On the fifth day of what we are rapidly coming to understand as the invasion, everyone is relieved when the Orion people finally step into the briefing room - the Grand Old Man aside.
They’re welcomed with copious handshakes and coffee, and the quality biscuits with cranberry flakes are brought in with obsequious haste.
The Grand Old Man remains in his chair with his arms folded.
He’s read about the military-industrial complex in the Economist, and it’s a childish notion that flies in the face of his entire hard-working life; it is a stated fact that the armed forces of this nation and nearly every nation exist as a servant of the free people, more directly the lawfully elected government of the people, and he certainly does not answer to any shady representatives of some fancifully imagined neo-capitalist superstructure.
It’s humiliating to find this is apparently not true.
It’s humiliating to be left alone in a corner of the room at the age of 61 and after a lifetime of service as the Grey Room section head welcomes the faceless suited people in one by one, offers them coffee, asks them, please, to help explain this, because this seems more like their kind of territory.
A decade ago, when he was listened to and his orders were obeyed and he was treated as more than just a pile of medals to prop up the importance of any given occasion, he’d have thrown these rats right out of the building and tossed their suitcases after them.
But there's something in the air, as they say.
The Orion people tell them not to worry. We’ve seen things like this before - you remember the Orsini incident? The town where, it was claimed, every home became simultaneously haunted? This is most likely a similar manifestation, perhaps an after-effect of an unsanctioned local experiment in hostile architecture. There’s actually no cause for concern beyond the ordinary.
That’s good to know, the Grey Room section head says, because when you look at the satellite photos, and the aerial reconnaissance, and the reports from the ground, you start to think that this isn’t something that can be kept quiet from the local population any longer, and we’ve had other reports of similar activity elsewhere, which means that the phone is ringing all day from the higher-ups who want an answer, and we, frankly we just don’t know what to tell them.
We can explain all of it, the Orion people say. They pat their manila folders. Let’s have that coffee and we can go through it all.
They are supreme in their confidence, ageless in their unwrinkled suits, and their uniform smiles are as tight as their tie-knots.
The Grand Old Man excuses himself.
He stalks out of the briefing room, through the endless corridors of the base, saluting each soldier on duty in turn, until he reaches the hot tarmac courtyard and hops into his car and drives, furious and mechanical in his movements as he yanks at the gears and jams on the accelerator and is away, past the barrier and fence, into the lush fields and Aleppo pine, slipping on his sunglasses so the world cannot see the lethal glare in his eyes.
It takes him about twenty minutes to reach the border.
The officers admonish the rank-and-file troops for referring to the border as a border, assigning them additional duties or punishing runs around the compound edge, because that’s a surrender to nonsense, to pure gibberish, and there’s no room for that kind of weak thinking in this unit, this land around us is all the heart of our country and has been for centuries, occupied by our citizens, and there’s been no foreign force attacking us, so there cannot now be a border within it, now, can there?
The Grand Old Man thinks of it as a border. What the hell else are you meant to call it?
The line of wooden stakes driven into the ground six or seven feet apart in the dust and earth of the fields, continuing for thirty or forty miles in a vast circle, gently diverging a few metres here or there to accommodate evacuated farm buildings, is, inescapably, a border, because what lies beyond it is not here in any rational sense.
They’ve sent in drones, of course, flying high over the target area before swooping in for a closer look, but inevitably in a matter of minutes the drones stop responding to direction and the camera captures a view of the ground that spirals in closer and closer before the feed cuts out, and the operators swear amongst themselves that it’s as if someone else has seized the controls away from them.
The Grand Old Man lights a cigarette, and gazes out across the fields, towards the sudden city.
It’s been growing for five days now.
Towers crawling upwards towards the sun, amongst the pines, dwarfing the pines, swallowing them up as it advances, even a few hesitant suburbs and tiled rooftops sprouting upwards like malevolent boils on the outskirts of it-
-And changing as it goes, that’s what all of the soldiers report, that it began as glistening glass and concrete, but has deteriorated over time, ivy crawling up its walls that shift to brick and then to stone, until you can make out buildings that are surely two or three centuries old lurking in the cityscape, things that are older than any of us.
The Grand Old Man drops his cigarette into the dust, steps down to grind it with his boot, coughing sporadically - and stops.
His toe presses against something hard, polished, and round.
There’s a black cobblestone beneath his feet. Just a single, polished, inky-black cobblestone, about a foot across, old and weathered and half-buried in the earth, in the field on this side of the border, as if the city’s pollen were somehow spreading fragment by fragment.
It doesn’t come out when he attempts to prise it up. Not even when he puts both sets of grubby fingers beneath it and claws, pulling with all of his strength, and he feels his nails twang painfully back under the pressure-
It’s as if this stone, emissary of the sudden city, is rooted there in the field. As if it’s always been there.
But this doesn’t startle him so much as the uncanny, pulsing of warmth of it. The sense of a breath, rising and falling from somewhere beneath the stone.
“What the hell,” he mouths. “What the hell.”
On the eighth day of the invasion, they find the village.
The locals should have been evacuated. Blame is passed around. Everyone should have been evacuated. Their processes have failed them.
This place, close to the border, must have been at risk of the - it feels strange to call it radiation, but radiation is the word they keep coming back in the war room - the influence of the sudden city.
By the time the patrols stumble across it, it’s days too late.
The Grand Old Man is shielded from the worst of the news. They all think he’s got soft in the head, he knows that. They think he won’t be able to handle it, or worse yet, they just don’t think it’s necessary to give him the full details.
So he’s kept away from the site, and only gets to leaf through the grainy photographs, alone in the briefing room afterwards.
There were people living here, and their names are listed in an appendix towards the end of the report.
The list does not match the humans to the manner of their deaths.
It is not clear which of the villagers must have run out or been driven into their own fields, dashing headlong into the rolling, churning thresher blades of the combine harvester, making soil of themselves for the coming harvest.
You have no way of knowing which of these people were somehow unravelled by an unseen malign influence, twisting sinew and muscle up, to form the rafters and beams of a new church, standing a little outside the village, a hollow church of flayed humanity with its own goggling gargoyle faces twisted up around its own buttresses.
Nor can you tell which of them silently departed, kept intact for some unknown reason, drifting away into the trees towards the shifting towers, leaving our world behind for the sudden city.
All of this, even the very worst of it, is just shapes in the photography; it could easily be a scaled model or computer-generated effects, it’s almost too much to comprehend as a real and tangible thing.
Perhaps that’s why it doesn’t seem to frighten anyone else in the room.
The Orion people call it Intensive Epidemic Hysteria, and are at pains to explain that there’s nothing to be concerned about.
This is something we’ve seen before, they say.
And actually mass-psychogenic illness isn’t uncommon throughout human history. We’re a susceptible species at our core, and when we congregate in the wrong places, places that frighten or disturb us to the extent that we’re no longer truly thinking for ourselves, that susceptibility can have some remarkable side effects, as we’ve found in our own experiments-
‘Damn you,’ the Grand Old Man says, unexpectedly. It makes the room go silent.
He can already tell by the nature of that silence that nobody in the room will have any sympathy for him, or respect for what he’s saying, but to hell with it anyway-
‘Damn you. These were people. Talk about them like people. You can’t just look at everything they were and everything they did to themselves, that amount of pain and fear, and...and explain this. Diagnose this.’
The Orion people gaze smugly back at him.
‘What point are you trying to make, exactly, sir?’ one asks him.
The Grey Room section head leans across to pat the Grand Old Man’s wrist.
She quietly suggests that they all feel the same way, naturally, but there’s no use in getting worked up, an emotional response isn’t going to help anyone.
Naturally, the room responds in unison, as if they’ve been prompted by an invisible switch.
The Grand Old Man wants them to understand that this is exactly wrong, that this is a situation where an emotional response must be the only response, you can’t look at a horror like this and just nod and adjust and work it into your plans and processes, there must be a limit to our adaptability in the face of our own destruction, there has to be a line somewhere, he wants to say none of this, he wants to scream out loud because any other response would be an insult-
He picks up his cigarettes and excuses himself.
Just a microsecond after he bangs out through the doors, he hears the Grey Room section head speak.
‘Sorry about that,’ she says. ‘He’s one of the old order. Don’t think he’ll ever quite get used to things as they are.’
‘That’s all right,’ the Orion people say. ‘Change is always hard.’
The Grand Old Man sits alone in his car with the windows down, enjoying the sun’s heat, thinking of nothing.
This isn’t true. We’re never thinking of nothing.
He’s thinking, as the Orion people might say, about the places that have frightened him the most; the places that we remember more than anything.
For him it was always Nana’s bungalow. Red-bricked and cosy, at first, set amongst a hundred identical bungalows in a sleepy seaside town, but this one was hers, and as the car pulled up his parents would tell him and Jennifer to wave, because Nana would be out on the front lawn amongst the white rosebeds with her pruning shears, or peering through the net curtains, ready to welcome them in.
It was one of those houses that always seemed to have a face, one that was rosy and soft and a little bit silly, like Nana herself.
And it was after the funeral, nearly a year later, that they happened to be driving back to visit Nana’s grave, and they passed by Nana’s bungalow, which wasn’t Nana’s bungalow any more. The grass was rangy and yellow and the roses were growing wild, bursting through the guttering and pushing the roof tiles up and out of shape, distorting the entire structure of the bungalow, as if it was ready to burst-
-and whatever was moving inside, in the darkness beyond the twitching net curtains, was no longer Nana. Was the wrong shape to be Nana.
‘Look at Nana’s bungalow,’ he’d cried out, and his parents had said something like,
‘You have to remember, Timothy, it isn’t Nana’s bungalow any more.’
And he couldn’t understand. If it wasn’t Nana’s bungalow any more, then who did it belong to?
That gnawed at him for years. And no matter how horrible the shape of the mangled bungalow was, the ruined walls, the distorted roof, the net curtains that twitched like eyelids, he kept dreaming of one day walking out down the street and finding himself in front of the door which was no longer Nana’s, amongst the winding and thorny rosebushes which were no longer Nana’s, and turning the handle to step into the threshold-
But it is something all right. To live in terror of knowing. To need to know all the same. Because there’s peace, in that final instant of the nightmare where you gaze into the true face of something at long last, and you realise that all your life you’ve only been seeing things sideways.
The Grand Old Man stirs from his reverie.
His troops are abandoning their posts.
All across the compound, his soldiers are strolling calmly away from their positions, dropping their rifles where they stand, loading themselves into the waiting trucks and jeeps.
In the glare of the sun, he can’t see their faces.
He steps out of his car and runs after them, screaming,
‘Stop! Stop! I order you to stop!’
‘Boys!’ he yells, plaintively. ‘Boys, come back! What are you doing?’
He doesn’t know any of their names. But it doesn’t matter. They aren’t listening to him any more.
They don’t respond to the calls on the radio from the increasingly panicked operator. When they get to the gate, they just barrel through.
The soldiers drive. Away from the compound, across the border, into the heart of the sudden city, as if what our world has to offer them is simply no longer enough.
This is no cause for alarm, the Orion people explain. Their smiles remain slick.
In time, the troops may be recoverable. And even if the worst should occur, it is clear from the behaviour of the sudden city that the deserters will not be used as enemy soldiers, more as raw material for its own peculiar needs. This is just the same as if they’d lost civilians.
We have our own people we can bring in, who are more accustomed to handling situations like this.
Relief floods through the faces of the room, as if everyone is glad to learn that their authority can, in fact, be taken away.
The Grand Old Man asks them sweetly about the rumours that he’s heard from elsewhere in the compound.
That the radios are starting up all by themselves.
That the operators are hearing strange missives, mad whispers that make no sense at all, even contradictory orders from people who claim that they too are working for Orion and have all the right passcodes, as if there was some splinter cell of doppelgangers hidden away within the sudden city delivering deranged orders and shipment requests, telling our troops to go out on fact-finding missions past the border at the next opportunity?
What about the emails that they’ve all received from mangled addresses? What about the one that simply advises them,
JUMP. JUMP. JUMP.
The Orion people are still smiling, but there’s a sweaty quality that indicates he might have touched a nerve.
‘You don’t know what this city is,’ he tells them. ‘There’s no underlying order here that you’re capable of mapping. You’re a bunch of jumped-up architects and you’re going to get all of us killed by being so goddamned certain about it all.’
‘That’s not-’ someone begins.
He slams his palm on the table and says,
‘Let’s talk about how we destroy it.’
And for the first time in years, the room listens to him.
They begin to talk softly about airstrikes, even the nuclear option, some way of taking down the sudden city should it come to it, and it’s perhaps eight or ten minutes before the Orion people interject humbly to explain that it is their organisation’s preference that the city be kept intact, if at all possible. For future study.
Naturally, the room says as one. Oh, naturally. These are merely contingencies, I think all of us understand what’s at stake here.
The Grand Old Man steps out to smoke - and to be out of there.
He takes a left turn that turns out to be a right turn, and enters a shadowy corridor that he does not recognise, and it’s only when he plunges forward through another door and into a second flickering corridor and through the next door that he finds himself back in a place that he recognises.
Perhaps I am getting old, he thinks. Like they say. I’ve grown susceptible.
Perhaps this world is better left to the people who feel nothing.
He steps out into the sunlit yard, pats his pockets down for his cigarettes, and gazes out at the shimmering, distant spires of the sudden city, rising high over the woods and the hills, and tells himself that it’s long past time he retired from all of this.
Overhead, the compound loudspeakers crackle for a moment, then speak.
Jump, they say.
It’s then, for the first time, that he suspects it may already be too late.
The attack comes at dawn on the fourteenth day, and if the Orion people understand the significance of that, it comes too late for them to explain it, because as the Grand Old Man drives his car up past the open gates and into the compound, the sirens are just beginning to wail.
He puts his foot down on the accelerator, frantically looking back and forth as he drives.
One group of soldiers are ahead of him, hurrying to their given positions, but he can see them stop and stare at what lies before them, because-
-somehow, the city has got into the compound.
A glistening, shapeless tower of glass and metal stands before them, twisting up and around, so elegant in its design and so smooth in its infrastructure that you could almost believe it’s moving, almost believe that it has reared up and snaked down to bury its spires into the bellies of the uniformed men below, carrying them far upwards into the sky-
-you could almost believe that the grotesque black weathercocks spiralling in the wind high above the tower were once men, and their expressions of agony anything more than aesthetic.
But nothing has moved, and there are no men, and the tower has always stood there.
The Grand Old Man parks the car close to the main compound building, gets out, and runs.
As he batters through the doorway, he can hear a voice on the tannoy, calling his name, welcoming him home, and he ignores it, he ignores the figures who are standing in the corridors reaching out to him, until he dashes through into the briefing room.
The Grey Room section head is there, alone. Her face is in her hands.
The Grand Old Man says,
He doesn’t mean to be crude. He just genuinely can’t think of another word that gets across the severity of their situation.
‘I know,’ she says. ‘God, I know-’
‘Send out the airstrike,’ he tells her. ‘Bomb it. Do whatever you have to do-’
‘The radio room’s gone,’ she says.
‘What do you mean, gone?’
‘I mean, it’s gone, Tim. There’s something else where it used to stand. And the field radios are all talking to me and nobody seems to be listening out there any more.’
‘Is this happening elsewhere?’ he asks. ‘How far is it spreading? We must have some idea-’
The tannoy crackles, above them.
It calls for the section head to report in to command at once.
Something changes in her face. She gets to her feet.
‘No, no,’ he hisses, grabbing her by the arm. ‘We’re Command, that’s us, there isn’t anybody else-’
She shrugs him off. Turns, and stalks away through the double doors.
By the time the Grand Old Man comes out after her, she’s nowhere to be seen.
We’ve lost, he thinks, and the thought strikes him as absolutely hysterical. We haven’t even struck a blow, and we’ve lost already.
The Grand Old Man comes to a final decision.
Back through the winding corridors of the compound building, past a hundred gleaming glass doors that have sprung up in the walls, sweat dripping down his face as he wheezes and pants and keeps on running, until he collapses out through the double doors into the air again, and everything is burning, and everyone around him is screaming, but he ignores them all as he leaps into his car, puts it into gear, and then sees something in his rear-view mirror that makes him stop dead in his tracks-
Nana’s bungalow is in the middle of the compound yard.
There’s no explanation for it.
Her bungalow, with the tipping roof and the roses growing wild and vicious up around the lace-curtained windows, is standing in the centre of the compound, amongst the low bomb-proof storage units and the screaming men who are dashing back and forth. Its shadow falling happily over the concrete of the yard.
As if it’s always been there.
He stares - and begins to giggle to himself, because he’s felt like a bystander for so long during all of this, but this, at long last…
This is for him.
The Grand Old Man steps out of his car and begins to walk across the compound yard, watching for a sign of life twitching from behind the lace curtains.
Soldiers barrel into him, yelling his name or pointing at something unseen in the distance. He gently shrugs them off and keeps walking.
This is for me, he tells them, proudly. This, at long last, is something made for me.
Something behind him is exploding. It doesn’t matter.
As he reaches the step, he feels as small as he did back then, the doorknob vast in his hand, the hallway dark and cavernous before him as the door swings open with a gentle jingle of bells.
He steps through the threshold.
It doesn’t end when he expects it to.
He was expecting release, an ending, perhaps even a kind of truth behind it all. For the veil of this world to shift, and alter, and peel back in death.
Instead, he’s the one who changes.
He’s the one who peels back.
His muscle and fat expanding, popping the buttons of the useless uniform and shaking the medals free, eyeballs and bone abandoning their old pedantic shape in favour of something new.
The Grand Old Man becomes grander, growing to fill the depths of his bungalow.
He spreads into room after room, rising to the ceiling and sinking into the floorboards, until he is straining against every window and cracking the bounds of every pipe, and finally he is somewhere he truly belongs.
Perhaps there is no greater meaning than that.
And we must be grateful for the small victories that come about by chance in a disordered universe, as when the four remaining Orion people come shrieking through the compound, fleeing from something awful and unseen in the chaos all around them, and they dash up to the sanctuary of Nana’s bungalow, tearing open the door and throwing themselves inwards, and the Grand Old Man’s many new mouths open up to welcome them home.
They resist, a little. He doesn’t begrudge them it.
Change is always hard.
After he’s fed, he rests.
Beyond the lace curtains of the window, he’s allowed to watch as the city expands.
New streets, and new rooftops, darkening and ageing in the twilight.
It is a marvellous thing, he thinks, before he falls into slumber, a truly marvellous thing, to witness a new world that’s willing, in spite of all your faults, to make you a part of it.