In many ways it reminded me of the abandoned town Matt and Gracie and I had slept in as we neared the Transitional, the buildings still standing but half derelict, some half hidden behind screens of vegetation, others slumping sideways or open to the weather. Even the sense of emptiness was the same. Yet the similarities could not disguise the unfamiliar vegetation that grew between the houses, the tall clumps of what looked like bamboo with leaves that rustled and moved, the creepers that twined and clasped as we passed, the bloated shapes of the fungoids swelling around the bases of the trees.

I didn't speak as we made our way along the main street. It was quiet, the sun hot overhead, but as we passed the empty buildings I shivered, suddenly aware of something moving past us, through us, with a rustle of voices. My father looked at me, and although he didn't say anything I was certain he felt it as well. Unsettled, I tried to put the feeling out of my mind. But instead I found myself remembering running through a field when I was a kid, swallows swooping around me, their fragile bodies darting and shooting, flashes of gorgeous blue and brown. As they wheeled through the air they twittered, tiny detonations of sound that exploded on the edge of hearing. 'They're chasing insects,' my father had said, and as I followed their swoops I realised he was right, that what looked like play was in fact hunting, a tense game of life and death.

Halfway along the main street we came to an old library, and as we passed it I noticed a little girl about Gracie's age standing beside the broken frame of a swing in the front yard of one of the houses, her eyes fixed on me.

I tensed, ready to run, but in front of me my father kept walking. Warily I followed him, not taking my eyes off the girl.

She was small and fair, with thin blonde hair down to her shoulders, wearing a ragged floral dress. There was something about her gaze, some sense she was observing us as a cat might, her focus complete yet somehow disconnected, that made it difficult to look away and even after we had left her far behind, I could feel her watching us, her eyes fixed on the back of my head.

My unease remained even after we had left the town behind. I was so alone out here, surrounded by the Change, its alien watchfulness.

'Aren't you afraid she'll tell someone?' I asked.

'She doesn't need to,' my father said. 'They're all part of the same mind; what one knows they all know.'

'Then why don't they do anything? Why just watch us like that?'

'Because we don't pose a threat, at least for now.'

When I didn't reply, he continued. 'Think about your own body, Callie. It's made up of trillions of cells. Every minute millions of them die or break down. Unless something major happens – an injury or an illness for instance – you're not usually aware of that.

'The same is true of the Change. It's vast and it exists on many scales. And although to us the Changed look like individuals, to it they're more like the cells in your body. So unless something happens that disturbs the whole, the Change doesn't care.'

'You're talking about it as if it has desires, thoughts.'

'That's because it does.'

I was quiet for a long time after that, attempting to absorb the implications of what he had said. It seemed difficult to comprehend, terrifying even.

'So what,' I asked eventually, 'the Changed are puppets?'

'It's not that simple. The Change is made up of billions of organisms that are connected into a vast network at a quantum level. Those organisms have some autonomy – they breathe and eat and even carry out basic functions – but they're also part of a whole, spread through many bodies. So the Change doesn't inhabit them, it is them, and they are it.'

'And the person they were? They're completely gone?' My voice cracked as I spoke. The thought of Gracie gone, and some thing inside her body, was too horrible to imagine.

My father's face was unreadable but when he spoke his voice was gentle.

'The Change knows what they knew, but in every sense that matters, yes, they're gone.'

I didn't answer.

'I'm sorry, Callie,' he said.

It was only afterwards that I realised it didn't make sense.

'Wait,' I said. 'That girl, she was just a kid. Where did she come from? She's too young to have been here before the Wall was built.'

He hesitated, then looked away. 'It's difficult to explain.'

'What do you mean?'

He shook his head. 'I'll tell you later.'

Something in his tone made my stomach twist. 'Why? What can't I know?'

He gazed at me. His eyes were blank, unreadable, and I was reminded again that although he seemed human he wasn't, or not entirely.

'Not now, Callie,' he said, and turned away.

Although the girl was the first of the Changed we saw, she certainly wasn't the last. As we moved through the towns we saw others, standing beneath the trees beside the roads or moving between buildings. Sometimes they stared at us as we passed in the same way the girl had, but just as often they ignored us as if we weren't there.

At first their responses seemed disturbingly random, but as the days passed I began to wonder if there was some kind of order to their behaviour. Outside one town I saw a group of twenty or thirty moving through a stand of Changed trees, gathering armfuls of the thick-skinned fruit that grew on the branches. Several of them stopped to watch us, their faces eerily blank, and I quickened my pace, the knowledge there was a single animating intelligence inside all their bodies making my heart beat faster. Further on I saw more picking fruit, then another group gathering leaves and weaving them into what looked like mats or beds. In the distance others, clustered together in groups of four or five, were sitting or standing in the shade of trees, or under the cover of verandahs, staring at things I couldn't see or lost in what might have been sleep, their eyes open, yet blank and dreaming.

'They congregate into groups to sleep,' my father said, noticing me watching them.

I looked at him in surprise. 'Like a nest?'

He nodded.

'Why? For safety?'

'Perhaps. Or because it's more efficient to work in groups.'

I hesitated. 'But you said they were like cells. Cells don't work together like that, do they?'

'I suspect it's more like some kind of self-organising collective. Over time it refines itself, grows more efficient.'

'Like a hive?'

'Perhaps.'

I paused. 'The other day you said the Change doesn't care about us any more than I care about the individual cells that make up my body.'

'That's correct.'

'But it's still aware of us, right? Even if we don't cause it harm?'

He nodded.

'But what would happen if we did?'

'Did what?'

'Cause it harm?'

He looked at me but didn't reply.

The Buried Ark: The Change Trilogy Book 2Where stories live. Discover now