* * *
* * *
Adam Young woke up on Saturday morning the same way he always did.
He clung to sleep as long as he could, fighting valiantly against the sunlight striking his face and the consciousness of a stirring world outside, beckoning with the promise of a new day's worth of adventures. Then an explosion of awakeness behind his eyes -- a sudden glorious realisation that he was alive, that it was Saturday, that his sister Sarah would finish the sugar-frosted chocolate cereal if she got up first -- and Adam vaulted out of bed, eyes half-open, a stray limb knocking Dog in the side. Dog whined and snuggled deeper into the bed clothes.
"Wake up, you lazy Dog," said Adam heartlessly. He believed in disciplining his pets. He had once trained a beetle to feed only at breakfast, lunch and dinner, in accordance with civilised convention, by dint of only giving it food at those times. The beetle had later escaped its stifling life of routine through a hole in its match-box, but Adam always considered it one of his successes in animal husbandry.
But for once he did not proceed immediately to scramble into his clothes and rush downstairs for the television.
He was conscious of a sensation of dissatisfaction.
He went to a window and played with a curtain, tugging it experimentally to see if it would come down, and stared at the world outside.
It was beautiful, of course. It always was. It wasn't here that was the problem. The rest of the world, on the other hand . . . .
Things sank in with Adam. The new ideas that had seemed so brilliant yesterday had coalesced into a lump that sat in the bottom of his mind. It gave him something of the feeling of having eaten a great deal, and not having digested it very well -- a feeling Adam was extremely familiar with from bygone Christmases. He'd never had it happen to the inside of his head before.
Sure, there were real witches and aliens and Atlantisans and secret societies that ran the world, and that was great. But there were also whales that were dying off one by one, and nuclear power plants that radiated at things and made them ill, and acres of forest being cut down, and that was not so great.
Adam had never seriously considered the state of the environment before. Now it worried him.
He'd never really believed that other places were that much different from Tadfield -- or, indeed, that there was anywhere that wasn't like Tadfield. Oh, there were other places on TV, of course, and they were as different as you could imagine, but that was television. It wasn't real. If you'd asked Adam what he thought, say, America was really like, really, he would have envisioned a Tadfield going on forever in every direction; a Tadfield stretched to fit the space America took up on the map, but still recognisably itself.
When he saw acres of forests going down before Big Business and the hamburger-eating peoples of the world, therefore, he saw Tadfield denuded of its trees and hedges; he saw fields where the Them held meetings and competed and explored stripped and barren; he saw his world, his world, wrecked by a lot of grown-ups who didn't know anything about anything important.
It was a right mess, no two ways about it. It was jolly unfair, thought Adam crossly, that people'd gone and taken such a brilliant world and poked holes in its ozone and dumped oil in its seas and started killin' off everythin'. Someone ought to do somethin' about it.
He ought to do somethin' about it . . . .
The sky was still blue, but the trees bent of a sudden under a whipping wind. In the distance, thunder rumbled.
It was going to be a long day.
* * *
Zirah did not wake up on Saturday morning, because he had not slept. He sat in a coffee-shop somewhere in a small South Asian country suffering its worst drought in 30 years.
The UN was having trouble getting supplies to its starving population, obstructed by a belligerent geography and a corrupt government. The faces surrounding Zirah were thin and hollow, their eyes weary.
Zirah offered one a Rich Tea biscuit.
He was feeling uncommonly pleased with himself, with the biscuits, and with the bemused cup of rather decent tea he was having. Neither the biscuits nor the tea had existed before Zirah had walked into the shop, but Zirah thought his slight manipulation of reality was justified. There was nothing better than a nice cup of tea and a biscuit for setting a soul up. And he deserved some setting up. He had done an excellent night's work.
"Oh, yes," he said to the man warily chomping on the biscuit. "I should think there'll be an improvement soon. It can't last for long now."
The man did not seem particularly convinced.
"I want only for my children to survive the night," he said. Zirah already knew about his wife, his farm, his children, and their respective ages, genders and special areas of genius. He nodded sympathetically.
"Yes. I quite see," he said. "I'll try my best. But as for the, ah, rain situation, I shouldn't worry any more if I were you. I fancy there'll be a change soon."
He got up, creaking.
"Well, I must be going," he said. "Enabling people to survive the night is no easy business, you know. It's been lovely talking to you. I do hope your wife's skin condition gets better."
He left the country, his heart light within him.
On the table he had vacated, amidst the biscuit crumbs and tea cups, the shattered scales of tarnished silver he had left behind turned black. The patrons had just started to crowd around the table when another, greater phenomenon arrested their attention -- a fat plop on the zinc roof.
In a minute the plop had turned into a furious, thought-obliterating rattle, and the wind was howling through an empty restaurant. Outside, it rained.
Inside, the scales disintegrated, and the wind swept the table clean of the ashes and the crumbs, until only the scattered cups remained to show Zirah had been there.
* * *
In Jasmine Cottage, Newt and Anathema held hands under the blanket, half-drowsing and afraid. It was very quiet.
* * *
Caphriel hadn't slept either. He wouldn't have been able to remember how, even if he had wanted to try.
He sat at Anathema's table, absorbed in the massive tome before him.
He had forgotten to switch off the desk lamp as the dawn crept over Tadfield, and the orange light made the sunshine look pale as it slanted in through the window. Caphriel ignored it.
He was glowing slightly.
Contrary to the belief under which Newt and Anathema were currently shaking, what might be called the human part of Caphriel had not gone away. Under the cold, terrifying beauty of an angel on a mission, he was still himself. He was more himself than he had ever been.
The tiny part that always watched his own mind thinking, the only part capable of self-analysis at the moment, was not surprised that he hadn't been more himself before. It wasn't an enjoyable experience.
Once in a while the silence was disturbed by the crackle of a page turning by itself. Caphriel did not move.
Silence. And inside Caphriel's head, all the demons of Hell, not to mention some specially made up by humans for such occasions, shrieked like it was the last day of the world.
* * *
He burst into Anathema's bedroom two hours later.
"Get up," he said. "Come on!"
"Did you find something?" said Anathema.
"I know where it is," said Caphriel. "We have to go now. Things are moving. Hurry!"
"But I haven't got any trou -- " Newt stopped, distracted by the thing in Caphriel's hand. "You're bringing that?"
Caphriel looked at the walking stick.
"I have athlete's foot," he said.
"But walking sticks don't help when you have athlete's foot," Newt objected.
"Well, I have a bad back," said Caphriel.
"But you're an angel -- "
"Look, this is all very fascinating, but the world is ending in less than ten hours," said Anathema. "Could we please get a move on?"
"But the walking stick -- "
"Who cares about the walking stick?" Anathema exploded. "He can bring along a whole goddamn tree if he wants! Just put on your trousers, will you?"
"Right," said Newt.
There was a brief silence.
"Ah," said Newt, "this would be easier if, ah, Caphriel -- ?"
"Oh. Right," said Caphriel. "I'll, uh, wait for you outside, will I?"
"Thank you," said Newt.
* * *
Pollution's last words may be of interest here.
He writhed on the bank of a river rainbow-bright with grease, his face flickering like a television screen as old selves rose through the mists of the past to claim dominion of his weakening body. Beside him, Zirah sat on the grass with his legs stretched before him, playing with a crown.
He seemed to be trying to make a bird out of it. The crown bent in a way metal shouldn't have been able to.
"Oh bugger," muttered Zirah when a point poked him in the hand.
"It's the head," he added confidentially to the thrashing thing by his side. "I can never get the head to look right."
He held the crown away from himself, and inspected it.
"Are the wings supposed to lift when you pull the tail, or is it the other way around?" he asked.
Pollution had other things on his mind, however.
"Why . . . " The voice dipped alarmingly, from tenor through baritone to a growl no human would have been able to understand. If you could have compressed the dying agony of a mountain as it was eroded over millennia, and recorded the low, rumbling scream, it would have sounded like that. "Why are you doing this? Armageddon . . . "
"Is basically just a fancy name for a really big war," said Zirah. He crumpled a wing in his distraction. Pollution howled.
After Zirah had tsked over his own carelessness and straightened out the wing -- this involved some more screaming on Pollution's part -- he went on briskly,
"A really big war. And I've seen more than enough wars in my time, thank you. No, it's got to stop. It's no way of doing things at all."
"Without the war," hoarsed Pollution, "Hell cannot triumph over Heaven. Or even . . . the other way around. Nobody . . . wins."
Zirah put his hand on Pollution's white hair, looking down at him with a wonderful compassion in his eyes
"Oh, my dear," sighed Zirah. His grip tightened. Pollution screamed. "If somebody gets to win, somebody else has got to lose. And loss isn't worth the winning. It's too high a price."
He bent his ear to Pollution's mumble, but it didn't seem to contain anything to the point. Zirah shrugged, and yanked the fair head so that his lips were at Pollution's ear.
"If you had ever lost," whispered Zirah. "You'd know. No triumph is worth the loss."
"Please," said Pollution monotonously, "please . . ."
Zirah let go off his hair, and bringing up his free hand, ripped the origami bird to shreds. There was a scream, an evil-smelling burst of flame where Pollution had been --
And then there was nothing but the breeze.
It was a pity, Zirah thought. It had been the best bird he'd ever managed to fold. There had been recognisable wings and everything. He really would have to try it again someday.
* * *
And in an abandoned quarry in the heart of Tadfield, the Them were struggling with an increasingly alien Adam, who didn't want to play or watch sheep-dipping or do anything but talk, in a way that made Brian, Pepper and Wensleydale draw back as one grubby child.
Even so, they were trying their best to play along. The problem was, Adam wasn't much of a listener even at the best of times.
And these were not the best of times. There wasn't a word for the kind of times they were. 'Bad' didn't even begin to cover it.
"But what's wrong with this world?" argued Pepper, stubborn even in the face of looming terror. "I like this world."
"Me too," said Brian valiantly. "It's n-not bad, this world."
"But it could be so much better," said Adam. None of them were looking at his eyes. One glimpse had been enough.
"You jus' wait," he said. "You jus' wait and see. It's goin' to be brilliant . . . "
* * *
"And the ley-lines converging on Tadfield," snarled Anathema, putting her shoulder to the door of the Wasabi and shoving vainly. "I should have known! And he looked so ordinary . . ."
"That's the point," said Caphriel coolly. He reached over her head, and touched the door with a barest brush of fingertips. It swung open. Anathema cast him a glare that would have stripped paint off a wall, and burst out of the car, her feet already cycling madly in the air before they hit the ground. She shot off towards what she'd told Caphriel was called in local parlance The Pit.
"I don't understand," said Newt. Caphriel seemed to think he'd explained everything satisfactorily, and Anathema apparently agreed, but Newt hadn't spent the last six millennia -- or even nineteen years -- of his life swotting up on the last days of the world. He was at sea, and it was a sea full of hungry serpents and hidden whirlpools. "Who is he? What's wrong with looking ordinary?"
Caphriel told him.
". . . Oh," said Newt. "What are we going to do once we find him?"
"Leave that to me," said Caphriel.
"Yes, but -- " Newt hesitated.
Several thoughts were circling around his head. The chief among them was, He's an angel. You don't piss off an angel. Anyway, he probably knows what he's doing. He's an angel . . .
The other thoughts were quieter, and went to the tune of, But you don't know what you're doing. Maybe you'd better find out.
It was all very well for the angel; he had a divine mandate to fall back on. Newt only had his conscience.
"But," he said again. The stone-coloured eyes turned on him. He faltered, but went on. "What are you -- are we -- are you really going to kill him?"
"That was the idea, yes," said Caphriel.
"But," said Newt. "He's eleven."
"You're never too young to end the world," said Caphriel.
"I -- but -- "
"I'm an angel," said Caphriel, and his voice wasn't anything that could have come out of a human throat. The echoes bounced off the storm-wracked sky and shook the ground. "This is my job. Leave it to me."
Newt opened his mouth, then closed it. There didn't seem to be anything to say.
"Don't worry. There's not long to go now," said Caphriel. His face was as blank and calm as a still pool. "It'll all be over soon."
He turned and strode away in the direction Anathema had gone. Newt followed.
"That's what I'm afraid of," he muttered.
* * *
Adam stopped talking.
The Them weren't reassured. It would have taken quite a lot to reassure them by now, and mere silence wasn't going to do it, even if it meant that the flow of worrying ideas had paused. Adam acting like himself again would have helped, but his eyes were grey and cold and he didn't move like a human should. He was nobody the Them knew.
He moved unlike a human now, whipping around with a grace of a striking cobra, too fast for the Them's eyes to follow. His face hardened.
The old Adam -- the real Adam, the Them were thinking -- scowled when he was angry. This one didn't. There wasn't enough scowl in the world to fit the vastness of his rage.
"Someone's coming," he said.
"You told us that already," said Wensleydale. "You said your friends were comin' . . ."
"This ain't them," said Adam. "He's not supposed to be here!"
* * *
Anathema was standing outside the quarry. Even after only two days, Newt had already got quite good at reading her back: it spoke now of puzzlement, and a surprising uncertainty.
Caphriel stopped beside her, his hands in his coat pockets.
"Can't get in?" He said it as if he were asking for the time.
"No, it's just -- " Anathema's shoulders drooped. She looked oddly lost without the anger that'd been driving her in all the -- admittedly brief -- time Newt had known her. "He's just a kid. What are we -- how can we -- he's just a kid."
Caphriel tilted his head. Newt and Anathema followed his gaze to the sky, where the massed clouds churned like a child's stomach after a day at a carnival.
"No, he isn't," said Caphriel. "Not any longer."
* * *
"Grown-ups," said Adam. "Goin' around spoilin' everything. They oughter know when something's none of their business an' keep out, but do they? No. They jus' keep bargin' in and spoilin' things. I dunt see why they ever came up with grown-ups. It seems," he added with passion, "like a waste of good air to me."
"Is it your dad?" said Pepper. The Them exchanged anxious looks. Adam turning into a stranger and the world into an unfamiliar wilderness was admittedly worrying, but it was still, even now, just Adam. Things couldn't get really bad if it was just Adam. But parental retribution was a serious matter.
"Ohhh, we're in trouble," said Brian. "We're goin' to get it. They don't even like it when you break their silly windows, they're sure to get mad over us breakin' the world -- "
"No," said Adam. Now even the Them could hear the rustling of the nettles and adult voices cursing as the intruders came nearer. "Let 'em come. We're not goin' to get into trouble. Don't you worry. We're never goin' to get into trouble again . . ."
"Oh, really, Adam," said a golden voice. "You should know better than that."
It was the voice of your favourite schoolteacher, of a well-loved friend seen for the first time after a long, cold time apart, a voice with humour and kindness and a really good education threaded through it, and it stopped Adam dead in his tracks. An arm clamped down on his neck.
Caphriel burst into the quarry, trenchcoat flying, walking stick held like a weapon. The man holding Adam looked up, and his smile was nearly as bright as the sword he held to Adam's throat.
"Ah," said Zirah. "There you are."