February 44AD (After Darwin) – South coast, Albion Magna
The drumbeat pounding of running feet echoed off the alley walls. The figure hurtled between pitted and blown brickwork, his breaths rasping in short staccato bursts. He really needed to vomit but could not stop running. Not if he wanted to live.
The man could no longer distinguish individual heartbeats. It seemed a wild animal was thrashing around inside his chest, crashing against his ribcage seeking escape. Metallic tasting bile kept rising, choking him, causing him to cough and spit, coating his face and clothes in strings of phlegmy saliva. Sweat cascaded into his eyes, stinging, mixing with the tears. The pain was unbearable; every muscle screamed in protest, he felt cramp tearing at his side. Knees, hips, shoulders could give no more but they could not stop. They moved as though of their own volition, carrying the man forward when his mind screamed Give in, give in! The weight of his clothing grew as it soaked up the perspiration. His coat seemed to be enveloping him, consuming, sucking his strength so he shed it, ripping it off and turning it inside out in the process. One sleeve became entangled with a cufflink and refused to come free of his wrist. Still at full pelt, as he pumped his arms a fastener on flailing coat caught him across the face, slashing open a jagged cut that ran down from his forehead, sliced across the bridge of his nose and gouged his cheek. Blood immediately poured out of the wound, mixing with sweat, seeping into eyes and mouth, staining his shirt collar. He yanked at the reticent sleeve and felt the cuff rip. The coat flew away, disappearing in his wake. Was the chase still on? He tried to listen but all he could hear was the hammering of his pulse roaring in his ears.
The alley took a sharp left turn. The man could not slow down. He threw himself to the left to avoid hitting the wall head on, smacked into the ungiving surface and rolled. Pain shot through his arm as he felt a bone snap on impact. Survival instinct overrode the agony. He stumbled, half-fell onto one knee tearing open his trousers, launched himself upwards and lurched on his way. Behind him dogs were barking.
If he dropped it would they give up? Would they even see it in the dark? Why had he gotten into this? Oh god, oh god, oh god!
The alley opened into a street. The yellow-tinged whiteness of the gaslights provided a stark contrast to the gloom of the narrow passageways through which he had run. Across the other side of the street was parkland, bounded by a low rail. He thrust his hand into a waistcoat pocket, took out a small packet and dropped it in the middle of the road, all at full canter. The sound of the dogs was getting louder. He vaulted the rail with his broken arm, giving an involuntary yell as he did so. Clumsy, he cursed, the pain pulsing, shooting, impeding. The grass was dewy, the ground sloped away and his shoes smooth-soled. He slid feet first, landed heavily on his hip and rolled several times, screaming as the damaged limb impacted with the ground on each rotation. Stabbing his heels into the soft ground he managed to arrest his careening and stood. Now, halted momentarily, he could no longer check the urge and he retched violently. The barking was close by. He forced himself on and, half-running, half-limping, puking all the while, staggered down the gradient back into the darkness afforded by the park.
Suddenly the area was washed with stark white light, harsh, intense and almost blinding. The man slowed, without thinking, looking around him. Long tree shadows seemed to chase each other across the wet grass. Peering back he could see his trail so clearly laid in the dew. And then, above the throbbing in his ears he could hear the haunting ‘whop, whop, whop’ as the twin rotor-blades of a slickship cut through the night sky. Without looking up he ran on, though slower now. The pain was beginning to overwhelm flight; limbs and lungs no longer responded as they had. He reached the edge of the parkland. It was bordered by a wide cobbled road. Beyond was a short strip of rough tussocked grass leading to the nothingness that reaches out over the ocean when a land ends.
His shoes slithered on the smooth stones as he dragged himself forward. The slickship hovered overhead, narrowing the searchlight beam as though taunting its quarry. He heard shouts to his left, and then to his right. Booted feet thundered off the cobbles as the squads closed in. Barking and growling approached fast behind him. With the last reserves of will and strength almost depleted the man moved from road to the uneven scrub. He tripped, fell, was on his feet in an instant and, without looking down, stepped out into the salt-whipped air.
A tall, lean figure stepped silently out of the dingy alleyway into the streetlight. Away down the hill it could see the searchlights flick back and forth as the slickships hovered above the cliff edge. Shouts and barking were still audible over the noise of the aircraft engines.
The figure cast long shadows. It was dressed in a leather greatcoat, fastened all the way and the collar turned up. The face was concealed behind what appeared to be a gasmask, leather, encompassing the whole head. Two large, round, tinted eyepieces allowed the wearer to view the world whilst remaining inscrutable and intensely disconcerting to anyone having the displeasure of looking upon him. A ribbed rubber breather tube extended down to a pocket inside the greatcoat which presumably housed some form of filter mechanism. A stove pipe hat gave the already tall figure an impression of being much taller than should be physically possible. Everything it wore was black, as if absorbing the bleakness of the night, sucking the dark out of the darkness.
In front of the figure, on the cobbled road, lay a small packet. He stared at it dispassionately for a few moments. The only sound he made was a soft, dry wheezing , muffled inside mask and coat. The man crouched down and plucked the packet from the stones with leather gloves, black of course. Still crouching it held the packet up to better catch the gaslight. Held betwixt thumb and forefinger it was about the size of a large matchbox, though possibly a little flatter, wrapped in brown waxed paper and bound with thin string. The figure stood, turned the packet over and over, examining it from all angles without attempting to open it, then slid it into one of the vast pockets stitched into his coat. He looked up and down the road and, as if satisfied that he remained alone, turned back into the alleyway, becoming one with the shadows again.