Suddenly there was a muffled cry and Toby’s legs kicked out violently at thin air. Sarah screamed. Toby hung for a second then was yanked upwards and out of the hatch. His foot caught on the door and it slammed with a deafening thud. David and Sarah stared at each other as the ringing in their ears faded into silence.
‘What the hell was that?’ she whispered.
‘I have no idea.’
‘Ronson wouldn’t haul him out like that, would he?’
‘No,’ David said. ‘I’ll have a look. Can you lift me?’
‘And have you disappear too? No way!’
‘Well we can’t just stand here. Come on, give me a leg-up. I’ll only open the hatch a crack.’
David stood on Sarah’s cupped hands and peeped out into the gloom.
‘We’re in the middle of a forest,’ he said.
‘So it did work?’ Sarah let him down. ‘We’re somewhere else?’
‘We’re certainly not in the lab,’ he said.
‘So where’s Toby?’
‘I don’t know. We need to get back using the emergency return.’
‘Just leave? What about Toby?’
‘We’ll come back. Get Michael and come back. He knows how this thing works. He probably even knows where we are.’
There was a moment’s silence. David tapped the arrow keys next to the display and got back to the screen that should have had the three lines of figures. Except now, the final line wasn’t there.
‘What?’ Sarah said.
‘That’s not going to work.’
‘You mean we’re trapped here?’
‘No. The pod obviously functions, so there’s no reason to think the emergency return won’t too. But I think I’ve figured out what these numbers are.’
‘Coordinates. The top are GPS references. And I’m guessing that if the pod is able to travel through space almost instantaneously, it could also–’
‘Travel through time. The bottom line must have been a date. Except it isn’t there any more. Toby cleared the display just before the countdown finished.’
‘So what’s the problem?’ Sarah said. ‘The computer’ll tell us where… when we are, won’t it?’
‘Who knows? Our time destination was random, just something the machine did. Without an input it just came up with… who knows, could be anything.’
‘But it’s a forest out there, right? Actual trees?’
‘Yes, but we’re not alone,’ David said. ‘Toby couldn’t have got out of the hatch that quickly on his own. Someone pulled him. Someone who’s probably still waiting for us to come up.’
‘OK. So… the clock in the computer uses dates we’d understand, right?’
‘Probably. The GPS references are perfectly normal.’
‘So, if the years have four digits, and they can’t be below zero, that puts us most likely within human time. We might meet Jesus, or we might meet some really advanced people from the future, but we’re not going to be too far away from anything we understand.’
David leaned back on the cupboard that contained the return capacitors. ‘Makes sense.’
‘So it’s just people out there, in a forest. And it’s not as if we landed on someone’s house, or their head.’
‘Then we’ll go up and at least find out where we are.’
‘Fine, but if Toby’s not there, we’ve got to go back and get help. It might take a while to figure it out, but there must be log files somewhere on the main servers that’ll tell Michael where the pod’s been.’
Sarah helped David up to the hatch again. There was no sign of movement outside and they had not heard a sound since Toby had disappeared. David scrambled out then leaned down to help Sarah up.
The pod had arrived almost completely buried. Only the top twenty or so centimetres of it was visible above the forest floor, which accounted for why they could not open the main door.
In front, behind and to both sides of them, all they could see were short, thorny trees with grotesquely twisted and cracked branches. Gnarled, knotty bark peeled from the trunks, and if it were not for a sparse covering of dark green triangular leaves, they could have been dead. Dense clumps of these grotesques stretched out as far as they could see.
‘Nothing,’ David said. ‘There’s no way of knowing which way he even went.’
‘This place is so…’ Sarah shrugged. ‘I don’t know. It’s not right.’
‘It doesn’t look healthy.’
‘No, it’s more than that. Can’t you feel it? It feels lonely, forgotten. Listen…’
‘I can’t hear anything,’ David said.
‘Exactly. There’s no bird-song, no rustling in the leaves. There isn’t even any wind. David, what is this place?’
Before he could answer, he noticed in the soft earth below them the faint marks of two parallel lines disappearing towards the edge of the forest. He jumped down from the pod’s roof and began to follow them for a few yards through the trees. On either side of the lines were footprints, half hidden among the leaf-litter.
‘Sarah, look. Whoever took Toby dragged him that way. Sarah?’
‘Yeah, I’m coming.’ She thrust her mobile phone back into her pocket and jumped down. ‘Hey, try your phone.’
‘Who are we going to phone out here?’
‘999 might be a start.’
David flicked his phone open and pressed the On button. Nothing happened. He looked questioningly at Sarah.
‘Nor mine,’ she said.
‘Machine must have fried them. But look, there seem to be tracks through the forest.’
He crouched and cleared the leaves that partially obscured one of the footprints. It was like a human print, but narrower at the back and very wide at the front. Whatever had made them was big. But that was not what turned David’s blood cold. Each print had the unmistakable mark of six toes on each foot.
‘What the hell is that?’ Sarah said.
‘I don’t know, but it’s got Toby.’
‘Maybe we should get help.’
Sarah turned back to the pod, leaving David peering through the trees. Some way in front of them they thinned out to a wide plain in the distance.
Satisfied that Toby was nowhere to be seen, he turned and almost walked into Sarah’s back.
‘What?’ he said. She stood, rigid, staring in the direction of the pod.
She did not reply. David followed her gaze back into the trees.
It was a moment before he distinguished the shape from the gnarled and dusky background. Even then he was not sure what he was looking at, just that whatever it was, it was standing on the roof of the pod.
Suddenly Sarah grabbed his hand.
‘Run!’ she shouted and began to drag him away.
They crashed through the trees, scuffing up leaves and shards of dead bark. Thorned branches whipped at their faces and tried to snare their arms and legs. For a horrible few seconds it seemed that the edge of the forest was not getting any closer, until they crested a low dyke and emerged from the gloom onto a shallow cliff.
‘What was it?’ David gasped.
‘Something was moving in the trees. Something big. I couldn’t see what it was.’
‘Wildlife being curious?’
‘It was stalking us, then it jumped onto the pod and just stood there. Watching.’
‘It’s following us,’ David whispered. Sarah pulled at his hand, but he stood his ground. ‘No, wait.’
The creature had followed them most of the way to the edge of the forest, but as David spoke it stopped. Although it was shrouded in the dank gloom and obscured by twisted trunks and branches, this time there was no doubt what it was. Standing barely thirty feet away was a pure white wolf.
The wolf’s orange eyes pierced the darkness and bored into them. For several seconds it just stared, then closed its eyes and stretched its long powerful muzzle upwards to the hidden sky, letting out a long, mournful howl. Then it was gone: not bolting back into the cover of the forest, but just evaporating into the cool damp air like a ghost. A ripple of wind hissed through the trees and stirred the dead dry leaves.
David squeezed Sarah’s hand, then dropped it quickly and turned again to look out over the emptiness before them.
‘I say we forget the computer,’ he said.
‘We’ll I’m certainly not going back in the forest. We can deal with… that… whatever it was when we’ve got Toby back. He’ll kick it’s butt.’ She tried to laugh, but it was a strained sound.
‘I don’t doubt it,’ David said.
The low cliff on which they stood sloped gently down to a vast, wide plain. In the far distance they could just make out the shapes of buildings. Beyond them rose mountains, little more than black silhouettes cutting up into the grey sky.
The footprints had faded out on the firmer ground beyond the dampness of the trees. There was no sign of Toby, or anyone else, out on the plain.
‘That way?’ David said, gesturing towards the little town in the distance.
‘Must be,’ Sarah said. ‘There’s nowhere else. They must have had some kind of vehicle here.’
‘Well that’s good. Vehicles at least mean humans.’
‘Unless the wolves have learned to drive! Come on.’
Sarah began to stumble down the slope that led to the plain. With a final backwards glance into the trees, David followed.
The plain appeared to be a marsh that had long ago dried up. The caked mud was flat and smooth but deeply fissured, with long jagged cracks running across its surface. The entire landscape was covered with patches of fine black ash, and only here and there was there any evidence that life had ever existed here. Tufts of tough grass still clung to the shallower cracks, but they were yellowed and powder-dry now.
Walking was difficult. They stumbled along, avoiding the widest of the fissures. The plain was warm and curiously airless, and very soon David began to feel sweat begin to trickle down his face and dampen his back. After a few minutes he waved them to a breathless stop. He turned and looked back at the forest behind them.
Sarah turned as David pointed back at the tree line.
‘We’ve not walked that far. That’s miles!’ The dark, broccoli silhouette of the forest cut into the sky in the distance, so far away that it was impossible to make out individual trees.
‘There’s something else.’ He picked up a stone the size of a golf ball and turned back towards the town. ‘Watch.’
As soon as he dropped the stone it began to bounce away from them, gathering speed as it disappeared into the featureless plain. It finally plopped out of sight into a fissure twenty or more yards away.
‘I thought it felt like we were walking downhill,’ he said, ‘but I thought I must be imagining it. Look at it – there’s no slope, it’s all perfectly flat!’
Sarah picked up a stone and threw it as hard as she could back in the direction of the forest. A small puff of ash and earth marked the spot where it landed, but the stone came to a rest and did not roll back towards them. The ground behind them was quite level.
‘Come on, let’s get out of here.’ David led the way now, half walking, half running down the invisible slope towards the buildings which seemed not to be approaching nearly as quickly as the forest was receding.
After twenty minutes of dodging cracks and rocks, stumbling down the increasingly steep slope, they paused again, hot and out of breath. The forest had almost disappeared behind them.
‘Are you sure we’re going the right way?’ Sarah gasped. ‘There’s no tracks down here. There would be some sign of them, wouldn’t there?’
‘I’ve been thinking the same thing. Maybe they never left the forest.’
‘We’ve got to go back,’ Sarah said. ‘This could be a trap.’
David scanned the plain for anything they may have missed. There were no vehicle tracks, but there was something else.
A low figure was approaching them across the blackened plain to their left. Its movement was slow and fluid, its direction sure.
‘What is it?’ Sarah whispered.
‘It’s not good, whatever it is.’
‘There’s another one over there.’ Sarah pointed to their right where another, leaner, figure was homing in on them. It was still too far away to be sure what it was, but it certainly did not look human.
‘We need to move. Now.’ Sarah grabbed David’s arm and pulled him forward. As soon as they moved, the two figures quickened to intercept their line.
Fear drove them on. They ran, stumbling and slipping on the steep dusty surface. Their pursuers appeared to be running on flat ground, and were closing in fast. There was no chance of retreat now. Even if they could make the distance, turning around would mean running directly into the pincer trap of their pursuers. There was only one direction, and he was increasingly sure he had made a fatal mistake in committing them to it.
Eventually, the dark shapes of buildings began to separate out into individual houses, huddled together on the edge of the dusty wilderness.
David glanced at the figure to their right. It was still a good distance away, but he could now see what this figure was.
It was a large, male, lion. Its mane rippled and flowed in the wind as it thundered across the dusty ground towards them.
A few hundred yards from the nearest building they began to hear the rumble of feet on the other side of them too. The leopard on their left closed in with the same deadly efficiency as the lion. In seconds, the paths of the two animals joined, and they rapidly gained on their quarry. David pointed at a stone gateway that marked the entrance to a wide street on the edge of town. It would give them no protection, but aiming for it at least gave them a sense of purpose. He and Sarah veered slightly towards it.
The gate was a stone arch twelve or fifteen feet high. On either side were seven other stone pillars descending in height to a wall that bounded this part of the town. Each of these lesser pillars had a banner mounted at its summit. The plain white material hung motionless in the still air. From this distance, the whole town appeared to be still. There was certainly no one rushing to their rescue.
The pounding paws behind them faltered a little as the animals prepared to pounce. Any moment, the first of the beasts would make its move. At least one of them would be down. And what would the other do? Stay and help? Die out here too? Or run on alone into the unknown, into a place where help might lie, or where far worse could be waiting?
From somewhere close to the edge of the town, a spear whistled though the air, slicing past Sarah’s head. It thudded into the dry ground behind them, and they heard their pursuers skid off course. Heads down now, running hunched as if dodging enemy fire, they darted through the gate as another spear hurtled overhead. They made for the first solid-looking building they came across. It had walls, and no door to bar their entry. It would do for now.
Only when they were safely inside did they dare to look back.
All was silent out on the plain. Beyond the gate two spears still trembled in the earth. The lion and the leopard had vanished. There was no sign or sound of whoever had thrown the weapons.
As David’s heartbeat finally began to slow, he tried to make sense of what they had stumbled into. It quickly became apparent how far from home they really were. Through a huge hole in the wall opposite where he sat, he could see other buildings just like theirs. Low shops, houses and workshops, all of the same uniform pale stone or gravel render, all arranged neatly along a straight street. Other streets branched off this main thoroughfare at regular intervals for as far as he could see.
But there were no people, no cars or busses, no trees or hanging baskets, no pigeons pecking for scraps, not even a stray dog resting in the shade of a doorway. Every one of the buildings was burned out and smashed. Doors and windows were just rough holes and none had anything remaining of their upper stories. Rubble spread out across deserted roads; sharp fingers of rusting metal pointed at the lead-grey sky.
The town was perfectly silent.
There was no sign of life whatever.
Whatever this town was, it was as dead and desolate as the plain outside.