden hairpin in the shape of a butterfly. She stood, gazing around everywhere except for the new arrivals with a look of utter distraction. Lizzie wondered if she’d even noticed they’d arrived. Presently the girl sneezed, and their eyes finally met; hers were a deep, forest green. She smiled, but said nothing.
The other girl was younger again, possibly around eight, and bordering on pudgy. She wore a loose shirt and a green skirt, and carried herself awkwardly; more awkwardly than the other two. She met Lizzie’s gaze, and her hand went to the opposite forearm, gripping tightly. Her features were rounded; a curved chin, deep-red shoulder-length hair, and startlingly blue eyes that darted from left to right.
Alasdair walked over to the younger girl, putting a hand on her shoulder. “This is Rachel. My neighbour. I did tell you about her, I promise.”
Yvonne shrugged, and waved frantically, which only caused the girl to look more concerned. Alasdair sighed.
“Sorry, she gets nervous.”
He nodded at Rachel, who gingerly raised a hand. “Hello.”
Her English was clear, if a bit stilted, but she hunched her shoulders as she spoke. Lizzie waved a hand over towards the other two. “And these two?”
Alasdair looked slightly less confident. He rolled his eyes towards the boy, who was now playing with the dirt at his feet. “That’s Joel. He’s also our neighbour. He demanded to come.”
“I’ve got nothing to do!” Joel pouted by the fence, and glared at Alasdair. “This is boring! You’re all boring!”
“Thank. You.” Alasdair looked behind him, to where the other girl had wandered off into the grass. “That’s Lucy. She’s...um...she’s a friend. We let her come along. Or...she came along herself.”
Lucy still seemed on an utterly different plane of existence, currently biting her fingernails as she peered down towards her feet. Alasdair smiled sheepishly. “We don’t mind if you don’t.”
Joel folded his arms. “I mind. I’m not hanging around with weird kids.”
“Shut up! Or I’ll send you home!”
As the two boys began squabbling, Yvonne felt a tap on her shoulder, and turned towards Lizzie. The taller girl leant forward, whispering into Yvonne’s ear and sending glances towards the four other kids. Yvonne’s brow furrowed, and she pulled Lizzie back, whispering back aggressively.
“Don’t start, alright?”
“You didn’t say though!”
“I shouldn’t have to! Does it matter?”
“Just...” Another glance over from Lizzie. “You said a friend. You didn’t say...everyone here.”
Yvonne reached up and flicked her best friend in the forehead. “You’re being silly. Trust me, it’s all fine. It’s just something cool and I thought you might want to see.”
“You mean you wanted to see.”
“And I thought I’d be generous and invite you.”
She became aware of Alasdair and Rachel staring at the two of them, and grinned, before frowning herself. “We don’t mind, Ali. Promise one, bring four; what’s the harm in that?”
The boy folded his arms. “Well, you seem to have brought someone extra yourself.”
“I told you about Lizzie.”
“Not her.” Alasdair tilted his head. “Who’s that then?”
The two girls turned around, and there was a short yelp as somebody fell back into the bushes with an undignified thump.
The group waited. There was a pause, then the grass shuffled, and a boy stood up, adjusting his glasses and brushing his trousers down. “I’m very sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Lizzie blinked. “George? What are you doing here?”
“I live here.” The boy pointed back over his shoulder. “My dad owns the estate back there. I was just passing by; I overheard you all and was...interested. What are you all doing here?”
George Westland was a smart, if short and somewhat portly lad. His dirty blonde hair was cropped close to his head, and he wore huge, rounded glasses which didn’t seem quite good enough for him, as he was often squinting. He wore a green shirt and striped waistcoat, and pale trousers with smartly laced shoes. He held himself straight, even if he was quite a bit shorter than everyone except the two youngest members of the posse. He scratched his chin. “Do you have room for one more?”
Yvonne looked over at Lizzie, who had gone a little pink by this point. There was another short yelp as Lucy became the second person to take a tumble in the long grass, her body disappearing in an instant. Alasdair looked between George and the two girls, and sighed.
“Again, I don’t mind if you don’t.”
“The more the merrier.” Yvonne folded her arms. “This thing you promised me had better be worth it.”
Alasdair folded his arms, looking decidedly unsure. “I’m counting on that myself.”
“I think so. Dad’s proud of it.”
Lizzie looked down at Rachel, who had spoken. “Dad?”
The younger girl spoke quietly, so much so that the others had to gather in somewhat to hear her clearly.
“I think it’s cool at any rate. My dad’s been working hard on it. He’s a scientist.” She pointed. “His lab’s over that way a short distance, beyond the fence. Do you all want to come?”
Joel folded his arms, and squinted. “Sounds boring.”
Rachel just gave a side-smile. “You don’t have to if you don’t want to.”
She and the other five trudged off, through the great metal gate in the fence and across the lab grounds. Joel gave a tsk, before running after them.
The lab in question was larger than everybody expected. Located off the beaten path, it was a group of red brick buildings and a few circular aircraft hangars slightly further away, now growing over with ivy. In fact most of the buildings seemed to be derelict, with the exception of a few near the centre.
Rachel led the six other children towards one of them, skipping through the long grass as if she’d done this a thousand times. The others weren’t so lucky; George, Lizzie, and especially Lucy oft fell afoul of sneaky roots beneath the feet and nettle patches. By the time they finally reached a clear spot, half of them had been half ripped to shreds already. George stood with his hands on his knees, very out of breath.
“This seems awfully out of the way. Even for a government building.”
Rachel shrugged. “My father’s used it for a while. Him and a few others, but mostly him. He’s clever.”
Lizzie stuck her hands behind her back. “Clever but lacking in common sense.” She nudged Yvonne, and whispered again into her ear. “Let’s keep it quick, alright? I’m expected back home.”
Yvonne shushed her. “It’ll be fine. It’ll be fun. Have a sense of adventure for once.”
Lizzie was not convinced, and she wasn’t the only one. Alasdair was looking decidedly anxious, looking all around at the wild growth. “Rachel, are you positive this place is safe?”
Rachel stopped next to a door, and smiled. “I come here all the time.”
She walked through without another word, ringing a bell within. Alasdair bit his lower lip. “Not exactly what I asked but...oh well.”
He noticed Lucy and George wandering around, and gave a quick whistle. “Let’s just stay together for the moment, alright? And we shouldn’t touch anything. I don’t know what’s in there.”
George tilted his head. “Is it dangerous?”
“I just said, I don’t know.”
The door opened once again, and a man stepped out. Despite being at least in his forties he wasn’t much taller than she was, with rough, calloused skin and even rougher, tired eyes. His near-white hair was very sparse, limited really to two tufts above his ears, and a messy moustache. His clothes were equally dishevelled; a threadbare jumper over torn cuffs, and stained grey trousers. He held a half-twisted wire in one hand and a half-eaten ham roll in the other.
“Hi, you must...oh...um...hi?”
His accent was a lot rougher than his daughters, but it had the same hushed tone. Obviously a man used to giving and taking commands. He looked confused, and turned around, looking down at Rachel. “Rachel? Are these friends of yours?”
“I invited Alasdair along, and then he asked someone else and...” She trailed off, and looked back, blushing somewhat. “There are seven of us now. It got out of hand.”
Alasdair shrugged, looking embarrassed. “My fault. I’m sorry, sir.”
Her father stood in the doorway, slightly dumbfounded. A rogue piece of ham was gently slipping from the side of his roll.
“All of you...want to see inside? In here?”
Yvonne nodded. “Yes please. We were told there was something cool in here.”
“Technically...this...is a government building. I don’t think I should be letting children in.”
“Oh please!” Rachel grinned, and grabbed his sleeve. “Please show them the D-Port.”
“Alright, alright, shush...” Dr Glover looked up at the sky, and squinted. “I...don’t usually agree to things like this you know. It’s my private research.”
“You did sort of spring it on me. About two minutes ago.”
Rachel shuffled. “I thought you wanted people to see what you were doing...”
The man laughed, finally dropping the bit of ham from his sandwich. “Don’t worry, Rachel. It’s not like the government cares what’s going on here anyway. I don’t mind company now and then; it’s just me working here at the moment.” He turned to the others, who were still waiting in the long grass. He beckoned with a finger. “Come on then, I give in. You’ve come all the way out here after all. Would you like me to show you around?”
Dr Glover’s lab was very much what you’d expect from the appearance of the man himself. Wires, circuit boards and punch cards littered every conceivable corner. Adorning the walls were sheets of paper covered with barely legible handwriting and diagrams. A rusted vent on the wall made a gentle whirring sound, but despite that the room was almost uncomfortably hot. Dr Glover himself was stood over the desk, carefully and expertly finishing twisting the cable. The others had managed to push themselves in and just about fit at one end of the room, although Lucy had managed to knock several pieces of paper off the top of the cabinet.
Dr Glover put the completed cable down, and took a sip of tea, before making a face when he found it was cold.
“You’ll have to excuse the mess.”
Alasdair cleared his throat. “Pardon me, sir, but...if this is a bother, you don’t have to...”
Rachel whipped her head round and glared at him, shutting him up immediately. Dr Glover sighed. “Rachel?”
“Is this about what I said yesterday?”
Rachel shuffled, holding one elbow. Dr Glover nodded. “I see. Ah, why not?”
The tired man sat down and rubbed one temple. “I’ve been working here for a few years now and I still have barely anything to show for it. The lab assistants almost never come in. I have no help from any of my old colleagues. None of them even believe me with what I’m doing here.” He glanced up at the children, looking an awful lot older than he was. “The only person I can share anything with is my daughter. And now, I suppose, you.”
Lizzie and George looked at one another, biting their teeth. The whole atmosphere was getting very uncomfortable, and certainly no less warm.
Dr Glover looked up. “What would you say if I told you there was another world out there?”
The children blinked one by one. Joel stopped pouting, and put his hands in his pockets. “Another world?”
“Of sorts. I don’t know for certain, of course, but everything I’ve done seems to point towards it.” The man pointed at the wall to their right, at an old tattered photograph. “That machine up there? That was the computer I worked with back during the war; codenamed the Sphinx. I remember there were several dozen of them lined up; many of us sat for days on end, intercepting messages and running them through the decryption hardware, trying to decipher the enemy’s information. It was state of the art. Maybe even still is, with what we managed to find.”
Now the children were all interested. Even Lizzie had foregone her nervousness, so engrossed was she in the strange man’s story.
“Occasionally...very occasionally...the machines would stumble on something. A message would get through that wasn’t there before. We were digging deep into computing at the time, and the more the machines learned, the more often it happened.” He smiled at Rachel. “I’m not sure if you remember, but there was even a point...ever so brief, but the machine itself seemed to open up. I swear we saw something inside, another place entirely.” He scratched his tufted hair. “Of course, nobody listens to me. Though they definitely know there’s something there. You may have heard of the D-Port research?”
A series of blank looks suggested otherwise, all except for George, who rubbed his chin. “Something to do with...yes, I remember, they’d salvaged some of the old Sphinx computers hadn’t they?”
Dr Glover rolled his eyes. “Yes, all the best ones. They’re just off looking for ‘a new level of computing’. Trying to make the code breaking quicker or make them perform other functions.” He leaned forward, exasperated. “They only care about what these machines do, not what they are.”
Alasdair looked around the room, the pictures starting to make a little more sense. “So then what are you doing here?”
“I’m searching.” Dr Glover tapped his nose. “I have my own things to look for. And if you head through the door behind you I can show you a bit more.”
He took another swig of tea as the children bundled through, into the main part of the warehouse. Lizzie was last through, mumbling as she went. “We could have done that to begin with. Looks like there’s more room in there.”
Beside her, Lucy whistled. “Pretty...”
Lizzie blinked. “So you can talk...”
Lucy just pointed, and Lizzie followed her gaze. She too was impressed. Taking up most of the warehouse were two old Sphinx computers, with a couple of panels missing but overall intact. They were certainly impressive machines; constantly whirring and beeping, and outputting yard upon yard of white tape at regular intervals. But they were notably different to the pictures in the office; wires and panels were coiled around, lights and dials were constantly in motion, and the whole thing was constantly pumping fluid through each different segment. A garage job, but it seemed to work wonders for their function.
Between the both of them was a far smaller machine; a hexagonal slab of metal with wires connecting it to the larger processors. Despite its size it seemed to be working just as hard, with needles flicking between different values and lights flashing on and off constantly. At the front of a machine was a concave circular screen, which seemed to fuzz with static, occasionally flashing with a red light. It was all very impressive, if a little oppressive with everything going on at once. Joel was busy grumbling about the noise, but nobody else paid any attention to him, so engrossed were they with the marvel of engineering before them.
Dr Glover pushed his way through the group and hit a couple of switches, shifting the noise down to a background hum, though everything kept moving all the same.
“This is the real D-Port. Not that imitation the London scientists are making; this thing is built to break through the interface and into the digital realm itself.”
Yvonne put her hands in her jacket pockets. “You keep talking about another world. How can you be so sure?”
“The computers are getting smarter. The Sphinxes were learning all the time we were using them; what originall took a few weeks was only taking about an hour by the end of the war.” Dr Glover raised his arms. “It wasn’t us. We never touched them. There was something behind them; I was sure of it.”
“Still seems a bit of a stretch to call it another world though.”
“Of course. That’s what this is for.” The man beckoned them around the smaller device, which he put his hand upon. “This takes the two decryption signals and uses them as a navigation to find their location. The true location; into the processor itself.” He swallowed. “It sounds crazy, but I’ve broken through. I’ve sent messages to...somewhere else. And I’ve received them as well.” He stood up and shuffled through a tray full of torn-off tape scraps, handing a few out to the children. “Actual words and sentences from somewhere completely different. It’s not a joke; these computers are totally isolated from the outside world.” Despite himself, he couldn’t stop grinning. “Whatever wrote these came from within the hardware itself.”
George frowned, looking over his slip. “’Release your location and identity?’”
Yvonne seemed equally confused, but also excited. “’Contact reached with Echo Quadrant: Please identify.’” She looked up. “What does it mean?”
Dr Glover didn’t hear, seeming more concerned with what Rachel was holding. She became aware of everybody looking at her, and she held up a short piece of tape.
“Mine just says ‘Go away’.”
There was a silence in the warehouse, with the exception of the click-click-click of the computers. Dr Glover tapped the ends of his fingers, looking dejected.
“You...don’t believe me, do you...?”
Rachel nodded profusely, but the others simply stood, looking among one another. Alasdair cleared his throat. “It’s quite amazing if it is true.”
Rachel gave him a hurt look. “It’s true! You’ve got to believe him...”
“Well...can you do it right now?”
The others looked up at George, who shrugged. “It would be interesting to see. Can you connect with the other world right now?”
Dr Glover bit his upper lip, before nodding. “Alright. But stand back. There’s a lot of moving parts here. Over behind the line, please.”
He donned a pair of goggles as the seven children complied, although they were watching with baited breath. Dr Glover flicked some switches on one computer, then the other, back and forth in a process that took at least five minutes. The clicking changed, two rhythmic patterns merging together, forming Morse messages and sending them out into the ether. Now and again Dr Glover stopped by the D-Port itself, changing the levers and dials the tiniest amount each time. The circular screen was getting more active, with red blobs swirling around, turning into static bars, then patches, then spirals, like a magnet by a signal-less television.
Suddenly Dr Glover stepped up, and shouted, “Aha!” He rushed to the rightmost Sphinx and pressed a big green button, making the thing sputter and regurgitate a few metres worth of tape. The man quickly turned the dials down again before bringing the tape over to the children, hiding the excitement in his voice with little success. “I’ve got a reply!”
Dr Glover shuffled through the tape, trying to find the end. Most of it was just covered with numbers and letters in random gibberish, but when they reached the end, they all crowded round. Dr Glover was grinning like a maniac.
“See? A live reply. Something from beyond the interface.”
He began to read, but as he did so, his grin lessened.
“’Who are you...why are you still in contact...you will destroy us all...I will end you if I must...go away, go away and never break into this world again or I will...I will find you and I will...kill you...” He looked up, and swallowed. “’This is your final warning...’”
The children watched, shuffling uncomfortable. Even Joel was silent at this point. Yvonne scratched her cheek. “Wow...rude...”
Dr Glover blinked, and looked amongst everyone. “I shouldn’t have brought you in here. It’s...this is beyond me now, you need to get out.”
He turned, but Rachel grabbed his hand. “But Dad-“
Dr Glover pulled away, still clutching the tape. “It’s my fault. I didn’t realise what was happening...I still don’t know...” He shook his head, and pointed at the door. “I have some people I need to talk to. You all need to leave. I’m sorry but...I can’t risk it.”
One by one, the children marched outside, through the office and out to the airfield. Some of them were muttering and grumbling under their breath, whereas others were silent, the letter’s words still playing in their minds.
Dr Glover counted them out, before glancing back inside the warehouse. The machines were still ticking away, and the D-Port was flashing. The screen was showing a single red dot, shifting slowly back and forth, like a giant red eye searching for something. Dr Glover shivered, and closed the door, locking it behind him.
“Well that finished abruptly.”
Alasdair leaned against one of the disused buildings, his hands behind his head as he stared up at the sky. Dr Glover had sent them all out and shut himself back inside the office again. Not twenty minutes later he’d rushed out himself to his car, no doubt trying to get in contact with some big scientist colleague. It was all rather sudden, and as such, the children themselves hadn’t really dispersed, still hanging around. Yvonne was stood next to him, arms folded.
“I thought this might be nice but it took a bit of a mean turn.”
“You’re telling me. Not to mention we gained a few people, all for naught.” Alasdair sighed. “I can’t help but feel slightly overwhelmed.”
“Come on, Alasdair, you know we’re all stubborn round here.” Yvonne looked up, staring at the warehouse. “Do you think there was really someone out there?”
“I have no idea,” Alasdair said, as he pushed himself off the wall, “but it would be pretty weird if he just did it all as a joke.”
Yvonne pouted. “Whoever the guy at the other end is, he seems stroppy.”
“Well, you know...,” mused the boy, giving a half-smile, “I’m not sure I’d like it if I heard strangers knocking on my door all the time. Still, threatening to kill us is a bit much.”
Yvonne placed one hand in her pocket, and gave an awkward laugh. She blinked, looking back and forth against Alasdair’s perfectly straight and serious face. She’d always found the expression cute, even when she’d first met him. Not that she’d dare admit it to anyone. She bit her cheek, and looked over at Lizzie, who was sitting away from everyone else.
She was about to walk over, when there was a crackling of dry grass and Lucy stepped up, somewhat ungainly and trying very hard not to fall over again. Yvonne smiled, before looking down, only just now noticing the girl’s purple purse, slung over her shoulder. It was open, and something was sticking out. Yvonne narrowed her eyes, and pointed.
“Is that...Dr Glover’s pen?”
Lucy shuffled. “I...forgot.” Her voice was very quiet, and she mouthed the words carefully and deliberately, though not out of shyness.
“Did he give it to you?”
No answer this time. Behind her, Yvonne could hear Alasdair sighing. “Not again...”
The girl chuckled, and patted the taller girl on the shoulder. “I’m teasing. It’s only a pen.” She glanced down. “Yikes, you have a lot of stuff in there, don’t you?”
“I just pick it up.” Lucy blinked, and she began to bite at her thumbnail. A moment later she jumped, and then turned and pointed at the warehouse. “I found a door.”
“It’s open.” Lucy gave a small smile, and beckoned with a finger. Yvonne and Alasdair followed, into a thicker patch of grass (and the occasional nettle), and right up to the other end of the warehouse. There it was; another door, hanging just ajar, with the lock drawn. Lucy gingerly opened it, and peered inside, the other two looking as well.
Alasdair nodded. “You’re right. Strange door to leave open.”
The three jumped, and turned to see Rachel standing there, her hands behind her back. “He keeps it open to keep the warehouse cool, but sometimes forgets to close it.” She took the handle and shook it, sending brick dust over the ground. “It’s kind of broken anyway.”
Alasdair peered back inside. “We should leave it alone. He told us to leave.”
Yvonne pushed her lips out. “Well...yeah, but...”
“No, Yvonne...no.” Alasdair put a hand on her head and turned her to face him. “Remember what happened down by the river. When somebody says no, you don’t do it. I was the one who got the blame.”
Yvonne folded her arms. “We only got a little wet.”
“Look, those are big, expensive...okay, they’re cool machines in there, but they’re also dangerous. And besides, you saw the tape, right? Wherever they are, somebody’s not happy about this stuff.”
“I understand.” Yvonne nodded, and pointed. “Lucy’s already inside though.”
“What?” Alasdair whipped his head around. Lucy was indeed back inside, having squeezed through the gap between computer and wall, and was now wandering around the room. Alasdair gritted his teeth, and went in himself. “You idiot...we’re gonna get caught.”
Yvonne looked down at Rachel, who was staring at the grass, biting her lip. The older girl nudged her. “It can’t be that bad, right? Your dad seems like a nice person.”
“He is.” Rachel looked away. “I just want everyone else to see what a nice person he is as well.”
She looked up, and Yvonne put a finger to her lips. “Shall we have another look?”
“Alasdair said not to. So did dad.”
“Well Ali’s already gone in. And your dad’s not here.”
She grinned, and dove into the small gap herself. Rachel hesitated for a moment, before following. It was only a few seconds later that Lizzie poked her head around the corner, with George and Joel just behind her.
Lizzie swallowed. Something didn’t feel right at all.
The four trespassers didn’t hear; they were busy sneaking around the warehouse. Alasdair looked left and right, whispering for Lucy, as Rachel and Yvonne snuck up behind him. Yvonne grinned.
The boy nearly shot skywards, and practically jumped around, face furious. “I told you to wait outside! You’re not supposed to be in here.”
“But you’re in here.”
“That’s not the point.”
There was a shuffle, and Lucy popped her head out from behind one of the computers. “Hello!”
“Lucy!” Alasdair was livid, thrusting his hand towards the open exit. “We’re not supposed to be in here! Get out!”
Rachel rolled her fingers. “You know...it is dad’s lab, not yours...just saying...”
“You heard what he said. We’re going to get in trouble.”
The boy turned round, and groaned. “Ah, not you too. Does anyone around here ever listen?”
George ran his finger down his cheek. “I heard voices, that’s all.” He hummed to himself. “Actually I wanted another look at the computers. I might draw them later.”
Behind him, Lizzie huffed, and held her elbows. “That’s good, we know where you all went to. Can we go now?” She looked round. “I don’t like it here. It gives me the creeps.”
Alasdair nodded. “See? Someone sensible.”
He glared back at Yvonne, only to notice she wasn’t looking at or listening to him, but instead had wandered over to where Lucy was. Alasdair’s expression cracked a little. “I’m gonna get mad...”
“The machine’s doing things.”
Lucy popped her head out again, and waved at the others. “The D-Port. It’s still running.”
George blinked, and looked down at Rachel. “Didn’t your dad turn it off?”
“Doesn’t matter anyway.” Joel blew a raspberry, and stomped over to one of the Sphinx machines, glowering up at it. “It’s all boring anyway. I thought it was gonna be fun but it’s boring.” He lashed out a foot, kicking the machine with a clang.
There was a click, and the machine increased its speed, immediately retching up a wad of tangled tape. Joel stepped back, shaking his head. “It wasn’t me!”
“Get away from that!” Alasdair shouted, running over to drag him away by the shoulders. He resisted, wriggling and kicking backwards, but Alasdair held tight as the machine gave a short, sharp whistle, then powered down, releasing vapour of some kind.
Lizzie swallowed, and glared at the back of his head. “Nice going, brat.”
“I heard that!”
Presently he was marched away by Alasdair, while Lizzie knelt down, rubbing her smarting shin and giving the boy murderous looks. “I hate kids...”
“Lizzie, come over here!”
The girl definitely did not want to come over there, but given that everybody else was now crowded round, she gave in and walked over, peering over Rachel’s shoulder. Rachel was holding the wad of tape from earlier, trying to find the end.
“It’s more of the same...I think...”
“Can you make any of it out?”
“Let me...” said George, as he carefully picked it up and ruffled through it, adjusting his glasses as he finally found the end. “’The end is coming the end is foretold why aren’t you listening you will doom us all you will doom the world one step closer and I will come for you...’” He looked up. “It’s all the same. Cheery fellow, isn’t he?”
Yvonne puffed her cheeks out. “He’s just grumpy. I’m sure he’ll be fine when we meet him.”
“I don’t want to meet him!” shouted Lizzie, louder than she might have liked. Everyone turned to look at her as she backed away, waving her hands maniacally. “I don’t want any more of this! I...I want to go home. All this? This is scary...too scary...we’re not supposed to be here and someone’s threatening to kill us and-“
Yvonne raised her palms, taking a step forward. “Lizzie, calm down. Please-“
“No! This is all your fault! Dragging me along with a bunch of-“
“Lizzie, watch out!”
It was too late. Lizzie stumbled, just saving herself from falling, but too late to save the thing she’d bumped into. There was a sickening metallic clang as the D-Port toppled over behind her, wires being yanked out with nasty snaps. She yelped, and hopped backwards, her hands over her face. “I’m sorry! I didn’t mean to!”
“What have you done?”
This time it was Rachel who shouted, and she rushed forward, barging the older girl out of the way and kneeling next to the fallen machine, which was spluttering sparks. She pushed the wires out the way and grabbed the sides of it, looking all over.
“The light’s going out...I don’t know what to do...” She whipped her head around, tears welling in her eyes. “Dad spent years on this! If you’ve broken it-“
“I’m sorry! I’m so sorry!”
Alasdair put his hand on Rachel’s shoulder. “I’m sure it’s...nothing serious...if we just tell your father...”
“He’ll never let me back here again!” Rachel yanked herself away, and pulled the great device back upright again, straining at the weight. No response. The circle was as black as ever. She knocked the side panel, once, twice, twiddling the aerial and the dials, sliding the switches one by one. “Come on...come on...”
“Stop! You’re going to make it worse!”
There was a cry as, behind, Lizzie fell to her knees, suddenly bawling up at the ceiling. “I want to go home! I’m sorry! I shouldn’t have come.”
She collapsed into pitiful sobs, as Yvonne ran over, kneeling down herself and embracing her wreck of a friend. Her wails and Rachel’s babbling were filling up the warehouse, echoing off the walls and the computers. George simply stood between Lucy and Joel, tugging at his shirt collar nervously. Suddenly he tilted his head, and cupped his hand to his ear. “Isn’t that a car? Maybe Dr Glover’s back.”
He looked at Lucy, who just shook her head. “Can’t hear over the computers.”
George nodded. “Fine. Just my-“ He blinked, and looked behind him. “Those computers? I thought they were off!”
Lucy pointed. “They’re working.”
“I can see that. I thought Joel broke them or something.”
There was a yell of indignation behind him. “I didn’t break nothing, fatty!”
George ignored the insult, and wandered over to where the second Sphinx computer was running, faster than ever, chugging out ream after ream of tape that was busy tangling itself up on the floor. The boy adjusted his glasses, and looked at the nearest segment.
STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP
George took a sharp intake of breath, and turned around. “Alasdair’s right. We should probably leave. This is getting out of hand.” He looked over at Rachel. “Rachel, leave it, please...”
“I need to get it working!”
“It is working!”
The girl stopped, and faced him, looking at the ever increasing bundle of tape in his hands, then at the two huge decryption computers, looming over them and chugging away faster and faster.
“I didn’t turn them on,” she said, defensively. “I didn’t-“
George stopped her mid-sentence. “It doesn’t matter now. The messages are getting worse. We should leave. We should all leave.”
He took a step, and winced. The whirr from the computers was at an incredibly high frequency now, with an incessant clicking and the return of the horrible train whistle. Wisps of steam were beginning to rise up from the very tops of the great metal leviathans, forming patterns on the corrugated roof.
Everybody had heard George, but nobody moved. They stood, transfixed, not wanting to take a step for fear of setting off something more. Even Lizzie had stopped yelling at this point; she was still knelt, her hands shaking. “What’s...what’s going on...?”
Lucy looked around in wonder. “It’s not stopping.”
Beside the D-Port, Rachel felt warmth on her face. She looked down, and saw the circular screen illuminated with a red light; not halogen or reflected, but a real, organic, spiralling light, like a miniature star trapped within the body of the machine.
“It’s going to explode!”
Lizzie’s cry snapped everyone to their senses. Yvonne stood up, scanning the room. “How do we stop it?”
Alasdair shook his head. “That doesn’t matter! We need to get out now!”
“But the machines-“
STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP
“Watch the wires!”
“It’s getting louder!”
“I can’t hear! I can’t hear!”
STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP STOP
The machines were smoking now, sending sparks up and down and bouncing off the ceiling. Already orange flames were flickering from parts of them, and they were rattling dangerously, screws falling out and panels hanging loose. The D-Port itself was vibrating, the edge of the panel glowing orange where the insides were working overtime. The lights were flashing, the dials were going haywire, and in the centre of the screen, the big red spiral got bigger and bigger, with the ends of it beginning to reach out from the edge of the glass.
Alasdair bellowed down at Rachel. “How do we stop it?”
“I...don’t know? Power? Power! Unplug it!”
Yvonne ducked as a volley of sparks shot past her head. “What’s the power?”
Alasdair bent down, grabbing a handful of wires. “I don’t care! This is coming off!”
The boy stood up and yanked the cluster of wires, causing a massive bang and the lights above to short. But the light didn’t go out completely. The boy opened his eyes, and could see Rachel’s mesmerised face, and Yvonne’s shocked one. He looked around; all seven of them were bathed in a deep, deep red glow.
The rushing sound wasn’t stopping. Neither was the whistle. Nor the never-ending clicking of the tape reel, still incessantly printing the warning.
Alasdair became aware of something hovering beside him, and he looked down at the wires in his hand. There, from one of them, was a tiny stream of red, connecting one wire to the back of the D-Port. It jumped, and writhed, like a little serpent or a miniature bolt of red lightning.
Instinctively he dropped the wires, and the bolt was severed. It whipped back and forth, like a devil’s tail on the little machine, which was still showing the spiral.
The wisp wriggled. It spat. It shook. It twisted, becoming a spiral itself. And as it did so, the end grew. And grew. And grew. It was no longer a thin trail, now it was a whirlwind, spinning around and opening out further, grabbing at anything and everything in its reach.
Alasdair had backed away by this point.
And the end of the spiral wrapped itself around her wrist, and ripped it off into little red squares.
She screamed. Everyone screamed. Rachel scrabbled on the floor, trying to get to her feet, but the tornado lashed out again, ripping and gouging at her other arm, her torso, her face. Her voice was lost in seconds, dissolving into electric noise, as she was dragged in pieces into the vortex, getting smaller and smaller and vanishing into the back of the device.
The six remaining children watched, aghast and petrified. The red tornado groaned, roared, and expanded again, lunging with the speed of a striking snake, this time at Alasdair.
Yvonne rushed forwards, blind to the danger as she held out her hands. Alasdair turned, the red lights flashing in his eyes as he reached out towards her. She grabbed his hand. Closed her fingers, and pulled. But her hand had closed on nothing. He was already gone, torn to pieces and whisked away, and as she saw the ragged red streams spiralling up her own arms, she knew she was next.
Everything seemed to go in slow motion. The other four turned, their legs powering against the metal floor as steam and sparks and panels blew all around them. Yvonne was engulfed from her head to her feet, but the hellish spiral didn’t stop, rushing forwards like a freight train. It ripped pieces out of the computers, and the floor, sucking up wires and bolts and anything in its path. The remaining four children could feel the heat and static from the terrible force behind them, as they ran blindly, not sure where they were going. There was a clang as Lucy’s foot caught on some loose metalwork; she went crashing to the ground, and was ripped up in an instant. George wasn’t fast enough, and he was caught by a flailing tendril, torn in two in mid-air and swallowed up from there. Joel hit a dead-end, turning just as the full crimson force struck him and carried on up the wall.
Only Lizzie was left. She reached the back door, and grasped the handle.
She glanced backwards.
Into the vast, red vortex that now towered above her, ready to crash down like a tsunami.
She froze. And screamed.
Dr Glover slammed on the brakes as he pulled into the old car-park, hearing the despairing wail. He didn’t even bother turning the engine off, leaping out the car and looking around. There was no sign of the children.
“Rachel? I’m back?” He turned to the small office building. “You’re not...I didn’t leave the door open, did I-“
The explosion burst through the roof of the hanger, tearing and twisting the corrugated metal and sending the nearby growth – and Dr Glover himself – crashing to the ground with the force of the blast. He stared up, his teeth chattering as the red vortex shot into the sky, swiping at the air like a wild beast from the depths of Hades. Fire and smoke poured out, blackening the air.
There was a bright flash. The tornado curled on itself, and vanished.
Dr Glover got to his feet, watching in horror as years of work lay smoking and wrecked before him. Flames were still licking the sky, and the air was now thick with smoke. Dr Glover began to run.
He burst in through the remains of the back door, waving his arms in front of him as he coughed and spluttered. There was barely anything left standing. Both Sphinx machines had burst, their inner workings melted and spread out on the ground. Wires were hanging from the ruined roof, and charred pieces of paper and tape were busy smouldering wherever he trod.
There was no sign of the D-Port.
Or any of the children.
“I’m telling you, they’re not dead.”
“And? How would you like it if you woke up under lock and key?”
“You really want to let these things loose? We don’t know what they are!”
Lizzie started, her eyes snapping open. She felt herself pressed up against someone; no, two people, Lucy and Alasdair. In fact, everyone seemed to be lying on top of each other. It was raining now, and they were outside, getting rather drenched. She held up a hand, and rubbed the lenses of her glasses, as if that would help.
She could still hear voices, and became aware of several other people all around them, obviously talking. Had the explosion knocked them all out? Were there people here to rescue them? She had to admit, some of the voices didn’t sound too pleased.
She sat up, and immediately whacked her head on something sharp and rough. She winced, and looked up. It was wood. Crossed wood, over them all, like a cover. She stretched out her leg, and felt it knock against something as well. More wood. In fact, all around them. A lattice of rough wood, overturned and embedded in the ground, all around them. A cage.
The girl sat up again (as best she could, given the low ceiling) and peered outside.
She had to bite her tongue to keep herself from screaming. For the beings all around her weren’t people. They were...they were...
Her left hand went to her right forearm, and she pinched herself; harder than she intended to, and drawing blood.
It didn’t work, but the harsh intake of breath (or perhaps her overall panicked breathing) alerted one of the creatures to her – a two-legged lizard-man with markings on his face, crescent blades in his arms and a huge, broad cleaver strapped over his back. He pointed. “You were right. One of them’s awake.”
Lizzie was shaking her head, mouthing the same words over and over.
“...what the hell...what the hell... what-”
Something far bigger squatted down in front of the cage, and peered down through the roof. It was huge; gnarled blue body, six skeletal legs, four fluttering wings like ragged paper and a ferocious, leering eyeless head, with several jaws stretching and contorting in impossible ways.
The giant bug leered down, clicking menacingly. “What are you? Where did you come from?”
Lizzie shook her head even harder, lying back on the ground as, all around her, the others began to groan and shift, waking up into what they thought was the real world.
The bug slammed a fist on the ground, causing it to shake. “I asked you a question!”
Lizzie’s lower lip was shaking. “W...w-w-wha...w-w...”
“Answer me!” The insect curled a fist round, summoning a crackling ball of lightning that spat sparks, raining down into the cage. “Answer me now or I will end you right here!”
Lizzie answered, the only way she could think how.
“WHAT THE HELL IS THIS?”
TO BE CONTINUED...