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HOMELAND

Prologue

The room was pitch black and stifling, the air thick with moisture and the clinging stench of agar. Countless little red and green lights picked out the shape of a bank of machinery concealed in the darkness, its constant low humming filling the gloom. Although the machinery’s exact purpose remained hidden, its undoubted technological pedigree was underlined by the fact that every once in a while, with no discernable periodicity, it went “ping”.

It went “ping” now, a self-satisfied, annoying little noise. As if in answer, a low hiss sounded and a dim, yellow beam of light stabbed through the darkness. Coming to rest on the machine, the beam traced its shape to where a great bunch of cables erupted from the surface. The light followed the cables as they tumbled down to the floor and snaked their way to a huge glass tank, oval in shape and filled with a thick, sluggish, green liquid. Bubbles forced their way slowly upwards, breaking silently when at last they reached the surface. A small, cheery face had been drawn on the glass with a pink marker.

In the center of the tank was a dark, oblong mass, its detail hard to make out through the semi-opaque serum in which it floated. Countless wires wormed their way to the mass’ surface and it slowly rose and fell, over and over. The circle of light stayed on the thing in the tank and grew gradually larger and brighter. Quiet footsteps approached and a woman spoke in a hurried whisper.

“Listen to me, listen.”

The blob within the tank rose closer to the surface. Its movements became slightly more animated, as if it were struggling weakly.

“There is a number. You must remember this number. It’s very important, you hear? The number is…”

The woman paused. The beam of light left the tank and the sound of someone rustling through some papers filled the room.

“Ah, here. It’s… No, no, that’s not it. Hang on.”

More rustling.

“Where is it?”

A dull thud echoed around the room. The woman had dropped the flashlight.

“Oh.”

Then the papers.

“Oh!”

In the distance, a shrill alarm rang out. The noise of papers being gathered together stopped, replaced by the silence a person makes when they suddenly realize they are in deep do-do.

“Oh bugger.”

The main lights came on, stark, intrusive neon, revealing a large room with a low ceiling. The glass tank was just the closest of six, each connected by thick cables to the central bank of machinery, each filled with a thick green fluid hiding some amorphous thing within.

A burst of gunfire ripped through the room, followed by a short cry of pain. A thousand little spots of blood peppered the glass of the closest tank, bright and garish against the green goo within. Sparks flew from the central machine—a stray bullet had ripped into a section particularly well endowed with LEDs. The machine began to ping frantically.

A new sound started, the plod of heavy-booted footsteps getting closer, each footfall preceded by a mechanical hiss—sss, clump, sss, clump, sss, clump. The footsteps stopped momentarily and began again, this time receding and accompanied by the noise of something being dragged across the floor.

The neon lights faded, leaving only the LEDs of the machinery and the beam of light from the dropped flashlight shining on the oval tank. The machinery continued to ping urgently and little sparks flew fitfully from its wound. As the minutes passed, the pings came faster and faster, rising in pitch, blurring into one long, urgent bleat, piercing and intense. A shower of blue sparks cascaded from the machine, the air filling with smoke and then, silence.

For a long time, nothing happened. The minutes slowly stretched into hours. The flashlight began to fade, flickering pitifully in the growing darkness. As the light died, the thing in the tank started to move, slowly at first then gathering pace, uncurling to reveal it had limbs. It stretched upwards, breaking through the surface of the green slime that contained it, calling out in a voice like that of a child, albeit one talking underwater.

It said, “Oh bugger.”

From the darkness of the room, five similar voices responded in chorus. “Oh bugger.”


Night cloaked the shopping mall. Crouched against the wall beneath the security camera, Jasper was sweating. The mall was air-conditioned to the point of actually being quite cold, but he was a fat man and fat men sweat easily. Not for the first time, he cursed his weakness for bacon bagels. He had tried on more than one occasion to lose weight. Most recently, he had enrolled in a program at the gym designed to pull the obese back from the brink. The first stage simply involved lying flat on a machine, which vibrated the body, toning up atrophied muscles in preparation for stage two. Stage two involved some fairly undemanding exercise. He hadn’t gotten beyond stage one, partly because he couldn’t face the thought of the stage two exercises but mostly because he rather enjoyed being wobbled.

His sodden designer shirt stuck to his back, the buttons straining to hold back the clammy, pink mass of his belly. It had seemed like a good purchase at the time. Somewhere in his subconscious he had honestly believed a shirt modeled by a gawky, angst-ridden teenager would somehow transform him from pink blob to babe-magnet. It had not.

He swept his damp palms over his eyes and tried to calm his breathing. Enough was enough. He was sick of being told he would be shunned unless he wore the right things, bought the right furniture, used the right shampoo. He did not want to be told how to think, what to buy, what to eat, how to live. These things stifled him. He hated them. He hated them enough to be here, out in the darkness of the mall at night, sweating with fear for one chance at freedom. Up above him, the camera swiveled slowly around, scanning the deserted shops. Hunched directly beneath it, Jasper was hidden from the prying lens. Another camera on the far wall of the mall swung away from him. He had timed it right—he was outside of its field of view and he had not been seen. There would be just long enough when neither camera was focused on the space between Jasper and the short corridor that led to the door. The door and then what? Freedom, he hoped, but he didn’t know for sure. The only certainty he knew was he couldn’t stay here suffocating in this air-conditioned, mental straightjacket any longer.

He took a breath, determined to make a run for it, but then doubt made him pause. What if they caught him? People disappeared. Nobody talked about it but they did, they just vanished and life carried on without further mention of them. His courage wavered. It was not too late to sneak back home before they noticed he was out. He lowered his eyes from the camera on the far wall and his gaze came to rest on the advertisements beneath it. Are you overweight? they asked him. Does your breath smell? You don’t want people laughing at you because you’ve got big feet now, do you? Does your bathroom really do you justice?

He hissed in anger, there was no going back. He launched forward, sprinting as fast as his substantial girth would allow, shedding buttons in handfuls as his shirt finally lost its battle with his stomach. His lungs were bursting within a few strides but he forced himself on. His “casual yet stylish” slacks, unhindered by anything resembling a waist, slumped down over his buttocks and he had to hoist them up every few steps. With only a few yards to go, he looked up as he ran to check the cameras were not on him. Distracted, he veered from his course and crashed headlong into a bin. The noise echoed around the silent mall. In terror, he struggled to his feet. From behind him, he heard heavy running footsteps—they were onto him. He glanced up at the cameras. Both were trained on him mercilessly now, little red lights flashing angrily on their tops.

He lurched towards the corridor and, with one final effort, flung himself into its darkness, away from the cold lenses of the cameras. Running in almost blind panic, he reached the door at the end, the one he had seen so many times, the one labeled “Authorized Personnel Only”. By the side of the door was a keypad with a large, green button, which he stabbed with his finger. Nothing happened, the door remained closed. He stabbed the button again and then thumped the door in desperation. Damn this door, he was so close. He threw himself against it again and again but it remained resolutely shut fast against him.

Suddenly, light glared around him and the corridor filled with a voice, that voice, her voice.

“Jasper, you of all people,” she said calmly, her voice straight from the southern United States, all wholesome and apple pie.

He spun around, gibbering in fear, holding up his hands to shield his eyes from the light. They were there, at the end of the corridor. There was no escape.

“Jasper, show me what you’ve got in your pocket.”

He sobbed. “I’m not doing anything. I’m just out for a walk.”

“Jasper. Come, come now. Show me what you’ve got in your pocket.”

“I haven’t got anything, I swear.”

“You are only making things worse for yourself. Come on now, show me.”

Slowly, his trembling, damp hands reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a notebook. Not quite knowing what to do with it, he threw it down on the floor, towards them.

“Oh Jasper, I’m disappointed with you.”

“Please, please, it’s not what you think. I can explain everything.”

His sobs were uncontrollable now. He sank to his knees.

“Please.”

He covered his head with his hands as they came down the corridor towards him.

Chapter One