WiP: Oakfield – chapter nine

Work in Progress

One I finished on the weekend.  Apologies for any typos. Straight off the machine.  Oakfield. It’s a cyberpunk / horror story set in the South West of England and is a direct prequel to the epic novel God Seed.  Enjoy!

Start from the beginning: Chapter 1 here

Chapter Nine

Annabelle was in a state; tears, her face twisting and upset.  She yanked open the front door and came rushing out to meet him as he crossed the gravel drive.

“Jesus, what’s happened?” He asked mutely as she slammed in him and wrapped her arms around him.

“Oh thank God you’re back.” She sobbed a string of words, something about a bunch of men watching the house, shifty-looking, scaring her. He just let her hold on, rubbed a hand gently against the summer fabric of the dress around her upper spine.  Gave her the chance to flush the emotions out.  Then, as the crying subsided, she stepped away, flapping her hands in front of a face that was flushed red and wet with tears, strands of mucus dangling from her nose and lips.  She wiped that away with the back of her wrists.  Turned to peer back at the house. Her voice cracked with anger: “And where the hell is David and Robert!”

There was much more to this; he could tell.  This was about everything she’d been bottling up since…

Since our mum died.

He gave her a careful, scrutinising look. Did his best to infuse his words with calm, despite the quivering bubble of anxiety rising up inside his chest.  “Where is Anthony?”

She looked at him like it was a stupid question.  Threw a hand out, pointed somewhere above the house. The anger vanished, however: “He’s been up there since he left this morning. Or God knows where. You know what he’s like, James. “

It was her default position on Anthony: always defending her little brother.

This time though he didn’t want to curse his name and think of him as a little shit. This time he was really worried about him.  “I thought David and Briggsy went into town?”

She nodded. Her mouth opened and stretched downwards as she started to dab at her eyes with the soft pad of a fingertip, trying to be careful not to smear massacre that was already starting to run down her cheeks.  A bitter laugh edged her response. “Yes. They went hours ago. I twisted David’s arm to buy in supplies.  I thought it would be nice to cook a proper meal tonight.  Robert was complaining about not being able to get a signal up here.  I can only imagine how far they’ve gone to try and find one. They probably got a taxi to Bodmin. They’re probably sitting in a bloody pub stuffing their faces with fish and chips and a pint of bloody beer.”

“Hey, hey, Annabelle. Calm down. Okay?”  He reached his hands out but didn’t attempt to take a hold of her.  “We can ask them when they come back. Right? You said there were some men here. Where? When? What did they look like? How did they scare you?”

She span around, as if surveying the grounds. Snorted.  Wiped her cheeks with the palms of her hands.  She shook her head.  Made a gesture of futility.  It was hot. The sun was scorching the area in front of the large house.  He waited for her to respond.

“It’s just so stupid. Now.”

“Go on.”  He tilted his head, flexed his bright blonde eyebrows.  Sweat was trickling down his forehead and ran into them.

“They looked like… I don’t know. North African. Somalis. You know that look?”  She said to him.  James bunched up one side of his face: he did.  She shrugged, pointed to the twin stone gateposts.  “They were just standing there.  Waiting. Watching.  But it was the way they were looking at the house. The way they looked at me James. Right at me. It was… I don’t know. It sounds so stupid now. It was menacing. Like they meant me harm. Like they wanted to scare me. They wanted to scare me James. Why?  Who are they? Is this the McKenzies?”

He twisted round and stared back the way he’d come in. His face wrinkled as he coped with the glare of the sun in his eyes.  “I don’t know sis.  I didn’t see anybody. When did you see them?”

“About five minutes ago. Not even that. I’ve been standing in this doorway and then walking around all of the house, checking all the doors and windows in case they were thinking of trying to come in around the back.”

That was a point. Maybe they were on the grounds somewhere. He moved off towards the side of house, turned and gestured for Annabelle to go in through the front door.  He’d not passed anybody coming down Rose Brook Lane on his return journey. The only other way they could have gone was up; but the road ended that way after only a couple hundred metres. So if they had gone that way, they would have had to be crossing open land or they were still here.

He went around the whole perimeter of the house.  No sign of anybody. No glimpse of anybody lurking in the nearby wall of trees that climbed up the steep slopes behind the house.

Inside, he made Annabelle a mug of tea whilst she sat at the breakfast table in the open, sun-lit space at the back of the kitchen.

“What do you think they were doing James?”

He poured freshly boiled water into a ceramic mug.  “I don’t know.”

“But… it doesn’t make any sense. They had to have been there for a reason.”

He acknowledged the point with a nod. Threw a teabag into the water and started stirring. “Maybe it’s like you said. They wanted to scare you.”

“Really? Do you really think so? God this is insane. What’s happening here James?”

“I don’t know sis. I say drink this tea, wait for David and Briggsy to get back. And then we can talk about it.”

She looked at him as he dug out the teabag and squeezed it against the side of the mug. “Don’t make it too strong for me.”

“I didn’t.”

“And plenty of milk.”

“Yes.”

“We haven’t got any low-fat so just try and get the colour right with what Mr Sykes left in the fridge.”

James paused to shoot her a look that said: are you making this or am I?

An apologetic look in response. Then she scanned the bench around him. “Aren’t you having one?”

He grimaced. “I need to go and find Ant.”

“Can’t you wait here? Ant’ll be fine. Ant’s always fine.”

“I’m not so sure. Not this time.”  He carried the teabag over to a recycling box that munched through stuff to fill side containers with an assortment of gels.  As he finished making the tea, he told her a little about what Mariana had said. He missed out the part about bodies found with their skulls caved in but stressed the point that the McKenzie land was potentially a very dangerous place to be.  She was shocked.  Taking the mug her offered her she became silent and contemplative.

The moment took him back nearly a year.  A similar scene, different kitchen, their parents’ house.  It was the morning that his mum – their mum – had died.  She’d passed over just before sunrise, ending a vigil that for James had lasted several days.  And for Annabelle, had lasted many months.  The doctor had come round an hour after the phone call, to certify the death and then left again.

The body of their mum was lying in her bed upstairs, gradually going cold.  Another surreal moment in the whole episode.  James had been with the broken bodies of dead comrades dozens of times before.  But there was always a system, a process in place where other people took responsibility for what happened next.  Now it was up to them, to Annabelle, James and Anthony, to decide when they wanted to call the undertakers to have her removed.  Their mother.  Anthony had gone out, shocked and dazed. Annabelle had sat in the growing light of the day, supping at cup of tea: no tears, just a cold expression of haunted dismay.  Despite the light of that morning, the brief glimpse of sunrise, the atmosphere had been terrible.

That’s it, he realised. That’s when it all really went wrong.

The storm-ridden reality of his relationship with Annabelle snapped into clear focus.  His brain latched onto a thought. Ten years earlier he’d been back home on leave, staying at their parents’ place as he always did when taking time out from the war; Annabelle had walked in on him injecting himself with a GT-spike. Gene Twister. Custom designed by an illegal lab up in Manchester and acquired through mates in the military.  This flavour had helped with the anxiety he always felt straight after coming home.  Same flavour the full-cyborgs used on their brains to ward-off C-psychosis.  Annabelle had seen the spike in his arm as she’d walked in and her face tumbled. She’d seen something else: in James, he realised.  She’d seen shame.  That moment had broken their childhood bond.  Her career was all about rebuilding the shattered minds of combat vets. She didn’t tolerate them using drugs to help themselves.  But he was also her younger brother who had always played the role of big brother.  And James realised the sight of him sitting there like a private junkie had shattered her view of him; that he was strong and capable.

No sis, I’m human and fragile and broken like just about everyone else.

James looked at his sister.  Petite yet solid figure sitting in a summer dress, green eyes focussed on the floor but her mind gazing somewhere else entirely.  She had pinned her long blonde hair up at the back, like their mum used to do, a few strands hanging loose by her ears.  It exposed her jaw, solid, heavy-boned, exaggerated by strong cheekbones that often gave her a sullen, grim-faced expression.  That was an aspect she had certainly inherited from their father.

The vulnerability of her at this moment softened the tight grip he’d been keeping on long-held, bitter emotions.  Ever since that night, with the Gene Twister, she’d handled him with spiked gloves and held him at a distance he’d never experienced with her before.  It had wounded him in some subtle, hard-to-define way, but the ultimate outcome was the creation of walls between them.

Those walls didn’t help when mum died, or when dad died three years earlier.

A slow breath slipped out from his nostrils.  He clasped his chin with his hand.

“Hey. Bella.”  He said softly.

She looked up. Her lips pressed together. Formed a weary smile.

“Look, err…” he faltered. Lowered his hand.  Not entirely certain this was the moment to inspect the delicate fabric of their current relationship.

“What’s on your mind?” She could see it.

He told her.  About feeling excluded by her.  And harshly judged because he wasn’t there when dad died.  Because he hadn’t been there during the final, terrible months when mum had chosen to starve to death, had chosen quality of life over a longer life that required her to feed through an ugly tube into her guts to bypass the cancer blocking her oesophagus.

“I feel like you walk around with this chip on your shoulder,” he confided, features twitching with difficult emotions. “That I owe you some big debt for all the months you spent with mum.  It’s like you blame me.  There’s a passive hostility in you. And it hurts, sis. It hurts me.”

The thin line of her small lips slide into a lop-sided grimace. Her green eyes drilled in his. He felt relief not to see any spark of anger but instead the soft focus of dawning understanding, the harrowed edges of regret.

She looked away. Cast her eyes about the large space of the kitchen.  “This is so weird.”

He didn’t respond. Just watched her. On tenterhooks. Sensing a profound moment forming between them.

Her gaze settled on a black and white photograph of their grandfather: elderly  but bold, neatly trimmed hair with a wild beard making him look like a gnarly sea-captain; with Annabelle’s eyes staring back out from that weathered, deeply lined face.   “I resented you, James.”

The revelation took him by surprise and yet it didn’t surprise him.  He nodded.

She didn’t see it. Supped her tea absently. Then continued to speak. “Every day. With mum.  Watching her get weaker.  Seeing her scared.  Every morning making her a small breakfast. Trying to get her to eat.”

“She couldn’t.”  And instantly he regretted the hard edge to his voice. It was just like Annabelle to try to enforce her opinion, even on their dying mother.

“I know. I know what I’m like.” It was a difficult admission.  “And I know that it was my choice to give up my career to be there – as you’ve told me so many times before.”

“Only when we fight.”

She made a sound; exasperation, frustration. The mood tilted.  “That’s what I want to stop happening. That’s why I wanted this.”  She gestured at the kitchen with one hand, and he knew she was referring to the whole house.  Her bottom lip started to quiver, her voice broke: “I just want us to be together as a family.”

He crossed the short distance between them and stood beside where she sat, wrapped his arms around her shoulders.  Leaned over and kissed the top of her head as a shudder rippled through her; a quiet sob.

“I love you, sis. You know that, don’t you?”

She nodded.

He squeezed her, stepped away.  “Then let’s make this work. No more snappy remarks. No more veiled attacks and barbed comments.”

She chuckled, twisted around to peer at him. “Am I that bad?”

“I was referring to me.”  He smiled. Genuine.

She looked away, shook her head.  “Family.”

“Who would have them, eh?”

A tight smile cut her face.

He rubbed at the stubble peppering his jaw. “I need to go and find Anthony.”

Movement in the doorway behind them. “Did somebody mention my name?”

* * *

They both turned to see Anthony leaning against the door frame as if he’d been there for some time.  James registered a look that suggested jealous currents rippling beneath the surface of his brother’s mind. Then he noticed the exhausted, desperate slackness in his features and the painful way he was holding himself against.

James moved forwards. Anthony raised a hand to ward him away; it wasn’t confrontational, more a like: no need to bother with me.

“Thank god you’re alright!” Annabelle exclaimed, rising up from the chair.

“What happened?” James asked, easing backwards. Relieved his brother was alright.

Annabelle crossed to him, pecked his cheek and handed him what was left of her mug of tea.

James tried not to look irritated.

Anthony supped the tea and made a big show of moving into the kitchen like a man who had been on a mission.  The polychrome headband was clenched in his fist like a weapon.  The RoGong body vest, sweat stained and configured to a dull olive colour.  Strands of long blonde and purple-dyed hair darkened by sweat, sticking to the sides of his face.  James superimposed his brother on any mess tent in any theatre in Operation M-Hammer and generated a subtle, cold grin: the kid wouldn’t last ten seconds amongst those guys. His sister wasn’t that tough. She followed Anthony across the room, visibly concerned he might be hurt, glanced at him to say:

“James, make some more tea will you.  Not too strong for me, please.”

James took a deep breath and said nothing. He walked over to the kettle. Thought briefly of the girl he’d met earlier. Strong coffee.  The café.  Her company.  He pushed the ideas away and  listened to Anthony start his story.

“It’s seriously freaky up there.”

“Did you jump?” James probed.

“I’ll get to that.” Anthony replied, more interested in maximising the intrigue than revealing facts.  James rigidly fixed his attention on the kettle as it slowly began to boil. “I got through the fence. Wasn’t hard. The landscape there though.” He whistled. “It’s like you’re on another planet. Huge gashes in the ground where they’ve been digging.  Some of them are old – all grown over with this nasty looking scrubby weed stuff. Others look fresh.”

Annabelle interrupted: “Is this to do with the old mines or with the company the McKenzie’s run up there?”

James tossed a remark over: “I don’t think there’s any difference, sis.”

Anthony seemed to agree.  “There’s machinery there of the kind I’ve never seen before. It looks like new tech but looks old too.  It’s just weird.  I didn’t like the place at all. Just wanted to get to the stack and do the jump. You know!  But then I found this dirt track.   I suppose it’s like a small road. It actually stops right at the top of the rise, behind here.” He pointed at the large windows at the back of the kitchen, beyond which sun dappled light was picking apart the shadows beneath the trees in the near distance. “I totally missed it when I first went up. Too far over to the right. The road leads along the ridge then swings inland.  I figured it made sense to follow it because it led towards the base of the stack.”

The kettle boiled. James went through the motions, set about making two mugs of tea and a coffee as he listened to his brother.

“So I followed it, yeah? There’s this massive crater. Like a quarry but it doesn’t have the kind of terrace things going down. Just a big ridge going round.  Really huge. The road splits off. One fork went on towards the stack. The other went through a big gap in the ridge. There was a gate there, some people. So I kept low, kept moving and went on for a bit and then snuck across open ground, climbed up the ridge and peered down. Like I said. It’s this massive crater.  There’s a load of portacabins, like barracks. I mean there must be a couple hundred people up there at least. Plus a big landing pad.  For helicopters or AV’s or something.  And  then there’s these tunnels, like burrows, at different points all around the base of the crater or further up along the walls.  It’s like they’re mining but not like any mine I’ve ever seen.”

James cleared his throat. “The only mines you’ve ever seen are on a sim-stim games console.”

Anthony wrinkled his face.  “Hey. I’m just telling you what I saw.  But that’s not the freaky part.”

“What did the workers look like, Ant?” Their sister queried and took hold of Anthony’s arm.

“Africans. Arabs. Not sure.”

Annabelle shot James a quick glance. James nodded, looked at Anthony. “What happened then?”

Anthony blew out through his lips.  “Somebody saw me. All hell broke loose. A couple dozen of them started sprinting up the road towards the gate. I realised they were coming to look for me so I scrambled back down the ridge and started running.”

“Oh my God. What were they going to do to you?” Annabelle asked.

Anthony shook his head and released a short, nervous laugh. “No idea. And sure wasn’t going to hang about to find out. I stuck to the road because the land there… it’s just a mess. I’ve I’d tried running over that lot I would have probably fallen and broken my leg, or my neck, or just vanished into a bloody hole.”

James carried both teas across to them and set them down on the kitchen table.  Anthony put down the rest of Annabelle’s mug that he hadn’t finished and started to sip the fresh one.  James went back to the kettle and picked up his coffee.

“I got to the stack,” Anthony stated, the recent adrenaline still pumping through his voice, “But this freaky mist started to form.  All around me. I couldn’t tell if it was coming up out of the ground or if a fresh pressure system was drifting in off the sea. It was cold. And I just had this feeling that it would be really bad if I got caught in it.  So I started to climb. Totally freestyle, you know!  It was actually a pretty easy climb. Thank God, right?  Anyway I got above the mist. And it was just the area between the stack and the crater. Amazing fucking views though.  I couldn’t see into the crater, the bottom of it was lost in the fog but I could see the circle of the upper ridge poking above.  Awesome. Dical. Utterly vid.”

“And the people chasing you?” James asked, suppressing the need to ask what the hell dical and vid was supposed to mean.

“No longer a problem. I figure maybe they thought I’d gotten away. Or if they knew I was up there I’d have to come down somehow. Bet they didn’t figure on me having a Tamahanko rig strapped to my back.”  Anthony wiggled a thumb and fist towards the open doorway leading from the kitchen, suggesting he’d left his BASE jumping pack in the hall.

James blew on his coffee, eyed the vents on the AirFirm trousers.  Pictured his brother’s meteoric, arcing descent, vents and webbing reacting to the neural-induction commands fed via the polychrome headband Anthony would have been wearing during the jump.  Anthony would have been able to ride the thermals coming off the steep rises.  He wondered if the men who had scared Annabelle had come looking for Anthony?

“Where did you land Ant?”

Anthony made a gun with his thumb and finger and pointed towards the front facing wall of the kitchen. Made a ‘pop’ sound, and then answered.  “Down on the beach.  Below that old dude’s place.  I didn’t hang about.  Wanted to get back here quick.”

It explained why Anthony was so hot and bothered looking. He’d have had to hike along the coast towards Oakfield and then up and around onto Rose Brooke Lane to get to the house.  The timescales fit the idea the Somalis had come looking for him.

James explained. “There’s been a small development. I’ve heard some gossip about the area. And big sister’s had a bit of a shock.  It might affect how long we stay here. Might affect what Bella does with the house.”

“No, no, no.” Annabelle was not impressed. “I got a little freaked out, I’ll admit that. But this doesn’t change the plan for the week.  You don’t make my decisions, James.”

“Okay,” James lifted an open hand, appeasing. “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean it to come across that way.  But we do need to have a talk. All of us.”

Annabelle pouted her lips, nodded, ponderous. “Okay.  But yes, you are right.  We do need to talk about this.   When David and his partner in bloody crime eventually decide to come back.”

# # #

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