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Near future: Tibor Tarent, a freelance photographer, is recalled from Anatolia to Britain when his wife, an aid worker, is killed—annihilated by a terrifying weapon that reduces its target to a triangular patch of scorched earth. A century earlier: Tommy Trent, a stage magician, is sent to the Western Front on a secret mission to render British reconnaissance aircraft invisible to the enemy. Present day: A theoretical physicist develops a new method of diverting matter, a discovery with devastating consequences that will resonate through time.
The OOR people came to collect him the next morning – they telephoned the house thirty minutes before he was to be ready, and arrived at the exact moment they specified. Tarent was still upstairs, carefully packing his cameras, when he saw the car drawing up outside the house.
His farewell to Gordon and Annie Roscoe was more hurried than any of them would have liked. Gordon shook his hand, but then unbowed and gave a hug – Annie held him closely and cried.
'I really am so sorry about Melanie,' Tarent said, again at something of a loss as to know how to say the right or true thing, and settled for the true. 'Melanie and I were still in love,' he said, 'after all these years.'
'I know, Tibor, I believe you,' said Annie softly. 'Melanie always said the same.'
Tarent joined the others in the car. This time his minders were a man and a woman – the man was wearing a grey business suit, the woman a burqa. The driver was another woman, glassed off from the main compartment of the car. An attaché case parked on a rack at the back of the passenger seats bore the OOR insignia, but that was the only clue as to the identity of these people.
During the drive that followed neither of the officials said anything casual or unguarded to him, and the woman never spoke at all. She faced Tarent most of the time, regarding him opaquely from within her shroud. Soon after leaving the Roscoes' house the young man spoke to pass on instructions.
He said that they were taking him to London where there was an apartment he could stay in overnight. He gave Tarent a key, and told him where he should return it when he was collected the next day. He would then be driven to a debriefing office in Lincolnshire, where he would be expected to file a detailed report of his experiences in Turkey. This would include him having to hand over the original datafiles of every photograph he had taken. Tarent bridled, as he had a freelance contract with his usual syndicating agency, but he was curtly reminded of the agreement by which he was to be allowed to accompany his wife on her mission. Tarent could retain commercial rights to the pictures, but he would be told if there were any that were not to be published. There would be no argument.
The official then established that Tarent was not carrying a smartphone, so he handed him a new one. The compartment it was removed from at the back of the vehicle contained several more identical handsets. After he had familiarized himself with the phone's most basic features, Tarent stared out of the smoked-glass car window, a dimmed, darkened view of the Thames Valley. There had been storms in Britain while he was away – Gordon and Annie told him about a particularly violent one just over a week earlier that flattened thousands of trees in the east and south of the country. It was known as a temperate storm, the product of a new kind of climatic low-pressure system.The visit to Melanie's parents now felt to him like an isolated snapshot of his life: two snapshots in fact. There was the old past, the first years of the marriage, the conventional visits to see his in-laws and to spend a little time with some of Melanie's old friends and nursing colleagues. Those days were of course gone forever. Then there was the more recent sliver of experience: staying in the Roscoes' house, recounting for them the last few days at the clinic, Melanie's death and his abrupt return to the IRGB. So much had happened in between those two points. Gordon and Annie saw only a part of him, knew little about the rest.
The journey was slow, with several time-consuming diversions into side roads, caused by barricaded sections, and they made two stops. The first was what the male official called a comfort break at a service station. Armed police patrolled. Tarent wanted to buy some food and drink, as he had eaten nothing since a light breakfast at the house, but he was told there was no time. He had no money of his own. The silent woman produced some coins for him, so he went to a kiosk and was able to buy a bottle of water and something wrapped in cellophane that had nuts in it. Another halt was a prolonged one at anonymous buildings that looked like offices but had no identifying signs outside. The woman in the burqa left the car here and was replaced by a man. He was older than the other, and by his manner appeared to be his superior. Both men sat away from Tarent, one working on a laptop computer, the other reading slowly through a sheaf of papers.
After about three hours, by which time Tarent felt sure they must be approaching London at last, the older man began making calls on his mobile phone. He spoke in Arabic, a language Tarent did not speak or understand. However, he heard his surname several times, and realized the younger man was regarding him, perhaps to see if Tarent was following what was said.
They passed through increasingly built-up areas, approaching the capital. The younger official leaned forward to the driving compartment, said something quietly to the driver, and almost at once the smoked-glass effect deepened on all the windows as well as the dividing glass, making it impossible to see outside. Two dome lights in the car's roof came on, completing the sense of isolation.
'Why have you done that?' Tarent said.
'It's beyond your security clearance level, sir.'
'Security? Is there something secret out there?'
'We have no secrets. Your status enables you to travel freely on diplomatic business, but national security issues are a matter of internal policy.'
'But I'm a British citizen.'
The vehicle was moving more slowly now. The road surface was uneven and the vehicle jolted sharply several times. Tarent could see his face reflected in the darkened glass of the window, shuddering as the car rattled along.
'Where are we now?' he said. 'Can you tell me that? And what's the rest of the route?'
'Of course, sir.' The older man consulted his handheld electronic device. 'We are in west London and have just passed through Acton. We are taking you to an apartment situated near Islington, in Canonbury, but we are having to make a slight detour. After that it will be a straight run through. We do not have much time – we have been warned that another storm is likely to affect south-east England later today.'
At that moment his phone rang, an insistent, high-pitched squeal. He took the call, grunted his understanding of something that was said, then spoke in Arabic again. Still holding the instrument to his ear, he nodded to the other man, who tapped again on the pane of glass that divided the driver from the rest of the car. The dome lights went off, the smoked glass lightened. Both men stared out of their side of the car.
Tarent looked out of his own side. For a few seconds he glimpsed the landscape outside the car. It was a blackened plain, flat, featureless, stretching away as far as he could see. There was nothing out there – everything had been levelled, reduced, annihilated. Were it not for the fact that much of the sky was visible and a low sun was glinting, Tarent could have imagined that the windows of the car were still blacked out.
He had seen this before, on a much smaller scale. The place where Melanie was killed had looked just like it.
Tarent turned towards the other men, seeking an explanation, but already the windows were being opaqued again. He briefly saw part of the sky on their side of the car: a deep, threatening purple. The shades were falling out there, while on his side the devastated landscape had been bathed in bright sunlight.
The glass quickly darkened again, cutting off his view.
Heavy rain was pouring from a lowering sky when the car came to a halt outside a block of apartments on the Canonbury Road. The large car shook with the impact of the wind. The two men went with him to the main door, but did not enter the building. Tarent stood at the door, watching as the two men hurried back to the car, splashing in the rippling sheets of water blown along the street.
Although the apartment building was an old one the flat itself had been recently modernized. When Tarent turned on the lights he found a clean, livable space, with every modern convenience. He put down his bags, grateful to be on his own for the next few hours. He sank into one of the chairs and picked up the TV remote.
The storm had been dubbed TS Edward Elgar, by the World Meteorological Organization. Tarent discovered this when he turned on the TV, and although outer bands of heavy cloud had already hit London and the south-east of England the full central force of the storm was not due to strike until the early hours of the morning. It was expected to reach Level 3 or 4 at its height. There were repeated warnings to take shelter, and not to venture out in the storm. Hurricane-force winds were expected, with flooding and structural damage almost inevitable. To underline the message, the TV station played footage from an earlier storm, the Level 4 TS Danielle Darrieux. This had struck land in Ireland, crossed over into Wales, then travelled east towards Lincolnshire before moving out into the North Sea. It had eventually blown itself out as it encountered the colder and shallower waters off the coast of Norway. Blizzards had isolated the Norwegian town of Ørsknes. It was the beginning of September in Europe.
He looked in the kitchen: the refrigerator was working, but there was no real food inside. There was a bottle of soured milk, a carton of margarine spread, three eggs, a half-eaten bar of chocolate. Tarent was hungry. When he went to the main window of the apartment, which looked down into Canonbury Road, he discovered it had stopped raining. He decided to see if he could find a restaurant that was open, or at least a grocery where he could buy something to get him through the evening. As soon as he was in the street he realized there were almost no shops open. Most buildings were dark, or shuttered. The only restaurant he could find was closed – two streets away there was a small grocery still open, but three men were hurriedly boarding up the windows. Inside the shop, Tarent found a ready meal he could heat up, but the man who owned the shop warned him that power outages were likely. Thinking his stay would last for one night only, Tarent bought two bread rolls, some processed chicken and a couple of oranges. He remembered too late that he was carrying almost no cash, but the shop owner accepted a card from him.
As he left the shop, the power went off.
The flat was in darkness when he returned, and neither the fridge nor the cooker would work. The power stayed off for most of the remainder of his stay in the flat, which instead of lasting one night only, extended to more than two days. There was no way he could leave. The storm broke in full force, as forecast, during the first night of his stay, at about two-thirty in the morning. The old apartment building was solidly built and was left relatively unscathed by the gales, torrential rain and hurtling pieces of wreckage, but Tarent was cold and hungry. In a small cupboard in the kitchen he found two unopened cans of food (one a mixed fruit salad, the other a supermarket-brand chili con carne), and he eked these out as long as possible. Without electricity he had no radio or television, and the digital network that he used before he went to Anatolia was down. On the second day the battery of his new smartphone became exhausted, and there was no way he could recharge it.
It was impossible to venture out. He spent hour after hour sitting by the window, looking down Canonbury Road, watching fearfully as the violent squalls skirled along the street, carrying water and debris, thrashing against the concrete stanchions that blocked the roadway and shooting cascades of water against the walls of the old buildings. A small office-block directly opposite his apartment window was demolished on the first night, and every scrap of its wreckage and contents was swept away by the gales. Sheets of metal, cables, parts of car bodies, traffic signs, branches of trees, skidded endlessly along the street, adding to the cacophonous racket of the howling gale. The sight of the endless damage was awful but the screeching of the wind was the true terror. It seemed never to let up, never to vary, except, impossibly, to worsen. Tarent had rarely felt more alone or vulnerable than during those two days and night. He was no worse off than anyone else, or so he imagined, and that became a consolation of sorts. For all that he remained uninjured by the violent weather, and indeed safe and dry, he suspected he came through the storm better than many. The building stayed intact, the windows did not blow out, or at least not those in his apartment, and he was too high above street level to be affected by the flooding.
On the second night he slept for a few hours and when he awoke at first light he discovered that by some miracle the electricity supply had returned. He found his mobile phone charging – he had left it plugged into the mains in the eventuality the power might come on again. He cleared all the uneaten food out of the refrigerator and threw it away. He then phoned the number he had been given, and gave the necessary code word.
A Mebsher, he was told, was passing through north London at that moment. It was quickly arranged that it could divert to the Islington area to collect him. His location was known. All he had to do was wait for a coded message on his phone, and he would find the personnel carrier waiting for him in the street outside.
He returned the phone charger to the power source and less than three hours later a message came through. When he went down to the street the Mebsher was waiting. The floodwater was receding, but even so it reached above the axle level of the huge wheels. Tarent waded across to the extensible access steps. Dripping water from his legs and shoes, he clambered inside and took a seat.
Excerpted from The Adjacent . Copyright 2014, Christopher Priest. Published by Titan Books