This is the first short story prequel of the Paradox War trilogy, it is essentially a first-draft that I have just written for the website. It may be prone to tortured tenses, errant commas, and all manner of dyslexic spelling mistakes… Let me know what you think.
Paradox War: First Shadow
It is late at night and the city sleeps, a few stragglers wind their way home from the clubs and bars. The revellers skipping and dancing leerily through the pink neon puddles to the attenuated synthetic drumbeats that leak from the few places that cling to their chemically modified clientele.
I pull along the kerb slowly, looking along the street, watching the drunks carefully, in case one steps out in front of the ambulance.
Tom, who I think of as ‘my Paramedic’ – not like that, I’m happily married – looks over at me, reading my expression. “Oh,” he says, “one of those nights.”
I nod. I can feel something building in the night air. Something dark, something horrible, something soon.
Tom slides his paramedic’s case up onto his knee, “How big, do you think?”
“Big, pretty big, pretty soon. Could be a crash, might be worse…”
“Okay, listen. You know I believe you, right. I mean I’d be an idiot not to have noticed that when you get a bad feeling, we have a bad night, but have you ever thought that it might–”
“Tom, do you want to change shifts? Don’t feel bad about it, I get that–”
“No, Hell no, no… All I was going to say is that, it might be like a self-fulfilling prophecy… You know, you get a bad feeling, you tell me. Then when something happens, we don’t work as hard as we might to save them, and…”
“I make a bad thing worse? I’ve thought about it Tom, but… you know what,” I say, watching the street intently, I don’t even glance around to see his expression, it’s too close now. The darkness pressing on the future is so close I can taste it.
“We’ve never lost anyone when you haven’t had a bad feeling,” he sighs, and it’s the truth.
I nod, “Tom?”
“Yeah?” I feel him look across, the high visibility jacket creaking as he turns.
The radio bursts to life, jangling electronic beeps heralding the call.
Tom lifts down the microphone handset. He echoes the call, telling them we’re on our way.
My hand reaches for the siren on automatic, even as I pull away from the kerb, twisting the wheel to navigate the coteries and cliques as they reel back from our blue strobes and the siren’s alternating crunch of white noise and warbling.
Tom checks the side streets as I take calculated risks with red lights treating them like crossroads. The only traffic that’s on the roads are taxis and the early morning deliveries to supermarkets. Both types are professional drivers, they melt away from the flashing lights almost as quickly as the shadows we drive ahead of us.
The tension doesn’t lift as we tear through the town centre. If anything it continues to build.
We pull off the High street, heading into the labyrinth of side roads. I have to concentrate now, the streets get narrower the further we go from the High Street. It’s like traveling in time, the further from the glassy shop fronts of mobile phone stores the further back in time you seem to get. I’m already back in an alley from the seventies, the shop windows full of bongs and psychedelic prints.
“There!” Tom calls out as he looks down the side streets, “Flames.”
The ambulance rolls heavily on its suspension as I lock the wheel over to get into the side street. The bad feeling, if anything, is getting worse. The street ahead looks unfamiliar, and I glance at the GPS which tells me clearly that it can’t get a satellite signal.
I clip the kerb slightly where the street performs an archaic jink, “Sorry.”
Tom doesn’t comment. He’s too busy staring at the scene ahead. The street is almost medievally narrow and an old iron-mongers is on fire, spitting sharp, yellow sparks into the night.
Police cars and a Fire Appliance block the rest of the street, so I hit the brakes. Tom is out the door and running to the nearest Police Constable in seconds. I runlock the engine, grab the keys and slip to the back, pull free the stretcher trolley and follow. Everything sounds quiet as I climb out. There’s no noise from the High Street even though its only a few hundred feet away, even the fire sounds quiet in this weirdly built street.
“–not as far as I know. I don’t know why you were called.”
Tom looks back at me, “Did you hear that?”
“Yeah, I heard.” I stare at the Constable, he looks fixedly at Tom, there’s something weird about him, but I can’t put my finger on it. He’s suddenly joined by a Fireman, just steps into view from behind the police car, but I can’t quite work out where from, was he in that shop door way on the right? He looks me up and down.
“Yes, that’s us,” Tom says, drawing the Fireman’s attention.
“We’ve got one for you, this way.” He steps backward, before turning, which seems a bit weird. The Constable watches us go past with his eyes, keeping his head facing down the street. Once I’m past him his eyes snap forwards once more. He reminds me of a ventriloquist’s doll.
“You alright?” I ask.
He turns his head toward me, cracking a smile for the first time, “Sorry long shift,” he says, and with that the smile is gone again and he returns to staring at the street.
I hurry to catch up with Tom and the Fireman, dragging the gurney with me. I note several fireman are spraying water into the iron-mongers. The flames don’t seem to respond, but the white-hot metal spits and hisses steam back at them. The police just seem to be there for decoration, milling about and talking quietly into their radios.
I nip behind the huge Dennis Appliance that purrs with diesel efficiency as it pumps. There are bodies. Some are already in body bags, two aren’t. One is a man in his sixties, he’s clearly dead, and Tom has just finished checking him and is moving to the other, a young man, aged about twenty-five. You can’t take time to worry about the dead, not while the living need you. Tom is already checking his airways.
I ask the fireman, “So what happened?”
He gives me a long stare, and then says, “Cover story number five.”
“Eh? Wha–” I start to say.
Tom looks up at him, hand pressed against a dying mans neck, “Did they catch him?”
“No, but the police reckon he’s in the area still though.”
“Okay…” I direct my attention back to Tom and the bloke on the street. I must have misheard.
“Third degree?” I ask as I squat down beside him. “What did that fireman say happened?”
“Could be fourth, at least they’re fairly localized. Eh? He said someone set the fire and then, bang, the place exploded, insurance fraud, most likely, ” Tom says, and then nods toward the man’s head as he opens his case.
“Can you hear me?” I ask, pulling at his eyelids. The man’s eyes roll in pain and panic. “Okay, we’re going to get you to a hospital, do you understand?”
The man opens his mouth, but only a bubble of blood swells in response.
“That’s okay, love. Just squeeze my hand if you can, once for yes… Tom, how did you miss… he’s got blood in his lungs.”
He squeezes hard. Tom looks up at me, slightly wild-eyed, “Suction,” he says and starts working again as soon as I’ve got the thing in place.
I ignore Tom, “Okay, that’s good, you aren’t in shock yet. I’m Desi, this lovely fellow is Tom, he’s the Medic, I’m the driver. No jokes about women drivers please. Tom’s just clearing your air-way and trying to cool down the burns at the moment, to stop them from getting any worse. We just want to make sure you’re stable before we lift you onto the stretcher.” I look at Tom as he works a blue gel into the burns. It’s a chemical coolant, feels ice-cold, but it really isn’t, it just draws the heat out. He’s also cutting away the clothes that aren’t burnt to the flesh.
“Can I check your pockets? Find your name?”
“Good, that’s good, I’ll keep hold of your hand,” I tell him as I snatch a glance at his pockets, reaching for a wallet. The wallet is singed, and a little melted closed. I have to bring the wallet up to use my other hand as well.
“Des,” Tom calls warily, I glance down. There are bubbles in the gel on the victim chest.
“Okay, Mr A. D. Johnson. Mr Johnson, can you still hear me?”
Squeeze, but weaker.
“You’re very badly burnt. We think your lung has been burnt open. ”
“Tom is going to tell me what to do next, but until then I’m all yours, okay? You stay with me now… Ah, I see you are an Andy and you like coffee.”
“Asherman chest seal, press here, hold it… Okay, we’re going to need… Can you hear me Andy? We’re going to move you now.”
“This is probably going to hurt like hell, Andy. Don’t worry though, I’ve put your wallet back in your pocket, and I promise I didn’t nick more than a Tenner. Three, two, one, lift. Okay, how are you doing? Did that hurt?”
A weak squeeze.
“Well, that’s good, proves your still with us, loads of blokes pass out at that bit. You must be tough.”
Two faint squeezes.
“None of that now, look we’re nearly at the ambulance, stay strong Andy. Focus on my voice, I’d like you to keep your eyes open now. I can’t hold your hand when I’m driving, or loading you in. Don’t worry, Tom’s nice, he’ll take over, he’s going to hook you up with some IVs and some expensive machines that go bleep, okay? I’ve got to let go now.”
I let the hand drop, and push Andy in, locking the trolley into place. Tom hooks Andy up to an IV and the Zoll; as I slam closed the doors and walk around to the driver’s door. Something bugs me about this whole thing, beyond the fact that both me and Tom know that I have a bad feeling about Andy’s survival.
I look across at the entire scene. It doesn’t seem to have changed at all since we arrived, which is kind of creepy. The cop is still staring blankly at me as I begin to reverse away, although he blinks as the lights pass his eyes, man he must be beat.
I manage to turn in a narrow ‘T’, thankfully without bouncing the back wheels over the kerb, and then pull away down the winding medieval street. I pull out onto the slightly wider street from the seventies.
“How are you doing Andy?” I hear Tom in the back, “Good. Did you see the guy that set that fire? No? So were you out at a club tonight? Uhuh, hang on I’ll get you a piece of paper and a pen–”
I try to tune Tom out and concentrate on the drive, the hill roads from High Street down towards the Hospital are all steep, narrow and littered with traffic lights, and drunks.
Twice some idiots step out in front of me. The first, he’s about twenty, six-two and has that number one or two buzz-cut that he thinks makes him look hard, but we both know feels like a teddy-bear’s fur. He yells and grins inanely, spreading his arms out trying to block my way.
If I had my way, Ambulances would have an electrified, marginally-padded, muppet-catcher for dicks like this. Lucky for all of us, his mates pull him back out of my way, I hear him jeering as he slaps the side. I pop my radio down and call him in. Police can round him up, give him a night in the cells. Which nearly distracts me for the second one.
She’s bottle-tan orange, wearing high heels, a stupid expression and little else. Her mobile is pressed to her stupid ear, and she steps right out in front of me, from behind a tree, despite the sirens and flashing lights.
Lucky for her, I am good. I was well away from the trees, but she still shocked the hell out of me. Another couple of inches and…
“Sorry about that, some ditsy, tangerine tart just tried to hitch a ride to A&E with you Andy,” I call back, window open so she heard it as we pulled away again.
“Stay with us Andy, I promise she’s normally a better driver than this…”
“Cheeky,” I say, but its true. Something is bothering me about tonight. I’ve got a really bad feeling, but Andy seems to be holding in there, I don’t want to give up on him. Its something else, that whole scene back there. I try to put it from my mind as I hit the roundabouts that lead to the expressway.
I race through the lights before they can change against me, and around the roundabout, pulling onto the dual carriageway through the middle of town. It’s clear apart from a few late night Taxis, and a FedEx delivery truck. I open the Mercedes-Benz turbodiesel up. We’re definitely going beyond the posted speed limit as the first sign for the hospital flashes past.
“Not long now, Andy,” I call back.
“You hear that Andy, not long now, what’s that you’ve written?” Tom goes silent.
“What is it Tom?” I pull off the dual carriageway, just a short jaunt ahead now, the road has a tree-lined avenue with, what were in the sixties, nice houses, behind the trees.
“It says,‘They’ve found me.’ Who? What you’re not making sense?” Tom asks Andy in the back.
I can see who. The engine dies then. I can see the hospital it’s about a quarter of a mile away, no more. We could almost run to it, if it weren’t for the things in the road.
I hit the brakes again.
There is a UFO hanging silently over the road, and under it standing in the road are a motley collection of aliens. Most of them, two dozen or more, are tiny things, probably no more than three feet tall, the others… Well, two are very tall, maybe seven or eight feet tall, another couple look about my height, maybe a little less, I’ll say five feet tall. Each of them have black eyes, that all seem to be focused on me, and each is holding what looks like a nineteen-fifties ray gun in their hands.
“Tom…?” I look around, but he seems to be frozen in place. Andy is struggling on the stretcher, trying to undo himself. He looks at me, his eyes turning all black as he does so. Well creepy.
“You need to let me out, Desi,” he seems to say in my head.
Sure why not…
I slip out of my seat and pull the straps off him. The burns are closing slowly in front of me, and he seems to be healing. He slips from the stretcher.
“Who are you?” I ask.
“I am Andy Johnson. I’m a deep cover agent assigned to this time period. Don’t worry, what you are experiencing now, you probably won’t remember. In fact, I’m not even sure how you are managing to move. Your friend Tom has not joined us in Never-Time. Whoever these jokers are, they are rogue temporal operatives. They blew up the Iron-mongers as I was walking by, some kind of high intensity magnetic grenade probably. I’m their target, but they don’t know how resourceful, or lucky I am. How many are outside?”
“Loads, there were two really tall ones. A few about so high and dozens of little ones,” I say holding a hand at the right heights. I glance back out of the windscreen. “And they are all walking this way.”
“That’s okay, don’t worry. You and Tom are perfectly safe, they cannot risk interfering with either of you. Well, not too much, no more than I did, with that scene earlier. Besides, you are not why they are here. If you stay perfectly still they will ignore you, move and well… don’t move.”
Andy is almost completely healed now, his skin rippling closed as I watch, scar free.
“How are you healing like that?”
“I was badly injured, much too badly to initiate self-repair. The nanobots in my body were badly wiped out from that magnetic grenade, but since you touched me,” he pauses, his eyes glazing over slightly for a moment and then goes on, “I’ve been in self-repair mode – I can’t guess why, unless you’re a time traveler too? No, well then, maybe pulse of their temporal gateway fired up my implant, which rebooted the nanobots. So don’t you worry, you’ll think you imagined all of this afterward. So, I need a gun.”
He reaches over towards the Zoll, and the other equipment, and his hand is suddenly coated in an oily grey powder. He smears it over the plastic, components and metal, and then scoops the lot with his hands. I can see electronic components and metal parts stirring in the plastic and grey powder mess. He prods it with a finger few times, moulding it slightly, then he is done. He is holding a small, stubby-looking pistol. Where the barrel should be there is a tiny dish-shaped antenna.
“What is that, a pha—” no, don’t be a Trekkie now, “— laser gun?”
“This? Nah, this is not a laser gun,” he says pointing it toward me, “this is a Stun gun.”
When I come around the bad feeling has gone. I’m sat in the driver’s seat again. Tom is in the seat behind me. He turns and looks into the back of the Ambulance, it’s a mess.
“Damn it, looks like you slammed the brakes too hard then Des, looks like I forgot to secure half that stuff when I climbed in here… Ah crap the Zoll, what the…” Tom says, confusion shows in his eyes, before he catches sight of the body strapped to the stretcher. “Oh… Poor Andy.”
“Yeah, poor Andy,” I say driving forward into hospital.
“You said you had a bad feeling,” Tom says, like it might be some kind of condolence.
Only I don’t need condolences, the body on the stretcher isn’t Andy. Oh sure, it does look a bit like him. It’s badly burnt and unrecognizable, but that trolley isn’t nearly heavy enough anymore. If I look away, and back at it suddenly, the stretcher looks empty, before the hologram, or whatever it is draws him back in. Andy’s probably still out there, somewhere, maybe he’s gone back home.
I can’t stop wondering where he came from, or where he went.
I guess I’ll never know.