Trenchcoat 0: Shepherd Moons - Part 1
By James Bow and Cameron Dixon
“Each year in the course of my travels I stop in Procopia and take lodgings in the same room in the same inn […] There are twenty-six of us lodged in my room: to shift my feet I have to disturb those crouching on the floor, I force my way among the knees of those seated on the chest of drawers and the elbows of those taking turns leaning on the bed.
All very polite people.
— Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
It might have been any of the overcrowded metropolises of the 21st century, but it was here, on the outskirts of Toronto, Ontario, where a river of cars stretched back as far as the rear-view mirror could see, shuffling and growling all the way to the horizon and the setting sun.
Betty’s car sat and fumed in the gridlock, as did she. As if having to work nights wasn’t bad enough, she’d been late three times last week. First her train had been delayed; then she’d tried driving and had run into construction; then she’d agreed to join a carpool and waited for them to show up, and waited, and waited, and waited. Today, she’d seized destiny by the throat, taken her car and tried an alternate route. And had ended up in this mess.
She cast an annoyed glance at the policemen five rows ahead, and tried not to take the accident personally. She didn’t want to be the kind of person who accused other people of driving off the road at 120 kph just to cause her inconvenience. She was afraid she was too far along that road already. She stared blankly at the accident without taking any details in, as her conscience tried to keep her feelings of aggravation and frustration corralled in a small pen in the back of her mind.
Someone behind her was leaning on his horn. She glared into the rear-view mirror. Great plan! Honk again, Einstein, maybe that’ll make the accident never have happened. Was that even English?
She sighed and shifted in her seat, realising that her buttocks were falling asleep. The sooner they finished the highway extension, the better. Some elbow room was all she asked for. And knee space.
She switched on the radio again. Classic rock, 101.7 something-starting-with-a-C-FM. She tapped her hands on the steering wheel in time to the beat, trying not to wonder what would happen if she ran out of gas idling in the line-up, but unwilling to turn off the engine; that would be giving in to the inevitable.
Sha-na-NA-na, na-na-na-NA, hey hey hey, goodbye…
She hummed along, staring blankly ahead. The remains of a newspaper flapped across the road like a lost, well-read bird. The moon was rising, full and large against the dark silhouettes of trees and hills on the horizon. Betty tapped her hands on the wheel, and hummed, and stared at the moon.
Rising above the horizon. Her eyes fixed on it. Her blinks less frequent. Like a deer caught in headlights. The Nylons chanting on the radio and her foot beating against the accelerator, gently, down and release, down and release. Her car went nowhere in neutral, and the engine revved and slowed, revved and slowed. Beating; breathing.
The honking horn behind her had fallen silent now. And the moon continued to climb.
The car to her left began to rev its engine as well.
? ? ?
One of the policemen at the barrier looked up, curious. “Hey, do you hear that?”
“The cars. Don’t you think it—”
Before he could complete his thought, the staff sergeant called over to them. “All right, guys. We’re done here. Move ‘em out.”
Don’t you think it sounds like they’re breathing?
The officers grabbed the crossbucks blocking the highway, lifted them out of the way… and jumped aside in alarm as ten rows of cars shifted into gear and leapt forward as one.
An officer cried out as a car clipped him and sent him flying over the shoulder. The others stared in shock as the cars hurtled forward in unison. This wasn’t how traffic behaved, this wasn’t how people worked; there should be a delayed reaction rippling back from the lead driver as each row took a moment to respond to the one ahead. This wasn’t just wrong, it was impossible.
“What the hell was that?” somebody shouted, but nobody answered him.
The cars stampeded on, towards the curve in the highway, and the open fields beyond.
? ? ?
Dave and his dog always took their evening constitutional through the fields outside their country home, but those days were coming to an end. Even now, through the deepening twilight, Dave could see the glow of the city lights over the nearby hill. The billboard announcing the approved zoning change was a dark, blocky silhouette misshaping the river gorge. The highway was coming to Dave’s fields, and nothing could stand in its way.
As Cherry romped through the heather for what Dave knew was going to be one of the last times, he sighed sadly, gazing at the cut-back trees and the scrubby, friendly field of weeds, waving gently at him through the growling dusk.
Dave frowned and looked at the western horizon, where the lights of the distant city shone against the sky. Except that the glow was becoming brighter as he watched, and the angry snarl of engines was growing louder. Even as he raised his head the first headlights appeared over the crest of the hill, and the pack of cars leapt into sight and bore down on him.
The highway had come to Dave’s fields, and he was standing right in its way.
Cherry yapped in terror and fled for the safety of the trees, but Dave couldn’t move a muscle. He stood where he was, frozen in the glare of the headlights, hypnotized by terror as the cars flooded over the hill and down towards him.
The cars tore forward, through the scrub, over the fields, towards the billboard, and beyond.
In the middle of the pack, Betty blinked back into reality, and started to scream.
The cars roared over the edge of the gorge and plunged down.
And afterwards, there was only the sound of the burning, the ticking, cooling metal, the soft gurgle of the stream, and a lone dog, howling at the moon.
? ? ?
Thursday (late evening)
“Enjoying your gelato, Ace?”
The Doctor decided to take that as a yes.
The night was warm and young on College Street, and the moon glowed a soft streetlight orange through the summer haze. A river of humanity flowed gently up and down the street, eddies spinning off in different directions as the regulars of the night recognised their fellows. The Doctor lowered his newspaper for a moment and let it wash all over him, watching as a woman and her friends walked out of the club across the street and joined the ebb and flow of the night life. His gaze drifted up to the club logo. TRIBUTARIES. How appropriate, he decided.
He cast an appreciative glance across the table at Ace, who was digging into her bowl of gelato, an espresso sitting untouched beside it. He shook his newspaper and settled back with a contented sigh. “I told you we didn’t have to go to Florence. Toronto’s Italian community has all the coffee shops and the specialized ice cream you could hope for. The city’s museums may not have Michelangelo’s David, but they’re interesting in their own right. Yes, I’m glad I picked this spot.”
Ace raised an eyebrow. “You set the co-ordinates for Florence,” she mumbled through irony-flavoured gelato. “I saw you.”
The Doctor’s smile faded, and he disappeared behind his newspaper. “Yes. Well. Anyway. This vacation is just what we both need. I’m glad I thought of it.”
Ace’s smirk broadened… “I thought of it, Doc—” …and disappeared. “Professor.” She lowered her spoon. “How are you feeling?”
The Doctor peered at her over the top of the newspaper. “I’m fine, Ace. Honestly, it’s been six months. And I wish you didn’t have such trouble calling me ‘Professor’.”
Ace winced. “You used to hate being called that. What changed?”
“I did.” The Doctor’s gaze softened. “I’m sorry. It’s been a hard time for you, too, hasn’t it? But after six months one gets tired of being treated as an invalid. You know what I mean?”
Ace toyed with her spoon for a moment, unwilling to meet his eyes. “Yeah. I get it, D… Professor.”
The Doctor seemed about to say something, but instead, he closed his mouth and disappeared behind his newspaper again, frowning at something he saw inside. For a moment there was silence, but for the susurration of the pedestrians and the clank and rumble of a streetcar as it trundled past.
Finally, Ace spoke. “Doctor?”
“Oh.” The Doctor lowered his paper, considering. “Well, this is Canada.”
Ace just sighed.
“All right. I’m sure there are plenty of things to see and do. This is the city, Ace! Go to the museum. Go shopping… though you were never one for that, were you? They’ve got sports, and theatre. Theme parks and Shakespeare in the park. Just get up from your seat and start walking, and I’m sure you’ll find something interesting…”
Ace got up from her seat.
The Doctor blinked. “I didn’t mean that literally.”
Ace didn’t respond. The Doctor lowered his newspaper, alarmed, as Ace turned and started to walk out of the patio, towards the crowds. Only then did the Doctor notice that the crowds themselves were moving in unison. The chaotic eddies of the river had acquired structure and order, and nobody was moving upstream. Even the cars were following the flow, passing straight through the red traffic lights while the greenlit cars idled where they were, their drivers at cross-paths to the new tide affecting the people of the city.
The Doctor leapt to his feet, or tried to. The summer breeze that had been caressing his hair so gently chose that moment to blow the front page of the newspaper into his face. He stumbled forward and tripped over the dangling edge of the tablecloth with legs that muscle memory insisted were longer than they should be. The part of his mind that wasn’t worrying about Ace acknowledged that his regeneration was still going to take a bit of getting used to.
Ace was on the sidewalk by now, surrounded by people. Six more steps would take her to the edge of the curb, and off. And the cars didn’t seem to be slowing down. The Doctor took a deep breath, braced himself and bellowed, “Dorothy Gale McShane, your shoelaces are on fire!!!”
Ace stopped short, shaking her head in confusion. The Doctor could see the ripples of regained awareness spreading out through the crowd, as though Ace were a stone he’d just cast into the water. One woman by the edge of the crowd stumbled as the wave hit her… and as the Doctor stared helplessly, she stepped off the curb, into the street, right in front of a speeding car.
The Doctor could do nothing but watch.
There was a sickening thump, a sickening crunch, and two other even more sickening sounds before the crowd flowed back between them and what was left of the woman was lost to view.
The Doctor winced. Ace was stumbling back towards the patio, and he pushed his way towards her through the shouts of alarm and cries for help. “Are you all right?”
Ace gripped the iron railings and blinked. “I—”
“Good,” said the Doctor. He grabbed her wrist and half-supported, half-dragged her back to the table.
“Hey,” she protested weakly. “What just happened? Wasn’t I sitting with you? How did—”
“I don’t know,” said the Doctor. “Yes. That’s what we have to find out. What do you remember?”
Ace thought for a moment. “Nothing,” she realised. “It was like I just zoned out of everything for a minute there. How long was I…”
The Doctor slapped his hand down on his newspaper before the breeze could blow it away. “You lost about thirty seconds. I think everybody did.”
Ace stared around at the milling crowd. “Everybody? Doctor, what—” And then the crowd parted, just for a moment, and she saw the red car which had been blue only moments ago. “Oh, my God. Professor—”
The Doctor folded the newspaper and slipped it into his coat, a distant look in his eyes. “She’s lost more than thirty seconds, I’m afraid,” he said.
? ? ?
Thursday (evening) to Friday (early morning)
John Tofler’s day began at sunset.
His cat stirred to the sound of his alarm, rose and stretched, and meandered up the hallway to the bedroom. There, it leapt up onto the bed and paced around John’s head, purring and nuzzling his ear. Finally, John surfaced from the depths of sleep, reached up and blearily stroked the cat behind its ears.
“Okay, okay,” he’d mumbled. “I’m here. I’m awake.”
The cat yawned and hopped back down to the floor, its task complete.
John levered himself out of bed, padded over to the window and pulled aside the curtains for a moment. The trees and rolling hills of Caledon greeted him, dark against the twilight sky and the last rays of the setting sun. He yawned, and stretched, and closed his curtains on the end of the day.
The radio, tuned to CBC, did most of the talking as John fed the cat and washed himself. In the bathroom, he paused before the mirror, as he always did, looking carefully at his reflection for any signs of aging on his thirty-one-year-old face. After the bathroom, it was breakfast, and after breakfast he fired up his computer to check his e-mail. His cat went to sleep in the corner again, and the sky outside his windows faded to black, more or less.
Finally, the clock struck midnight.
John braced himself, took a deep breath, and turned off his computer. Time to go to work.
There was a routine for leaving the house. Moving slowly and precisely, as if waiting for the phone call that would tell him that this was all unnecessary now, he slipped on his shoes, shrugged his jacket over his shoulders, and made a cursory check of his hair in the front room mirror. Then, with a deep breath, he turned to face the front door.
Something of John’s unease must have communicated itself to the cat, which, as usual at this time, was nowhere to be seen. He braced himself, turned the door handle, and pushed.
Everything was still there. Across the gravel road, the field had been cleared of trees. A sign posted notice of a zoning change. Beyond, he could see a few houses at the edge of a new subdivision, lights blinking off in their windows as their owners bid the world pleasant dreams. Beyond that, the sky glowed the sickly orange of light pollution. We’re all in the gutter, thought John, but some of us can no longer see the stars; as Oscar Wilde would have said, if he’d been Thomas Hardy. He shook his head at the encroaching houses, and walked towards his car, past the FOR SALE sign in his front lawn.
Into the car, another deep breath, and then John started the engine, pulled out of his driveway and turned towards the eerie orange glow. The lights of civilisation.
The gravel road became paved as he drove on, and then became a two-lane highway and curved towards the Highway 413 junction. Three days later, emergency barricades and flashing orange lights were still set up at the on-ramp, but John ignored them and drove past, onto the highway, feeding his car into the jaws of the city.
Three lanes became four, and the houses became more and more numerous. Every time another set of headlights appeared, behind or before him, John twitched nervously, his hands tightening on the steering wheel. This late at night there should have been few cars to greet him, or at least that’s what you’d think; but even at this time there were people with good reason to be out on the roads. Or bad reason. Statistical probability, John chanted to himself, letting the words flow through his mind like a mantra. Given a sample of, say, a thousand people, you’re unlikely to encounter that many people out on the roads at midnight. Given a sample of, say, Toronto…
The black silhouettes of factories and harshly lit parking lots sprouted from the horizon, slinked past him and vanished into his rear window, shooting angry glances as they passed and muttering to themselves. John clutched the steering wheel, his eyes fixed on the unrolling road, his mind playing the quantity-surveying game it always did at times like this. Hartsview Mall, only six kilometres to go now. Five point nine. When I reach three I’ll be halfway there. Two kilometres, means I’ve finished two-thirds of the journey from the mall. One point five? Halved the distance again, and in half the time. Xeno’s paradox says I’m getting there faster!
That had been funny, the first time.
And then he crested a hill and Lester B. Pearson Airport was stretched out before him like a wolf pack lying in the grass, dark asphalt runways and floodlit hangars and terminal buildings scattered across the ground as if a giant child had forgotten to pick up its toys after itself.
He entered the airport through a little used service road, exchanging quick pleasantries with a bored security guard. Above, an airplane roared into the sky, carrying human sardines to the canneries of London or L.A. A straggling car passed him on its way out of the employee parking lot. He found his customary parking space, pulled in, pressed the brake gently, firmly; stopped. Took a deep breath. Turned the key.
The car’s engine sputtered and stopped. There. That wasn’t too hard, was it?
Next step: get out of the car.
He closed his eyes, took a few deep breaths, and then opened the door. He struggled with his seat belt for a moment, got out of the car, reached back in over the gearshift for his briefcase, and closed and locked the door behind him. Check the list — seven steps completed, only ten more to go before you’re safe again in the computer room. That’s, er, seven into seventeen, goes thirty-four, sixty-eight, makes zero point four, remainder two…
Thoughts choked up with harmless mathematics, he strode towards the bright glass-green glow of the terminal, parked in the middle of the airport like a giant aquarium (what had he just been thinking, about sardines?) The last taxi pulled out of the bay, its owner bone-tired and quietly blaming his passenger for having to work so late. He tried to ignore it as he stepped in front of the motion-sensitive doors and walked inside.
Only the easy-listening music was there to greet him. The screens were closed over the check-in counters, the lights were off in the cafeteria, and the duty-free shops were closed. Outside, the people of Etobicoke were nestled all snug in their beds, local by-laws having ensured that after midnight they rarely had to fret about the fact that they’d chosen of their own free will to purchase houses near a busy international airport. John exhaled, realising that he’d been holding his breath without knowing it, as he always did.
His feet silent on the carpeted floor, he resumed his walk through the terminal. The piped-in sounds of living strings followed him past the stores and restaurants. The ground transport was abandoned. A lone security guard nodded at John as he passed, but his thoughts were also filled with the minutiae of life and it was an automatic pattern-recognition reaction, with no meaning behind it. John barely responded. He was almost to the safe place now, only two corners to turn, seventy percent of the terminal walk behind him.
And then he entered the large gallery and his footsteps faltered. He knew even before he looked up at the flight display. The pixelboard was almost black, with the exception of a single yellow line like a regimented swarm of angry bees.
AC407 HALIFAX — SCHEDULED 0:15 DELAYED. ETD 1:20 GATE 14
“Oh, no,” he said, unaware that he’d just spoken out loud for only the second time in six hours.
He closed his eyes for a moment, and then opened them, but the notice was still there. And Gate 14 was still between him and his destination.
He glanced at his watch. 00:50. Ten minutes, and thirty percent of the airport to go. And he was never late. He took pride in that. Not much, but enough. Taking another deep breath, he put his best foot forward, and then his other one, and then his best one again, and then he was walking, slowly but picking up speed, towards the moving sidewalk, towards the worst thing he could imagine.
More empty stores beside him. The guards at the security gate; again, a perfunctory nod was all they needed to acknowledge his existence. Gate 1, 2, 3… counting down, then, only eleven to go. The hairs rose on the back of his neck, and he slowed and glanced back. Two pilots and two flight stewards were passing him on the moving sidewalk, chatting animatedly; he knew they hadn’t noticed him, and he peered intensely at the opposite wall until they passed him by. Then he resumed his walk, watching as the flight crew drew up to Gate 14… and stepped off the moving sidewalk.
So, no mistake then. And only two minutes left. He swallowed and pushed himself forward, struggling now to put one foot ahead of the other, as if fighting against a strong head wind.
He could hear them from here.
People. At least fifty. Men and women, ages five to sixty-five. No, wait, three to eighty-seven. The children were tired and cranky, the toddler was wailing itself to sleep, the parents were sitting stoically in place and fuming beneath their skins, getting more and more upset as the hands of the clock crawled away from what should have been their departure time. Some were making new friends in the crowd…some. Most were huddled in their plastic chairs, their tired brains crawling over the inconveniences of the day and their eyes glaring poisonously at the flight crew, seeking scapegoats. Anger flowed out of the gate and swamped him in its bubbling, oily clutches, and he wasn’t even there yet.
He swallowed again, braced himself and strode forward, past the lions’ den. The inhuman babble of humanity rose about him like the tide coming in, and he walked past the gate, his eyes fixed on the “Authorized Personnel Only” sign beyond, desperately not thinking about anything, fumbling in his pocket for his swipe card, his fingers shaking and numb, nearly dropping it as he stumbled and flung out an arm to catch himself against the wall but he was nearly there now, only ten more steps, then seven, five and three and none, and he swept the card through the reader and clutched it tightly in his hand as the reader beeped once, paused, and beeped a second time, and the door clicked and he reached out and turned the knob and pushed the door open and walked through and closed the door behind him and was there.
At last, blessed silence. John took a long, deep breath, stepped forward and swept his card through another reader. It beeped smugly at him: 00:59:50. Ten seconds to spare. Nothing to worry about. Just like every day before. He sighed again, put down his briefcase and turned towards the staff room for some coffee to steady his nerves, and walked straight into somebody coming out.
The other figure gasped and leapt back, but not quickly enough. John had instinctively lunged forward to stop her from falling, and the cup of coffee that the woman had been carrying toppled out of her grasp and spilled its contents over John’s hand.
“Jesus,” she gasped. “You gave me a fright— oh, your hand.” She reached out for John’s hand, which he’d thrust into his mouth with a little gasp of pain. “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to startle you—”
He pulled back before she could reach him. “No! Really…” he forced a smile. “It’s okay. I should have known you were there.”
She sighed. “Don’t be afraid to ask for help, John. Look, it’s all over your shirt…”
“No, it’s…” he laughed, in theory. “It’s cafeteria coffee, right? Barely lukewarm.” He forced himself to calm down. “I’ll be all right. Just a little… burned.”
“It’s more than that, isn’t it?” Her eyes narrowed as she watched John stalk nervously over to the table, as he grabbed a fistful of napkins and scrubbed nervously at his hands with them. “You’re all wound up. It’s the crowd, isn’t it? John, you really should see somebody about…”
“I’ll be all right,” he snapped, and instantly regretted it. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“No, no…” she held up a hand, gently mocking herself, “once again Trish steps over the line. I know, John, I know… you value your privacy. But you’ve got to get out more, you really do. I mean, it’s one thing to have a phobia of crowds, but it’s just not healthy to lock yourself away like this…” She waved her hand again, and mimed a zipping motion across her lips. “Mm mm, m’m mmm mm’m mmm mm mmm mm-mm mm-mmm.” She unzipped her mouth again. “And on another topic, Trish wonders whether John has completed the updates for the air-traffic control systems, and asks him in the third person in a hopelessly flawed attempt to change the subject.”
“Just about done,” John said, moving to the coffee machine. “A little more work on them here and I’ll have it all installed by four.”
“Let me tell you, we’ll need it,” Trish said fervently. “Traffic’s increasing more quickly than the original projections allowed for. It was bad enough when they opened the new commuter rail link, but now they’re talking about extending the subway out here… It’s starting to overwhelm the controllers. You know the systems nearly went down twice today? Planes stacked to the cloud ceiling out there and the buffer overflow controls are nearly at full capacity. The radio says they’re talking about reviving plans for a second airport, near Pickering. Great idea, but that’s all they’re doing for now. Just talking.” She shook her head in amazement at the wilful blindness of the world. “Don’t they know how serious this is? It’s going to take a major disaster to get them to see how overcrowded things are getting in this city…”
“In every city,” John replied.
“That’s what I love about you,” Trish said. “Your eternal optimism.”
John squeezed the napkin a bit too tightly, and then forced himself to let go. “Yes,” he said. “Well. Better get to work, then.” He fumbled for something non-committal to say. “So, um. How’s the night life?”
“Not so good,” Trish sighed. “I was supposed to go out with my friends tomorrow, but we’ve got that thing Saturday afternoon, so Friday night clubbing’s out, I need my rest… Probably just as well, though. I heard on the news during my break, there was some accident down our area. They’re saying a woman got pushed out into the street by the crowds.” She shook her head, genuinely saddened. “Even the night scene’s getting too full.”
Don’t want to see her like this; change the subject, John. “What thing on Saturday?” he blurted without thinking.
Trish paused delicately. “And her heart breaks, as she realises she’s been ignored once again.”
John was already closing his eyes in self-reproach. “Of course I remembered, I mean, not remembered, I knew, I’d just forgotten, just for a… Your, um, thing. Rally. On Saturday. See, I knew.”
“Bonus points if you can tell me what it’s about…”
Trish strolled over to the coffee table, eyes laughing gently at John — no, that was his gut speaking — not at, with. “The escarpment extension,” John quoted from memory. “Pushing Highway 413 through the wildlife reserve, was that it?”
“If only! No, even the government of Ontario wouldn’t be so stupid as to try to run a four-lane highway through a provincial sanctuary…” She tossed her head, flame-angry hair glowering through the dimness of the computer room like the setting sun. “Which is why they haven’t officially classified those lands as being under protection. All they’ve done is ‘undertake a detailed needs assessment study’ and then launch an ‘environmental assessment process’ to follow up. Gaah, but what they need is a good swift kick in the…”
“Assessment?” John finished dryly.
Trish burst out laughing and slapped him on the arm. “Thank you. But I mean, seriously. Not a mention of public transportation anywhere. Because funding the highway construction project will mean jobs, and money coming in. So they’ve already made their decision, and they’re just tying it all up in procedure, getting the commuters more and more frustrated until a highway extension looks like a gift from the gods, and never mind the environmental impact…”
John turned away from her abruptly. “I don’t like to see you like this,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be angry. Not you too.”
Trish lifted an eyebrow. “Oh, I’m not?”
“No. You… you actually like people, Trish. That’s rarer than you think.” For a moment, he thought he was going to say something else — really thought he was going to tell her everything — but instead he turned away. “I have to get to work,” he repeated.
She leaned in closer, looking at him, directly at him. For a moment he closed his eyes and went on autopilot, just savouring the closeness of her, the scent of her hair; her youth and zest for life, like the sun coming out on a cloudy day. No, too much to take; stop these thoughts.
“You should come to the rally,” she said, quietly, all the bubble gone from her voice, meaning it. Genuinely meaning it. Wanting, needing him to come with her, to get out, to open up. Needing to fix him. Not for her sake. For his. Hurting for him. She was upset. He was hurting her.
He pulled back.
“I’ll see you on Monday,” he said tightly.
She stayed where she was for a moment, and then withdrew. He could feel her giving up; literally feel it, a change in the air, the pressure on his skin — the wanting to help still there, but also, the knowledge that nothing she said could change things.
“All right,” she said lightly, falsely. “I know when I’m not wanted.” (But you are, he didn’t say out loud.) “Time I was getting home, anyway. I don’t know how you keep these hours.”
“Best thing,” he mumbled, just wanting her gone now, needing her to go almost as much as he needed her to stay. “I asked for this shift. They gave it to me.”
“Far be it from them to turn down the best programmer in the department…”
“Second best,” he tried, but the moment was gone and she was turning for the door. She flashed him an empty smile in any case — the thought was appreciated — but he’d lost his chance. Thrown it away, like so many others.
“Good night,” he said. Nothing else.
He watched as she left. Get him to open up! That was a good one! As though he wasn’t too open already…
It felt as though someone was holding his head between their hands and forcing him to stare at the door through which Trish had just left, as if he could pull her back with the power of his thoughts. But that was one thing he couldn’t do; one of many. He reached out for a coffee cup and saw that there was one on the table already — but full, light brown liquid lapping up against the rim. She’d forgotten her coffee.
Except she took hers black. He closed his eyes, knowing, even without her being there. She’d made it for him. Just the way he liked it, knowing he’d be there on time, as he always was.
Can’t do anything about it now.
Have a nice day.
Back to work.
? ? ?
The Doctor stepped out of the bus terminal with a slight shudder, and gazed sadly at the bleak fields of parking lots and scrubland. “Hard to believe it’s the same city,” he said.
“Reminds me of Perivale,” Ace muttered. “Are you sure you know where we’re going?”
“I know this area like the back of my hand,” the Doctor promised, glancing at the rough map he’d scribbled on the back of his hand. “We go west.”
“And you’re sure we can get in touch with UNIT there?”
“It’s the only Canadian Forces base in the largest city in Canada. It’s an idea, at least.”
The stoplights barely gave them enough time to cross the intersection before flashing back to yellow. Beyond, the crossroad turned northwest, and the Doctor and Ace passed more scrubland, half-completed construction zones and signs announcing further projects. To their right, cars, trucks and the occasional night bus roared past.
Finally, they came to a gate with a battered guardhouse and a sign that read “CFB Downsview. Admittance Restricted.”
The duty guard eyed them as they approached, with the air of someone whose job rarely matched the excitement and fast pace of dishwasher repair. He put down his magazine and stood up, his hand resting lightly on his holster. “May I help you?”
“I’m here to see UNIT,” the Doctor replied.
“UNIT?” the guard repeated. “I’m sorry, sir, I don’t know what you’re talking about—”
“Of course you do,” the Doctor said. “If you really had no idea what I was talking about you’d confuse the word UNIT with the word ‘unit’ and ask me to be more specific about which Canadian Army unit I wanted to see. I need to speak to your C.O.” He paused impressively. “Tell them it’s the Doctor calling.”
The guard blinked. “Doctor who?”
The Doctor rolled his eyes, somewhat deflated. “Oh, for heavens’ sake. Do we have to go through this every time?” Long fingers stretched out and plucked the guard’s flashlight from his belt before he could react. “Doctor. That’s D as in Daleks, O as in Ogrons, C as in Cybermen, T as in TARDIS, O as in,” the Doctor hesitated only briefly, “other Ogrons, R as in regeneration. If it’s after 1993, you should have my current appearance on file.” He held the flashlight under his chin and waggled his fingers in the beam, casting weird shadows across his face. “Doctor. Oooweeeeooooweeeeeoooo.”
As the startled guard fumbled for the phone, Ace nudged the Doctor. “You know what? It doesn’t matter what body you’re in.”
The Doctor looked at her, surprised.
“You still like showing off,” she told him.
? ? ?
Major Beatrice Sharp signed her name to yet another requisition form and slapped it into her outbox, the first step on its long and painfully delayed journey to Ottawa. One more down, too many to go. She hadn’t joined the army to become a career bureaucrat; that had not been her intention. She toyed with her pen for a moment and entertained thoughts of stabbing it into the stack of papers in her inbox. Twenty enemy aliens dealt to death with one blow. Well done, that woman. Canada remains safe for another twenty-four hours.
She sighed and picked up another paper. Tempting as it was, she couldn’t afford to get behind. She’d delayed these for too long, trying to push through her requests for backup, or at the very least a psi-factor investigations team; and what had been a manageable task only a week ago had snowballed into a stack of papers which only seemed to be a foot high. Probably.
The tiny type danced and blurred before her eyes. Finely printed paperwork was nothing she should be staring at this late at night, this early in the morning, whichever. She squeezed the bridge of her nose between her fingers, forgetting her earlier resolution, wishing for something, anything, to distract her.
Which was exactly when the intercom buzzed at her. “Major?” her secretary’s voice quavered tinnily. “Um. Tea and Crumpets, Major. The, er… Doctor is here.”
The Major frowned. “Doctor? What doctor? I didn’t call for a doct—”
“Er, no sir. The Doctor. The Doctor. You know…” the intercom turned the whisper into a sibilant buzz, “the Bringer of Chaos?”
“I’m standing right here,” a voice said plaintively in the background.
Sharp blinked, forgotten protocol codes clamouring for attention in her head. Then she swore under her breath and stood up.
The door burst open and a trenchcoat strode into the room, dragging a tall thin man along inside it. “Major,” the man greeted her. “I believe your city has a problem.” He slapped a newspaper onto her desk. “The question is, what do you intend to help me do about it?”
This time, the Major swore over her breath.
? ? ?
“This is highly irregular, you understand,” said Major Sharp as she led the Doctor and Ace through the corridors.
The Doctor shrugged. “Well, I’m a highly irregular fellow.”
“Yes,” Sharp said dryly. “They covered that in the seminar.” She paused outside a small door and swiped her ID-card through its reader. The numerical keypad beneath it illuminated, a soft seawater green. “But while you may be a… being of considerable standing within the UNIT hierarchy, you can’t just barge into our headquarters without warning and expect us to place all of our facilities at your disposal the moment you arrive…”
“What? They didn’t mention that at the seminar?” The Doctor reached past Sharp and tapped briefly at the keypad. With a gentle click, the door unlatched itself. “Such a shame. I suppose I’ll just have to make do, then.”
Staring at the back of the Doctor’s neck — how had he known the correct access code? — the Major followed him into a dimly-lit computer room. “This is hardly fair. You haven’t shown up at a Canadian branch office since the early ’70s. I mean, I don’t even know the name of your companion…” She shot a frustrated glance at Ace, who just failed to hide the smirk on her face.
“Oh, that’s Ace,” the Doctor said. “You’ll like her. She blows things up.” He dropped himself into a swivel chair and rotated to face the Major. “Shouldn’t your scientific advisor be here?”
“Our scientific advisor,” Sharp said wearily, “is a graduate student from York University, who is probably still sleeping off the effects of a night out at the clubs. We aren’t exactly prepared for this sort of thing, Doctor, and if I’m going to help you, I need to know why you’re here, what you’re looking for, and do I have to arm my men as a result? And if you don’t mind me saying so, and even if you do, I think you made your entrance here as dramatic as possible just to give us under-worked Canadian UNIT soldiers the fright of our lives!”
The Doctor suddenly turned away from the monitors and smiled at Sharp, and it was as if the sun had come out from behind the clouds. “I’m sorry,” he said genuinely, “you’re quite right. I do find that the military mind hates surprises, and I can’t resist teasing them a bit about it. I know I shouldn’t do it. But I believe the incident mentioned in the paper falls under your jurisdiction.”
Sharp nodded. “The Highway 413 pile-up? They said it was just a case of highway hypnosis. But that doesn’t really explain how over fifty drivers managed to cross over two kilometres of unpaved fields without noticing anything was wrong. I’ve tried to call in experts to look into it, but Canada hasn’t spent much on its military recently and most of it has gone to overseas peacekeeping. I couldn’t give them enough evidence of unnatural activity to justify the expense. They seemed to think I was just crying wolf.”
The Doctor shook his head. “We can give you confirmation on a second incident,” he said. “Confirmation? Goodness, it’s surprising how quickly the lingo comes back to you…” He turned to Ace. “Ace, can you describe what happened?”
“Not really,” Ace shrugged. “All I know is, one minute I was sitting down at the café table, and the next thing I knew I was at the curb and thirty seconds had gone.”
The Doctor swivelled back around to face Sharp. “She wasn’t the only one. Every human in the area fell into a trance and began following some invisible patterns of force. One woman stepped into traffic before I could stop her.”
Sharp nodded, taking it all in. “And you think this falls under UNIT jurisdiction?”
The Doctor shrugged. “Your remit is to investigate the unexplained. I think this qualifies, don’t you?” He considered for a moment. “Until we explain it, at any rate.” Satisfied, he stood up. “I’m going to need access to your laboratories and all of the tracking equipment you’ve got. It’s too early to tell how contained this effect is, but if it’s reached out beyond the city already we may be running out of time without knowing it. We need to isolate the cause. And for that, we’re going to need each other’s help.”
? ? ?
Mark Close is swimming against traffic. Literally swimming. He’s not sure why they put the pool in the middle of Queen Street West but it makes it difficult to draw breath with all of those exhaust pipes in his face. Poor urban planning. He should complain. Say something. Like “why no rabbits?” There should be hedge rabbits beside the entrance to the Eaton Centre; there always have been, except when there haven’t.
He walks up to the mailbox which has replaced the hedge rabbit which wasn’t there before, and thumps it angrily on the side, dripping chlorinated water on an important package from the Publisher’s Clearing House. People seem to be giving him a wide berth. Probably because he’s naked; well, their loss.
Wait a minute.
He’s standing naked outside the Eaton Centre. How the hell did that happen? He was swimming! This made sense a minute ago!
He covers himself and looks around wildly, realising just how many people are there — they weren’t there a minute ago, were they? Because why would he have been swimming nude before them all?
Any minute now somebody’s going to see him but that’s no reason to panic — no, all right, it’s a perfect reason to panic. He can feel them crowding in around him, ready to point, ready to laugh, scream, bite. Teeth flashing in the crowd, enamel-white, smoke-yellow-brown. Okay. Calm down. They can smell fear. All he has to do is walk twelve miles home without anybody noticing that he doesn’t have any clothes on. No big deal. People do that all the time.
He turns and something’s there in the street, all around, in the crowd, of the crowd, coming for him — for everybody — coming at him. At first he thinks it’s a shark, because the pool was in the street, but it’s not — he has an impression of teeth, more than he can count, more than he wants to, frankly — more than one of them. Whatever it is, whatever they are…
Somebody screams as the wolfshark things chew through them on their way to Mark (they’re after him in particular, they have to be, because this is his dream), and the screams continue, the screams are changing, the screams are and were a shrill electronic freeping sound that sounded like his bedside telephone, because that was what it was.
He was swimming in his bed, the dreamstreet shattering into fragments of streetlamp orange, spilling out of the cracked mirror over his bed and into the corners of his room. “I’m awake,” he told the phone, “keep ringing.” He fumbled for purchase against his sweat-soaked sheets and pushed himself up. “Good, you are.” Feet over the sides, braced against the floor. “Carry on.”
He looked at the clock and decided to ignore what it was telling him. It would probably just be easier to let his limbs do whatever they wanted and hope it had something in common with his own desires. I’d really appreciate it if you’d pick up the phone, he told his right hand, and let it drift out in that general direction.
“Hello. I’m awake.” Probably didn’t have to say that last bit. “Mark. Mark Close here.”
“Close? It’s Major Sharp. Are you on your cellular?”
“What? Er…” He had to think about that for a moment. “Er, no. Land line. What?”
“Good. We have an emergency situation. Meet me at Downsview CFB ASAP. I’ll brief you upon your arrival.” And with that, her voice became the click and dull electronic hum of a dial tone.
Mark blinked at the telephone, still trying to process what it had told him. Emergencityuation. Downsview AFB, sharp. Major Sharp. UNIT! See, I was listening!
“Right,” he told her, “I’m awake. I’ll be there.” Then he remembered that she’d already disconnected. “Okay. Didn’t need to say that.” He considered. “Or that.” He let his hand put the receiver back, and stood up. That was a mistake, so he sat down again.
The shadows shifted in the corner of the room, growling at him. He shook his head, the echoes of the nightmare bouncing back from the inside of his skull, as the growling changed into the sound of a passing car and the shifting shadows gave way to broken headlights, scattershot out of the cracked mirror. I need coffee, he thought. Caffeine bitch goddess got you into this situation, and she can get you out of it. Wake up and then save the world on a budget.
UNIT? Emergency situation? That had to be part of the dream. This was Toronto. What ever happened here?
He got up and shuffled off to the kitchen, and the shadows turned and fled, seeking easier prey.
? ? ?
The wee hours were gone and the sun was rising when John pulled back into his driveway. It had been an easier drive coming than going, in some ways. Once John had read about the human body clock, and although he couldn’t remember all of the details he knew vaguely that the metabolism’s lowest ebb came around four or five, both in the afternoon and in the early morning. It was all keyed to light patterns somehow.
Which meant that the streets were at their quietest during his long drive home, and that forcing himself to stay awake through the shift hours he had chosen to cut off contact with the world was killing him as slowly and gently as water dripping onto a stone.
But not yet. Not just yet.
He entered his house, too weary to do anything more than think a brief greeting at his cat, and glance hesitantly at the telephone. Trish would still be asleep, he knew that. He should really call her later this morning, apologise for his behaviour. It would be easier to do it when they weren’t face to face. When he didn’t have to feel her accusing, hurt stare burning into him and know he was responsible for it.
He’d have to give her a call, yes. But another yawn cracked his mouth open and he knew he wouldn’t be able to stay awake that long. He’d thought he could work these hours when he’d first asked for them. But eight hours of sleep had turned into nine, and now ten, and still he could barely string two thoughts together at this time of the night — or the morning — or the day? He didn’t even know what to call it any more.
It was being alone that did it, left without a compass to navigate his way through proper social behaviour. She’d been right. Lack of contact was going to kill him. But he remembered the crowds of angry frequent fliers in the airport, and reminded himself that it was still better than the alternative.
He tossed his jacket off and hung it up by the door, and stumbled down the hall to his bedroom, where he slowly stripped off his clothes, fumbled into his pyjamas and lay down on the bed…
…and tossed and turned for another two and a half hours before the world finally, reluctantly, slowly withdrew itself, leaving him to his solitude.
? ? ?
Ace could hear the shouting all the way down the corridor, the frustrated hoarseness of someone encountering Doctor-logic for the first time. “Look, I’m not just saying I can’t do it, I’m saying it’s impossible from first principles!”
“Very well, then. Let’s just get it out of the way, and then five more, and then it’ll be time for breakfast.”
Ace grinned to herself, and pushed open the doors to the mess hall, to see a young man who looked as though the Doctor had just handed him a fish and told him to have it ready by Tuesday. “Look, even if it wasn’t impossible to build this thing…”
“Which it isn’t…”
“…which it is, where’s C-Major supposed to get this equipment from? I mean, we don’t just have this kind of stuff lying around…”
The Doctor tapped a pencil on the table in an irritated rhythm. “Are you saying the combined forces of UNIT and the Canadian army can’t lay their hands on a single 486 computer chip for a telepathic transmission detector?”
“Even if you left off that last bit, no. A 486? Come on, that’s been obsolete for more years than I’ve had hot home-cooked dinners. If you wanted an Octium 5, then maybe we’d be able to…”
The Doctor’s eyes lit up. “Octiums? Even better!” He shuffled the papers and held out a hand to Ace. “Pencil?”
“You’re holding one already,” she told him.
The Doctor looked at it, surprised. “That was fast.” He scribbled something on a blank sheet of paper, frowned at it, scrunched it up and threw it away. Ace blinked; she’d caught a glimpse of what was on the paper for a moment, and could have sworn that it had been a tic-tac-toe game. The Doctor scribbled something else and handed it to Mark. “How long do you think this will take?”
Mark glanced over the paper. “Well, if…”
“Good.” The Doctor steepled his fingers and peered over top of them at Mark. “In your own time, then. Only faster…”
Mark mumbled something even Ace couldn’t quite hear and stormed out of the mess hall.
Ace lifted an eyebrow and plunked herself onto the bench across from the Doctor. “Making friends?”
“Influencing people? Something certainly is.”
“Right. So what’s the plan?”
“Wait for the equipment we need, build the machine, go downtown, see what we can see. Metaphorically speaking, that last one.” He drummed his fingers on the table. “Union Station, I think, the Underground City. Start centrally, work our way out.”
“Underground city?” Ace frowned. “What, you mean like the bunkers on Hieradi? There hasn’t been a nuclear war in this century, has there?”
“No, no — it’s an underground mall, beneath the financial district. A series of pedestrian tunnels linking most of the office buildings and subway stations in the downtown core. It’s used by tens of thousands of commuters daily. It’s the perfect place for another herding incident.”
“But how can you search a whole city without knowing what you’re looking for?” Ace asked sceptically. “I mean, how big is this downtown core?”
“One thing at a time, Ace.”
“Not much of a plan.”
The Doctor shrugged. “Not much of a lead, yet. Of course I’m assuming that the influence is telepathic simply because of the simultaneity of the crowd’s responses. The human mind can be disrupted by any number of things from pheromones to subsonic vibrations. But if nothing else, this detector will eliminate a possibility…”
“But you’re starting off here? Thinking some telepath’s out there, turning people into lemmings?”
The Doctor thought about this for a moment. “Interesting creature, the lemming,” he said. “Terribly misunderstood. The lemming population goes through regular cycles in its natural habitat, and in the periods of overpopulation they become so numerous that in some colonies they crowd each other over the edges of cliffs. Human beings, being somewhat more adept at leaping, especially to conclusions, witnessed this behaviour and created the myth of mass lemming suicide.”
He placed his hands on the table and spread out his fingers. “And then, in the 1950s, the Walt Disney company visited Scandinavia to film one of its nature documentaries. The cameramen set up their equipment on the beaches, expecting crowds of lemmings to plunge to their photogenic doom. The lemmings of course did no such thing. And since the reality was far less memorable than the myth, the filmmakers tightened their shots, and sent men up the cliffs. And the cameras rolled, and the wranglers stood outside the frame, and pushed the lemmings over the edge, to their deaths.”
Ace’s face twisted. “You’re joking.”
The Doctor tapped his fingers on the table. “Lemmings don’t jump,” he said. “They were pushed.”
“So…” Ace concluded, “you don’t think the people out there are behaving like lemmings.”
Finally, the Doctor looked up at her. “On the contrary…” he murmured. “That’s exactly what I think is happening.”
? ? ?
Friday (early afternoon)
“It’s a simple enough question.” Isabel brushed her hair out of the way and took a sip of her orange juice, her eyes never leaving Trish. “Just tell me — what do you see in him?”
Trish lifted an eyebrow. “That’s a simple question?”
“Should be.” Isabel sat back in her chair, ignoring the people striding around the food court, trays in their hands and desperate gazes searching in vain for empty tables. “There’s got to be something. I know there’s got to be something. Can’t for the life of me figure out what it is, but that’s why I asked the question.”
Trish considered for a moment, unconsciously picking the raisins out of her breakfast muffin. “He’s sweet,” she said. “He’s got a sense of humour…”
“Stock answers number four and seven,” Isabel announced. “Face it, Trish, we’ve been friends for, what, how long? The guy’s just not your type.”
“Oh? And what is my type, then?”
“Alive? Trish, if I hadn’t heard him talking to you that time I came to pick you up at work, I would have pegged him for mute. He clammed right up the moment he spotted me and didn’t say a word the entire time I was there!”
“So,” Trish shrugged, “he’s shy. It takes a while before he feels comfortable enough to talk to people, but once he’s out of his shell, he’s got a lot to talk about. We talk about computers, we talk about our work, about…”
“Ha.” Isabel tapped her straw against the table, and winced when it bent in half. “Ha anyway. You’re head over heels for him, and he doesn’t know a thing about it. Why did you sign up for the five-to-one shift? So you can have your breakfast with me while I’m having my lunch? Not likely, girl. You do it so you can bump into him on his way in, while you’re on your way out. Look, you don’t have to give me a reason, but you’ve got to let him know how you feel, that’s not negotiable. Even if it sends him screaming for the hills, you’ve got your answer.”
Trish sighed. “Thank you, mother. All right, I’ll think about it—”
“Ah ah ah—”
“—I’ll do it, then, are you happy? Just… slowly. Carefully. My way.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it. Why didn’t you ask him out to the rally?”
Trish tapped her fingers on the table. “Ah, actually…” she admitted.
Isabel rolled her eyes. “Do I want to be hearing this, girl? How much longer can you keep trying? Are the words ‘cause’ and ‘lost’ going to be passing my lips at any point in the not-too-distant future?”
“Shouldn’t you be getting back to work?”
Isabel glanced at her watch. “Oh, foosball. Right. We’ll pick this up on Saturday where we left off, mind you.”
“I think we’ll have other things to deal with then,” Trish pointed out. “But sure, after the rally we’ll go out, have a bite, and you can vivisect my love life in graphic biological detail, deal?”
“Deal.” The women stood, took each other’s hand, and shared a hug, and then Trish turned and slipped into the current of people streaming past the café.
Isabel watched her go for a moment, shaking her head. Poor Trish didn’t have the faintest idea. She was too trusting, expecting this mystery John to break out of his shell. But Isabel knew how the world worked. And she knew that a guy who was still hiding from the world in his thirties wasn’t ever going to change.
And she also knew that standing here in the middle of Toni’s Café thinking about someone else’s love life wasn’t going to get her back to her desk any faster. She picked up her briefcase, glanced at her watch again, and joined the part of the human river that was flowing towards the escalators.
There was some sort of trouble up ahead, a bottleneck in the corridor. She wasn’t even in the crowd yet and already irritation at the delay was gnawing at her mind. Why had she tarried so long over lunch? It wasn’t as if Trish was ever going to listen to her, anyway. Why even bother trying to help?
She peered ahead, impatiently seeking out the cause of the delay… and then caught sight of a man in a paramedic’s uniform, helping to lift a stretcher, holding an oxygen mask onto the face of an old man who’d collapsed in the middle of the crowd.
A flush of conscience reddened her cheeks and she turned away. Well, he shouldn’t have been out in the crowds anyway, she thought, not in his condition. Should have known better. Think about something else. Think about the Feldman account. Trish wouldn’t have blamed the old man like that, she wasn’t so caught up in herself, she didn’t go around accusing everyone else for getting in her way all the time… So I’m not a nice person, so what? Feldman. Feldman feldman feldman.
She shuffled forward, trying to slip through the cracks of the crowd, her mind a million miles away — or at least fifteen floors — and something leapt out of the crowd at her, snarling.
She shrieked. She actually shrieked. She staggered back, briefcase raised to defend herself against…
…nothing. Only a few surprised people, staring at her. She raised a hand to her hair — God, she was shaking. What had she seen? Nothing. Just something in the corner of her eye, someone’s faux-fur moving the wrong way. Trick of the light.
“Are you all right?” someone asked.
“I’m fine,” Isabel snapped. She realised that she’d dropped her briefcase and was standing in the middle of the crowd, still shaking. What was that? What was wrong with — nothing. Nothing’s wrong. Just caught out for a moment.
She felt a hand on her arm, trying to help. She pulled away. “Take a picture,” she snapped. “It’ll last longer.”
She grabbed her briefcase and turned and walked away, looking for another way out of the crowd. She didn’t need any help, because there was nothing wrong with her. Nothing.
? ? ?