Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Conclusion


***

Lena slept most of the journey to the port. When she woke, she reached again for Max and held him close, tight, as if he might disappear. She watched the scenery as it glided past the window, trees, hedges, buildings, roads stretching to the horizon.

The port was in the centre of a town, down a narrow street, past people walking, carrying on with their lives. Her time in the hospital was becoming dreamlike, it was incompatible with the normality of the life she could see through the window. The car slowed as it neared the water.

As soon as the car stopped, the door was opened from the outside and a man, who she did not recognise but who called her Lena, helped her to carry the dozing Max, took her to a fishing boat. Lena stepped from the jetty onto the swaying deck, turning at once to reach for her son. More hands supported her, guided her to a seat. There were shouted instructions, someone released a rope, the sound of a motor coughing, the breeze increased, cool wind tangling her hair. But her single focus was Max, lying half next to her, half across her, his weight heavy on her legs.

She sat on deck, shivering in the cold, spray dampening her hair, the wind blowing away her worries, reminding her that she was alive, she had survived. The motor started, and they eased away from the dock. No one had spoken, other than instructions as to where she should sit, where to stow her bag. It all happened automatically, and Lena again had a sense of being a small part in a big machine.

Max was beginning to wake. Every so often he would look at her with bleary eyes, smile, then drift away again. Lena moved her legs, trying to find a way to support Max whilst allowing her blood to circulate. It was several years since he had allowed her to cuddle him, and she savoured the opportunity to hold him close, knowing that when he woke properly, he would move away, want to be independent.

Lena looked out, across the water. The waves were high, buffeting the little boat as it rose and fell, lifted high then dipping low, over and over.

The boat crossed the narrow strip of sea to the island. John and Agnes were waiting, with Den and Lucy. They were huddled on the jetty, collars turned up against the wind.

As the boat arrived, Den leapt on to the boat, hugged Lena, wordless, tears running down his cheeks. No attempt to control his racing emotions, no desire to appear manly, strong. He had thought he had lost her. He loved this woman, with her corners and frowns and doubts. She was part of him. He held her close, breathing in her tangled hair, smelling the dust on her. She pulled away, needing to breathe, smiled up at him.

John told them to hurry, the boat needed to leave. They passed bags to the family, Agnes handing them a parcel, telling them there were sandwiches.

Lena was shaking, the cold seeping through her thin jacket and into her bones. John noticed, gave her his own coat, told her to wear it, to stay safe. Then he and Agnes stepped back, waving arms in big arcs as the boat moved away, the motor sending black smoke into the air, bouncing across the waves.

John and Agnes watched the family leave, grow smaller and ever more distant. They were glad they were safe, were looking forward to a return to normality. Yet Agnes knew that a part of her was leaving with them, she would never forget this little family.

Beside her, John waved in silence. His plans were almost complete, the family would be an obstacle now, it was better that they left, hurried to safety before they started asking questions. They had not been as compliant as he had hoped, but it didn’t matter now, the result had been achieved.

Lucy was frightened in the boat, thought they might sink. Lena was beyond being frightened of anything. She held her daughter on her lap, letting her body warm her, whispering songs into her hair. She liked the feel of the boat as it rose and fell with the waves, riding over the powerful ocean, carried along with no attempt to resist. Den held Max, took him to the edge when he needed to vomit, wound a scarf over his bare head to keep him warm.

Max was fully awake now but aware only of the immediate, the cold, the sickness, his headache. He had no idea what was happening, where they were going or why. Nor did he care. Talking would come later, he simply wanted to feel better.

They arrived on the French shore. More people were waiting, more friends who they had never met. Lena thought about all the past discussions with John; she wondered if these people too were stars—if John had counted them.

They were bundled into a car, driven through towns and cities until they reached Paris. More people, old buildings, many cars. Finally, they were left at the station, a stranger’s barcode was used to pay the fare. The family sat on the platform, waiting for the tube train that would take them onwards. At their feet were bags, donated by more unknown friends: food, clothes, provisions for the journey.

Lena wondered how big this network of people was, just how many people John controlled. She leant against Den, happy for him to be the strong one, to be able to let go for a while. She thought again about her journey, her mission. She wondered if it was enough, if she could now be counted amongst the stars. Worried that it might not be, that there was something more, something she had missed. She was still tired, groping with the thought, trying to sort it out in her mind.

Den felt her tension, held her close. “What’s the matter little one? We’re safe now, we’ve left England. No one will care about us now.”

“Den, I’ve been thinking, about the stars that John counts, the Jews and Muslims. I understand how he includes them, they are mostly born into their faiths, they practice their religions, follow rituals, believe their holy books.… But what about the Christians? How does God decide if they are good enough, have done enough to qualify as stars? How can they be sure they will be counted?”

Den moved slightly so he could look at her. He saw the clouds in her eyes, the worry that loomed there in spite of how far they had come.

“But Lena,” he said, “no one can do enough. That’s the point of Christianity. You cannot earn the right to be a star. A star is an honorary son of Abraham, an adopted son if you like. Adopted by God. None of us is good enough for that, that’s the point.”

Lena frowned. What then, was the point? Had all her efforts been in vain? Would she still be rejected?

Den continued, “When you were in the hospital, saving Max, it was difficult—wasn’t it?”

Lena nodded, remembering the pain in her ankle, the fear, the never-ending dusty vents. She thought of the armed guards with their straight backs, the impossibility of reaching the clones, then her fall from the ceiling; the agony of her ankle, the agony of indecision when injecting the clones, the agony of trying to walk back to the meeting place, the further agony of waiting, wondering if Max would arrive. Yes, it was difficult—more than difficult.

“But you didn’t do it so he would owe you something, so you would have a hold over Max, to control him, did you? And you wouldn’t want Max to go back into the hospital, to do it again, for himself, would you? To go back and inject the clones, to risk capture, so he could say that he had done it for himself? To prove he was capable of saving himself?”

“No,” she frowned, “of course not. I don’t think he could have done it anyway”. She thought of the ducts, the long crawl, the drop from the ceiling. “He isn’t big enough to have done it,” she said, feeling slightly irritated with Den now. It was a silly question. She had achieved what she had for her child, why would she want him to go back and do what was unnecessary?

“I had to do it, so the watchers would help me, there didn’t seem to be another way. I did it because I love him, I wanted to save him. I didn’t want them to change him, I wanted him to be himself, to be safe.”

Den moved his hand, stroked her hair.

“Well, that’s how it is with God. He’s done all the hard work, He just wanted to save us. We just have to let Him.”

Lena looked at him, her eyes bright with tears. She so wanted that to be true, she wanted to belong. Was it really just a case of accepting?

He bent down, kissed her nose. “You will always be the brightest star in my eyes,” he whispered.

The train slid towards the platform, hovering over the rails, the electromagnets bringing it to a perfect stop.

Max glanced at his parents, then looked away quickly. They could be so embarrassing sometimes. He stared at the train through the thick glass seal. The vacuum-enclosed casing retracted, unsealing the train, giving access to the platform. The train doors swooshed open and Max went to help Lucy lift her bags. She glanced at his bald head, grinned, but said nothing.

The train was large, tubular in shape with thick walls to keep the air inside. The tubes it travelled along were vacuums, the electromagnets allowing great speeds as it hovered above the rails.

The family climbed aboard. They were leaving, going to a new life in Asia, being guided by the stars to a place they could be free. It had been a hard journey, they had nearly been stopped many times, but they were on their way now. And they were together, they had survived. They shuffled onto the train, finding their seats, stowing their bags.

The family did not see the newsfeed on the screen behind them. It was very large, projected images of a reporter giving sombre news, announcing the death of Midra. The leader of the Global Council was dead.

Nor did they see the pictures of the man who was to be his successor, the newest member of the Global Council, the person who would decide how England was to be ruled. A young man, very tall. It was his eyebrows that you noticed first, they rose upwards, giving him the appearance of an owl. A great horned owl.

He was the last puppet in the dance.

The End

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: To The Hospital


She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

To The Hospital

Lena walked away from the house. She didn’t bother to look for electronic watchers, she knew she wouldn’t see them anyway. She kept to the shadows: hugging the side of a wall, walking so close to a bush the thorns caught her elbow, stepping on the edge of lawns, brushing the side of buildings as she passed.

It was cold, the morning light weak and grey, as if night was clinging on, unwilling to leave. Lena could see her breath in puffs of condensed air, coming quickly as she hurried towards the hospital. Her hood was hot, so she pushed it off, then worried she was too visible and pulled it back up, over her hair, hiding her face in its shadow. A car passed her, then another. Neither slowed and she didn’t look at them, was almost past caring if she was seen. This whole experience was too foreign, too unreal, like being caught up in a psychological thriller.

When she reached the corner opposite the old school, she stopped and leant forwards, resting her hands on her knees. She had a pain in her side, knew she was walking too fast to be comfortable, faster than someone with her level of fitness could maintain. She had a long way to go, was still tired from the walk through the tunnel. When she straightened the world spun briefly, a haze of grey and brown. Then her vision cleared, she took some deep breaths, forced herself to calm her breathing, to relax her shoulders. Another car was approaching, its lights sweeping the road, the faint whir of its motor audible in the silence of the early morning. Lena continued walking.

There were lights on in most of the houses, casting a cheery glow into the grey morning. Lena longed to go to them, to knock on a door, ask for help. She could see people inside, preparing to leave for work, eating with their families, chatting, happy, normal, living within the bounds of the law. She wondered how she had got here, what had led her to this place of unwanted adventure and fear, wondered if she could have avoided it.

Lena walked along path after path, crossing roads at designated points, following signs to the hospital. Many of the streets were familiar, but they looked altered in the morning light, menacing somehow, as if warning Lena that she no longer belonged. There were trees, stretching overhead in rigidly planned spaces, houses of people, fenced areas for children to play. At one point her route took her away from the road, along an alleyway with buildings on either side, and Lena heard the whine of cameras as they turned to follow her, security lamps lighting the darker patches of path. She shrunk further into her hood, told herself she could be anyone, the cameras were for her protection, in case she should trip or fall suddenly ill when unseen from the main road. She almost believed herself. The alley joined the main road again, it felt safer, there were more cars, the occasional pedestrian who Lena turned away from as if distracted.

By the time she got near to the hospital, her legs were aching and the strap of her bag dug cruelly into her shoulders. She wondered if she would have a blister—certainly she had one on her left heel, the skin was sore and her shoe rubbed painfully. She stopped, moving her sock, trying to alleviate the pressure slightly. When she looked up, she could see the hospital, shining on the hill, a beacon for the sick. It seemed every room was lit, it sat there, like a glowing fat spaceship, watching over the valley.

The road up to the hospital was lined with trees and Lena walked amongst them, following the line of the road but away from it, hoping to remain unseen. It was fully daylight now and there was a steady stream of cars to and from the hospital, carrying patients, staff, visitors. She tripped on a raised root and staggered, got her balance, adjusted her hood, continued, taking better care to look where she was going.

She checked the map she had been given, the one showing where she would be met. There was an entrance on the right-hand side of the hospital; a narrow driveway led to it, with a circle for the cars to turn, drop their passengers and leave. She checked the time, she was early. Not wanting to stand on the driveway where she might be seen she turned, walked deeper into the trees. There was a small clearing and she sat on the moss, leaned against a trunk. The ground was damp, the moisture almost instantly seeping upwards, through her trousers. She really could not be bothered to move. She reached into her bag, pulled out an energy biscuit and ate it, crumbs falling on the ground and scattering across her jacket. Absently she wiped them away, then took a look at her heel. It was sore but not blistered. She dug out a tissue, tried to pad the heel of her sock. It hurt. She checked the time. It was moving slowly now. She waited.

At 8am, Lena walked from the trees onto the driveway. A couple of cars passed her, people hurried out and into the building; no one seemed to notice her, to wonder why she was walking. She approached the door, uncertain. A nurse saw her, came out. He did not speak, just walked towards the woods, back to where Lena had come from, a quick jerk of his finger indicated for her to follow.

When they were back in the trees, mostly hidden from the road he stopped.

“Hello, w-i-n-d-e-n473?” he asked, using the beginning of her barcode.

She nodded, glanced at his own barcode. The colour bands showed he was highly educated, a senior nurse, owned a small property, had no family. He nodded back at her.

“Good, you are on time, well done.”

He passed her a different barcode, the plastic slightly worn, the pin behind it twisted. “Wear this. It belongs to another watcher, another nurse. It will be picked up by the scanners, they will assume she is arriving for work. I have her uniform,” he looked at Lena, appraising her size, body shape. She felt herself redden under his scrutiny.

“I think it will fit you. I will take you to a washroom, you can change there. You have the vials?”

Lena frowned, not sure what he meant, then realised he was referring to the package for the clones. She nodded, lifted the box from her bag, offered it to him.

The nurse shook his head. “No, you keep them. When you have changed, put your clothes in the bag but keep the vials. We can stow your things in the ceiling, I will show you. Then I will take you to the access hatch and help you in. Here,” he passed her a piece of paper.

Lena unfolded it. It was another map, a maze of lines, crosses marked at intervals. She had seen it before. It was the map that John had shown her in the cottage, the one that showed where the wiring routes were.

“Why are you showing me this?” Lena was confused, then alarmed as she realised what he was assuming. “No, no, I’m not doing this. I have come for my son. I was told you would help me.” She backed away, her back touched the trunk of a tree and she stood there, staring at him, confused. “What is happening? Why are you saying these strange things? I’ve come to find Max, to take him away, they had said you would help me. . .”

The nurse raised his hands, placating.

“Keep calm, breathe, it’s okay, I am helping you,” he said, seeing the rising hysteria, needing her calm, sane. “We are going to get Max, you are going to take him away, to somewhere safe.”

His voice was low, slow, as if willing her to trust him.

The nurse looked at Lena. Her hair was tangled, sticking to her wet forehead, her eyes, red-rimmed from lack of sleep and worry. She stood, slumped against the tree trunk, exhausted, defeated. He seriously doubted she was up to this. But she was all they had. And time was running out. He needed to be back on shift in twenty minutes or his absence would be noticed. She needed to be in the ceiling by then, clear on what her mission entailed.

But first he must calm her, get her to rest and eat a little, persuade her to trust him. He was cross with himself; he had done this all wrong, started in the wrong place. He blamed it on the lack of time, the urgency of the situation.

“Look at me,” he told her.

Lena looked up. Her eyes took in his height, his face looking down at her with eyes that were almost black—grave and hypnotic in their intensity. His white nurse’s uniform stretched across a wide chest, the sleeves rolled back slightly, so she could see dark hairs on his wrists. The impression was one of strength, not necessarily of friendship.

“We are going to get Max,” he repeated. “You are going to take him away, somewhere safe. He is safe now, no one has hurt him. We know where he is, we are watching him, checking him. But before we can take him, we need a distraction. We need to move the security staff away, to another part of the hospital. I cannot do that. You can. It will be easy. You will go to where the clones are. You will administer the injections, you will leave. If anyone sees you, they will think you are a nurse, no one will stop you.

“When you return, I’ll have Max, the staff watching him will have been called away, to where the clones are, away from where Max is. You will take Max and leave. It will be okay. Can you do that Lena?” He remembered her name now, had seen it on the report from John, hoped using it would make him more believable, a friend.

“Can you do that? Can you create a diversion so that I can get Max?”

Lena nodded.

Actually, she did not think she could do it. She thought she was too tired, too muddled, too frightened. But something about the way he said it, the intensity of his eyes, her lack of alternative options, made her nod. She had no choice, not really. She couldn’t find Max on her own, she needed them to help her. If she did see Max, if she spotted him somewhere while they were in the hospital, then she would take him, she would leave. Their plan meant nothing to her, she had done her bit, she had collected the vials, she owed them nothing. But until she actually knew where her son was, she had no choice, she would do what this man was asking. If she could.

The nurse lifted her bag from where she had let it fall on the mud, frowned. “Why’s it so heavy?” He felt inside, asked: “What’s this?”

“It’s a replica doll. I bought it for my daughter.”

“And you thought it would be a good idea to bring it along?” he said, raising an eyebrow.

Lena was suddenly angry. What right did this man have to challenge her decisions? If she wanted to bring a doll, a gift for her child, who was he to ridicule her, to make her feel silly?

“Yes,” she said, refusing to explain further.

He noted her anger, saw the fight in her, decided she might stand a chance after all.

“Come, we’re running late. I’ll take you somewhere you can change. Then I will bring you something to eat, you need some energy. I’ll help you on your way before I return to work.” He passed her the bag, strode away, back to the hospital.

Lena struggled to fasten the barcode to her jacket then hurried after him, avoiding roots and sticks, not wanting to be left behind. If she was stopped at the entrance, she wanted this man with her. He could explain why she was there—he was less tired than she was.

Lena was not stopped at the entrance. It was a staff entrance. She walked through the haze of sterilising mist with other workers returning to their wards and offices. Her nurse, as she thought of him, strode ahead, not looking at her, not waiting for her. She followed him along bright corridors, wondering if anyone would notice her muddy boots, her damp trousers. No one appeared to, everyone was focused on where they were going, walking quickly with purpose, aware only of the time and not wanting to be late.

They came to a washroom and he slipped inside. She followed. Like all public washrooms, it was designed for both genders, with secure cubicles inside for privacy but with a shared sink area with mirrors above. Flashing signs reminded her to wash her hands, to not place bags on the floor. He told her to lean against the door, so no one else could enter, then reached up, removed a panel from the ceiling. He lowered the white tile, revealing a hole, reached inside and pulled down a bag. He passed it to Lena, then replaced the tile, clicking it into place.

“There’s a uniform in there. Go into a cubicle and put it on. Make sure the door is locked and stay there until I get back.”

“Where are you going?” she said, not sure she wanted to be left alone but also grateful he wouldn’t be there when she changed.

“To get you something to eat.” He turned and left.

Lena went into a cubicle and locked the door, lowered the lid of the toilet and sat, her head buried in her hands. The day had gone from nightmare to surreal.

She looked in the bag. The uniform, of course, was white. Lena felt very grubby after her long sweaty hike and rest in the woods. She left both bags in the cubicle and went back to the sinks, hoping no one would come in. She held her hands under the tap, waited for the flow of soapy water before washing her face, scooping the warm liquid onto her face and neck, scrubbing away sweat and specks of dirt. Then she stood next to the drier, angled it to dry her face, enjoying the warm air as it tickled her hair, chasing wisps across her forehead and neck.

She heard footsteps and hurried back into her cubicle, locking the door. Someone came in, used the cubicle next to her, a man she thought, someone with a good flow anyway. . . She felt an insane urge to laugh, made worse by the need to keep completely silent. She sat there, not moving, hardly even breathing, trying to not listen as they used the toilet. She waited, heard the shuffle of feet, the sound of a zip, the door bang as they left, the hiss of water as they washed their hands, another banged door as they went back into the corridor.

Lena pulled the clothes from the bag. There were the white trousers and tunic that all the female nurses wore, with white plastic shoes. She struggled from her own clothes, stuffing them into the bag, then dressed in the uniform. It was tight across her stomach but not noticeably so. The shoes were a bad fit, very uncomfortable but she could get them on. They squeezed her toes and pushed against her sore heel. She would not be able to walk far in them. She used her fingers to comb her hair, then refastened it in the elastic band she had. She doubted she looked very tidy but was loath to return to the mirrors now she was in uniform, unsure if this was a staff-designated washroom or intended for the public.

She rested the bag of clothes on her muddy boots on the floor, then sat back on the toilet seat. She wondered how long she would have to wait, how long before the nurse returned, what her next instructions would be, how long before she had saved her son.

To be continued tomorrow.

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Nine


Chapter Nine

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The Puppeteer

 

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Eight


Chapter Eight

 

Maps and Plans

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Three continued


Chapter Three Continued

.  . . If the guard turned around, he would see Max.

Max turned to look around the section of room where he stood, the part separated by the glass wall. He kept his movements slow, not sure if he would cast shadows that might cause the guard to turn. He hoped there were no motion or heat sensors. Whatever was in this room was important, of high enough value for a human guard to be used. Human guards carried live ammunition—they killed people.

Max was standing in a room, with three beds. Each one was covered in a plastic tent, tubes snaking into them, wires sliding out. At first Max worried he might be in a bacteria ward, may catch some deadly disease. He peered into the nearest bed, then stopped.

He knew that face. Had seen it many times. It was Midra, the main spokesperson on the Global Council. His face often appeared in debates, explaining new laws, on news programmes. That explained the human guard. Yet, it wasn’t him, it wasn’t Midra. Or was it?

Max bent closer. The same but not the same. No, he decided, it was not him, was too young. He knew that Midra was old, very old. He seemed to have been leading the Council for generations. Max had heard his father talk about laws that Midra had introduced when he was young, so this could not be him. It looked like him though. Very like him. Max supposed it was a much younger brother, weirdly similar in appearance, clearly very ill. He crept to the next bed, knowing he should leave, but curious as to who might be allowed to share a room with the relative of someone so powerful.

He stopped, frowned. This too was Midra. Except it wasn’t. Again. This person was even younger than the first, about the age of his own father, but with the features of the ancient Midra. Did all his relatives look identical?

******

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Chapter Three


Chapter Three

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: Home


Home

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

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Quarantime to Read. . . Counting Stars: The Journey


Chapter Two

She doesn’t look, think, or fight like James Bond, but sometimes a mother simply has to do whatever it takes. . .

The Journey Continues

 

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Due to the KDP rules on Amazon, I am not allowed to upload a whole book anywhere other than on the KDP site. I can therefore share chapters with you, but must remove them when read.

 

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Counting Stars : Part 13


This story has been removed, edited, and is now available from Amazon as a kindle book.

Counting Stars by Anne E Thompson

The story of a family, that gradually builds to a gripping thriller. One character has undergone brain surgery, and clearly demonstrates the feelings and struggles that this entails.

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https://www.amazon.co.uk/Counting-Stars-Anne-E-Thompson-ebook/dp/B01GA99KTG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1472187034&sr=8-1&keywords=Counting+stars+by+anne+e+thompson

For US readers, the link is:

https://www.amazon.com/Counting-Stars-Anne-E-Thompson-ebook/dp/B01GA99KTG/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1472187317&sr=8-1&keywords=Counting+stars+by+anne+e+thompson