Inhaler! Inhaler! Inhaler! said the
screaming siren part of his brain. Arthur followed its direction,
fumbling in his pocket for the metal cylinder with its plastic
mouthpiece. He tried to raise it to his mouth, but when
his hand arrived it was empty. He'd dropped the inhaler.
Then someone else pushed the mouthpiece
between his lips and a cool mist suddenly filled his mouth
"How many puffs?" asked
Three, thought Arthur. That would
get him breathing, at least enough to stay alive. Though
he'd probably be back at the hospital again, and another
week or two convalescing at home.
"How many puffs?"
Arthur realized he hadn't answered.
Weakly, he held out three fingers and was rewarded by two
more clouds of medicine. It was already beginning to work.
His shallow, wheezing breaths were actually getting some
air into his lungs and, in turn, some oxygen into his blood
and to his brain.
The closed-in, confused world he'd
been experiencing started to open out again, like scenery
unfolded on stage. Instead of just the blue sky rimmed with
darkness, he saw a couple of kids crouched near him. They
were two of the walkers, the ones who refused to run. A
girl and a boy, both defiantly not in school uniform or
gym gear, wearing black jeans. T-shirts featuring bands
Arthur didn't know and sunglasses. They were either super-hip
and ultra-cool, or the exact opposite. Arthur was too new
to the school and the whole town to know.
The girl had short dyed hair that
was so blond it was almost white. The boy had long, dyed-black
hair. Despite this, they looked kind of the same. It took
Arthur's confused mind a second to work out that they had
to be twins, or at least brother and sister. Maybe one had
to repeat a grade.
"Ed, call 911," instructed
the girl. She was the one who had given Arthur the inhaler.
"The Octopus confiscated my
phone," replied the boy. Ed.
"Okay, you run back to the gym,"
said the girl. "I'll go after Weightman."
"What for?" asked Ed. "Shouldn't
:"Nope. Nothing we can do except
get help," said the girl. "Weightman's got a phone.
He's probably already on his way back. You just lie here
and keep breathing."
The two black-clad kids were showing
that they could run when they wanted to. Arthur watched
the girl sprint through the gaggle of walkers like a crow
dive-bombing a flock of sparrows, and vanish into the treeline
of the park. Looking the other way, Arthur saw Ed was about
to disappear around the high, blank brick wall of the gym,
which blocked the rest of the school from view.
A flash of light suddenly distracted
Arthur from his slow, counted breaths. It hit the corner
of his eye, and he swung around to see what it was. For
a moment he thought he was blacking out again and was falling
over and looking up at the sun. Then, through half-shut
eyes, he realized that whatever the blinding light was,
it was on the ground and very close.
In fact, it was moving, gliding across
the grass towards him, the light losing its brilliance as
it drew nearer. Arthur watched in stunned amazement as a
dark outline became visible within the light. Then the light
faded completely, to reveal a weirdly dressed man in a very
strange sort of wheelchair being pushed across the grass
by an equally odd-looking attendant.
The wheelchair was long and narrow,
like a bath, and it was made of woven wicker. It had one
small wheel at the front and two big ones at the back. All
three wheels had metal rims, without rubber tires, or any
sort of tire, so the wheelchair or wheel-bath, or
bath-chair, or whatever it was sank heavily into
The man lying in the bath-chair was
thin and pale, his skin like tissue paper. He looked quite
young, though, no more than twenty, and was very handsome,
with even features and blue eyes, though these were hooded,
as if he was tired. He had an odd round hat with a tassel
on his blond head and was wearing what looked to Arthur
like some sort of kung fu robe, of red silk with blue dragons
all over it.
The man who was pushing the chair
was even more out of place. Or out of time. He looked somewhat
like a butler from an old movie, or Nestor from the Tintin
comics, though he was nowhere near as neat. He had on an
oversized black coat with ridiculously long tails that almost
touched the ground, and his white shirtfront was stiff and
very solid, as if it was made of plastic.
The two men were talking as they
approached. They seemed entirely unaware of Arthur, or uninterested
"I don't know why I keep you
upstairs, Sneezer," said the main in the bath-chair.
"Or agree to your ridiculous plans."
"Now, now, sir," the butler-type,
who was obviously called Sneezer. Now that they were close,
Arthur noticed that his nose was rather red and had a patchwork
of broken blood vessels shining under the skin. "It's
not a plan, but a precaution. We don't want to be bothered
by the Will, do we?"
"I s'pose not," grumbled
the young man. He yawned widely and closed his eyes. "You're
sure that we'll find someone suitable here?"
"Sure as eggs is eggs,"
replied Sneezer. "Surer even, eggs not always being
what one might expect. I set the dials myself, to find someone
suitably on the edge of infinity. You give him the Key,
he dies, you get it back. Another ten thousand years without
trouble, ad the Will can't quibble cos you did give the
Key to one in the line of heredity, as it were."
"It's very annoying," said
the young mad, yawning again. "I'm quite exhausted
with all this running around and answering those ridiculous
inquiries from up top. How should I know how that bit of
the Will got out? I'm not going to write a report, you know.
I haven't the energy. In fact, I really need a nap"
"Not now, sir, not now,"
said Sneezer urgently. He shaded his eyes with one dirty,
half-gloved hand and looked around. Strangely, he still
seemed unable to see Arthur, though he was right in front
of him. "We're almost there."
"We are there," said the
young man coldly. He pointed at Arthur as if the boy had
suddenly appeared out of nowhere. "Is that it?"
Sneezer left the bath-chair and advanced
on Arthur. His attempt at a smile revealed yellow teeth,
some of them broken, but all too many of them sharp and
"Hello, my boy," he said.
"Let's have a bow for Mister Monday."