Waiting at the crowded tram stop, people pouring out of the Flinders Street railway station, Nash Bannon gave a sigh of resignation. Melbourne’s skyline glowed in clear sunshine with a promise of another mild spring day. Ordinarily, he would have walked up Collins Street to see his client, but he hadn’t jammed for five days now and he needed a boost. He wasn’t sure why they called it jamming and nobody had taken time to explain it to him. Probably because one had to rush in, grab his charge and disengage before the victim realized what was going on.
He hated the press and cloying smell of people jostling around him, most of them looking like they didn’t want to be there. He knew how that felt, but everyone needed work to survive. He had his Docklands apartment, an investment property and a share portfolio, enough for a comfortable lifestyle, but not that comfortable to consider retirement just yet. He figured ten more years would do it, provided he retained his sanity…or wasn’t caught. Being a senior IBM program manager took its toll in long work hours, battling schedules, budgets, changing client demands and IBM’s own stifling procedures. He ought to turn freelance and wouldn’t have to suck up to his brain-dead superiors—a perfect oxymoron.
Ignoring the sound of crawling traffic, the blare of an occasional horn, feet pounding on sidewalks, Bannon saw the tram slow as it approached the boarding platform. The double doors snapped open and passengers tumbled out, giving those trying to push in glares of contempt. He stepped in and forced his way into the packed tram. There wasn’t enough room to take on everybody and many would have wait stoically for the next one, which at this time of morning would undoubtedly be just as packed.
Life was shit.
For what he had to do, he needed the shield of pressed bodies around him. He grabbed the polished steel stanchion next to the door as the tram lurched forward. The man already holding on barely glanced at him as he made skin contact. Exhaling slowly, forcing himself to relax, Bannon extended his touch and felt a comforting tingle as he drew energy from the man. He had to do this slowly or the drain could become a torrent and his victim would pass out. After years of jamming, he knew how to go about it. Take a little from two or three people and everyone would walk away happy, especially him.
He did not know why he had to feed, and the odd lifeliner he met did not discuss it and didn’t even want to be identified. There weren’t many of them around. Bannon remembered the onset of craving when puberty overtook him. He became restless, and the occasional burning that made him want to peel off his skin caused him look at people with irresistible hunger. He only knew that he had to feed from them. His initial attempts were clumsy affairs that almost got him caught more than once. Confused, not understanding the change in him, he couldn’t even talk to his parents, sensing they weren’t lifeliners—a term he came to learn later.
The tram ground to a stop at the Bourke Street Mall and Bannon let go of the stanchion, feeling his life-force brighten from the energy surge. His vision appeared sharper and his hearing became more acute. He was more aware of everything around him, attuned to the flow of emotions and personalities jostling along the sidewalk. It was purely a psychosomatic reaction, but he felt more pleased with himself and the world in general as he stepped off the tram. He strode toward Collins Street to catch another tram that would take him to the parliament buildings. Another jam and he would be good for four or five days, and this morning, he will need the extra energy boost. He had a program of work review with senior client execs and expected a hard time explaining schedule slippages, cost overruns and lack of adequate staff. They would blame him for everything, and IBM would blame him when the clients bitched to the division manager. Anyway, the job paid well, but he wondered if it was worth the hassle.
He pushed his way into the tram and grabbed a stanchion. Without looking at the elderly lady pressed against him, he figured to take only a little, and judging by her generous bulk, she could afford it. As he got ready, a familiar tingle shot up his arm and he looked down in surprise. She couldn’t have been more than twelve. Pale brown hair in rats, beige sweater frayed around the collar and wrists, black jeans torn at the knees, and a big toe poking through her right runner, she showed no reaction to his scrutiny, her tiny hand pressed against his. She clearly didn’t know what he was. At her age, he hadn’t either. She must have been starving, judging from the rate she was sucking. He could usually spot another lifeliner by the barely visible green glow that enclosed them, visible only to another lifeliner. He could not see any glow around her. Was she one of the numerous strays that wandered the streets, abandoned by her family when they learned what she was, hunted by the authorities, her trust in fellow human beings forever shattered?
She let go and the drain stopped. When the tram pulled in at the Exhibition Street stop, the little girl stepped off. Bannon got off and grabbed her hand. Her head jerked up in surprise and she instinctively pulled back her arm, but he held her fast. He could not explain why he was reaching out to her. All he knew is that she needed help and he understood what it was like being different in a world that was afraid of them.
“I’m not a dober,” he told her quietly. “I’ll let you jam some more, but you can’t take too much.”
Her dark green eyes grew round and her small mouth opened in surprise. With a wash, she would look pretty. Now, she was small, alone, lost and scared.
“You need to learn how to spot another lifeliner.”
“Is that what we’re called?” she ventured uncertainly, not sure of his intentions, looking at angles to make a run for it.
He gently squeezed her hand. “Go on. Jam.”
She licked her lips with the tip of her tongue and her eyes turned misty. He felt a mild jolt as his life-force drained and a faint glow bathed her small body.
“That’s enough,” he told her after forty seconds. He glanced at a nearby restaurant, one of many in upper Collins Street, and inclined his head. “When was the last time you had a proper breakfast?”
She followed his gaze and broke into a sunny smile that melted his heart. Why did people do these things to their littlest ones?
“It’s been a while.” She bit her lip, suddenly unsure of herself. “You won’t dob me in?”
“Cross my heart,” he said and tugged her hand toward the restaurant. “How long have you been alone?”
“I ran away from home about a year ago when my parents called the dobers. I’ve been in trouble before, you know. Hooky from school, stealing, hanging around with the wrong crowd, stuff like that.” Her expression turned dark. “When I told my parents that I needed to jam, they called in the dobers, but I ran off before they came to the house. I guess they’ve been looking for me, but I’ll never go back!” Her large eyes searched his face. “You sure you won’t dob me in?”
“Promise. What’s your name?” he asked as he opened the restaurant door and waited for her to get in.
“Say, that’s a nice name.”
There were enough customers inside to avoid being conspicuous and Bannon made toward an empty table at the back. A pretty young thing dressed in a black form-fitting uniform sauntered toward them, holding a pen and pad. She glanced at Aleya’s disheveled appearance, frowned suspiciously, then turned to Bannon.
“I’ll have a decaf black with milk on the side.” He glanced at Aleya. “What’ll you have?”
Lips pressed in concentration, she studied the menu display board hanging above the counter. “I’d like a blueberry muffin and a vanilla shake.” She glanced at him. “If that’s all right with you?”
He nodded. “Fine. Nothing else? Eggs, bacon, pancakes?”
She hit him with her sunny smile. “After the muffin.”
Chuckling, he nodded to the waitress.
“Won’t be long,” she said and walked off.
Bannon sat back and studied his lost charge. “So, where do you live?”
She shrugged. “Where it’s convenient. Lots of empty houses and old factories and stuff. I’m with a bunch who take care of me and teach me things. They’re not lifeliners and don’t know that I’m one.”
Looking at her, he could hardly imagine how she was able to cope, but her life didn’t have a future. Sooner or later, the dobers would catch up with her.
“Aren’t you afraid of being mugged or worse?”
“It’s been tried once or twice, but I can look after myself,” she declared, not appreciating the dangers she faced every day. At her age, getting hurt or dying was something one read about or saw on TV.
He exhaled, wondering if she really understood what it meant to be a lifeliner, with everyone around her seeking to report her to the authorities or kill her for the reward. Having taken her under his wing, what next? Let her go back to her scavenging existence, not knowing if she would see tomorrow? But what could he do? The ramifications and scope of his obligation daunted him. He had enough problems in his life right now and didn’t want to add another major one to the list. That was all very well, but by becoming involved, he could not let her loose, cast her off, wipe her from his mind. Not if he wanted to live with himself.
“Look, I know one or two people who can help you. Lifeliners like you. You’d be off the street. You cannot live in some derelict warehouse all your life. You need to be safe.”
She lifted her head. “What’s it to you? I do all right. Besides, all people are mean.”
“You into little girls or something?”
Bannon drew back, stung by her coarse remark. “Have your muffin and shake and you can go,” he grated. “But like I said, you need to learn how to recognize another lifeliner before you jam. He might not offer you a muffin.” He pushed back his chair and made to stand. She shot out her hand and grabbed his wrist.
“I’m sorry. It’s just…well, it’s been a while since anybody did something nice for me.”
Undecided, his instincts telling him to walk away, he sighed and sat down. “Think about what I said.”
“I’ll do that. Is there a toilet around here?” she demanded, craning her head. He pointed at an alcove and she grinned. “Back in a sec.”
“You sure you know what you’re doing, Nash?” he muttered, then shook his head. “Yeah, that’s what I thought.”
Alyea came back just as the waitress brought a loaded tray and walked off. Alyea reached for the shake and slurped noisily through the straw. Giving him a sheepish smile, she took a big bite out of the muffin. Chuckling, Bannon stirred milk and a sugar stick into his coffee. Taking a sip, he leaned back.
“I’ll need to latch onto you, mister,” Aleya declared comfortably. “You’re a good provider. By the way, what do I call you?”
He grinned. “My girlfriend says the same thing.”
She arched her eyebrows and her eyes became mischievous. “You have a girlfriend?”
“She is a doctor, a neurosurgeon.”
“That’s somebody who scrambles your brain, right?”
Bannon laughed. “It can happen. Now, what do I do with you?”
“Those lifeliners…they’d look after me?”
“Find you a home, get you back to school—”
“School! Yuck!” Aleya said and made a face.
“It’s not that bad,” he said, holding back a grin. “If you want to survive, you’ll need a good education. It will also help you avoid the dobers.”
Sipping his coffee, he watched as two dark-suited men walked in. Their eyes scanned the restaurant and both started walking toward him. Inner alarms clanging, Bannon searched for a way to get out of this, but there didn’t seem to be a back door. How did they tag him that he was a lifeliner? Only a few lifeliners knew who he was, but if one of them wanted to dob him in, they had plenty of chances to do it before. Still, if the dobers caught one and made him talk…
As he stood up, the heavier of the two men pulled out a taser.
“Take it easy and no one gets hurt,” Heavy growled casually.
“What’s the meaning of this?” Bannon demanded without having to feign wounded outrage.
Heavy pulled out his wallet and flashed an ID. “Federal Police. I’ll need you to come with me…her too,” he said glancing at Aleya. “I think you know why.”
A sudden quiet had descended on the restaurant as patrons waited expectantly for the next development. Bannon had seen this type of shakedown himself and hadn’t liked it, feeling sorry for the poor schmuck who got caught. Now, he was the one in the net.
“Am I under arrest for something?” he demanded, hoping to talk his way through this.
“We just want to ask you and your little friend some questions, in the spirit of cooperation and all that. If that doesn’t suit you, you can consider yourself under arrest if you like. Let’s go.”
Bannon reached for Aleya’s hand.
“Don’t let them take me,” she whispered, her voice tragic.
He gave her a reassuring squeeze, needing some reassurance himself. Right now, boxed in with no way out, Aleya narrowing his options, he couldn’t do much to extricate himself.
He followed the leading cop with Heavy holding the taser on him.
“Dirty lifeliner!” someone shouted behind him and Bannon stiffened. Aleya pressed herself against his thigh and tightened her grip on his hand.
At any moment, the mob mentality might take over and he could find himself in a riot. He paused at the checkout counter and extracted a twenty-dollar bill from his wallet. Placing it on the counter, he flashed the tense waitress a brief smile and walked into a stream of hurrying pedestrians. A tram bell clanked as it neared the stop.
Heavy pointed at the double-parked black Holden Commodore. “In the car.”
The first cop opened the rear door and Bannon slid in. Alyea wriggled in and clung to his arm. He buckled up and nodded to her, helping her clip on her seatbelt. Heavy got into the front passenger seat and the car pulled into the traffic, rewarded by a horn blast from the car behind them for causing the blockage.
His work program meeting was shot and he could vividly picture what the client would say, but he suspected he was in for something far worse than a mere dressing down from his boss.
As the car turned onto Swanston Street and went over the Yarra River bridge, then turned right after the Arts Centre, Bannon had gotten over his shock, but he still could not figure out how the dobers had gotten onto him. They must have had a tail on him for a while, suspecting, but not certain what he was, deciding to pick him up just as he had Aleya in tow. Did they know about her? If they didn’t, they were likely to find out quickly enough.
The car stopped in front of the Rialto Tower. Bannon did not wait for an invitation and nodded to Aleya to get out. The two AFP cops made sure he wouldn’t stray as they entered the spacious foyer, past a throng of visitors waiting to get up to the observation deck, and made for the elevators. When the silver doors split in two, Heavy got in, pressed a security card against a sensor and pushed the button for the 42nd floor. The elevator surged up, slowed and the doors opened. Heavy pointed down the plain gray-painted corridor, their footfalls soundless on the hard, dark-gray carpet. It was a forbidding-looking place, cold and lifeless, and Bannon wondered what dark secrets lay beyond the anonymous walls. Reaching a door, Heavy pushed it open and motioned with his taser.
Inside the windowless room, Bannon pulled back a plan metal chair from a wood-veneered table and sat down. Biting her lip, Aleya sat down beside him.
“What will happen to us, Nash?” she whispered urgently.
“I don’t know, honey. I’ll find a way to get us out of here.”
Heavy glanced down the corridor and stepped back to allow the woman to come in. Gaping, Bannon had his second shock. This just wasn’t his day.
His girlfriend stood rooted, also clearly in shock. Behind her, Heavy frowned as he closed the door.
“You two know each other?” he demanded, giving Carrina a hard look. “Doc?”
“I didn’t know who he was!”
Heavy thought it over. “Coincidence perhaps, but we’ll have to check this out.”
“Fine,” she snapped, pulled out a chair and sat down.
Bannon leaned forward and stared at her. She couldn’t be mixed up with the dobers! “What’s going on?”
They had gone out half-a-dozen times and he was getting used to having her around. Her schedule at The Alfred hospital didn’t leave much time for socializing. Neither did his. He met her on a tram, of all places, while jamming. He had just taken a charge when he saw her looking at him. At 180cm, well built, clean features, wavy black hair, he was used to getting appreciative glances from women. He grinned at her, and her smile broadened before she looked away. As he was getting off at Collins Street, wanting to see her again, he reached into his jacket and dug out a business card.
“Call me?” he implored, holding the card. After a moment, she took the card and beamed.
Two days later, she did call.
Stunned, wanting to convince himself that she wasn’t working for the dobers, Bannon was mentally gasping, trying to make sense of it all. His world had taken a tumble as bitter bile rose up his throat. He had been tempted more than once to tell her what he was, but a lifetime of ingrained caution and mistrust of ‘normal’ people held him back. Seeing her, his caution was all too justified.
“You’re working for them?” he grated, pointing at Heavy.
“They work for me!” Carrina snapped. “I am part of a CSIRO project studying lifeliners. I never knew that you were one of them. You have to believe me.”
He snorted and shook his head. “What now? Lab, lights, tubes, needles?”
“Don’t be ridiculous. Nobody is trying to exterminate the lifeliners.”
“That’s not what the government and the media are saying.”
“Propaganda to pacify the more extreme social elements.”
“Propaganda? Vigilantes taking the law into their own hands and our rights violated, legislation passed to allow indefinite confinement without due process? That’s supposed to be pacification?”
“I’m not happy about some of the government’s policies, but this is a major social problem without a clear solution and the CSIRO is trying to find one that won’t tear up our society. We don’t want pogroms we’re seeing in America and Europe. Look, Nash, lifeliners are something new, perhaps the next step in our evolution, and the government is understandably anxious to understand what you are—”
“And counter the sensationalized threat we represent to mankind.”
She blushed and looked away. She pushed back a lock of golden hair from her forehead and her brown almond eyes were pleading.
“Something strange and wonderful is going on around the globe right now. And yes, it is also frightening. The birth rate across the developed world has been falling steadily for over sixty years, and appears to be accelerating. Conversely, the incidence of lifeliner births is correspondingly rising, but we can’t tell for sure, given that they can only be identified after puberty. Understandably enough, they’re not anxious to advertise themselves, but we can see the pattern and governments everywhere are naturally concerned.”
“I can see why they’d be concerned,” he agreed. “They are seeing their future disappearing, and with it, their hold on power.”
“Now you’re being naïve and obtuse.”
Bannon snorted and shook his head. “I am being obtuse? Have you read the papers lately, or seen what the media are reporting? You should get out on the street, lady, and see for yourself. Stuck in a lab won’t help solve your problem.”
“That is precisely why we need subjects like you! We want to understand, not exterminate, something I suspect is not even possible. If lifeliners are our next evolutionary step, stopping the process is now irreversible. There are simply too many of you to eradicate.”
Bannon could not believe Carrina had said that. “Eradicate? Is that what this is all about? Finding a way to remove us? And you are a willing participant in this?”
She winced, stung by his remark. “I am working to find a peaceful solution—”
“Tell it to those who were mobbed or dragged away by goons like him!” Bannon snarled, jerking his thumb at Heavy.
She jumped up and backed into the guard.
“Hey!” Heavy cried out as she sagged against him.
Bannon sprang out of his chair and lunged at him, grabbing his hand. The jolt of life-force surged through him in a powerful stream as he jammed. Heavy moaned, rolled his eyes and crumpled to the carpet. Breathing heavily, Bannon stepped back.
Carrina pushed down her black skirt and stared at the body.
“He’ll be all right,” Bannon assured her. “He’ll be weak for a day or so, though.”
“You could have killed him.”
“That’s not how lifeliners work, honey, but I wouldn’t be surprised if someone hadn’t done it somewhere. By the way, neat move, that.”
She smiled sheepishly and shrugged. “Seeing you when I walked in…I had to do something.” She glanced at Aleya, who clearly didn’t understand what was going on. “Who’s your friend?”
“A stray kitten. What now?”
“You must get out of here.” Carrina held out her security pass. You’ll need this to open the elevator.”
“I’ll tell them that you attacked us, which you did. When Carl wakes up, he’ll back up my story.” She grabbed his arm and pushed him toward the door. “You have to get out of here right now! One of my colleagues will be coming through there at any moment. I’ll call you and we’ll sort this out.”
She brushed her soft lips against his cheek. “I know. My head is also spinning. Now, go!”
Bannon opened the door and peered both ways down the corridor. Glancing at Aleya, he hurried toward the elevators. Pressing Carrina’s pass against the sensor, he touched the ground floor button. A few moments later, the double doors opened and he stepped in. The two men and a young woman inside made space for him.
When Bannon walked out of the tower, he allowed himself a long sigh and glanced at Aleya.
“We need to get away, and I have a few things stashed for just this eventuality. Come, or maybe you want to fade back into your street network? The dobers know you now, you know.”
She bit her lip. “I’ll tag along, for now, but I’ve got to tell you this. It’s the closest I’ve come to the dobers and I don’t want to do it again.”
“Me neither,” he assured her as they headed toward the pedestrian bridge spanning the Yarra River that would take them under the Flinders Street station into the city’s center. Once they reached Elizabeth Street, Bannon flagged a taxi and told the driver to head for North Melbourne.
The cab pulled up in front of Western Self-Storage. Bannon told the driver to wait and strode quickly toward the entrance. The reception desk inside was deserted. He dug out a key from his key-ring and unlocked a side door to a large open warehouse with three floors of sealed dirty-white containers. Taking the stairs to the first floor, he made his way down the row of containers and stopped before 214. He unlocked the door and slid it sidewise. Flipping on a switch, fluorescent strips flickered into life, flooding the space with bright light, revealing packing cartons, tall cupboards and chests of drawers.
Stepping in, Bannon grinned at Aleya. “Everything we need to make a fresh start,” he said brightly and dug out his cellphone. “I have to get in touch with somebody who’ll help us get set up, but what I have here will do for now.”
“What are you going to do?” Aleya asked, her eyes roaming around the container.
“Disappear. We’ll both disappear,” he said as he punched in his call. After three rings, he heard two clicks. He tapped the phone twice and disconnected, then put in a new set of numbers.
“Talk to me, Nash,” a strong masculine voice ordered crisply.
“I need extraction, Trent.”
“You can’t go back to your apartment.”
“I know. This has to be a total wipe.”
“Meeting at point Charlie in twenty minutes. Can you make it?”
“Trash your SIM,” the voice said and broke the call.
Bannon extracted the phone’s SIM card and ground it under his heel. He took out a spare from his wallet and was back in business under a new number and name. Walking to the closest cupboard, he pulled out a slim black briefcase.
“We need to take a little drive, Aleya. A man will meet us who will get us new identities, and you will need a change of clothes…and a bath,” he added with a smile.
“A spa bath?” She looked hopeful.
Locking up, they made their way out of the building and piled into the cab. Bannon gave the driver an address and slowly exhaled as he sat back, allowing his pulse to slow down. His meeting point was relatively close and he would make it there easily.
Two hours, that is all it took to scramble his life. Everything he had worked for, all the plans he made, a future he hoped to have, all gone. He wondered whether it was even possible to have a future in a world slowly going mad. The prospect of seeing tomorrow left him with a hollow feeling of despondence. And Carrina? Would she be prepared to share his tomorrows? He somehow doubted it.
The taxi pulled up outside the Footscray Market Continental Deli on Irving Street. Bannon gave the driver a generous tip and got out. The sidewalk was busy with pedestrians and women coming out of the market carrying loaded bags. Traffic clogged the street both ways and the air stank from pungent exhaust fumes.
A tall slim figure dressed casually in a black blazer and black corduroy trousers suddenly appeared and stopped before Bannon.
“Nash, as I live and breathe. It’s been a while,” the man remarked with a wan smile.
“Trent…I only wish it were under different circumstances,” Bannon agreed as they shook hands.
Trent glanced at Aleya. “Still picking up strays, I see.”
Bannon chuckled. “You know me.”
“Yeah. What happened?”
“I’m not quite sure myself. They were on me before I knew what was going on.”
“Never mind. We’ll talk about it once we have you safe.”
“Oh, I don’t think so, Trent,” the familiar voice said and Bannon slowly turned.
Carrina stood there smiling at him, five men behind her held handguns ready for action.
“We’ve been after you and your network for a long time, Trent Masters, and I am looking forward to a long chat.” Smiling broadly, she turned her piercing eyes on Bannon. “Nice to see you again, Nash. Although you might not think so.” She looked down and held out her arms to Aleya.
“Mommy!” the little girl cried out as they embraced. “I got a big one!”
“You sure did, my darling. Two big ones.”
Stunned, head whirling, Bannon felt blood drain from his face. This couldn’t be happening!
Giving him a cheeky smile, Aleya held up a small smartphone.
“We knew exactly where you were all the time,” Carrina declared comfortably, hugging her daughter.
His heart breaking, Bannon stared forlornly at the little girl who betrayed him.