N'buli couldn’t tell up from down, past from future or here from there. They had got inside his head and turned it all upside down. He couldn’t remember if he was trapped by the Goodsons in their impossible tent, or on the way to their House on the motorcycle. It was all now.
All time was now.
Even though he missed Max more than anything, and even though he would have put up with all their pointless arguments if he had someone to talk to on his journey, N'buli made good time on his own. He broke into a motorcycle shop on the edge of some town near the border with Russia and hit the back roads on two wheels.
After the first night on the bike, it felt like he’d been riding forever. He gunned it around another corner in a sleeping suburb of some small town and almost took out a mailbox, before the bike kicked into line and went where it was supposed to go. The town was about to wake up and N'buli had to find his sunglasses in his jacket pocket to cut back on the glare and look for a place to hole up.
And that’s how it went for days. He travelled at night, using the bike to cut through open fields and take old paths that no car could ever manage. N'buli had passed through the region dozens of times over the years and instinctively knew which way to go. He had a photographic memory for places, courtesy of an upgrade in 1996, and even knew how to find that one tent in all of Mongolia, just from that one visit, decades ago.
Every night at sunset he would rise from some hiding place and head east until the sky was light.
He broke into a couple of LOVE caches and loaded up on Blissgun ammunition, Swiss chocolate and gold coins. He ate food from vending machines on industrial estates in the middle of the night or broke into deserted houses to raid the pantry. He always left enough gold behind to cover his thefts or any damage. In one farmhouse, he found a frozen cherry pie of such exceptional quality that he left enough gold behind for the family to get through a dozen hard winters.
He slept in haylofts and up trees, in dry ditches and hidden caves, anywhere he could avoid any other human being. He washed in cold river streams and siphoned petrol from farm tanks to keep his bike going.
N'buli spent almost all of his waking hours on the back of that bike. His night vision was exceptional and sometimes he could gun the bike into some open space and he felt like he was outracing the whole world.
Sometimes he would hear voices in the night as he rode, but he shut them out easily and just kept on going. He didn’t dream when he slept. He was too tired and too focused and too free.
It took him about a week to realise he was being followed.
He was jumping out the window of an invisible Paris office block, he was running into the deadly machine guns during the War, he was crashing into Fassbender in the middle of the street. He was in Luxor, and New York, and London. He was standing outside the morgue in Sydney, watching Agent Smith talk to Val, he was in Leningrad with her, offering her that damn sausage.
He was everywhere, and nowhere. They were opening him up from the inside and looking at all the angles, and N'buli couldn’t help it if that made him feel a bit sick.
It was nothing obvious – just a feeling – but once it was there, it wouldn’t budge. There was somebody watching him.
He had been travelling through some endless Eastern European wasteland for three days and hadn’t seen a single sign of any other human being in the vast desolation. N'buli was still heading in the right direction, but after riding over the rocky grounds for days, he started to pray for some asphalt.
After the third night in the wasteland, he stopped by some small stream at dawn to load up on fresh water and caught something out of the corner of his eye. It was just one small reflection of light in the morning gloom, glinting of something metal far behind him. He’d used a pair of binoculars he had liberated from one of the LOVE caches, but he couldn’t see anybody back there, just a whole lot more nothing.
He let it go and carried on, but after a century of surviving on instinct, he knew he needed to listen to that vague feeling inside him.
After that, it became more and more obvious. He would notice a small cloud of dust somewhere behind him on his path or the wind would change suddenly and he would catch the barest whiff of somebody else’s scent. It was all too vague to pin down, but he was soon convinced that he was not alone on his journey.
Someone was shadowing him. N'buli was sure of that. He just didn’t know what they wanted.
And then, 23 days after he left Amsterdam and 17 days after he lost Max, N'buli crested a hill and saw an open plain in the pale moonlight and knew he had crossed the border into Mongolia. He was nearly there.
He slept out in the open that day, on a natural rocky platform in a cluster of big boulders. The cold was settling in, but the rock would soon warm if the day’s sun and he was comfortable beneath the endless sky of the open and deserted plain.
N'buli slept the whole day through, without being disturbed in any way. Until just before nightfall, when somebody sneaked up on him and stabbed him in the side with a flick-knife.
There was a voice, cutting through the chaos of all his life, sounding out across his lifetime. A voice of clarity and certainty, of no specific gender or race.
'This is not the future,' it said. 'This is not the past. This is all now. Take another step N'buli, and see what happens.'
He used that voice as the anchor he needed, pulling on it with his mind. But he was leaking, he was leaking away somehow.
N'buli snapped awake as the agony of the stab wound hit him and he instantly rolled away from the threat.
Whoever had the blade was coming at him out of the setting sun, using it to blind him. N'buli chose the wisest course of action and ran away.
Holding the side of his gut where he was leaking blood, he skipped backwards onto the nearest rock and danced across several boulders until he was well away from his attacker and no longer had the sun in his eyes. But he had lost his opponent.
Wincing from his wound, N'buli scanned the area. There was nothing but huge, shattered rocks in every direction for miles, with only the barest signs of vegetation between the stone. There were a thousand places his attacker could hide.
And then she was right there, coming at him again from the left. She was dressed in a regulation LOVE fight-suit and had cut her long hair short, but N'buli recognised her instantly.
'Agent Jane Smith,' said N'buli as he dodged her lunge, which tried to deliver him a knife to the eye. With the suit, she was much faster than he was, and he didn’t want to show her how much that rattled him. 'Nice to see you again.'
He twisted around and went for a kidney punch, but she swivelled on a heel and got him in a roundhouse kick on the shoulder that knocked him into a dry, dusty patch between the rocks.
N'buli got shakily to his feet. Agent Smith leapt for him and only realised he had taken her knife off her when he stepped aside and used it to cut the three main power units of her fight-suit, instantly turning it from a human-boosting marvel of technology to a bunch of ordinary clothes.
She backed off a step and pulled a second knife out of her sleeve. The two agents circled each other, knives clasped firmly in their hands.
'How long have you been following me?' asked N'buli. 'Not all the way from Amsterdam, surely?'
Agent Smith smiled for the first time, but there was no real human warmth in her grin. 'No, not from Amsterdam. I picked up your trail in those German woods and I’ve been following you ever since. It took a while to catch up to you, but I knew I’d get you in the end.'
N'buli laughed. 'You think you’re ready for me this time, girl?'
'I know I am,' she said in that incredibly charming Irish accent, darting forward and slashing down with her blade. N'buli blocked her blow with his own knife and stepped aside, but she was ready for him this time and swung out with her elbow, catching him on the side of his jaw.
N'buli grunted and went down to one knee and Agent Smith tried to get at his throat again, but his arm snapped out and caught her by the wrist.
'We’ll see how good you are, Jane,' he said, before smacking her in the face with a headbutt.