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Wicked Or What?

an extract from the novel
by Sean Wright

 


1

Wicked or What? by Sean WrightLayla walked from the ward with a great outward calm, along the corridors, and out of the hospital's front doors without being challenged.

Into the blustery night she hurried, catching a Number 43 bus beside the hospital car park. She'd been surprised at the ease of her escape. The moment her mum and dad had left, she'd taken her clothes from the bedside cabinet, hiding them beneath a towel. Locking the bathroom, she had switched on the sonic-shower and dressed, emerging just as the duty nurse made her ten-thirty rounds. She slipped past the desk without anyone seeing her. Adrenaline had pumped her full of a new vigour. For the entire escape she felt almost invincible. Superior. It felt wonderful.

She knew why. She rubbed the object in her pocket like Aladdin rubbing his lamp.

Silence.

Calm.

Stillness.

Soothing.

She sighed deeply satisfied.

Content.

Now on the bus, alone but for the slow bald driver, she willed it to go faster. Seven more stops and she'd be off, running for midnight and the allotment shed.

Will we make it on time? the object in her pocket said. It did not sound concerned, just curious.

Not at this speed. Can you drive? Layla said in her head.

Yes. I could drive this vehicle through you.

How?

I see what you see. I hear what you hear. I feel what you feel. Ask the bus driver to let you off at the next stop, but show me to him.

What will happen to him?

The object shut down. Silent. Tight-lipped.

 


2

Knucklehead glared from behind the wheel of the black BMW jump-car he had just hot-wired. This little beauty could hold a corner at 120 mph or fly like a sonic chitty-chitty bang-bang at the push of a button. His twisted lips were white and foaming. The veins on his neck stood out like big-top tent ropes. He smashed the stick into first gear and screeched out of Rainley's only multi-storey car park. Crashing through the ticket-barrier, his wide grin burned like the fires of hell.

'Where we going?' Tessa the Butt said, sitting beside him without her seatbelt on, smoking and eating a Big Macca at the same time.

'To find fat-boy.'

'Yeah, right. Can we stop at a KFC sky-drive through on the way? I'm starving?'

 


3

Layla glanced down at the bus driver standing motionless and obedient beside her. His eyes were as wide as two full moons and he clutched the hand rail like a clamp. A thin trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. But he didn't seem to notice. He stared straight ahead and chuckled to himself now and again. What ever was happening inside his head was certainly keeping him amused.

She looked at the Speedo as she turned the wheel and skidded around the corner into Gatehouse Street. She was doing just fine. She rammed the accelerator pedal to the floor and changed down a gear. The engine gave out a surging roar and she cruised up to ninety miles an hour. This machine did not have hover technology. It was an ancient solar-powered public transport bus and followed a set route, striving for a precise schedule, reliable and slow, but sure to get the less well-off to their destinations on time. Plant workers used this transport the most, along with shop workers, who lived in the purpose-built commune-apartments known as service flats on the outskirts of Rainley.

Three more stops and the bus driver can take over again, the object whispered.

Shame, thought Layla, watching the Speedo flicker and rise. She was having fun.

 


4

Knucklehead snarled from behind the wheel of the black BMW hovercar as he raced through the red traffic light at the New Road Junction. He was twenty feet above ground-level, and within the thirty feet upper vertical limit allowed on inner-city routes. A speed camera had caught the violation on film, but he didn't care. His quivering lips were white and frothing. He had one person on his mind, and one place to be. His broad grin burned like the fires of hell's furnace.

He slammed his foot down hard on the accelerator and swerved the hovercar hard into the next block. He broke the speed limit, swerving, narrowly missing an oncoming hoverlorry, which was carrying Solagram Corp spare components. He waved his fist at the driver, who gave him the bird. Knucklehead mouthed an obscenity. The lorry driver mouthed some back.

A few crazy minutes later, Knucklehead slammed on the brakes and skidded to a juddering halt. He had arrived. He wrenched open the door and ran into the shadows of the allotment. There was death in his eyes, and he breathed death from his amphibian lungs. He hoped he was not too late. There was work to be done.

Tessa the Butt, who had sat impassively in the front passenger's seat, slurping coke and gnawing on a chicken bone, belched loudly and farted. It was that sort of day really.

 


5

As if splitting the skin of a cocoon, the Space-Makers entered this world. A dark fog clung to them, billowing and frothing like a storm-battered coast. They were defiant in their silence. Their narrow minds focused on one point in time and on one person who in time they knew they would capture and destroy. This concrete certainty was the basis of their power. It was a powerful tool to command. They knew things that would happen in time because they existed in Space. Not outer space, neither inner space, simply space -- free from time. Because they were free of time, it did not exist for them. But when they occasionally breeched into time, they felt as a hive mind creature might feel, an exacting pain and trauma that perturbed them greatly. They didn't get on well with time. It phased their reality, their minds and they preferred not to linger long.

Undulating, squirming tongues twisted and seethed like maggots, sensing, tasting the night air. What they tasted disgusted them. It was the taste of decaying flesh, exhaust and factory fumes. Hazy light flaked from their scaly flesh as though smouldering rubies. This flaking was the shedding of their skin, if you could call it that. Every second they existed in time and space simultaneously, they were disintegrating, melting flesh almost.

They were coming.

But they detested every second of it, which made them more violent, more angry. But it was necessary, because they needed to survive the threat of the Third. It had come to a kill or be killed situation, and they were ready for the fight.

The Space-Makers were amongst the Jaarfindorians for the first time since man and ape parted company.

 


6

Layla watched the bus pull away and the driver waved with a huge greasy grin on his face.

'What did he see inside his head?' she asked, turning on her heel and running into the dark allotment plots.

His dreams and wishes, the object said.

'He seemed so content and happy.'

He was, always will be.

'Always?'

Yes. Always.

'How is that possible?'

It just is -- for me, to give ever-lasting anything.

'Ever-lasting anything?'

Pleasure, pain, happiness, wealth, poverty, freedom, imprisonment. All of these I can give inside a mind. And more.

'You have hypnotised him.'

No. He has accepted my gift. That is all.

'That is all? Are you joking? What you've done is wrong. It's also an illusion. It's not real.'

How would you know the difference between reality and dreams?

'The same as anyone else -- through my senses.'

Is that all?

'Is there more?'

Oh, yes, as you will see.

 


7

The Space-Makers marched out into the world of Jaarfindor flesh and blood. They dazzled drunks staggering out of The Lion on Rainley High Street, and trampled a courting couple cuddled up on a bench in Rainley Park, shredding the living flesh from them like a cheese grater. When they sped by the out of town Macdonald's Drive-In, they surrounded the late-night snackers in a dripping acid fog. Those unlucky enough to have their windows open died a slow spluttering toxic death.

Onward they marched toward their destination.

 


8

Layla couldn't believe her eyes. She had reached the allotment, sneaked amongst the shadows and runner bean poles. Above her she heard a whooshing sound. It came at her so fast that she had no time to react but with an ear shattering high-pitched scream. She tried to scream a second time, but nothing came out. Her vocal cords had given up. Her legs gave way. She slumped down on her knees. Up again, down, legs rubbery and useless.

The enormous creature flapped its massive wings and landed beside her.

She scrambled to her feet, her fear fuelling her, fell, got up again, turned to run on unsteady legs, as the creature transformed into Jamey. He screamed at the overwhelming pain of the transformation, screwed himself up into a ball, clutching his contorted head. His brain shrank, his feathers and fur became flesh and bone and skin. It was all over in a few seconds. It was impossible, but it had happened.

Layla shook her disbelieving head. Staggered back, crashing into a compost heap and two metal dustbins. The lids banged like the percussion of a Chinese dragon parade.

Jamey grinned, spat blood from his returned mouth, hauled himself from the dirt and held out his hand. 'T-t-they're coming,' he stammered. 'Hurry. It's d-dangerous out here in the open.' It felt weird, almost alien to talk.

Layla took his hand, hesitantly.

'By t-the way,' Jamey said. 'You looked as if you were going to crap yourself.'

'Almost,' Layla said. 'That was one hell of a trick. How did you do that?'

He shrugged, toying with her, playing dumb.

'Did the object do it for you?'

'Of course. How else?'

She shrugged and said, 'It's bloody ridiculous. To be able to transform like that. Impossible.'

'I know. It doesn't make sense. But it happened. It's crazy.'

'I could feel my heart in my throat.'

Jamey shrugged. 'Sorry. But it felt good. I felt so free. There's nothing like it. But the pain is unbearable.' He rubbed his aching arms and torso. 'Terrible.'

'Does it still hurt?'

'Not too much,' he lied, wincing with throbbing pain that seemed to emanate from deep within his bones.

'You poor thing,' she said, offering a comforting arm.

He pulled away from her, hurt by her touch.

'Sorry,' she said. 'I didn't mean to hurt you.'

He shrugged her concern away. 'I'll be all right.'

Layla didn't push it. She'd seen his injured look before. Best left alone now. Let him be.

Jamey swallowed hard, sucking in breath through his teeth.

Layla rubbed the object in her pocket. She frowned and said, 'What have we got ourselves into?'

'A mess,' he said, then added as an after-thought: 'Don't worry. We have more power than anyone in this world has ever seen.'

'Magic, you mean?'

'If you like.'

'How does it work?'

'I don't have a clue. I'm not sure really. It's very complex. I can't understand it fully. Well, not at all really. But I think that the objects act like keys. They unlock something deep inside us, something that has been dormant for a very long time. They are alien to this world.'

'How do you mean?'

'I'm not sure. I can't explain it. But it's everything I ever wanted. When your turn comes you will understand exactly what I mean. They give everything.'

'Everything and more?'

They both nodded and slipped into the shadows and waited. They did not have to wait for long. But Layla was worried by Jamey's words. She was terrified of the thought of her turn. Of transforming into something as hideous as the beast Jamey had been. She trembled.

 


9

He was taller than Layla had expected. His long raven hair shimmered with silver moonlight. His stride was confident but not hurried. The key he grasped in his hand glimmered. But there was no mistaking him. He was the Third.

Emerging from his own dense fog, silhouetted by the abandoned relic, the moon-bright Rainley Steel factory one hundred yards behind him, he beckoned.

Layla hesitated, but Jamey did not.

It's all right, the object whispered to her. Go and join with them. What awaits you is beyond explanation or reason.

'I'm scared,' she muttered.

We know.

Now hurry.

The Space-Makers are coming.

But it was too late.

 


10

Layla pulled Jamey back into the shadows at two minutes to midnight. They had arrived. There were at least fifty, maybe more. They were steaming and charging through the fog like a stampede of wild beasts.

The Space-Makers had arrived. Their flesh peeled from them like sunburnt skin.

'What should we do?' Layla said.

'I'm not sure,' Jamey said, hitching up his trousers.

They huddled together.

They stepped back further into the shadows.

The Third twisted on his heel and faced the Space-Makers. His eyes were impossibly large and black. He tossed the key to Layla. He spat into the dirt and his long black coat flapped in the breeze like a batwing. He held out one hand as if he was trying to halt rush-hour traffic. With his other hand he unleashed his sword of light.

It buzzed wildly like a raging swarm of wasps.

The Space-Makers screamed as they attacked. He roared as if thunder existed inside him. The earth shook violently and split open.

 


11

Layla and Jamey huddled closer together.

They both heard the objects speak at the same time, with the same voice: hold us, trust us.

'To do what?' Jamey stammered, trying to block the fight from his mind.

Hold us, trust us.

The Space-Makers screamed.

The Third roared even louder than before.

The earth trembled beneath their feet.

The sword of light flashed and buzzed.

'This is so crazy.' Layla shook. 'What the hell's going on?'

The earth swayed and cracked, and sodden clods flew up from gaping wounds. Trees crashed to the ground, smashing the allotment sheds to tinder.

'Shit,' Jamey said to Layla, but he didn't think she heard him.

He held the object tightly and listened to its soothing voice. Be whatever you want to be. Use your magic and fly.

But I can't leave Layla!

You must leave Layla or you will both die!

Both?

Yes, save yourself and save both of you!

Jamey transformed. His hair extended like electric cables. His body was lean and shiny, impregnated with computer circuits and chips and wires and springs and mechanical parts that made him much more android than flesh and blood. In his chin was an oval grill -- a breathe-hole.

The tree fell and the earth where they had stood opened like a giant's hungry mouth, swallowing all it could.

But they were gone.

Jamey was a winged-creature, flying alone along a snow-carpeted landscape. Narrow winding lanes snaked through rolling hills and stands of trees. The icy breeze ruffled his feathers, which glimmered blue-black beneath the light of a half-moon. He was searching for Layla, but something was wrong. There were no buildings, neither isolated farms, nor small villages. Towns and cities did not exist.

'Where am I?'

Where you wanted to be.

'No,' he said. 'This is not where I wanted to be. I wanted to be with Layla. We have to escape from the Space-Makers.'

In your mind. She is lost in a landscape like this.

'In my mind? What does that mean?'

It's obvious, Jamey. Think.

 


12

Layla clutched the object and the key. She backed away as the Third fought hand to hand with the Space-Makers. Flashes of lightning zigzagged out from the fog. Howling cries of pain echoed like wolves after a kill.

The earth all around her vomited dust and rocks and clods. A yawning fissure appeared just inches from her foot.

A single Space-Maker broke free from the onslaught. It lurched out of the haze and ran toward her, roaring furiously. It raised bloody hands above its head.

To her left another figure appeared.

It was Knucklehead.

The earth split and swallowed.

The tree behind her gave out a mighty crack and tumbled, ripping roots and scattering earth. Soil and dirt cascaded.

Now! Use me now!

Layla thought about her past.

Instantly she was there.

...continues


Excerpted from Wicked Or What? © Sean Wright 2005.
Reprinted by permission of Crowswing Books. All rights reserved.
Wicked or What? by Sean Wright
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