All characters in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Madeleine Cost is working to become the youngest person ever to win the Archibald Prize for portraiture. Her elusive cousin Tyler is the perfect subject: androgynous, beautiful, and famous. All she needs to do is pin him down for the sittings.
None of her plans factored in the Spires: featureless, impossible, spearing into the hearts of cities across the world – and spraying clouds of sparkling dust into the wind.
Is it an alien invasion? Germ warfare? They are questions everyone on Earth would like answered, but Madeleine has a more immediate problem. At Ground Zero of the Sydney Spire, beneath the collapsed ruin of St James Station, she must make it to the surface before she can hope to find out if the world is ending.
I BLAME THIS BOOK ON FLANNERY AND WENDY DARLING and thank them for it.
Additional thanks to Dr Jennifer Elliman, Dr Chris Fellows, Julie Dillon, Lexie Cenni, and Estara Swanberg.
Spelling is Australian English.
Madeleine Cost’s world was a tight, close space, a triangular tube tilted so her head lay lower than her feet. Light reflected off metal, not enough to give any detail, and there was barely room to squeeze one hand past the slick surface, to explore face and skull and find powdery dust and a throbbing lump. Dull pain also marked upper shoulder, hip, thigh. She felt dusty all over, grimed with it, except her lower half, which was wet. Free-flowing liquid drained past her head.
She could smell blood.
Ticket barrier. Those were the rectangles of metal above and beside her. Madeleine could remember reaching for her returned ticket as the red gates snapped back and then – then a blank space between there and here. Thursday lunchtime and she’d been at St James Station, planning to walk down to Woolloomooloo to wait for Tyler, just off the plane and sure to be strained and tired and all the more interesting for it.
The noise the water made suggested a long fall before it hit somewhere past her feet, close enough to spatter her ankles before draining past her. The ticket barriers were a generous double flight of stairs above the platforms, or had been. How far above them was she now? Had it been a bomb? Gas explosion? She could smell smoke, but it wasn’t overwhelming. The blood was stronger. Smoke and blood and falling water, and how far was it falling? How big was the drop, and how–
"Hello?" Madeleine called, just a croak of a voice, anything to shut off that line of thought. The effort made her cough.
There wasn’t room enough to shift to hands and knees. She could barely squirm onto her stomach, the small pack she wore catching on the withdrawn gates. Stretching one arm forward, she followed the path of the water down, and found an edge. But she had no way to measure the size of any gap beyond. Reaching back with one sandalled foot, she explored damp channels in powder, and grainy concrete. No edge. Not willing to just lie there, she tucked her elbows in close and wriggled back an inch.
The ground shifted.
Freezing, Madeleine waited for the plunge, but nothing followed except a faint rocking motion. She – the slab of concrete with its burden of ticket barriers and girl – was balanced on a downward slope. Another shift of position and she could send the whole thing plunging, and would fall and fall, and then the blood would be hers.
Eyes squeezed shut, Madeleine tried to calm herself down. She’d always thought herself a composed sort of person, but black panic clawed, demanding an urgent response – screaming, running, leaping – however impossible that might be. It was only the itching in her throat, setting her coughing again, which pulled her back.
Could she drink the thin flow of water running past her? It didn’t smell – not stronger than the blood and smoke, at any rate. The tumbling splash was so loud, a solid belt as it hit the concrete near her feet. St James Station was underneath Hyde Park, the ticket barrier level just a few metres below grass and trees. The strength of the water’s impact suggested a drop to the platform level.
Up. Down. Stay. Three choices which felt like none in the blood-scented dark.
Her phone, tucked in the outer pocket of her backpack, let out the opening notes of her favourite song. Prone, elbows tucked in, hands beneath her chin, she couldn’t just reach back. By the time she’d scrunched herself into the tiny extra space on the tilted border of her world, and worked her opposite arm back, the smoky voice had eased into silence. She still scrabbled for the pack’s zip, ignoring the burning protest of her bruised shoulder and side, and caught the heavy rectangle between two reaching fingers.
As Madeleine brought her arm painfully forward, the clear white light from the phone conjured hazy reflections of girl in the silver-metal sides of the two ticket barriers. These faded as she turned the makeshift torch forward to reveal whiteness and a crosshatching of dark lines. Bars.
Madeleine stared, confused, until she recognised the green-painted railing which edged the upper level and the stairs to the platform. They were warped and twisted, but still looked thoroughly solid, forming another wall to the cage capping the slab of concrete. There was no way forward.
It was difficult to see beyond the railing, but the white resolved itself into dust, pale mounds of it, through which she could glimpse a third silver rectangle, this one twisted and torn, the tickets it had swallowed spewing from its innards across dust and chunks of concrete.
Her raft lay on one of the flights of stairs, which did not make sense. St James Station had only two lines. The tracks sat parallel, perhaps fifty metres apart, their platforms joined by a broad expanse of concrete full of pillars which held up the ticket barrier area. The ticket barriers sat over this central area, while the stairs were to either side of it, close to the tracks. To be on the stairs she and her metal cocoon would have had to fall sideways.
Whatever the case, at least she was near the bottom, even if she would still need to risk moving backward to get out.
But before that… Turning her phone around, Madeleine found a missed call from her mother. Her parents thought she was at school, and had no idea she was skipping to start work on the portrait of Tyler. There’d been no point embarking on Round Five Thousand of the Grades v Art argument when Tyler’s mild willingness to oblige a cousin didn’t extend to altering his schedule in any way, and the cut-off date for the 2016 Archibald was in less than a week.
The phone’s clock told her it was nearly one pm – maybe fifteen minutes since she’d arrived at St James – and the signal was strong, but she couldn’t get through to her parents. It wasn’t till she called triple zero that she had any kind of response, and that was a canned message which boiled down to "Everyone is calling emergency".
Trying to reach her voicemail messages didn’t work, so she gave up and texted: "Can’t get through – will talk later".
Without knowing more about what happened, she couldn’t be sure whether it was more sensible to wait for rescue, or try to make her own way. Shifting about could trigger a slide or collapse.
Out in the dark someone else’s phone rang – one of those joke ring tones, growing louder until the phone was shrieking. No-one picked up. How many people were in the station, lying in the dusty dark? Calling out brought no response, but the ringing told her there must be someone.
Tucking her phone into her bra, Madeleine explored behind her again, cautious toes still finding only dust turning to mud, and wet concrete. An inch back, and nothing. Another inch, and the ground shifted as it had before, but this time Madeleine didn’t freeze against the see-saw’s tilt, and almost immediately it settled. The settling didn’t surprise her – resting on rubble on a stairway, her raft was hardly going to tip upright – but the sensation of it was strange, not as firmly solid as she would expect from concrete stairs.
Feeling a sudden urgency, she wriggled several inches, her feet pelted by liquid as she moved closer to the falling water. And then her questing toes found the far border of her raft, another rough edge. She slowed down, backing inch by inch, until she was half out of her metal tube, part-lying and part-kneeling, then reached with her foot hoping to find the straight edge of a step, or at least firmly packed rubble.
She jerked her foot away, gasping and then coughing. Brief and strange as that contact was, she’d recognised instantly what her foot had touched. Hair.
It was a person, and all around her was the scent of their blood, and whoever it was had not moved, or spoken, or reacted at all to Madeleine’s foot in their face. She and her raft were on top of someone’s body.
The chance that this was not so, that she was crushing someone too badly injured to react, made it impossible for Madeleine to stay, to quiver or quibble or spend one moment longer where she was. She stretched out he ...