Part Four: Pain
Pain struck him.
It shouldn’t have, he shouldn’t be capable of feeling it. But for an instant he did, the fear shocking him closer to his flesh. For a moment his heart leapt. Not just the heart-form his transcended self created within him, unreal, unflesh. For an instant he felt his real heart in his real body, he felt his flesh in the attic room upstairs.
As he felt his heart jump, miss a beat in the weakened stick-figure on the bed fear struck him. He felt the world for the first time since he had transcended. For a moment the fear of rescension took him and he felt the world slipping, felt the slide as his form wavered between states, the link between himself and his sleeper at its shortest point. He fell to his knees, his head swimming.
“Mark!” the voice called out, a sweet voice, female, concerned, alive. But on the edge of the word was a hint of the fear Mark was feeling. The world had hit them, the intrusion of darkness had begun and both sensed it, their heightened states so aware of the discord suddenly entered in upon them.
“Mark, what’s wrong?” Angela rushing forward, Sean beside her. Mark looked up, forcing himself back to the hallway. Struggling was in vain, the force dragging him further into the mire of his flesh.
But then he realised what he was doing, he brought himself under control, focusing his mind on the calm inherent in his transcended state. His eyes opened and he focused his senses outward at the concerned faces around him.
“What’s wrong, who was at the door?”
Mark dragged himself upright. “We have to go.”
“We have to go now. The police are coming. Everyone has to go to the attic. We have to remove our sleepers. We have to run from this place.” The simple commands brought Mark back. This was no time for weakness. Despite being unqualified to lead they relied on him. He wasn’t a leader, he knew little more than they did about transcendence. He was a child among children but they relied on him to tell them what to do. Recognising this he had planned for escape.
Now with the simple commands stirring his friends, the very act of taking charge quieted his mind and he felt his flesh retreat. The fear was gone, the link widened as he embraced the happiness of his self. The calming bliss of transcendence washed through him anew, like the joy of the first time. He relaxed and delighted in being alive. It wasn’t over yet, it would never be over. They could not be hurt as long as they protected their flesh. He had given in to despair last time, that was how they had won, because he had given up. Those who wished to hurt them could not win; Mark would not give up this time. He would fight. Hadn’t he planned this, hadn’t he expected it; there was no reason to panic. It had been a shock, that’s all; they would leave and find somewhere else to live.
Slowly he focused his concentration to the room at the top of the house, mindshifting to where his flesh slept helpless in its weakness. As he did so Mark was filled with hope. They was no reason to fear, he knew that, and with the strengthening and widening of the link between him and his sleeper, as his flesh drifted away, he no longer did. The world outside had not corrupted their world. Their happiness was not over and the pain of the world they had transcended from could no longer touch them.
Mark believed this; he believed a lot of truths about transcendence. But like so much of what he believed, he was mistaken.
*** *** ***
They came like ants, like a swarm of insects. Guns bristled like spines, commands shouted over airwaves like the roar of the tide as the ocean of readied violence swept forward. A convoy of vehicles rushed towards Poplar Road for the second time in its history; a procession marking the anniversary of last year’s horror. The summer sun was high in the sky as it had been on that far-off day when the armed police had swarmed into the large house and rescued Mark Camden from his captor.
The police emerged from the backs of vans, their guns gleaming black in the harsh daylight, helmets smooth like the carapaces of beetles. A helicopter flew overhead, the news reporters flocking like vultures to tear over the scraps that survived what soon would erupt. They had arrived quickly this time and today they were determined to catch everything as it happened, not just the few sparse pictures gleaned from the aftermath last year.
Yet this year there was no dead policeman inside the house, no scared children or wild tales of corpses that breathed. This time Inspector Farrier was in the spotlight. He had pulled the small group of police he had brought with him to the perimeter he had set up. He had called for backup and the plans he had initiated within the police operational groups were mobilised. He had been claiming for the past few weeks that the end was near and the police had been ready for the first sighting, the first command to surround, to capture. They had planned, they had mobilised and now the house had been surrounded. There was to be no escape this time.
*** *** ***
The attic, dimly lit and reeking of the seven bodies that lay there. Five were still, in advanced states of starvation, barely breathing, they lay as though dead. The other two were asleep, weakened, thinned from their enforced starvation. Conner as though a corpse, Sarah twitching in the depths of her unconscious drift. Silent, the room held those seven, still and weak. The next instant there were twelve. Five were there that had not been there before, mindshifting into the room from downstairs.
“What do we do with them?” Sean asked, referring to the two that had not yet transcended. Mark paused for a moment, the question had never occurred to him, he had always assumed they would have transcended already when they were forced to flee. Now only one solution presented itself.
“Wake them. They don’t have time.”
“They’ll be weak.”
“We can carry them.”
The two men stepped forward and Mark placed his hand on Conner’s shoulder. With a sudden brutal jerk Conner twitched, his eyes flashing open and fixing Mark with a look of such desperation that it made him take a step back.
With a cry Conner wrenched himself up. He rose from his flesh, coming apart at the seams, the ghostly white form above his skin was solid already, not mist drifting gently from his pores but a soul being torn from his body with the force of his will.
Conner cried out with a heart-wrenching moan. “I will. I can’t. Stay in this body. Anymore. I hate it I hate I…” screaming with effort he writhed and tore himself free, his head coming loose from his skull, his hands gripping the air like claws as he pulled himself out. So close to transcension he was not willing to give up, he could not go back to the world he had tried to leave, he hated it so much, he hated himself so much. He was shivering now with desperation, with a pent up anguish that he had bottled up all his life. With the bitterness and rage that had plunged his mind so often into the depths of his self-loathing. That rage broke out, tearing his soul, ripping it from its prison with a groaning roar from his mouth.
And from elsewhere, a high pitched buzz, a crackling, a skittering behind the walls of reality, so faint, as though just imagined. And most of them ignored it in the chaos that had erupted. But Angela heard. And she remembered.
Conner emptied his heart into one long cry of such hopeless pain that it tore Angela’s heart and made her think of her own pain for the first time since coming to this house. She thought of her baby, dead, never even given a chance to live, such loss, such wasted life. She stared out of the window, unable to look at the desperate, clawing man anymore as he sought to escape his pain, to escape his body through physical strength rather than quietness of soul.
Outside the sun had gone in, clouds gathered in the sky and they were black. A storm filled the horizon, looming, preparing to unleash what was stored within. They loomed and reared, a many-headed thing that guarded hell. And Angela felt tears come to her eyes.
“Conner!” Sean yelled. “Stop it!” He leapt forward and grabbed him by the shoulders, his hands unable to choose which shoulders were solid for a moment until he chose the rapidly solidifying grey ones and grabbed them, staring into his wild eyes.
“Relax. Conner, relax. You have to calm down.” And Conner stared back; the wild look fading as he let the world slip away, stopped fighting it. He saw something in Sean’s eyes that calmed his soul and his eyes opened, widening as the happiness of transcension filled him.
As his eyes widened in response to Sean’s presence, to his calming touch the skittering buzz vanished as though it never had been. The darkness lifted from Conner’s face and his sleeper slumped back heavily to the sheets below. He fell from his body, falling into Sean’s arms, weeping with joy.
“I’m free,” he cried. “At last I’m free.”
Conner looked around with new eyes as the bliss of transcension washed though him, calming him, delighting him. He had left his body behind. His flesh, broken, hurting, weak and weighing. All was behind him. His past, his bitter, broken past was left behind in his body, in the flesh that had seethed with such uncontrolled emotion.
And he stood up. He stood on his own two feet, something the doctors had told him would never happen again. Conner stood and smiled as he walked. For the first time in his life he really smiled, not just the expression but the feeling, the deep rising feeling of freedom, of true inner peace and joy. For the first time in his life he felt happiness. His smile was beautiful, his eyes closed and an expression on his face that transformed him, so that Sarah would have struggled to recognise him, so that he wouldn’t have recognised himself.
And Angela, who did see, looked outside and the bright, warming sun was shining again, its warmth alighting the sky a brilliant blue and the colours of the world were bright and glowing. The clouds were gone as though they had never been, as though they had just been in her mind. She thought of her lost child and found it no longer caught her heart. Even though she knew the tragedy she could smile to herself. It was over, a pain of her past life. But it was a memory. It no longer filled her heart with such empty loss as before, the world no longer affected her. The moment that had frightened her was gone. But she remembered it still. The closeness of her flesh, retreating now but she knew it had been advancing before. The memory remained of what had happened. Of what had almost happened. The sun shone brighter than it ever had but the memory of the clouds remained.
“Sarah!” Conner broke from his ecstasy to focus on the reality of the room around him. He turned as he rose to his feet and ran towards the sleeping body of the one remaining human in the room.
“What’s wrong, why hasn’t she transcended?” His voice was normal now, his face shining with health, the ravages of his life non-existent, his skin pure smooth flesh, his eyes deep and bright, glistening with life and happiness, his hair lush and shining rather than the wild mat of his sleeper. His clothes had changed, his mind clothing him in well-fitting clothes rather than the hanging fashionless shirt of before.
While the bodies of the others hadn’t changed much after transcension Conner’s had. The others stood only as perfect representations of what they had once been, their minds imagining their selves as they had been in their bodies. Conner though had hated his body. His form was his mental image, his will that coalesced into the form his self took as he left his flesh. His hate of his body had forced him into a different form, similar but taller, muscled; handsome in ways he had never been before.
His hair was a different colour, his features more defined, his eyes blazing stars. He stood as he had always wanted to be, as he had always ached to be, gone was his shortness, his nose that he had despised, his thin lips that he had stared at in disgust. His face had once been fleshy, now the definition of his jaw showed perfect structure. He had hated himself, the loathing growing over years of compounding his depression and disgust until he avoided mirrors and kept his eyes fixed on the pavement as he went to the shops, desperate not to catch his reflection in the windows. Now he was reborn, different, perfect, the loathing and despair gone. He was free.
“What’s wrong?” he demanded, looking up in surprise at the group standing around him. He crouched by Sarah’s bed, a child confused that she wouldn’t wake. He was transcended, she should be too.
“We have to wake her up.” Mark interjected. “The police are here, we have to go.”
Conner stared at him incredulously. “No.” Conner cried. “We can’t, she has to transcend, she has to. I did, why can’t she?”
Mark looked at Conner and didn’t know what to say. Sarah hadn’t been reluctant; she had gone into transcendence willingly, though only to be beside Conner, not for her own reasons. Conner had been desperate, more desperate even than Mark as he had fled the hospital to try and regain the paradise he had lost.
“Because there’s no time.” Sean answered for him. He stepped forward and gently shook Sarah’s shoulder.
“Sarah!” he called sharply.
“No.” Conner said but didn’t try to stop him. He didn’t know what was happening; he didn’t know what to do. And in his confusion he put his trust in those more experienced, he trusted them to know the best thing to do.
“The rest of you, grab your sleepers.” Mark called. “We have to go. Now!”
“Sarah, wake up. Come on!” Sean shook her more firmly and her eyelids flickered, her mind coming back to the world she had been trying to leave, to a body crying out with hunger and weakness.
“Sarah, we have to go.”
“What. Why.” Sarah moaned in a sleepy voice. “What’s happening?”
“You haven’t transcended yet.” Sean replied. “But we need to leave. I’m sorry.” He glanced up as Jane and Nick strode past carrying their limp sleeping bodies. Mark had grabbed his. All the sleeping bodies were carried as though they weighed next to nothing. Weight meant nothing to the transcended; they lifted without relying on muscles and bone. They raised their sleeping flesh to their shoulders and prepared to leave.
“We have to go.” Sean repeated gently. “The police are here, we have to run.”
“Conner, come on, grab your sleeper.” Mark cried. Conner looked around bewildered.
“Your flesh, your body. Grab it; we have to get out of here.”
“But Sarah. I should…” Mark paused, understanding Conner’s bewildered concern.
“Alright, you stay and help her, I’ll take yours.” He stepped over to the bed and with one hand lifted Conner’s sleeper over his spare shoulder. Sarah looked up.
“Conner. You’re standing,” she stared at him with a swimming head, the world still as though a dream to her. “You’re…you’re beautiful.” She managed.
“I’m transcended.” He replied in explanation.
“Why aren’t I?” she asked. There was a sudden crash from downstairs, the front door splintering as the police battering ram smashed into it. Glass smashed and heavy containers bounced across the oak floorboards spilling choking gas into the heart of the house. Farrier had advised no caution, no chance to let these people escape or to kill their victims. This wasn’t a hostage situation, he had shouted, this was a raid. And the officer in charge had been inclined to agree. He had led the assault last year and he knew what was in that house. The caution of the advancing police last year had led to casualties and had given the perpetrator time to get upstairs to his hostage. He wasn’t going to let the same thing happen again if he could. They would rush the house, fill it from every direction, cut off escape and try and cut the cultists off from their victims using surprise and speed.
“No time.” Mark shouted. “Sean, can you get down there, try and keep the hallway clear, we have to get down to the cellar. Angela, can you take Sean’s sleeper.”
“Sure.” She replied and grabbed it, hoisting it over her shoulder with one arm. Sean stood up over Sarah and her eyes widened in shock as he vanished without a sound.
“Conner, grab Sarah and lets go.”
“Sarah, come on, we have to go now.” Conner told her in a soft voice. He took her arm and helped her upright. She immediately groaned and curled up into a ball clutching her stomach.
“Uurrgh, I’m so hungry.” Her head swam and she almost fainted.
“Come on Sarah, you can do it.” Conner told her.
“I can’t,” she whimpered. “I’m too weak.” There was an explosion of gunfire from below. Sarah jerked upright and almost collapsed again with the effort of the movement. Conner heaved her up, lifting her easily into his arms. He placed her hands around his neck and lifted her up. He turned to Mark in the doorway.
“What’s going on Mark, I thought we were immortal. Why are we running?”
“We are immortal, I think, unless they get hold of our sleepers. Then they can revive them and we rescend back into them.”
“What! You never said anything about that.” His eyes widened and as the truth hit him that there was a possibility of returning to what he’d left his eyes greyed. For an instant they dulled and then were bright once more as the natural light of transcension washed all last traces of fear from him.
“I’m not going back, I can’t.”
“Don’t worry” Mark replied. “I’ve got a way out. We’ve just got to hurry. If they shoot our sleepers by accident we’ll probably die.”
“I don’t know for sure, it’s never happened.” Amrk answered. As he did he was struck by the realisation of how little he knew. He didn’t know what he was capable of, it had taken Sean’s experimenting to even make him curious. And he was completely ignorant of the dangers of transcension. He had no time to think of such matters now though. He turned to his friends and hurried them on. Unable to mind-shift with their sleepers in their arms the group descended the stairs to the top floor landing.
The police sergeant fired again. Like the other times he had tried to use his weapon it made little difference. The hallway was filled with smoke and screams, shouts and cries of muddled orders and panic. Haunted by the noise and the smoke and the crash of gunfire he fired wildly at the violence that the smoke birthed towards him.
The strangely beautiful man had appeared from nowhere. One moment the police were filing through the front door, filling the hallway in ordered discipline. Then he was among them, coming from the far end of the hallway without warning. Somehow the attack had gone wrong, the synchronised assault had turned out partially staggered and while the front hallway was filing with men the squad at the back of the house was still waiting for the order to advance. Sergeant Kerrick didn’t know this though and it would have meant nothing if he had. Panic had filled the corridor as battle had pulled them into the fog of war.
The first man to fire had been present at the previous raid and he had watched as right in front of him his friend’s chest shattered from a single blow. Now as the man approached them too fast his finger had clutched at the trigger of his gun like a lifeline as it bucked and leapt in his hands. He held it before him like a shield against the sight of the twisted bone and blood that he couldn’t get out of his head. With growing panic he watched his bullets pass through the man like he was a ghost. And he wept in terror as the man stepped up to him, crossing a good twenty metres of hallway floor in one step. He screamed and tried to hit the beautiful man with his gun.
The butt of the weapon bounced vainly off his skull and a blow hit Warren’s chest like an express train. Warren flew back into two others behind him, a brutal crack of bone as he slammed backwards with such force that his skull bounced off a man’s face, knocking Warren out and helping him forget the four broken ribs that lay over his lungs. Men screamed. Guns went off.
Tear gas filled the hall, police, panicked, struggled and screamed in the throng of drifting gas and bursting metal. Their gas masks hampered them as they pushed, their training forgotten as those in front were forced back, some badly injured, some just trying to escape. Fists lashed out in panic at those behind who would not let them pass. Blood seeped stealthily underfoot.
Kerrick turned desperately, trying to keep control and, amid the heaving packed crowd he was forced forward and he turned and found himself eye to eye with a man whose face no longer glowed, whose eyes were grey like the grave. Kerrick watched the veil pass over the man’s eyes as he struck him. His chest shattered, body armour like paper, splinters of bone and ruins of flesh and heart blood staining soft pink skin.
Kerrick folded painfully over the outstretched fist dying softly against the iron fist of Sean that had invaded his chest. His body slumped heavily to the carpet, oozing dark, almost black blood over its soft, luxurious surface.
Sean looked down at the dead policeman in horror and then raised his hand to his eyes. His face twisted in pain as he saw that his own knuckles were bleeding. The now-grey skin was cut and the surface around the break had blackened as though rot had set in. And he could sense that his own face was no longer beautiful, his eyes looked out from a mask.
In front of him the faceless men he had been murdering started firing again.
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