Excerpt from ‘On the String’
Stella watched all this in confusion. Incredibly, she hadn't recognised the device for what it was. If she had, and if she meant what she said about our connection being so important to her, she would be wrestling that thing out of his hands by now. Unhindered, Sebastian set the thing—what I unwillingly thought of as the undoer 2.0—on the bed beside me, took some of the wiring from the top of the box and wrapped it loosely around my upper body. As it had that night six months ago, once it got the sense of me, the wiring took a much tighter hold around my torso, cutting through the net so that it fell harmlessly away around me.
Sebastian didn't watch to see if he'd done the thing right—perhaps Lucien had warned him that Stella might retaliate when she realised what was going on. He was right to think it, but Stella never got a chance. Even before the wiring had really got hold of me, he had taken some more of it from the box and jumped at Stella, who just didn't see it coming. She cried out in surprise and anger, trying to beat him away, but the wiring had already got hold of her waist. Sebastian simply stepped backwards out of harm's way as Stella was reeled in like a fish on a hook, struggling all the while to loosen the wire and having no success whatsoever.
Seconds later, she was stuck on the bed, the two of us on either side of the box which would shortly disconnect us—assuming Lucien knew what he was doing. If he didn't, it could potentially kill us both. Her face was very white, her eyes huge in her face, her mouth pressed into an angry line as she watched Sebastian approach us, both trussed up and unable to do anything to stop him.
“Lucien didn't want this,” Stella said, her voice hitching. She seemed to be even more scared than me, and anguished too.
Sebastian looked surprised by this. He considered for a moment, then said, “No, he definitely did. He told me exactly where to come and what to do, and you two were in here waiting for me on his instructions. That says to me that he wants this.”
“He wouldn't do this to me,” Stella insisted, desperate tears filling her eyes. “He asked me to marry him out there.”
That took Sebastian by surprise. He stared blankly at her for a few seconds before chuckling. “I can't wait to tell Ather about that,” he chortled, “but if he really cares about you, then this thing must be good, whatever it is. At least, he must believe it is, and if I were you, I wouldn't argue about it. You start getting argumentative, he might decide to divorce you. Now, I believe I'm supposed to…”
He was examining a switch on the device. It seemed to have three settings—‘U’ to one side, ‘T’ to the other, and nothing in the middle. It was currently on the middle setting, which was probably the off position. What did that switch mean, though? What was U and what was T? If this thing was a second-generation undoer, what other purpose could it have other than to undo? I could only assume that Lucien had created this device with an idea that it could have another use in the future.
Sebastian pushed the switch sideways into the T position, and the feeling that followed was both strange and terrifying. A vibration ran through the wiring for a moment before entering my body and travelling straight up to my head, which immediately began to swim. I tried to keep a hold of my thoughts but they quickly became jumbled. Beside me, Stella had hunched over, shuddering as she experienced the same thing. I knew she was because for the first time ever, I began to actually feel the connection between us; I had a clear sense of a duality in my mind, where the second was the thought patterns I recognised from the times I had entered Stella's mind.
Although the connection had been mostly a bother, I felt a great swell of sadness that it would very shortly be over. It would almost be like having part of myself removed, something way more substantial than a loose tooth or even a malfunctioning kidney. It was something inside the mind itself, and things there should never need to be removed. I didn't feel much surprise that I was feeling the presence of the connection now more than I ever had before; after all, as the old cliché went, you don't know what you've got till it's gone.
Was it going, though? Instead of fading away and my mind becoming singular, as it had always felt, the connection seemed to be becoming stronger. Stella's thoughts were becoming so mixed up with my own that at this rate, they would soon become one. In addition, not only could I feel my own body (my head, arms, legs and torso as I had always known them), but I could feel her body too; feel it in a way that I had never noticed before. Obviously when I had entered her mind, I had entered her body too, but it had never really meant anything because I'd never been there when she had thought about her body. If I'd been in her mind while she'd been standing naked and looking into a mirror, observing herself, that might have been different. Now, though, I could feel the clear differences between my body and hers, and she could too.
“How are we going here?”
In my preoccupation, I hadn't heard the bedroom door open again. Now, however, Lucien stepped forward past Sebastian to have a look into each of our faces. He seemed satisfied by what he saw, but when he looked down at the undoer, his face froze into an expression of utter horror. He grabbed the undoer and tried to flick the switch, but it had locked into position.
“What's wrong?” Sebastian asked, his confidence gone.
“I'll tell you what's wrong, you complete buffoon: You've done exactly the opposite of what I asked you to do!”
“What? But sir, I”
Lucien didn't listen. He grabbed the undoer and began wrestling with it, desperately trying to reverse what Sebastian had done, but the device wouldn't respond. The wiring around me and Stella jerked from side to side, causing us to bump shoulders every couple of seconds, but in our heads, the process continued uninterrupted. Lucien even began casting magic into the device to reverse it, but it still wouldn't respond—he'd done a damn good job making it foolproof.
“Stand back,” he warned Sebastian, who scuttled over to stand by the wardrobe.
A few seconds later, the undoer exploded, sending chunks of glass, plastic and metal in all directions. We all covered our faces but somehow, all the debris missed us, landing on and around the table in the centre of the room. The wiring around me and Stella fell away, allowing us both to straighten up into proper sitting positions. Most relieving of all, when the device had exploded, my sense of the connection to Stella just vanished. If Lucien's intention had been to remove it, though, his expression told me quite plainly that the connection was still very much there.
“I should have listened to you, John,” said Sebastian, uncovering his face. “Apparently, exploding is what these things do best.”
“This is a disaster,” Lucien moaned, taking a step back from the bed and running his fingers distractedly through his hair…
Lucien had stepped back from the bed, and was running his fingers distractedly through his hair…
I didn't give it any further thought. I jumped off the bed and took off, charging straight past Lucien and towards the door, which stood wide-open to the hallway outside, a hallway which looked empty from here. Sebastian made a startled movement, as though instinctively trying to stop me, but his surprise made him too slow to be effective.
“Hey!” Lucien bellowed as I dashed through the door and swung around the corner, the nearest door to the yard my target. Before I got there, though, the wall separating Lucien's bedroom from the hallway exploded outward, sending great chunks of plaster flying through the air. I was tripped up by one and hit in the head by another but with no worse than a dizzy head, I jumped back to my feet and kept on running. I wasn't sure about Sebastian or Stella, but Lucien was giving chase.
I reached the small foyer, swung around to face the outside door, but before I could get to it, all the glass in the frame shattered, spraying inward in large, jagged chunks. I ran straight towards and then right through it, only thinking of what was behind me rather than ahead. The sight of all that glass coming at me would have been utterly terrifying under any other circumstances. I was struck in several places, the worst one being right across the top of my head, but my eyes—the one thing (well, two things) I absolutely needed to protect, remained unharmed. Ignoring the stinging, barely feeling it actually, I just kept running, kicking clinging glass out of the door frame as I went through it and not letting it slow me up one bit.
“Don't let him get away!” Lucien roared as he too burst into the court yard, so close behind me that even without magic, he was a good chance to catch me before I got to the control room.
I didn't take a moment to see who he was talking to, but I saw them anyway. There were plenty of Hammerhearts out here, but more importantly, most of my friends were out here too, standing amongst the Hammerhearts as though they were all one and the same. Unfortunately, they were now. Those Hammerhearts who had invaded our base sprang to attention immediately, and I was forced to jump and dodge around flying jets of multi-coloured light as I ran, incredibly lucky not to be hit. My friends (former friends now), not having any of their own weapons, sprang forward to attempt to catch me themselves, a few getting in the way of other Hammerhearts and getting struck down by agonators, stunners and solid-outliners.
Then, almost right behind me, someone collided with someone else, and as more people piled in, they all fell down onto the footpath. Judging by the cry of frustration and the fact that the footsteps right behind me had stopped, Lucien was one of them.
“You're supposed to be on my side!” he roared, struggling with them.
“We are,” one of the girls replied, and my heart sank—there was the confirmation, “but John is still our friend.”
“You go, Playman!” either Harry or Simon bellowed, now a good distance behind me as I ran around a corner and began the sprint past the outdoor pool Natalie had once created. “Stay safe, buddy!”
So Stella had been right; the influential charm had put them on Lucien's side, but as they were all likely to maintain their friendships with each other under his rule, the charm wasn't going to make them forget that I was their friend too. Lucien probably could perform such magic if he chose, but maybe he would be good enough about not doing something like that.
I was almost distracted by a horrifying gurgling noise to my left, from the depths of the pool, but I didn't let it slow my pace. What did almost slow my pace (stop it, in fact) was the water from the pool suddenly spilling over the sides and running out over the path. It wasn't just wet and slippery—it had a sideways current, intent on pulling me off my feet and sweeping me towards the trees on the other side of the path…and holy crap but those trees were beginning to move!
Suddenly, everything had changed from a sprint for survival (something I was reasonably good at) to a living nightmare. It even felt like a nightmare in that my destination now seemed further away than before, and hard as I ran, I couldn't move any faster. That was actually true because my stride had changed from a sprint to a kind of stomp, the best to keep my balance in the swirling water around my ankles. Some of it had run into my shoes and it was bloody freezing. If any more of it got in there, it might actually affect my feeling down there.
But I kept on relentlessly forward so that before too long, I had moved out of range of the water and, even better, out of range of those reaching, groping branches back there. I picked up speed, veering right and ducking as a park bench suddenly uprooted itself from the ground and hurled itself at me—it passed so close over my head that I felt its slipstream ruffle my hair. I straightened, allowed myself a fraction of a second to properly regain my balance, and pushed on.
I cut to the path on the left and there was the control room, dead ahead with its door still standing blessedly open. The room itself was empty, but I could see something else in there that almost sent me reeling back to the ground. The door on the other side of the room, the one that I would have to go through to get out of the base, also stood open. That meant one of two things: Lucien had entered through the control room (unlikely if Stella had been honest about the Hammerhearts teleporting directly into the yard; also that kind of magic would be a lot more difficult to work than standard teleportation), or whoever had been in the control room at the time had seen the hopelessness of the situation and managed to escape. I pushed myself even harder, now feeling the stitch in my side but spurred on by the sight of my doorway to freedom.
I was maybe ten metres away from it when three things happened almost at the same time. Like they had back at the pool, the bushes on either side of the path suddenly came to life, beginning to creep across the path from here to the control room door on both sides. The ground below me lurched sideways, almost sending me straight into those hungry bushes as, just to my left, so close that I could have fallen straight in if I'd been in the centre of the path, a fissure began to open, the ground rending itself apart with an almighty thunder. Before I had time to react to either of these things, a fireball flew over my shoulder, again so close that my head could have easily been ignited, and hit the wall of the control room. To my horror, it burst into flames.
This was Lucien's last ditch-effort to stop me from getting out there, but I didn't stop to think about it. If I had, I probably would have frozen, unwilling to enter the inferno and consequently been either collared and strangled by the bushes, or swallowed by the great big hole in the ground. I instinctively moved to my right, away from the expanding fissure and closer to the bushes, which began scraping the side of my shoe as I passed them. I had to run in big, long strides to avoid them but when I had almost reached the doorway, close enough that I could feel the heat from the flames, my right calf was seized and the horrible, ugly shrub to which now had a hold of me began trying to pull me towards itself—towards a black hole opening in its centre—a hole which looked a lot like a mouth.
It was my own momentum that saved me. I dived forward with such force that the shrub, which after all wasn't made of very strong stuff (if it had been a tree from earlier, this wouldn't have worked), was ripped from the ground and pulled along with me. It didn't stop trying to pull me back but it couldn't be very effective anymore, now that it had nothing else to attach itself to. With the shrub on my leg, trying to claw its way up my body, I fell forward into the control room, almost slipping into the fissure on my way through. The floor beneath me didn't feel very strong, though, and I knew that if I stayed on it for any length of time, it would collapse into the fissure (which had opened directly beneath it) and the race would be lost anyway.
It was very hot in here, but as I was in the centre of the room, my greater concern (particularly as I'd been breathing hard when I'd entered) was the smoke. Holding my breath (with no air in my lungs—I wasn't brave enough to inhale again while in here), I pulled the shrub across the room with me and directed it towards the flames, which were taking hold of the control panel. It instantly went up, relinquishing its hold on me immediately and giving me the freedom I needed to dive through the open door, landing on my stomach on the cool, wet grass outside. I scrambled up as quickly as I'd gone down, spun around and slammed the door shut behind me. The last things I had seen before the door itself vanished, leaving me in a completely deserted paddock, was the blazing control room, shrubs and all, collapsing in on itself as it was pulled down into the fissure. I had also seen, through the door on the other side and distorted by smoke and distance, a white-faced Lucien, looking ready to kill someone.