Prologue / 1
THE SUN DARKENS. At first imperceptibly, and then with greater speed, it casts an unfamiliar veil over itself. It is the first eclipse in years.
The people look up at the sky, where some of them notice to the east a star falling to its death, and others watch the hulking disk of the moon that obscures the sun. It was all there in the sky that day, above Barker’s Mill.
After a few minutes, the eclipse is over. The planets creak slowly along their orbits, and soon everything is as it was.
On the ground far below, life teeters on the edge of changing forever, but for today at least, it changes its mind and proceeds as it always has, grinding along the rusting tracks of its normality. It forgets quickly the strange orange dusk that had descended from the middle of the day.
On the edge of a tree-lined bay, with water the same deep green that you find in the glass of old bottles, stands Barker’s Mill. The town has been laid out with the same care that a child gives to the arrangement of a new set of blocks. Its houses sit solidly, arranged in neat rows, portly squires gathered around a dinner table on their foundation seats of brick and bluestone. It is a most respectable gathering; everyone is well behaved.
It has been like this since the town began. To the people who live there, it feels as though it has been like this since the beginning of time. Which, of course, is not the case.
Meanwhile, far away, the General dreams, and Bark dreams.
For now, they don’t remember the things they dream, but in time that will change; for one of them at least, and for the other it won’t matter.
Their paths are linked, like the curls of a tattoo of snakes; but also like a tattoo, the effect will not be to everyone’s taste.
Oh well, shit happens.
Prologue / 2
THE PLANET HAD BEEN TRAVELLING through the cold, deathless silence for a long time. Like a marble worn smooth with age, it rolled across the black expanses of deep space, patiently following its preordained path. The planet’s orbit was a huge ellipse, and the sun that held it in its sway was growing closer now as the planet tumbled into the star’s inner system, towards perihelion.
The star’s radiance began to heat the frozen orb. The liquid and gas that had long since been frozen solid by the unyielding cold of the vacuum of space began to thaw. If there had been anyone on the planet’s bleak surface to see, the approach to its star would have been greeted first with wisps of vapor as the atmosphere began to return to its gaseous state. Then clouds of mist formed, covering the entire globe in wreaths of swirling white. As the approach continued, continents of ice crumbled, disintegrating into the seas that had begun to form.
Life that had been suspended in the death of absolute zero began to stir. Life cycles resumed as seed found sustenance in the chilled tundra, and creatures emerged from eggs hatching in the slight warmth of the sun. Spores drifted through the reconstituted atmosphere, seeking and finding refuge.
Deep in the frozen earth, other processes were set in motion.
Ice fell from hollowed, gaunt faces; deep black eyes flickered and opened. Muscles that had been as solid as ice for eons flexed and moved again. Tall forms moved through dark caverns.
Nefilim, they called themselves.
The New World Order comes to town
FOR REINA, Barker’s Mill had been home since the day a few years ago when she had got off the bus that stopped here on its way north. It was coming up to eight years since she had left the city, and she had no nostalgia for any part of it. She had been on the dole when she first arrived in Barker’s Mill; she had worked as well, of course. This place didn’t suck money out of you with the same unrelenting efficiency that the city did. And you can’t spend your whole life on the dole, she had thought, so she gave it away, and got a couple more part-time jobs instead. Her life had soon settled down into the comfortable rhythm that the place encouraged in everyone who lived here.
One of the several jobs she held was driving for an old farmer who came into town only when he had to. Which meant almost never these days, because Reina did his driving and ran his errands. Her job was to load her pickup with produce and drive it into the buyer in town. She and the old man had piled the crates of vegetables and fruit into the back. It was a fine afternoon for a drive; she had the window down and the breeze felt good.
While Reina was driving into town, the government was doing the same.
A couple of miles out, just as she was coming up to the creamery by the bridge over Old Goat Creek, the familiar shape of an army truck, painted white with its metal and glass all shiny and its headlights burning hot in the midday sun, filled her rear-vision mirror. As she rounded a curve, she saw that the truck wasn’t alone. She pulled over into the gravel and started rolling a cigarette as the convoy went past. Damn, it was hot. She felt like a drink.
There were half a dozen trucks, followed by heavy transport vehicles that carried earthmovers, and other equipment covered by huge tarps. Everything was painted white and bore the letters ‘UN’, large and blue. The soldiers, of whom there were many, all wore the familiar blue helmets.
This wasn’t new. There had been soldiers and other strangers all over the area for the last few months. They kept to themselves, in the base they had built among the sand dunes on the other side of the harbor. They didn’t have much to do with the town, and when they did, they hardly said anything, which only encouraged speculation among the locals.
At the rear of the convoy were two long shiny cars, black instead of white, with windows of dark tinted glass and little blue flags that fluttered daintily on their front guards. Inside, the General and the other officers sat in air-conditioned comfort and watched the rustic world outside glide past.
* * *
A broken rudder
FAR, FAR AWAY, within the curled and convoluted folds of a place and time far removed from Barker’s Mill, Onethian and Sahrin are becalmed, and although they’ve been becalmed for quite a while now, they’re happy.
They are happy because finally they have a solution to the problem of the broken rudder. Using material scavenged from crates that tumble out of the cargo hold and over the deck, they’ve replaced the old rudder with a new creation of wood and rare metals and some strange pieces of ceramic, the original use of which is a mystery to everyone and of consequence to no one.
The result of their labor more closely resembles an artifact from some exotic culture than anything as mundane as a rudder, but there is nothing to lose, and they had to do something about their predicament. They couldn’t assure the Captain that it would work, but he gave his assent to the exercise, there being no reason not to try, and besides, Bark is as eager as any of them to get under way again. They have been aimlessly adrift for long enough, he thinks, lying idly on a pile of sacks and eating a piece of dried fruit from one of the barrels in the hold.
He looks up at the bare masts and imagines the sails unfurled and full, the ship once more making its way through the clouds and nebulae of deep space.
But the ship sits idle. The clouds of space scud slowly around them, and until the rudder is fixed, they are going nowhere. Until then, here they must stay, suspended in an azure limbo of no time and no space.
And until then, they have all the time in any world.
Bark slowly calculates a trajectory, and then watches as the piece of fruit follows it, up, and then down, over the side of the ship, into the void. He idly plays with one of his earrings for a minute, then goes back to sleep. Bark has never been in a hurry, and he’s not going to start now.
Thirsts are slaked
PASSING REINA, THE UN CONVOY drove into town. People stopped to look. The only time there were so many vehicles on the main street these days was when the army was passing through.
The vehicles, and the soldiers in them, were from all over the world. There were Syrians, Israelis, Russians, Koreans and Africans, and there were Americans. Months ago, the children had run to hide, but now they gathered in small groups and pointed and waved at the soldiers. Some of the soldiers waved back, and threw sweets to the children. The adults stood and crossed their arms and looked on with expressionless faces.
The main part of the convoy – the soldiers and their heavy trucks and all their equipment – drove straight on without stopping, heading along the road that would take them around the harbor to the sand dunes opposite town.
The officers consulted between the two black shiny cars on their cell phones, and decided to stop for a break. They pulled into the parking lot beside the Red Lion, and the officers emerged from behind the tinted windows, blinking in the sunlight as they put on their sunglasses.
They went into the bar and sat around one of the white plastic tables in the beer garden. From here, they had a clear view across the water, where outcrops of volcanic rock dotted the sand dunes like raisins on a cake. From here, the only sign of human activity was the small dark mass of tents, buildings and fences.
It was a hot day. The sun was strong, and despite the shade provided by the umbrellas of the beer garden, the half dozen starched white collars quickly became limp with perspiration. The talk was of politics and careers.
After a while they leaned back in their seats and marveled, each one to himself, at the wonderful and important things that were happening beneath the sand and rock across the water, and how fortunate they were that history had chosen them to do this work.
Except the General, of course; he had chosen himself. He sat silently while his subordinates talked, tapping his fingers lightly against the side of his glass. If there weren’t appearances to keep up, he might even have been smiling to himself.
A map gives up its secrets
A long way from the garden bar at the Red Lion…
On the ship, Thead is unconcerned by the fact that they have been unable to continue their voyage, and is equally uncaring about the success of Onethian and Sahrin. He has his own project to think about, and he feels one of life’s important moments approaching. It is the crossing of a threshold – a tide reaching its high-water mark. This has been a long time coming, and the moment belongs more to him than anyone else; it is the unraveling of the secret of the map.
Thead sits back and runs his hands though his thinning shoulder-length hair. His skin, rough and pockmarked, is shiny with sweat from his exertions, even though they have all been cerebral in nature. His eyes, normally thin and constantly shifting, widen momentarily as he makes a connection on the maze before him. He smiles to himself and leans back over the map.
It was given to one of the ship’s former crews, at a place they visited so long ago that its name has long been forgotten. Since then, it has taken on great importance to all the crews of the ship, from those whose names are lost in antiquity down to the six who make up the crew of the present day. A rich mythology has formed around the parchment. The mysterious territory which has its features drawn on the faded surface is part ancestral homeland, part legend.
The map has long been Thead’s obsession. Long after the curiosity of others has turned away and settled down into a collection of comfortable and reassuring myths, he still studies it relentlessly.
He crouches down among the tall, gangling structures of the ship’s foredeck, in a makeshift study created from barrels and boxes and sheets that he has taken from the cargo hold. Here he spends his days, and here he is today, sheltered from the wind and the distraction of his crew mates, bent over his precious parchment.
When he is sure of a new realization, he makes the faintest of marks on the parchment – a circle, a line, an arrow – in soft graphite that can easily be removed, his touch is so deliberate and light.
The maze of symbols and labels are sometimes in a language familiar to him, but most of them are in a foreign script, the slow deciphering of which has been his work. Its flourishes and curlicues never cease their whispering to him; sometimes he hears the voices through the night as he dreams. Sometimes his dreams have form, as though they are populated by entities, and those nights are not easy. It is better when the dreams don’t come.
The rest of the crew is happy enough to leave Thead to his musings. And Bark, of course, is happy with things that way as well. There are members of the crew with whom he has easier relationships.
It makes sense that there should be someone working on the map, and it is as well that it is Thead. Practical tasks have never suited him, and the rest of the crew would be distracted if Thead were to spend too much time with them. There is something about him that makes them uneasy.
The hull of the ship creaks as it floats, moving listlessly in the gentle current.
Apart from Onethian and Sahrin, who are busy with the new rudder, the crew has nothing to do. Bark is still asleep on his pile of sacks. The Senator is working on another one of his speeches that he will never deliver, and Kali is below decks, in the galley.
Thead feels a rush that surges through his whole body. Steadying his hand to keep it from shaking, he makes a faint mark on the map.
The final piece of the key falls into an ancient lock.
He has it! He leaps up and runs the length of the ship, shouting, waving the map above his head. Idiot, Onethian thinks.
At first no one else understands the reason for the disturbance, but they soon recognize what he is holding. They drop what they are doing and follow him, even Onethian. This must be a good day. First the rudder being fixed, and now this…
Thead crouches down beside Bark and spreads the parchment out on the deck. The others gather around and watch intently, without understanding, as Thead guides Bark through the glyphs and symbols.
When Thead finishes speaking, his finger is slowly circling a small and insignificant looking set of marks on the map.
Bark straightens and looks up. He is wide awake now. He stretches as he contemplates the clouds wrapping themselves into cool wreaths around the ends of the ship’s masts. All around them, hills of denser cloud lie stacked one upon the other, reaching as far up and as far down into the depths below them as anyone can see. The more distant clouds move slowly, carried by the most gradual and impartial of tides.
But something apart from the clouds is moving. Bark can feel it. It is their future that is spread out before them on the deck.
But do they complete their mission, and deliver their long overdue cargo, or do they follow the course that Thead has discovered on the map?
All of them feel the answer. It isn’t long before the rudder is in place, and as soon as everything is ready, they set sail.
It exhilarates them to be moving again. The sight of the billowing mountains of cloud in movement lifts their spirits, and even the ship itself seems to rejoice as it carries them along.
They follow Thead’s directions. The seductive joy of submission to a higher purpose spreads through the crew. The wind seems to catch their enthusiasm, and it picks them up, bearing them along confidently. They sail down narrow byways and across vast uncharted wastes of space. They cross darkness and light, places where there are no clouds, and places where there is nothing but cloud. They see strange creatures in even stranger skies, such that no one would believe. They see signs and wonders. The cargo lies forgotten in the hold.
Finally, after a long time, and several adventures that in normal circumstances would themselves be considered sufficiently unusual to warrant retelling, they arrive above a new land.
* * *
See more: The Day of the Nefilim
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