Word count: 4308
As he stepped off the lift, Will was not surprised to find David lounging on one of the couches in the hotel lobby at precisely 11:30. With no extenuating circumstances, he was always punctual to the second, if not early, which, Will surmised, was to be expected from a Time Lord. At the sight of his friend, David jumped up and strode to meet him with a delighted smile, and the two grasped hands in greeting.
"Glad you could make it down! How was the drive?"
"Splendid. Relaxing, and plenty to see, as always." David glanced around the lobby and out the glass front doors. "It's been over four years since I've been down here - well, a similar 'here' anyway - and I rather miss it. The big city, the crowds of humanity, all the history!" His face shone with enchantment. "Not that I've been to Twickenham before, mind you." He motioned at the couch he had just vacated and they sat down. "How's work been going?"
"Slow. The project is huge, and it's hard to mix two development teams' styles and processes and make it actually work efficiently." Will flopped back and splayed his arms along the top of the couch back. "If this wasn't such a huge contract, I think Markus would have walked out on it by now. The product manager, woman by the name of Sophia, thinks she's a designer and won't let him do what he does best." He shrugged. "We've only two more weeks down here, and I don't know if we'll be able to pull it out by then. Just don't mention anything when Markus is around, unless you want your ears whinged off."
"I'm sure you'll get it together. Your group is so talented and dedicated."
Will shook his head, doubting the outcome. "I wish that's all it took to make a project succeed. It's the personalities that get in the way."
"That's always the way of it, isn't it?"
"Well, at least we have the weekends to relax, though I expect we'll have to work through most of next weekend. We'll just make the most of this one." He glanced at the elevator. "They'll be down soon, I'm sure. They're never on time."
"I'm in no rush. So what am I in for today?"
"Nothing too exciting, I'm afraid. We've done most of the tourist things over the last three weekends. You know, British Museum, National Gallery, Tower of London, the V&A, St. Paul's." He sat back with a sigh of resignation. "Today's all about Twickenham. Amy's from here, you know, so Ben's been after her about taking us on the tour of the town. You know how he is, has to see every last historic site everywhere, wouldn't let her weasel out of it." He shook his head, his smirk a mixture of amusement and sarcasm. "I think we'll be getting lunch, then hitting some houses and gardens. Tomorrow we'll see the stadium. Amy sent a list in her email, but to be honest," he leaned in conspiratorially, "I really didn't read it."
David laughed and lounged back on the couch. "It's all fine by me. I'm game for all of it."
"You always are."
Over the next ten minutes, as the men continued to chat, Will's co-workers appeared one by one, coming down from their rooms in the lift. Ben was the first to arrive, eager to get going on their tour and disdainful of the tardiness of the others, though he was late himself. Amy came down not long after, and then it was a few minutes' wait before Markus finally stepped into the lobby. After their greetings, Ben sprang up from his seat and bounced on his toes, impatient to get the day's exploring started.
The group walked down a few blocks to grab lunch, at what Amy called "the best Thai food in Twickenham". During their meal, Ben fairly lectured them on the history he’d researched about the town, paying extra attention to the places that Amy said she was going to take them. Whilst Amy periodically murmured to no one, "I didn't know any of that," Will tried to pretend to be interested. David, who was toying with and not eating his child's portion of pad thai, listened with an enraptured expression, mumbling under his breath about whether or not certain details were true, noting to himself, "I should check that," making Will have to bite back a laugh many times, as he was sure David was not referring to doing historical research at the library or via Google. Markus didn't bother to look interested, and spent the meal fiddling with one of the ubiquitous strange black cubes which the restaurant had placed as centerpieces, three to a table. Once everyone had eaten, Ben couldn't rush them out of the place fast enough, leading them out as he unfolded his map of the town, pencilled with the route he wanted them to take to the various sites. As they left the table, Markus snagged his pet cube before following them out and trotting to catch up with Ben.
"You're taking that?" Amy goggled at Markus and glanced at the hostess who held the door open for them as they exited.
"Aye. No one cares." He juggled it in his hand as he talked, and the hostess paid him no mind. "It's not like they're hard to get. I bet they have a hundred in the back."
"Those things still scare me," she replied, eyeing it nervously. "What are they for?"
"Who says they have to be for anything?" Markus practised tossing the cube up and catching it on the back of his hand. "They've been around for a year now, and they don't open or do anything, and x-ray machines say they're solid all the way through. The UN called them safe long ago."
"Doesn't the fact that they appeared all over the world in one night bother you at all?" Ben asked.
Markus shrugged. "I'm leaving that to the experts. If it doesn't bother them, why should it bother me?"
Letting himself lag behind the rest to come abreast of David, Will leaned toward his friend and murmured, "Anything?"
"Nope." David shrugged, then whispered back, "Not that I have a lab yet to inspect them properly, but I never found anything in them. Couldn't even mar the surface."
Ben had continued lecturing Markus. "You shouldn't let the 'experts' do the thinking for you. Suspicion is always a healthy impulse when dealing with the unknown." Thinking, he peered up at the clouds. "I wonder if they also appeared in the oceans? Are there millions of cubes at the bottom of the sea?"
Behind him, David wagged a finger at his back and murmured to Will, "Now there's an idea. Troll the sea bottom, and the unpopulated land areas. If there aren't cubes there, then they're definitely targeted at humans. I should look to see if anyone's done that study, when I get back home."
"Well, you're wrong, you know, Markus." Amy's tone was playful.
"About them not doing anything. See?" She pointed at the cube that Markus was carrying, which displayed a bright blue sigil on all sides. All five of them stopped and stared it.
Ben was the first to speak. "Seven? What does that mean?"
"How do you know that's a seven?" Amy wondered. "Could be an 'L', or some strange script. Or a fishhook."
Markus bristled uncomfortably, then broke into an excited grin. "It's finally doing something! This is cool."
"That's not cool," Ben objected, hugging himself nervously. "That's weird. After all this time, it's got a glowing symbol on it."
"Yes!" Markus held the cube up at eye level. "We finally get to see what it does."
"Markus," David murmured as he held out a steadying hand, "I think you should put that down and step away from it."
"Why? It's just a cube. It's harmless. It doesn't do anything."
"I don't think it's a bad idea to exercise some caution." Trying to not startle him, David slowly pulled out his phone and started tapping the screen.
Looking around, up and down the street, Amy noticed that many people were staring at the cubes they had and were discussing them with their companions. "It's not just your cube. It's all of them."
As everyone started looking around, Will sucked in his breath. "It says six now. I guess that proves they're numbers."
"Is that a countdown?" Ben gasped. He began backing away. "Oh, mate, put that thing down."
"Come on!" Markus rolled his eyes at his friends' paranoia. "These things have done nothing for a year. I don't see what you're worried about." He frowned in confusion as David pointed the end of his phone at the cube in his hand, not in the usual manner of taking a picture of the thing. The device made a high electronic trilling noise for a few seconds, then the man stared at the display and began tapping again.
Will tried to sound reasonable. "Well, yes, it's been a year and they've done nothing. What's the problem in waiting a bit longer to see what happens when it gets to zero? Just put it down and we'll watch it, and when we all see that it's safe, you can take it right back."
Markus stared at each of his friends in turn. Amy looked terrified, Ben worried, and Will like a parent trying to calm down his fussy child, whilst David stared at his phone with his hand over his mouth. Rolling his eyes again, he shrugged and squatted to place the cube on the pavement. "There, happy?" he grumbled as he stood up and stepped a few feet away.
"Yes, much better," Amy sighed with some relief.
"Now it's five," Ben pointed out.
David glanced at the cube for a moment, then returned his attention to his phone, mumbling, "Longer than a minute, shorter than a microspan. Don't know any established unit of that specific length."
Will glanced over to see masses of circles and lines bubbling over David's screen. "Anything?" he asked his friend.
"Not a thing. It's no different than it ever was. It's like the number isn't even there."
"What are you two on about?" demanded Ben.
The question seemed to draw David out of his studious trance. He drew in a deep breath. "Nothing. We should put some distance between it and us, I think."
"We should go and leave it where it is," suggested Amy, backing away a bit more.
"No." Markus crossed his arms and stood firm. "I want to see what it does, and I want it back when this is all over."
Ben threw up his hands in exasperation. "All right. It stays there, we stay here, but we move a good distance away. Come on." He spun on his heel and marched off to a spot five metres away and no closer to any of the other groups of people on the sidewalk with cubes, and his friends followed him. As the cube counted down, they stood and watched, silent: Amy hid behind Ben, David and Will stood shoulder to shoulder, and Markus squatted in front, wanting the first glimpse of what the cube might actually do.
The numbers on the cube slowly changed, from five to four, to three, to two, then to one. When it finally reached zero, the number disappeared and the top of the cube popped open. Markus jumped up to see over the lip, but it was too far away to make anything out. "Let’s see what’s inside, shall we?" He started to stride toward the open cube.
"No, Markus, wait! Let's -" Ben never finished his sentence as Markus, leaning in over the cube, jerked and collapsed. Ben and Will dashed forward to him as David and Amy whirled to see others around them, afflicted in the same way.
"What happened?" Will exclaimed as he hooked Markus under his armpits and dragged him away from the cube.
"Look!" Amy shouted. "It's happening all over the place!"
People were dropping up and down the street, or screamed as their companions succumbed. Some cars in the road screeched to a halt, whilst others careened into other cars and onto the sidewalks as their drivers lost consciousness. Tapping on his phone, David pointed it at the nearest moving car. As it began to trill, the engine of the car shut off, and it coasted to a far gentler crash against a low wall than it otherwise might have done. "Amy!" he called as he continued to target other cars. "Help Markus!"
Amy had been staring at him in confusion but reacted immediately, sprinting over to Ben, who had grabbed Markus' legs and was helping Will haul him to safety, away from the street. "What's wrong with him?"
"I don't know. He just collapsed." He and Will laid Markus out under the awning of a shop. "Er, know any first aid? CPR?"
"Not me," Will mumbled as he looked Markus over, his hands twitching nervously as he wondered what to do. Amy also shook her head.
Ben threw up his hands, helpless, then glancing up at their other friend in the hopes the inventor might be able to tell anything, stared at the man pointing his phone around the area. "What is David doing?"
Will spun around to seek out his friend. "Bloody hell," he mumbled. "David!"
At the sound of his name, the man turned, firing one last electronic screech at a car. "Yes, coming! The road's safe now, more or less." Sprinting over, he pointed his phone at Markus' chest, the device whirring. "Cardiac arrest. His heart is fibrillating. I think the cube directed an electrical pulse at it."
"Is that what's happening to everyone?" Amy was frozen in panic. "What do we do?"
Will turned to David, who was frowning at his mobile, his hand over his mouth. "Can you help him?"
"I think so. I need your mobile, Will. Quickly." As Will dug his phone out of his pocket and handed it over, David added, "You're probably not going to get it back. I don't think it'll survive this." He pointed his own phone at Will's, and it made that odd trilling noise again.
"Just save him, mate. What are you doing?"
"Severely overcharging the battery." His eyes on the phones, David jerked his head toward Markus. "Pull his jumper off, will you?"
"What?" asked Ben. "Why?"
"Just do it!" Will commanded and propped Markus up so that Ben could pull the shirt over his head. They laid him back down with the jumper balled up as a pillow for him.
"There." David placed one phone just below Markus' right shoulder and the other down on his left torso. "Clear." As soon as Ben and Will pulled back, David pressed the button on the side of his own phone and the muscles in Markus' chest twitched. Pointing his phone at the man's chest again and letting it buzz for a few seconds, David glanced at its screen, then nodded. "It worked. His pulse is steady." A tentative but satisfied smile curved his lips as he tossed the Will's phone back to its owner.
"Oh, good show, mate!" He tapped the button on his mobile. "You're right. It's bricked."
Ben shook his head in amazement. "I don't know what you just did, but that was brilliant! Can you do that for others?"
"As long as we have mobiles to use, or anything with a battery I can work with. But people will start dying very soon. Minutes at best. Come on." David hopped up. "Ben, can you stay with Markus and make sure he's okay?"
"Yeah. Here's mine." Ben lobbed his phone at David, then turned back to Markus, who was still unconscious. "Go to it."
Led by David, who was preparing Ben's phone, the three headed for an older woman lying near the edge of the road with a very stricken-looking young man next to her, making sure to give the cube on the ground a wide berth. Will ordered the man to step back so that they could help while Amy opened the woman's blouse. Like before, David laid the phones on her torso and applied the voltage, and the woman's heart steadied. Without delay, they dashed up the sidewalk to the next victim, this time using Amy's phone to resuscitate the man.
They managed to save the next person after begging her friend for a phone to use, but they found that the one after that had already died. His phone hanging limply in his hand, David staggered back, gazing all around them, horrified. "There's so many. I can't possibly help more than a handful more."
Will tugged on his arm. "Come on! Let's save as many as we can."
Whirling away from him, David sprinted back toward Ben and Markus. "I've got to stop this at the source."
Will and Amy ran after him. "How?" Will called.
"I don't know!" David's voice was shrill with frustration. "Figure out how those things work? Reverse them maybe? If they can stop a heart, they can start it back up again!" Reaching his now-conscious but still prostrate friend, he yelled at Ben, "Give me his phone!"
Startled, Ben frisked Markus' pockets and pulled out the mobile. "This?"
"Yes!" Yanking the phone out of Ben's hand, David immediately applied his whirring phone to it as he dashed away down the street, away from the direction from which he'd approached. "Amy, Ben, stay here. Will, come on!"
Gaping at him, Amy began, "What the -?" but was cut off by Will's hand on her shoulder. "Just stay here. It'll be okay." He smiled at her, then sprinted off after David. "Come on, mate! What are you doing?" he called to him, but the man continued running, through the clogged intersection and halfway down the next block.
Stopping abruptly, David whirled and tossed Markus' phone to his friend, who caught it as he ran up. "It's primed. If you have to use it, this button here." He held up his own mobile and pointed at one of the buttons on the side. "One high, one low, like I was doing earlier."
"Right. I hope you know what you're doing, mate."
"I don't. I'm doing the best I can. I thought I told you to stay up there?" The last sentence was directed at Amy, who had appeared at Will's elbow.
"I want to help," she replied, fists on her hips defiantly.
"You can't. I'm going to figure out how that cube there works. You two need to get as far away as possible in case it fires again. Now go." Whirling, he strode off toward the cube, ten metres away.
"No!" cried Amy as Will tried to tug her back up toward Ben and Markus. "It'll kill you!"
"No, it won't. I've got two," David called back over his shoulder. "I'll have time."
"What?" she cried. David's quip made no sense to her.
"Come on, Amy. Let him do what he can." Taking her hand, he pulled again, and they ran back to the intersection, stopping there to watch.
As David neared the cube, this time they saw the electricity arc directly into his chest and he stumbled, catching himself from falling with a heavy stomp. "Oh! God, that hurts." Grunting, he swayed on his feet, concentrating on steadying himself.
Will started toward him, but his friend stuck out a hand to stop him. "Stay back, Will! This will kill you. Can’t let that happen." Hesitating, Will stopped, and Amy clung to his elbow, the both of them watching intently. Ben came up on the other side of Will, supporting Markus. David flashed them a feeble grin as he stumbled toward the cube. "It's the left one, by the way, Will. The left one. It's fibri... fibr... It's not right," he gasped.
Dropping heavily to the ground, David grabbed the cube, dumping it in his lap. He inspected it as he panted, his breath ragged. "There's nothing in this thing. How does it work?" he cried. Waving his trilling phone over and inside the box, he shook his head as he clutched at his chest with his free hand. "Nothing. Nothing! What is it? How does it work? Something's got to be controlling it. If I can send a signal out..." He held it up and peered at it. "How? How? Oh, I can't think, it hurts..."
"Will?" Ben murmured as he stared at their friend. "What is he doing? He's not going to last long."
"I don't know. He’ll think of something." Will looked up and down the street, at the knots of people tending the unconscious victims. There wasn't much time left for them, and he suspected not much more for David. His friend might have two hearts, but he couldn't imagine that he could survive for very long on only one.
David continued to rant as he tried everything he could think of. "The attack was coordinated. It's gotta be communicating. But how? Not basic electromagnetics." Pointing his phone at it, he let it whir as his fingers danced over the screen. "Not subwave. Not transtemporal. Gamma hyperdigitals? Positron synchrocast? What else could it be? Oh, oh, ow!” Cringing as his torso twitched painfully, he involuntarily curled over the cube. “Yeah, no, er, tele... tele... telep..." Digging under his shirt, he pulled out the necklace he always wore and tore it from his neck, leaving a bloody trail where the chain abraded his skin. He stuffed the remnants in his pocket as he picked up the cube and held it to his forehead. "No, no, nothing there. What else? It's gotta be something. Carrier pigeons. Smoke signals." He mopped at his brow. "Concentrate, David. You have to..."
He grimaced against the pain, shuddering, then straightened. "Okay. Different tack. Stop the thing. Make it fix everyone. How? How do I change the direction of a box? Think, think, think! No mechanics. No wirings. Electron spin flips?" His wavings of the phone over the cube became more manic. "No. Rapid chronodynamic excitations? No. Repeated kinetic impacts?" He pounded the cube on the pavement in front of him five or six times. "No. How do I do this?" His throat was choked with sobs of frustration. "What will make it go off again?” Lighting up with a sudden epiphany, he stuck the phone into the cube and roared, “Reverse the bloody polarity!" as he jammed the button.
Lightning burst out of the cube, a myriad of bolts arcing to victims up and down the block, sizzling past the onlookers diving for cover. David screamed as his body spasmed from a number of arcs spearing through him on the way to their targets, and he collapsed over the cube.
"David!" Will bellowed, and the four friends dashed to him. They pulled him off the cube and laid him back on the pavement. His clothing and skin were blackened and burnt at the spots where the electricity had torn through his body. Will ripped his shirt off then located his mobile, clenched tightly in his fist, and pried it out. "Okay, I hope this works." He laid the David's phone on his left shoulder and Markus' phone just beneath his breastbone. "Clear back, mates."
"No!" Ben grabbed Markus' phone. "You're supposed to put it here," and he laid the phone on David's right torso, "so they're on opposite sides of the heart."
"No, this is right." Will moved the phone back. "Trust me. This is how it works for him. It's the left..." His words trailed off, and he held up a finger, shaking it. "No, no, it's..." He dove down and listened first at the right side of David's chest, then at the left side, then sprang back up. "Wrong, wrong!" He grabbed David's phone and placed it on his right shoulder. "The electricity stopped the right one while the left started up again. Clear!"
"What are you..." Ben began.
"I said, clear!" Ben startled back at Will's angry command, and Will took the opportunity to activate David's phone. His chest rippled with the firing of his muscles, then Will bent over again to listen at both sides. "They're both beating. He's alive." With a tentative smile, Will heaved a relieved sigh as the other three stared, stunned.
Ben was the first to shake off his shock. "'Both beating'? What? What’s going on? What the bloody hell was that?"
Trembling, Markus pointed at the man laid out on the pavement. "What is he?" His words squeaked an octave higher than normal.
"A hero," Amy answered before Will could. She was terrified, too, peeking out from behind Ben, but she could see past it. Glancing around at the people nearby, many of whom were victims who were just starting to regain consciousness, she caught Will's gaze and jerked her head in their direction. "We shouldn't let him lie here on the sidewalk. Can we get him back to the hotel?"
"Yes," Will agreed, "back to the hotel. I don't know how long he's going to be out." Nodding, he looked up at Ben and Markus. "Can you help me?"
"I'm not touching him!" Markus declared. "And you are telling us right now what's going on! How did he survive that? How did he make that cube do that?"
Will swallowed his anger before replying. "I will tell you as much as I can, when we get him back to the hotel. Not before. Now help me!"
Ben and Amy immediately moved to help carry the unconscious man, and the three of them slowly moved toward the hotel with their burden, Markus trailing behind them.