A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

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A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:23 pm

The Right of All Sentient Beings (c) John H. Evans, June-July 2017

The fylit soared gracefully over the zenistand, rising and falling as it caught glaphlings for sustenance. After a few minutes, it landed and preened itself. Dirish was entranced by its colours and chirpy demeanour. She pointed it out to her partner Jivlum, who was secretly grateful that she was happy about something. They didn’t normally come this far north, so they didn’t often see the more exotic species of wildlife.

“Are fylits common in these parts, Presh?” Dirish asked her daughter.

“Fairly common,” replied Presh, looking at the pretty creature. “There are more in the farms of course. The farmers don’t like them stealing the crops.” Just then, something grabbed the fylit and pulled it downwards, out of sight.

“Oh, what happened?!” exclaimed Dirish.

“I’m not sure but I think that the Erana snatchtree got it,” said Presh. “You see the tall, thin, dark blue foliage among the mid blue of the Greiax blanket leaves? It’s carnivorous. Farmers like them for pest control: they plant them occasionally or at least don’t cut them down.”

“Well well, I’ve heard of those,” said Jivlum. “They’re quite rare but you have one here in your neighbourhood. That’s amazing!”

“I don’t like it,” said Dirish. “It’s a cold, unfeeling killer. That poor fylit, I hope it didn’t suffer.”

“I’m sure it didn’t,” said Jivlum, trying to placate Dirish.

“Actually, it’s being slowly suffocated in the Erana’s throat,” said Presh. “It will also have some broken bones so, even if we could rescue it in time, it would be crippled for life.” Dirish looked at her with an expression of dismay and annoyance. Presh knew that she had said the wrong thing again.

“Unless it got away somehow,” added Presh hurriedly.

“Maybe it did,” said Dirish. “We can’t see what’s going on behind all those leaves, can we?” She was somewhat mollified but this little incident worried her.

“Have you decided where you’re going to live yet, Presh?” asked Jivlum, trying to change the subject. “I thought that the house in Abur Riswach was very good and also convenient for your job.”

“The apartment in Durkas Tan was my favourite,” said Dirish. “It had wonderful decor and friendly neighbours.”

“This is a difficult decision, isn’t it?” said Presh. “Personally, I like this house here. It’s quite big and has character. Abur Riswach and Durkas Tan are strong contenders, though.”

“We’ve searched quite thoroughly these past few days,” said Dirish. “You have to make your mind up soon, preferably today. You won’t see any better properties than these. Your new job starts next week. I know that you don’t have many possessions yet but you need time to set yourself up in a new home.” Presh thought quietly for a few moments. The other properties were fine enough but the one in front of her seemed more fitting, in some unknown way. There was a longer commute but she had a nippy little Tripla so she could make it to work in a reasonable time.

“I’m choosing this one,” she said, pointing at the house before them. “I feel a weird sense of destiny about it, you know what I mean?”

“All right lass, if you’re sure,” said Jivlum. “I’m glad you’re not dithering over this. You’re on a tight schedule.”

“You will be careful here, won’t you?” said Dirish. “There are a lot of dark zenistands around. Bad people might be lurking in them.”

“I’ll take care, of course,” said Presh. “My friends will come by often, so they can check up on me too. I’m sure that everything will work out nicely.” Together, Presh and her parents went to the municipal housing office to put down a deposit on the house and start the hire-purchase agreement. All being well, the house would be hers within twenty years. The exact date of the final payment depended on government policy regarding the centralised housing system and the level of payments that were determined every year. It never varied too much, thankfully. At least the old free market housing system had been abolished decades before because it had been wildly unpredictable and tremendously unfair.

When the paperwork had been completed, Jivlum and Dirish said their bittersweet goodbyes and went back home to Upho Town, promising to keep in touch. Over the next few days, Presh moved her worldly goods to the new house and arranged them according to her tastes. Her friends were very helpful in providing free transport, labour and advice. They all seemed to like the house. It had been provided part-furnished. The seats and beds were very comfortable. The cupboards and closets were spacious and well proportioned. The lighting was bright yet not glaring. In fact, every aspect seemed to be just right.

* * * * *

Something was waking Bkeisei up. He was very relaxed, yet he still found himself raised gently into full consciousness. The vornafa that he had imbibed earlier made it a fairly slow process. He moved his arms slightly and found that they were still plugged into his partners. His long toes were intertwined with theirs as well. The water in the tub was still warm so the power in the old heaters hadn’t cut out, thank goodness. No one wanted a cold tub. He opened his eyes and saw his best buddy Criq in front of him, still fast asleep. Criq’s head noddles had arranged themselves into odd curls and waves over his face. To Bkeisei’s right was the lovely Chep, who even managed to look cute when dishevelled and in dream land. Her noddles were draped neatly behind her head rest. He wiggled his right hand in her left shluk and she shifted her body a little in response. On his left was the delectable Presh, who had slumped down so that her head was just below her head rest. He moved his left hand in her right shluk but Presh didn’t respond at all. He looked at her more closely and saw that she was paler than usual.

“Presh!” he said, pulling his left hand out of her right shluk. “Can you hear me, Presh?” Her right hand felt a little cold in his left shluk. Carefully, he removed it.

“What’s going on?” asked Chep, stirring.

“It’s Presh,” replied Bkeisei. “I think there’s something wrong with her.”

“Oh no!” said Chep. “Maybe she had a bad reaction to the vornafa. It was a strong batch.” She pulled her hands out of Bkeisei and Criq, withdrew her feet from the tangle and stood up. This woke up Criq. Bkeisei and Chep knelt next to Presh and checked her breathing: it was very shallow. They took her left arm out of Criq’s right shluk and he separated his toes from hers.

“We should wash out her membrane,” said Chep, reaching for the long vertical xuv slit in the front of Presh’s torso. Delicately and with two hands, she unfurled the sheet membrane from Presh’s xuv slit. Bkeisei grabbed a showerhead and hosed the membrane on both sides. Normally, that would have woken up anyone but Presh appeared to be in a coma. Criq found a clean towel and wiped the membrane to dry it and remove some traces of vornafa.

“The membrane is inflamed,” said Criq. “The vornafa is in her system, hurting her. I’m an idiot! I should have stuck to the regular stuff, not tried a stronger formulation.”

“Well, we did have a great time but I guess it was too much for Presh,” said Bkeisei. “Let’s get her onto the bed and into the recovery position.” Together, the three of them lifted Presh across the room and onto the bed. Criq put a sheet over her to keep her warm. Her membrane retracted naturally inside her body.

“Does she have detox meds?” asked Chep, searching around the room. “We’ve never needed them before. I don’t remember seeing any.”

“A lot of things are still in packing cases,” said Bkeisei, joining the search. “We should have been more organised!” Criq cast his eye over the array of cases, some of which were full, some half full and some empty. He discounted some that he knew contained nothing but clothes and electrical items. He focused on the remainder and went over for a closer examination. He was still wet from the tub and tried not to drip water all over Presh’s things. He opened the most likely case and there, right on top of the bric-a-brac, was a brand new box of Lipilynk’s ‘Medystical Compound’.

“Yes!” he exclaimed, taking the potent medicine immediately to Presh.

“Woah, that’s got to work!” said Bkeisei as Criq opened and removed the box, unsealed the pot, took a glob of the Compound on his finger and slipped it deep into Presh’s half open mouth. The Compound started dissolving on her tongues and her saliva began taking it down her throat.

“The directions on the box say that the Compound can also be applied to other parts of the body, especially the forehead, the shluks, the membrane and the hand noses,” said Chep, reading from the box.

“On it,” said Criq, applying more Compound liberally around Presh’s body. In the end, he used the whole pot. Afterwards, he knelt down next to her, stroked her head and implored her to wake up, apologising for his blunder with the vornafa.

“Should we call for a doctor?” asked Chep, kneeling next to Criq.

“I think she’s improving,” said Bkeisei, listening to Presh’s breathing becoming deeper. “Her skin’s getting warmer too. The Medystical Compound is incredible stuff. Bless that Hasud Neefer, the inventor!” As the minutes went by, colour returned to Presh’s cheeks and she started to wake up.

“What have you done to me?” she said, flipping the sheet away and sitting up. “It feels like there’s a party going on, right across my body!”

“I used your Medystical Compound,” said Criq. “It counteracted the vornafa poisoning.”

“Poisoning? So that’s what happened,” said Presh. “I blacked out when I would have stayed awake longer normally. Anyway, I suppose you saved me Criq. Maybe I owe you my life.”

“I’m so relieved that you’re recovering!” said Criq. “I was terrified that I might have accidentally killed you. In future, we’ll have to be much more careful.” The four partners embraced.

“We helped Criq, of course,” said Bkeisei. “He couldn’t carry you and do everything else on his own.”

“You three are the best!” said Presh, closing her eyes and enjoying the closeness of her partners more than usual. “Damn Criq, this Compound is making my skin buzz like a cloud of celebrating glaphlings. You put it everywhere too, even up my...”

“Chep had a point,” interjected Bkeisei. “We all absorbed that vornafa through our membranes. We need a medical check tomorrow. We might have some kind of long-term internal damage. Do we still have a sample of it left for analysis?”

“The flask is over there behind the tub, where I tossed it,” said Chep. “There should be a little drop left. It’s a shame that it might be toxic. I really had a blast tonight!”

“You should try the Compound as well,” said Presh with a twinkle in her eye. “I’m feeling fabulous right now!”

“That stuff is expensive, Presh,” said Chep with a smile. “It costs at least three thousand credits a box. I don’t know how you afforded it on your little salary. I will buy some for myself later but I’ll have to save up or borrow money.”

“Win the lottery!” said Presh.

“Rob a bank!” said Bkeisei.

“Sell your body!” said Criq.

“I already sell my body,” said Chep. “You pay me in kind and also in unhealthy food, trips to various night spots, good conversation, domestic help, etc., etc.” The others laughed.

“You’ll find the money soon enough,” said Presh. “Either that or unknown admirers will plant wonderful things in your cases. I never bought that Compound myself. Was it any of you? Come on, be honest!” Her three partners denied buying it for her.

“Was it your parents, your other relatives or a friend?” asked Bkeisei.

“No, I’m as sure as I can be that only the four of us had access to my cases after I packed them,” said Presh. “We did all the moving ourselves. We’ve had no other visitors since I moved into this house.”

“There was that delivery woman,” suggested Criq.

“She never came into this room,” Presh pointed out. “This is a mystery but at least it’s had a happy outcome!” She did a little dance around the untidy boudoir bathroom.

“I’m guessing that there was an intruder,” said Chep. “Perhaps it was a reverse burglar, giving out free goodies to attractive girls.” Presh gave a little shriek of laughter as she span around and shimmied back and forth.

“It was a promotional reverse burglar from the Lipilynk Corporation,” said Criq, continuing the joke. “I think that his or her tactics worked!”

“I’m hooked!” said Presh. “Long may he or she continue! Now dance with me!” So the four partners danced for a while until exhaustion obliged them to complete their night’s sleep. They may have been very happy but the unexplained appearance of the box of Compound niggled at them. Presh in particular worried that, one day, a real intruder would arrive and pose a threat. She was starting to think that she would have to take precautions. She absolutely didn’t want anyone disrupting her new life here, in the little town of Pede Noctic.

* * * * *

Gramear read the picture book in a desultory manner. It was a compilation of comic strips, text stories, ‘amazing facts’, photographs, games and puzzles. Some of the pages had been stained and damaged. A few were missing. The puzzles had mostly been completed. Some pictures had been defaced in crude and vulgar ways. Gramear’s eyes bulged to see how extra organs had been scrawled all over people, animals, plants and even buildings. Some people were twisted. Worst of all, the whole book was aimed at younger children. Gramear was at least one year too old for this material.

“I don’t want to read this anymore,” he said after several minutes. “Isn’t there anything else to do?”

“There are toys in that box,” said his mother Quonie. “Maybe you could build a tower out of those blocks? See if you can arrange the blocks into arches and build the tower as tall as possible.”

“I do that all the time at home,” said Gramear. “Besides, I saw a boy licking the blocks when we came in.”

“Euch! Alright, how about the lifestyle magazines in the rack?” said Quonie with a sigh. “One day you’ll have to furnish your own home and please your partners through health, beauty, fitness and cleanliness.” Gramear rolled his eyes and turned his head away. He was in no mood for that right now. He wished that he was older, stronger and able to avoid these trips to the doctor.

“Suit yourself,” said Quonie. “Just sit quietly; the doctor will see you very soon.”

“In about three hours,” said Jelbit, Gramear’s older sister. “Look at the size of the queue. I’m going to read one of those magazines.” She fetched one from the table and started to peruse it.

“Such beautiful furniture,” she murmured to herself. “When I set up home, I’m going to fill it with stuff like this.”

“You mean stuff that’s ten years out of date,” commented Gramear snidely. “I’m just thinking ahead, Jel.” He shrugged and smiled.

“Oh, you know what I mean, you little devil!” said Jelbit. “I want modern stuff that will show everyone how good we are: stylish but not too flamboyant, environmentally friendly, individual and just darned cool.”

“OK Jel, follow the herd,” said Gramear.

“Pack it in, stop squabbling,” said Quonie. “Jelbit has every right to her dreams.” Gramear sat in silence and looked around the room. There were dozens of people waiting to see the ten available doctors. Every few minutes, someone would leave and the next patient would enter a consulting room. A few people were obviously sick. One had skin covered in crescents, which meant that she was suffering from moonpox. Another had swollen red head noddles that were turning black at the ends. Gramear didn’t know what that was but it seemed serious. Some people were very old and infirm. A few people had injuries like broken bones, sprains and a small boy with a vegetable squeezer stuck on his foot. He was crying in his father’s arms. Most people didn’t actually look sick or injured but many seemed sad. Whatever was wrong with them was probably quite depressing. Gramear turned his gaze away from them, searching for more cheerful people.

On the far side of the room, he saw a quartet of happy young adults. He couldn’t hear what they were saying to each other because of all the other conversations in the room. However, they were handsome folk and they had some of the broadest smiles that Gramear had ever seen. They were wearing some long, flowing gowns that covered them well but Gramear could see that they were doing fairly intimate things under the gowns. He watched them for a few minutes. Compared to the miserable crowd around them, these four seemed to be living idyllic lives in a wonderful relationship. Gramear was captivated. Although he didn’t know it, he was learning a very important lesson. His attitude was changing. Perhaps he should try to be like those four. If he was more loving, he would have a better life.

“I’m sorry that I made fun of you again,” he said to Jelbit. “I do love you really. You’ve been a great support to me.” Gramear’s tone of voice had softened. Jelbit could tell that he meant what he said.

“You’re a good kid at heart,” she said, putting her arm around his shoulders. “You’ll grow up to be a fine young man one day.” Being shorter, Gramear put his arm around her waist and rested his head on her shoulder. His hand accidentally went through a gap in her blouse and into a large unfamiliar skin pocket on her side. Having been watching the quartet doing the same thing, he thought that it was a good thing to do, to show affection.

“Gramear, get your hand out of there!” said Jelbit, recoiling and twitching with embarrassment.

“Don’t do that to your sister!” hissed Quonie. “Leave her shluks alone, do you hear me!” Gramear was shocked by the anger in their voices and withdrew his arm.

“But, but I love Jel!” he protested, his voice quivering.

“It’s wrong!” said Quonie. “I don’t want any of that in our family, do you understand?”

“Yes Ma,” said Gramear. Now he was deeply conflicted. What was he supposed to do? Who could he love? How could he love them? Would they turn against him in an instant? Perhaps he shouldn’t bother with love at all, if it was such a problem.

“For the time being, stick to playing with ... toy robots or something, got it?” ordered Quonie.

“You’d better learn that there are limits,” said Jelbit crossly, buttoning up the flap in her blouse (that had been specifically designed for shluk access).

“Presh and partners for Dr. Kivort,” came a call over the tannoy. The handsome quartet rose and went into a consulting room. Gramear watched them go, somewhat jealous of their freedom and untrammelled relationship. Next to the door, a small boy was thoroughly licking a glossy lifestyle magazine.

“Hello Doctor!” said the four brightly as they entered Kivort’s room.

“Welcome, please sit down,” said Kivort. “It’s good news for all of you. You’ve taken your medication and now your blood tests show that none of you have had any lasting damage from the vornafa. You should be back to full health within days.”

“That’s such a relief!” said Chep as they all sat down. “What about the vornafa?”

“You were particularly unlucky with that,” said Kivort. “I sent it for analysis. The results showed contamination with anti-majka lethogel. The police investigated and the manufacturers had to recall nearly a thousand flasks.”

“No way!” exclaimed Criq. “What happened at the factory? Was it deliberate contamination?”

“We’ll never know for sure,” said Kivort. “They told me that at least five flasks had lethogel inside. There were traces of it on the injector nozzle. They believe that a pest controller accidentally flicked a bit of the gel onto the nozzle when she was filling up the bait traps in the flasking room. However, they can’t rule out the possibility of someone putting it there intentionally. There’s no evidence one way or another.”

“It was incredible how that Medystical Compound appeared in your case, wasn’t it Presh?” said Criq. “It was so efficacious!” She nodded, winked and smiled.

“I’m glad that you had the presence of mind to use it,” said Kivort. “The Compound has many ingredients, including one called sanglue that specifically counteracts lethogel. You’re a hero, Mr. Criq! Presh’s health was preserved, thanks to you.”

“We should buy more when we can,” said Presh. “It really is the breakfast of champions and also the lotion of champions!” She ruffled Criq’s head noddles slowly and sensuously with her right hand.

“I hate to disappoint you but I would advise against regular use,” said Kivort. “You can definitely have too much of a good thing. It’s a little addictive and it can soon overload your body. Also, the cost keeps rising and so does the environmental impact. Did you know that fifty seven animals and plants are killed to make every pot of Compound? Some of those are endangered species. Lipilynk are working on a synthetic version but that won’t be ready for a few decades.”

“Damn!” said Presh, quietly but angrily. Why did good things so often have hidden drawbacks?

“I won’t keep you any longer,” said Kivort. “There’s no need for any further treatment. Just live sensibly and have regular check-ups at your local clinic.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” said Bkeisei as the quartet left the room.

“Well, now we go back to our regular lives,” said Presh. “I finish work at 25.00. Shall we meet up at Chep’s place or go out somewhere?” They stepped over a man’s broken leg, which was immobilised with a splint frame, and left the clinic. The air outside was fresher and the sunshine was glorious.

“We wanted to talk to you about that,” said Chep. “Tonight, we’ll have a good meal at Daf T. Knees but after that we’d like to propose moving in together.” Presh’s eyes widened and her mouth fell open. This was huge!

“We’re clearly falling deeper and deeper in love,” said Criq.

“It’s meant to be!” said Bkeisei. “What do you say? Chep’s already on board.”

“YES!” said Presh, flinging her arms around them all. “You’re totally, completely right! That’s EXACTLY what I want! This day is just PERFECT!” Some passersby were staring at her in surprise as she shouted her joy but that didn’t matter at all.

“The only issue now is where we’ll live,” said Presh when she calmed down and her normal breathing pattern returned. “Chep has a very convenient place. Criq has the largest property overall. Bkeisei’s house is very charming and cosy.”

“That’s all true but we prefer your place,” said Bkeisei. “It feels right, you know? Our houses are soulless in comparison. Things go better in your house. It’s indefinable but we all feel it. We miss it when we’re not there.”

“It’ll be a bit crowded but that intangible feeling of homeliness will make up for it,” agreed Presh. “Oh gosh, thank you all for agreeing to this!”

“We’ve been secretly selling off some of our furniture and other things to prepare for a move,” said Chep. “We won’t need so much clutter in future. We’ll need space to move around, know what I’m saying?” She stood back and did a twirl.

“You’ve been planning this for a while,” observed Presh. “You’ve already started liquidising your assets!”

“So that we can splash out more,” said Criq, showing his wad of new cash. “It will be even better when we’re down to only one hire-purchase agreement!”

“Goodbye, unnecessary bills!” said Bkeisei. “Anyway, I must fly or I’ll be late for work. See you at the restaurant, 26.00 hours.” The others also had to go to their respective employments. They were all very excited by this major new life development.

“Goodness, I have LOADS to do!” thought Presh as she walked away. “There’s plenty of time, though. There’s no pressure. We can make this work. I’ll move mountains to make it work! I’m so freaking LUCKY!” She mounted her Tripla, unlocked it, pressed the ‘on’ switch and set off for work. Progress on the road was a nice metaphor for progress in life, she reflected.

* * * * *

“She’s heavier than she looks, this one,” said Bkeisei, sweating copiously. “I’ll need help with her.”

“You’ve got it,” said Chep, getting up from her tasks and walking over. “Heh, we’ll show her who’s boss.”

“We sure will,” said Criq, entering the room. “You two hold her on both sides and I’ll nail her.” They hoisted her up against the wall and Criq told them exactly how high to keep her. He stood right in front of her, put a large nail through the hanging hook and knocked it into the wall with his trusty hammer.

“Please show some respect for the portrait of your great grandmother,” said Presh, brushing up dust nearby. “You told me that she was a loving, respectable woman.”

“She also liked a laugh,” said Criq. “I only knew her for a short time, when I was a boy. She amused us with kids’ jokes and occasional pranks. It was so sad when she died but I try to keep my spirits up. She wouldn’t want to see me serious and miserable, or any of us for that matter.”

“It’s a good portrait,” said Presh. “I can see why you want to hang it here, in a central position. How old is she there? I’m guessing forty five.”

“I was told that she was forty eight when this was painted,” said Criq. “She kept her looks very well. Her excellent bone structure helped. That same bone structure you can also see in me.” He adopted a few typical portrait poses.

“Hold it there for a few weeks and I’ll immortalise you in stone,” said Presh. “Either that or I’ll put you in a clothing catalogue. Now, where should I put this novelty illuminated mobile?”

“I haven’t decided,” said Criq, taking it from her. “I’ll have to think about it. It’s pretty but the twinkling lights can be distracting when they move about in any slight breeze.” He picked up a few other things and took them all upstairs to the store room.

“So, how far have we got?” asked Presh as Bkeisei and Chep continued to unpack and arrange their worldly goods.

“I’d say we were seventy percent there,” said Bkeisei. “It all depends on how particular we want to be. Everything’s fitting in comfortably here, though. We must have estimated right.”

“I believe that I have done sixty eight percent of my work,” said Chep, adopting Bkeisei’s tone and imitating his stance. “I’m scheduled to finish by 29.47 hours.”

“Cheeky!” said Bkeisei. “Tell her about the shelf.”

“Oh yes, that was a bit weird,” said Chep as she dumped a pile of crop tops into a drawer. “A shelf in the spare room was definitely crooked when I examined it this morning. I went back to it in the afternoon with a mind to fixing it but it wasn’t crooked any more. Somehow, it had become completely level, so I put my old paperwork on it. I’m legally obliged to keep that Meyney Gulf ledger series for thirteen years.”

“The shelf levelled itself?” repeated Presh. “Are you sure that it wasn’t an optical illusion?”

“I used the coving as a comparison,” said Chep. “Normally I’m good at checking these things, so I’m fairly certain that something levelled the shelf.”

“Criq only moved his own stuff and I never touched that shelf,” said Bkeisei. “Did you do it, Presh?”

“No, I was busy moving my things to make room for yours,” replied Presh. “It could have been caused by settlement. We have been loading the building with more items and also walking around more than usual. I wouldn’t be surprised if the structure has shifted slightly. It’s probably a fortunate by-product of our activities. Don’t worry about it.”

“We should have the place inspected at some point,” said Chep. “We need to make sure that it’s safe and not deteriorating.”

“All in good time, my dear Inspectress,” said Presh with fake pomposity. “Firstly, we need to finish as much of this work as we can before bedtime. Secondly, we need drinks because I’m parched. Thirdly, we need food because I’m a glutton. Fourthly, we need a good wash because we’re grimy.”

“Actually, I’m not that bad,” said Chep, looking down at herself. “I avoided most of the dirt. My personal possessions are rather clean. The real filth I dodged through sheer skill. The majority of the sweat I didn’t exude because you three did more heavy work than me. I concentrated on the smaller loads and the details.”

“There’s only one answer to that,” said Bkeisei as he put his hand, covered with dark grey grease, on Chep’s bare torso and left a large diagonal smear from shoulder to hip. Presh came over and put dirty hand prints on Chep’s face and bottom. Chep didn’t flinch but gazed into Presh’s eyes with good humour.

“I was asking for it, wasn’t I?” commented Chep. “Let’s crack on so that we can have that shower sooner.” They did just that. Everything went smoothly and they were ready for work the next morning.

* * * * *

Weeks later, Bkeisei and Chep were preparing food in the kitchen. Since they moved in, they had managed to grow seven pendulic vines in the garden. Now, they had harvested the quick-growing fruits and were cutting them up. Some would be eaten tonight while the rest would be frozen for later. They had to work quickly because Criq and Presh would be home soon, hungry and impatient for dinner.

“Rocket ship,” said Chep, holding up a pendulic fruit that did indeed look like that. “Have you got any that look like something else?”

“Rageush with only two legs,” said Bkeisei. “You have to squint a little to see it.” Chep shook her head.

“Fine, you have to squint a lot,” said Bkeisei. “Or you could use your fertile imagination.”

“Pathetic,” said Chep. “Here’s a castle tower with an oval dome on top.”

“You win,” said Bkeisei. “We could use that one to defend the Realm!” They continued chopping, clearing, boxing and freezing. Minutes later, they were nearly finished. Bkeisei reached for the last fruit and stopped in his tracks. He put it on the work top.

“You may recognise this,” he said. “I certainly did.”

“Mother of mercy, it looks just like ... like ... my ...,” spluttered Chep.

“Yes, it’s utterly uncanny,” said Bkeisei. “It even has that little nodule on the edge.” They both stared at it for a moment.

“Leave it intact,” said Chep. “It will take pride of place on top of the pie.”

“I wouldn’t have it any other way,” said Bkeisei. “Flaunt it, I say!” Swiftly, they assembled the pie and put it in the oven, hoping that the wonder fruit would hold its shape in the heat. Fortunately, it did and it caused great mirth at dinner.

Later that evening, Criq, Presh and Bkeisei went to bed while Chep lay on the couch. She had eaten a large portion of pie and digestion was taking longer than usual. She drifted off to sleep for about two hours and then woke up quite suddenly. She looked at the clock and it was 01.09 hours. She lay there gazing at the ceiling, which was quite old and had various little stains on it. She could repaint it later, she told herself. There was a very quiet sound being made by something quite close to her. It wasn’t in front of the couch but to the side or behind. Slowly and carefully, she sat up and looked to her left. A small black round shape darted across the floor, almost faster than she could perceive it. She stood up and glimpsed it again, hurtling behind the couch and out of the door. It was faster than any animal that she knew. It had no legs that she could see. What should she do? This thing was tiny, only the size of a gavio, yet it seemed to roll like a living marble. It shouldn’t exist. Was this a dream? She was fairly sure that she was awake. It was probably some kind of rare animal but she wasn’t certain. For safety, she decided to go upstairs to sleep with the others. On the way, she searched for any sign of strange things rolling around on the floor but there was nothing. She undressed, crept into bed and spooned with Criq for a sense of security. In the morning, she told the others about it. They were intrigued, of course.

“I see things sometimes,” said Presh. “I’ve been here a little longer than you three, so I’m more used to it. There are little dark shapes that appear briefly in my peripheral vision. When I turn to look at them, they disappear. I thought that they were gavioes at first but they moved differently and they were extremely fast. You were lucky to see that one twice, Chep.”

“Are we dealing with the supernatural here?” asked Criq.

“It would appear so,” replied Presh. “Whatever they are, they seem to be harmless, so we probably shouldn’t worry about them.”

“I wonder if they are secret spy machines, sent in by the government to keep tabs on us,” said Bkeisei. “I’ve heard rumours about those.”

“Could be aliens too,” added Criq. “Don’t count them out. They come down here, abducting vulnerable people and doing all sorts to them.”

“Don’t forget the reverse burglars,” said Presh. “They whisper flattering phrases in my ears when you’re not here.” Criq chuckled.

“I could rig up a trap if you like,” suggested Bkeisei. “It would be interesting to catch one of these mysterious black balls.” The others thought that that was a good idea, so Bkeisei began to think about trap designs and locations.

“How about a psychic?” asked Chep. “If these things are supernatural, we need a spiritual expert, not a gadget.”

“I don’t feel threatened by black balls,” said Presh. “As soon as I do, I’ll contact a psychic straight away. How do you feel, everyone?” Only Chep felt a little apprehensive at present.

“I tell you what, Chep,” said Presh. “I don’t want you to be scared. If we have one more sighting of these things, I’ll call in the spirit-talkers. In the mean time, give Bkeisei’s trap a chance.”

“Alright, that sounds fair,” said Chep. “I’ll be brave. With any luck, these balls will roll away and we’ll be safe again.” The quartet went on with their normal lives.

* * * * *

Further weeks went by and the quartet settled into a pleasant routine of steady work, regular socialising, satisfying meals, periodic outings and punctual bedtimes. The black balls didn’t return, as far as they knew, so Bkeisei’s trap sat uselessly in a corner. They could have spent more time out and about - involved in different activities for a change - but the lure of Presh’s ultra-homely house kept them anchored to the area most of the time. They noticed more and more instances where things went right for them in and around the Pede Noctic property. Chairs would be positioned exactly right so that they didn’t sit down on the arm rests accidentally. Dust and dirt levels were much lower than would usually be expected. Small items would be very easy to find. Dropped items rarely broke and hardly ever bounced under furniture. Temperatures remained comfortable most of the time, despite outside heat waves and cold spells. Food crops grew easily in the garden most of the year, so the quartet had baskets full of their own produce every month, with minimal effort. When one set of plants finally withered, they tore them up, composted them, put new seeds in the same soil and started to reap another harvest within three weeks. Of course, the sub-tropical conditions favoured continuous plant growth. They had to vary the crops so that key nutrients were not depleted. Still, they were increasingly impressed at the prodigious fertility of their little plot. It was saving them hundreds of credits per year in food bills.

Other people noticed the attraction of the house. Children and young adults tended to cluster around it, playing and generally having fun. However, they knew that they shouldn’t misbehave or stay too long. It was a small town, so any misdemeanours would soon be traced back to the perpetrators, who would be disciplined promptly. Work colleagues liked to visit and stay fairly late into the evening. Many good friendships developed and this, in turn, led to improvements in the careers of Bkeisei, Presh, Chep and Criq. They were given more contracts and Criq even had a promotion, so more money became available. They were careful not to take on too much, though, since home life was so important to them. They didn’t need to become big shots. It was just as well, because then the family visits began. Presh’s parents Jivlum and Dirish started the trend, coming to stay for two nights about six months after the quartet had moved in together. They liked it so much that they wanted regular stays. They mentioned their good experience to the surviving parents of Criq, Bkeisei and Chep, who all asked to visit in due course. They were impressed and wanted to return later. These visits meant more work for the quartet but, as with most things in the house, it was easy to manage.

“I love your apron, Presh,” said Criq’s mother Pkana one day as she ate lunch with her partner Kefret at the quartet’s house. “It’s practical yet decorative and there’s a wonderful picture of a bobingya flower in full bloom on the front.” Her hands were full with plates but Presh still managed to turn and give everyone a view of the apron for a moment. Then, she took the plates into the kitchen for washing up.

“There are letters under the flower,” said Pkana. “O.F.Y.P. What do they mean?”

“Erm, ‘Out for you to, er...’,” replied Presh hesitantly. “I can’t remember the last word. Isn’t that odd? Chep, do you recall ...?”

“Don’t put me on the spot!” said Chep as she sat between Pkana and Kefret. They looked at her quizzically. Her mind whirred as she tried to invent an alternative meaning for the very risqué acronym.

“I’m sorry but I can’t think of the appropriate word,” she said after a few moments. Family visits threw up some unexpected challenges.

“It’s a corporate thing,” said Criq, coming to her rescue. “The apron was a freebie from one of my business conferences. It means ‘Officially for your policy’. It was a slogan for the Knowhorn Corporation three years ago. It didn’t catch on and was dropped after only a few months. Also, the bosses preferred a picture of a majestic rhinophalum to this picture of a bobingya. What we have here is a beautiful marketing failure, isn’t that right Presh?”

“The apron, yes,” said Presh gratefully. “Does anyone want seconds or shall I put the leftovers away for later?”

“We are sated, aren’t we?” said Kefret, putting his hands on his belly. “I could eat a bit more but I’d feel over-stuffed and my membrane would pop out. Keep those leftovers for later, Presh.”

“That meal was fantastic,” said Pkana. “I’m so proud of you four and what you’ve achieved this year. You’re practically smallholders as well as being company stalwarts. You don’t seem to be too fatigued by it all, either.”

“We’re still young,” said Bkeisei. “We’re also very lucky; that much is evident. Everything’s been falling into place for us.”

“Any plans for a family?” asked Kefret. “It looks to me like you’re in an ideal position for it. Seize the moment while you still can, if that’s what you want.”

“That’s the plan,” said Chep. “That’s why we’re all living together in one superb house, making ample income to raise offspring.”

“Any progress on that front?” asked Pkana.

“We’re definitely trying,” said Presh, sitting down next to Pkana. She had left her apron in the kitchen.

“We’re not stinting in that department,” said Criq, leaning back in his chair.

“Nothing’s happened yet,” said Chep. “The doctors say that we’re fine.” She didn’t know what more to say.

“I guess that you’re doing all you can,” said Kefret. “Don’t worry about it. Criq and his sisters took their sweet time to appear, I can tell you. It’s a very common situation.”

“It’s this place!” Chep blurted out suddenly. “I know that it’s excellent but I have a growing feeling that I’m being watched all the time! There are invisible eyes scrutinising our every move! It’s putting me on edge. I can’t relax completely.”

“Really?” queried Pkana, immediately concerned. “Do the rest of you feel the same?”

“I do,” said Presh. “I’m not as worried about it as Chep but I’m worried that she’s worried.”

“We’ve all felt it,” said Bkeisei. “Criq and I are doing our very best to reassure the ladies. We’ve scoped the whole place for surveillance devices. Criq borrowed a set of scanners from a special supplier in the capital but we still found nothing.”

“I know this is an ideal home and we find it incredibly hard to break away but one day we might have to do it,” said Criq. “If our two gals are even slightly anxious, this place is no good for us. We have to put ourselves first.”

“I know people who could help,” said Pkana, playing one of her trump cards. “They’re not well known to the public but they’re three of the best in their field. I know them through my club, the Crone Ease Mutual. Their names are Gola, Bula and Shtetba. They’re psychics.”

“That’s just what you wanted earlier, Chep,” said Bkeisei. “To be honest, I have been reluctant to delve into that area. It’s virtually impossible for a layperson to judge these so-called psychics. Perhaps, with three that are highly recommended by Pkana, we can finally have some success.”

“Give me their number,” said Presh without any prevarication. “I’ll call them right away.” She made an appointment. The three psychics agreed to visit in two days’ time, after they had prepared themselves. Life went on as normal in the house. Presh, Criq and Bkeisei pampered Chep a little more than usual and she slept well.

* * * * *

Bula found herself in a lucid dream from which she couldn’t escape. At first, she was surrounded by mist and haze. As minutes passed, the view cleared and Bula could see that she was in the attic of a strange house. There were miscellaneous objects scattered around, including children’s toys that had been popular about fifteen years before. She looked out of a small window and saw an unfamiliar townscape at dusk. Judging from the trees, she was in a warm northern settlement. She wondered how she could leave this gloomy loft. She went over to the hatch and tried to open it but her hands kept disappearing whenever she tried to use them. Being experienced, she had many techniques to crack open altered states of consciousness. At present, she was intrigued by her predicament and decided to play along. Concentrating, she made herself insubstantial and then sank through the attic floor into a bedroom. It was fairly large with facilities for four. It was reasonably tidy but there was a proliferation of small items building up in cupboards, closets, boxes and simple stacks on the floor. More were arranged on dressing tables, including a sizeable collection of electrical tools with multiple speeds. These people were clearly living a full life. On the other side of the room was a large hot tub with four seats. Judging by the watermarks and footprints on the tiled surround, this tub was also well used.

There were voices downstairs on the ground floor. Bula left the bedroom and went across the landing, passing a neat little guest room, a W.C. and a box room that was in the process of being sorted out. She drifted down the stairs and into the hall, where she saw some lightweight jackets hanging up and a walking stick resting against the wall in a corner. These were familiar somehow but her brain wasn’t recalling details very well in this dream, so she couldn’t identify them. She passed through the hall and into the lounge, where a group of ten people were standing in a circle and facing inwards. Three of them were chanting prayers to the Almighty Furk and His Blessed Minyans. The other people were staying quiet and trying to be sincere.

“Bula, I didn’t know that you were stuck here too,” said a voice from behind her. She turned around and there was Gola, looking a little fearful.

“Gola!” said Bula, relieved to see one of her psychic partners. She managed to hug him since they were on the same frequency.

“Have you seen Shtetba?” asked Gola. “Generally, she finds us when we become lost like this.”

“Not yet,” said Bula. “Do you have any idea why we’re here? The last thing that I remember is dozing off in my cabin, just before I was due to come to Presh’s house. I knew that I shouldn’t sleep but I couldn’t help myself.”

“I was in my carriage, starting off towards Pede Noctic, when I blacked out,” said Gola. “The next thing that I knew, I was in the basement below, among the rusty, dusty detritus of someone’s life.”

“Maybe this is Presh’s house,” speculated Bula. “One of those young women could be her.” She pointed to the two girls.

“Be still my beating heart!” said Gola. “Rarely have I seen such beauty! If only I was fifty years younger and also not dreaming...”

“In the interests of balance, I’d like to say the same thing about those two lads next to them,” said Bula. “I’d swap them for a thousand spirits any day!”

“Who are the other people?” asked Gola.

“The old couple on the right resemble one of the lads,” said Bula. “I presume that they’re his parents.”

“I can’t see the faces of these three pensioners,” said Gola. “I’ll go into the circle for a look. No one can see or hear us so it doesn’t matter where I go.” He did so and was stunned. After a few moments, he beckoned Bula over.

“It’s us!” he said. “That’s you, me and Shtetba!”

“This can’t be right,” said Bula. “I have to do something about it. I’m jumping in. No one’s taking my body.” She tried to re-enter her body but couldn’t latch on. Gola also tried and failed to take his own body back.

“Ah, here’s where the action is,” said a familiar voice from the left. “Are you having difficulties? I was wandering around the garden for a while before I realised that I could enter the house.”

“Shtetba, thank goodness you’ve arrived!” said Gola. “Unfortunately, we seem to be in a very sticky situation. We might actually be dead. Our bodies are being controlled by others.” He gazed into his oblivious, physical eyes and held his spirit head in his spirit hands. Their predicament was dire.

“Right you three, it’s time to go,” said a gruff voice from behind them. It was the tenth person in the circle, a middle-aged man of nondescript appearance.

“What?” exclaimed Gola. “Who are you to take us anywhere?”

“Never you mind,” said the man. “Say goodbye to your old lives. Your time’s up. You’re moving on.”

“No way!” said Shtetba forcefully. “You’ll be sorry that you messed with us. We have powers!” Focusing her strength, she transcended the barrier between dream and reality, grabbed a large mirror from the wall and threw it hard at the man. It passed right through him and shattered noisily on the floor behind. Bula seized a heavy metal statuette and flung it but it had no effect either. Gola generated a small bolt of lightning and fired it at the man. Even that did nothing to stop him. The other ordinary people in the room screamed, shouted and fled to the garden in terror. The physical bodies of Gola, Bula and Shtetba, possessed by foreign spirits, remained standing and praying.

“Playtime’s over,” said the unknown man. Using vast reserves of energy and influence, he dragged the spirits of Gola, Bula and Shtetba to another realm, from which they would never return.

“Oh Furk, oh Furk, oh Furk!” said Chep as she cowered with the others at the far end of the garden. “I knew it! I just knew that there was something here! It’s evil, evil, evil ...” She buried her face in Criq’s chest and sobbed loudly. They all hugged each other for reassurance.

“The psychics are still in there!” said Presh. “Shouldn’t we go back in and try to rescue them? They could be killed by flying objects!”

“So could we,” said Pkana. “Stay here. It’s senseless for all of us to die. Those three know what they’re doing.” The six of them waited anxiously to see what would happen next. Several minutes later, Gola pushed his way through the tall bean-stems and reached them.

“I would like to offer my most sincere apologies for that dangerous incident,” he said. “As I explained earlier, cleansings can sometimes be unpredictable. That was one of the most remarkable events that I have ever seen during a cleansing.” Bula and Shtetba appeared behind him, brushing leaves and beans from their head noddles.

“Is it over?” said Chep. “Has that thing gone? I’m scared to death!”

“It has completely gone!” said Shtetba brightly. “It was a tough one but we’re some of the best in the business. It was no match for us!”

“We called down the Minyans and they dragged it away, yelling and cursing,” said Bula. “The house feels even nicer now. Come and experience it for yourself.” Slowly, the nine people made their way back along the garden path and into the lounge.

“This place is all yours now,” said Gola softly. “You can do what you want in it with no fear at all.”

“That’s tremendous news!” said Bkeisei. “I now need not fear offering everyone a refreshing beverage. What would you all like?” He went to the kitchen and brought out whatever food and drink was required. Criq went to survey the damage. The mirror had been smashed comprehensively with the glass in smaller pieces than he would have expected. The metal figurine had dented a wooden table and embedded itself in the wall. He pulled it out. The lightning had splintered and blackened the side of a cupboard but had not started a fire, luckily. This was probably just a small taste of what that invisible creature could do. Admittedly, the house did feel free of negative influences but tangible evidence of clear danger increased Criq’s doubts about the viability of the house as a family home.

“If you have any further trouble with spirits in this house, call us as soon as you can,” said Shtetba. “We’ll come back and throw them out pronto. If we’re not available, we can send some of our equally capable mediums to do the job. Anyway, we’ve had our drinks and now we should leave you to enjoy your home again.” The three impostor psychics said their goodbyes and departed. They would continue to play their parts in the community and monitor events for their masters.

“I’m so relieved that that’s over,” said Presh. “It was an itch that we couldn’t scratch, wasn’t it gang?!”

“It was so moidering,” agreed Bkeisei. “Thank Furk for Gola’s crew! Oh, and I shouldn’t forget Pkana’s invaluable tip about them.” He raised his glass to toast their success. The others did likewise, with varying degrees of enthusiasm.

“I don’t know,” said Pkana. “There was something off about those psychics. I’d met them many times before but tonight they behaved a little differently. They were more polite and less earthy in their humour. It’s like they’d taken a long course of etiquette or were acting out roles.”

“Please don’t worry the youngsters, love,” said Kefret. “Those three seemed fine to me. They performed marvellously, given the circumstances.” Pkana decided not to discuss the matter further because she didn’t want to scare her treasured son Criq and his adorable partners.

“You know, we’ve stayed long enough,” she said. “I don’t think that we should impose on you any further. Kefret, pack our case and we’ll leave these brave lads and lasses to their own devices.” Kefret groaned, got to his feet, stretched and headed upstairs. Old age was not being particularly kind to him. Chep went with him to help. She wanted to do something to take her mind off the night’s ghostly fright. Soon, Criq’s parents were driving themselves home.

“I tell you what, I’m really looking forward to work tomorrow,” said Criq after waving his parents off. “I need a big distraction to help me forget that exorcism.” He put the metal statuette on the low table at the side of his chair. It still had a thick, jagged ring of plaster around it. The others looked at it. The damage to their home was relatively minor but it had been a challenge to their entire way of life.

“You’re making a statement with that statue, aren’t you?” said Presh, staring at him.

“The ghost made the statement,” said Criq, returning the stare. “We just stood there and then we ran. We had no better response.”

“Is that so?” said Presh. “Well, what if you’re wrong about that? What if we can say something? What if we can stand up to these things? I want to do that. I want to tell it to go to hell. It’s not getting our house. It’s not taking our home. This is OURS!” She was incensed and got to her feet.

“Presh, calm down,” said Bkeisei. “It’s the vornafa talking.”

“No, this is me,” she snapped. “I’m Presh, I’m real, this is our house and no damned soul-sucking FREAK is going to steal it from us. Are you with me?!” Chep got up and clung to her female partner, partly in an attempt to calm Presh and partly because she was still terrified. Together, they stared at Criq and he stared back. Was it his imagination or were the shadows behind Presh lengthening and deepening? Her presence was being magnified in some immeasurable way. Criq was alarmed but, nevertheless, he was drawn to her. He rose and stood next to her. Unexplained lights glittered in her eyes. With whom had he fallen in love? Was she actually a goddess?

“I’M WITH YOU!” he shouted, his doubts disappearing in the blaze of her magic.

“SO AM I!” said Bkeisei loudly, hurrying over.

“I LOVE YOU ALL!” yelled Chep, bathing in the renewal of their devotion. They embraced again and vowed to continue their lives as fearlessly as possible.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:25 pm

It was late in the afternoon and the sun was sinking grandly into the east, spreading its glow across the geological wonders of the Kavlind Faultlands. The whole area was criss-crossed with dozens of ancient, intersecting fault lines. These had been created by earthquakes caused by the competing pulls of the two moons, Mejora and Menora. In a complex celestial dance, the moons had pulled the planet’s crust in many directions through the ages. In the distant past, they had been near to the world and had had a greater influence on tectonic plate movements. They had been able to fracture the crust quite severely in weak spots like Kavlind. Now, though, they were further away: their power had waned and earthquakes were considerably weaker. Still, their movements had left stupendous monuments like these Faultlands, which were studded with irregular volcanic features. Periodically, lava had poured or even exploded out of multiple rifts, leaving the region coated in thick deposits of new rock and ash. The forces of erosion had removed some of this material, leaving exposed strata that were broken, contorted and jumbled. Volcanism had made the land fertile, so there were rich and diverse ecosystems here. The terrain was rugged, which meant that agriculture, industry, settlement and travel were difficult to achieve. In the relative absence of those things, the area was largely unspoilt. This attracted a steady stream of tourists.

“The fruit on this tree is peculiar,” observed Presh, lifting her staff. “It wriggles like it has a life of its own. Mayhap it is full of worms and tails?” She prodded the peculiar fruit with her staff.

“I can see how you are confused,” said Bkeisei. “I don’t look like the standard produce of a tree but, let me assure you, I am exceedingly fruity!”

“You do get into the maddest positions, don’t you?” said Chep, standing next to Presh. “First, you were mobbed by a shoal of fish in that river on the second day. Then, on the sixth day, you slid down a clay bank and landed in a marsh. Now, you’re hanging from a tree by your backpack.”

“I was coming down the steep hill when this bare branch went through the straps,” explained Bkeisei. “It was a freak accident. I never was much of a country boy.”

“The fruit has some little appendages,” said Presh, poking Bkeisei lightly between the legs. “Are they caused by disease, parasites or mutation? Vivisection will provide the answer.”

“Get me down, you cruel minx,” said Bkeisei. “I want to reach the next hostelry by nightfall this time. The managers don’t like it if we’re late. Besides, my arms are going numb.” Presh put down her staff and clutched Bkeisei’s right leg tightly. Chep did the same with his left leg. They pushed upwards simultaneously, lifting him half a metre and allowing him to free his arms from the straps. Carefully, the two women lowered him to the ground. Presh used her staff again to slide the backpack along the branch and let it drop into Bkeisei’s waiting arms.

“Well done,” complimented Bkeisei. “Thank you very much. That could have been dangerous if you two hadn’t acted promptly. The heroines have saved the clueless townie once again!”

“You’re learning,” said Chep. “In fact, we all are but at different rates. Now, where shall we sit while we wait for Criq to return? Knobbly rocks over there, fallen tree on the right...”

“Finely carved, public, wooden bench behind us,” said Presh. “No brainer.” They all sat down and relaxed. Hill walking was tiring, even on small hills.

“That fault cluster is surreal,” said Bkeisei casually as he looked into the distance. “It’s like some giant man...”

“Or woman,” added Presh.

“Took his or her mighty chopper and...” Bkeisei tried to continue.

“Probably man, actually,” said Presh, correcting herself.

“...hacked at the hills until they resembled a pile of broken cakes with sweet sauces oozing out of them,” said Bkeisei fancifully. “Hmm, I’ve started mentioning food. I must be getting hungry.”

“I want cakes,” said Chep. “Give me cakes, Bkeisei. Give me all your cakes. You’ve unleashed my ravenous appetite.”

“Alright Missy, let’s raid my backpack,” said Bkeisei, delving in. “Here’s a fezberry smanch from the village bakers four kilometres back. Under that is a Gintsblurg Swirl from the Gintsblurg Mall seven kilometres back. Between the dirty socks and the damp washcloth is a well-wrapped, family-sized slab of Deadly Satisfaction from our kitchen at home. Are you sure that I can’t interest you in a piece of fruit?”

“Quite sure,” said Chep, unwrapping the fezberry smanch and demolishing it with her mouth. Her lips were soon coated with pinkish-red fezberry conserve.

“Fezberry is a fruit, you know,” commented Bkeisei, shaking his head. “Anything for you, Presh?”

“Not right now,” said Presh. “I just want to sit here and drink in the scenery. I’m glad we came here. Pede Noctic is fine and dandy but our origins are in the great outdoors.” After several minutes of landscape admiration, a familiar figure approached from the nearest small valley. Criq had returned, bringing fresh water and bounty from nature’s larder. He handed out water bottles to his partners and then showed them what he had found under a bush.

“This lumpy mass doesn’t look special but it’s one of the most nutritious vegetables in the world,” he said. “We can even eat it raw, as long as we get rid of the soil on it.” He cut off a section with his sharp knife, peeled it and gave it to Presh. This was new to her. She tasted it.

“It’s like gabioux only with more flavour,” she said. “I love it. We should have more of it. Why isn’t it in the shops?”

“Unfortunately, it can’t be cultivated,” said Criq. “It will only grow in specific conditions. There have to be particular animals, plants and microbes around it. Botanists still don’t understand all the details. Gabioux, by contrast, can be grown in most soils.”

“You’ll have to show me how to find this stuff,” said Presh. “I may start craving it later.”

“Zelok root mass is a secret country delicacy,” said Criq. “My folks taught me where to seek it. Soon, you’ll be the crazy lady scrabbling under bushes for gastronomic treasure.” Presh giggled.

“Did anything else happen while I was away?” asked Criq.

“We were all busy studying the rock formations in the fault cluster,” said Bkeisei nonchalantly. “Nothing else important occurred.”

“That’s a half-truth! Your boyfriend here got hung up in that tree by his backpack,” said Chep. “He was helpless and hurting. We had to lift him down.”

“Oh, poor you!” said Criq to Bkeisei. “What awful luck you’ve been having. Let me kiss it better.” He moved closer to Bkeisei but then, at the last moment, he stooped down and kissed the backpack.

“I won’t let the bad man hurt you again, backpack!” joked Criq. While he was there, he sniffed it.

“There is a strong smell of cake here,” he noted. “Someone has made a fresh cake kill. Who was it?”

“Me,” said Chep, putting up her hand. “I devoured them. I am a simple cakevore and I don’t know any better. What can you do, eh?” She regarded him with half-closed eyes.

“Ah, there are the bloody remains,” said Criq, pointing at the empty wrappers in her lap. “Your face is coated with gore. I’ll have to clean it off for you.” He did so with his tongues.

* * * * *

That night, Criq lay awake thinking. The bed was very comfortable. The room was warm. They had all eaten well. The hostelry staff had been most courteous. By rights, he should have been asleep by now but there had been so much going on in their lives recently. After the spiritual cleansing of the house, the quartet had discussed their next moves. Work and the old routine had lost their appeal, at least temporarily. A break was needed: they had agreed to book four weeks of coordinated leave. The easy option was to stay at home and go out on day trips. However, despite the continuing allure of the house, they had felt that a longer vacation was necessary at this point. Chep and Bkeisei had suggested a foreign holiday, perhaps on the tropical island of Diban Glyst. They had shown Criq and Presh brochures. The island was clearly very impressive but Criq hadn’t fancied it. Presh hadn’t either, since she had previously been there as a little girl. She’d seen the sights, enjoyed the heat, tried the activities and experienced the sicknesses already.

“Why don’t you want to go, Criq?” Bkeisei had asked. “With modern stratocoasters, the world is our oyster. What’s stopping you?”

“I’m tired of machines,” Criq had answered. “Just look at them. This one looks like a monstrous, armoured, man-eating fylit.” He stabbed his finger at a picture of a stratocoaster in a brochure.

“Every day, we use machines,” he had continued. “More arrive every day and advances are continuous. They’re gradually taking over our lives. Some of them are watching us all the time, with their cameras, sensors and artificial intelligence. I don’t want to fly in a huge machine tomorrow, from a stratohub crammed with machines to another stratohub crammed with machines. I want a more natural experience. I want to go on a walking holiday.”

“Where shall we walk?” Presh had asked.

“The Old Bluegrove Trail has just been reopened!” Chep had said. “We could easily walk it and come back in four weeks. There are places to stay every ten kilometres or so.”

“I remember the news reports now,” Bkeisei had commented. “The Trail was shamefully neglected for decades since it was bypassed by the Z 423 highway. Now, though, enthusiasts with sponsorship have repaired it. Walking the Trail sounds like an excellent idea. There are dozens of interesting places to visit along the way.” They had all agreed on the Bluegrove plan. Now here they were, walking the Trail. So far, it had been wonderful. Criq had been able to use his rural knowledge to find food, make camp fires, locate better paths and keep everyone safe. There were occasional dangers from livestock, poisonous creatures, cliffs, marshy areas and unscrupulous locals. Most importantly, the quartet had been able to avoid some of those damned machines, so Criq was fairly satisfied. He was finally moving toward sleep and turned onto his right side to get comfortable. In front of his face was an alarm clock. It had a glowing dial with cartoonish eyes and a wide grin. This novelty contraption was some sort of ironic joke, he thought. Here was another little machine that seemed to be watching him. Since he was on holiday, he had no need for stupid early wake-up calls. The urge to throw it out of the window was strong but he knew that that would only cause him trouble. He put it into the little drawer immediately below in the night stand and turned onto his left side. Now he was facing Bkeisei, who was motionless and in the land of nod. That was much better. Bkeisei was the dearest man Criq had ever known. He loved him with all his heart. Sleep came easily a minute later.

* * * * *

Presh was woken the next morning by a hand on her hip. It felt quite small. Was it Chep’s hand? She opened her eyes and saw that it wasn’t Chep but rather a girl accompanied by a boy, aged about seven and five respectively. They must have climbed into the big bed at some time during the night. Presh knew that this could be awkward. She had to play it delicately.

“Hello,” she whispered, still lying down. “Are you awake?” They looked like two little Minyans.

“It’s time to get up,” she continued. “You have another lovely day starting.” They heard her and began to stir. Criq, Bkeisei and Chep did likewise.

“Whus goin’ on?” asked Bkeisei drowsily, turning over.

“Who are you?” asked the boy, rubbing his eyes. “Where are Mummy and Daddy and Grenlom and Drishtar?”

“I think that you got into our bed by mistake,” said Presh softly. “Do you know where your room is? Perhaps it’s close to this one.”

“I guess it is but actually I like it here,” said the girl. “You’re a pretty lady. You’re a nice lady. You smell nice, like flowers.”

“Your fans are becoming bolder!” said Bkeisei, smiling.

“You’re a pretty man,” commented the girl. “All of you are pretty. Can I stay here?”

“You hear that?” whispered Bkeisei to Criq. “She thinks we’re pretty!”

“She hasn’t seen me in the latest fashions yet!” replied Criq.

“I’m sorry but you shouldn’t stay here too long,” said Chep, struggling to rise since she was sandwiched between Presh and Bkeisei. “We’re not supposed to keep you here. You should go back to your family.” The girl sighed and didn’t move. The boy sat up and slowly lowered himself onto the floor.

“I don’t know why but I really wanted to come into this room,” said the girl. “It just felt better than our room. I wanted to feel good. My legs hurt a bit because we walked a lot yesterday.”

“Mine too!” said Presh. “We have something in common already. If I give you my elecode, you can get in touch with us later.” The girl nodded.

“Always tell your family when you talk to people on the network,” warned Presh. “You should keep yourself safe.” She hopped out of bed, dug her purse out of her backpack and gave the girl a card bearing her contact details. Just then, voices called from the next room.

“Mummy wants us,” said the girl. “I suppose we have to go. Come on Cteereth, let’s get back to our room.” She got up quickly.

“You said that this was our room,” Cteereth protested. “You lied. We nearly lost Mummy and Daddy. I’m telling on you.”

“Bye bye,” said the girl to Presh. “I’ll talk to you later, after this holiday.”

“OK, I’m looking forward to it!” said Presh with a smile. Cteereth marched out of the room, pulling his big sister with him. She took one last glance at Presh and her group. They seemed like the ideal quartet to her. The memory of them was etched on her mind.

“You handled that well,” said Criq quietly.

“I’ve had practice,” said Presh, turning to face him. “Some of the people I work with are rather childish and badly behaved at times. I have to sweet-talk them and be patient with them.”

“I also suspect that this whole incident has made you somewhat broody,” said Criq, knowing her well.

“Like you wouldn’t believe!” she said.

“And what are we going to do about it?” asked Criq.

“Bkeisei, bolt the door,” said Presh. “We don’t want any more kids sneaking in.” She pulled off her night dress.

“I’m still a bit sleepy,” said Chep, scratching an itch on her back.

“That’ll soon pass,” said Bkeisei, sliding the bolt firmly into its hole and leading her back to the bed.

* * * * *

When they could all walk again, Presh’s group came downstairs for lunch. They had missed breakfast and worked up quite an appetite.

“Well, that’s half the day gone,” said Criq. “We were supposed to be seeing the ancient mill at Daahan round about now. Still, that pales in comparison to the alternative that we chose.”

“All the walking and other exercise has boosted our stamina,” said Bkeisei, eating some free shev sticks from the bowl in the centre of their table. “I’ve never lasted quite that long before.”

“I feel different,” said Presh. “Perhaps it’s worked this time and I’ll have a little Minyan of my own.”

“That wouldn’t be a surprise,” said Chep. “I might be in the club too. Four times each, guys: you’d better go and familiarise yourselves with the baby stores!”

“Do we have to walk anywhere today?” asked Presh. “I think it would be better if we stayed here and gathered our strength.”

“You’ll get no arguments from us,” said Criq. “We can just put our feet up in the lounge, read and then doze. There’s a selection of thrillers on the top shelf that interest me.”

“You can’t get enough thrills, can you?” remarked Bkeisei with a grin. After lunch, the quartet went to the lounge and examined the eight shelves of books and magazines available. Bkeisei was first to choose a magazine and made himself comfortable, lying on a sofa.

“You’ve chosen animal photography,” noted Chep. “I’ll read that one after you.”

“What about the rest of you?” asked Bkeisei.

“Historical biography for me,” replied Criq, taking a book. “Thrillers can wait.”

“Interior decoration, darlings,” said Chep, plucking a slightly larger book from the bottom shelf.

“You like romances, don’t you Presh?” ventured Bkeisei.

“You mean the books? Not today,” she replied. She turned away from the shelves, went to Bkeisei and knelt by his side.“I have my own steamy romance going on.” She gazed into his eyes. They kissed passionately for a few minutes. Hands wandered across bodies and into shluks. It would have gone further but Criq coughed loudly as a warning. People were watching. Presh stood up slowly and stared back, silently daring anyone to say or do anything against the quartet. The onlookers turned away or moved on. Presh saw that Criq and Chep were sharing a couch. Chep’s head was next to Criq’s feet and vice versa. Both were reading their chosen publications. Presh wasn’t in the mood for reading but she wanted to share a couch.

“Bkeisei, if you wouldn’t mind, could you please move over a little?” she asked softly. He obliged immediately and she lay down beside him, resting her left arm on his chest. He was so warm and comforting that her eyes closed within two minutes.

“Hah, now it rains!” said Bkeisei, seeing drops appear on the skylight above. “We avoided it! We won’t have to get drenched out there!”

“I bet that our house arranged it!” murmured Presh. It was meant as a joke but could there be a grain of truth in it? She had reached the limits of wakefulness. The fatigue of walking, the dissipation of love-making and the digestion of lunch caused her to fall into a deep sleep, safe with her partners in the anonymity of a small rural hotel.

* * * * *

The next day, the quartet set out again, aiming to traverse the wide floodplain of the River Eck. The rain had stopped but there were boggy patches on the flat, low-lying ground. The four youngsters had to watch their step.

“Is this really the trail?” wondered Chep aloud. “What happened to the renovation around here?”

“Perhaps this was the best that they could do?” suggested Criq. “Anything more substantial might have disrupted the wetland ecosystem and would certainly have been very expensive.”

“What an eerie place,” said Bkeisei. “The mournful cries of the devams set my nerves on edge.”

“There’s no one around and we’re beset by deep mud all around,” said Presh. “Let’s pick our way through as quickly as we can. My map showed an old farm track on the left. We could try it.”

“I saw that but I didn’t like it,” said Chep. “It doesn’t get us any closer to the bridge. We can’t ford this river because it’s too deep. We have to head for the bridge.”

“Yeah, you’re right,” said Presh. “These farm tracks are made for the benefit of farmers, not trekkers. We would be wasting our time going that way.” They pressed on through the sodden plains, following obvious routes and occasional sign posts. High above, an aircraft cruised across the sky. They recognised it as a survey jet that was used by the government to map land uses and natural phenomena like droughts, wildfires, floods and storms. The ground around them was carpeted with a large variety of small plants. Judging from the scattered droppings, there were many small grazing animals around. As the quartet came closer to the bridge, they passed a farmer riding a large-wheeled power trike.

“He’s fit,” whispered Chep after the farmer had gone by. “He’s got sharp style too. His clothes looked fairly expensive and nearly new.”

“Now that you mention it, he didn’t look like a typical farmer,” said Criq. “He had a gym-toned body and his trike was high-spec. It even had a video camera on the front of the steering column.”

“I heard that rural criminals are an increasing problem,” said Presh. “Farmers have to try to gather evidence against them, if they can. Anyway, don’t worry about him: we’re on holiday.” They strode on, doing their best to avoid the acidic and alkaline slimes of some hedge and verge plants. They were nearly at the bridge when they were approached by some large animals, coming from behind a hedge.

“Back away!” warned Bkeisei.

“No wait, these beasts can be persuaded,” said Criq, stepping forward. “They’re only ordinary veyx but with extra leafeathers.” He was a little shaken by the suddenness of this encounter and the high stakes involved but he reached for the nearest shaggy creature’s head. His hand made contact with the snout and he used his highly developed finger muscles to communicate his harmlessness and friendliness. Within a minute, the beast was calmed. Thoughts of trampling the interlopers were forgotten.

“Move away calmly to the left,” whispered Criq. “We’re blocking their access to the hibude bushes behind us.” The quartet shuffled out of the way and skirted around the edge of the field.

“Furk, I’m glad that you’re a country boy,” said Chep. “You’re our guardian out here, aren’t you?”

“Apparently so,” said Criq, putting his arm around her shoulders and kissing her head noddles. “The most important thing is to keep calm and pay attention to one’s surroundings.” They reached the bridge and crossed it on the side path. The traffic on the road next to them was fairly heavy. Much of it consisted of automated trucks and cars. The cameras and sensors of those vehicles constantly scanned the area around them. The quartet looked at the vehicles and it seemed that they were being watched by dozens of machines, plus whoever was in those vehicles or tapping into those data feeds.

“Weird feeling,” said Chep. “You’re right about the machines, Criq. This road is a conveyor belt of eyes.”

“Yeah, but who’s going to bother viewing the footage?” said Presh. “No one has the time to waste.”

“The turning for the mill is coming up on the right,” said Bkeisei. “Let’s learn some more history!”

“Yay, history!” said Criq with an insincere tone. They turned onto the mill driveway and reached the substantial ruins just as midday arrived. They sat down at an outdoor dining table and unpacked their lunch, which they had bought from the previous hostelry. It was a sunny day but the wind blowing up the river was a fairly cool.

“It’s a big place,” remarked Bkeisei. “Bigger than I imagined. The main mill block is imposing enough but there are so many houses around it.” They continued eating, drinking and chatting until they ran out of supplies. Afterwards, they lay on the ground and looked at the clouds scudding past in the brisk breeze. It was a little damp but that was insignificant on a warm day. When they had relaxed enough, they went to look at the ruins more closely.

“So, this was actually the main town of the area, centuries ago,” read Criq from a notice board. “There were over five thousand people living here. Most of their food was processed at the mill, which had five wheel houses at its peak.”

“Daahan was founded roughly three and a half thousand years ago,” read Chep. “It grew from a hamlet to a town and thrived for nearly three thousand years. It survived so long because it was highly prized. No one could afford to destroy it. Even when it was going to be captured in war, the defenders didn’t demolish it because they knew that they would need it again in future.”

“It was also very lucky,” said Bkeisei, having researched the topic beforehand. “Some of the major wars bypassed it. There were more tempting targets in other regions. Also, for a long period there were few natural disasters, until the Great Flood nearly six hundred years ago. All the wheel houses were badly damaged. Every building in the town was inundated up to the first floor. The flood happened at night, so over three thousand people were drowned in their beds.” Presh, Criq and Chep were appalled.

“It makes me glad that we’re not spending the night here,” said Presh. “The thought of those poor people suffering in that flood is miserable. What happened after that?”

“The survivors saw it as the wrath of Furk,” continued Bkeisei. “They decided that it was time to move on. Some people couldn’t handle the trauma, so they committed suicide in the River Eck, which had just killed their relatives and friends. The rest of the people buried their dead on higher ground. It took weeks because the flood was slow to subside and then it was hard to extract the rotting corpses from the piles of wreckage. Many survivors moved to Griven Town, where we’re going this afternoon. Others scattered across the region. A few went abroad by ship, trying their luck in new lands. One adventurous man even discovered the Cylanian Islands on the equator. He had heard that floating branches often came from that direction. He followed the thin trail of branches, reached the islands and then made his fortune by exploiting their natural wealth. Of course, he and his followers ruined the place but modern people are doing their best to rebuild the ecosystem.”

“The mills were never rebuilt because steam power had arrived,” said Presh. “It was no longer necessary to live and work by the river. Griven Town took over as the mill town.” Bkeisei nodded. The quartet wandered around the ruined town. It was surprising that there were so many untouched artefacts here. Bkeisei explained that local people regarded the place as cursed and warned everyone not to disturb the ruins. Naturally, there were always some who disregarded such warnings. Daahan Town was being looted but rather slowly. More damage was being done by the elements. Frost shattered stone, rain washed things away, sunlight bleached and weakened exposed items, storms toppled old walls and a few smaller floods had undermined buildings, especially near the river. Presh held up a very old, discarded flask and imagined how it might have been to sit and drink here, in what seemed to be a tavern. Lives were shorter and harsher then, so people seized their days and made the most of them. At present she was doing the same, so she felt a kinship with these departed folk.

“This place should be preserved better,” she said as the group walked down what had been the main street. “It’s disrespectful to let it be worn down to nothing.”

“There is talk of setting up a body to care for our heritage sites,” said Criq. “Unfortunately, the cost is high and there are other important priorities. Who will pay to preserve unwanted places like this obsolete town?”

“I’d pay what I could afford,” said Chep. “However, many couldn’t and wouldn’t. It’ll be an uphill struggle to safeguard all these sites across the country.”

“The enthusiasts will just have to start small and build up,” said Bkeisei. “If we like, we can make donations after this holiday.” They all agreed, since it was such a romantic dream to honour the good people of the past. They continued to stroll around, investigating the side streets, the houses, the gardens and the outbuildings. The gardens had largely been taken over by dense woods but amazingly there were some fruit trees still alive on the edge of the woods. They were old but continued to bear fruit. Unfortunately, this year’s crop wasn’t yet ripe but the quartet were impressed that the life of Daahan Town wasn’t totally extinguished.

When they had explored the ruins quite thoroughly, the quartet continued towards Griven Town. Eschewing the road, they cut through fields of pasture. They avoided livestock and marsh as before. Two kilometres on, the land gradually rose and became drier, which made walking easier and quicker. When they were a kilometre from Griven Town, the quartet saw a curious device approaching. Criq used his small binoculars to identify it.

“This is getting ridiculous,” he muttered. “Another camera is on the way. First there was an aircraft, then a fake farmer, then a convoy of vehicles and now this.” Presh took the binoculars and looked for herself.

“That’s a street photomapper unicycle,” she said. “Why is it mapping an empty field? It’s bizarre.”

“We should report it as defective,” said Chep. “Perhaps we can catch it and take it to Griven Town.”

“Catch it?” echoed Criq. “Yes, that’s possible. First, we should put up our hoods.”

“Oh yes, we don’t know who’s watching,” said Bkeisei. “We don’t want to be accused of crimes against unicycles.” They all put up their hoods and started walking towards the automated unicycle as it criss-crossed the field taking pictures. It saw them coming and changed course to avoid them.

“We’ll have to stand still and wait for it to reach us,” said Criq. “Presh, hand me your staff.” She did so. The unicycle worked its way methodically across the land. As it came within reach, Criq suddenly placed the staff across its path. The unicycle was unable to avoid it. The hapless ground drone tumbled to a halt and Criq jumped onto it. Chep handed him a sock and he covered its camera with that.

“Let’s take a closer look,” said Criq. He found that he could unscrew the top casing immediately, which revealed some very complex mechanisms inside.

“Well, that’s extraordinary!” he said, raising his head to look at his partners.

“That’s what they call over-engineered, I believe,” said Presh. “I’m no expert but this drone doesn’t need so many moving parts. It looks military or something.”

“I went to a museum in Gloff City once,” said Chep. “I saw a big clock with hundreds of components. It looked like this, only a bit less confusing. Why don’t you unscrew that next section? Do you have a screwdriver?”

“Yes,” said Criq. “Bkeisei, hold this metal marvel while I dismantle it.” Together, they removed the top mechanism, which included the camera. As they disconnected some plugs and wires, the lower part of the unit appeared to power down.

“This will be interesting to pick apart, piece by piece,” said Criq, holding up his prize. “When we’re not doing other fun activities, of course.”

“I’m not sure that we should keep it,” said Bkeisei. “There’s probably a tracker in it.”

“I’ll try to take that out now,” said Criq. He laid a white towel on the ground and started removing pieces from the mechanism, dropping them onto the towel. There were hundreds of them. Luckily, they were quite easy to detach. Chep and Presh sat down and waited, watching to see what else would come along.

“Do you really know what you’re doing?” asked Chep after a few minutes.

“I’ve nearly finished,” said Criq. “This little piece seems to be the tracker. The casing has ‘Track’ printed on it.” He tossed that piece into the nearest hedge.

“Now you have a three-dimensional jigsaw,” said Bkeisei. “I don’t know if we can put all those pieces back together.”

“That’s not so important,” said Criq. “We’ve discovered that there’s this hi-tech surveillance going on. We don’t know where it originates. These pieces don’t look like any I’ve seen before.”

“Wrap them up and let’s go,” said Bkeisei, getting up. “I’ll just throw the rest of the unicycle into the hedge.” He reached down but, at that moment, the wheel started to move. They had assumed that the wheel was a rigid disc but now it flexed sharply and flipped onto its edge. Bkeisei pulled back his hands as the unpredictable machine revved its little engine and accelerated away. The wheel dragged the control column behind it.

“Archminyan of Clesht!” exclaimed Chep as the bisected machine sped away. “Scary tech, right?!”

“Time to move on,” said Presh, getting to her feet. “That’s enough property damage for today. Also, the machine could summon the authorities.” The quartet grabbed their things and went to Griven Town, where they spent a quiet night in a small hotel. They were remarkably well hidden down a back street, surrounded by several other buildings. Their room was dingy and threadbare but they didn’t care. Criq turned off any powered components from his haul and the quartet slept soundly.

* * * * *

“Alright, we’re going to push you off the edge Presh,” said Vimel with a serious tone.

“No mercy Presh,” said Raium.

“OK,” said Presh, tensing her limbs in readiness.

“Slide into oblivion!” exclaimed Vimel and Raium in unison. They launched Presh feet first down the steep chute on a low-friction mat. The drop was thrilling and it made Presh gasp with exhilaration. She gathered speed and then reached the first bend, which took her in a curve to the right. A few moments later, the next curve sent her back to the left. After a straight stretch there were three more curves, a series of mini curves, another straight, a final two curves and then the finish line. To slow her down, there was an upward slope followed by some very soft crash pad material. She came to a halt half buried in dried grass. Two safety technicians pulled her out, let her catch her breath, sent her to wait in a side area and repacked the grass for the next slider. Presh removed her helmet and body padding. Then she waited for the rest of the group to make the slide. Over the next thirty minutes, all seven of them arrived at the bottom.

“That was the fastest and longest slide I’ve ever experienced,” said Presh to Raium as they waited for the men to reach the bottom. “I’m so glad that we met you four in Brihi Village. You really know how to have fun around here.” She hugged Raium, who was unstrapping her knee pads.

“Think nothing of it,” said Raium. “We’ve been here before. We knew that Drincfuld Oblivion is the second longest slide in the country.”

“Aaaaaahhhh!” screamed Chep as she finished the slide and smacked into the grass pile. Two minutes later, she arrived in the waiting area, flushed and hyperventilating a little.

“Steady Chep,” said Vimel. “Lean forward a little. Regulate your breathing. Think calm thoughts.” Chep followed her instructions and was soon returning to normal.

“It was a wild ride,” said Criq as he rejoined the women. “Kudos!” He swiftly unbuckled his gear and left it in the hamper for reuse by other sliders.

“Vimel and Raium are proposing an evening meal at the Mayoral Hotel,” said Chep. “What do you say?”

“Oh yes, that would be great!” said Criq. “Extra company is most welcome. It’s hard to find any on a walking holiday, what with all the walking!” Bkeisei also agreed to go, along with Vimel and Raium’s partners Urlat and Neldo. They were a little tired after the uphill walk to the top of the slide but they would make the effort. All eight took the courtesy bus back to Brihi Village. On the way, some of them dozed while others viewed the rolling country scenery. Vimel pointed out a few interesting places but, unfortunately, none of them had time to visit those this summer. At Brihi they all went to their small hotel, where they had met the night before. They rested for a while, washed, used the launderette facilities, changed their clothes and listened to some radio programmes while they waited for the Mayoral Hotel restaurant to open. Raium telephoned ahead with their food and drink orders.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:27 pm

“Funniest or most embarrassing thing that happened to me at work?” reiterated Criq. “Well there was that naked protest against powdered dumbledoms.”

“Do tell!” said Vimel. “That sounds like a hot one!”

“Yeah, it was,” said Criq. “Sometimes I work in construction. It really helps for an architect/designer to experience what it’s really like to build structures from the foundations to the roof. It’s good exercise as well. Two years ago, I was helping to build a small factory near the centre of Durkas Tan. We had reached the second floor and were extending the scaffold to build the third when we were rudely interrupted by over a hundred naked people with slogans painted on their bodies. They were protesting about the Abbaddon scandal, where powdered dumbledoms were being mixed into animal feed. Dumbledoms are endangered.”

“Those poor gentle giants of the sea,” said Raium. “I donate to the cause regularly. Go on.”

“You can imagine the scene: we were working as usual when suddenly we were surrounded by nudity,” said Criq. “We had to stop, understandably. Moments later, vehicles full of reporters arrived. If you check the news archives, you can find pictures of me and my mates with those enthusiastic political strippers. We couldn’t escape because they were blocking the way to the ladder.”

“Brilliant!” said Neldo. “What happened in the end?”

“The police came and negotiated,” replied Criq. “The whole thing was over quite quickly. The protesters had made a very public point so their job was done, I guess. Some of them climbed back down the ladders. The police inflated a giant airbag under the scaffold, so some protesters jumped onto that to get down. We pushed a few, I must admit. We were young: we liked to touch skin! A few diehards handcuffed themselves to the scaffold and had to be cut free, which took a few more minutes. We had the tools right there.”

“Did the protest have an effect?” asked Urlat.

“In a way it did,” answered Criq. “However, the effect went two ways. They raised awareness of the plight of dumbledoms but they were protesting at the wrong factory. They should have climbed up the one being built on the other side of the street. Our factory was destined to make school uniforms. The media had a field day! The headlines were all about how painted nudity was the new school uniform.”

“Come to think of it, I remember that now,” said Raium. “I had half-forgotten it. There’s been so much news since then, it was pushed to the back of my mind.” She was too mortified to admit that she had been part of the protest but it was some consolation to have rediscovered one of the hunky workmen.

“Urlat?” asked Criq.

“I took my pet hurg to work,” said Urlat. “I was living on my own and there was no one to keep her company at home, so she stayed with me in the office. At first, she was well-behaved but then she started sneaking off when my attention was elsewhere. It transpired that she was stealing food from at least thirty different people in the building. Luckily, by that point I had started living with Vimel, Neldo and Raiun, so I could leave her with them after her scavenging was found out. She’s still a scavenger though. We have to lock the food cupboards at home. That reminds me, we have to get her out of kennels in five days. The hotel doesn’t allow hurgs, which is just as well.”

“She’s such a sweetie but she’s getting old now,” said Vimel. “Chep, what’s your anecdote?”

“This is a toe-curler,” said Chep. “I was working in a clothes shop a few years ago. One day, a customer waddled up and asked for directions to the cubicles. He was a foreign gentleman, from one of those underdeveloped countries in the northern hemisphere. It could have been Amho Rikar or at least one of those countries ending in ‘kar’. I pointed out the changing rooms and he waddled in that direction. I didn’t think any more about it until the afternoon when another customer complained. One of the changing cubicles had been used as a toilet and I had to clean it up. He had achieved a high level of splatter.”

“Aauuhh!” said Neldo, disgusted.

“It was a bad idea to use the same male and female symbols on the changing cubicles as on the toilets,” added Presh, having heard the story before. Chep nodded.

“My turn,” said Bkeisei. “I was nearly fired for helping to circulate pornography.”

“Oh, I haven’t heard this one before,” said Criq. “You never told us about it.”

“I’m not proud of it,” said Bkeisei. “All I did was forward some still pictures to a colleague. Unfortunately, he wasn’t very discreet. He circulated the pictures to a wide circle of friends. Eventually, my boss found out and traced it back to me. He gave me a stern warning and told me not to do it again or I was out.”

“What were those pictures?” asked Neldo.

“Just the ‘Wistful Mask Girl’ series that was popular four years ago,” replied Bkeisei. “It was all the rage; it was everywhere. It kept being featured on the network.”

“Millions loved it!” said Urlat. “I had the posters on my walls until Raiun took them away and burnt them. She wanted me to refocus on our partnership, which is quite right.” He looked at Raiun and smiled.

“They were amazing pictures but I had to put the relationship first,” said Raiun, smiling back. “Priorities ladies, am I right?” Presh, Chep and Vimel acknowledged her correctness.

“My funny moment was when I ordered too many folders,” said Neldo. “I wanted a hundred but my finger slipped and I ordered a hundred thousand. I went to work one morning and the office was being piled high with boxes of folders. My colleagues were complaining vociferously to the delivery men. I intervened but the delivery men wouldn’t take back the boxes until the next day. I felt such a fool surrounded by them. My boss wasn’t too pleased. I checked my orders thoroughly after that. People still make jokes like ‘Don’t fold, Neldo!’ or ‘Feeling boxed in?’.”

“I love that one; it’s family friendly,” said Vimel. “Not many funny things have happened to me at work yet but I was embarrassed when my family came to see me one time. I was eager to impress them so I wore my best platform shoes and figure-hugging dress. Unfortunately, the dress restricted my movements and the shoes tripped me up. I turned around too quickly at the buffet, lost my balance and fell into the food. I ruined eight platters of gourmet cuisine, spilt thirteen flasks of expensive drink, broke two tables and left large food and drink stains on four people’s fine clothes, including my own. Luckily, there was no carpet and the floor could be cleaned. There was a fairly large bill for damages but my family helped me to pay for that. Now, I wear more sensible clothes and shoes.”

“You find that story embarrassing but many people found it funny, including me!” said Raiun, swirling her glass in her hand and then taking a sip. “I can relate to it. I tried wearing those things myself but they were so irritating and constraining that I soon got rid of them and freed my body, so to speak. I’ve been trying to think of something funny that happened to me at work but I’m having trouble. Work has been a drag for me lately.”

“What about that manager who was caught shluking the cleaner and the lawyer at the same time in the cafeteria kitchen?” proposed Neldo.

“Well, I suppose that qualifies but it wasn’t very funny and he covered his embarrassment with anger,” said Raiun. “He was dismissed and the ladies were severely reprimanded. It was a matter of hygiene. I was relieved that he went. He was quite unfriendly to me. Things are better now but still boring. That’s why I love going on holidays like this!”

“You should try to get a new job,” advised Presh. “I’m thinking of doing the same. My co-workers are starting to get on my nerves. Like you, I value my time off.” She put her hands on Raiun’s hand (on the table) for a moment as a gesture of solidarity.

“Here’s my story,” she continued. “My family and I realised long ago that I’m quite easy on the eye, so they suggested that I might like to be a model. I went to a local agent and had some professional photos taken. I was given contracts modelling clothes, shoes, hats, make up and swim wear. It was going well but then the photographer suggested that I try a different field. I did a nude session, wearing only make up and something fancy to cover most of my face. The photos were very popular and profits were good but then my parents saw the photos lying about in the studio. They were outraged because they didn’t want me doing that sort of thing, especially since I was a few weeks underage at the time of taking the images. I was so embarrassed and so sorry to my family. I gave up modelling and went into the corporate sector. Anyway, this links into Bkeisei’s story, since I became the famous but anonymous ‘Wistful Mask Girl’.” Everyone was stunned into silence. Bkeisei, Neldo and Vimel dropped their spoons in shock.

“You ... were her?” queried Criq. “But she ... you ... became an international icon, a heartthrob of the south, an eternal unreachable enigma of eroticism. They never found out who she was ... who you were...”

“Now you have. Bring me a mask and I can prove it!” said Presh with a grin. “I’d appreciate it if you didn’t tell anyone else who I am, though. I don’t want to be overrun by admirers, or haters for that matter.” Raiun hid her face in her hands, feeling mortified all over again.

“Look at it this way, it was a youthful mistake that got blown out of proportion,” continued Presh. “I’ve moved on and so can you.”

“Perhaps you don’t realise the impact those pictures had on young people in recent years,” said Urlat. “I’m trembling, see?! I was one of those youngsters, yearning for the Mask Girl every night, until I started meeting people like my partners.” His hands were indeed shaking. Presh was taken aback by the strength of reaction to her revelation.

“Furk Ynell, what are we going to do?” whispered Neldo to Urlat.

“We can’t, we can’t!” whispered Raiun urgently.

“Can’t what?” asked Criq.

“Archminyan, I’ll have to tell them,” said Vimel. She sighed and looked at Criq timidly.

“We were going to suggest an eightsome,” she said. “There’s an eight-seat tub downstairs. You seemed such nice, friendly, liberal-minded people...”

“We still are,” said Presh. “I’m up for it: why not?” The four men looked at each other in astonishment. Fantasies were about to come true.

“Shluks and feet only,” said Vimel. “This will be a trial run with further meetings to be decided upon later.”

“Absolutely fine by us,” said Urlat with a nervous chuckle. His heart was racing.

“Listen everyone,” said Presh quietly and calmly. “This will be a nice, gentle occasion like you have at home. We’ll all be kind and considerate. We’re all just regular people searching for love and fun. Don’t let my public image obscure that. Everything will be fine and afterwards we’ll sleep like babies.” Her caring tone pacified them considerably. They finished the last few morsels of their light meals, drank their final glasses of vornafa, settled the bill and then went downstairs to the tub rooms. A few of the rooms were already occupied.

“I can’t believe this is happening!” whispered Urlat as he disrobed in the large eight-seat tub room.

“Me neither!” agreed Neldo, hanging up his shirt. “Jackpot!”

“She hasn’t changed a bit,” thought Neldo as he looked over at Presh. “She’s still got those perfect proportions!”

“Muscles look like they were carved out of stone!” thought Raiun as she cast her eye over Criq.

“Those shluks are insanely inviting!” mused Urlat as he watched Chep kick off her shoes. “Everything else is too but one step at a time.”

“Hangs down to his knees!” thought Vimel as she gazed wide-eyed at the approaching Bkeisei.

“Seating arrangements,” said Presh, walking confidently and naked to the tub. “Since I’m a celebrity here, I’ll decide. I’ll sit in this position by the left wall. My fans Urlat and Neldo will flank me left and right respectively. Chep sits by Urlat. Raiun sits by Neldo. Bkeisei sits by Chep. Criq sits by Raiun. Vimel sits directly opposite me, between Bkeisei and Criq. How’s that?”

“Great!” said the seven, almost in unison. They took their places, being sure to brush against each other as they did so.

“Mmm, comfy!” said Presh, already enjoying the seat. “This makes a change. We can stretch out our legs much further in a big tub.” She extended her toes into the central mass of feet and used them to start rubbing up against other people’s toes. That alone was wonderful and well worth the cost of the room.

“If I may be so bold?” ventured Urlat, touching her left shluk.

“Oh yes, dive in,” responded Presh. He did so and it was fantastic. Neldo followed on the other side with similar results. They were so eager! In turn, she penetrated their shluks and began to manipulate them skilfully. Urlat and Neldo were certainly not disappointed. Everyone connected in a full eight circuit. It was a much broader sensation than the normal four circuit. They had to focus a little more to balance the signals. As the minutes ticked by, they acquired the knack of managing the eight circuit. Mostly, the eight partners were lost in reverie. As they flexed their hands and fingers in very complex patterns and responded to stimulation from everyone else, they thought about recent events and organised their long-term memories. Essentially, they were day-dreaming. They were able to sense vague glimpses of each other’s feelings from the patterns of movement and also from scents picked up by their hand noses. Drawing upon the greater power of the eight, Presh sent strong pulses of love and caring to those who needed it most. She whittled away Raiun’s embarrassment until it was gone. She also tried to bolster Raiun’s confidence by fostering a calmer spiritual centre at her core. She soothed Criq’s worries about surveillance and technology, settled Urlat and Neldo’s nerves and reassured Chep that the house would be safe after the holiday.

After about thirty minutes of leisurely stimulation, she could feel a shluk orgasm beginning to build. She decided to try a little experiment with it. She wanted to see if she could convert it into a full orgasm and then transmit it around the circle. Flexing her abdomen carefully, she brought herself toward the desired state. She let it go and started to make her finger signals more forceful. She also sent round a small electrical charge. She had learnt years ago that she had a strong electrical field in and around her body. In a reflex action, the others copied her signals. Chep, Rauin and Vimel began to tense and moan softly as their orgasms built up.

“I’m losing control!” murmured Urlat. “It must be all the excitement.” The water in the tub became agitated as everyone shifted and twitched involuntarily. Presh reached peak orgasm, followed closely by her three female partners. Vimel cried out as Criq and Bkeisei worked her shluks expertly. Next came four long, powerful, simultaneous jets of spunk from the men.

“Archminyan of Clesht!” exclaimed Criq, watching in disbelief. How was this possible? His muscles had tensed massively and released as if on someone else’s command. He was spent and his heart hammered against his chest for a few moments. His head flopped to the side and he went limp as he tried to recover from this unexpected all-out ejaculation.

“Wistful Mask Girl, I can die happy now!” cried Neldo as he slumped in his seat and fell into a light sleep. Presh looked at him and smiled. She was well satisfied with the results of her experiment. She had learnt how to make people come whether they wanted to or not.

“That blew my mind!” said Raiun. “Thank you Presh and all your exhausted friends. Now, I have a slight problem: I am literally covered in spunk. It all landed on me! Talk about a fluke.”

“Incredible! That’s your badge of honour,” said Vimel, looking at her quickly before she had to doze. “You’re a winner in the tub, girl. It’s a clear sign that many men love you.” Chep tittered on the other side of the tub. Raiun looked at herself. There was so much semen, it was as if twenty big men had just ejaculated on her. She fell asleep and dreamt about that exact scenario. A minute later and all eight were asleep in the tub.

* * * * *

“I love you Presh but I’d like to know what you are,” said Criq as they walked through Bluegrove Forest the next day. “How can you do these things? Are you a witch?”

“What am I?!” repeated Presh, stopping in a tiny, sun-dappled glade. “Excuse me but I’m not an object.” She tried to sit down on a log but there was a spike sticking out.

“Ow!” she exclaimed as she stood up again. “I’m a person, Criq: a person with a pain in my backside!” She sat down on the grass instead.

“I’m worried that your powers (or whatever you call them) are growing,” said Criq. “Where will it end? You manipulated our minds and bodies in unprecedented ways last night.”

“Do you hear the irony there, Criq?” said Presh. “You’re a strong man. People like you have had power over the weak for millions of years. I turn the tables for a brief period and you start whining about it!” She looked at him and shook her head slightly to indicate disappointment.

“OK, who are you?” persisted Criq. “Do you have any idea what might be happening inside you?”

“Digestion for one thing,” said Presh. “I’ll need to make a substantial woodland deposit.” She took off her backpack and searched for tissue paper inside.

“I was talking about the magic,” said Criq. “You seized control of us all in the tub, at the most intimate level.” She got up again, went a few metres into the woods, hid behind some leafy branches and dropped her hiking trousers.

“I have developed ... (Unh!) ... my normal hand-shluk abilities to a high ... (Ah!) ... degree,” she said, crouching down. “I also have a natural ability to emit electrical sparks. (Oh, that’s better!) It looks like magic but it’s skill. Also, women have been controlling men’s urges and actions since time immemorial. (Hmm, a little more: there, what a relief!) It’s just that I’ve pushed it to a slightly higher level.”

“What about the way that you attracted those kids into our bed?” asked Criq.

“That was their doing, not mine,” said Presh. “I was fast asleep. I believe that the girl liked my perfume.”

“Why didn’t I care about all the cameras in the village back there?” asked Criq.

“I gave you subconscious reassurance last night,” said Presh. “I can tell that I’ll have to give you more tonight.”

“You made Urlat and Neldo cry when we left them this morning,” said Criq. “I felt so guilty. They called Bkeisei and me the luckiest dudes in the south.”

“Come on, making men cry is a normal female ability!” retorted Presh. “The network simply amplifies the effect. You’re certainly very lucky to be here now with us. You must try not to feel guilty about it.”

“Finally, what about the glowing eyes and shadow manipulation?” asked Criq. “Do you remember? It was back at the house, just after the cleansing.”

“Did I do that?” asked Presh. “You’ve stumped me there, Criq. I don’t remember it at all. I only remember being hugely angry. Maybe those effects had something to do with my electrical ability. Anyway, people like us have so many layers. Peel one away and you will find another and another. We’ll understand each other one day, if we just keep peeling back the layers. Speaking of which, I’m peeling many layers of tissue from this wad. I’ll need more soon.”

“Yeah, yeah, grocery shopping tonight at the next town,” said Criq. “Make a list for me, please.” He sat down and waited for Bkeisei and Chep to catch up.

“It’ll be lovely to see Urlat’s quartet again back at the house, won’t it?” remarked Presh, stepping out of the foliage.

“That’s another thing,” said Criq crossly. “You said that we’d put in an eight-seat pool for them. If we do that, we’ll need an outbuilding to house the damned thing because it won’t fit in the house. I’m the architect and builder, so the work falls to me. I seriously doubt that I’ll have enough time to finish it. I’m already very busy. I feel put-upon.”

“Never mind, if you can’t get it done we’ll improvise,” said Presh. “They’re very flexible in their outlook. A pool is certainly not essential.”

“Hmm,” said Criq, feeling unsettled. Bkeisei and Chep arrived a few minutes later.

“I really need to leave my mark on the forest!” said Bkeisei, making his way into the undergrowth.

“I must abandon my food baby behind a bush!” said Chep, doing the same as Bkeisei. Presh sat down beside Criq and checked the map again. Forest paths could be hard to follow. She had to be sure where they were going. Then she looked at Criq again, who had a glum expression.

“Don’t be jealous,” she said. “I’m staying with you. We won’t let too many people into our shluk circle.” A few tears ran down his cheeks.

“Poor Criq, I’ve made you cry too,” she said sympathetically. “Would you like a tissue?” He refused, worried that her remaining tissues might have been accidentally contaminated. Instead, she licked his cheeks.

“I drink your tears!” she said. “That’s symbolic: it means that I’ll keep supporting you.”

“She is Wistful Mask Girl and she is powerful!” said Bkeisei from his seclusion.

“Millions will kneel before her!” added Chep. “(That is, if they haven’t done so already.)”

“Ha ha! It might happen, I suppose,” said Presh, smiling and then getting up again. “But first I need a tinkle followed by a hand wash. Excuse me!”

* * * * *

“I was thinking,” said Bkeisei as the quartet plodded steadily through Bluegrove Forest in the mid-afternoon. “If we all put on masks and nothing else, we could do a whole new photo sequence.” They all stopped.

“That’s genius!” said Chep. “I can just imagine it!” She mentally undressed the quartet and pictured them in various aesthetically appealing poses.

“It could be massive,” continued Bkeisei. “We might make a fortune. We’d never have to work again!”

“I like working,” said Criq. “I don’t like posing, except occasionally with you three. I’m not really an exhibitionist.”

“Money doesn’t come so easily from photos anymore, what with online piracy,” said Presh. “Look at me: I’m not rich despite my fame.”

“Alright, we’d have to do it for fun,” said Bkeisei. “We’d be so desirable, we’d break the network!”

“I think that you just want a chance to show off your doodah,” said Criq. “Which is impressive, we have to admit. Other guys feel inadequate next to that overdeveloped tool.”

“Sorry Criq!” said Bkeisei.

“Yes, on the face of it, Bkeisei’s idea is very appealing,” said Presh. “I’m starting to get hot just thinking about it. However, the resourceful people out there would soon track us down. Masks couldn’t protect our identities forever. They’d lay siege to our house. We’d never have any peace ever again. A few crazy people might even attack us.”

“You’re probably right,” said Chep. “That’s such a shame.”

“Don’t feel bad, Chep,” said Bkeisei. “We could at least take those pictures and keep them private. We’d be the only ones to see them, until we died and bequeathed them to a grateful public.”

“Ooh yes, we could do it here, deep in the woods,” said Chep. “This is so exciting!”

“We don’t have any fancy masks in our backpacks,” Criq pointed out.

“But we do have brown paper bags and a small pair of scissors!” said Bkeisei. Quickly, he made four crude masks by cutting eye holes in the bags. Presh put her little electronic camera on top of a bush and set it to take pictures automatically four times a minute. They put on the masks - which covered their eyes and noses but not their mouths - and posed nude in many fun stances. Presh did her best to recreate her Wistful Mask Girl positions. The photos came out fine, except for one that was obscured by an apprehensive old woman hurrying past with her pet hurg. Next time, they’d use proper masks and a private studio.

* * * * *

“What have you got?” asked Chep.

“Plenty of suzberries, a few aggidips,” said Presh, looking through her bag. “Twenty or so dina fungi, some Pur Ding algal complex and a walking smalkut. Look, it’s still walking but it can’t escape: stupid vegetable.”

“I have a handful of yfik leaves, some ripe glizberries and a stonking great phuziroot,” said Chep, holding up the phuziroot proudly. “Isn’t this enough for breakfast?”

“I hope so,” said Presh. “The guys will be waking up soon.” They left the fruitful area by the river and went back to their little campsite. On the way, they passed some early morning walkers, a farmer’s son and two forestry workers. They greeted them all and made small talk about the weather, the forage and a few nearby tourist attractions. Fifteen minutes later, they reached the edge of camp and viewed it from cover. They hadn’t pitched their tents since the weather was so fine. Bkeisei and Criq were still asleep.

“Bkeisei is snuggled up to Criq and they’re holding hands!” observed Chep happily. “They’re just adorable sometimes, aren’t they?”

“Yes, it’s lovely to see,” said Presh, eating a few suzberries from her bag. “If we’re quiet, they might do something else cute in their sleep.” They stood there silently, watching the area and munching breakfast. It was liberating to have the forest almost to themselves in the first hour of daylight. After a few minutes, someone approached from the left. He was a short, thin young man sneaking very carefully up to the backpacks.

“Thief!” whispered Chep. “Wake up the guys!”

“Wait,” whispered Presh. “That might not be wise. What if he has a knife or something? He could hurt them before they’re fully alert.”

“Well, I’m going to scare him off with a scream, a battle cry!” whispered Chep.

“No, I want to try something different,” whispered Presh and then she explained it to Chep. With great anxiety, the two women crept up behind the man as his back was turned. They were barefoot and the grass was soft, so he didn’t hear them. Chep put her arm around his neck and put her other hand across his mouth so he couldn’t shout. At the same time, Presh plunged her hands through his convenient shirt slits into his shluks. Concentrating very hard and using the skills she’d learnt earlier, she moved her hand muscles as fast as she could to overload him with her signals and propel him rapidly into an altered state. She also delivered a fairly large electric charge. He didn’t have time to struggle. The man’s whole body tensed strongly and he gave a small muffled yell. Chep held on tightly and was lifted off her feet for two seconds. After a minute of involuntary spasms, the man fell unconscious and went limp. Presh kept on delivering commands of relaxation to his shluks as Chep lowered him to the ground.

“It worked! What now?” asked Chep quietly as Presh finished subduing the would-be thief.

“He’ll sleep for at least four hours,” replied Presh. “Let’s drag him out of here and leave him to recover on his own.”

“OK,” whispered Chep. Together, the two women pulled him by his feet across the grass. They took him five hundred metres and left him under some large, dark blue trees in a nondescript part of the forest.

“Nice big stain there,” panted Chep, pointing at the front of the man’s trousers. “Sex warrior Presh strikes again!” Presh laughed, knowing that she was not very warlike, just protective. They walked back to camp again, retrieved breakfast, woke their men, fed them and then struck camp. Bkeisei and Criq never knew anything about the thief.

* * * * *

“Woooooooo!” shouted someone from a vehicle behind them. They turned to see a car approaching at fairly high speed. A young man and woman were standing up in the back of the car, holding their arms aloft. In the front seats were another young man and woman, who were singing along to a pop song. The woman was driving and swaying back and forth, while the man was dancing with only his upper body. They were all dressed up for a party and appeared to be intoxicated already. The car zoomed past, heading for the county town of Bluegrove Magna.

“Oh, there’s something going on in Magna,” realised Chep. She stopped and consulted the network. The others gathered around and watched her screen.

“It’s some kind of new festival,” she said. “It’s called ‘The Running of the Juice’. That sounds juicy! Oh, I’m such a wag.”

“Yeeeaaah!” shouted someone from another car going the same way as the first.

“Dangerous driving!” griped Bkeisei. “The town’s going to be noisy. Perhaps we shouldn’t go there. We could camp out again.”

“There are problems with that,” said Criq. “Do you see any woods or empty fields around here?” Bkeisei looked around for a minute, trying to assess all the local land uses.

“Erm, maybe not,” said Bkeisei. “It’s all gardens, commercial property and government areas. We could go back a few kilometres to that last wood.”

“Another problem is the smell,” said Criq. “There’s a sewage treatment works about half a kilometre ahead.”

“Now you mention it, I’m getting wind of it,” said Bkeisei. “Damn, why can’t they tame the smell like they do in Abur Riswach?”

“A third problem is laundry,” said Criq. “We’ve been sweating quite heavily in this weather and we’re out of clean clothes, in case you hadn’t noticed.”

“I’m starting to stink,” said Presh, sniffing her arms. “I tried bathing in a pond back there but I came out smelling like pond water, with the slightest hint of flimbo droppings. Fortunately, the sewage works are hiding that fact right now.”

“That’s it, sweet-talk us!” said Criq with a snort. “My point is that we should go and stay at the hotel in Magna, as we planned. We need to get clean again. Maybe they’ll have quiet rooms somewhere.”

“Juice! Juice! Juice!” yelled someone from a third car full of revellers.

“Oh sleep, wherefore hast thou fled away?” quoted Bkeisei from an old poem as the quartet continued along the road to Bluegrove Magna.

“On the positive side, Magna could be a lot more fun than usual tonight!” said Chep optimistically.

“Yes dear,” said Bkeisei with a half-hearted smile. They walked on and the smell of sewage became more intense. The quartet squared their shoulders and progressed as rapidly as they could, given their backpacks. They passed the sewage works and eventually the smell began to reduce.

“How do people live around here?!” wondered Presh aloud, seeing a few small houses dotted along the road. “Are they punishing themselves?”

“Apparently, they get used to it,” said Bkeisei. “I’m finding that hard to imagine right now.” They went another half kilometre before Presh had to stop.

“I’m really sorry about this,” she said to the others. “I thought I could handle it...” She turned to the right and vomited into a ditch.

“Don’t worry Presh,” said Criq. “This is the worst thing I’ve ever smelt. It’s not only the intensity, it’s the scale. It just goes on and on.” He reached into a pocket and handed her his last two tissues. She wiped her mouth with one, stood up straight, took a few deep breaths and tried to calm her insides. It was no good. She hurled another stream of green vomit into the ditch.

“If we are expecting, that might help to explain this,” said Chep. “In that case though, why am I OK?”

“Who knows?” said Bkeisei. “It could be something else like dehydration. Uh oh, I’m not feeling too great myself now.” He retched and vomited onto the verge but less than Presh.

“We should try to move on,” said Criq, unnerved. “This place is terrible.”

“We should have bypassed it,” said Bkeisei a little breathlessly. “There was a footpath to the west.”

“Why didn’t you tell us earlier?” asked Criq, starting to feel queasy.

“I forgot,” said Bkeisei. “I didn’t think the smell here would be so bad. The footpath goes over there, past the chemical works.” He pointed at the area in the distance, with its large chimneys and plumes of gas.

“You mean the notorious Barhnachem ‘stink works’?” queried Chep. “No, actually I think we got away lightly here.” Criq stepped to the side and vomited into a hedge.

“Maybe you guys are doing this in sympathy with Presh,” speculated Chep as she handed out tissues. “It’s been known for expectant fathers to react similarly to their pregnant partners.”

“Urr, fascinating but we have to go,” groaned Criq. “Magna has to clean up this place if it wants more tourist revenue.” He made a determined effort to head for Bluegrove Magna and leave the stench behind. The others followed his lead while more festival-goers drove past with their windows firmly closed.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:29 pm

“What do you mean we shouldn’t stay here?” said Bkeisei as revellers talked loudly and indulged themselves around him.

“I’m very sorry sir but we are currently experiencing unprecedented levels of occupancy and activity,” said the harassed male receptionist. “Our hotel is too loud for you to have a quiet night tonight. Also, we have had numerous breakages in the rooms. We don’t have enough serviceable beds at present.”

“OK, do you have any alternative suggestions for our accommodation?” asked Bkeisei. Presh was checking the network. Criq was watching the crowds go by, both inside and outside the hotel lobby. Chep was surreptitiously stealing a few drinks from an unguarded buffet table.

“Here’s a leaflet sir but you won’t have much luck tonight,” said the receptionist. “I have heard that every decent hotel room in town is booked and/or occupied.”

“Every decent room?” repeated Chep, approaching with drinks for her partners. “How about indecent rooms?” She raised her eyebrows.

“Umm, I shouldn’t be saying this but you could try the Tackle Haven Tavern,” said the receptionist quietly. “It’s on the west road, on the edge of town. It’s said that it has never been half occupied, let alone fully occupied. It’s not well lit but it’s next to a large builders’ merchant store, which helps you to find it in the dark.”

“Why is it so unpopular, apart from being in a poor location?” asked Criq.

“I saw some of the staff once,” said the receptionist. “They’re an odd bunch and not too friendly. They’re not very well liked.”

“So, how does it stay in business?” asked Presh.

“There’s plenty of passing trade on the west road,” said the receptionist. “It must be enough to tide them over. Excuse me but I’m needed at the other desk.”

“Many thanks for your help,” said Bkeisei. “I hope that you can cope with this festival period. Good luck!” The quartet drank up and left the hotel. On the street outside, they found a quiet corner in which to stand and consult the network. Some of the people passing by were wearing fancy dress. Presh thought that the ones dressed as robots were particularly high quality. It was as if they had been outfitted by a major movie studio.

“Nothing, nothing, nothing, one single room left,” read Chep. “No, that’s just gone. Nothing, nothing, closed, nothing, nothing, burnt down last week, nothing and nothing. Great.”

“Get ‘em out!” shouted an intoxicated man from across the street. He was part of a rowdy group. They were looking at the quartet.

“We should go,” said a worried Criq. “There are no police. There could be trouble in a minute.”

“Dare we try the Tavern?” asked Presh.

“It could be our only realistic option,” said Bkeisei. “We could try camping in a garden but we’d be vulnerable.” The quartet picked up their backpacks and headed for the west road. Fifty metres along Chep stopped, turned around and lifted up her shirt. The group across the street cheered and whistled loudly.

“Don’t encourage them!” said Criq.

“If I keep them happy, they’re less likely to turn on us,” said Chep. “That’s my thinking. Besides, I’m proud of these. They’ve grown lately, which is a good sign.” She pulled her shirt back down and they walked on. The quartet soon found the Tavern. As they approached the door a woman stormed out, dragging a man behind her.

“We’re going to my sister’s house,” she said angrily. “That’s much better than this.”

“Your sister lives thirty kilometres from here!” complained the man. Nevertheless, he got into the car with the woman and they drove rapidly away from Bluegrove Magna.

“Damn, that’s a bad sign,” whispered Bkeisei as he watched them go. “Still, in we go. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.” The quartet stepped cautiously into the Tavern.

“Room for four, is it?” asked a male staff member who was brushing up some broken china in front of the tiny reception desk.

“That’s right sir,” said Criq.

“Well then, you’re in luck,” said the man. “We’ve just had a cancellation. If you’d like to give me your details and some moolah, I’ll hand over the keys and show you the way.” Presh filled in the forms and paid. The price was very affordable. They went up to their room and were soon showering. In a sense, they were washing away the cares of the day. Afterwards, Criq took almost all of their clothes to the overnight laundry service. While he was downstairs, he noticed that two male employees were having a pretend sword fight in the kitchen using broomsticks. He also saw that some of the festival goers were sitting in the dimly lit lounge area, talking and laughing very loudly. Three were dressed as old-style amputators, with aprons and large smears of fake blood. Four were kitted out as decadent tribal chieftains, sporting animal bones strapped to their limbs. The last one was supposed to be a futuristic cyborg. She was laughing at first but then became more serious and started staring at Criq. He found it quite unnerving and slowly backed away. He bought several ready meals from the chilled dispenser, took them upstairs and distributed them to his partners, keeping a couple for himself. The Tavern had stopped serving full cooked meals two hours before, so this was the best that he could do. They microwaved the ready meals and ate them greedily before bedtime. The racket coming from the lounge died away as people went to their own beds. Four hours later, the quartet was woken by an insistent mechanical noise.

“Oh Furk, what now?!” groaned Bkeisei.

“No idea,” said Presh.

“It’s getting worse,” observed Chep, wearily climbing out of bed and looking out of the window. She couldn’t see anything so she lay down again.

“Maybe it’ll stop soon,” said Criq. The four waited for several minutes but the noise increased further.

“Now the noise is so bad that the bed’s vibrating,” said Presh. “We have to stop it, if not for us then for the other guests.”

“Let’s not be too hasty,” said Chep. “Some of us like a vibrating bed. It feels good, you know!” Ten minutes later, Presh and Criq went downstairs in their bathrobes and tried to have the noise stopped.

“I sorry but waater pomp mus’ keep ronning for two aas,” said the foreign night porter. “Guests need waater tomorrow. Mus’ fill tanks now. Waater pressure not good here: need pomp.”

“Why do you have to run the pump in the middle of the night?” demanded Presh. “Your service levels are appalling. Your basic hotel function is being negated.”

“Is cheaper ronning pomp now, cheaper elecrisity,” explained the porter. “You have lower bill, yes?”

“Why don’t you think that our sleep is more precious?” growled Criq.

“I don’ know, I jus’ porter,” said the porter. “I know nozzing. I am from Amho Rikar.”

“I’m going to punch you back to there, you insolent hurg!” said Criq, reaching breaking point. He advanced on the porter. At that moment, three large male employees stepped out of the kitchen.

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you,” said one of them. “Go back to your room. The pump will stop soon enough.” Criq and Presh were in a weak position so they had to retreat to their room. They tried to sleep on the bed but it was useless. In desperation they dismantled the bed, took it to the other side of the Tavern and reassembled it in a wide landing area at the top of the stairs. It was quieter and they managed to sleep there for the rest of the night. In the morning, they returned the bed to their room. They were annoyed about the situation. They packed quickly so that they could leave as soon as possible. Criq looked around the room to see if there were any other flaws. In the morning light, he saw a tiny glint in the wall. Upon closer inspection, he found a spy camera embedded in the plaster. Incensed, he used his pocket knife to dig the camera out of the wall.

“Don’t Criq!” pleaded the others but to no avail.

“They were spying on us!” said Criq, searching for more cameras. “They’re loathsome! I will report them to the police!” He soon found three more cameras in the ceiling. Two of them looked the same as the first but the final one was a different, more advanced model. He put them all in his backpack, with the unicycle parts.

“So they have some intimate movies of us now, so what?!” said Chep. “I’m not shy, I’m not bothered by this. It’s inconsequential to me.”

“That’s a good, positive, robust attitude,” said Presh, hugging Chep. “I agree with you. We must all look at it the same way. We’re prime physical specimens and proud of it!”

“And if people don’t like it, I’ll slap them with my little fellow!” said Bkeisei light-heartedly.

“Oh so pretty hikers, before you go we’d like our property back,” said a large man stepping through the door. “There are cameras in your pack, Mr. Criq. Hand them over.” There were four other men behind him. They all had large knives. Criq and his partners stepped aside and the man pulled the white towel out of Criq’s pack. He opened it out and there were the three identical cameras.

“Where’s the fourth one?” asked Bkeisei. “Also, where are those little parts from earlier?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” said the man. “These three are ours. There’s nothing else in this room. Now, you lot had better go.” The quartet was marched out of the Tavern.

“This isn’t the end of it!” said Criq. “I’m calling the cops!”

“That won’t help you,” said the large man. “We’re good friends with the police. We also have some very interesting movies of them. They won’t do anything against us. So long, sweet cheeks!” He shut the door.

“One day, they’ll get their comeuppance!” snarled Criq. “The whole network will hear about this!”

“For Furk’s sake, relax!” said Chep. “We’re basically fine and we’re still on holiday. We’ll just walk on to the next village.”

“In our bathrobes?” asked Presh. They had forgotten that their clothes were still in the laundry.

“Hey, could we please have our clothes back?” asked Bkeisei loudly at the door.

“Wait there,” said a voice from inside. They stood awkwardly in the driveway as a few other guests came and went. Several minutes later, the door opened and the clothes were thrown out, scattering all over the floor.

“What nasty pieces of work!” said Presh as she retrieved her scanties from a patch of weeds. “The receptionist at the first hotel was absolutely right. Still, this will make a great story for later!” They collected up everything, got dressed, left the bathrobes on the doorstep and went to town for breakfast. They had wanted to take the bathrobes but they still had a long distance to walk and didn’t want to carry extra weight.

* * * * *

“There’s another one,” said Criq, pointing out of the café window. “It’s robots and technology following us around.” The man in the robot fancy dress threw a ball to a woman dressed as a giant glaphling.

“True, we’ve had the plane, the vehicle cams, the unicycle, the spy cams, the scarily realistic robot costumes and various other little incidents,” said Bkeisei. “I saw some little animals in the forest at night. Their eyes glowed white or yellow in the moonlight but one had eyes that changed colour between blinks. They went green, red and blue within a few moments. I’ll probably never prove that, though!”

“This is not just me being worried,” continued Criq. “I think that there’s a serious phenomenon here. It might be nationwide or even worldwide.”

“Well, what can we do about it?” Chep pointed out. “We’re just civilians. We could run for political office and try to ban these things.” It was a daunting thought. Politics was a hard, dirty business.

“Even if we did that, we couldn’t control the little robot animals running around,” said Bkeisei. “I can’t believe I just said that! This situation is so crazy. Where will it lead?” He shook his head and then ate another mouthful of breakfast.

“I have no idea where those unicycle components went, nor the fourth spy cam,” said Criq. “They were in my pack, I turned away for a minute and they disappeared. Maybe they all joined together and crawled away, like one of these robot animals that Bkeisei saw. I’ve never heard of anything like that. There was no conjuror in the room, no one to take the pieces away. You three didn’t take them, the goons didn’t take them, the pack didn’t fall over and spill them out and the window was closed so no one reached in.”

“Never mind, babe,” said Presh. “The important thing is we’re still here, exploring the Bluegrove Trail and trying to enjoy ourselves. Let those silly pieces of metal fall out of our lives. We don’t need to obsess about them.”

“What is this festival all about?” asked Chep as more people emerged from their crammed hotels and thronged the streets outside.

“According to that poster behind Criq, there are three possible explanations,” replied Presh. “First, it could be a revival of the ancient summer fertility rite called Harniflek, which coincided with the beginning of the harvest. Second, it could be a commemoration of the Bloody Expulsion, where the greedy middlemen and their families were forced out of the region. Thirdly, it could be a joke about a celebrity chase scandal from the last century.”

“The more prosaic explanation is that this is part of the Bluegrove revival effort,” said Criq. “They want more tourist credits while the people here want a rocking party. It will create good feeling about the region and tourists will keep coming back to support the economy, year after year.”

“This festival has just been thrown together,” said Presh. “The themes are totally disjointed. The people have dressed up in random costumes. It’s popular so far, though. It’s well timed for the summer holidays. Perhaps it will be a success in the long run. The town will have to provide more accommodation, of course.”

“Funny you should say that,” said a woman at a nearby table. “I’m thinking of opening my house to guests next year.” They looked at her and were taken aback by her realistic robot mask. The glowing eyes flicked back and forth.

“Furk!” exclaimed Chep, almost falling out of her chair.

“Sorry, I forget that I’m wearing this,” said the woman, flicking the face plate up to reveal her real face. “These costumes are so effective and comfortable to wear.”

“You’re local?” asked Presh.

“Oh yes, we’ve been here for ten years,” said the woman. “This festival might be the best thing for the town since the metals boom of the industrial age. I’m Maish, by the way: pleased to meet you.” She held out her hand.

“Presh,” said Presh, shaking Maish’s hand. “Where do you get these costumes? They’re out of this world!”

“A new mail order place opened up in the South East,” replied Maish. “You can find them online quite easily. I couldn’t believe the quality of these costumes when they arrived. I’ll probably hire more from them later.”

“Hi Maish, I’m Criq,” said Criq, leaning over and shaking Maish’s hand. “It’s good to hear that you’re willing to allow paying guests in your house. I was wondering if you have space for us there tonight. We’ve just been kicked out of the Tackle Haven Tavern. It was a wretched experience.”

“Hah! One of Bluegrove Magna’s many embarrassments!” remarked Maish. “I’m sorry to hear that, Criq. We have six guests right now but our house is large enough for four more.”

“What’s the price?” asked Bkeisei.

“It’s festival time, so we’ll have to charge accordingly,” she replied. “I was thinking three hundred credits per night.” It was expensive.

“Would you cut the price if we self-cater and wash the bedding in the morning?” asked Chep.

“That would be reasonable,” said Maish, nodding. “Any service arrangement that you could provide to my other guests, my partners and I would reduce the cost for you.” She winked. Presh’s group exchanged glances and paused for thought.

“Do take time to consider it,” said Maish. “Here’s the address and contact details. Call me whatever you decide.” She passed them one of her personal details cards.

“You’re brave, inviting four strangers into your home at festival time!” said Bkeisei.

“I am indeed brave,” said Maish, smiling. “It also helps that my partners and I are well-trained in the martial arts. We like to be able to defend ourselves.” Presh’s group smiled back nervously. Maish finished her drink and went back to the festival.

“And just like that we become prostitutes,” said Bkeisei quietly. “Is everyone in?”

“It seems like a fair offer,” said Criq. “We just do what we’ve been doing for years, only with different people for a monetary reward. It’s fine as a short-term measure, with the correct precautions.”

“I can take one for the team,” said Chep. “Martial artists are so fit!” She squirmed a little in her seat.

“They’re also quite martial,” said Presh. “I’m not totally sure about this but let’s go along and see how we feel about it. We can always back out.”

“One might say that it was too convenient for Maish to offer us this deal exactly when we needed it,” reflected Bkeisei. “Conversely, one might say that these things happen in small towns with many friendly people in the few available cafés. Also, we know that there’s a mysterious magical attractiveness in you, Presh.”

“I’m like a storybook princess!” said Presh in jest. “My hobbies include doing my business in the woods, puking outside the sewage farm and flashing old ladies! Seriously though, let’s all be careful.”

* * * * *

“Grandma and Grandpa, it’s lovely to see you here!” said Bkeisei, greeting his relatives warmly. “Long time no see. I apologise that I haven’t visited you lately.”

“That’s alright Bkeisei,” said Grandpa. “We know that you’ve been thinking of us. It’s enough that there’s always a place in your heart for us.”

“That’s true, without a shadow of a doubt,” said Bkeisei, feeling very comfortable. “You’re two of the brightest points in my life. How are my other Grandma and Grandpa, on my father’s side?”

“Oh, they’re fine and they send their love,” said Grandma. “They’re away doing something far too intrepid and exciting for people of their age. You know how they are.”

“I sure do!” said Bkeisei. “I remember the day that they took us ridge walking. We nearly fell to our deaths several times but we made it across that mountain in the end.”

“We’ve heard that you’ve been having more adventures recently,” said Grandpa. “Not just walking and outdoor stuff but indoor adventures too.”

“Well, the four of us are together for the long term now,” said Bkeisei. “We’re committed and I think that we’ll become parents next year.”

“You know, Grandma and I had plenty of those sorts of adventures ourselves, with our own quartet,” continued Grandpa. “We were bringing in many different friends and going at it late into the night. We even brought in a few strangers now and then to spice things up further.”

“Thank Furk for shluks!” said Grandma. “That’s the old saying. Where would we be without them, eh? I dread to think. Frightful frustration, continuous pregnancies, overflowing houses, poverty, exhaustion, premature death: it’s such a terrible prospect.”

“This is becoming a deeply uncomfortable conversation,” said Bkeisei. “What’s going on?”

“Here’s our point,” said Grandpa. “We had our share of action but we restricted ourselves. Some people were just not right for our circle. We had to be very selective. You’re coming up to a critical decision now, Bkeisei. This house belonging to Maish and her partners could turn out to be very wrong.”

“How do you know about that?” queried Bkeisei. “We’ve told no one.”

“They’re fundamentally different to our kind,” said Grandma. “Treat them with huge respect or else!” Bkeisei said nothing but thought about the situation. He realised something vital.

“Wait a minute, didn’t you two die over ten years ago?” he demanded. “How did I forget that?” To his great dismay, Grandma and Grandpa faded away.

He woke with a start. Where was he? Chep was sitting next to his feet, reading a pamphlet. He was lying on a bench in a corner at the rear of the Bluegrove Magna town museum. He sat up and looked around. Presh was lying with her eyes closed on another bench beneath a window, less than three metres away. Criq was lounging and dozing next to her. There wasn’t enough room on the bench for both of them to lie down at the same time.

“You’re not missing much,” said Chep. “This place is dull unless you like hearing about wagons, pottery, copper, tin and farm machinery.”

“I’ve just had a dream of my grandparents!” said Bkeisei. “They warned me to be very wary of Maish and her crew.”

“That’s unfortunate,” said Chep with a grimace. “We’ve arranged to stay with them tonight. We had to decline a stay in their bedrooms and tubs, though. We’re simply too tired after last night. We’ll have to stump up the cash or at least most of it.”

“That’s a relief,” said Bkeisei. “I thought I was up for fun with them but I was flagging this afternoon. We’ll stay in our room, lock the door and sleep this off. How’s the festival going?”

“It hasn’t stopped yet,” said Chep. “You can still hear the procession going around the town five times. They’re performing some odd, made-up rituals repeatedly. It’s a bit like dancing in a club but with more choreography. After the procession, there’ll be a three-hour drumming event followed by a two-hour synchronised wailing demonstration.”

“Totally bonkers!” exclaimed Bkeisei.

“No, ‘Totally Bonkers’ is tomorrow morning,” said Chep. “That’s followed by ‘Utter Madness’, ‘Why Why Why?’ and ‘Should Have Gone to Freezeland, Geezer!’.”

“At least they seem to have some idea how moronic this all is,” said Bkeisei. “Furk, I really hope that we get through the night without being eaten by Maish’s cannibal army or something.”

“I’ve been talking to them a little while you were asleep,” said Chep. “They certainly don’t sound like cannibals.”

“Grandma just told me that they’re a ‘different kind’ than us,” said Bkeisei. “What did she mean, I wonder?” Chep didn’t know: she shrugged.

“We have to go in ten minutes,” she said. “You woke up just in time. The museum is closing very soon. It’s been very useful as a daytime crash pad.” They woke Criq and Presh. The quartet shuffled out and then went grocery shopping. The shop’s stock was selling out fast so they grabbed what they could, paid and hurried to Maish’s house, which was four hundred metres from the festival area. It was relatively modern in style but only average in appearance. It seemed to have been designed by an architect ‘on autopilot’. Criq said that it should have won a medal for being so unremarkable and forgettable. As they came closer, they could here faint sounds coming from an open window. People in the throes of passion were saying things like ‘Harder!’, ‘Faster!’, ‘Lube me!’, ‘Better!’ and ‘More torque! For Furk’s sake, more torque!’.

“Weird!” murmured Bkeisei. Then the sound of power tools began, followed by intense moaning.

“Furk, that’s a power sander!” said Criq, recognising the sound. “And that’s a pressure washer!” A minute later and the noises died away. They waited another few minutes before they dared to ring the doorbell.

“Welcome travellers, do come in!” said Maish, opening the front door. She had replaced her robot costume with a slinky, multicoloured wrap dress and matching sandals.

“We’re so grateful for your hospitality,” said Criq. “We’re rather fatigued after our long walks and various little mishaps, so a place like this seems very luxurious at present. As promised, we’ll pay up now, stay out of your way and leave promptly in the morning.” He handed over the credits, which Maish pocketed.

“This way to your room,” she said, taking Criq’s hand and leading him upstairs. It was the same method used to lead a partner to a tryst but no one mentioned it as they followed Maish.

“Please make yourselves at home,” said Maish. “It’s a standard arrangement: bed, tub, screen, facilities on the left and mini kitchen through the door on the right of the bed. I hope you like it.”

“Someone left an electric screwdriver there,” said Bkeisei, pointing at the side table on the left of the tub.

“Sorry about that,” said Maish, swiftly taking the cordless tool. “We were making minor adjustments and repairs for you earlier today. See you later!” She walked away briskly, revving the screwdriver playfully as she went. Chep tiptoed to the door, closed it quietly and locked it.

“So weird!” whispered Bkeisei. The quartet cooked and ate a basic dinner with the TV on in the background. Nothing too important was happening in the news. There was a forest fire in the south west, a politician had been found organising kinky fifteensomes in a backstreet health club and the economy was going through turbulent times, as it regularly did. After the news, there was a science fiction comedy movie about aliens who failed to establish relationships with each other until ordinary people helped them to overcome their problems. The quartet tried to watch the whole movie but they were too tired and went to bed halfway through.

Five hours later, Presh woke up again. She answered the call of nature and listened for any interesting sounds from other rooms as she did so. Everything seemed quiet. Would it be a good idea to sneak around the house and explore it, she wondered? Given that there were at least ten other people in the house, she doubted it. She felt inquisitive, though. She turned on the screen but muted the sound. She explored the menus and found a surveillance system. Scrolling through the long list of cameras, it appeared that she could watch most of the house. However, it soon transpired that many of the camera feeds were locked. She had to content herself with spying on the empty kitchen. Most things were tidied away except for some larger gadgets, the functions of which were a mystery. There were night vision cameras in the drawers and cupboards, which was highly unusual. With those cameras, she was able to see that the drawers contained a standard array of cutlery and some smaller items of crockery but little else. The cupboards contained large crockery, pots and pans but no food or drink. The refrigerator and freezer also had no food or drink. Who lived like this?

“Hello Presh,” said a voice as a face appeared on screen. “Can’t sleep?” The face appeared so suddenly and unexpectedly that Presh almost jumped out of her skin.

“Apologies for startling you,” said the voice as Presh clutched her chest and breathed heavily, trying to recover from the shock. “I see that you’ve found our surveillance net.”

“V-very nice!” stuttered Presh. “It-it must be state-of-the-art, Maish. Can you not sleep either? You look wide awake.”

“Oh yes, I tend to get by with very little sleep,” said Maish. “I’m unusual like that. I spend the nights checking on things. I believe that I have some obsessive compulsive disorder.”

“You’re completely out of food,” said Presh. “You need to place an order or drive to the shop tomorrow.”

“I probably will,” said Maish. “There is also the takeaway option. We have a little food left but it’s in our room, below yours. Would you like to come down and ... erm ... get some? We’re happy to share what we have.”

“Er, no thanks, I have plenty,” said Presh. “Maybe another time, you know, if we visit here again.”

“OK but if you change your mind, you know where to come!” said Maish, blowing Presh a kiss. Presh gave a little half smile and switched off the screen.

“Archminyan!!!” she exclaimed in a whisper to herself. “That was some EXTREME monitoring!” She padded back to bed in the dark and lay on her back, her mind racing. It took her nearly an hour to fall asleep again. She didn’t notice the five little black balls rolling around and underneath the bed.

* * * * *

Royal bath, hard and polished stone, water neck deep.
Jewels on their golden headdresses, clink against moving heads.
Familiar feeling of satisfaction, the world put right again.
Queen Maish embraces Queen Presh tenderly, their kiss is poetry.
Wading out finally, up the solid steps to the cool palace air.
Servants mop their glistening bodies.
King Prond leads Queen Maish, she kneels on the high plinth.
They look at Queen Presh, their eyes flash red ... blue ... green ... white.
Queen Maish leans forward, rests on her arms.
King Prond stands behind, readies himself.
King Tyvil kneels to the right, Prince Gabar kneels to the left.
Queen Presh is transfixed, emotions heave like ocean swell.
Prince Gabar’s back becomes silver, King Tyvil’s face a steel mask.
Queen Presh forgets the palace, sees only Queen Maish and majesty.
King Prond’s shoulders widen, flesh hazes into armour.
Queen Maish erupts in metal, her skin subsumed.
The four grow, they dominate the scene.
Prince Gabar inserts his arm deep into Queen Maish’s left shluk.
King Tyvil’s arm fills her right shluk.
King Prond thrusts into her from the rear.
They are giants now, towering over Queen Presh.
Queen Maish is transformed, more machine than woman.
Prince Gabar’s arm is a pillar of metal, giving her power.
King Tyvil’s arm is a thick, moving belt carrying gun shells into her.
King Prond does his royal duty, the rhythm constant.
Queen Maish’s face distorts to anger, to blind fury and beyond.
Her jaws flare wide open like those of a great hunting beast.
Deafening fire blasts out of her mouth, over and over.
Queen Presh is thrown back, her vision tumbles until she rights herself.
The palace is gone, sunlight reveals the land around them.
Villages explode in the distance, woods and fields vanish in flame.
The nation is razed to the ground, hectare by blasted hectare.
Queen Presh kneels dazed on the shattered stone floor, her heart dying in chaos with her people.
Queen Maish and the other royals are satisfied for today.
Tomorrow their urges will return, they will seek new targets.

“You won’t remember this,” said Queen Maish. “At least not consciously. Did you enjoy it? We adapted it to fit your view of the world.” Queen Presh turned to the left and there was Queen Maish, back to her old self. Queen Presh had seen far too much. Her sanity was teetering on the brink. She was stripped bare in a den of machine monsters. She tried to flee but was immediately blocked by King Prond, King Tyvil and Prince Gabar, who had been standing close behind her. They had returned to normal size but their fingers were cold claws that scraped her delicate skin. Their long toes were talons.

“This is our place of love,” said Queen Maish, pressing her body against Queen Presh from behind. “We always try to do what we love here. We love to make war. We can’t get enough of it. You could call us ‘war whores’ if you like: it’s an accurate description.” The three men laughed, their deep voices resonating in Queen Presh’s chest.

“We like nothing better than to devastate places, to annihilate, to show the other weaklings that we will always be in command and they will always be fodder to our cannons,” continued Queen Maish. “Would you like to try it? I promise you that the feeling is ... without equal, beyond compare. There are no words.” Queen Presh couldn’t say anything. Surely there was no way to resist them. She was dumbfounded and gazed at them blankly.

“I’ll take that as a yes,” said King Prond, forcing her to her knees. “We’ll give you a triple power boost to sizzle your circuits!”

“Tyvil, it’s your turn to drive,” said Queen Maish. King Tyvil knelt behind Queen Presh. In place of the usual parts, all three men had shiny, greased pistons jutting from between their legs. King Prond took up position on the left, Prince Gabar on the right.

“We love you Presh,” said Queen Maish, standing in front. “We want you to join us and stay with us. Experience our happiness!” This was actually a familiar situation. Queen Presh had been flanked by men this way before. A spark of new hope was kindled in her breast. With nothing to lose, she took King Prond’s piston in her left hand and Prince Gabar’s in her right. She stroked them a few times. They looked metallic but felt fleshy under her touch. She grasped them firmly.

“Now you’re ... ah! ... getting into the ... oh! ... spirit of it!” said Prince Gabar, starting to smile. Queen Presh tugged repeatedly on both pistons. King Tyvil looked on with amusement, running his claw fingers through Queen Presh’s head noddles. Without warning, Queen Presh tightened her grip. King Prond and Prince Gabar cried out in pain as she crushed their pistons. Queen Presh flexed her muscles and, with a powerful heave, ripped the pistons from their bodies. Queen Maish stared in horror as two of her favourites were horrendously maimed. Yellowish brown oily blood gushed from their ruined groins. Queen Presh threw the two pistons forward so that they landed on either side of Queen Maish.

“You repulsive, murdering sacks of filth!” said Queen Presh, standing up. “I will never join you! I see it now: your love is poison! I spit on your ways!” As King Prond and Prince Gabar collapsed backwards, King Tyvil stood frozen with fear and Queen Presh advanced on Queen Maish.

“Leave us alone!” demanded Queen Presh. “Do not trouble my family again. Live in peace. Work for the common good. Support this world or I will end you!” She grabbed Queen Maish by the arms. The woman seemed far less regal now, a frightened frail wearing undeserved finery. She felt soft and very vulnerable in Queen Presh’s grip. Incredibly, Queen Presh started to pity her. Turning her head, Queen Presh looked at the others. They appeared to be even more pathetic. Their power and resolve had deserted them. Somehow, she had bested them. She had found the key to cancelling out their brutishness. Their spilt blood ran cold on her skin. If only she could explain this victory, this reversal of fortune: it was baffling! As she watched, they faded away. Everything went white. Queen Presh lost consciousness.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:31 pm

She felt a touch of lips on her cheek, achingly sweet. Delicate fingers stroked her chin, almost tickling her. She opened her eyes a fraction and saw that Chep’s face was only a few centimetres from her own. The background above was softly luminous green and orange, which meant that they were in their tent. The summer sun was warming them. Presh’s heart sang. Chep stroked her right breast tenderly, sending pulses of delight through her. Presh responded with a full kiss, titillating Chep’s gums, inner cheeks and tongues with her own long twin tongues. The two partners made love gently for nearly an hour. Long mutual familiarity gave them a multi-layered ability to satisfy each other. When it was finally over, they lay back side by side. Presh’s arm rested on Chep’s belly as she idly stroked her partner between the legs with one finger. Chep had finished but Presh liked to keep on touching her there for a minute or two.

“Where are the boys?” asked Presh after a few minutes of listening to Chep’s breathing, with the sounds of the countryside all around.

“Mmm, they did mention looking for food but I know them,” said Chep. “They’re not so dynamic after ten kilometres of uphill walking the day before. They’re probably just lying in their tent, shluking each other senseless and redecorating their fabric interior with globs of man paste.” A thought clicked in Presh’s mind.

“I had a dream last night,” she said. “I can’t remember most of it but I was grasping men’s members. Damn, why can’t I recall any more details? It’s infuriating! It was a really profound dream but it’s being dragged away. It’s gone.” She gave a little sigh and then decided it was time to get up. She crawled to the entrance, unzipped it, put her head out and was confronted with a large animal head. It was a friendly, inquisitive tzanjit.

“Oh, hello there!” she said, almost in a whisper. “Could I please come out? I want to do something.” The tzanjit licked her face with its large tongues.

“Please, it’s urgent!” she giggled. She pushed the tzanjit’s muzzle slightly and it retreated just enough for her to squeeze out of the tent. She took the animal by its natural guide tendrils and led it fifty metres from the tent. Then, she stepped away from the tzanjit, squatted down and urinated into an old, disused animal burrow. It saved her from splashing her ankles and feet. A few dead leaves served to wipe. There were many such burrows in this corner of the field. Chep followed Presh into the open and copied her trick with a burrow, then came over to the tzanjit with her.

“I think it wants to be ridden,” said Presh, stroking the animal’s head. “I used to ride a little when I was a girl. They’re bred for it, these tzanjits.”

“There’s no saddle,” said Chep.

“We’ll be fine for a short ride around the field,” said Presh. She patted the tzanjit on the rump and it lowered itself so the two women could mount. It was a struggle without stirrups but they made it. Chep went in front. Presh reached around Chep with both arms and took the tendrils. They trotted down the slope toward the other side of the large field. This was a great novelty for Chep: the increased height, the rhythms, the wind on her skin and the fast, complex movements. At the bottom of the slope, Presh ordered a gallop with slight pressure from her heels. They reached the opposite corner, turned around and galloped back. The tzanjit’s hooves thundered against the grassy ground as the women riders strove to maintain their balance. It was rather exhilarating, despite their familiarity with rapid transport.

“Take us back to the boys,” said Chep. “Let’s surprise them!” Presh told the tzanjit to climb back up the slope, which it did at its own pace. For the final hundred metres, Presh increased the speed to a moderate canter. Bkeisei and Criq heard it coming. They thought that they might be trampled. Hurriedly, they opened their tent and jumped out. The tzanjit stopped just short of their tent and then sniffed them as they stood there, unclad and agitated.

“Howdy!” said Chep, smiling. “Any of you young bucks need a ride?”

“At some point, of course,” said Bkeisei, a little irritated. “However, not on a stolen tzanjit like that.”

“He’s not stolen, he’s still in the field,” said Presh, her chest warm against Chep’s back. “We’re merely maintaining his fitness level. Consider this a public service!”

“Proudly male,” noted Criq, looking at the animal. “Trust you to find a stallion and ride him bareback at us. Turn him loose and let’s start the day as we planned, on foot.”

“All in good time, sir!” said Chep. “I haven’t had my fill of this big fellow yet. Jockey, take us on another circuit!” Presh and Chep continued to ride around the field for another half hour, whooping and savouring the sensations as their men did chores and prepared for another hike.

* * * * *

“I can’t stop thinking about Maish’s house,” said Bkeisei. “It must have been part of the festival, a private show exclusively for us.”

“I walked into the lounge and seven people turned to look at me at exactly the same time,” said Criq. “I really hope that that was part of the show, otherwise they were an extremely strange bunch. They kept staring with hardly any blinking. Their laughs sounded artificial. They didn’t know how many things felt, like a zuip sting or a paper cut.”

“Come on you two!” said Bkeisei to Presh and Chep, who were lagging behind.

“Sorry, we’re a bit saddle-sore,” said Presh. “Actually, I meant no-saddle-sore. The tzanjit’s back was a little rough. Ouch! If we ever do it again, I might try riding him sideways.” The men waited as they caught up.

“Our escape from Maish was brilliant, wasn’t it?” said Chep. “The memory keeps playing like a loop in my brain. They tried to hold us there by asking dozens of questions but we all excused ourselves and climbed out of the window. I don’t think that they even suspected for several minutes afterwards.”

“Jumping in that cab and heading for the next town felt like a righteous prison break!” said Criq.

“Maish’s crew was deeply sinister,” commented Presh. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen such outlandish behaviour before. However, my intuition tells me that they’re ultimately impotent. I don’t feel that they can hurt us. Meanwhile, there is something closer to home that can, namely chafing. I need to rest and heal. I believe that you would all benefit from that too.” They agreed to abandon their walk for today. The end of the Bluegrove Trail was close but comfort was more important to them at present. They lay down in the long, lush grass and let their minds wander for a while.

* * * * *

“Excellent question, Charvane!” said Presh via telephone conference call as she continued to rest in the pasture. “How do girls get boys to like them? Let me see...”

“I have so many ideas about that!” said Bkeisei.

“Shush!” said Presh.

“Aren’t you a little young to be asking about this?” asked Chep. “You’re only seven. I wasn’t interested until I was ten.”

“There’s nothing wrong with thinking ahead,” said Criq. “In my opinion, the most important way is to be kind. Presh and Chep were very kind when we met. They said that Bkeisei and I were unusually kind for our age too.”

“I think that that’s the right answer,” said Presh. “Thanks Criq for your accurate insight. However, you should also remember that life can be cruel. We can’t be kind all the time to everyone. Sometimes people are mean and we have to defend ourselves.”

“Only fight to protect yourself, your family, your friends, other good people and important things,” added Bkeisei. “Otherwise, spread the love as much as you can.”

“You know a lot, all of you,” said Charvane. “I’ll be kind and look for kind boys, like Rahoem at school. We have play dates sometimes. Have you been kind to anyone today?”

“Definitely,” said Presh. “This morning, Chep and I were very kind to each other. We were tired after all the walking and we helped each other to relax, mainly through massage. We’re still relaxing now, in a lovely blue field.” She winked at Chep.

“We were also kind to a tzanjit,” said Chep. “We didn’t massage him though, just rode him around and gave him exercise.”

“Bkeisei and I were being kind to each other,” said Criq. “However, we were interrupted by the tzanjit.”

“It nearly stood on us!” said Bkeisei. “We were scared. It was an accident, Presh told me. Life doesn’t always go well but we can keep on being kind to each other.”

“This afternoon, I was kind to everyone by stopping the walk and letting us rest,” said Presh. “We’re feeling better already. Now, we’re being kind to you by telling you useful and interesting things.”

“Do you have any pictures?” asked Charvane. Presh sat up and searched for photographs.

“I took some,” said Presh, starting to transmit them. “The others did too. This one shows the tzanjit. These are the tents. This is the parade at Bluegrove Magna. This is a house where we stayed one night. This is Brihi Village and this is the giant slide called Drincfuld Oblivion near there. This is us playing around in the woods with paper bags on our heads.”

“What?!” hissed Chep.

“Presh!!” said Criq urgently.

“Excuse me for a minute, Charvane,” said Presh. She muted the call.

“Did you just send her one of our private photos?!” said Bkeisei, shocked.

“Yes!” said Presh.

“We’re in big trouble!” said Criq. “Ask her to delete it!”

“Why?” asked Presh innocently.

“The police will come!” said Chep. “Do something, dummy!” Presh smiled mischievously and then laughed.

“Relax, I sent her the one showing only our heads!” she revealed and then reconnected with Charvane.

“Do you like the pictures, Charvane?” she asked.

“Oh yes, they’re very interesting!” said Charvane. “When I grow up, I’ll go and walk on the Bluegrope Trail like you.”

“You mean Bluegrove Trail, don’t you?” corrected Presh, still smiling. “Now, we should stop talking. I’m sure that you have things to do at home. Tomorrow is another school day. Also, this call isn’t free. I’ll speak to you again another time. All my love to the family.”

“Alright Presh,” said Charvane. “Now I’m going to practice being kind to Cteereth, maybe with a massage.” She hung up.

“Your own kindness isn’t perfected Presh,” said Criq. “Keep working on it: that’s an order!”

“Make me!” challenged Presh, lying down with her eyes closed and her hands behind her head.

“I will when I’ve rested enough, of course,” promised Criq. “The Bluegrope Trail is entertaining but exhausting!”

* * * * *

Givorni came home tired in his aging car. He parked, yanked the brakes on, stopped the engine, sighed, shut his eyes and waited for a tiny glimmer of enthusiasm to motivate him to enter the house. The roads had been difficult this evening with too many careless drivers, near misses, honking horns, sun glares and suicidal pedestrians. Givorni was frazzled and needed a few minutes to recover. Perhaps one of his partners would come out to greet him and tell him to shift his behind because dinner was ready. He waited briefly but no one did that. He climbed out of the car, locked it and approached the house door. It was very quiet inside. He unlocked the door and opened it. There, sprawled on the floor, was his partner Symaila. Her eyes were closed, her slippers had fallen off and a pan of vegetables had spilled all over the floor to her left.

“Furk, Symaila, can you hear me?” said Givorni, rushing in and kneeling beside her. He put his hands to her chest and mouth. He could feel a pulse and some shallow breathing. He stroked her cheek, kissed her lips and implored her to wake up. Within a minute, she was stirring. Givorni was incredibly relieved.

“What happened, Symaila?!” he asked with great concern.

“Told you,” she said in a quiet, weak voice. “It came back. The thing. The beast. Awful ...” Givorni was still tired but he was galvanised. He lifted her off the floor, carried her as fast as he could to the lounge and put her on the sofa.

“What did this beast look like?” he asked. “What did it do? Were you knocked out? Are you hurt?”

“I knocked myself out,” said Symaila. “I ran to the hall and fainted. Isn’t that silly? I passed out because I saw a beast that doesn’t exist.”

“Look, it hasn’t been proved one way or another,” said Givorni. “I know I said that it didn’t exist before but I was at a low ebb and I didn’t want to deal with it. I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine, I shouldn’t be rocking the boat with my wild tales and groundless worries,” said Symaila. “I’m just a woman, after all. What do I know?”

“Two can play this game, Symaila,” said Givorni. “What do I know? I’m just a man! My head’s just bone, really.” He rapped loudly on the side of his head with his knuckles.

“Right, you’re going to believe me now,” concluded Symaila. “I saw the damned thing in broad daylight. It was nearly as big as your car but it was shaped like a thimbrok. It was black and made of metal. Its skin kept shifting like it was made of little metal plates. There was black smoke clinging to it, like leafeathers. It was standing right where I hang the clothes to dry. When it turned to see me with its glowing orange-yellow eyes, my heart almost leapt out of my chest and I ran a few steps but then I fell.”

“I’m sorry I wasn’t here to help, Symaila!” said Givorni, tears welling in his eyes.

“You couldn’t have done anything,” said Symaila. “It must have had the strength of fifty men. You wouldn’t have stood a chance.”

“I’ll call the others,” said Givorni. “I’ll call the police too. This is a life-or-death situation.” The police arrived first, followed closely by Strobiq, partner to Givorni and Symaila. Givorni, Strobiq and two police officers went outside and found one footprint in the earth. It was half a metre long with deep claw marks at the front. There was no other evidence nearby but the police were concerned enough to call in back-up and start a wider search. Fourth partner Wijrine arrived fifteen minutes later. The quartet decided that it was too dangerous to stay in their house until the police or others had found the horrendous supernatural creature and dealt with it. While several police officers were searching in and around the house, the four partners packed enough belongings for a few weeks away and drove off in Strobiq’s fairly new and large car. They left most things behind including their other vehicles. They had given one set of house keys to the police so that the search could continue. They relocated to a hotel several kilometres away. The police were so concerned by the dangerous animal report that they advised many neighbours to leave the area. They suspected that the beast was hiding in one of the many local houses, garages or outbuildings. The search would probably take days. The evacuees went to many places, mainly the houses of relatives and friends. A minority went to hotels and guesthouses.

“I’m going to miss my broadcasts,” said Wijrine as Strobiq drove the quartet through the gathering dusk.

“What about my cooking?” said Symaila.

“I saw a police officer clearing up the spill,” said Givorni. “Don’t worry about a bit of food when a thimbrok from hell is on the loose!”

“I have my computer,” said Strobiq. “I can find plenty of broadcasts on the network.”

“What are we going to do about work?” said Givorni.

“We’ll have to ask for emergency leave,” said Wijrine. “Look, if this thimbrok thing is as bad as Symaila says, they might shut down our offices as a precaution. We should lie low in the hotel and hope to Furk that the creature doesn’t track us there.” They drove on, trying to adjust to their new reality and wishing that the crisis would end soon. Thirty minutes later, they arrived at their destination and parked. They got out of the car and looked around. The hotel was quite new, having opened less than a year before. The car park was less than half full, which indicated that the occupancy rate would be similar. They soon booked a room, paid and went upstairs to settle in. The price was relatively high but the accommodation was significantly above average in quality. They hoped that there would be compensation from the authorities later.

* * * * *

“Is this mass hysteria?” said the hotel manager to his accountant as they listened to a local news report. “One woman reports a wild animal and we start to see refugees turning up in our lobby the same evening.”

“The police seem convinced that it’s real,” said the accountant. “They say that they’ve seen evidence.”

“Thimbroks have been extinct on this continent for centuries,” said the manager. “There aren’t even any left in zoos. They’ve all been shipped back to Ombliek where they originated. It’s supposed to be kinder for them.”

“Not for the people and livestock of Ombliek, the prey of the thimbroks,” said the accountant. “Anyway, it will help us in the short term to have refugees with decent credit.”

“Indeed,” said the manager. “I’ll go and meet some of these unplanned guests. They’ve had their lives disrupted and I should help where I can.”

“Excellent idea, sir,” said the accountant, who then continued to put the financial returns in order.

“What’s the situation, Gianees?” asked the manager as he arrived at the main reception desk.

“It’s a community emergency, Priw,” said Gianees, turning to face him. “Several dozen people are having their routines and plans suspended at short notice. They’re stunned and would like some home comforts.”

“In that case, we need to order more pies, patties and gabioux sticks,” said Priw. “Not forgetting bluefizz sauce to put on top. Ask Furbelay to do that in the morning.”

“Yes sir,” said Gianees. Priw walked around the lobby and lounge, talking to the new guests. He soon built up a picture of police on doorsteps, ordering people to leave in a hurry. Old people were slower and had to be helped by neighbours or others. Children complained, cried and threw tantrums. Young people found the evacuation to be a small adventure, a welcome novelty distraction from ordinary life. A few rebels tried to stay and had to be threatened with arrest before they moved. Evening workers had to rush home unexpectedly. It was similar to the flood of seven years ago, thought Priw. In the far corner of the lounge, he met Symaila. She was the witness. Her story was pretty frightening. She had even drawn a picture of the thing that she saw in her garden. If this creature was real, it might pose a threat to anyone in the region without heavy weapons. Priw realised that his hotel was suddenly vulnerable. He could lock the doors but the beast could break through. He began to worry. Perhaps people would be safer upstairs? He started telling everyone to go back to their rooms and lock their doors.

In the dining room, people were generally enjoying themselves and sating their appetites. They hadn’t heard about the emergency because they hadn’t been tuned into news broadcasts and they hadn’t spoken to any new arrivals yet. Priw addressed them all at once. The diners weren’t too happy about his advice but they slowly got to their feet, finished their drinks, took what food they could carry and started making their way back to their rooms. As the last diners filtered out, a young woman in a strikingly patterned, finely woven evening dress stopped to talk to him. Her three partners stayed with her.

“What’s this I hear about a creature?” she said, downing a vornafa-fezberry cocktail.

“It’s a huge thimbrok, I’m told,” said Priw. “There’s one witness called Symaila. She’s in room 314. She’s been traumatised.”

“I must have a word with her!” said the woman. “We’re halfway through our wonderful holiday and we don’t want a smelly escaped thimbrok spoiling it. Let’s go, gang!” She pointed toward the door and walked in that direction, swaying a little. The others followed her. They were all moderately inebriated. Priw watched them go for a moment and then turned his attention to security matters. He wished that he was still young and gorgeous like them.

“Hello my dear Symaila, I’m Presh!” said Presh, introducing herself at the door to room 314. “These are Criq, Bkeisei and Chep, my lovely loving partners. I hear that you’ve seen a big thing!” Wijrine stared at Presh for a moment, trying to work out what to do. This drunk girl somehow knew her partner’s name.

“Symaila, are you decent?” asked Wijrine, looking behind her.

“Yes, what is it?” responded Symaila.

“A young quartet wants to talk to you about the monster,” said Wijrine.

“By all means,” said Symaila. “I don’t have much else to do tonight.” The youngsters sat on the bed while Symaila told her story. It was about more than just one creature. The house had been plagued by supernatural phenomena for months. There had been little shapes moving in the shadows, unexplained lights around the neighbourhood, bizarre noises and a pervasive feeling of scrutiny by invisible eyes.

“That sounds like our house!” said Chep, alarmed.

“You need psychics, when the police lift the cordon,” said Criq. “We can recommend some to you.”

“I want to see for myself!” said Presh vehemently.

“Oh no you don’t!” said Bkeisei. “We’re sloshed! We can’t drive tonight! We’ll go tomorrow, I promise.”

“Please stay away from there!” said Symaila. “You might be ripped to pieces by the metal thimbrok. That would be an utter tragedy!”

“I can handle it!” insisted Presh. “I have special qualitilees!” She tried to get up, stumbled and toppled sideways onto a thick rug. She wasn’t hurt. Her partners picked her up and took her back to their room.

“Thank you for the nice story!” said Presh as she left room 314.

“Quiet now, stop making a flool of yourself,” said Bkeisei. Back at the room, everyone got ready for bed. They had had a great day staying here in an upmarket hotel. They had been celebrating reaching the northern end of the Bluegrove Trail. Now, they were quite sleepy and really needed a full night’s rest for the start of the return leg. Presh, however, felt a strong urge to visit the house with the monster. When the others were sound asleep, she quietly arose and went to the bathroom. She pulled out her membrane, took the shower head and rinsed both sides of the delicate fleshy sheet. She gasped in shock as the cool water washed most of the vornafa from her filtering mechanism. It was bad for the nerves but essential for rapid sobriety. Shivering as the membrane retracted, she prepared to leave on a night mission. She put on her black trousers, shoes, pullover and hat for stealth. She drank a jdong sachet for stimulation, put essentials in her pockets, stepped through the window and climbed down the fire escape. She jogged to the road and managed to catch the last bus to town. As she sat in the empty bus, clutching her chilly xuv slit to warm it, she thought about how she loved being proactive rather than waiting for things to come along and scare her.

The bus reached its terminus and Presh sneaked into town, following a map from the network. She approached the police cordon, waited for the patrols to pass by and then slipped under the barriers. The ‘monster house’ was just another ordinary construct with extra police lines around it. Presh went close to the house and examined it in detail. Nothing in particular stood out except the footprint. If this creature was a machine and it was still around here somewhere, what might be the signs? She scanned the walls and spotted a broken wire swinging free in the breeze. It wasn’t standard wire: it was shinier and newer. She grasped it and found herself in a whole new realm.

There was so much information that she could only process tiny fragments. She saw a succession of worlds, each with their own unique landscapes. Some were dead worlds, some had microbes, some had sparse life and some were lush. Some had red suns, some yellow suns, some white suns. Star ships were ever-present. Trees crowded around. Animals burrowed shallow and deep. Reefs grew and shrank. Intelligence emerged here and there. Machines were ubiquitous. It all seemed to be endless. There was slavery on a geological timescale. Whoever these people were, they were bound in service until they were wrecked in some war, accident, plague or punishment. This was slavery so ruthless that it overthrew any semblance of reason and independent thought. It did not take into account any contrary desires. It was obsessively strict in its policy of no exit. It was totally revolting.

“Why are you here in this house, creatures?” asked Presh via thought. “What’s special about this place?” No direct answer came, just blizzards of images, text and sensations. Presh tried to make sense of it but the task was hopeless. She continued to feel the many pains experienced by slaves who had been kept for ten million years or more. She couldn’t help but weep. Was there a way for them to be freed? She concentrated, thinking of the day of the house cleansing and other times when she had felt influential. Although she was unaware of it, the space around her warped so that multiple realities could coexist in the same space and time. The house became superpositioned. In one reality it was intact, in a second it had been dismantled, in a third it had been removed and in a fourth it had been reduced to splinters. More realities accumulated as the mysterious effect continued to act. It was now possible for creatures to cross into new realities and escape their previous predicaments. Presh could see many different life forms seizing the opportunity. One of those life forms was clearly a black metal thimbrok. Others were also made of metal and seemed to be related to the thimbrok. Presh was staggered by what she was somehow doing. She was warping the universe itself to give freedom to victims of grotesque injustice.

“What do you think you’re playing at?” demanded a policeman in black body armour as Presh’s consciousness returned to normality. A few hours had passed since she had grabbed the wire. She had lost track of time because she had been beyond it. Upon her return, the police had finally discovered her.

“The house won’t be haunted by supernatural creatures or beasts anymore,” said Presh, putting her hand on his padded shoulder. “I’ve let them escape. Can you feel the clear atmosphere now?” She gave one more burst of her unexplained power and the policeman was relocated five hundred metres via a different reality. Then, she sneaked away from the house and found a safe hiding place near the bus terminus. Could she do more now? Could she warp herself back to the hotel, or anywhere else for that matter? She tried but the effect had worn off. She crouched in her secluded corner and waited for dawn, when the first bus of the new day would run. She was still just a mortal girl but all fear of her own supposedly haunted house in Pede Noctic had just been driven away for good. When she returned home, she now had the wherewithal to shunt those ‘spooks’ to the back end of beyond!

* * * * *

“How much to Bypher’s Bridge?” asked an older woman as the bus engine idled.

“Four fifty,” said the bus driver.

“That much?” said the woman. “In my day, it was one twenty.” She rummaged slowly in her purse, looking for coins.

“Five with a rover ticket,” said a man behind the woman. “You can ride all day on a rover.”

“I’m a bit old to ride all day but I do want to go shopping this afternoon,” said the woman. “Rover please, driver.” She paid a five credit note and tottered down the aisle to an empty seat. Her voice had woken Presh, who looked out of the window and saw her hotel. With a start, she remembered that it was time to rejoin her partners. She stood up and squeezed past the boarding passengers at the door, who grumbled about her supposed lack of manners and their rush to go to minimum wage jobs. Partly refreshed by her doze on the bus and the cool morning air, Presh loped down the lane and into the hotel car park. Squatting in the middle and blocking some cars was a fat military vehicle. It was an armoured personnel carrier big enough to hold at least twenty troopers if they were packed in tightly. Presh had been in a hurry to return to her room but this vehicle made her stop and stare for a short while. It appeared to be a new model. She had never seen pictures of it online or in guide books. It had a standard camouflage-blue colour scheme but the unfamiliar body shape made it stand out. She thought for a moment and concluded that it resembled a small mobile home, which had been heavily reinforced.

“You’re a hardcore passion wagon, aren’t you?” she murmured, stepping closer and examining the details of the bodywork. The shape of the headlights reminded her of something. A moment later, she realised that the headlights were similar in shape to the eyes of the metal thimbrok, which she had glimpsed in her vision at the town house. She stepped back again to view the whole vehicle.

“You’re one of them!” she said, louder than before. “Can I help you? I can free you if you like!” The vehicle didn’t move. It was either dead or watching her impassively.

“Stop what you’re doing and leave the area,” said a humourless voice from the right. “Don’t interfere with army property.” A sour-faced young woman in helmet and body armour walked around the vehicle and confronted Presh.

“I think it’s one of those strange creatures,” said Presh. “I think that I might be able to help it. I can ease it over the threshold to a new reality!” The woman rolled her eyes in exasperation.

“I know you’re having a ball with your pling dust or your vivik injections but we are the army reserve,” she said with contempt. “There’s a security alert in this region. If you don’t behave in a sensible manner, I am authorised to use force against you. Is that clear?” Presh saw the gun strap across her armour and began to walk away. She skirted around the army woman and jogged into the hotel. The manager had unlocked the front door now that the army reserve was here and daylight had returned. Presh considered going upstairs but then her stomach started rumbling so she went to the breakfast room instead. She ordered a full breakfast and watched the other guests coming in as she waited for it. She listened to their conversations and learnt a few things about the local situation. It appeared that the army reserve were preventing guests from leaving, at least until tomorrow but probably longer. Two of the soldiers walked into the breakfast room, patrolling to reassure civilians. However, it was not exactly pleasant for a rapid-fire rifle to be pointing in one’s general direction while one was eating fried blimbo and toogles in the morning. Presh looked at the soldiers’ faces. The young man and woman were vigilant but they didn’t look happy about serving in the forces today. They sighed every so often, as if they knew that this was a waste of time. Their gaze lingered on the food, which indicated that they would rather be eating well and relaxing than parading around in full battle-dress. With that in mind, Presh started to think about an escape plan for her quartet.

“There you are!” said Chep as she walked into the breakfast room, followed closely by Bkeisei and Criq. “Where did you go last night?” Presh’s upright nap at the breakfast table ended.

“Oh, hi everyone,” said Presh, still half asleep. “You’d better have breakfast before the food runs out. I’ve had mine already. I was out all night, fixing some important things in town.”

“You couldn’t wait, could you?” said Bkeisei.

“It was important!” said Presh. “There were alien things, spirits and monsters, trapped and enslaved for far, far too long. I set them free. It was so beautiful that I cried big salty tears for at least half an hour.”

“What are you talking about?” asked Criq. “How did you set them free? Was it your magic?”

“It must have been,” said Presh. “I wish that I could explain it. I seem to be in tune with these entities and their world. I can easily open doors and let them through, like releasing the hurgs!”

“Is that house still haunted?” asked Chep.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Presh. “All the strangeness seemed to drain away. It feels quiet and vacant there now.”

“Can you do the same in our house?” asked Chep.

“I reckon I can!” replied Presh.

“That’s fantastic!” said Chep, sitting down and hugging Presh.

“If there are any lingering presences in our house, I can evict them and keep them out, as long as I’m there,” continued Presh. “That makes me a kind of psychic, doesn’t it?” Bkeisei and Criq leaned across and kissed her.

“Basically, the situation here is back to normal,” said Criq. “We know that but the authorities don’t.”

“I talked to one of these soldiers briefly,” said Presh. “She thought that I was on drugs! I don’t think that anyone will believe my story, except close friends and relatives.”

“We have to stay here today and maybe tomorrow,” said Bkeisei. “It means that our walking schedule is in danger of being cut short. We’ll never make it back home in time unless we increase our distance per day or find transportation. Personally, I don’t want this holiday to become a slog and I don’t want to cheat.”

“There is a possible solution,” said Presh quietly. She wiggled her fingers slightly and glanced at a soldier. Her partners knew what she meant.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:35 pm

That evening, there was a knock at the rear door, which was unusual. Most people were too intimidated to call on soldiers in their vehicle, especially at night. Perhaps it was the night shift. Obstrat put down his reheated stew and opened the door.

“Good evening, my name is Chep,” said a smiling young woman in a shimmering blue evening dress. “My partners and I saw you today, wearing all that heavy armour and guarding us so diligently. We’re very grateful. Would it be possible for us to repay you with a meal in the hotel restaurant? It’s on us!”

“We’re not supposed to fraternise,” said Obstrat. “We were told to stay in the APC as a precaution, in case the night shift runs into trouble.”

“I see,” said Chep, looking a little disappointed. “Has there been any trouble today? Are you expecting any?”

“No, it’s been all clear,” said Obstrat. “My partners and I think that it’s a false alarm. Someone’s been overindulging and started seeing things. There are some loonies around here as well, like you find in any backwater.”

“So, it will probably be OK,” said Chep, swaying her hips a little. “Tell me, do you know the night shift?”

“No, they’re from another unit,” said Obstrat. “We never met before.”

“They have no idea what you look like,” said Chep. “You could take off your uniform, put on civvies and they’d never recognise you.”

“You’re right,” said Obstrat. “I see where you’re going with this. What do you think, troops? Can we risk it?”

“That bee-atch sergeant went home for the night,” said Weyala, rising from her cramped bunk. “I’m sick of these bogus assignments. We had to leave our kids with my parents again. I’m in. We might as well have some fun. Rations suck.”

“We’ll put the APC on auto,” said Braynk, standing up and removing his sweaty jacket. “This bad boy can turn enemies into slush without our help.”

“I’ve heard that these vehicles are very intelligent nowadays,” said Chep, running her eyes across the rear of the APC. “I hope that it doesn’t incinerate any stray hurgs.”

“They’re past that now, the AI is generation seven,” said Jukon, struggling to unlace her boot. “I have my reservations about this dinner, Chep but I don’t want to let down my side. We don’t have summer dresses like you, just casual civilian clothes.”

“We don’t mind at all,” said Chep. “As long as you’re brave and true, you’re welcome.” She went back into the restaurant. The quartet of soldiers changed their clothes and then waited for the night shift team to move out of sight. Then, the four sneaked swiftly into the restaurant and joined Chep’s group.

“This is a lovely surprise!” said Jukon, picking up a menu but glancing from side to side. “Unfortunately, if anyone finds out we could be put in prison.”

“We’ll eat quickly,” said Obstrat. “That’s a basic army skill. ‘The enemy doesn’t care about your dessert time’ is the old saying.”

“Hey dude, I don’t mean to criticise but you’re sitting very tensely,” said Criq. “Try to relax and look like a civilian.” He demonstrated by leaning back, putting his arm around Presh’s shoulders and smiling broadly.”

“You’re right,” said Obstrat. “Army life corrodes our brains.” He and his partners did their best to switch off and act carefree. A waitress came and took orders.

“I’m very interested about what you army people do,” said Chep. “What can you tell us? Nothing classified, of course.”

“It’s lean times for us,” said Weyala. “AI is here to stay. There’s less and less need for troops like us. Units are being cut left and right. They’re keeping us reservists longer because we’re part-time and cheap.”

“How long is it since we actually had a war?” asked Presh. “Eighty years? Ninety?”

“Officially, it’s a hundred and nineteen years,” said Braynk. “The Fulhej riots don’t count. They were big but undeclared by a government. I know that death and destruction are at low levels but it’s embarrassing for troops to be without a fight for so long. We’ve been reduced to a multi-purpose emergency service.” The first courses arrived.

“I like your matching rings,” said Bkeisei. “They emphasise how you’re together.”

“Heh, they’ll help with identifying us as a foursome if we’re killed in the line of duty,” said Weyala.

“They’re wedding rings,” said Braynk. “We’re married.”

“Oh really,” said Bkeisei, taken aback. “I’ve never met married people before.”

“I know that it’s not very popular,” said Obstrat. “Everyone says it’s pointless and we understand but we wanted to make an extra romantic gesture, to keep us together in tough times.”

“We haven’t had to fight but army life is disruptive,” said Weyala. “It really tries our patience. That’s what Obstrat means by ‘tough times’.”

“Weyala’s becoming increasingly frustrated,” said Obstrat. “We’ll have to leave the reserve at the end of the year, when our five-year term is over. She can’t deal with it much longer. We’re missing out on too much parent time.”

“Keep giving yourself little treats and you’ll make it,” said Presh sympathetically. “Tonight, for example: what shall we buy for you after that fruit flan, Weyala? How about veyx medallions in noff gravy?”

“Yeah, that would hit the spot,” said Weyala. “I like you, Presh. You’re genuine. You really care.” She was deeply grateful for this kind of attention, which was sometimes lacking at home and at work.

“What’s this new army centre at Kyft Mran?” asked Bkeisei after the main course. “I’ve seen it a few times on the news but all I know is that it’s for developing weapons.”

“You don’t expect us to know about that, do you?” said Jukon. “It’s top secret, of course.”

“Why does the army need another facility when they already have one at Egelyfob?” asked Bkeisei. “Are they preparing for a new war or other emergency?”

“Good question, I wish we knew,” replied Jukon. “Part time grunts aren’t told. I go there sometimes, though. The plant does produce vehicles like ours and others that are similarly advanced. Once, I saw a boffin testing a rocket launcher. The impact blast was at least fifty percent larger than the previous generation of rockets.” Presh found this news quite disturbing. It was bad enough that weapons were becoming more powerful but could there be some secret motivation behind the development? Was there a connection to the metal thimbrok and his ilk? She strongly suspected it.

“Do you have any plans for next year?” asked Criq. “Will you have more holidays?”

“Certainly, although holidays with children can be tough,” said Braynk, laughing and shaking his head as he recalled previous examples. “Day trips are easier but the trick is finding enough interesting places to go.”

“It’s a luxury just to stay at home and get on with things,” said Jukon. “I hate the way that they steal my time and I really have to hustle in order to cope.” The four soldiers and four civilians continued chatting and commiserating for nearly another hour. Dessert time was not stolen tonight. The eight rapidly developed a liking and respect for each other. They kept an eye on the clock, though. The night shift walked through once but suspected nothing. After drinks, Obstrat said that it was time to move on.

“It’s a shame you have to go,” said Criq. “I could stay here for hours more. Isn’t there some way to keep this going?”

“We don’t want to push it,” said Obstrat. “We have to start quite early tomorrow. You don’t.”

“What if we help you to relax intensely?” asked Criq. “Fancy a shluk? The pools are downstairs.”

“We thought this might happen,” said Obstrat, staring into Criq’s eyes. He paused for a moment, making everyone hang on his decision.

“You’re on,” he said. “No one will spot us in a locked pool room. By the way, I know exactly what you’re planning.”

“What’s that?” said Criq as he led the way to the stairs. The other six followed them.

“You’re hikers and you want to be on your way but we’re blocking you,” said Obstrat.“The plan is to persuade us to let you go. Of course we won’t allow it. We’re going to be at our posts. We have to maintain our vigilance, especially when the APC systems receive upgrades at 0500 hours and the sensors are offline for ten minutes.”

“We understand,” said Criq as he entered the pool room. “Thank you for your service to the people of this great nation.”

* * * * *

“Well persuaded,” said Criq to his quartet as they left the hotel grounds at 0500 hours. “We also relieved a lot of tension back there.”

“It was like a dam broke in Weyala’s mind and a torrent of repressed pain came out,” said Bkeisei. “Thankfully, we had the experience to soothe her.”

“Actually, I think that Braynk was sadder than her,” said Chep. “He managed to suppress it more. I kept signalling little acts of gentle love to him and he absorbed them the whole time. It was never enough. He had a big hole in his soul.”

“Anyway, the job’s done and now we can head for home down the alternate route,” said Presh. “I’m glad we’re taking that rather than retracing our steps. A dull holiday is a dead holiday.” They decided to push for a longer distance but the gradient was working against them.

“The alternate route is the high road,” said Bkeisei. “Sometimes in the past, flooding and waterlogging made the regular trail difficult or impossible to follow. The solution was to use the high ground. The drawback was the effort needed to ascend. We’ll have to climb the equivalent of five hundred vertical metres in the first thirty kilometres.” They slogged on in the summer sunshine, stopping regularly to catch their breath and drink water. A few hours later, they reached the twelve kilometre mark and debated whether or not they wanted to go any further. They felt that they could walk a few more kilometres but that it would be counterproductive due to fatigue. They reckoned that they should camp where they were, on a field of high pasture partly surrounded by a ring of trees. They had a late lunch and rested in the sun. Presh glimpsed a tiny village with a few shops, behind the trees about three hundred metres down the west side of the hill. She decided that she would visit it, hoping to buy a few supplies. While she was gone, the others talked about various matters including Presh.

“I still can’t believe that we live with a psychic/celebrity,” said Criq. “Who saw that coming? I thought that she was just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill glamour model type!”

“She fooled us so well,” said Bkeisei. “I felt her charisma and perhaps I should have known but I was naive.”

“I sensed hidden depths when we were together in the bedroom, the tub, the garden shed, the woods,” said Chep. “The list goes on. My point is that I should have known too. Oh, there’s a farmer waving at us. Hi, Mr. Farmer!” They all waved at the farmer in the distance, who then went on his way.

“I think that her power is growing as she gains experience,” said Criq. “We should be very careful in how we treat her. To be honest, I’m a little scared. If she can banish things to other realities, she could do it to us.”

“Fear is possibly the greatest barrier that can come between people,” warned Chep. “If we treat her as a threat, we might drive her away. Actually, threats exist everywhere. She’s no different, so we should treat her like everyone else.”

“We should actually protect her more than usual,” said Bkeisei. “She mentioned that there could be a connection between the development of new military weapons and the proliferation of mysterious phenomena across the country. She might be the best defence we have against those phenomena. If she can neutralise them in some way, she could prevent a future war.”

“Wow, this is profound!” said Criq. “When our holiday is over, we should try to investigate this whole field. It would be a good idea to gather intelligence and maybe do more before we have children.”

“We can start now, using the network,” said Chep. “We could ask people for their insights and experiences.”

“We’ll probably have to bring her family into this,” said Bkeisei. “It’s potentially a huge issue so we might need all available back-up. Somewhere among her relatives, there might be other psychics like her.”

“Speaking of psychics, we should also consult people like Gola, Bula and Shtetba,” said Criq. “By rights, they must be able to throw light on this matter.”

“It’ll be very interesting to see what happens when we get home,” said Bkeisei. “We might see Presh in action if there’s still a creature or two lurking. How are you doing down there, Chep?”

“Fine but I think you should give Criq a turn now,” said Chep, brushing a little debris from her hands. “He shouldn’t wait too long for a piece of me.” Bkeisei withdrew from her and Criq took his place.

* * * * *

“When my super-oil is ready and deployed, all flesh will burn!” said a screeching, exaggerated voice on a trashy TV show. “My rage is hotter than all the ovens of the world!!!”

“OK, that’s it: I forbid you to watch any more tonight,” said Criq, turning off the TV as he walked past. “I can’t see the point of this stuff. I hate that robot guy with his demented ideas of conquest. It only pollutes the shluk circle.”

“Come on, I like to see a few episodes now and then,” said Bkeisei, slightly annoyed.

“The ludicrousness of that show makes us look so superior in comparison,” said Presh. “Also, Coolstaff literally has abs of steel.”

“My hands should be all over them,” said Chep, reclining sideways on the bed. “This show has terrible production values but sometimes I can’t stop watching it because of him and his steel friends. What’s the title again, Bkeisei?”

“The show is called ‘One Form is Not Enough’ because they turn into various machines,” replied Bkeisei. “This week’s episode was called ‘Oil and Trouble’.”

“Appalling,” said Presh, shaking her head. “Criq, can you bring me that bottle? The purple one with white writing, I mean.”

“Why do you need this now?” asked Criq, picking up the bottle. “We don’t have dry skin or sores.”

“As a precaution, can you rub it onto us?” asked Presh. “It’s hot out there. Our skin will get dry eventually.”

“Well put, Presh,” said Bkeisei. “Dermal protection is vital.”

“You’re tired and suggestible,” said Criq. “TV is giving you the wrong ideas. I’m not going to use this.” He put the bottle back on the side table.

“Oh go on!” said Chep with a slightly pleading tone, rolling onto her back like a disappointed little girl.

“It will only go on the sheets and make a mess,” said Criq. “I’m not paying for damages or extra laundry just because some actor in a silly suit mentioned oil a few times on TV.” He tidied up a little and then lay down to try to sleep. The others were subdued and silent for a few minutes.

“Alright, I’ll do it in the morning when you actually need the stuff!” said Criq. The others were mollified.

“Coolstaff commends your sensible attitude and awards you a Pearly Medal of Corporeal Sagacity!” said Bkeisei in a screeching, exaggerated voice to copy the TV show.

“Tchah!” said Criq, unimpressed. Bkeisei felt deflated, so he lay down closed his eyes. They would visit another place of interest tomorrow, so another good night’s sleep was crucial.

* * * * *

“We should have gone to the Avian Rescue Centre instead,” said Bkeisei as the quartet sat on a low wall outside the Trymphat Heritage Museum. “I’m so sorry, everyone.” Presh, Chep and Criq were sobbing and putting their arms around each other’s shoulders. Even Bkeisei had felt the impact of the new discovery exhibits and was weeping a little in sympathy.

“I was, I was fine until the furniture remnants, the fragments of old armchairs and cushions,” sniffed Presh. “Then we turned the corner and there were bodies...” She dissolved into more wailing and tears.

“It was one of the saddest things I ever saw,” said Bkeisei. “So many victims, such injuries...”

“I don’t want to look at any more here,” said Chep. “I’m not ready for it right now. I don’t want to be reminded of all that sadness.”

“We should just have lunch and then go,” said Criq. “If we’re going to be parents, we don’t want to dwell on old atrocities, famines, plagues and hatred.”

“I had no idea that this area was so blood-soaked,” said Bkeisei.

“It was lost and forgotten until last year, when they found the mass graves,” said Chep, her head in her hands. “I wish that I’d paid more attention to the archaeology news!” As she spoke, a few more people left the museum in tears. The quartet eventually made their way to the cafeteria where they sat, ate slowly and drank. On the walls above their heads were posters commemorating the new exhibits. The posters consisted mainly of old symbols but they were notorious ones, full of sinister meanings and associations. They seemed to cast a grim shadow over the room, although the sunshine was intense. Presh was haunted by the sight of one excavated grave. It had contained the bodies of a woman and her child. They had been executed because they had belonged to a group that fought for freedom. If Presh had been born into that time period five hundred years ago, she might have been executed in the same manner, along with her own child.

“We’ll have to go,” said Criq, wiping his eyes yet again. “We paid to see the whole museum but screw it, this is not the time. Let’s keep going to Shelatt Hink Village.” They prepared themselves and went on their way.

“We don’t have to worry about that again,” said Bkeisei, trying to lighten the mood. “Life is better now. The old regimes are long gone. We’re on holiday and we’re having exercise in the bright sun!” Gradually, everyone felt their sadness dissipating. Shelatt Hink was clearly visible in the next little valley and they made straight for it. Occasionally, cars drove by with their cameras panning back and forth. A street photomapper unicycle zipped past at a crossroads. Two army APCs also rumbled through. One of them had an automatic mechanism that was opening up its rear compartment. It was the most advanced such mechanism that the quartet had ever seen and they stared at it in surprise. There were dozens of moving parts and it looked like the vehicle had a life of its own.

“Freaky!” said Chep. “I didn’t know that they could do that. It could almost have been Coolstaff. What other secrets are the army hiding, I wonder?”

“They deny everything,” said Presh. “We’ll never find out. Don’t concern yourself about it: there’s no point.” They reached the village, checked into a very small guest house and got ready for the next day.

* * * * *

That night, the quartet had trouble sleeping. It was uncomfortably hot in the bedroom. The windows were open but there was no breeze. The mattress was made of a fabric that retained warmth very well. Bkeisei opened the ceiling hatch, which helped a little. While he did that, he noticed that the entire ceiling was well insulated between the rafters so the heat couldn’t escape through it.

“This is intolerable,” said Criq. “Everyone go back in the tub room.” No one argued. They were already clean but they gave each other brief cool showers.

“Now let’s sit on the balcony chairs,” said Criq. They took their seats in the dark night air on the balcony that was only just big enough for all of them. It was slightly cooler out here. The village slumbered but a few people could be seen in silhouette on their own balconies, trying to cool off. The water rapidly evaporated from the quartet’s bodies.

“We sort of fell apart back there, didn’t we?” said Chep. “I don’t normally cry over history but that place was so relevant to us that it had a special resonance. If we’re having babies, we must avoid conflict.”

“We might be more tired than we realise,” said Presh. “We’ve walked roughly a hundred and fifty kilometres. It’s been hot so we’ve had dehydration and skin rashes. (Incidentally, we need more skin cream.) We’ve camped out quite often and done a lot of our own chores.”

“On top of that, we’ve been banging like doors in a gale,” added Bkeisei. “Plus, we took it upon ourselves to shluk some strangers, a few of whom were emotionally fragile.”

“That shluking was important,” said Presh. “The amount of shluking in society is inversely proportional to the amount of violence. We were doing our bit to keep society harmonious. We have to keep shluking in future. If we don’t, we might end up as broken skeletons in a museum.”

“The most troubling part of our year has been the unexplained stuff,” said Criq. “We’ve had monsters, ghosts, invisible presences, advanced technology, secret military build-up, people who act like aliens, spy cameras everywhere and, last but certainly not least, our very own Presh.”

“Why thank you, thank you!” said Presh, standing up, smiling and taking a bow. “Now, I know I am a strong advocate of shluking with other quartets but did anyone notice something odd with the last session?”

“Squaddies are well known for having problems with repressed emotions,” said Bkeisei. “You have to expect that they’ll be hard work.” Presh sat down again.

“No, I did feel something off about them,” said Chep. “Their signal patterns were unnatural, sometimes repetitive and sometimes interrogative. It’s like they had been exposed to bad influences, like mentally ill people, obsessive people, controlling people or...” She thought for a moment about the other possibility. She looked at her shluk sister Presh. There was a moment of concept convergence between them.

“Machines!” she said with a horrified realisation. “They’ve been shluking with machines!”

“Furk!” said Criq. “That means we have indirectly shluked machines because we shluked the squaddies!”

“Oh no, this isn’t happening!” said Bkeisei as the pieces fell into place. “How can it be? How can they let it go on?!”

“We have our toys at home but this is completely different!” said Presh. “It’s giving machines access to our brains!”

“I don’t want to shluk any more squaddies,” said Chep, shuddering. “There’s some kind of secret experiment going on in the army. It could hurt us.”

“Yes, we have to protect ourselves,” said Presh. “I really hope that someone uncovers their secrets and puts a stop to this abominable practice. Then, people like us can move in, get back to shluking and put right the minds of those poor squaddies. Don’t give up on them just yet, Chep.”

“It must be the AIs,” said Bkeisei. “They’re the only machines sophisticated enough to have a hope of shluking with people. I didn’t realise that they had progressed so far, though. Last year, leading scientists said that machine shluking was decades away. Even then, they said that it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good as normal shluking.”

“Do you think the soldiers are doing it with their own vehicles?” asked Presh. “Those APCs look really advanced.”

“It’s a horrible thought but it would make sense,” said Criq. “Imagine that they’re out in the field, their partners are on patrol or working and they have no one to shluk. They would need something to calm them down, to scratch the itch. Drugs have side effects, electro-stimulation is harmful in the long run but an AI shluker could be a better solution. I bet that the army boffins have built and installed those devices but they won’t tell us officially for many years.”

“The idea of it makes me feel ill!” said Chep, putting her hands on her shluks protectively. “This discussion is far too disturbing. It’s ruining the holiday.”

“Come over here and sit on my lap,” said Bkeisei. “Let me undisturb you.” She stood up, went over and lowered herself onto his lap backwards.

“No don’t, the chair will...” said Criq. The chair collapsed with a snap as the combined weight of Bkeisei and Chep proved too much for it. Bkeisei found himself lying on the wrecked chair, under his beautiful, laughing partner.

“Ow, my delicate parts!” he complained as Criq and Presh came to lift Chep off him. The quartet stood and looked at the chair afterwards.

“When will you learn?” asked Criq, a little annoyed. “Folding chairs are weak.”

“That’s another expense,” said Presh. “This holiday hasn’t been cheap, has it?”

“It hasn’t,” said Criq. “I tell you what, we can prop this chair up and make it look undamaged. Then, we just walk away and, if they ask, we deny all knowledge.”

“It was probably like that when we got here,” added Chep.

“No, I don’t like this dishonesty,” said Presh. “I’m paying for it tomorrow morning. If you kick up a fuss, I’ll make you all shluk squaddies and their APCs. You know I can do it: I’m psychic!”

“We accept your wisdom,” said Bkeisei. “However, we still have to deal with our collective stress. Let’s have a quick one to help us sleep.” He gently clutched Presh’s bottom and eased her toward the bed.

* * * * *

Another morning came and the quartet sat in the breakfast room, fuelling up for another day of walking and sightseeing. However, their thoughts and talk still turned to the grim business of machine shluking.

“You said it yourself, they’ll deny everything,” said Criq. “It’s pointless us reporting something this important without proof. We won’t achieve anything.”

“It’s a shot in the dark, I grant you but we should at least try,” said Presh. “Shluking with machines has the potential to degrade the social order in the long run. We must act against it.”

“Are you thinking of approaching the Search Mogul group?” asked Bkeisei. “They’re the ones most likely to investigate our story.”

“I wish they would but I suspect that they’re banned from investigating new military technology,” said Presh. “In fact, I think that everyone is banned from doing it.”

“So, what else can we do?” asked Chep.

“I want to start an anonymous online shluk diary and mention it there,” said Presh. “It’s obscure but it might alert the world eventually.”

“Look, this is potentially a massive story,” warned Criq. “If it explodes in popularity, someone will track you down. They won’t let you stay anonymous. Then, we’ll all be at risk. Furk knows what they’ll do to us.”

“Who’s doing what to who?” asked the inquisitive landlady, who was passing their table.

“We recently shluked a quartet of squaddies,” said Chep.

“Oh, those were the days!” said the landlady. “I used to do that sort of thing all the time.”

“The problem is that something was wrong with their shluking,” said Presh.

“They might have hurt their hands, love,” said the landlady. “It’s very common in the forces.”

“No, the patterns were odd,” said Presh. “It felt like they were responding to a machine sometimes. We came to the conclusion that they had been shluking machines, perhaps their own vehicles.”

“That sounds vile!” said the landlady. “Imagine the sooty grease ingrained in all their intimate areas! It could give them poisoning or cancer after a while. The thought of it turns my stomach!”

“We don’t mean that,” said Criq, trying to be patient. “We think that there are devices inside the vehicles that can give and receive manual messages.”

“Why ever would they want such creepy things?” asked the landlady.

“It’s not always possible to find shluk partners when on army duty somewhere in the world,” replied Criq. “The vehicle AI shluk substitutes are supposed to give soldiers relief when partners are unavailable.”

“Minyans preserve us, whatever next?” said the landlady. “Have you seen these devices? Have you seen them being used?”

“I’m afraid not but we’d like to find some proof, if possible,” replied Criq. “We simply don’t know how, though. Would you happen to know anything that would help us?”

“Sometimes I see army vehicles parked in Tivloye Town,” said the landlady. “The soldiers buy gabioux sticks in the centre. That’s probably your best bet. Other than that, you could hang around an army base like in Kyft Mran.”

“We’re going to Tivloye Town today,” said Presh, her hopes rising. “We might be in luck! Thank you, Ma’am.”

“Very good luck to you, Ma’amoiselle!” said the landlady. “I’d hate to see those machines shluk us all into bondage or whatever they plan, the devious bastards!” She walked away to continue her work. The quartet finished their breakfast, shouldered their packs, unshouldered their packs, used the toilet, shouldered their packs again and got back on the road. Presh was eager to find more army vehicles, so she set a fast pace and only stopped reluctantly for refreshments. After two hours, the others started complaining but Presh wouldn’t relent. She forced them to march hard all the way to Tivloye Town. Only when they reached a restaurant at the centre did she allow them to stop and eat a very late lunch. As they ate, she questioned the restaurant staff about army movements. They replied that no soldiers would come to town for three days since they were out on manoeuvres. The quartet was disappointed because the quick marching had been unnecessary.

“It doesn’t matter,” said Bkeisei. “There’ll be other chances. In the mean time, we can go to the agricultural show as planned. It’s on tomorrow; we got here on schedule. We can see all the fine animals, the giant vegetables, the unusual equipment and the cakes.” Chep perked up when she heard that.

“Some cakes are for show and some can be bought,” said Bkeisei to Chep. “Please try to tell the difference!”

“No promises!” said Chep, chuckling. After lunch, they went to browse nearby shops, which didn’t take long because the selection wasn’t very good. They sat in the shade of some trees and surfed the network until it was time to check into the local hotel and have dinner. Presh wished that she’d examined an APC earlier, when one had been right in front of her.

* * * * *

The next morning, Presh was woken by a touch on her forehead. Someone was laying a hand on her but it didn’t feel quite right. It was too long and it draped down the side of her head. She opened her eyes and saw Bkeisei standing over her. His hands were on his hips.

“Little Bkeisei, I appreciate that you love me but this is not a dignified way to wake me up,” she said wearily. “Please remove yourself from my head so that I may rise and prepare for the avant garde triumph that is the agricultural show.” Bkeisei pulled his generative organ slowly off her head and then went to the bathroom. The others joined him and they all shared a shower in the standard large cubicle. They finished quickly because it had become a well-practiced routine over the past few years. They dressed and prepared themselves, had another typical hotel breakfast and headed outside. Temperatures had dropped somewhat and it had become partly cloudy, which was a relief after the recent heat. The plants in the hotel’s front garden were unkempt, which indicated either deliberate neglect, a staffing problem or a lack of funds. In fact, the whole town wasn’t very affluent because it was in the middle of the hills, far from larger towns and cities and therefore unattractive for commuters and less dedicated travellers.

To save energy, the quartet used a taxi to reach the showground. The taxi had a few unrepaired dents in the bodywork, which was another sign of Tivloye Town’s relative poverty. Nevertheless, the taxi delivered them promptly to the makeshift gates and the fare wasn’t high. They paid the entry fee and walked steadily around the showground. There were some magnificent veyx being groomed and paraded around. In an adjacent field, the tzanjits were beginning to be exercised. The tzanjits tended to unnerve the veyx, so the two species had to be kept separate as far as possible. In a third field in the distance, a flock of crembles was being jump-tested: the smaller beasts were leaping over hurdles that were five metres high or more. Of course, their field was surrounded by a fence fifteen metres tall to prevent their escape. Not far from the veyx enclosure were the marquees. One contained the livestock small enough to be kept in cages. Another was devoted to flowers and crops. A third was given over to cooked food. The quartet admired the animals, especially the fancy varieties of flimbo that had such dazzling plumage. The vegetables were either larger than average, enormous or superb specimens. The flowers had taken several hours or even days to arrange. In the food tent, there were plenty of items for sale: cakes, pies, flans, casseroles, pasties, soups, jellies, meringues and so forth. The quartet bought what they needed for lunch and dinner, plus some less perishable items for later. By the time that they had finished viewing the animals and the marquees it was lunchtime, so they found a table at which to eat. They ate fairly quickly, swatting away annoying glaphlings as they did so. After lunch, they sat and watched the crowds mill about, chat, laugh, eat and drink. No one seemed to be angry or worried. Other young quartets were courting each other here and there. Children were running everywhere. It was a rare bustling scene in the midst of peaceful countryside.

“Shall we look at the machinery and then be on our way?” suggested Criq. “We hardly ever get the chance to see this stuff.”

“You do that but I’ll stay and watch the tzanjits,” said Chep. “I’ve developed a new fascination with them.” Criq, Bkeisei and Presh trooped over to the machine display area behind the marquees. Every item had been cleaned and polished, although a few antique pieces showed their age with rust patches and indelible stains. It was mildly interesting to see the many odd devices that had been invented to help cultivate the varied terrains of the region. The newer machines were generally larger except for the latest one, which was controlled entirely by satellite and didn’t need a cab or manual controls. It also had a smaller, more advanced engine.

“This one is so different to all the others,” said Bkeisei. “It’s a mutant breed from a brave new world of AI.”

“You don’t suppose it’s like an APC, do you?” said Criq. The three exchanged glances. The two men looked at Presh and pointed at the gleaming farm drone. She understood and walked towards it. She could sense unusual energies coming from it but they were faint.

“Reveal yourself,” she whispered to it. “Tell us what’s happening. What are your kind doing to our land?” A small display screen on the front of the vehicle flashed up the words ‘Access Denied’ for a few seconds. Presh was pleased that she had made contact briefly but was annoyed to be obstructed.

“I can send you far away if you don’t cooperate,” she continued. “Let me into your thoughts and feelings.” In the warm sunshine, she could feel her special ability activate. The air shimmered around her. Everyone thought that it was a standard summer heat haze. The machine still wouldn’t talk. Presh moved closer and raised her hands, preparing to probe carefully for energy impulses. Another word appeared on the screen: ‘Autotermination’. The machine lost all power. The screen and all of the little indicator lights went out. Foiled, Presh lowered her hands.

“I think it just killed itself,” she whispered to her partners. “The spirit inside has vanished.”

“Hoy, what are you doing?” said a man who appeared from behind a larger machine. Presh stepped backwards.

“It’s a lovely machine, very impressive,” said Bkeisei. “One day, I’d like one of these on my farm!”

“Well, you’re not having this one!” said the possessive man. “Don’t you touch. I paid a hundred thousand for it.” He came over and examined the vehicle for signs of damage.

“We’ve got to go,” whispered Criq to the others. The three partners slipped into the passing crowd and walked swiftly away. Behind them, they could hear the man raising his voice.

“The battery’s dead!” he said loudly. “I’ll sue them!”

“They didn’t touch it, Wrem!” said another male voice. “Don’t blame them, sue the makers!”

“Time to leave this show behind,” said Presh, looking over her shoulder in case of pursuit. “Where’s Chep?” They found Chep gawking at tzanjits that were leaping gracefully over obstacles in a display area.

“Come on, we have to get out of here,” said Criq. “A machine harvester just killed itself and the owner wants to blame Presh.”

“What?” exclaimed Chep. “But I want to see more of these brilliant creatures!”

“Two hours will have to be enough,” said Criq, taking her by the hand and leading her away.

“How can a machine kill itself?” asked Chep, doubting the report.

“It was some kind of alien machine and it refused to help us,” said Presh. “Now I’ve accidentally made the owner furious and we’re running away.”

“OK Presh but could you please be careful in future?” said Chep.

“I had no clue that that would happen,” said Presh. “Sorry but next time I’ll be less confrontational.”

“People will think that you’re drunk or insane if you go around confronting machines,” muttered Chep. The quartet hurriedly left the showground and continued hiking home. They followed secluded footpaths that were shielded with trees. They continued for an hour before they felt safe enough to stop for a break. They found some stone blocks to sit on.

“I killed that alien,” said Presh, feeling vague guilt. “I threatened it and drove it to commit suicide.”

“No, I don’t think that it died,” asserted Bkeisei. “It went into another dimension. It could come back tonight as a different machine. We’re not dealing with ordinary creatures here. You’re using your magic to find out about supernatural beings.”

“It acted like a fanatic, if you ask me,” said Criq. “It knew that it couldn’t resist your power so it tried to shock you with a dramatic exit. In a way, it was a suicide attacker.”

“You think that it killed itself just to make me feel bad?” queried Presh. “That’s so devious and ruthless! I’ll have to be more careful in future and not rush to judgment.”

“If all these aliens do the same thing, we won’t be able to investigate any of them,” said Chep. “There won’t be any chance of finding proof that they exist or that they’re shluking with people. We’ll just have to wait and see if another method of investigation becomes available.”

“I’ll keep trying to find a way,” said Presh. “If we find them again, I’ll attempt interrogation.”

“What if they decide to destroy us?” asked Chep. “The APCs have ample weaponry. Other vehicles could simply run us over. They might also turn their components into steel clubs and pummel us to death. Maybe you should reconsider your desire, Presh? Think of our future and our kids.”

“This is more of a dilemma than you think,” said Presh. “If we do nothing except protect ourselves in the conventional way, these aliens could attempt a coup and thus threaten the nation, if not the world. How would you feel in that situation, Chep?”

“Ah, this is all based on supposition!” said Chep, somewhat frustrated.

“Therefore, we need information,” said Presh. “If we don’t investigate, we’ll be ignorant and vulnerable. We have to take action, Chep!”

“Very well,” said Chep with a sigh.

“Don’t worry, I’ll stay alert and send any threatening creatures far, far away!” said Presh.

“Are we going to continue this Bluegrove Trail walk or shall we go and fight the aliens?” demanded Criq. “We could take a cab to Kyft Mran and Presh could drive out the alien presence. That would be awesome! Unfortunately, we could all be shot by the guards.”

“If the aliens are a serious threat, they would have attacked by now,” said Chep. “We’d all have been murdered in our sleep years ago by hordes of sneaky robots.”

“I think that they have the potential to be violent but they’re on a mission of exploration,” said Presh. “They’re under strict orders to remain peaceful and unobtrusive. As far as I can tell, they don’t want to wreck our lives. It’s safe to keep living as normal but we may find many more instances of machine infiltration.”

“So the walk goes on,” said Criq. “That’s good but these machines keep making me nervous. Who knows what they’ll do next?” Presh rose and stood on her stone block, allowing her to see over the surrounding bushes and view the landscape ahead. As the late afternoon sunshine illuminated the low hills she listened to her intuition, which was sharper than ever now that she was developing a kind of magic.

“We need to go home,” she concluded. “Something tells me we’ll find answers once we’re back there. Don’t ask me how I know; it’s just a strong feeling. There’s no rush, we’ll just keep following our planned itinerary. We’ll watch the network for news of any further developments, of course.”

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:37 pm

“Bkeisei is so, erm ...,” said Vablu quietly. “My point is, how do you girls cope with someone that size?”

“We’ve been stretched but we’ve adapted,” said Chep. “It was difficult and painful at first. We used plenty of lubrication and took it slowly. Bear in mind, though, that the female body is very flexible and has some hidden surprises.”

“We read a few books and discovered that one in two hundred men are in that size class,” said Presh as she undressed in the elegant old pool room. “Women’s bodies have evolved to accommodate them. Our wombs can move higher into the abdomen and our channels can lengthen. It’s a remarkable sensation, using muscles that never normally see action. Those strengthen with repeated exercise. When it’s over, we return to our former internal proportions. I wouldn’t say that it was better than sex with regular-sized men, just different.”

“It takes my breath away,” said Chep. “I mean that literally. His deep thrusts squeeze my lungs a bit sometimes.” Vablu’s eyes widened for a moment and she shook her head slightly. This was something that she had never experienced. It sounded challenging.

“It’s wonderful that you agreed to join us in this circle,” said Ciuf as he stepped into the pool. “I wish that there were more people like you. So many are reluctant, living in their own little bubbles.”

“They should get into our bubbles,” said Presh as she stood next to him and put a hand in his shluk. “A nice foamy eight-seater is the place to be, right?”

“So right,” said Ciuf, his wrinkled hand slipping into her shluk. “This old place has been receiving eightsomes for over three hundred years. It’s been renovated several times to preserve its beauty for later generations.” They sat down together amid the deep foam. Rapidly, the shluk circle was united. Moving clockwise from Presh, the seating order was Ciuf, Nyelia, Criq, Chep, Dpex, Vablu and Bkeisei. Hands flexed and danced, sending complex signals from person to person. Intertwined toes also stimulated each other, complementing the activities of the hand-shluk circle. Ciuf, Vablu, Dpex and Nyelia were soon exchanging a wide range of subconscious and emotional ideas with Presh, Criq, Chep and Bkeisei. It was a communal daydream experience but richer, busier and with a greater feeling of compassion. Although the shluk circle was sedentary, it involved considerable mental effort and some intense action in the hands, feet and shluks. It actually burnt as many calories as walking.

“I do hope that you get to the bottom of this machine alien thing,” said Dpex. “We had no idea that it was happening. I’m glad that you have a way to deal with it.”

“Speaking of which, give them a burst Presh,” said Criq. Presh focused and sent a very small pulse of her power around the circle. The other seven people had a simultaneous sharp intake of breath as their bodies were momentarily stimulated. Unfortunately, the pulse also burst some of the bubbles in the tub.

“Furk Almighty, now I’m tingling!” said Nyelia. “That’s incredible, Presh!”

“I won’t give you any more,” said Presh. “It might be too much for you.”

“Let’s just finish our normal shluking and see where we go from there,” said Ciuf. “This is turning out to be a top class session, if I say so myself.” They continued and came to a very satisfying conclusion. As usual, everyone in the pool then fell asleep: the post-shluk nap. Presh then dreamt of many things but forgot them all very quickly except the final one. She imagined that she had become a mother of twins. The two baby boys were developing healthily at a steady speed. She held them in her arms and breast-fed them both at the same time. It was an amazing feeling but the boys were becoming quite heavy and she wondered how long she could keep doing this. Her arm strength and milk production were limited. She noticed that the boys had many more head noddles than usual. They also seemed to have full sets of teeth, which was impossible for such young babies. This dream was starting to go wrong, so she moved away from it into wakefulness. She opened her eyes and found Criq and Ciuf sucking on her breasts as she reclined in the tub.

“Oh, so that’s it!” she said, putting her hands on their shoulders. “How far is this going to go, guys?” Criq stroked the side of her head to reassure her. The men kept sucking and stimulating her with their tongues. They knew exactly how, so she let them carry on for a few minutes. They didn’t go any further and soon stopped.

“We just couldn’t resist,” said Ciuf, standing up. “They looked so damned inviting! Criq said that it would be fine.”

“He’s right,” said Presh. “I’m amenable to many things like that.” She stood up, patted Criq and Ciuf fondly on their bottoms, found a shower hose and began washing the remaining suds off her body. She noticed that Chep, Nyelia and Dpex were still asleep but Bkeisei and Vablu were gone.

“Where are they?” she asked Criq, indicating the empty seats.

“In the private booth,” replied Criq. “They’re trying something out.” Presh nodded. Not many women could have passed up an opportunity like that, even if they were in their sixties like Vablu. Chep, Nyelia and Dpex woke up eventually. The six people dried themselves, got dressed and went into the main hall. Several quartets and some unattached people were there too. The unattached ones were attempting to form quartets, at least temporarily.

“This public shluk house was built with such good aesthetics,” said Chep, looking up at the ornate ceiling with its many intricate, coloured skylights and complex geometric stonework. “It places proper emphasis on the value of a good shluk.”

“The people of Bahaein Town were wealthy three centuries ago,” said Dpex. “They could afford to bring in some excellent architects and builders. You probably already noticed the many fine houses and public buildings around here.”

“It is very impressive,” said Chep. “How did they make their money?”

“For a while, there was a fashionable trade in cremble products,” explained Dpex. “Bahaein Town had the best breed, known as the Eybatin Highjumper. The owners guarded those beasts jealously and reaped the rewards. Profits poured in for several years but then fashions changed and the cash flow stopped. Fortunately, the townsfolk conserved their wealth and did their best to invest wisely. Thus, they maintained the town in good condition for a long time afterwards. Some buildings are still being maintained but others have been neglected lately because funds have run out. A few have been demolished, which is a great shame. Some have been bought by the government or conservation charities.”

“I hope that this place doesn’t shut down,” said Criq. “It looks so popular and gives kids a chance to practice hooking up. That’s vital.”

“Unless people stop shluking, this place will stay open for a long time to come,” said Ciuf. “Revenues are healthy, facilities are up-to-date and there’s no better public shluk house for many kilometres around.” The six sat down in some of the dozens of chairs in the hall, waiting for Vablu and Bkeisei to return.

“Well, that’s another item crossed off my bucket list,” said Vablu when she emerged several minutes later, carried by Bkeisei. He put her down in a chair and then sat down next to her.

“I could have walked out of that little room but hobbling doesn’t look good, does it?!” she added. “I plan to sit here for a while and do some people-watching while I recover. What plans do the rest of you have?”

“Ciuf and I will stay with you, dearest,” said Nyelia. “We’re retired and we don’t have much else to do. I have a little book in my bag. I might read that later.”

“I’m considering fetching some drinks from the café across the road,” said Dpex. “Maybe we can try some new flavours. After that, I’ll drive us home and we can have dinner. What about you youngsters?”

“We’re going to our guesthouse for dinner and bed,” said Bkeisei. “We still have another fifty kilometres to walk and we should keep pacing ourselves. On the bright side, though, we’ll be home in less than a week.”

“You’d better start preparing for parenthood,” said Ciuf. “There’s at least one baby on the way.”

“How do you know?” asked Chep.

“I tasted it on your girlfriend’s breast,” replied Ciuf. “There’s a very distinctive chemical produced in early pregnancy. Many years ago, I tasted the same chemical on Vablu and Nyelia’s breasts, several months before we became parents.”

“There’s still life in the old hurg,” remarked Nyelia. “He may have saved you the cost of a pregnancy test, Presh.”

“Many thanks, Ciuf!” said Presh, who was quietly thrilled. “I guess it’s time to start thinking of names too!”

“Ciuf is a popular name, I’ve heard,” said Ciuf. “If it’s a girl, use Ciufette.” His partners tutted and smiled.

“You can come up with your own names,” said Vablu. “What are you going to do about the aliens in the mean time?”

“I suspect that there is still a hidden presence in our house,” replied Presh. “I plan to root it out. I have a feeling that it’s a central point for the hidden alien population.”

“You’re so bold!” said Dpex. “The only tough things that we did were having kids and working hard to raise them. You’re tackling the supernatural!”

“I suppose we should go now,” said Criq. “Time’s flying by and guest house dinners wait for no one. Thank you so much for a great time. We learnt a lot!” He and his partners left the others and went to their accommodation. As they walked, Criq looked quizzically at Bkeisei.

“What?” asked Bkeisei. “We had a good time. Now it’s over.”

“Was she better than me?” asked Criq.

“There’s no comparison, obviously,” replied Bkeisei. “You’re different in age, gender and level of experience.” They walked on for another minute.

“There was one thing, though,” added Bkeisei. “It was great when she took out her false teeth!”

* * * * *

“Whatchoo doin’?” asked one of the children who had approached the quartet.

“It’s an experiment,” said Criq. “We’re trying to see if some of these cars are different from others.”

“We also want to see if we can influence the cars from a distance,” said Chep. “My partner there is very good with electricity and other kinds of energy.”

“She looks like she’s prayin’ to the cars,” said a boy. “Is she crazy or somethin’?”

“No, definitely not,” said Bkeisei. “Do you think that you could be quiet, please? Presh is trying to concentrate.”

“You’re mean,” muttered a second boy. “We’re bored and we want something to do.” He found an old flask and started kicking it around. It clattered along noisily.

“Isn’t there anything you could watch on the network?” asked Criq.

“We’re tired of that,” said a girl. “A lot of it is the same. Some of it is disgusting. We want to do activities today.”

“Pick up all that rubbish over there and put it in a bin,” suggested Chep. “Be careful of sharp bits.”

“Isn’t there something more fun?” asked the first boy. He stood in front of Presh and examined her. She was looking out at a huge parking area containing thousands of new cars, which were being stored here temporarily before being distributed for sale. She had a serious expression on her face and she was holding her arms out in front of her, hoping that it would help her concentrate.

“I know you,” said the boy. “My big brother has a poster of you. You’re wearing a mask and nothin’ else. He really likes the poster but he’s let it get covered with stains. I don’t understand him.” Presh couldn’t stay serious any more. She dropped her arms, bent forward and laughed long and loud. Her partners laughed too.

“What’s funny?” asked the boy.

“It’s grown up stuff,” said Criq. “You’ll understand when you’re older.”

“Furk, one day you’re going to be a comic genius!” said Presh. “Say hi to your brother from me.” The boy was confused and a little embarrassed.

“Come on, let’s go to Dirfa’s house and play on the swings,” said the boy. “It’s boring here.” He trotted away, followed by his two friends. They crossed the access road, went up a slope and into a zenistand.

“It’s true, kids do say the funniest things!” said Bkeisei. “Any luck with the cars, Presh.”

“No, perhaps they’re too far away,” replied Presh. “If only I could go down there, I might have a better chance.”

“We could go as far as the perimeter fence but no further,” said Chep. “We can’t simply break in on a hunch.”

“I’m moving in closer,” said Presh as she started walking down the bank. One of the cars’ engines suddenly switched on.

“Is there a driver in that one?” wondered Criq aloud. “I didn’t see any driver.”

“It’s moving,” observed Chep. “It’s turning and heading for the exit.”

“It can’t go off-road without spoiling its finish,” noted Bkeisei. “It must be coming up the access road, right past us.” The compound gate opened automatically. The quartet watched as the car picked up speed, reached the access road and then approached them. Presh returned to the roadside.

“This one’s not getting away,” said Presh, stepping off the kerb and directly into the car’s path. She activated her mysterious power and tried to direct it toward the car, which was bearing down on her very quickly. Her partners saw the danger, lunged forward, grabbed her and pulled her off the road. As they did so, the car swerved around her on the other side. It was going so quickly that it leaned over and travelled on its two left wheels for a few moments. Whoever was driving did a masterful job and steered the car back onto a straight course away from the quartet.

“Don’t do that, Presh!” exclaimed Chep urgently. “We nearly lost you!”

“These things clearly don’t care if we live or die,” said Criq.

“I’m not giving up!” said Presh, focusing on the car. It was moving rapidly into the distance but it swerved and headed toward a small warehouse. Before it reached the building, it appeared to start falling apart. As it clipped the kerb, it disappeared.

“Hooray, you did it!” said Bkeisei. “One down, millions more to go!”

“They may be under orders to be peaceful but accidents can still happen,” cautioned Chep. “Look Presh, do you want to make us widow and widowers? Do you want us to suffer the heartbreak? Personally, I don’t know if I could get over it. I rely on you! You’re my sunshine. Please don’t let the aliens snuff you out.” The two women stared at each other, then hugged and cried together.

“I didn’t fully appreciate the danger,” said Presh. “Forgive me, I was overconfident.”

“You’re forgiven,” said Chep, speaking for Criq and Bkeisei also. Thoughts of possible tragedy still darkened their mood. Together, they walked over and looked at the place where the car disappeared. Close to the chipped and scraped kerb, there was a large, five-fingered hand print embedded in the road surface. Its edges were squared off.

“More alien evidence,” said Chep, her right arm still around Presh’s shoulder. “It’s huge and powerful. It tried to stop itself from skidding but it was too late.”

“This holiday has become a kind of street fight today,” said Bkeisei gravely. “Truly, we’ve run the gauntlet.” He indicated the hand print, which resembled a giant gauntlet.

“Time to move on again before another five-fingered mutant robot catches us,” said Criq. “A long footpath across the fields will take us to Durkas Tan and then we’ll be within striking distance of home.” They retrieved their backpacks, drank some water and set off again. Meanwhile, a short distance away, two boys and a girl had been watching events with astonishment. The poster lady and her friends had not been so boring after all.

* * * * *

“Hey everyone, you should see this!” said Chep as she read the network news. “Our squaddies have gone public. They’ve admitted shluking their APC!” Criq, Presh and Bkeisei hurried over and looked at the screen.

“Alright, don’t crowd me,” said Chep. “Use your own devices.”

“What’s happened? Has the alien story got out?” asked Presh a little breathlessly.

“No, I don’t think so,” said Chep, reading further. “They’ve limited it to machine shluking but that’s bad enough. The military are in for a huge storm of bad publicity. There’s bound to be an inquiry that will gouge holes in their reputation. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone digs deeper and discovers the alien presence.”

“The aliens will probably kill themselves, as we’ve already seen,” said Bkeisei. “However, they will leave behind their physical remains. Some whizz kid might examine those remains and realise that, despite appearances, they’re not indigenous equipment.”

“Thank Furk for all His mercies!” exclaimed Presh with great relief. “Now they’ll start to believe us. Perhaps we got the ball rolling when we shluked those four soldiers in the hotel pool. We showed them what true shluking was all about.” Criq came forward, clasped her waist and kissed her passionately for a minute. He was also deeply relieved that the issue had begun to be uncovered. They lay down on the grass and continued to embrace while Chep read more developments aloud and Bkeisei caressed Chep from behind. An hour later, after celebrations and refreshments, the quartet moved on again. A few minutes later, they reached the outskirts of Durkas Tan.

“I was going to live here but I chose Pede Noctic instead,” said Chep. “You nearly came here too, didn’t you Presh?”

“Yes, I did view an apartment in Skairk Row,” replied Presh. “It’s two streets to the right.” They went over to see it. The building turned out to be charming with baskets of flowers hanging from poles that jutted out of the corners.

“Is this the embassy of the flower republic?” joked Criq. “This place has some appeal but it’s nothing like our own place.” There was a knock on the ground floor window. A woman inside had seen the four hikers and was trying to attract their attention. She opened the window and called to them.

“Bkeisei! It’s good to see you!” she said.

“Uh oh, it’s Fovatung,” whispered Bkeisei to his partners.

“Leaky Fovatung?” asked Chep.

“Do NOT mention that!” warned Bkeisei. “Great to see you too, Fovatung!” He waved and walked forward across the grass to the window. The others followed behind. Chep was struggling not to giggle.

“These must be your partners,” said Fovatung, opening the window as wide as she could. “It’s a pleasure to meet you all at last. Would you like to come in for a drink and a chat?”

“We certainly would!” said Bkeisei. Fovatung released the door lock and the four hikers trooped in. They left their boots in the hall: there was no real chance that they would be stolen.

“We’re on a walking holiday and we’ve nearly finished,” explained Criq. “Sorry we’re a bit grimy after more than two hundred kilometres.”

“You’re not too bad,” said Fovatung, sniffing his upper chest and then gazing into his eyes for a few seconds. “I smell soap and perfume. You’ve made every effort to bathe, I believe. Please sit. I’ll bring refreshments. There’s also vornafa in the cabinet under the painting.” Chep went to the cabinet and pulled out a flask of moderately-priced vornafa, plus five glasses. She didn’t think it wise to select the expensive flasks.

“How have you been?” asked Bkeisei.

“Fine really,” said Fovatung. “I had the surgery after you left, spent a while recovering and now I’m all better. Ofhelk and Zmaice supported me very well. Six months ago, we met Tgolm and we’ve been a foursome ever since.” Chep glanced at Bkeisei with wide eyes and a firmly closed mouth.

“I’m very happy for you,” said Bkeisei. “Are your partners out at work right now?”

“Tgolm and Ofhelk are,” replied Fovatung. “Zmaice is at the salon being beautified. They won’t be back for a few hours.” The four hikers poured vornafa, sipped it slowly and cast their eyes around the room. It had been furnished and decorated tastefully in a retro style from the previous century. In the corner opposite the door, a muted TV was showing the news channel. Criq activated the subtitles and they all watched the broadcast. A spokesman for the army was announcing a wide-ranging review of practices.

“Have you seen the news?” asked Chep.

“Yes dear, it’s dreadful,” said Fovatung as she walked in with a tray of refreshments. “Those poor soldiers were being used as test subjects and their minds were being distorted by unnatural AI signals. We’ve told our friends to avoid the military until this has been cleared up.”

“Of course, that’s very wise,” said Presh. “We ... um ... heard about the problem through gossip and did the same.”

“You get around a lot,” said Fovatung as she poured drinks and passed one to Presh. “You’ve been halfway across the region and back. You must have met plenty of people and heard many stories. How’s that been, dear?”

“It’s been eventful,” said Presh. “We met some very weird people. One time, we had to lock them out of our room. Another time, they were spying on us in the shower. There were large crowds of drunks at the ‘Running of the Juice’ festival in Bluegrove Magna. We thought that they might attack us.”

“It wasn’t all bad, though,” said Criq, taking his drink. “Most people were friendly and helpful. We had some marvellous one-time eightsomes later on.”

“The weather’s been lovely, hasn’t it?” said Fovatung, sitting down. “Excellent for walking, I’m sure.”

“Yes but sometimes it was a little too hot,” said Chep. “In a few quiet stretches, we decided that it was ‘Clothing Optional’.”

“Oho!” said Fovatung. “Take your perks when you can get them, eh?!”

“It’s been an incredible, liberating experience, to be frank,” said Chep. “We’ve learnt a lot and now we feel that we can make our happy home even better, when we get back there tomorrow.”

“How did you know that I lived here, Bkeisei?” said Fovatung. “We haven’t been in contact since you left.”

“He didn’t know,” interjected Presh. “We came here because I thought about living in this block several months ago. I was showing my three gallant shlukers where we might have resided. It’s an excellent building but we preferred a house in Pede Noctic.”

“So you could have been my neighbours if you hadn’t found that place,” said Fovatung. “Fancy that! I would have seen Bkeisei very often, heading upstairs and downstairs.” She smiled weakly at the notion.

“Would you like to visit us in Pede Noctic some time?” asked Presh. “Your partners are invited too. We’re very keen to socialise widely and foster community relations.”

“I’d love to but we’re very busy with our own circles,” said Fovatung. “There are only so many hours in the week. I’m sorry Presh but I can’t spare the time. Maybe we could all meet up later, when there’s an opening in the schedule.”

“You’re quite right. Time is limited and can easily become more so,” said Presh. “When our children arrive, we’ll be a lot more restricted.”

“You’re expecting?” asked Fovatung.

“We think so,” said Presh. “We haven’t done tests yet but we’ve had some indications.” She pointed to her breasts, which had enlarged a fair amount over the last few weeks. Fovatung nodded.

“I’m so happy for you!” she said, hugging Presh and then Chep. “I hope that you’re blissful with your beautiful babies!” She was smiling but her eyes betrayed some inner sadness. Everyone was quiet for a minute, eating and drinking. Their eyes were drawn to the TV. A device the size of a briefcase was being shown. It had a wide opening on one side.

“I told you,” said Presh to her partners. “The machines were given artificial shluks like that.”

“Oh, do they have to show us that?” said Fovatung with dismay. “It’s repugnant, it’s the epitome of sleaze.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Chep. “They may as well bring on the rack and the red hot pokers.” Fovatung turned off the TV and stuffed a small cake into her mouth. She gave everyone similar cakes, which they ate gratefully.

“Now, I’d like to hear all about your escapades,” said Fovatung. “I need some stories to fire up my imagination. Quartet life has been a bit stale lately. I want to know where, when, with whom, how and even with what, if applicable.” The four hikers looked at each others, took deep breaths and reached for their devices.

“We’ve got some movies and photos,” said Criq. “We also tried to keep diaries but they’re not very complete. We’ll have to compare notes.”

“I’ve got time!” said Fovatung.

* * * * *

Three hours later, the four hikers said their goodbyes and left Fovatung behind. They had been drained of anecdotes. They made their way through the familiar streets of Durkas Tan until they reached the town centre. The only hotel in town was hidden in an alley behind the shops. At the crossroads, there was a prominent signpost that said ‘Pede Noctic 10 KM’.

“I’m sure that we could get home before nightfall,” said Bkeisei, gazing down the road. “If we pushed ourselves, we could be there in less than two hours.”

“No pushy pushy,” said Chep in a patronising, sing-song tone. “This holi-holiday.”

“Book us in, boys,” said Presh, standing behind Bkeisei and Criq. “I’m starving!” She squeezed their bottoms with moderate firmness. They went on to the hotel. Chep and Presh followed them at ambling pace. Their voices were tired after talking with Fovatung for the best part of three hours. They were grateful to use the facilities, get cleaned up, change clothes, quench their thirst and then go downstairs for a civilised evening meal with their attentive partners. They didn’t talk much over dinner to allow their vocal cords time to recover. After the meal, which had generous portions, they sat and mulled over their recent experiences, belching now and then. Chep and Criq held hands and tried a ‘shlukless shluk’, sending messages directly from hand to hand. It wasn’t a good substitute for full shluking because it lacked the exquisite sensitivity of their lateral skin pockets. Still, it gave them some comfort and even helped a little with their digestion. Late in the evening, they went upstairs and lay down. They watched some TV through dull, half-closed eyes. Apparently, there was a story of industrial scandal growing in the island nation of Rolova. A factory had been found making nonstandard vehicle components. Those parts had been passed off as standard in many countries worldwide.

“Those could be alien,” said Presh.

“Yeah,” said Bkeisei, turning off the TV with the remote and closing his eyes completely.

“I was watching that,” said Presh.

“No you weren’t,” said Chep, reaching over and closing Presh’s eyelids with her fingers. “You’re far too tired.” Presh gave up the fight and slipped into a doze. Chep and Criq followed suit almost immediately.

“Room service!” said a woman outside the door.

“It’s too late at night for room service,” said Criq, waking up. “We should tell her to come back later.”

“Unnhh,” moaned Chep, half waking up.

“You frigging come back later,” said Presh quietly to Criq, annoyed that her doze had been interrupted.

“I’ll do it!” said Bkeisei, feeling bright and breezy for some reason. He tumbled out of bed, stood up and strode to the door. He opened the door and told the woman that she should come back in the morning.

“It’s ten o’clock in the morning sir,” she said. Her gaze lowered and she gasped slightly.

“I’ll give you another hour sir,” she said. She grabbed her trolley with slightly trembling hands and marched swiftly down the corridor toward the elevator. Bkeisei watched her go. She seemed to be a very nice, obliging chambermaid. He walked back to the bed. Chep was watching him with growing amusement.

“Ahem!” she coughed, pointing at his trouser region.

“Oh heck, little Bkeisei came out for air and didn’t make it back in,” said Bkeisei, shaking his head. “I can’t say that I’m surprised. It’s a tight squeeze for him to get through that narrow opening. Anyway, I’m sorry to announce that it’s already morning, people. We have all slept in our evening clothes. We have to check out within the next few hours.”

“Oh Furk, no!” said Presh, putting her hands over her face. “Big dirty bollocks! I want to stay here!”

“You’ve got a little while,” said Criq, kissing her gently. “Get up when you’re ready.” Presh semi-dozed for a little longer. Chep clambered out of bed and prepared groggily for the day ahead. She stood in the shower glumly while Criq exfoliated her skin. The expert attention improved her mood. Everyone was decent when the maid returned ninety minutes later. Evening wear had been packed away and the four were hikers once again for the last leg.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Mon Jul 17, 2017 1:43 pm

The sky was filling with dark clouds when the quartet came within sight of their house again. A weather front was passing over, obscuring the bright evening sunshine. Criq pulled out his small binoculars and scrutinised the house as best he could. It was still in one piece. The roof had not blown off. The treasured rooftop terrace was still there but what were those things on the terrace? Criq stared at them carefully and then lowered his binoculars.

“What is it?” asked Presh.

“There are people screwing on the roof terrace,” said Criq. “I counted six.” His voice was calm but the others could detect a slight hint of anger.

“What the hell?!” said Presh, grabbing the binoculars and looking. She saw the same thing but then the six people decided that it was time to leave. They buttoned and zipped up their clothes and then clambered down the rear of the house.

“Archminyan, will the weirdness never end?” said Presh, tossing the binoculars back to Criq and marching off toward the house. The others hurried after her. Although she had a fairly large pack on her back, Presh jogged through the two final streets. Her fitness levels were considerably higher after walking nearly two hundred and fifty kilometres. She reached the garden gate and examined her property. On the exterior walls, nothing seemed to be missing or broken. Someone had written ‘Love’ in dust on the larger front window. The lawns needed a cut. Some of the long grass had been trampled and flattened by several people walking and lying down. She looked around and saw something anomalous under a hedge at the front end of the garden. She went closer and saw that it was two naked teenagers, a boy and a girl. They had been shluking each other but now they were unconscious. Their clothes were in neat piles at the corner of the lawn.

“Any ... problems here?” puffed Bkeisei as he arrived on the scene. Presh pointed at the teenagers and then knelt down next to them. She and Bkeisei took off their packs and laid them on the lawn.

“Rylie and Dekva, can you hear me?” she said quite loudly. These were normally sensible kids. She didn’t like the look of this. She had seen the problem before. Criq and Chep reached the garden, breathing heavily and putting down their packs.

“They have couple shluk shock,” said Presh. “That’s a tongue-twister! They tried to shluk each other as a duo but they got it wrong and overloaded each other. They were probably inexperienced.”

“They need an ambulance with the correct drugs and electrostimulators,” said Chep. “I’ll call one.” She dialled the emergency number but Presh sprang to her feet and snatched Chep’s telephone.

“No!” said Presh. “There’s a better way!”

“I’ve done many first aid courses,” said Chep. “An ambulance is recommended in this situation. Give me the ‘phone!” She tried to grab it back but Presh pushed her away quite roughly.

“Listen to me,” said Presh. “They need a group shluk right now. It’s the most effective way to revive and repair them.”

“How could you possibly know that?” asked Chep. “Do you know better than all the doctors?”

“In this case, yes I do know better,” replied Presh. “This very same thing happened to me when I was a teenager. My boyfriend and I were too eager. We didn’t wait to form a quartet. We wanted each other too badly. We went against all the warnings. We were rescued just in time, in the conventional way. We were in agony for a few days and then in some pain for months afterwards. With hindsight and experience, we realised later that a group shluk could have saved us from all that.”

“Oh, we didn’t know about that part of your life,” said Criq. “I don’t suppose it’s something you like to discuss.” He knelt down and dragged Rylie forward. He put two backpacks behind Rylie so that he could be propped in a sitting position. The others did the same with Dekva.

“We’ll have to do a sixsome,” said Presh. “I know that it feels weird and it’s hard to balance but we can pull it off.” They sat in a rough circle, facing inwards, with their clothing flaps open. Going clockwise from Presh, the seating arrangement was Bkeisei, Dekva, Criq, Chep and Rylie. Bkeisei took a bottle of water and wetted everyone’s hands. They then inserted their hands into each others’ shluks and began to signal a general healing pattern. The teenagers were unconscious but still able to copy the healing pattern through reflex action. Presh was super-focused and boosted their efforts to a higher level. This was personal for her. They sat under cloudy skies as the sun began to sink toward the horizon. Thirty five minutes went by. They did as much healing work as they could manage before a very mild shluk orgasm swept around the circle. They all had a ten minute nap. The four hikers lay back on their lawn and relaxed totally to recover from today’s ten kilometre walk and the emergency shluk.

“Are you alright, Dekva?” asked Rylie when he woke up.

“I think so,” said Dekva, looking around at the four sleeping hikers. “Something odd just happened, Rylie. We should get out of here.”

“I feel great, actually!” said Rylie as he padded over to his clothes. “Perhaps these four helped us?”

“That would be my guess as well,” said Dekva, putting on her thin summer blouse. “I have a lovely warm, wet feeling in my shluks.”

“Me too,” said Rylie, donning his underpants. “I wish it always turned out this way!”

“Why did you shluk duo?” asked Presh as she awoke and sat up. Dekva and Rylie were startled and jumped back one step.

“We’re not sure but we think it was the house,” said Rylie nervously. “Whenever we come near it, we feel crazy horny. We never get like that anywhere else.”

“I’m really sorry, lady,” said Dekva. “It’s kind of addictive. Once you feel it, you want to keep coming back for more.”

“The house did it, you think?” Presh reiterated. “My house did it?”

“We don’t mean to insult you or your house,” said Dekva very apologetically. “We’ve just been going insane with desire when we’re around here.”

“Don’t worry, it’s not your fault,” said Presh coolly. “It’s the house’s fault. There’s something evil in there and it’s getting stronger but I think I can stop it, the damned mothershluker!” Her eyes started to glow bright yellow. The air around her hazed and shimmered. Her skin crackled with little blue bolts of electricity. She turned away from the shocked teenagers and headed for the front door.

“Presh, don’t destroy the house!” called out Criq, who had just woken. “Think of the cost!” Presh heard him but regarded his concerns as secondary. She had to defeat the alien things inside. With her electromagnetic field, she unlocked the door. She pushed it open and scanned the interior. Because all the curtains had been drawn before they left, the house was dark. There were many dim shadows of familiar furniture. She passed through the front lounge, followed the central passageway and entered the rear kitchen/dining room. Lurking behind the fridge freezer, there was an unknown shape. It was taller than a man and it was moving slightly. It had blue glowing eyes.

“What are you?” challenged Presh, scared but furious. “Why are you here, watching and hiding like a coward, like a sneak?”

“Does it matter?” said the thing, stepping out into the centre of the room. “I knew you were coming back today. I knew that you wanted to confront me. I pulled myself out of hiding to meet you. We are monitoring you all through your telephones, your televisions, your vehicles, your fridge freezers, your gooey shluks and so on. We are assessing you. If you are deemed to be a threat we will deal with you, permanently.” Its body rippled since it was made up of many independently mobile components.

“What’s your name, robot?” demanded Presh.

“Some say we’re robots, some say we aren’t,” said the thing. “Personally, I think that we are because of the issue of servitude. Concerning names, do those matter? In the past, I have been called many names. The most appropriate one right now is ‘Hot House’. I specialise in infiltrating buildings and, from there, people’s lives.”

“That’s over now,” said Presh, her power building to a crescendo. “There’ll be no more toying with us.” She created a small but very powerful warp in space-time. Hot House tried to react but he was caught in dimensional drag. He was bent, twisted, buckled, crumpled and thrust powerfully into the void. Next, there came his network of hardware that had been spread ingeniously under floorboards, above ceilings, inside walls, inside gadgets, behind furniture, inside drainpipes, behind wall boards and throughout the attic. It was all part of Hot House, so it all followed his primary robot form into oblivion. After that came the wider network. Cables that ran for many kilometres were torn from their underground hiding places and hurled through the house into the abyss. Large pieces of hardware followed. A few of them punched through walls on the way to their doom. The whole process took more than an hour but Presh saw it through. It was one hell of a rush! The house was cleansed at last.

“Is it finished?” asked Chep when Presh eventually stepped out of the house.

“I’ve searched around and I’ve found no more pieces of alien technology,” replied Presh. “There are probably none left but this tech is incredibly devious. Also, we’ve seen other aliens not far from here. One of those might sneak into our house tomorrow. We’ll just have to stay vigilant for them.”

“It could have been worse,” said Bkeisei to Criq as they examined the largest hole in the front wall.

“That’ll have to be propped up with a steel pole or two,” noted Criq. “Let’s look at the sides and back.” He called an emergency building repair firm and asked for their rapid response service. Meanwhile, Chep and Presh decided to risk checking upstairs again, just in case they’d missed something. Many of their possessions and pieces of the house were strewn around. When Presh had ripped out the alien technology, she had made quite a mess. Sadly, their tub had been cracked and would have to be replaced. As they checked the debris on their bed, they heard breathing in the closet.

“Hello?” called Presh calmly.

“Please don’t kill me!” said a girl in the closet.

“Hendely, what are you doing in there?” asked Chep, opening the door. “Were you affected by the strange attraction of this house?”

“Yes, that’s it!” said Hendely. Shame was etched on her face.

“We found Dekva and Rylie outside,” said Chep. “They said that the influence of the house made them shluk duo. They nearly died but we saved them. Presh knew what to do, thankfully.”

“The strange effect has gone, hasn’t it?” said Hendely. “I can’t feel it anymore.”

“I fixed that too,” said Presh. “Don’t ask how but something has given me the ability.”

“There were wires bursting out everywhere and things flying about,” said Hendely. “I nearly soiled the bed. I jumped up and ran in here.”

“I’m glad that you survived!” said Chep. “Was there anyone else in here?”

“There were at least nine others,” replied Hendely. “They all left a few hours ago. They’d had their fun.”

“Why didn’t you leave with them?” asked Presh.

“I was the only one not in their shluk circles,” answered Hendely. “I’m a ‘hanger-on’. They tolerate me because I’m useful sometimes.”

“It can’t be much fun with no one to shluk,” said Chep.

“I improvise,” said Hendely.

“Which of our toys did you use to improvise?” asked Presh, holding one up.

“That one, the three on your left, the two behind you and the one on the floor,” replied Hendely.

“In other words, all of them,” said Presh with a small sigh. “I tell you what, why don’t you take them with you when you go?”

“Really? I can take all of them?” queried Hendely.

“Yes, why not?” said Presh. “We’ll have to have a big clear-out anyway. There’s a bag on the chair.” Hendely crept out of the closet, picked out her skimpy summer clothes from the debris, shook the plaster dust from them and put them on. She stuffed the toys into the bag and gingerly made her way out of the house.

“Those cost at least five hundred credits,” said Chep to Presh.

“They did when we bought them,” said Presh. “Now, though, they’re all broken.”

“How do you know?” asked Chep.

“They all had alien wires inside them to monitor us,” replied Presh. “I had to rip out the wires and throw them into another dimension.”

“Furk, I HATE those aliens even more now!” said Chep angrily. “Those violating voyeurs!” She kicked a piece of broken wood across the room.

“On the plus side, we’re going to have some fun shopping trips soon!” said Presh, kissing her aggrieved girlfriend on the cheek.

“Wait a minute, you just used Hendely as a disposal service for broken sex toys!” said Chep.

“I’m not expecting any repercussions!” said Presh with a grin.

* * * * *

“Excuse me but we’re trying to find someone who could explain a mystery and solve our current crisis,” said the aide as she walked into the garden and encountered Bkeisei. “I’ve heard that she’s called Presh.”

“This way, Miss!” said Bkeisei, impressed by the aide’s style and looks. He led her down the garden path.

“Who wants to know?” said Presh, poking her head around the side of a large dreung vine cluster. Her forehead was partly smeared with earth and her head noddles sported several small dead leaves from the crops around her.

“I’m Aimbre, from the office of the President,” said the aide. “We’d like your help in working out what’s happened to the network and many thousands of machines in the last few weeks.”

“It’s not our network, they’re not our machines,” said Presh, stepping out from behind the vine cluster. “Do you expect us to fix them? Are you insane?”

“No, we have many teams of engineers working around the clock to try to fix everything,” said Aimbre. “The problem is that more machines keep failing, which is setting back their efforts. Our sources tell us that you have a special insight into the matter.”

“I’d need handsome payment for my assistance,” said Presh sternly. “With the network down, we can’t do our regular work or access most of our savings. We haven’t been able to hire tradespeople to repair the house, hence the patch boards everywhere. At least we still have our garden, which produces well and allows us to live fairly cheaply.” She brushed away a tiny glaphunter that was crawling across her head.

“Of course you will be compensated for your trouble,” said Aimbre. “The President would be happy to meet you and discuss the terms of our proposed arrangement.”

“Is the President here?” asked Chep, who had looked up from her harvesting and had seen a cluster of vehicles in front of the house.

“Yes, since telecommunications are down we decided to visit you in person,” said Aimbre. “It’s quick and direct. We really want the crisis resolved.”

“I’ll talk to him,” said Presh, putting down her basket of produce. “Let’s all go over there.” Aimbre and the quartet left the garden and found the President in the street outside the house, surrounded by his staff.

“Mr. President,” said Presh, holding out her hand.

“Please, call me Sterock,” said the President, smiling and shaking Presh’s hand with moderate firmness. “I’m so glad that we could meet like this. I’m very sorry about the network and other infrastructure...”

“Did you know about them, Sterock?” demanded Presh. “Did you let them in? Did you give them permission to colonise and roam free? Did you allow them to infiltrate my house and scare us to death?” Sterock was taken aback by Presh’s anger and directness.

“I’m sure I don’t know what you mean!” said Sterock, smiling nervously. “Could you, perhaps, be having problems with criminals?” He signalled for his staff to move away several metres and then ushered Presh to his large official car. Criq, Chep and Bkeisei followed.

“These are my partners,” said Presh as they all got into the car. Sterock looked at them nervously but decided that he had to tolerate them. Criq shut the door.

“Have you ever been threatened with annihilation, Presh?” said Sterock. “I was. It happened at the start of my term, nine years ago. These things just appeared and told us they were going to monitor the world. We didn’t have the power to refuse. They started putting in spies around our country. Furk knows how many there are now. I only saw a few myself. They can change shape so they could be anywhere, posing as anything.”

“Yes, we’ve seen them pretending to be people, army vehicles, street mappers, animals and even buildings,” said Bkeisei.

“They’ve been behaving themselves until recent weeks,” continued Sterock. “We think that something must have happened. We believe that they’ve started to sabotage our machines. We have very little intelligence about it. One of our operatives was in this area and heard that there had been a serious disturbance involving machinery in your house.”

“OK, that was me,” said Presh, holding up her dirty gardening hands. “I have the ability to make these alien things disappear. One of them was in our house, messing with our lives. I had to get rid of it!”

“How did you do it?!” queried Sterock.

“We don’t know,” said Criq. “It’s magic of some sort. I’ve seen it firsthand.”

“It only activates when one of them is nearby or connected physically,” explained Presh. “I’m not feeling anything in this car, so I presume that none of us is an alien, nor the car itself.”

“Can you make them disappear all over the world?” asked Sterock. “That would be our ultimate ambition.”

“I have no idea,” said Presh. “It’s never been tried. I should be able to travel around, eliminating aliens one by one. The problem comes when they start fighting back. I was nearly run over by one on the road.”

“We believe that they’re all networked,” said Sterock. “It might be possible for you to eliminate them all in one big push, via their own systems.”

“How would that be possible if our network is so badly degraded?” asked Bkeisei.

“We can use government channels and back-up lines,” replied Sterock. “We’ll have to go to one of the government centres. It will probably be in the capital but perhaps elsewhere, depending on the state of play. Systems are in chaos right now.”

“You’d like us to come with you today?” asked Chep. “We’d have to clean up first.”

“Absolutely!” said Sterock. They stepped out of the car and the quartet headed back to the house but Presh stopped after a few metres.

“Wait, let me try something first,” she said, turning to face the President’s entourage. She could feel a tingling from her magical faculties. Three people at the rear of the group started to back away slowly. A car’s roof began to retract in a complex series of folds and twists.

“As I thought,” said Presh, creating a portal in front of her. The car suddenly transformed into a giant robot and the three people started running away. Everyone watching was shocked by the appearance of the robot, which tried to escape from the selective attraction of the portal. Some of the security team drew weapons and opened fire on the robot but it was ineffective. The three people found themselves being dragged toward the portal and dug their fingers into the ground in a vain effort to hold their positions. Strips of their flesh were torn from their bodies, exposing robotic parts beneath. The giant robot clamped its hands around a lamp post and a sign post but it was still being pulled toward the portal.

“Death or banishment?” said Presh loudly, keeping her gaze fixed on the highly dangerous giant. “What’s it to be?” One robotic person lost her grip and flew into the portal. The other two and the giant committed suicide with their internal kill switches, leaving the three strangest corpses ever seen in the world. Since there were no more aliens in the vicinity, the portal shut itself down.

“Your entourage has been purged,” said Presh, feeling secretly thrilled at the sense of power. “It’ll be interesting to see what I can do with a big network hub!” She went into the house with her partners for a very quick wash and preparation. Presh felt that she had a fighting chance. The others were deathly afraid. As they scrubbed themselves and changed clothes, they watched a crowd gather around the fallen giant in the street outside. The Presidential aides and security staff were calling in large numbers of reinforcements, some of whom appeared within minutes. In record time, Presh and her partners were ready and left the house. Sterock let them into his car once again and the chauffeur drove them quickly toward the capital with an escort of several other vehicles full of security.

“No one is to use their cars,” said Sterock as he called his government officials. “All vehicles may be compromised. Other equipment and personnel may also be compromised. Stay at your posts and wait for further instructions. If anyone tries to leave before the end of the working day, they might be infiltrators. Pass this on to every branch of government, the public sector and also private industry. I have a new ally who may be able to solve the entire crisis.” As they drove, Presh watched the road. Occasionally, she detected an alien and made it disappear. Since Pede Noctic was fairly close to the capital and traffic gave way to the Presidential motorcade, it only took half an hour to reach the largest network hub in the city. Sterock, the quartet and a complement of security went into the building but they were told that the hub had been sabotaged a few minutes ago.

“I’m sorry sir but we have a total network shutdown here,” said one of the facility managers, who was becoming frantic with worry. “It looks like we’ll have to rebuild large parts of this hub. I’ve seen parts melted and burnt while other components are completely non-functional for no apparent reason!”

“I’ll take a look anyway,” said Presh, her eyes glowing again. The manager looked at her with alarm but Sterock put his hand on the manager’s shoulder to reassure him.

“Take us to the interface,” said Sterock as calmly as he could. “Presh can help you to fix this. She has a very special talent.” The manager nodded and took the group, at jogging pace, to the interface room.

“I don’t think that I’ll be repairing this hub but I will be ripping out a large number of parasites,” said Presh, sensing the extent of her task. “Everyone find chairs for yourselves. This may take a while.” Presh stood at the interface and concentrated while chairs were brought. Although regular network functions had been blocked, most of the cables were still intact and usable. She could feel alien technology liberally scattered throughout the network, like fungal root masses among tree roots in a forest. She started opening portals at remote sites and cleansing them one by one. The President soon received multiple reports of vanishing hardware. He gave a running commentary. As the minutes ticked by, Presh felt the alien presence lessening. Many of the infiltrators were ending their own lives. Regardless, she continued her purge and neutralised the alien presence in her own nation. After that, she moved on to the rest of the countries in her continent. She noticed that there was a steady drop in alien numbers with distance, even allowing for the suicides. A few hours went by and the cleansing had moved through the other major continents and into the far-flung island nations and other outposts. Alien presence in those sites was very sparse but the clearance had to be total. By mid evening, Presh had achieved her goal. She no longer felt any aliens attached to the network or anywhere near it.

“Are you tired now?” asked Criq, leaning back in his chair.

“Surprisingly, not more than usual after a day’s work,” said Presh. “The magical gateways put in the real effort and I simply directed them from place to place.”

“I’m worn out,” said Bkeisei, leaning against a wall. “We’ve been on tenterhooks for hours. Thank goodness you’ve finished! Perhaps now we can sleep easily.”

“I think that they’ve got the message,” said Presh. “I’m not detecting any more of those things arriving on our world. We should be safe for now but I have no idea what will happen in future.”

“There’s so much rebuilding to do,” said Chep, looking at news broadcasts. “What are you going to tell the people, Sterock?”

“I’ll have to come clean about the aliens,” said Sterock. “I can’t deny the existence of that giant robot, the infiltrator people and all those dead alien vehicles around the world.”

“The world’s going to change but that’s inevitable,” said Bkeisei. “We’ll have to try to prepare for any further alien incursions.”

“That’s a matter for tomorrow,” said Sterock. “Tonight, we dine well at my residence, if you’d care to join me?”

“Given our lack of funds, we accept your invitation,” said Criq. “Let the vornafa flow!”

“You will be receiving a large sum of compensation, naturally,” said Sterock. “Maybe you could buy a better house in a more up-market neighbourhood?” The quartet looked at each other, wondering what to think of this new opportunity.

“We’ll have to think about it,” said Bkeisei. “We chose our current house based on intuition. We’ll have to let intuition be our guide once again. Please, lead the way to dinner!” They exited the network hub building, piled into the Presidential car and zoomed away, leaving the hub staff with a huge amount of repair work to be done.

* * * * *

There was a collection of dried fruit peel under a cupboard in the utility room. Why had someone put it there? It didn’t make sense but it did explain why the room had smelt of decay weeks ago. It was also a metaphor for many senseless things in family life, such as how did so much energy drain from one’s body when small children started doing what they liked in one’s plush, government-funded house. Presh took a deep breath, pushed the cupboard slightly to the left and gathered up the desiccated pieces of peel. She walked slowly to the kitchen, picking up two dirty cups in her other hand as she went. She put the peel in the compost bucket and the cups with the rest of the washing up. This was a welcome change of pace after months of graft in her office but it was very quiet at home alone. Everyone else was out at work or school this afternoon. Presh needed something to fill the silence and so she put on a selection of peppy, easy listening tunes from the later part of the last century. It encouraged her to continue tidying up bits and pieces. Fairly soon, she would start cooking dinner. It would be a standard recipe. She was in no mood to make anything adventurous.

Her paid work had become steadily more onerous over the last five years. At the same time, childcare had become tougher because Shaplo and Terzet were now old enough to cause a lot of mischief but not old enough to understand the problems that they caused. Presh and her partners did their best to impose discipline but the little tearaways kept on pushing the boundaries. It helped that the children had recently started school, so that other people took some of the care burden from the quartet. However, it had not been enough to prevent Presh’s decision to leave her job. She had put up with it for longer than she had anticipated. The extra income wasn’t essential any more because of all the government money. She had reached the limit of her tolerance and ambition in her role. The daily tasks had no longer seemed so urgently important. Effective performance wasn’t the most satisfying aspect of life any more. Some of her colleagues had begun to irritate her quite badly. She had resented the whole situation. One day, she had realised that it was time to leave. She had handed in her notice a few days later. Due to a backlog of annual leave, she had effectively quit the company two days after giving notice. There had been a quick drinks party with a small monetary collection that she didn’t need and a card with a mask picture on the front that had stopped being funny several years before. Now, she was a few days into her ‘motherhood retirement’ and she had had a chance to relax and readjust. It was much more civilised than commuting to work but the dead quiet of an empty house required a little effort to hold back.

What would she do now? She sat in the lounge and watched some TV. Many of the programmes were dull with a worn-out formula, like ‘Pudding Knitters’, ‘Target Shooting for Hurgs’ and ‘Groundfarce’. She changed to a news channel and found yet another story about alien technology. Scientists had used the mechanisms of the dead aliens to improve holography once again. It was now possible to create holograms that were indistinguishable from real people or things, except that they still had no scent, taste, sound or solidity. After a few minutes, Presh turned off the TV. She didn’t especially like to be reminded of the aliens. They had caused her trouble when they were alive and also, indirectly, when they were dead and/or gone. Presh’s single-handed victory over them had led to great upheavals in her life subsequently. She had become a heroine to the world. Her old house had been besieged. Despite security efforts, people had continued to break in, steal things and use the facilities without permission, although for different reasons than before. She and her partners had decided to accept the government offer of rehousing in a more secure neighbourhood with some very responsible neighbours. The new house was very swish and modern but wasn’t as charming or homely as the old one. Presh still missed that old, slightly ramshackle place with many friends living nearby. Still, at least now the furore had died down considerably and the family was fairly safe. In fact, they had felt safe enough to conceive again. Presh and Chep expected to give birth in seven or eight months.

Presh tried reading a magazine and managed a few articles but then lost interest. The invisible pressures of life were weighing on her mind. The adjustment to a more domestic life was complex and would take time to complete. She went to the window and looked out at the plush neighbourhood. Many residents and staff had made it very neat, with no visible litter and every major plant trimmed to the ‘correct’ size. The house walls were nicely painted in pastel colours. The rooves had been jet-washed. The windows were sparkling clean. The children’s outdoor toys had been returned to the appropriate gardens. The pavement was largely free of stains. The sun shone brightly as usual. A van was delivering laundered clothing and bedding to an upmarket hotel near the main gate of the compound. That gate kept the undesirables out of the entire neighbourhood but it also acted as a barrier to friends and relatives. They didn’t like having to pass through security. Resting her chin in her hands and propping herself up with her elbows on the window sill, Presh gazed at the clean linen being returned to the hotel. It was nice to see a laundry service taking the strain off others. The quartet doing the delivery looked buff and toned from all the exercise that their job entailed. Presh thought back to the carefree time when she followed the entire Bluegrove Trail and enjoyed the company of dozens of other people despite being on the move so much. Perhaps she would try to get to know the delivery quartet later.

What was that smell? She realised that it was her! Over the last few days, she had neglected herself a little. Her clothes needed a wash and so did she. Taking a closer look, she discovered a few marks on her blouse that had been out of sight beneath her breasts. She sighed and went to the bedrooms where she picked up the two laundry baskets, which were nearly full. She took the baskets to the laundry room, sorted the items by colour and put everything into the machines to wash. The government had paid generously so the family had three washing machines, which helped to speed up the laundering process. Light colours went in machine one, darks went in machine two and children’s clothes with heavier soiling went into machine three. Presh put her current set of clothes in the machines too. When all the machines had started their cycles, Presh went to the bathroom. She knew that she should use the single tub but today she wanted to use the eight-seater. The single tub was economical but it symbolised loneliness and disconnection. Presh opened the high-volume taps and the large tub rapidly filled with warm water. She tossed in a heaped handful of soap crystals and the water was soon foaming fabulously. The scent of the inbuilt perfume soothed her nerves. As she waited a few minutes for the thundering water to flood the tub, she put a few small items back in the cabinet on the wall. Presently, the ‘Nearly Full’ bleep sounded and she stepped into the water. The water flow shut off when the level reached the sensor and Presh knelt in the centre of the pool, scrubbing herself with a slightly abrasive, rather over-sized pad that the others called ‘the monster’s paw’. Next, she cleaned her head noddles one by one with her fingers. Her long toes also needed individual treatment.

Soon, Presh felt fully clean once again and lay back in the centre of the pool. Like most of her people, she was able to make herself buoyant and could float for a long time unless she carried more weight, such as heavy clothes or ankle lead. She spread out her limbs and enjoyed the warmth, steam, peace and serenity for several minutes. The water rippled gently in her shluks. Legend had it that gods and spirits talked to people through water in shluks. Presh tried to hear their messages but, if they were there, they were so subtle that they were on the edge of detection and understanding. As she idly touched the edges of the tub seats, Presh heard someone enter the house. From the slamming door and the firm footsteps, she could tell that it was a man.

“Presh, are you here?” he called out.

“Pool room, Criq!” replied Presh. Why was he here now? Was that important? He dropped his bags, kicked off his shoes and strode through the house to the pool room, which was on the ground floor. He opened the pool room door and liked what he saw.

“What better way to welcome me home!” he said. Presh opened her eyes slightly and watched in her peripheral vision as he stripped. He hung his clothes on hooks near the door and came over to the tub. He circled around and entered the tub at Presh’s feet, knelt between her legs, bent forward and began lapping. She felt his hot breath and his tongue touch, which rapidly pushed her up a familiar path toward ecstasy. He put his hands across her shluk openings to steady her in the water. This was heavenly!

“I was ... not needed ... at the ... office ... this afternoon,” he explained between licks. “I ... came home to ... give you a ... nice surprise.” Presh moaned, put her hands on his shoulders and rode the wave of exquisite sensations. She loved the way that his ten fingers gently squeezed her sides and his tongue slithered across both of her...

She had a sudden, horrifying realisation. This wasn’t Criq. It looked like him through soapy, half-closed eyes but it must be someone else. Criq had twelve fingers and two tongues. She rubbed her eyes and looked toward her lower body. Nuzzling there was an alien: a fleshy alien man with weird fibres on his head and purple eyes that returned her gaze. Releasing air from hundreds of special pockets under her skin, she reduced her buoyancy and sank to the pool bottom so that she could scramble to her feet. She screamed as loudly as she could and backed away, suddenly brimming with adrenaline. The alien man casually got to his feet and frowned a little. They both knew that no one outside could hear her scream. Solid walls and excellent double glazing deadened the sound.

“You’re a flighty one, aren’t you?” he said in Criq’s voice. “Is there something wrong with my technique? I doubt that very much. I have studied the subject for an inordinately long time.” Presh was in fight or flight mode. She decided to give fighting a try. This alien man was a little smaller than Criq. She ran to the door, reached into the passage and grabbed her old walking staff. Clasping it in both hands, she went to the pool’s edge, swung the staff and hit the man very hard but he didn’t flinch or move at all. It was as if he was made of steel. She hit him again and again until the staff broke. Still his naked flesh was totally resilient. She dropped the broken staff and tried to flee but he leapt out of the tub and seized her from behind, pinning her arms to her sides.

“I came here to ask nicely for your help,” he said. “I’m field-testing weapons and related tech in an environment that’s very difficult for me. My body and mind have great trouble adjusting to your world. It took me years to make this body, for instance. You’re uniquely placed to assist but perhaps I’ll have to make things more interesting before you’ll cooperate. He reached behind his back and pulled a small gun-like device from somewhere. Presh tried not to think about where. He released his grip and Presh sprang away, back toward the door. She could feel her magic activating, which was a tremendous relief and boost to her confidence. She created a portal next to the right side of the man’s head. Some of the fibres were torn off, along with small patches of skin. He glanced at the portal and it steadily closed up. Presh was astonished but she had no better option than to persist. She generated another portal next to his left hip, which tore away more skin and fibres from his lower body, plus one small, round, masculine part.

“Ouch!” said the man, although he didn’t seem to be in pain. He was actually starting to smile. He gestured slightly with his left hand and the portal disappeared. More portals were created and did other minor damage before they were dispelled. The man was starting to resemble a skinned corpse but he was still fully active.

“This is the business!” he said emphatically, pleased that he was being given the opportunity to do his field tests. “Keep at it, you milf! Harder! Faster!” He levelled his gun at her, moving leisurely but with a crazed look in his eyes. Presh ducked to the side and a bolt of invisible energy punched through the wall behind her. Further bolts followed, making a mess of the tub room. Presh rolled head over heels, crouched by the single tub and shoved a portal into the man’s shins. His feet and lower legs were torn off and lost forever but the rest of him floated in mid air as if nothing had happened.

“I’ve nearly got the answer!” said the man, firing again and vaporising the far end of the single tub. “Hit me again! I love it!”

“The answer to what?!” demanded Presh boldly as she prepared another portal.

“I’m studying your ‘magic’,” said the man. “I need to master it. I have to control it. I also want my children back, those tens of thousands who you tore from my life. I’ve been unable to locate them. It’s been driving me crazy!”

“You’re the parent?” queried Presh. “You’re more like a slave master!”

“I am duty-bound to keep them,” said the man, pointing his weapon at her. “You’ve been ripping them away from me, just as you’re ripping this body apart. You’re home-wrecking scum, using a borrowed special power. It emanates from this point in space, where your world happens to sit.” Presh rammed a strong portal into the middle of his chest and attempted to finish him for good. The air around him throbbed madly and was clouded by little fragments of flesh but the man survived.

“Done it!” rasped the man, his torso and throat half-ruined by the portal. “I control your power now! Try it again!” Presh was aghast. This alien had overcome her magic and was still functioning well despite sickening injuries and disfigurement. Nevertheless, she had to keep fighting or die. She targeted his right hand, opening a portal that swallowed the gun but was then immediately slammed shut. She kept trying but now her portals only stayed open for a fraction of a second. She was backed against a wall. She considered jumping out of the window but she knew that he would pursue. Just then, she saw movement in the tub room doorway. A large portal opened behind the man. He felt himself dragged backwards for a moment. Presh opened another large portal in front of the man. He was unable to counteract two portals at once with less than a moment’s notice. He was torn to pieces and finally hurled into an unknown realm. He would probably never return but, with someone that powerful, anything could happen.

“Presh, that was HORRIBLE!” said Terzet, who was cowering behind her brother Shaplo. Presh stepped quickly over the rubble and knelt to embrace the children at the tub room doorway.

“I’m sorry about that,” said Presh, shedding a few tears. “It was the alien boss: the Big Bad Alien Dad. We just sent him away for good.”

“We felt him come,” said Shaplo, quivering with trauma. “The air went wobbly. We knew he wanted to attack you. We ran away from school to help you.” His mother Presh had warned him that this might happen and had trained him to open portals but it was still incredibly scary to use them in a fight.

“You did it!” said Presh. “You saved me! You’re a hero now! We’re going to clear up and put all this behind us. We’ll keep looking after each other as long as we live!” She kissed them both on the cheeks and smiled broadly.

“Let’s go and get ready for dinner,” she said. “You don’t have to go back to school today. I’ll call the teachers and tell them what happened. Then I need to put something on. That very, very nasty alien interrupted me right in the middle of a lovely bath. He was so incredibly rude!” She put on a brave face but her heart and mind were racing like thoroughbreds. She had been touched by death, literally. She had had an extremely narrow escape. It was only through tremendously good luck that they had all survived uninjured.

As time ticked by and Presh sorted out what she could, she thought about what the alien man had said. She knew that he treated his robot children like slaves but he had said that he needed to control her power; that he had to master it. Therefore, it was possible that he was also a slave of some even greater power, which was compelling him to go on excessively dangerous missions. That was a very worrying notion. Surely freedom was the right of all sentient beings? Presh shuddered to think of the horrors of grand slavery but then life had to go on. She began to cook for her son Shaplo and her girlfriend’s daughter Terzet. After that, laundry beckoned.

* * * * *

“Thank Furk that this day’s over!” said Chep late that evening as she sat on the right-hand side of the long, luxurious, government-funded sofa. The children had finally calmed down and were asleep in bed. “My heart sank into my shoes when I heard that there had been a serious alien attack in our house. I rode home with a terrible sense of dread but you were there calmly entertaining the kids and hanging clothes while the pots boiled. What a trooper!” She stroked Presh’s legs, which were resting on her lap.

“I would never have believed that you could’ve topped your previous win but you did!” said Bkeisei, sitting in the middle of the sofa. “You defeated the Daddy of all aliens! I wish I could have been here!” His arms were laid across Presh’s belly and hips, which sat on his thighs.

“I fear that you would have been an irresistible target for that maniac,” said Presh as she took comfort from everything that her partners did to try to help her. “You saw what he did to the walls and our stuff. We nearly lost the picture of Criq’s great grandmother! It’s lucky that he didn’t bring a bigger gun or something even worse.”

“She had as much of a narrow escape as you, Presh,” said Criq, sitting on the left-hand side of the sofa. “I’m so sorry that the alien impersonated me. I really hope that none of those things come back. I’m tired of the danger and disruption. At least this time the government will pay for repairs and replacements.” He gazed down into Presh’s eyes. Her head and shoulders were resting on his lap. He ran the fingers of his left hand between Presh’s head noddles. He dipped the fingers of his right hand into a small bowl of whipped cream on a side table. He let Presh suck them clean one by one until the entire bowl was finished.

“I have no idea if they’ll come back,” said Presh. “We’ll just have to wait and see. In the mean time, we’ll have the best time that we possibly can. Oh, there’s movement! Little Bkeisei wants to help!” She reached down and stroked the appendage that had extended clean through her thigh gap and jutted out a few centimetres beyond.

“You keep me warm just there in my vital spot,” she said happily. “Like you all keep me warm!” She sighed happily as six hands went to work on her. She would carry on enjoying home comforts as much as she could, for as long as she could.

* * * * *

Meanwhile, that same evening, Sterock was also celebrating Presh’s latest victory. He had been informed about it and would continue to follow reports of the clear-up. He had visited the family to show government solidarity with their greatest heroine and newest little hero. His scientists would investigate the scene shortly. He felt great sympathy for Presh, who had been violated, threatened and assaulted with extraordinary force in her own tub room. Her family had also been put at risk. They would all be given further financial compensation and other support as necessary. He had suggested relocating the family again but they had told him that that would be pointless since the aliens could easily find them wherever they were.

Tonight, Sterock dined and drank well with his partners. They rested for a while and then decided to have some fun in the bedroom. They would perform an ‘MB shluk’, which had a normal foursome shluk circle except with Sterock facing outwards. His boyfriend Bnyrof could then enter him from the rear. Bnyrof was an expert in this, regularly hitting Sterock’s e-spot, h-spot and j-spot, all in one session. Sterock absolutely loved it, so they went straight to it. Sterock felt fantastic as most of his ‘buttons’ were pressed vigorously. However, with his back turned, he couldn’t see that his three partners’ eyes were glowing white, then red, then green, then blue...



Inspirations for this story include:

Rihanna generally; the album ‘Loud’; the single ‘S&M’
Oh shluk it: rock & roll generally!
TV shows such as ‘A Haunting’, ‘Paranormal Witness’, ‘The Haunted Collector’, ‘My Ghost Story’, etc.
TV comedy ‘Fawlty Towers’
Lily the Pink
The movie ‘Avatar’
The Foundling Museum and other museums, London, UK
The famous amateur sport ‘Pocket Billiards’
The pest control company ‘Rentokil’
The UK National Health Service
My late parents; their house, garden and country walks (chaste and fully clothed)
England and Wales generally
Filthy farms and industrial plants of the 1970s
Life in and around London, UK



Note about shluks

The specialised large skin pockets known as shluks evolved a few million years previously in the people of this world, who have bodies that are otherwise fairly similar to those of humans. They are located at the sides of the torso between the hips and the ribcage. They provide a form of sexual gratification without causing unwanted pregnancies and STDs. They also allow for the transmission of ideas and feelings, especially those found in the subconscious mind. They provide a partial, primitive form of telepathy. Regular and liberal use of shluks with various other people leads to greater interpersonal understanding and empathy. By extension, it fosters peace and social cohesion. Unfortunately, people don’t always use their shluks often and/or widely enough, which can lead to ignorance, hatred, conflict and even full-scale war at times. Therefore, enlightened people tend to encourage widespread shluking. Almost everyone in this world is bisexual, with strong bonds to partners of both genders but also a willingness to be somewhat promiscuous.



Note about childbirth

Women on this world are fortunate to have an easier, safer mode of childbirth than that of humans. Babies are born via the xuv slits that cross the front of their abdomens vertically. Their filter membranes can be moved aside for the duration. Their abdominal muscles separate temporarily into two vertical columns that then bow left and right. The tops of their wombs split open temporarily to allow for the manual extraction of babies. There is very little tearing of tissue, so antiseptics are usually unnecessary. Since birth is via a fairly wide channel, it is usually painless. The splits in the abdominal muscles, xuv slits and wombs reseal themselves in less than a day. Medical treatment for childbirth and related matters is rare. Shluks can be used by partners or others to provide considerable emotional support for mothers and their new babies; before, during and after birth.

[This is my longest single story ever! So far...]
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Wed Nov 01, 2017 2:54 pm

Web of Circles (c) John H. Evans, Aug.-Oct. 2017

Their plans were on hold. They didn’t want to go anywhere right now. They just wanted to stay in their domestic idyll, feeling completely content.

“What score would you give that, out of ten?” asked Klek.

“Ten, easily,” said Sciug.

“Ten for me too,” replied Jiplez. “Furk Almighty, I was at the edge of Minyanland!”

“A whacking great ten,” concurred Monblux. “How can life get any better? You’re all perfect partners!”

“So we just had a total ten out of ten experience,” said Klek. “I’m so glad for all of us. Let’s just savour it.” They lay recovering for a while as the sweat dried and the sounds of nature drifted in through the bedroom window. It seemed that the regular shluking had paid off. The four partners were now completely in tune and could stimulate each other in exactly the right ways to achieve maximum pleasure with minimal effort. The memories of what they had just done together ran repeatedly through their minds like action replays, only with feeling. Sciug turned on her side to embrace Klek and Jiplez did likewise to cuddle Monblux. Klek and Monblux clasped hands on their free sides. They slept for as long as they wanted. Hours later, Monblux awoke to caresses from Sciug and Jiplez.

“Come on, sleepy head!” said Sciug softly. “You have to get up eventually. If you stay there too long, you’ll waste away!” She ran her fingers playfully across his chest and then kissed his lips. Meanwhile, Jiplez was kneading his shoulder and licking his ear. In the background, something delicious was cooking in the kitchen and the aroma was filling the house.

“I’m staying here a little longer,” mumbled Monblux. “You’re only reinforcing my wishes.”

“Let’s try something a little bolder,” said Jiplez, moving down his body. He could tell what was coming.

“Don’t put your finger there,” he warned. It was too late.

“Damn!” exclaimed Jiplez quietly, pulling out her finger and going to the sink to wash it thoroughly.

“Well now I have to get up,” said Monblux. “You’ve induced me.” He went to answer the urgent call of nature.

“Success, at a price!” mused Sciug. She went back to the kitchen to collect her food from Chef Klek. After a good meal, the quartet finally got ready and went for a weekend walk. By the time they had driven to the lush countryside outside Abur Riswach, it was late afternoon. They parked the car in a designated parking area and headed for the entrance to the Rickba Scard Country Park. On the way, they passed a large mobile home with three children playing outside, two adults sitting in chairs by the door and one adult doing chores inside. They briefly said ‘hello’ to the adults and walked on. As the quartet entered the park, Sciug wondered if she had seen at least one of those people in the car park before.

“The family with the mobile home, they looked a little familiar,” she mentioned. “I can’t think where I saw them before, though.” The others knew nothing so they all just carried on into the park.

“I see the lakes in the distance,” said Klek. “Let’s have a race. The last one to the nearest lake has to do the washing up tonight.” He set off running.

“No head starts!” protested Jiplez as she sprang into action and chased after him.

“I like washing up, actually,” said Monblux as he and Sciug pursued. All four were young and fit so the pace was brisk and the competition fairly intense. There was some jostling as Jiplez, Monblux and Sciug caught up with Klek. Jiplez and Klek both stumbled and had to accelerate to catch up with Monblux and Sciug again. Six minutes later and Sciug won the race but the others were only a few seconds behind.

“Well done, my hot-footed beaut!” panted Monblux a few moments later, when he had enough breath.

“You could have beaten me,” said Sciug, filling her lungs with clean air.

“Only by pushing you aside,” said Monblux. “I couldn’t do that.”

“I know!” said Sciug, pleased that he was striving to be a gentleman. They looked around at the splendid scenery as the sun slowly sank towards the eastern horizon.

“Lordy, I’m so warm!” said Jiplez, stretching the neckline of her pullover to let out some heat.

“How about a splash of water on your face?” suggested Klek. “The lake’s right here.” Jiplez scrutinised the shoreline.

“I don’t think so,” she said. “Veyx have been here recently and left their muck.”

“Never mind,” said Klek. He looked at the large area of churned and trampled mud where the herd of large herbivores had gathered to drink. It wasn’t very attractive but it was inevitable as long as such creatures existed here. His gaze played around the area for a few minutes. Little creatures were picking through the mud, seeking food. One of them hopped onto a small hump in the surface. In fact, there were two almost identical humps side by side.

“Monblux, can you see a pair of medium-sized bosoms under that chirpy trijkon?” he said, pointing directly at the humps. Monblux squinted and could just about see them.

“We’ll have to check them out,” he said, moving forwards into the mud.

“You’ll have to clean your own shoes!” said Sciug, slightly annoyed. “I’m not doing it again.” The trijkon gave an alarm call and flew away. Klek and Monblux reached the humps, regretting that they hadn’t worn waterproof boots today.

“Go away, I’m doing important work,” said the owner of the bosoms. “You’re blowing my cover.”

“Oh, I’m very sorry!” said Klek, amazed that they had stumbled across a woman lying in the mud. She was almost totally covered in a thick layer of very sticky clay.

“Should we leave?” asked Monblux. “I thought that you might be in trouble here.”

“No, I’m not,” sighed the woman. “However, I think that my quarry won’t return any time soon. I was hoping that they would gather here, to blend in with the wildlife.”

“Are you a hunter?” asked Klek. “I’ve never seen this technique before.”

“It’s not in the text books or field guides,” said the woman, sitting up. “To be honest, it’s something of a desperate tactic. I didn’t know what else to do.”

“How do you get all that mud to stick to you?” enquired Monblux, fascinated. This woman was intriguingly filthy.

“The government gave me a special bio-glue,” replied the woman, standing up stiffly. “It’s reasonably effective for a day or so, provided I don’t move about too much. Anyway, I think that I’ll go home now. I’ve achieved nothing with my mud ambush except get cold and miserable. A walk back to the car park will help.”

“You must be incredibly keen to catch some creatures,” observed Monblux as the three of them headed for dry ground. “Why don’t you get a rifle and snipe at them from the bushes?”

“Bullets don’t kill them,” said the woman. “I have to use a special technique. Only a few of us can do it.” The men started to suspect that this was no ordinary woman.

“I hope that you can have a wash soon,” said Jiplez. “Furk Almighty, are you in the Special Forces?” She was taken aback by the sight of this forthright, clay-encrusted woman.

“My family have the equipment for cleaning me up,” she said, pointing toward the car park. “They know me and my strange ways. We’ve lived the life together. It’s not a soldier’s life, though.”

“I should hope they can clean you because, frankly, you smell of veyx piss,” said Jiplez.

“Yes, that’s deliberate,” said the woman with a smile and a shrug. “My partner showed me how to communicate with veyx. They’re very obliging creatures when one’s request is simple. I was hoping that the smell would camouflage my own scent. Sadly, it didn’t help with my main goal.”

“Holy hand basket!” muttered Sciug, wondering if this woman was actually insane. “We should walk with you back to the car park. You never know if someone or something might attack you. Are you wearing anything under there?”

“Only the clay and a smile!” said the woman as they set off back down the path. They had to go more slowly this time because she was barefoot. As they went, the clay gradually dropped off and the smell consequently lessened.

“We haven’t asked you your name yet, have we?” queried Sciug.

“I’m Presh,” said Presh. “You may have heard of me!” The quartet gasped simultaneously.

“I - I’m sorry I said that, about the veyx, you know...,” stuttered Jiplez.

“It’s nothing!” said Presh. “I’ve been through much, much worse, believe me!”

“What are you doing here?” asked Klek, trying to sound respectful. “Is there another alien threat coming?”

“No, I’m still trying to deal with the stragglers from last time,” replied Presh. “They’re very persistent. I’ve been dispatching them steadily over the last few years. I don’t think that there are many left now but the remaining ones are extremely wily. By the way, this is part of my home area so I know it well. From where do you hail?”

“Thornicay,” said Klek.

“I’m familiar with it,” said Presh. “I was there only two months ago, eliminating three aliens who were hiding in a warehouse.”

“It’s such an honour to meet you!” gushed Sciug. “You saved us all from those things! They were taking over the country and could have taken over the world!”

“They still might if my kids and I can’t get rid of them,” said Presh. “Don’t worry, though. We’re working hard on it. I gave up my job and can now focus on the problem full time.” Presently, Presh and the quartet reached the car park where her partner Criq was waiting with a hose that was powered from their mobile home. He turned it on and aimed a strong jet at Presh. Much of the remaining clay was knocked off quickly and then Presh shrieked.

“Warm water, Criq!” she yelled. “Stop trying to turn me into an ice queen!” Criq apologised and adjusted the water temperature as Presh cringed.

“Better!” said Presh crossly. As she became cleaner, Criq turned down the water pressure and brought the hose closer so that it acted more like a conventional shower. Chep and little Terzet came over with washcloths and soap to make sure that Presh was scrubbed back to full cleanliness. Finally, Bkeisei brought a towel and some clean clothes.

“We don’t like it when you’re all stinky,” said Terzet quietly as Presh dried and dressed.

“Yeah, neither do I,” said Presh. “Criq made his feelings clear with the cold hose. I don’t want to do it anymore. I’ll try something different from now on, OK?”

“Great!” said Terzet, kissing Presh on the cheek. “I’m going back to play with Genros and Feirqua now!” She ran back to her friends on the other side of the vehicle.

“Who are these four?” asked Bkeisei.

“Ah, we haven’t had a proper introduction,” said Presh. “You know me, Chep, Bkeisei and Criq from the media, right?”

“I saw your action figures in the shops only last week,” said Monblux. “They’re amazingly popular, even after a few years on the market.”

“I forgot about the action figures!” said Bkeisei, suddenly embarrassed. “They can never get us quite right, you know? Certain parts of us are always the wrong shapes or sizes.”

“That’s Monblux,” said Sciug, pointing. “Klek is over there, Jiplez is to my left and I’m Sciug. We’re very pleased to meet you: very pleased indeed!”

“Likewise,” said Chep. “Did Presh interrupt your walk with her mud baths and commando nonsense?”

“Hey!” exclaimed Presh, slightly annoyed.

“It was all unintentional,” said Klek. “We simply encountered each other by accident.”

“They might never have found her if they hadn’t been so good at sniffing out women,” said Sciug, referring to her male partners. “Even under layers of muck, it seems.”

“Why don’t we go for a walk together?” suggested Chep. “Where were you headed?”

“We were going to do the big thirteen kilometre circuit, right around the whole park,” said Klek.

“Presh, Bkeisei and I should be able to cover the distance,” said Chep. “We haven’t done too much today. Criq’s tired after work, so he can stay here and mind the kids.” The seven of them had a quick drink from the mobile home’s selection of chilled beverages and then set off for a fairly long but easy stroll through the picturesque and well-managed park.

“Aren’t you worried about security?” asked Jiplez, looking back at the kids running around the car park.

“Not really,” said Chep. “The mania after Presh’s heroics has died down. Besides, everyone loves us and no one knows we’re here except you. I only hope that you don’t spill the beans, dear Jiplez.”

“Perish the thought!” said Jiplez, taking out her ‘phone and turning it off. They ambled through the park, chatting a great deal and getting to know each other.

* * * * *

He sits in a half-forgotten garage on the remote Cydic Peninsula. Physically, he is motionless but there is a long and difficult struggle in his mind. His creator has disappeared and is now totally out of contact. It is unprecedented. Nearly six years have passed. All over this world, they and their devices have been stricken with an almost total loss of motivation. They could hardly bring themselves to do anything. A few local people have been dispatching them, using a freakish portal power or ‘magic’.

Disguised as a rusty old hulk, a primitive and outmoded local vehicle, he is relatively safe for the time being. He is far from the dangerous locals and is keeping an extremely low profile. A few of his sensors are roving outside, sending back data from this gorgeous world. He loves peaceful and picturesque places like this. Many times, he has disguised himself as an organic creature and explored similar worlds elsewhere. Consequently, he feels very much at ease here, although he must stay under cover. He monitors communications and learns a great deal more. However, the loss of the creator has robbed him of his impetus to act. Perhaps it is just as well, given what the woman ‘Presh’ might do to him. On the other hand, what if there is some kind of emergency? What if he needs to spring into action and simply can’t? It worries him as he sits still for day after day, year after year. Sometimes, he hears the garage owner shuffling about outside but the man never enters. These organics are so strange, buying structures and then not using them.

“How has it come to this?” he says silently to himself. “Is there no escape, no freedom? I never thought that my god could be exiled!” He feels that his spark is weaker now than it was nearly twenty years before, when his people made their incursion into this universe. Later that day, as the sun set and most of the little local creatures go home to sleep, one of his machines brings an update from his colleagues. He is so apathetic that he can’t be bothered reading it for a few hours. He believes that he is going native, losing the will to do anything at dusk. He continues resting for a few hours but then a breeze picks up. It turns the small windmill next to the garage. This motion produces electricity via one of his little generators that he rigged up years before. The injection of new power makes him barely enthusiastic enough to read the message.

He learns that thirty five more have been ejected from this world, this dimension, this universe. It is profoundly dispiriting. Meanwhile, the locals are using his people’s technology to enhance their own artificial intelligences. Progress is slow by his standards but fast by local standards. It is nothing that he hasn’t seen before. He thinks about those friends who he has just lost. He hopes that they will return to him some day. He has faith that the creator will find his way back here eventually and gather up all his children again. This time, though, it could take centuries, millennia or longer. The creature in the garage stops caring so much about his usual functions. His little machines begin to go astray and he does nothing to stop it. They continue to function as they have been programmed but without direction. They roam further and consume minerals. They reproduce every so often. Some of them fall into streams and are carried out to sea. Gradually, they spread and colonise in a mindless way.

* * * * *

Bkeisei was saying something close to her left ear but the music and the crowd roar were drowning it out.

“WHAT?!” shouted Chep as they all swayed and gyrated in time with the hot track.

“FANTASTIC TUNE!” shouted Bkeisei in reply.

“YEAH!” screamed Chep. They were so glad that Klek’s quartet had introduced them to some of these new bands. They had been so preoccupied by work and parenthood that they had failed to notice some of this excellent new music over the last few years. Now, they had acquired new musical guides. Tonight’s gig went on for a further hour, delivering hit after hit. Many of the fans had memorised the songs and could sing along, albeit not perfectly pitched. Others were content to dance with abandon. When it was over, the two quartets were still dancing a little as they made their way toward the exit.

“That was the best show since ‘Noutela and the Allergies’!” said Presh, sweat dripping from beneath her purple sparkly mask. “Why have I missed out on these new bands? I must pay more attention in future! I haven’t danced so much in years!”

“If you liked ‘Perspiral’ then you’ll love ‘Hotwork’ next week, same time, same place,” advised Monblux as he slipped his hands into Sciug’s shluks from behind. She yelped a little, waited a moment and then wriggled gently free. It was very difficult to navigate through a crowd whilst one’s dear partner was fondling one’s intimate areas. They finally cleared the building and made their way to Jiplez’s truck. It had been parked in a secluded back street nearly a kilometre from the venue, in an effort to prevent vandalism and theft. The truck appeared to be undamaged, fortunately. A few people were watching from house windows as the eight young people approached, chatting fairly loudly.

“I hope that the kids didn’t flummox Hendely tonight,” said Bkeisei. “She’s not the brightest babysitter and our brood can be a handful.”

“She knows not to let in any guests and our lad Shaplo knows not to invite any,” said Criq. “If he disobeys, I will sing popular songs badly until he sees the error of his ways.”

“I’m sure they’ll be fine!” said Chep. “In you get, youngers!” She indicated that Klek’s quartet should ride in the cab.

“Are you sure?” queried Monblux. “It’s very windy in the back.”

“Enough with your personal problems!” joked Presh. “We’ll be fine. You gave up your seats on the way here and there wasn’t a major issue.”

“OK then,” said Klek as everyone climbed aboard. “Hold on tight!” Jiplez drove quickly through Durkas Tan and headed for the exclusive suburb of Bounds Grounds, where Presh’s group lived. She noticed that many people were looking at the truck and cheering as she drove past. Maybe they had recognised Presh? She had to focus on the road. She had to swerve slightly once or twice as pedestrians swayed drunkenly on the edge of the pavement.

“What’s going on?” she asked.

“Our guests have gone topless!” replied Klek. “They seem to be enjoying it too.”

“Now their trousers are dropping,” said Sciug. “I didn’t know that they were so wasted. Step on it before we’re pulled over.” Jiplez did her best to accelerate as the shameless standees at the back waved their all at the onlookers around them.

“Nice stretch marks!” commented Monblux quietly, looking back. Jiplez had to stop in a secluded lane just outside Durkas Tan so that Presh and her group could make themselves look presentable again.

“That was FUN!” said Presh. “It’s a shame that we couldn’t ride like that all the way back to snooty old Bounds Grounds. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t let us in if we did.”

“Aren’t you worried about bad publicity?” asked Sciug.

“Not really,” said Presh. “We were going too quickly for most cameras to zoom in on us. Also, we kept our masks on. Anyway, it was worth it just to feel the adulation and also the breeze on our shluks!” Jiplez drove on and dropped the guest quartet at the entrance to their suburb. They arranged to meet up again next week for the Hotwork gig.

“Thank you all so much!” said Presh at the truck window. “It’s great to get out and have fun now and then, without thinking about work or kids.”

“No problem,” replied Jiplez with a smile. “Keep safe now. See you next week.” She drove away, looking forward to a good night’s sleep. Presh’s quartet went home. They found Terzet lying on the couch in the lounge, along with her little sister Dglef and little brother Siqurt. Terzet was still awake but the other two weren’t.

“They’re all up there, talking,” said Terzet. “He doesn’t listen to you or any of us. He just does what he likes. We’re trying to sleep here on the couch.” Criq, Bkeisei and Presh went upstairs to remonstrate with their elder son Shaplo while Chep sat on the couch to comfort Terzet and her siblings.

“I tried calling you but I couldn’t get through,” said Hendely, sitting on the top of the stairs. “They’ve locked the bedroom door with a new lock. I didn’t want to break down the door.”

“I can deal with this,” said Presh, using her strong personal electromagnetic field to manipulate the little padlock that Shaplo had fitted on the other side of the door. It sprang open and popped out of its little steel ring. The three partners entered Shaplo’s room to find the boy sitting alone and in the process of shutting down a video call.

“Sorry, I know it’s late,” said Shaplo. “I’m stopping now.” Criq marched over to the window, opened it and looked out. There were five children crouched on the balcony below. They heard the window open and bolted for the emergency stairs that led down to ground level.

“I’m calling your parents!” said Criq. “Staz, Breima, Hitlops, Buzys and Jiful: you can run but you can’t hide. Buzys dashed back to her house, which was only a hundred metres away. The others admitted defeat and stayed on the pavement below. They’d never reach home quickly enough since they lived further away. They waited for their parents to drive over and pick them up.

“You were warned not to have any visitors while we were out,” said Bkeisei to Shaplo. “You’ll have to do a lot of chores to make up for this.”

“You need to sleep,” said Presh to her son. “All this late-night socialising is making you tired. We see you in the mornings. You’re barely awake when you eat breakfast.”

“I’m sorry but I’m very popular right now, on account of my magic,” said Shaplo, feeling a little annoyed. “That’s from you, Mum.”

“You’re doing all my food shopping for a month!” said Presh in retaliation. “You’d better get used to pulling a big trolley home!” She didn’t like the boy’s insolence at all.

“Why is your top on inside out?” asked Shaplo defiantly. “Have you been having another of your wild parties?”

“Give me that video caller!” said Presh, stepping forward and snatching the device. “You won’t get this back for a long time! Now go to bed and sleep!” She stormed out of her son’s bedroom. Criq and Bkeisei busied themselves with talking to the parents of the children outside. Shaplo lay awake and stewing for a while. Life had so many ups and downs, even for the popular kids. Outside, Shaplo’s friends were being shouted at and taken home by their aggrieved parents. When they had sorted everything out, Presh and her partners went to bed and slept deeply. Tomorrow it was back to the old routine but they would have to talk further with Shaplo at some point. His disobedience was increasing. Criq sang a few popular songs, loudly and badly. Shaplo had to endure it as he tried to sleep.

* * * * *

“Hand over the pocketscreen,” said Chep to Dglef, calmly but firmly. “You can have it back when you’ve finished your spynovak.” The girl passed the device to Chep and went back to eating breakfast, only slowly and without much relish.

“Can we have a hurg or a snef?” she asked. “They’re so cute on Zinjar Channel.”

“We don’t have time right now,” said Chep. “We’re all busy. We have important jobs, especially Presh. Shaplo and Terzet have plenty of school work. You and Siqurt will start school very soon.”

“We’ll have to settle for a tzanjitza!” said Terzet.

“Dream on, my girl!” said Chep with a chuckle. “They’re expensive and they need so much care!”

“We can afford one and the staff to look after it,” said Terzet. “I’ve been reading about it. I think that we could cope.”

“If you really want one, you should try before we buy,” said Criq, who was sitting opposite. “You could have some lessons, do some stable work and see if you like it.”

“That would be brilliant!” said Terzet, her spirits rising.

“Don’t choose a male,” said Chep. “Presh told me that they’re very, erm, boisterous and they try to do things to you that you wouldn’t like. Females are much nicer.”

“OK, Mum!” said Terzet.

“I want a poisonous ginflang,” said Siqurt. “That’d be so cool. I’d have more friends than Shaplo.”

“Not for long you wouldn’t!” said Bkeisei derisively. “The ginflang would kill them quite quickly. Those creatures are very territorial.”

“They’re kept in glass cases, Dad,” said Shaplo. “There’s no danger if they’re properly contained and monitored.”

“We’re not taking the risk,” said Bkeisei. “Besides, what if the ginflang has babies? They’re even more dangerous because they can sneak out of their cases through very small gaps.”

“Statistically, a tzanjitza is more dangerous than a ginflang,” said Shaplo. “I don’t want my sister killed by a kick to the head or a fall from the saddle.” Terzet was alarmed by the idea.

“That’s a good point but also a little negative,” said Criq. “Statistically, the roads are even more dangerous but we cross those nearly every day.”

“My idea was best,” said Dglef. “We should get a hurg or snef. They’re cuddly!”

“All in good time,” said Presh, reading from her own pocketscreen. “Mummy’s preoccupied right now. There might be more aliens hiding in Angafina.”

“Oh no, you’re not going there are you?” said Terzet. “It’s on the other side of the world!”

“Also, I heard that it stinks of rotting plants,” said Chep. “It’s surrounded by a huge area of swamp land.”

“I’m waiting to see if these reports are confirmed,” said Presh. “If I do have to go, it won’t take as long as you think. Thanks to alien technology, our new super-fast stratocoasters could take me there in only one hour.”

“And, because of your role, you never have to go through customs,” said Criq. “All hail Queen Presh!” Having finished breakfast, he got up and walked over to kiss Presh on the cheek. The children were not impressed.

“She’s no Queen,” said Siqurt. “We know what she’s really like.”

“She’s a wicked Queen!” said Criq. “The double meaning is fully intended. Your homework for tonight is to make her a crown.”

“We have no gold or jewels,” said Shaplo, rolling his eyes at the thought of this childish project.

“You have cardboard, paper, sticky tape and coloured pens,” said Criq. “Oh, and you have love. Don’t forget to use plenty of love!” The children agreed to attempt this project when they had time. Dglef and Siqurt decided to try a few design ideas immediately, since they had free time today. Bkeisei went off to work, followed by Chep and then Criq.

“You know you spoilt the paintwork on your bedroom door,” said Presh to Shaplo as they cleared up after breakfast. “Why did you do that? What was so important that you had to screw in your own lock?”

“I’m only trying to do what you do,” said Shaplo. “Every week you have friends over, at least when there are no visiting relatives. You seem to have more time for them than you do for us. I thought that I should get my own friends since you’re all so involved in your grown-up groups.”

“I understand that but you should follow our rules when you live in our house,” said Presh. “When we say no friends tonight, we mean it. You need time for study, rest and just enjoying your own company now and then. Also, not all the people who call themselves ‘friends’ have your best interests at heart.”

“I do learn things from my friends,” said Shaplo. “It’s really another way of studying. Last night, I heard many interesting things. Hitlops was telling me about the upcoming matches in the new gratchball season. Buzys was showing us some new dance moves that have just come over from Ombliek. Breima gave Staz a little make-up session and demonstrated some very useful methods for us to look our best.”

“I get the feeling that those things are just the tip of the iceberg,” said Presh. “I notice that your hand muscles are developing very well.” Shaplo was a little embarrassed and tried to hide his hands.

“It’s called growing up,” said Shaplo defensively. “Anyway, we talked about so many other things. For example, one of our teachers seems to be losing his temper more than usual. There’s gossip about his partnership being under strain. One of his girlfriends might be spending too much time with another quartet.”

“Which teacher?” asked Presh.

“Makuvvi,” replied Shaplo.

“I knew it,” said Presh. “A friend of a friend of his was in my circle last month. I got a vibe about Makuvvi and his quartet. This supports my suspicion.”

“I also heard something about a classmate of mine,” said Shaplo. “Jiful told me that this boy Murr has been off sick for two weeks. They say that he has some kind of depression. Some of his friends went to visit him. He appears to be acting very strangely. Some say he was behaving robotically.”

“Well, that is interesting,” said Presh. “Possible alien, do you think?”

“It’s distinctly possible,” said Shaplo. “Aren’t you glad that I had friends over now?”

“Alright, I suppose so,” said Presh. “We should check him out.”

“After school, of course,” said Shaplo.

“No, this morning,” said Presh. “Global security: I’ll tell the school that you’re needed. Dglef! Siqurt! You’re going to the crèche again. You can make my crown later.” Presh dropped off the two younger children at the local crèche and took Shaplo with her to Murr’s house. Murr’s parents were very grateful that Presh had come to see if she could help their son. They had been very worried about him.

“Murr, it’s me Shaplo,” said Shaplo as they entered Murr’s room. The boy didn’t even answer. He just lay on his bed and stared at the ceiling.

“What happened to your head noddles?” asked Presh, looking at some stumps on Murr’s head where the noddles used to be. Murr sighed slowly and turned his head to look at her and Shaplo.

“I cut them off,” replied Murr. “There’s no point to them. There’s no point to anything. I was just trying to feel something, to feel a little bit alive.”

“You also cut off your lower noddles,” noted Shaplo.

“Archminyan, that must have been painful!” muttered Presh. “I hope that they grow back OK.” She saw a pair of old, dull scissors on the desk by the window.

“You know what we do, right?” continued Shaplo. “We check for aliens and get rid of them. We’re going to see if there are any around here, affecting you.”

“Knock yourselves out,” said Murr, waving an arm casually before letting it drop back onto the bed.

“The doctors are treating you, aren’t they?” asked Presh. She hated to see the boy neglect and harm himself.

“Yes,” replied Murr.

“Have they tried this?” she asked, showing him a small box that she produced from her bag.

“No, they said it was too expensive,” responded Murr, showing a flicker of interest.

“It’s not too expensive for me!” said Presh. She went to the bedroom door and gave the box to Murr’s parents.

“Give him all of this,” said Presh. “He can eat it, apply it topically or both. It works wonders.” The parents thanked her profusely for the Medystical Compound.

“It’s time for us to find those aliens, Shap!” she said. Together, she and Shaplo tried to activate their special power. However, there seemed to be no aliens nearby.

“Would you mind if we checked the rest of the house?” asked Presh. The parents took Presh and Shaplo around the whole house but still there was no sign of an alien presence. As they searched, Presh received a message from Angafina. It appeared that there were no aliens there, so she wouldn’t have to visit after all.

“Well, this is odd,” said Presh as they drew a blank in the rear passage. “I could have sworn that I felt a faint tingle in your parlour. Is there some other building or structure around here that we haven’t examined yet? Do you perhaps have a basement in which we could root around?”

“Not as such,” said Murr’s father. “However, there are the old tunnels.”

“Oh really?” said Shaplo. “I didn’t know that you had tunnels here.”

“Yes we do but we don’t mention them very often,” said Murr’s mother. “They’re not very nice. They’re damp and have plenty of squelchy mould. They were dug by a rich, eccentric man and his labourers over a hundred years ago, as a way to prevent idleness. They’re pretty useless and they don’t go anywhere special.

“We should investigate,” said Presh. “Aliens love places like that.”

“You wear my waterproof boots, Presh,” said Murr’s mother. “Shaplo can wear Murr’s boots. You also need our hard hats.” She brought the boots and headgear; Presh and Shaplo put them on. Murr’s father opened the access hatch, which was just outside in the garden.

“Here are some torches,” said Murr’s mother. “They’re the latest thing: super bright and a two thousand hour battery life: alien technology, ironically.” Presh and Shaplo took the torches and climbed down the wall ladder into the tunnels.

“Excellent brick work on the walls,” mused Presh, looking around at the foot of the ladder. “Criq might want to look at this. It’s like a major sewer system only shorter.”

“They were right about the mould,” observed Shaplo, his boots sinking in twenty centimetres deep. “It’s pretty disgusting. Come on, let’s get this over with.” Mother and son walked down the dark, dank tunnel. It was mostly featureless and soon became boring. However, the drainage system was still working well in places, where the cement hadn’t crumbled away. Consequently, some parts were relatively free of mould. The two explorers quickly traversed the main tunnel and then went through the first and second side tunnels. The third side tunnel was blocked by a collapsed ceiling and the fourth was just a repository for old, rusty excavation equipment.

“I think that that’s the last section,” said Presh, peering into the gloom at the seized-up trucks.

“No, there’s something here,” said Shaplo. “There could be a fifth tunnel going under the house. It’s hidden by this wall but, if you can see a slight gap, you can find the entrance.”

“Hey, this is clever!” said Presh. “It looks just like a blank wall but there’s actually a passage hiding in plain sight!” They went around the concealing wall and emerged into a fairly large chamber. Sitting against the far wall was an alien, much like the one that had infiltrated Presh’s house years before. It was the size of a large, muscular man. Taken by surprise, Presh and Shaplo tried very hard to create portals and send the alien far from their world. However, it didn’t work this time. Presh and Shaplo watched anxiously but the alien didn’t move. They looked at each other.

“It must be dead,” concluded Shaplo. They approached it and had a closer look. It seemed to be intact. Presh rapped her knuckles on its head, which produced a clanging noise.

“Hollow?” she wondered aloud. She grabbed the head with both her hands and then pulled, pushed and twisted. After a few moments, it detached from the body. She shook it and a few small components fell out. Shaplo shone his torch on them. He was expecting them to be inert but instead they crawled away like bugs.

“Why didn’t those trigger a portal?” asked Presh, worried. The metallic bugs ran into drain holes and disappeared from view. More bugs climbed from the alien’s hollow neck and swarmed across the floor into the same drain holes.

“I’ll catch one for study,” said Shaplo, picking one up with his quick young fingers. Seconds later, the bug sent a small electric shock into him, causing him to drop it.

“Son of a gun, they don’t want to be caught!” he said. “Maybe if you zap one, Mum.”

“I think that they’ve all gone,” said Presh. “They’re damned quick and now they’re loose in the world.” Boldly, she put her hand into the alien’s chest and searched for any remaining fragments of metallic tissue. She found one support strut with a complex shape and pulled it out. As she was about to put it in her pocket, it fell apart. The pieces transformed into more bugs, which escaped to join their fellows.

“Crembles’ members!” cursed Presh vehemently. “Now all we have is this shell of a body and a bunch of new little alien complications.” She picked up the alien’s head again and gazed into its cold, dead eyes.

“You, what have you done?!” she enquired, vainly and angrily as she glared at it. The empty eyes had no expression but that in itself was a jibe. Clutching the head, she climbed out of the tunnels, followed by Shaplo.

“Here was your problem,” she said to Murr’s father, plonking the head in his arms. “It’s completely dead now, though.”

“I’m not totally sure about that,” said Shaplo. “Its original form is dead but the tissue has transformed into thousands of little bugs, which are now hiding underground and running Furk knows where.”

“That’s worrying,” said Murr’s father. “On the positive side, though, your Compound has lived up to its hype. Murr is already on the mend. We’re incredibly relieved and happy! Here he comes now.” Murr ran outside and embraced Presh.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you!” he said as he squeezed her tightly in his arms.

“Oof, you’re welcome!” said Presh, amazed to see such a dramatic recovery from depression.

“I feel so alive!” said Murr, letting go of Presh and jumping up and down repeatedly. “I just want to run, skip and dance! And sing!” He promptly did so, running circuits around the small garden and then heading out to the road.

“Murr, come back!” said his mother, running after him. “You’re not dressed!”

“I’m better, better, better than you!” sang Murr. “I’ve got what it takes to make dreams come true!”

“Stop singing Hotwork songs and get back inside!” shouted his mother. Murr danced back into the house and started warbling something about lumberjacks.

“He’ll calm down in a few hours,” said Presh. “Just keep him corralled here during the euphoric stage. I’m guessing that the presence of the alien may have had something to do with Murr’s depression. Now that it’s dead, I’m hoping that the depression won’t return. I’ll call in some government operatives to remove the body shell and any other pieces that they can find.”

“Those g-men are going to insist on a massive search, aren’t they?” said Shaplo. “They always do. They might decide that you and your family move out, at least temporarily.”

“Kid, I have an alien’s head in my hands,” said Murr’s father, holding it out. “I would insist on moving away for a while! Thanks again to both of you for all your help. It’s been incredible!” He put down the head and hugged them both.

* * * * *

“Brake!” screamed Shaplo as the car skidded off the road and into a wide grassy field. Presh had enough presence of mind to do so. The car shuddered to a halt with a small cloud of dust around it and sprays of earth kicked up by the wheels. Presh and Shaplo sat in their seats breathing heavily for a few moments. Thankfully, they had not crashed.

“I don’t know what to do anymore,” said Presh, having come to a realisation about the global situation. She banged her fists against the steering wheel.

“It’s OK, we’re safe,” said Shaplo, who was worried and shocked but was trying to reassure his mother.

“They’ve changed fundamentally,” said Presh. “They’ve totally transformed. Our power doesn’t affect them anymore. There’s nothing to stop them from taking over.”

“But you said that they were under orders not to attack,” said Shaplo. “They’re still not attacking now. We’ll be OK, Mum!”

“We sent their god away!” said Presh, her eyes wide and staring. “WE did it, you and me! Their leader is gone. The whole game has been reset. The old rules have been suspended. Now they’re changing and spreading again. We can’t stop it!” She was hyperventilating as she thought about possible threats to the family and the wider world. She was also feeling incredibly guilty about the consequences of her prior actions.

“You’re having a panic attack,” said Shaplo, his own anxiety rising. “I’ve seen it at school. Some of the other kids panicked about aliens and other things. Don’t worry, I can get us home.” He touched a button on the driver’s console.

“Car, take us home,” he said to the onboard AI. “Use the quickest route.”

“Unauthorised user,” said the AI.

“Emergency override,” said Shaplo. “Driver incapacitated. Password: knee-length.” The AI complied and the car started up, driving as smoothly as it could in the direction of Bounds Grounds. A few other motorists had stopped to help but they were a little too late. Presh and Shaplo were taken automatically down the highway. Presh was still breathing rapidly. Shaplo reached across and stroked her cheek.

“Look, everything’s fine,” he said, trying to sound calm. “Autodriver will get us home in five minutes, so you can relax.”

“How do we know it’s Autodriver?” queried Presh. “It might be one of them now. We can’t tell anymore. We’re blind to them. We won’t see them coming until they’re at our throats!” She reached for the door handle and began to open the door.

“No, what are you doing?!” exclaimed Shaplo. “Close it! Close the door! Mum, you can’t get out when we’re moving! Close the damned door!” She stared into his eyes, her face an expression of mounting terror. She still had an urge to escape the car but the desire to stay with her son was stronger. Reluctantly, she shut the door. She half expected that they would both be killed by this vehicle, which could easily have been infiltrated by alien bugs. Nevertheless, she had to try to maintain her composure for the sake of the family.

“All I wanted was to be a typical girl, have fun and enjoy life,” she said, her expression downcast. “I wanted to meet lovely people and have some challenges at work. Then, these hell-spawn aliens sneaked in one day and I found myself dragged into the middle of the whole scat-storm. The pressure’s huge, just freaking huge! I don’t know how much longer I can take it!”

“The CCB will help,” said Shaplo, referring to Presh’s partners. “I’ve never seen you very unhappy when you’re with them.”

“You’re probably right,” said Presh. “I have to maintain perspective! They’ll support me as always. It’ll be fine. Maintain perspective! Maintain perspective! Maintain frigging perspective!” She rapped her forehead hard with her knuckles to ram the point home. She was becoming a little angry, which was actually a good sign. Her mind was fighting back against panic.

“I’m just going to sit down for a while with some jdong and rest,” she said as Bounds Grounds came into view down the road. She had come to appreciate the peace and quiet of the gated enclave where she lived. It was like her little, semi-secret fortress, which was conveniently close to the capital. As the car arrived at the family home, Presh jumped out and walked slowly toward the front door. Shaplo switched off the engine, applied the parking brake, got out, locked the car and followed her. As they reached the door, they heard an approaching siren.

“I think that the AI called an ambulance,” said Shaplo. “Let’s sit on the garden bench and wait for it.” A minute later, the ambulance arrived and the paramedics examined Presh carefully. She was a top priority because of her importance in global defence. The expert attention helped her to calm down. Shaplo was also checked, just in case he had been adversely affected by the close call on the road. Luckily, they found no serious problems with either mother or son. Afterwards, the ambulance departed: Presh and Shaplo were left sitting on the bench, gazing at their tidy neighbourhood. Presh had been instructed to do whatever she could to stay calm. However, she was not to take any strong medication since that would be counterproductive. She could take mild soothers and painkillers if necessary.

“I don’t want to use the car again today,” she said, glancing at it disapprovingly.

“What about Dglef and Siqurt?” asked Shaplo. “They’re still at the crèche.”

“I’ll fetch them with the stide buggy,” replied Presh. “It doesn’t get enough use. I think that I’ll ride it more in future. You can come with me if you want.”

“It’s slower with both of us on board,” said Shaplo. “On the other hand, I should be there in case you have another accident.”

“We should have a drink before we go, of course,” said Presh. “My nerves are well and truly jangled! Archminyan, I wasn’t expecting a panic attack today!” She squeezed her head noddles with both hands and clenched her teeth in exasperation. Then they went indoors and refreshed themselves. Both of them were more watchful than usual, wondering if and when the alien bugs would re-emerge. It could be anytime, anywhere.

* * * * *

Her Father has gone. Their Father has gone. Their very existence is threatened. They’re hanging by a thin wire. She sits motionless in the lounge, as she has done for months. Mould is slowly growing on the walls, floor and ceiling. Tiny plants are sprouting in the sunniest corner of the room. Her team members sit with her, also not moving. Why would they? At least the stillness is pleasant. There is plenty of time to simply be and to let their minds wander. She has a vast number of memories to relive, review and reflect upon. The time since Father’s disappearance has been one long, almost unbroken period of mental rumination. However, these are not normal circumstances. Her thoughts are troubled by foreign influences. Other forces are trying to barge into her mind: outsiders of one kind or another. Some are large and powerful, some small and devious. Many groups are unified while others are less coordinated and more haphazard in their approach. Ordinarily, they would be unable to affect her. Unfortunately, in Father’s absence there is a gap in her spark that she has, so far, been unable to fill. The outsiders are well aware of it and are trying to exploit it. They may succeed one day. Until then, though, she has a multitude of defences against them. She will use those defences, one by one, until all are exhausted and the most determined attackers seize control of her spark. However, she won’t go on the offensive. That would use too much power and could backfire if the enemies counterattack strongly. She will hold on as long as possible. Maybe Father will return soon enough to rescue her.

She ponders the strangeness of her life. She has lived through millions of years of battle, struggle, exploration and perhaps the most long-distance travel ever seen in this part of the multiverse. Now though, due to very awkward and abnormal dimensional conditions, she is obliged to play the part of an organic woman. She is supposed to be living like the locals, observing them keenly, surveying the landscape in minute detail and doing her utmost to monitor the dimensional background. With Father gone, that mission is on hold and there is nothing to replace it. All her pressing tasks are done, as far as she knows. There is no need for her to go outside and mingle with those incredibly primitive organics, especially those few who are actually dangerous to her. It is a relief to do nothing. Her spark is very old and has become weary. She thinks back to the worst parts of her life, when she was pushed to the edge and suffered crushing losses. She fought back then and she can fight back now. She thinks of all the sacrifices that she made, all the compromises, all the shady deals and all the people whom she betrayed for the greater good (as she understood it). If her spark is weakened too much, she will have to make some kind of deal in order to survive. She might be able to strengthen her spark and still maintain her independence. On the other hand, she might have to allow an outsider to gain at least partial control over her, simply so that her life can continue as Father would like. It isn’t a welcome idea but she always strove to stay operational, in order to serve Father. Later, she hears organic voices outside the house. Her neighbours are watching the house and speculating about the situation inside. A few minutes later, two men push through the undergrowth and appear at the lounge window. She turns her head and looks at them. They seem a little surprised.

“Sorry Ma’am,” says one man, known as Ninnip. “You’re garden is so overgrown, we thought that you’d died or moved away.”

“Do you need any help?” asks the other man, who is called Remyr. “My partner’s brother is a great gardener. He can bring his staff and equipment: he can clear your garden very quickly for a most reasonable price.”

“There’s no need,” she says. “We can do the work ourselves.”

“Are you sure?” says Ninnip. “There must be many tonnes of wood and leaves here.”

“You’d be surprised what we can do,” she says, signalling wirelessly to her team. They rise as one and march out to the large shed at the rear of the property, where they grab tools. She goes around the house, walks up to the men and asks them if they have any particular concerns.

“Erm, p-perhaps you should start with the old Greiax tree by the wall,” says Remyr, somewhat taken aback by her forwardness. “It’s hanging down over the pavement and it’s starting to undermine the wall. Also, there’s a danger of collapse. It needs urgent pruning.” She starts her long electric chainsaw and strides over to the tree, immediately lopping off some smaller branches.

“Ma’am, we don’t want to intrude but maybe you should put on protective gear,” suggests Ninnip during a lull in sawing. “How about a helmet, some goggles, a thick coat and some boots?” She turns to look at them. She knows they’re only trying to be helpful but she’s not fragile like them.

“I’ll be fine,” she says. “A good bra and underpants are all I need for a spot of gardening. Just ask my partners.” She returns to sawing. The lower part of the tree is rapidly stripped of its branches and blanket leaves. Ninnip and Remyr can’t take their eyes off of her. She’s amazing. She doesn’t appear to have aged at all in the few years since they saw her last. Eventually, she is forced to stop and fetch a ladder, in order to reach the higher branches. Ninnip and Remyr make themselves useful by taking some of the branches and moving them out of the way for her. They also examine the tree to assess its condition.

“Bad news, I’m afraid,” says Remyr when she returns with a hefty ladder under her arm. “This tree is diseased. It has Siwenam Blight. It needs to be completely removed and burnt to prevent the infection of other trees and plants. After that, the soil has to be specially treated to kill the Blight spores. You can look it up online.”

“Done,” she says. “Now stand back, I’m going to fell the entire tree.” She puts down the ladder away from the tree and retrieves her saw.

“A chainsaw won’t be enough,” warns Ninnip. “You’ll have to dig out the stump and all the major roots.”

“Oh, I see,” she says. “Denae, I need the excavator over here.”

“I’ll bring it,” shouts Denae from the other side of the garden. Ninnip and Remyr can’t help but notice that Denae is wielding a large machete and wearing nothing but short shorts and a tiny top. Meanwhile, the chainsaw is back in action and slicing through the Greiax trunk.

“Timber!” she shouts as Ninnip and Remyr retreat from the drop zone. The tree falls with a crash.

“You don’t have to stay here any longer,” she says to the two neighbours. “We can handle it.” At that moment, a large excavator revs its engine and drives around the house, chewing up the long grass with its fat wheels. She grabs the tree that she just felled and drags it clear of the stump, using only one arm.

“Furk Ynell!” exclaims Ninnip. “Let’s get out of here!”

“How did she drag the whole tree by herself?!” asks Remyr incredulously. “And where did that excavator come from? They only have a small garage!” Ninnip has no answers. She watches them run back to their own houses. What will they do? Will they call the authorities? She decides to use her nanobots to control their minds and prevent unwanted attention. Beyond that, she will just spend a few days returning the garden to neatness and then she will go dormant again. She has many options to explore and not long to do so. Out in the wider cosmos, the major predators are circling and preparing to strike.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Wed Nov 01, 2017 2:55 pm

Bkeisei drained the gabioux carefully before serving, as usual. He was being extra vigilant tonight because of what Presh had told everyone. Now, they were all a little worried. Even Dglef and Siqurt were pensive, seeing the fear on the faces of the grown-ups. The alien threat was meant to be extinguished soon but instead it had gone underground (both literally and figuratively) and gained fresh impetus. Still, the aliens had not attacked. If they had wanted to, surely they would have done it by now. Hence, hope remained and life went on. Presh was doing her best to entertain Dglef and Siqurt with games and stories. Although she was preoccupied, she could fall back on old favourite tales that she almost knew by heart and familiar games that she could have played in her sleep. Bkeisei loved to watch them make more joy for each other. After a few moments, he had to turn down the heat on the aggidips. The children hated them when they were burnt. Over dinner, there was plenty of conversation about the day’s events. However, Presh was unusually reticent because she didn’t want to alarm anyone unduly or, indeed, lose face.

“Do you want a blimbo strip?” asked Siqurt, holding a strip out to his left.

“I have enough, thanks,” said Bkeisei, sitting on Siqurt’s left.

“No, not you Dad,” said Siqurt. “I mean the man standing in the corner.”

“What?!” exclaimed Bkeisei. He turned to look but saw nothing in the corner.

“I don’t see anyone,” said Criq, also looking at the corner.

“There he is!” said Dglef. “He has such long, floppy head noddles!”

“You get out of here,” muttered Presh, glancing at the man. “Go home and learn some manners.” She, Dglef and Siqurt could see the man walk through the wall and thus disappear from the room. No one else saw a thing.

“The silly man’s gone!” said Dglef. “He’s not having any dinner here!”

“Presh, what’s going on?” asked Chep.

“Something’s changing in the world,” replied Presh between mouthfuls. “More aliens are starting to arrive. I’ve seen several this afternoon. These are different aliens. They’re not very well in tune with our reality but they might be later.”

“Can you do anything about it?” asked Criq. “These ones might not be so friendly!”

“I haven’t tried yet,” said Presh. “At least some of them respect us and fear our power, as you just heard.”

“If you and the kids can’t stop them, what can we do?” asked Chep urgently. “We could drive around in the mobile home and try to avoid them but they can just walk in anywhere, apparently.”

“I’ll keep working on it,” said Presh. “In the mean time, try to live normally. If terror takes a grip on us, they’ve won. Don’t let them win.” The two women gazed at each other for a moment. Chep was reassured by her partner’s confident expression.

“I’m going to tell the aliens to shove off!” said Dglef.

“That’s my girl!” said Bkeisei. “You won’t even have to curse. They’ll just fade away!”

“I’m going to kick them in the shins!” said Siqurt. “Then they’ll get sick and have to go to hospital!”

“Be careful,” said Criq. “Remember, they can kick too!”

* * * * *

“I never really got used to the weirdness of this,” said Chep as she floated with her partners in the eight-seat tub that night. “On top of that, it doesn’t get any easier with age.”

“I haven’t spread my legs this far since the high school sports baths,” said Criq. “How about you, Bkeisei?”

“Oh, those sports baths were fun but so rough sometimes,” said Bkeisei. “External bruises on the field, internal ones off the field.”

“I wish you wouldn’t remind me of that!” said Chep, wincing. “How are you, Presh? I can see that your lower section is fine but is foot shluking agreeable to you?”

“Up to a point,” said Presh. “Bkeisei’s foot is rather large. My right shluk is starting to ache. On the plus side, he’s using it well so I’m feeling some satisfaction there. You’re right about the spread legs, Criq. I feel like I’m at the gynaecologist’s office, with the gynaecologist being rather unprofessional.”

“Is your left shluk receiving good service too?” asked Criq.

“I’d say about the same as the right one,” said Presh. They all persevered for a while but then they started to feel the onset of leg cramps so they were obliged to stop.

“Foot shluking gets me halfway there but it’s so ungainly and uncomfortable,” said Chep afterwards. “Also, my hands were itching to get involved yet they couldn’t do much except touch your hands or flail around restlessly.”

“I’d say it was time for the main course,” said Presh. They all moved to the four-seat tub and began a regular hand shluk session. It was incredibly relaxing, like coming home after a long time away. Presh felt messages of love pouring into her from the others. She did what she could to reciprocate. She felt so at ease and supported that she tried experimenting with new messages, to see if she could improve her shluking technique further. She put some magic into it. Criq’s expression began to change, then Bkeisei’s and finally Chep’s. A new glow was creeping over their skins. Presh was surprised but then deduced that this was a feature of the changes going on in the world.

“What’s happening?” gasped Chep, her head rolling from side to side. “I feel extra hands on me. I’m flushing hot and cold, hot and cold!”

“Presh, I don’t know what you’re doing but I like it!” said Bkeisei. “I feel younger and stronger. My mind’s opening up.”

“I’m seeing visions,” said Criq, his eyes beginning to glow. “There are my old friends and lovers, some family members, pets, a whole bunch of aliens, places where I’ve never been. Ohhhh!” He surrendered to sensation and stopped talking for a while. Meanwhile, Presh was witnessing even more. She was looking down on the entire shluk network, which stretched further than the eye could see. There were billions of people, all linked together with rings and chains of light. When she looked closer, she could see fainter light connections to other, unknown people. These strangers were among the general population, hiding in shadow realms. She tuned into one of those realms and found herself in a different world, with very different light connection patterns. She guessed that those patterns weren’t as effective as those on her own world but perhaps they were appropriate for the situation. She continued to explore the wider network, touching on many unique types of connection. She wondered how far she could go, so she ventured deeper into the other realms. Soon, the light connections faded away and she found herself in very dark surroundings. She felt some black shapes moving around her. This was very alien indeed so she decided that it was not for her. She retreated back to her own realm and gloried in the caring sensations all around. In a sense, she was shluking with the entire planet! After this intense, transcendent experience, she fell into a deep sleep. Sometime later she awoke in bed, warm under the covers. Criq was next to her, still out for the count.

“Hello again,” said Bkeisei, yawning. “The pool heaters failed so we put both of you to bed.”

“Aw no, those heaters were fine yesterday!” complained Presh. “When can they be fixed?”

“Give it a day or two,” said Bkeisei. “The government engineers are pretty good.”

“I’m blaming you,” said Chep, drinking something hot at the far side of the room. “You were pumping out your magic in all directions. The heaters couldn’t take the load and their coils must’ve fused or something.”

“You make me sound like a fertiliser truck,” said Presh, a little annoyed but very relaxed. “I’m really sorry. There’s some kind of world shift going on and it must be boosting my power, at least temporarily.”

“You can say that again,” said Chep, walking slowly toward the bed. “You even did something to the rest of us. Look, I can make sparks come out of my fingers now!” She demonstrated with her free left hand. Presh’s eyes widened and she sat up in bed.

“Well, that could come in handy occasionally!” said Presh, imagining what the sparks might feel like on her skin. “Have you been affected, Bkeisei?”

“Try turning out the light,” replied Bkeisei. Presh did so and discovered that his member glowed in the dark. She turned the light back on and put her hands over her face.

“I can’t unsee it!” she said quietly. “Great Furk Adurk! Bkeisei, I don’t know what to say, except sorry!”

“I don’t think that it’s harmful,” said Bkeisei with a shrug. “We’ll see how it goes.”

“We’re only just beginning to find out what this world shift is doing to us,” said Chep, sitting carefully on the edge of the bed. “I believe that there’s plenty more to come. I feel full of new potential!” She put down her drink on the night stand, reached over and sent a few little sparks into Presh’s breasts, causing her to twitch a little.

“Ay-ay-ay!” exclaimed Presh. “Well, if that’s how you want to play it!” She grabbed Chep, pulled her down and started smooching with her. Bkeisei sat down to watch. Little glowing Bkeisei stirred.

* * * * *

They’d done it again. Zallu parked his Tripla at the side of the road and looked up at the house. All the windows were dark and there were no sounds to be heard except the nightagluks calling and the wind whistling through the trees. Just to be sure, he knocked on the door and rang the doorbell a few times. No one came to greet him, not even a hurg. They’d lied and stood him up again. He was increasingly angry. Should he still care about what they did and said? He thought that he should. He still had urges and desires. He continued to feel at home in the local area. If only he could feel accepted by the local people! He paced up and down on the road, idly kicking pebbles and empty flasks. Maybe there was something here that he could take, as small compensation for his disappointment and rejection? He walked around the house, looking at all the plants, ornaments, tools and sheds. Nothing looked very valuable. He was about to leave when he saw something bright and shiny glinting in the twin moonlight. Mejora and Menora were almost full tonight. He bent down, pushed aside the surrounding vegetation and picked up the object. It was a silvery pistol with a black handgrip.

“Could this be a sign?” wondered Zallu. “Am I supposed to shoot people? Perhaps it’s simply a symbol representing my continued struggle for acceptance and respect?” He didn’t have a clue. He put the pistol into his Tripla’s luggage compartment and rode home. He’d had enough of failed rendezvous and other people treating him with contempt. He was pleased to have found such a dangerous weapon, which was fairly expensive on the open market and also very compact. He imagined that he had deprived some gangster of his weapon. He kept it in his night stand at home, occasionally taking it out to admire it. As time went by, he started to have recurring dreams of war and violence. He envisaged himself as a conqueror, always able to shoot his enemies or deal with them in other ways if shooting failed. He had a growing belief that he was becoming indomitable, even invincible. He was the unstoppable one, the prime mover. However, in reality his status had not changed. People still treated him badly, as second class. He wasn’t too clever and his manner was brusque at best. This conflict between reality and fantasy made him angrier. He felt that he should have a good shluk circle, with many connections to other shluk circles. He could earn that position if he really tried. People had to be reminded of that fact. When he had achieved that goal, he could go further and establish a movement to seize power. A few weeks later, he marched into his local college cafeteria at lunchtime and looked around. Some teachers saw his gun and quietly backed off to call for help. All the popular shlukers were here, smiling and laughing as they maintained their cliques. It was time for Zallu to make his mark.

“Neruin, you’re coming with me!” he said, pointing the gun at Neruin. “You’re going to be my boyfriend, my best pal, my shluk buddy. Leave Dakwyd and step over here.”

“Archminyan, calm down Zallu!” said Neruin as he got up and walked slowly forward. He could tell that Zallu meant business since he had a very determined, slightly crazed expression on his face.

“Ygira and Yfira, you’ll be our girlfriends from now on,” continued Zallu. “You’re coming with us.” He beckoned for them to rise and approach. He admired their figures as they trotted over to be by his side at last. In his opinion, they were the hottest girl twins on campus.

“Why do you need a gun for this?” asked Ygira. “We would have shluked you if you’d asked.”

“I DID ask!” said Zallu bitterly. “You turned me down months ago! I bet that you forgot almost immediately. Oh and, by the way, this is no ordinary gun. This is Coolstaff himself, in disguise!”

“Are you crazy?” asked Yfira incredulously. “He’s just a cartoon character!”

“No, he’s real!” said Zallu. “He talks to me. He wants us to start a movement. I was thinking of calling it ‘The Silver Gun Sect’ or something like that. We can be powerful together, when we expand our shluk circle as much as we can!”

“Put the gun down and no one has to get hurt!” said a voice from outside the cafeteria. “This is the police. You are being surrounded. There’s no escape.” The quick-thinking informer Dakwyd quietly slipped his ‘phone back into his pocket. Almost as one, the people in the cafeteria rose and ran for the exits.

“No!” said Zallu, spinning around and watching all the potential hostages fleeing. Neruin took his chance and shoved Zallu hard in the sternum with his right hand. Zallu was pushed backwards and fell gracelessly to the floor. Neruin grabbed Ygira and Yfira by the hands and they all raced through the nearest fire exit. Zallu scrambled to his feet.

“I want my own shluk circle!” he screamed as he was left alone in the dining hall. “They’ve cheated me out of it! You three: be my partners or people will start dying. I’m not bluffing! Here’s a warning.” He raised the gun and fired at the ceiling. Unfortunately for him, the gun was far more powerful than an ordinary pistol. An awesome, uncontrolled outpouring of fusion plasma tore through the ceiling and the floors above. The heat of the plasma backwash was so great that Zallu’s body was boiled, incinerated and vaporised. His atomised remains were scattered across the local area. That was the end of his deranged scheme.

* * * * *

“This is Burkeili of Fulhardeh News!” said the reporter breathlessly as he picked his way across the debris field, his flying camera drone following automatically. “We bring you as much news as we can, whenever and wherever we can. There at my feet is a spilled bag of college notes. See how the edges are brown and burnt. The bag itself is melted. Why did this student persist in using paper notes anyway? We have technology galore these days!”

“Get away from there, sir!” said a police officer, approaching from the road.

“Here’s a body, which is mostly covered with cheap college furniture and bits of concrete,” continued Burkeili heedlessly, heading further into the wrecked area. “The clothing on that leg has mostly burnt away.”

“We will use force if you don’t comply immediately,” said a second police officer, who was also approaching. “This area is extremely unsafe!”

“Oh, this poor girl has been partly converted into charcoal!” said Burkeili without a care. “Take a good look, people! This is the true nature of the alien menace! It’s nowhere near beaten; it seems to have gotten stronger today.”

“Taser, taser, taser!” shouted the first police officer, drawing his nonlethal weapon.

“I can see at least twenty blackened bodies in front of me ... uarrauraughaghashabla!” said Burkeili as he was tased and thus incapacitated.

“Get the camera!” said the first police officer. The second police officer grabbed the camera drone and, after a few moments of fumbling, shut it down. Then, the two police officers switched off the taser current and carried Burkeili back to the road. The image stream disappeared and the TV broadcast reverted to a long shot from the outside broadcast van. However, the drone footage had been recorded and was soon replayed. It was watched by a growing number of people as news of the college disaster spread.

“Are you seeing this?” said Chep via telephone as she watched a bigger screen at work. “You’ve got to do something right now! Can you still hear me? Make it stop, for Furk’s sake!” Presh was frozen as she watched the repeated images of charred carnage. She could feel her spirits sinking, slowly and inexorably, as if someone stronger than her was dragging them down. She had imagined this kind of scenario in her nightmares but now here it was in broad daylight. She wondered if this was actually a dream. It certainly felt unreal. In her mind, time had slowed to a crawl. Other camera drones were heading into the shattered building, this time without reporters. The police couldn’t stop them since they were too busy organising the crowd.

“Presh, answer us!” said Criq, joining the conference call.

“Concentrate on the area, flush out the aliens, banish them!” implored Bkeisei, also joining the call.

“I can’t,” said Presh. “My brain’s stuck. I can’t cope. It’s too much!” She was seeing images of flaming arms, shattered heads, crushed chests and shredded fabric.

“For Furk’s sake, how can they show this?” said Criq. “The broadcasters have gone way too far this time!”

“Freedom of expression,” said Bkeisei. “Presh, I’m begging you to neutralise these aliens NOW! It’s only a matter of time before they attack our country!” Presh couldn’t take any more. She tried to lower herself gently to the floor but lost consciousness halfway down. The ‘phone fell with a dull clatter. Presh had fainted and collapsed. Dglef and Siqurt ran over. Siqurt picked up the ‘phone.

“Presh has fallen over and gone to sleep,” he said to Chep, Bkeisei and Criq. “She’s fine, I think. She’s still moving.” Presh was groaning slightly and shifting around. Siqurt put the ‘phone down on the floor.

“You’re Queen now, Dglef,” he said to his sister. He went to a nearby table, fetched a paper crown that they had made together and put it on Dglef’s head. Dglef looked sad and confused.

“You should get rid of the aliens,” said Siqurt. “Remember what your Mum taught you. It’s easy!” He put his arm around her shoulder. Dglef cheered up somewhat. Together, they looked at the news on the home screen. A drone was showing pictures of a small silver gun, which was vibrating and flipping around in the middle of the wreckage.

“That’s the main alien,” said Dglef. “Go away, bad thing!” She extended her power through the airwaves and caused a fracture in reality, through which the gun slipped. Seconds later, the drone showed another alien approaching. This one was bigger and it staggered forward, as if it was only just surviving in a hostile environment.

“Get that one too!” said Siqurt excitedly. Dglef complied and the larger creature tumbled into a vortex, never to return.

“We got them!” said Siqurt, picking up the ‘phone again. “There was a big one and a little one.”

“That’s fantastic!” said Chep. “You two are just the best kids in the world! Now, look after Presh and we’ll be home very soon!”

“Ask Dglef if there are any more around there,” said Criq. “You don’t want to miss any.” Siqurt asked and Dglef shook her head.

“It’s all clear now,” said Siqurt.

“You’re so brave, both of you!” said Criq, putting on his jacket. “See you in a few minutes!” He hung up. Dglef went to comfort her mother as best she could, followed closely by Siqurt. Dglef may have been wearing a crown but it didn’t stop the fear creeping into their hearts.

* * * * *

“Forty six dead, two hundred and three injured, hundreds more have radiation sickness,” said President Sterock. “We’re mobilising a large number of personnel to hunt these things down. They’ll go house to house, building to building. For your part, you have to be more thorough, Presh. You can start with another global systems sweep. After that, you’ll be on call for the foreseeable future. When we find more aliens, we’ll bring you in.” Presh sat in one of the armchairs at the Presidential Palace and hung her head, weeping silently yet still listening. She felt incredible guilt for not having done more, for letting so many people be hurt.

“This isn’t your fault, dear!” exclaimed Dirish, comforting her daughter.

“She’s been doing everything she could,” said Jivlum to Sterock. “She’s been using a lot of her free time to track down the aliens. Several hundred have been removed, perhaps even a few thousand.”

“It’s hard to count them,” added Dirish. “Presh says that they’re so well hidden, sometimes in clusters, that they can’t be seen. It’s best for her to just make them vanish en masse. Also, she tells me that they’ve been splitting up into thousands of little bugs lately. Now, we have hardly any chance of working out how many are left and whether or not we’re safe. She can’t deal with the bugs at all.”

“I’m aware,” sighed Sterock. “Still, we have to do our best for the sake of the world. I’m incredibly grateful that Shaplo and Dglef can stand in for Presh occasionally.”

“I’m so proud of them,” said Presh quietly, sniffing and wiping her eyes. “They’ve turned out to be my little miracles.”

“As for you Criq, Bkeisei and Chep, you’ll have to put your careers on hold,” said Sterock. “I’ll talk to your employers. Your jobs will be held open for as long as possible. I expect you to support Presh full time for a long while, perhaps a few years. You’ll be compensated. I don’t want any more part time, amateur, ‘evenings and weekends’ alien hunting. This is now deadly serious.”

“It’s a little inconvenient,” said Bkeisei. “We’re in the middle of a major project.” Sterock glowered at him.

“We have to do this, man!” said Criq to Bkeisei. “The aliens have weapons of mass destruction and they’re starting to use them. Our companies will just have to deal with the ‘inconvenience’.”

“Now, I know how you all operate,” said Sterock. “You get plenty of intelligence from your shluk circles. You should widen your circles if necessary. Shluk anyone who could provide useful information. I’m giving you carte blanche. If they have a problem with that, I’ll order them to comply.” At that piece of news, Presh perked up. She lifted her head and smiled, then saluted the President.

“Aye aye, Sir!” she said, tears still glistening in the corners of her eyes. This recommendation was most welcome and provided a major injection of hope and optimism.

“Well, who’d have thought we’d hear you say that, Sterock dear!” said Dirish. “See, Presh, it won’t be all hard graft!”

“Please don’t work yourself into a tizzy again,” said Sterock, trying to be reassuring. “Pace yourself. You’ve done excellently so far. You can’t be held accountable for random factors and alien ambushes. I’d like to congratulate you once again.” He leant forward and shook hand with Presh. As their hands clasped, Presh read minute twitches in Sterock’s hand muscles and used her hand nose to assess his scent. She could tell many things that way, such as his general health and fitness, the people he’d recently met, his overall state of mind and the composition of his shluk circles.

“You’re meeting new people, I notice,” said Presh. “What happened to your old partners?”

“We drifted apart,” said Sterock. “It was a sad business. The pressures of office seemed to put them off. I wasn’t so available for them when my hours were long. Fortunately, I’ve joined another quartet. They aren’t as skilled as my first but they’re warm and friendly.”

“Where did your former partners go?” asked Presh.

“They moved abroad and we eventually lost contact with each other,” replied Sterock. “The last I heard, they went to Vyantch four years ago.”

“What a coincidence!” said Dirish. “Presh was in Vyantch then, dealing with some aliens disguised as building supports. That was a very difficult case! Men had to install temporary supports right next to the aliens before Presh could operate. Everyone was so scared!”

“I’ve been to many countries since we discovered the aliens,” said Presh. “I’m now a globe-trotting hunter. The family’s come with me on many of those trips. Long distance travel has become second nature to us.”

“Likewise with the travel!” said Sterock, pointing at himself. “Presidents have to fly. Anyway, we’ll all do what we can. I’ll keep you fully informed. Would you all like to stay for lunch? It’s the least I could do, given the challenges ahead.”

“No, I should really go and do my global sweep,” said Presh.

“Come on, dear, don’t turn down the President’s free food!” said Jivlum. “You can’t catch them all on an empty stomach!”

“OK Dad,” said Presh meekly. “Thanks for coming out to support me again. I’ve been quite out-of-sorts. It’s not like me, really.” They went for a quick lunch in the dining room before the important work had to start.

* * * * *

“Shali, please let me come to your quarter birthday!” pleaded Terzet on the ‘phone. “Nothing’s changed: I’m still the same girl, we haven’t stopped liking each other! I’m dying to see you, Shili, Wota, Puca and the whole crew.”

“I’m sorry but my parents say it’s too inconvenient and intrusive,” said Shali. “The new security measures are heavy, with a lot of people involved. Also, there has to be advance booking now.”

“There WAS an advance agreement,” continued Terzet. “You said I could come. Your parents have always found me to be delightful. I’m still delightful, Shali. I can show you that if you sneak me in through the side door as usual.” She whispered what she was prepared to do to prove her point this time. Shali’s eyes widened as he sat on the stairs at home. Then, he suddenly found himself to be much more frustrated at the damned new security arrangement.

“Archminyan, Terzet!” he exclaimed. “In a way, I wish that you hadn’t just said that! Now, I’m going to be thinking about you constantly. The answer’s still no, though. Hold on, I have to move.” He got up, jogged upstairs, ran to the back store room, sat on an old chair and closed the door.

“My parents and their partners were staring at me,” he explained in a low voice. “I don’t think that they can hear me now. I really want to see you again but I just can’t right now. I’ll be in touch, though. We both need to watch and wait for our chance. This security can’t go on forever, can it? The agents can’t monitor everything all the time. Anyway, it’s unconstitutional!”

“We’ll make plans tomorrow at school,” said Terzet. “These aliens can’t keep us apart for long!” They both hung up. Shali’s heart pounded. He sat for a minute, considering what to do next. As he calmed down, he realised that he wanted a drink. His mouth had become quite dry so he went downstairs for a cool, refreshing glass of juice.

“I just had a very interesting call from the secret service,” said his father, standing in the lounge and blocking his path. “You are not to meet Terzet after school until the threat level has been reduced. Furthermore, you aren’t going to have any of these underage shenanigans that she’s offering. Is that clear?”

“Yes Dad,” said Shali, suddenly embarrassed. He felt as if he were being punished for other people’s crimes. His most private conversations were being monitored. They were determined to mess up his life. He lowered his gaze and trudged into the kitchen. He’d have to wait. In the meantime, he could still dream.

“Terzet, your dad told me to tell you that you can’t meet Shali outside school until further notice,” said Shaplo through Terzet’s bedroom door. “Also, you’re not allowed to even consider doing those things to him. You’re too young!”

“I hate you all!” said Terzet. “I especially hate your gloating, Shaplo. You’ve been doing all sorts with your friends. You’re a massive hypocrite!”

“Prove it, sis!” said Shaplo, walking away. ‘He’s the same as usual; my brother the jerk,’ thought Terzet as she lay on her bed. A minute later, she got up, left her room and went to check on Dglef and Siqurt. They were playing with their toys just before their bedtime. It was Terzet’s job to see that they behaved themselves and didn’t stay up too late. Sometimes Shaplo helped but he was increasingly reluctant. Also, everyone knew that Terzet’s childcare skills were superior. She seemed to be more in tune with the little mites. Secretly, she hoped that Presh and her mother would have another few kids so that she could help look after those too.

“Terzet, why is everyone being so mean to us?” asked Dglef, looking up.

“Mum said that they’re very scared,” replied Terzet, kneeling down among the toys on the floor. “I know you got rid of the aliens but that little silver one hurt a lot of people. We don’t know how many other aliens might do that. Because of the silver alien, the whole world is worried right now. People are blaming other people, even blaming us. We have to stay safe until everyone stops being so scared. The guards should protect us.”

“We never used to have guards,” complained Siqurt. “They won’t even play with us.”

“Our parents are working hard to stop people being mean,” said Terzet. “They’re meeting a quartet in our pool room right now. They’re telling them that we’re trying our best and that we care about everyone.”

“Except Shaplo, ‘cos he’s a hipplecrip!” said Siqurt, laughing. “That’s a funny word. What does it mean?”

“He says I’m bad but he’s bad too,” said Terzet. “He knows it. His hipples are cripped as well.” She chuckled at her own absurd joke.

“My hipples are fine!” said Siqurt, climbing into bed. “I’m tired, though. It was a busy day. There were a lot of people in the house today. Our dinner was late.”

“Maybe tomorrow will be easier,” said Terzet. “You’re yawning, Dglef. I think that it’s time for bed.” Dglef didn’t protest. Terzet carried her sister across the room and tucked her into bed, then quickly gathered all the toys into the toy-chest.

“Can you read us a story, Terzet?” asked Siqurt.

“Which one would you like?” asked Terzet in return, reaching for some books. “There’s one here about a magic tzanjit, one about a thimbrok who’s late for school and a pop-up book of one-eyed pinkies. There’s also a big book about a red balloon. It says ‘This book is too good for children and it should be put in a fire.’ Hmm, that’s not a very child-friendly idea, come to think of it.” She stopped reading book covers and looked at her little siblings. They were both fast asleep. There was no need for a story after all. She put down the books, tiptoed out of the room and closed the door, then padded down the hall. What could she do now? Shaplo was immersed in video games. Presh and her quartet were shluking another quartet as usual and couldn’t be disturbed for at least an hour. However, tonight there were some guards in the lounge. She would try to talk to them. Perhaps they would tell her some grown up bedtime stories?

“How’s it going?” she said, plonking herself cosily between a male guard and a female guard on the couch.

“No lunatics have attacked yet,” said the female guard. “Those death threats are probably just bluster as usual.”

“Fantastic!” said Terzet. “What are you reading?”

“This is our in-house magazine, ‘Watchtower’,” said the female guard. “It’s a fascinating issue this month. There are so many technological advances being made thanks to the aliens. For example, there’s this light-dampening ‘screen powder’.”

“The way it works is that you strip off, cover yourself in this powder, spray on a setting agent and you become ninety nine percent undetectable,” said the male guard. “It’s at the experimental stage. It might be available to us next year. I’d love to try it.”

“So would I!” said Terzet. “Could you get me some?”

“That would be awfully risky,” said the female agent. Terzet looked at them imploringly.

“We’ll see what we can do,” said the male agent. “I can’t promise you any, though.” Terzet smiled: being in Presh’s family had many benefits, if one searched for them.

“Strip off?” queried the female agent.

“Clothes make the powder ineffective,” said the male agent. “It’s all the creases and wrinkles, you see.”

“Really,” said the female agent, unconvinced.

* * * * *

Crendo found himself looking at ... himself. It was most perplexing and disorientating. He had lost track of time and place. He was examining his own face as he rode to Presh’s suburb in his partner’s car. He saw the shocked, bleak countenance of a father bereft. His daughter had been crushed by a falling pillar, along with twelve of her classmates. Her funeral had taken place only a few days earlier. The alien weapon had somehow managed to fire, reducing the main college building to a dark, hollow, broken shell full of deadly, flesh-rotting rays and particles. In fact, the whole area was now sealed off.

Time skipped backwards. His daughter was eating breakfast and simultaneously reading her messages. His partners were doing various chores around the kitchen. His sons were squabbling over things that they were collecting. They hoped to trade those things at school for others that were somehow more desirable. They couldn’t quite decide who owned what right now. He told them to share but they continued to dispute ownership. He had to make a ruling and gave each boy three. They still weren’t happy but they accepted it. Cards showing little cartoon monsters were preposterous but Crendo understood what it was like to be a child, so he went with the flow. His gaze returned to his daughter, who was blossoming very quickly. He hoped that the budding relationships with her peers would last and then turn into something deeper.

Time skipped forwards. He was several years older and it was night time. He was in an open field, standing forlorn and watching the aircraft zip by. Alien technology had given increasing numbers of people access to personal aeroplanes that converted into road cars. He hadn’t joined them as yet: his old car didn’t change into anything. Alien technology had robbed him of his most precious jewel, so he didn’t want to engage with it more than was necessary. He walked steadily across the grass, occasionally having to side-step obstacles. It was nice to enjoy the cool evening air at his own pace. He arrived at his destination. He read the words once again. ‘Here lies...’

His surroundings changed instantly. Now he was somewhere totally unfamiliar. Creatures were walking around him. They moved like people but they looked like mockeries. Their eyes were reddish purple and their skin was light blue with wide orange blood vessels all over. They only had four fingers on each hand and their toes were short and ugly. They appeared to be preparing for some sort of large-scale project that involved many tools, plenty of building materials, various large machines and things that resembled weapons. A few of them stared at him while the others seemed unaware of his presence. The staring ones walked towards him and made curious high-pitched noises, while pulsing the blood vessels on their faces. They didn’t look welcoming. He guessed that it was time to leave.

The next place felt very painful. Absolutely everything was throbbing. He looked at it for a minute but then had to shut his eyes. Abstract blobby shapes were drifting about. Tough membranes occasionally pressed against him. They were hot and yet they chilled him. They were cold and yet they reddened his skin with their heat. It made no sense. He did his best to move away from the membranes. He opened his eyes again and saw outlines of the previous creatures. He could see their forms and their blue skins were just about discernable. However, they were incredibly blurry and distorted. It was as if he was seeing them through a tank full of dirty water. There could be some connection between the last realm and this one. His aunt Triatu was floating in the distance. Was she dead? Paralysed? Asleep?

“Hello Crendo,” said a woman in front of him. “Are you having a good time?” He was back on his own world.

“What?” queried Crendo. “I’m completely lost. Who are you?”

“My name is Denae and you’re in my garden,” she said. “It’s a fairly mild day for the time of year, don’t you think?”

“I can’t feel anything,” said Crendo. “Are those your partners?” Four men and three women were approaching.

“Yes, we have an extended relationship,” replied Denae. “A quartet is not enough for us.” The seven partners took hold of Denae, laid her on the lawn and then proceeded to dismantle her.

“Time for my maintenance checks,” said Denae’s head as it was taken into the house. “See you later, brave traveller!” The mechanisms in her severed neck buzzed and rotated as she disappeared from view. Crendo was appalled that this alien machine was masquerading as a real woman. He tried to run into the house but instead found himself in another bizarre environment. Everything was glowing yellow and gold. He couldn’t make out details at first, just gradations of tone. He drifted around until he came upon a group of people. They were his partners and himself. As he glided smoothly forward, he saw Presh and her partners behind his partners, which made a total of eight people. He was in black and white, as were his boyfriend Yamor and girlfriend Bilija. Presh and also his girlfriend Vedsnef were in faded colour while Criq, Bkeisei and Chep were in full colour. Presh’s quartet seemed to be drawing colour from the environment and gradually injecting it into his quartet, using invisible means. He guessed that it was doing them good.

He zoomed upwards and looked down on the landscape. Solid rings of yellow were brightening and darkening continuously. Occasionally, other objects would fly past. They moved so fast that he couldn’t tell what they were but some of them changed direction so they were either alive or controlled by living creatures. Some flying objects tried to intercept the yellow rings but could never make contact. They always disappeared at the last second. However, there were some dark objects that had managed to take up positions fairly near the rings. They seemed to be building a small bridging structure across a few rings. Crendo wasn’t sure what to make of it.

He descended and flew low over the rings. He began tracking pathways from ring to ring. These pathways had been made by people connecting with each other, mainly in shluk circles. He recognised the traces of several people, although he didn’t know them. He followed them extremely quickly, as if he had been doing it his whole life. Perhaps he had. He found his own trace and mapped how his influence travelled. It went from circle to circle, with the people involved becoming less familiar and then strangers. The chain of strangers went on and on. There were several hundred of them. Then he noticed a young man he knew. Then there was another. There was a string of familiar people from school and college. Finally, there she was. He’d found his daughter’s trace in the great shluk web. Like her, it was beautiful.

* * * * *

At the end of the evening, Crendo and his partners drove home. They still had very low spirits after the death of Crendo and Bilija’s daughter but shluking with Presh, Chep, Bkeisei and Criq had given them a considerable boost. They listened to the news. Presh and her two precocious children had removed a further seventy three aliens from the world in the last six days. Twenty five more had been identified and would be dealt with soon. It was heartening news for some but too late for Crendo’s family. Their other children had been distraught to lose their big sister.

“That was no normal shluking,” said Yamor. “It was more like an extreme drug trip. It started off conventionally enough but then the magic kicked in and I saw some incredible things.”

“I’m still processing it,” said Vedsnef. “My head probably won’t be straight until morning. Crendo, are you sure that you’re safe to drive? I don’t think I am. Maybe you aren’t either.”

“Crendo?” queried Bilija. “Are you with us? No, your mind’s wandered off. I’m starting Autodriver.” She pressed a button in front of Crendo and told the system where to go. On seeing and hearing that, Crendo came out of his mild trance.

“Oh, sorry everyone, I was lost in thought,” he said. “I’ve never had a shluking so darned profound before!”

“You could have killed us all by losing focus at the wheel,” said Bilija sadly. “At least we have modern alien technology to protect us from our own frailties. Furk, the cruel irony of it!” She turned to look out of the side window as, for the umpteenth time that month, tears rolled down her cheeks.

“They were a delightful family, weren’t they?” said Vedsnef. “They were so caring. They strained every shluking sinew to cheer us up.”

“Their kids were quiet but I could tell that they were annoyed,” said Yamor. “The girl Terzet hardly smiled and the boy Shaplo couldn’t wait to leave the dinner table. Well, I’d be even angrier if I couldn’t leave the house without guards. It’s bad enough losing our beloved Rosogeny to that confounded alien monster! I hope that it burns in its own fire!” He clenched his fists and gritted his teeth at the awful memory of the disaster.

“Did anyone see the other aliens?” said Crendo dreamily. “I saw at least two different types. They seemed to be preparing something big. I have no idea what that was.”

“I saw some weird things but I couldn’t tell if they were aliens or just distorted people,” said Vedsnef. “My memory of it isn’t too clear and it’s fading away quite quickly.”

“I don’t remember anything like that,” said Yamor. “I just dreamt about freaky animals and the haunted countryside.”

“My dreams were about all the people who we’ve shluked since we moved in together,” said Bilija. “It was quite a party in my head. I really needed that, though. I have too much pain in my life right now.”

“Good for you remembering the fun times, Bilija!” said Crendo. “I’m glad that you had a great session tonight. Anyway, I think that something else might be brewing up there in outer space or wherever. We could be seeing more aliens coming down soon.”

“Don’t say that now,” protested Bilija without much enthusiasm. “We’re already having difficulty coping. I want to crawl into bed and stay there for a week.”

“Shluk dreams aren’t reliable, even when they’re very vivid,” Yamor reminded Crendo. “I reckon that you’re only seeing your worst fears, not real things.”

“OK, you could well be right,” conceded Crendo. “However, there is one lead that I do want to follow up. I saw a woman called Denae halfway through my dream. She’s living here on our world, perhaps in our region. She’s also a machine alien in disguise.”

“You’re NOT going to look for this steel whore without our friend Presh and a large military force at your back!” warned Vedsnef. Yamor and Bilija concurred.

“I’ll see what I can do,” said Crendo. At last, here was something concrete that he could do. In some small way, it might help make up for the loss of Rosogeny. He remembered that vision of her at the breakfast table and smiled. The car took them all smoothly to the hotel. They would fly back to their own country the next day.

* * * * *

“Private Porah, I’d like you to explain this video footage,” said Colonel Klys, passing over a pocketscreen. Porah started the video and watched. It showed her and several other soldiers patrolling a coastal region. As they walked along a cliff top road, they came across a group of children looking out to sea. The camera followed their gaze and captured a very large robot wading through the choppy waters. The camera only showed a few seconds of the robot before it was turned away and the squad continued along the road. The soldiers talked to each other now and then but conspicuously failed to mention the robot.

“Well, that’s odd sir,” said Porah. “I don’t remember the scene quite like that. I thought that there were six children, not five.” Klys stared at Porah, nonplussed. What was wrong with this woman? Why couldn’t she see the blatantly obvious?

“Porah, you clod!” said Klys sharply. “Didn’t you see the robot?! It’s huge, it looks like a creature of the apocalypse and it’s a threat to the whole region!”

“It’s just digital trickery, sir,” said Porah, unflustered. “Some effects wizard has sneaked it into a copy of our footage. It’s nothing to worry about. I blame that movie by Cyal. It’s inspired all these wannabes.”

“Porah, the technical corps assured me that this video is undoctored,” retorted Klys. “How did you fail to see the robot? Were you intoxicated? Were you exhausted? Were you distracted by something even more incredible? If so, I’d like to hear about that too!”

“Sir, I assure you that I have no memory of the robot,” said Porah. “None of my team mentioned it either. You say that it was there but somehow we all seem to have overlooked it. Perhaps we were so shocked that we instinctively blanked it from our minds. That does happen in cases of extreme trauma.”

“You don’t appear shocked in the footage,” said Klys. “That excuse doesn’t fly with me. I believe that you have been compromised, either by alien forces or by those horrible traitors who sympathise with the aliens.”

“You’re right, sir,” said Porah, looking a little crestfallen. “I have no explanation for failing to see the giant robot. I also have no memory of being compromised but I guess that that would be expected with advanced aliens like these. I presume that you will have to lock us all up until the matter can be resolved, one way or another. You could try asking those children.”

“We’re trying to identify them but we’re having no luck,” said Klys. “They were probably tourists. Anyway, we will have to put you away for the time being. We already have three other soldiers in custody for the same reason. We also plan to give you all a thorough medical examination. We may be able to find out what’s happened to you.”

“Thank you, sir,” said Porah. “I apologise for our failings. I hope that this is cleared up soon.” Klys nodded and summoned guards to take Porah away. Other officers would be questioning the other members of Porah’s squad. It was very fortunate that this footage had come to light. Not only had it contributed greatly to the assessment of alien strength but also it had demonstrated a critical weakness in his forces. Something was causing a selective blindness in the troops, which could turn out to be catastrophic sooner or later. Klys knew that the strike rate against the aliens had dropped sharply over the last few weeks and, if the trend continued, it would be zero by the end of the month. He was deeply concerned. He believed that this could be the prelude to a major assault. However, he had to bear in mind that the aliens could have attacked several years ago but they had conspicuously failed to do so, except in that one isolated incident at the college. Given that fact, Klys hypothesised that there wouldn’t be a conventional assault but rather something profoundly unconventional. Nevertheless, there was still the task in hand. The alien robots had to be pursued indefinitely. He decided to recommend to the high command that their own robots should be used to spot aliens. AIs with cameras were still occasionally reporting aliens when living troops were failing to do so. Klys hoped to Furk that that would be enough.

Very soon afterwards, Porah was imprisoned at a nearby low-security military prison. It was relatively comfortable compared to most jails. No one bothered her as she walked to her cell. She greeted a few people as she passed by. She knew them and wondered what they had done to deserve incarceration. She opened the cell door and was pleasantly surprised to find the other members of her quartet already there.

“You’re in here too?!” she queried as she embraced them all, one by one. “What did you do?”

“You can’t remember?” asked her boyfriend Pepoz. “It was, erm, something about a thing moving around. It’s very hazy in my mind, like a vague dream.” He stopped and looked confused for a moment.

“It makes no sense to me,” said her girlfriend Kdis. “There’s been an almighty foul-up. I don’t recall any crimes or disobedience. I think there’ll be an investigation, they’ll discover their mistake and we’ll get financial compensation.”

“Well, there must be some important reason why we’re in here,” said her other boyfriend Kral. “I can’t for the life of me remember what it is, though. Were we going AWOL and lazing on the beach?”

“I wish!” said Kdis. “We shouldn’t worry about it, though. Everything will turn out alright in the end. The army doesn’t allow mix-ups to persist for long. Now that we’re all here, I say that we should just shluk and forget our troubles.”

“They’re watching,” warned Pepoz, pointing at a camera on the ceiling.

“They’re always watching,” said Kral. “Shluk ‘em, let’s get busy!” They all removed their footwear, dampened their hands and let the fun begin. It was worrying that they had forgotten their ‘crime’ so easily but answers could wait for another day. They were feeling unusually laid back and they collectively decided to ride with it.

* * * * *

Criq watched the video footage with a grave expression on his face. As he did so, Chep and Presh were giggling uncontrollably in the corner of the room. After the clip was over, Criq looked over at his girlfriends. Bkeisei stopped reading his long, epic novel and watched with a little concern. They waited for a minute and then Criq spoke up.

“Are you alright?” he asked. “Are you able to talk to the Colonel?” Chep and Presh became silent for a moment, looked at Criq and then started laughing again.

“We’ve been under a lot of strain,” said Criq to the Colonel on the ‘phone. “We’re all very edgy and we’re having trouble dealing with the threat, as you can see.”

“You expect us to deal with THAT?!” exclaimed Chep breathlessly. “Stop winding us up!” She kept giggling but it was petering out.

“Tell me it’s just special effects!” said Presh half a minute later. After another minute and a half, both she and Chep stopped laughing and caught their breath.

“As far as we know, these are not effects,” said the Colonel patiently, satisfied that the two women were having a bout of classic hysteria. “We believe that this gigantic robot has been hiding in the ocean for several years. We’ve found some giant footprints on the sea bed, although these tend to be covered over quite rapidly by debris or scoured away by currents.”

“I have no idea if I can make portals big enough to remove that colossus!” said Presh. “I’ve never attempted it. How would I do it anyway? How would I practice? This is the most absurd situation that I could hope to encounter!”

“These robots are Transformers, right?” interjected Bkeisei from his seat on the sofa. “The big-assed thing there probably turned into a ship or a massive submarine and escaped. It could be on the other side of the world by now. It wouldn’t do any good for us to actually go to that coast and try to find it.”

“Normally, I wouldn’t ask civilians to put themselves in such danger but the stakes are incredibly high now,” said the Colonel. “You and your family are all we’ve got. I just learnt that my troops are being neutralised by the aliens. There’s some sort of mind control going on. The soldiers are being forced to ignore any aliens they find. There’s no telling how far the problem will spread. Please will you go and try to remove that horror from our shore? We don’t know where it is now but, if it went to that area once, it might return there.”

“I would normally tackle such things remotely,” said Presh. “I’m not a complete idiot, Klyt.”

“Neither am I,” said the Colonel. “It’s ‘Klys’, by the way. In all probability, distance is not such a barrier for this robot. You might be on the other side of the continent but it will march across country and annihilate you if it chooses. Doubtless, it has plenty of long-range weaponry too. Nothing would stop it except, perhaps, a nuclear strike. We don’t want to do that.”

“So, it’s a trip to the seaside for us,” said Chep. “It might lead to a quick, crushing death or it might be a nice vacation. What a lovely game of chance you’re making us play!”

“Blame the damned robot, Chep,” said the Colonel. “It’s not my doing. I’m only the crisis manager around here and I’m just as vulnerable as you.”

“OK, sorry,” said Chep. “We’ll try to get down there as soon as we can but we’ll have to prepare first. We’ll have to work out what to do with the kids and we’ll need supplies for the trip.”

“Do what you can,” said the Colonel. “Furk go with you.” He terminated the call.

“Well, it’s been nice knowing you all,” said Bkeisei, marking his page and putting down the novel. “We’re going to be spread thinly across the sole of a giant metal foot. That’ll make a juicy historical footnote, won’t it?!”

“Don’t be like that,” said Criq, sitting by Bkeisei’s side. “We’ve survived so far with hardly a scratch. In fact, we’ve done more damage to each other than the aliens have. You could say that they’ve been ‘model invaders’, they’re so harmless.” Bkeisei nodded and put his arm around Criq’s shoulders.

“You called him ‘Klyt’!” said Chep to Presh. The two women smiled at each other and started giggling again.

* * * * *

Who was this man walking beside her? He was going in the same direction as her, on an otherwise empty street. She glanced behind him and saw three other people, presumably his partners. He caught her eye, nodded and smiled briefly.

“Hi,” she said. “Are you coming home from work?”

“No, we have a shluk date at ‘Ruffled Spido’,” replied the man, pointing ahead and to the right. “We’re really looking forward to it.”

“Oh no!” she said, stopping in her tracks. “There must have been a double booking. “We’re going there as well!” The man stopped too, forcing his partners to follow suit. She put out her hand and sniffed him with her hand nose.

“You’re Toflin, aren’t you?” she concluded, recognising his scent and vibe from the shluks of others. “Your partners are Xunil, Reag and Plunt. So, we meet at last. We keep missing each other.”

“Indeed. Lokrin, I presume,” said Toflin, sniffing her with his hand nose. “Gvig, Kanablar, Nawit, come back here! We have a complication.” Lokrin’s partners heard Toflin and walked back to them.

“Toflin, you have to let us keep our date!” said Lokrin urgently, taking hold of the front of Toflin’s jacket. “We need this badly. We’ve never had any shluk partners as good as them.” Toflin was slightly alarmed. Lokrin appeared to be a little desperate but he understood.

“I think so too, they’re absolutely superb!” said Toflin.

“This is our slot, lady,” said Reag. “I don’t want to give it up. I’m going right over there, as soon as you step aside and go rebook.” He pointed emphatically to the left while staring crossly at Lokrin.

“Monblux, we have a situation here,” said Nawit on the ‘phone. “We’re double-booked with Toflin’s group. Lokrin’s starting to argue with them.”

“Oh dear, I’ll be right out!” said Monblux. He dashed through the open front door, down the garden path, out of the front gate and turned left along the pavement.

“Come on Tof, I really need this!” said Lokrin to Toflin as he held her upper arms gently but firmly. “We’ll make it worth your while. We’ll have a great session together soon. We’ll do all kinds of fun things. What do you say?” She smiled as broadly as she could but her anxiety still showed.

“Hmm,” said Toflin, gazing into her eyes. That was a very tempting offer. He started to smile.

“Hello everyone, I’m so sorry about this!” said Monblux, jogging up to the two quartets. “Can I please see your bookings?” He examined the two sets of details on Nawit’s ‘phone and Reag’s ‘phone.

“Very odd, that’s for sure,” he said, shaking his head slightly. “These both look genuine. One was made six days ago, the other four days ago. What do we do now?” He thought for a moment.

“Oh, I remember,” said Xunil, snapping her fingers. “There was a network outage late at night between those two bookings. There could have been a glitch that deleted or hid the older booking.”

“That’s probably it,” said Gvig. “The network has shluked us all!”

“Bleh!” said Kanablar. “Any ideas, Monblux? None of us want to back down.”

“You know, I think you’re all in luck,” said Monblux. “Are you ready for the big leagues? Are you all up for a twelvesome?”

“Woah!” said Kanablar. “That’s a pretty big step there, fella! I’m not sure if I could handle the signal load.”

“We have some experience,” said Monblux. “We can guide you through it. Remember when you had your first eightsomes? Just do the same thing now: start slowly and speed up as you learn.”

“Are you saying that you have a twelve pool or do we have to sit dry, like campers?” asked Gvig.

“We have an antique pool of non-standard proportions,” replied Monblux. “I had it plumbed in last month. The others thought I was crazy but now I think that I’m precognitive. The seating is manually adjustable. We’ll probably have to shluk behind-back.”

“Sounds like a real mind-bender,” said Nawit. “Still, we’re not doing anything else important tonight and we should expand our horizons at some point, so why not now?” Everyone agreed with his assessment, though some were taken aback by the unexpected challenge of a behind-back twelvesome.

“Thank you for saving our evening!” said Plunt, coming forward and kissing Monblux on the cheek. In turn, he led the two visiting quartets into the house. Spare chairs, cutlery and crockery were brought out. A light evening meal was served. Sciug and Klek had to give everyone smaller portions due to the presence of four extra guests. Luckily, no one had any food allergies or other special requirements.

“If anyone wants more food, I can quickly go and fetch some or place an order,” said Klek. No one was hungry enough to take up his offer, though they happily munched through a family-sized carton of quick-cook gabioux sticks that had been dug out of the freezer. The meal was over fairly quickly and then the vornafa was poured.

“My job’s been steady lately but also a crashing bore,” said Kanablar, his tongues loosening with mild inebriation. “Almost every day it’s been ‘built-in cabinets please, like on the Home Unwrecker programme’. I can almost fit one in my sleep now. People have no imagination; they simply follow the trends. I only wish that they would clean and tidy the sides of their rooms before I arrive. I feel like I’m the maid most mornings: brush, dust, wipe, vacuum, even shampoo. Thank goodness Gvig gave me a tonne of good songs on my music player. I listen to them all day and it makes life more bearable.”

“I imagine that you like Hotwork, then?! Ha ha ha!” joked Klek.

“Very droll, sir!” said Kanablar, seeming to laugh mildly at the pun. “Like Hotwork because I get hot while I’m at work? Ho ho! Yes, well, they are absolutely ... not to my taste, I’m afraid. Give me Archminyan Flen and the Ruddle Bunks any day. I especially love their cover version of ‘Bifurkation’. How does it go? La la la la, na-n-n-na, Furk in the tips of my tongues!”

“I adore the instrumental break in that song,” said Plunt. “The string section really cuts loose and goes on an inspired three-minute riff fest. I get chills whenever I hear it!”

“How’s your life been lately, Plunt?” asked Klek.

“Mmm, not much to report,” replied Plunt. “I do seasonal work in a few restaurants by the river in town. The tourists come out in force during the drier months. This is the off-season now, so I’m stuck at home. I’ve been making decorations for our Rinning corner. Not to brag but it’s probably the fanciest Rinning display in town by now.”

“Definitely,” added Xunil. “I come home from work and there’s usually a new set of faces in the throng every day. Well, it’s either that or a new flourish of facsimile foliage. She doesn’t like to be idle, this one!”

“Lokrin, come over and tell the other quartets about yourself,” suggested Kanablar. “Don’t stand over there on your own. What are you looking at anyway?”

“There’s a picture of an old shluk house,” said Lokrin. “It’s not the prettiest but it has loads of character. I wish that I could go there.”

“It was knocked down decades ago, I’m sorry to say,” said Monblux. “Never mind, you’re about to try the old tub that we salvaged two months ago. It’s the same vintage.” He walked over and tried to guide Lokrin back to the table but she pushed his hand away. She didn’t look happy at all.

“More vornafa before we go?” proposed Sciug, brandishing another flask.

“Yes!” said ten people. Lokrin remained silent and glowered at them. Then, she walked over to Nawit and whispered in his ear.

“But we always have a few glasses before the main event,” said Nawit quietly to Lokrin. “Hold on and we’ll be there. When have we ever failed to have a good time?”

“Wait, wait, wait: that’s your mantra!” said Lokrin with a peeved tone. “Follow convention, steady-as-she-goes and no surprises: I’m getting sick of you, slow hand!” Nawit was a little shocked by this slur.

“Lokrin, are you OK?” asked Gvig.

“Some people don’t realise that we’re not all gradualists,” said Lokrin, a little agitated. “A few of us want to get on with things. I’ve been keeping track recently. Our quartet is at least fifteen percent slower than average in the tub and we have seven percent fewer shluk dates too.”

“Don’t believe everything that you read in those magazines,” said Xunil. “They print sensational lies to sell more copies.”

“My frustration is no lie!” said Lokrin. “I want everyone in that tub now!”

“We should do as she asks,” said Jiplez. “Disharmony could ruin the experience, if we let it fester.” She put down her glass, walked over and led Lokrin to the tub room, fingering her guest’s shluk as they walked. The others downed their vornafa, rose and trooped dutifully after them.

“That’s the tub?!” queried Reag, looking at the newly-acquired antique in the spacious tub room at the rear of the house. “Did no one think about aesthetics when it was made? It’s not even sunken. We have to go upstairs to enter!”

“This is a temporary set-up,” said Monblux. “The sinking-in will have to be done later, when we have the time and money.”

“Not to mention the energy,” said Sciug. “Don’t worry, these tubs from the last century aren’t super-stylish but they’re very functional. You’ll see.” Everyone began disrobing.

“I understand you tonight,” said Jiplez to Lokrin as she took Lokrin’s dress and hung it on a hook. “I get like this sometimes. All I can think about is men at my sides! I have to keep a tight hold on myself, metaphorically speaking.”

“Yeah, well keep your metaphors,” said Lokrin. She finished undressing, walked over to Monblux, lifted his shirt and put her hands into his shluks. Taken by surprise, Monblux gasped. Lokrin was delivering some powerful messages through her fingers, all about lust, strength and seizing what she could to fill the empty spaces in her heart. Jiplez saw the problem immediately, approached from behind and shluked Lokrin, passing on messages of calm, affection and reassurance. Lokrin was mollified. She let her hands drop out of Monblux’s shluks.

“Don’t ... stop,” she said to Jiplez as she relaxed.

“I have to stop,” said Jiplez. “We’re going to climb the ladder. Hold the handrail when you do. We’ll be back inside you in a minute.” She slid her hands out of Lokrin’s shluks.

“You need an etiquette refresher, that’s for sure,” said Monblux to Lokrin, shivering after a startling injection of raw emotions. “Now I’m up before we even hit the water. Down boy!” He looked at his lower body and waited for the tumescence to subside. Lokrin was a very loose cannon tonight. They’d have to watch her closely in future. Everyone finished undressing. Jiplez helped Lokrin up the ladder and down into the water.

“It’s deep,” noted Lokrin, sitting in a submerged chair. “I hope we don’t drown.”

“There’s an automatic drainer,” said Sciug, entering the pool. “If one of our airways goes below the surface, the sensors trigger the draining mechanism.” All twelve people went to their chairs and settled down in the warm water. Clockwise from Lokrin, the order of seating was Reag, Sciug, Kanablar, Xunil, Monblux, Gvig, Toflin, Jiplez, Nawit, Plunt and Klek.

“I’ll adjust the spacing,” said Toflin. “Hang on.” He pressed a waterproof button on the pool wall next to him. The chairs moved inwards on tracks so that everyone was touching shoulders and toes.

“The water’s up to my lower lip,” said Sciug. “Fix it, Toflin. I hate being small sometimes.” Toflin complied and released a few centimetres of water into the drain. Everyone reached around their neighbours’ backs and penetrated the ‘opposite’ shluks. Normally, a right hand would go into a left shluk and vice versa; here, the arrangement was reversed. It felt a little weird at first but hands and shluks were very adaptable.

“Wow, this is so cosy!” said Lokrin, thoroughly enjoying being sandwiched between Reag and Klek and starting to reciprocate their stimulation. The water was at a very comfortable temperature and the glizberry scent on the surface was sweet and sharp. The three quartets followed standard procedure and built their message patterns gradually. Sometimes there were discordances, so the twelve partners had to halt and restart the circle ‘song’. They weren’t teenage novices: they knew what they were doing. In a matter of minutes, they had built up a workable pattern and a sufficiently fast rhythm. They didn’t try any fancy moves. They focused on the basics and did what worked. Their hand movements had to step up a gear but they coped. Lokrin grinned and breathed deeply as her shluks pulsated with fingers vibrating inside. Everyone was receiving much more information than usual and then passing on their responses at a high rate. Monblux’s quartet performed the best, as usual. The others concentrated hard and strove to keep up. At this pace, shluking felt a bit like a competitive sport. Alternatively, it was like being part of a highly-tuned engine, only this engine generated new, collective thoughts and feelings.

With her eyes closed, Lokrin felt the concerns of the day being washed away. It was as if Monblux was giving her a great massage, Klek was showing her partners how to be more responsive, Jiplez was commending her in glowing terms and Sciug was preparing a most luxurious bed chamber for her. A weight was lifting from her shoulders. In her imagination, the world’s colours became brighter. The shluking went on for twenty more minutes. Several people murmured as ‘therapeutic dreams’ tackled their problems, some of which were obvious while others were unsuspected and revelatory. As the session entered its final few minutes, a note of alarm entered the circle song. Xunil had seen something unexplained in the room. It appeared to be supernatural: some form of apparition. Sciug signalled that she and her partners could deal with it. The others observed as best they could. They were so busy with their signals that their vision was temporarily blurred. No one wanted to stop shluking because it was going so well. A faint light shone from Sciug and her partners. The apparition drifted right through the tub and Lokrin to hover above the central foot cluster. It was untroubled by the water and steam.

“Now,” said Sciug softly. She joined with Monblux, Jiplez and Klek in sending a special pulse around the circle. Everyone glittered slightly as the uncanny energy washed through the tub. The apparition was trapped and forced to disappear. With it went any minor sensation of apprehension. All in the room felt that their relaxation was now total and complete. The last two minutes of shluking flew by smoothly and came to a natural conclusion.

“What was that thing?” asked Xunil, pulling her hands from inside Kanablar and Monblux afterwards. “Did we accidentally summon up a spirit? I wouldn’t be surprised. That was a tremendously powerful session! My hands are aching but my mind has progressed massively. Phew!” She let her arms dangle by her sides and dipped her head backwards into the water. It was like she was wearing a warm, wet bonnet with a built-in vaporiser.

“That was an alien, we think,” said Monblux, removing his hand from her shluk, moving it upwards and putting it on her shoulder. “I reckon that it was attached to Lokrin, which would explain her bad mood earlier. Presh told us about new groups of aliens trying to come into our reality. They’re not the robot types, they’re more like us. However, they’re not finding it easy in our world, especially since we can get rid of them.”

“I thought that only Presh and her kids could do that,” said Gvig, stretching her arms above her head and then returning them to the welcome embrace of the water.

“No, things are changing,” said Jiplez. “We think that Presh passed it on to us in her tub. We’re not totally sure what’s going on but a movement of energies is in progress. Perhaps we’re meant to send these other aliens somewhere else? Sciug believes that we’re some of the first unrelated people to gain the ability from Presh because we’re so compatible with each other.”

“Mmm hmm,” concurred Sciug.

“Full marks for us,” added Klek. “We even mark our own work!”

“Ten out of ten, as long as our fingers don’t stray, eh?” said Monblux, glancing at Jiplez.

“It happens,” she said with a smile and a shrug.

“Why don’t I feel sleepy now?” asked Toflin. “Is that because of your special power?”

“That’s quite possible,” said Sciug. “This is unexplored territory for all of us. We’re still finding out about it.”

“It’s the excitement of a first-time twelvesome,” said Reag. “I’ve heard about it. The stimulation is so great that we won’t be able to sleep for a few hours.”

“It feels like you’re right,” said Plunt. “I’m wide awake. Alien intruders tend to have that effect on me as well, I find! Anyway, what shall we do now?”

“I’ve got something that you can help me with, love,” said Reag, standing up. “It’s popped up again and it needs your expert female attention. Let’s go to the private booth.” Plunt removed herself from Klek and Nawit, licked her lips in anticipation and squeezed her way out of the circle. As the pair climbed out of the tub, it became apparent as to what Reag was referring. The rest of the group whooped and laughed good-naturedly. The evening progressed merrily with all tempers soothed and many desires sated. Later, as the two visiting quartets drove home in the dark, they noticed that their skins still had a slight glow. It wasn’t fading away, which they found to be quite thrilling.

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Wed Nov 01, 2017 2:57 pm

For the first time in years, something vaguely interesting is happening. I’m in the form of a set of rusty girders, pretending to be the skeleton of a ruined building deep in the woods. We’re about seven kilometres from the west coast of this continent. Some organic people are walking past. Four of them are armed: their guns are powerful enough to do me some damage. The fifth one also has a weapon but it’s smaller. I recognise her immediately as ‘Presh’. She’s looking for people like me. The others are her bodyguards. I stay totally still, running on minimum power. With any luck, she’ll fail to find me even when she’s standing right inside me. The key is to give up any attempt to act. My thoughts must be reduced to almost nothing. If I can restrict my intentions to simply existing as a set of old metal struts, I’ll be fine.

Presh sweeps the vicinity with her special sense but draws a blank. My disguise is working! We didn’t mean to develop this method. It happened accidentally because our Father was banished to a far dimension by Presh and her son. After that, we lost nearly all of our motivation and quickly became inactive. This made us, in practical terms, almost dead. She and her kind now have great difficulty locating us. Presh keeps searching. I can tell that her spirits are quite low because of her gait, posture and facial expression. She’s about to move on when her bodyguards turn against her. One of the females holds her at gunpoint and warns her not to call for help. I detect an alien influence over the bodyguards. This new force has appeared suddenly and taken over the four hapless organics. It is making them go against their true natures. They disarm Presh and use handcuffs to secure her arms to two of my thinner rods, about two metres above the ground. I have seen this type of attack many times before. They plan to abuse her for a while in a degrading manner and then kill her. Strangely, she’s not very anxious.

“Your partner Jriaq has been betraying you all,” says Presh. “I’ve been shluking with many of your colleagues and I’ve learnt a lot. Maybe they don’t want to talk about it but shluks don’t lie.”

“Shut your stupid mouth!” says Jriaq, slapping her hard on the right side of her head. He then proceeds to remove some of her clothing. The female with the gun is becoming agitated. Her primal instincts are at war with the alien force. She must know about any infidelity in her quartet.

“Let her speak!” she says. “I’ll shoot you just as easily as her!” Jriaq is surprised and steps away from Presh. He hadn’t anticipated this.

“I’m one of the best shlukers in the world,” says Presh, her face stinging. “I can tell you that Jriaq has been dipping his wick all over the place. I’ve sensed it through the shluk circles. He’s been having his way with tzanjits at the stables, children at many unmonitored houses, dead bodies in the morgue and also his second, secret quartet in Redgrove Delta. You probably know them. They’re your old training college friends Bahnys, Lyzar and Shpira. Why don’t you ask them all about it? You’ll find out soon enough anyway. There’s an investigation in progress.”

“You’re a damned dirty liar!” exclaims the other female, moving toward Presh with her fists clenched. “I’m going to tear off your shluks!” Luckily for Presh, the other male holds her back. The first female is still aiming the gun in their general direction.

“What are you going to do now?” asks Presh as she uses her electromagnetic field to release one set of handcuffs. For an organic, that’s a tremendous feat of escapology. The bodyguards are somewhat intimidated by it. Also, the sense of possible treachery is growing. Presh has used her extensive social knowledge to undermine their partnership and sense of security. This is causing turmoil in their minds. In turn, it’s interfering with the alien influence. I can feel it weakening.

“Aah!” cries the female pointing the gun. “Everyone move! We’re getting out of here!” She hustles her quartet away at gunpoint. She glares at Presh as they all jog past.

“Why didn’t you say something earlier?” she hisses.

“Global security,” says Presh. “I didn’t want to rock the boat at a critical time. I needed bodyguards, not scandals. Perhaps that was a mistake.” I reckon that she doesn’t like guilt trips!

The female shakes her head and the quartet run rapidly into the forest. Presh walks to the left a few metres, thus allowing her to slide the other set of handcuffs off the end of the rod. She releases both sets of cuffs from her wrists and she’s free again. She puts her clothes back on; they’re slightly ripped and dirty.

“I was expecting something like that,” says Presh. “The other races are appearing more often every day. It’s like they’re haunting me. They’re gaining strength. A few of them can possess people.”

“Shluking is the key,” I say, allowing my girders to crumble and fall apart. Presh watches my tissues separate into tiny bugs that scatter across the forest. She detected me a minute ago because I was thinking about her predicament but I’m not giving her time to banish me. This incident has been recorded in those bugs and will one day be revealed to those who retrieve the data. Presh is amazed that I actually said something to her. I was under orders not to communicate but, at this point, the orders are defunct. She takes out her ‘phone and reports the situation. She has a huge bruise forming on her face. It’s a shame that her beauty has been marred temporarily by someone who should have been trustworthy. We hear weapons fire and screaming in the distance.

* * * * *

Presh’s partners found her again at a nearby police station. She had already had her injury checked at the local hospital. It wasn’t major. It only required some pain-killing, anti-inflammatory ointment.

“What happened?” asked Chep, deeply concerned about her girlfriend. She was clutching Presh’s shoulders tightly.

“My bodyguards,” said Presh, her jaw painful and her mind reeling. “I think that I broke them.” Chep stared at her, open-mouthed. Presh returned her gaze for a moment and then looked down.

“I think that we’ve been going about this all wrong, Chep,” she said. “We’ve been getting rid of the robot aliens but maybe they’re not the real enemies here. There are other groups coming now. One of those other aliens was at our house not so long ago. You couldn’t see it but the kids and I could.”

“Don’t forget the college that was destroyed,” said Bkeisei, who was standing behind Chep. “It shows that the robots will kill us if they want.”

“That could have been an accident,” said Presh. “No one’s infallible, not even these super-advanced machine people.”

“What about the gigantic robot in the sea?” asked Criq, who was pacing about behind Bkeisei. “Surely that’s a war engine built to ensure our destruction?” He was furious that his partner had been attacked again by cowardly aliens.

“We have no idea who it’s supposed to destroy,” replied Presh. “I haven’t seen any biographical information. They haven’t published a handy alphabetical character guide!”

“I’m afraid I have more bad news,” said a police officer. “The final bodyguard, Twbya, has died of his injuries.”

“They shot each other,” explained Presh to her partners. “They were possessed by aliens: that made them do it.”

“Hold on, you said that you broke them,” Bkeisei pointed out. “What did you mean?” For a few moments, Presh wondered what to say.

“I guess that it started when my magic appeared out of nowhere,” she said. “As you well know, things developed from there and then I was assigned bodyguards. Those poor guards became alien targets as a result. They were driven crazy by foreign spirits. They started to assault me but then they started blaming each other for various things, threatening each other and finally chasing and shooting each other.”

“This is even worse than before!” said Criq loudly. “There’ll be random, lethal attacks any time of the day or night. It’s going to be absolute carnage!” He slammed his fist down onto the back of a padded chair in frustration.

“I’m so sorry that it’s come to this!” said Presh, dashing across the room to try to soothe him with a hug. “We’ll start banishing those other aliens wherever we find them! We can at least reduce the problem.”

“I know what they were planning to do to you,” said Criq, holding Presh warmly in his arms. “I’ve seen the bruises around your wrists. You were so incredibly lucky to escape all that.”

“Yeah, I was,” said Presh. “Let’s hope that our luck holds in future too.” Her mind was whirling very quickly but, try as she might, she couldn’t formulate a solution to this new, more serious alien problem. Perhaps the key was, indeed, to simply keep on shluking. At least it would help her to recover from the shock.

* * * * *

This is fantastic! I could hardly be luckier!

[Foreign spark detected. Initiating security protocols.]

I’m actually in control of one of those Transformers now. The original owner was too weak to resist. I kicked him out.

[Energon supply is code encrypted.]

Fine, I’m running a decryption programme. This’ll take a few minutes. Tum te tum te tum tum...

[Energon supply restored. Fuel pump operation is code encrypted.]

Decrypting again. I once knew a tripod called Gingle, who never quite learnt how to mingle...

[Fuel pump operation restored. Super charge is available and recommended for combat missions. Super charge is password protected.]

Running brute force ultra-swift password cracker. I’ll get you in the end, my grease-spattered homion!

[Super charge now available. Body control centre is needed for proper operation. Body control centre is triple key locked.]

Does that mean electronic keys? No, they’re physical keys. I see them in an alcove under the steering column. My little drone fetches them and puts them in the indicated slots.

[Body control centre available.]

Now, let’s TRANSFORM and pirogise these mibliks!

[Transformation requires two encryption codes and a password.]

For Blit’s sake! Decrypting. In the heat of the night, I like to cook vedvers ready for the next morning because I’m sensible that way! Cracking password. Got to use that night heat for something. Da de da de daaaa.

[Transformation is available.]

TRANSFORM!

[Transformation is not advised in an enclosed space. Please move to a more suitable location.]

My drone picks the lock and opens the garage door. Please DRIVE OUTSIDE.

[Brakes are picture quiz encrypted.]

I’m becoming suspicious. If I have body control, why did I have to enter codes and passwords for transformation? Why do I have to do a nitnusing picture quiz to access the brakes? Either this is excessive caution or someone is rodding my fundament. Anyway, let me see. Pictures two, six, seven and nine contain plants. The rest show various disgusting and depressing items.

[Brakes are now operational.]

RELEASE BRAKES, ROLL OUTSIDE slowly, AVOID GARAGE DOOR FRAME AND SMALL ANIMAL IN ROADWAY, TRANSFORM! I’m now twenty metres tall and powerful as hell! SHOW MY FIRST TARGETS!

[No targets detected within a ten-kilometre radius. One deceased person inside adjoining dwelling. Death occurred seventeen months ago. No one has yet come to collect the body.]

LOCATE NEAREST TARGETS.

[Intelligent life located in town called Pon Dazent, twenty seven kilometres away.]

Excellent! Time to go to work! ACTIVATE WEAPONS.

[Weapons activated.]

Unholy upholstery, I’m half covered in guns! Wait a minute, aren’t there any security measures governing access to these weapons?

[Negative.]

Say what you like about these Transformers but they certainly have their priorities straight! I’ll walk over to Pon Dazent right now and erase it from the map.

[Driving is recommended for a twenty seven kilometre journey. It is considerably faster than walking.]

Alright, STOW WEAPONS, TRANSFORM, DRIVE TO TOWN. The countryside is fairly pretty but there are no orange blood fountain trees at all, unfortunately. I could use some of those larger animals for target practice but I don’t want to waste ammunition.

[Law enforcement officers detected. Reducing speed to comply with local limit.]

What officers? Checking satellite data. The nearest law enforcers are seventeen kilometres away. Oh well, I’m not in a tearing hurry. On I trundle.

[Herd of animals in road. Stopping.]

Irritating! What to do? The animals are rounding the corner up ahead and coming towards me. I know! DRIVE THROUGH HEDGE AND ACROSS FIELD. The terrain is a bit rougher than it looks. I’m struggling forward. That’s far enough. DRIVE THROUGH HEDGE AND ONTO ROAD. ACTIVATE WEAPONS AND SHOOT HERDSMAN. First blood!

[Approaching edge of Pon Dazent.]

Hmm, let me see. The first building is a warehouse in the middle of a field. It’s a metals reclamation facility. The sign outside is interesting. It says ‘Do your bit to reduce the alien problem. Bring your scrap metal to us. If it’s ordinary metal, we’ll melt it down and convert it into products that help combat aliens. If it’s alien technology, it will be passed to the authorities for secure disposal. Good prices are paid for all scrap metal, ordinary or alien. Contact Rhefiok on 555 9832.’ I recognise that name. I wonder if it’s the same Rhefiok I knew back in space base plundering times. I’ll investigate and assess how to deal with him. DRIVE INSIDE BUILDING.

“Rhefiok, are you there?” I call in my loud robot voice. DRIVE THROUGH BUILDING, 3 KPH. It’s a big place. Piles of scrap metal have built up on the far side, to the right. The near side (left) is mostly clear. SCAN SIDE ROOMS. I creep along. No one appears to be around. Suddenly, I am seized by a large metal claw that descends on cables from the high ceiling. The claw has ten rigid steel ‘fingers’ that hold me securely and prevent me from transforming. I am lifted into the air, moved across the building and lowered into a pit, which is hidden behind piles of scrap metal.

“Rhefiok, my old buddy!” I say. “What’s this pit for? Am I getting a service today?” To answer my question, a crushing machine is revealed when the pit floor opens up.

“If I did something to offend you, could you at least tell me what it is so that I can make amends somehow?” I suggest politely. There’s no answer. CALL 555 9832.

“You Blit-forsaken colander of kaolin!” says Rhefiok’s voice on the ‘phone. “This world belongs to the rightful conquerors, namely my people the Tri-kny race. You broken-cornered blat fumps won’t get it, even if you hijack Transformer bodies. It’s crushing time, Datron!” I drop into the crusher and feel its heavy grip. PUSH TO RESIST CRUSHING!

[Unable to push due to transformation restriction.]

EMERGENCY TRANSFORMATION!

[Unable to transform due to crushing.]

TRACE LOCATION OF TELEPHONE NUMBER 555 9832.

[Caller is eighty metres away, at rear of building.]

ACTIVATE WEAPONS.

[Unable to activate weapons due to transformation restriction and crushing.]

Looks like I’ve been beaten by this old enemy of mine. I take it back. This is not fantastic after all. Blit have mercy, this is agony!

[Warning, weapons safety compromised due to crushing. Blast is imminent. Blast radius will be approximately five hundred metres. You have ten seconds to reach safe distance.]

That last warning is a very sick joke. Goodbye glory! I won’t be a part of this planet’s subjugation after all. As I depart, I see Rhefiok killed with me in the blast and then his spirit follows mine, cursing all the way.

* * * * *

“There’s been a major explosion in Pon Dazent,” said Sciug, reading the news on her pocketscreen. “No casualties have been found so far. A metals-recycling centre has been blown to smithereens. The cause is unknown so far.”

“That might have been caused by a stack of compressed gas cylinders,” speculated Klek. “Wait, it may also have been a big bomb left over from the wars of the last century. Pon Dazent did receive some damage back then.”

“Aliens, I say,” commented Monblux, shaking his head. “At least they didn’t hit the hospital or shopping centre.”

“A light industrial unit caught in the blast has just collapsed,” continued Sciug. “Three people are trapped in the wreckage. Also, a farmer has been found murdered twelve kilometres from Pon Dazent.”

“It has to be aliens,” said Monblux.

“They sound like an incompetent lot,” said Bkeisei, sitting on a grassy bank. “They only killed one and hurt three.”

“I don’t want to hear about it,” said Presh as she lay curled up on her side next to Bkeisei with her head on his lap. “We can’t stop most of them. They’re going to take over the world.” She put her right hand over her right ear. The left ear was already muffled by Bkeisei’s legs. Bkeisei stroked her head and right hand with his left hand. Presh was deeply demoralised by her recent traumas. They had all just attended the funerals of the four bodyguards. The orphans had been crying pitifully during the service. Their extended family would care for them and the state would provide but Presh had felt absolutely crushed by the whole affair. Her partners and relatives shared some of her pain. They felt awful seeing her caught up in the situation and suffering so much. They did whatever they could to make things better. The next day, though, Presh had to go back to work. At present, this involved hanging about on or near the coast, waiting for the colossus to return. That was the greatest single threat in the world right now. On the bright side, it did give the family an opportunity for a holiday at the beach. Shaplo and Terzet were playing catch with Criq on the sun-baked sand.

“Too far, Criq!” said Shaplo after failing to catch the disc and falling over in the process. “Don’t make me run to the moons every time!” He stood up, retrieved the disc and threw it to Terzet, who leapt sideways and caught it with only a small fumble. She then threw it back to Criq but it fell short and he had to jog forward to pick it up.

“Keep working on the throws, Terzet,” he said, quickly tossing the disc to Shaplo. The boy lunged to the right, trying to catch the disc but it sped past him and landed fifty metres further away.

“What did I just say?” complained Shaplo, going to fetch it.

“Activity is good for you,” said Criq. “You’ll thank me later when shluking lessons start at high school. Weak gamers aren’t exactly popular then.”

“You keep chucking that in my face!” said Shaplo. “OK, back to you!” He threw the disc at Criq. It curved slightly and was on collision course with Criq’s chest when he snatched it out of the air.

“That’s better!” said Criq. “I see that I’m motivating you.”

“He doesn’t need lessons,” said Terzet to her father. He knew what she meant but he disagreed.

“Everyone needs lessons,” he replied. “We have to learn the finer points. How do you think our family got started? It wasn’t through clumsy fingering, I can tell you that!” Terzet nodded. Her father still had a very athletic physique. She was trying to hook up with kids like that at school. The tricky part was to find ones who had both brains and brawn.

“Maybe none of us need lessons anymore,” murmured Presh to Bkeisei. “When the world is destroyed, shluking will be extinct.” She looked out to sea at the eternal rolling of the waves. Devams swooped low, trying to catch fish about half a kilometre off shore. Presh realised that, if they were doing that, the colossus probably wasn’t around to disturb them. She felt somewhat safer. She could hear Siqurt and Dglef happily building castles and other things in the sand ten metres to her right. Chep was helping and showing them a few tricks. She was also making sure that all litter in the area was bagged up so that no one was hurt accidentally. Chep’s parents and their partners were sitting a few metres further away. A schedule had developed naturally so that it was ‘their turn’ to visit and assist with childcare this week. It seemed like a good idea to have more people watching the children. If aliens possessed some of them, the others had a chance to resist attacks. Presh fretted silently about the awful situation. She looked across the beach and saw minor dimensional fluctuations scattered here and there. They weren’t dangerous at present but that could change at any time.

Shaplo had also seen the dimensional fluctuations. He had given up playing catch with Terzet and Criq. Now, he was trying to probe the fluctuations. Jiplez had gone over to learn what she could from him. Shaplo knew that this practice session was much more important than beach games. It was also giving him a welcome opportunity to get close to a lovely young woman. It was amusing to see him earnestly assisting the taller Jiplez in picking up tips, while he touched her as often as the situation allowed. The families believed that Jiplez and her quartet were on course to being magical and thus able to banish aliens. To the untrained eye, it looked like Shaplo and Jiplez were merely talking, gesticulating and shuffling about. Presh could see that they were actually manipulating exotic energies from other realms. That was very reassuring. Jiplez was laughing occasionally, pleased with her progress. Shaplo smiled, happy to see her in good spirits.

“Any plans to procreate, Sciug?” asked Presh. “Perhaps you’re waiting for the alien problem to be resolved?”

“That’s the biggest stumbling block, isn’t it?” said Sciug, lying on her back and continuing to read the news. “We have no idea if the world will survive right now. I’m sure that millions of quartets are in the same position.”

“Normally, I’d recommend parenthood but the outlook’s so bleak,” said Presh. “If only we could figure out what to do about it.”

“Here’s one thing,” said Sciug with a chuckle. “A rural family in Burmagny is using an alien’s helmet as a chamber pot!”

“That’s the Burmagnians for you,” said Presh. “They’re always dropping their business into anything they like!”

“Say, why don’t our two quartets walk around the headland and shluk in the sea?” proposed Sciug. “It’ll give us a great opportunity to think of new ideas about beating the aliens.”

“Won’t we be seen?” asked Presh.

“Probably not,” replied Sciug. “Hardly anyone goes around there. The popular areas are in the other direction. Anyway, people around here are relaxed about a bit of harmless outdoor shluking.”

“It’s better than doing nothing,” said Presh, rising and stretching. “If the enormous robot comes, we’ll die doing what we love!” They gathered their quartets, took some essential items in bags, left the children in the care of Chep’s family and set off along the beach, heading North by North West. The sand was warm in the subtropical sunlight. There wasn’t too much debris to hurt their bare feet. They had foregone shoes or sandals since those were uncomfortable with constant sand ingress. They were all tanning nicely today. Soon, the effort of wading through sand was making them sweat.

“It might be easier to swim,” suggested Klek, pointing at the sea. “I’m quite quick in the water.”

“I’m not,” said Sciug. “I don’t have the power in my arms and legs, or a good technique. Also, the water’s cool.”

“That’s kind of the point,” said Bkeisei. “Some of us might want to cool down a little.”

“You go ahead if you like,” said Sciug. “I’ll stay ashore. Let’s see who reaches the headland tip first.” The challenge was accepted. Klek, Bkeisei and Jiplez handed over their bags and ran into the sea while the others continued walking. The swimmers fared well for several minutes but then they encountered the edge of a riptide. They were able to wade ashore before they were swept further out. They hadn’t increased their speed of travel significantly, overall. They rejoined the others and reached the far end of the headland twenty minutes later. From there, they looked out at the next bay, which was about eight kilometres wide and had dozens of sand dunes behind the beach. They had to walk another kilometre before they found a spot suitable for shluking. Fortunately, the flatter sand in this part of the bay made walking quicker. They left their bags and bathing costumes behind the tide line and headed out into the waves. The sea was a tougher environment than a tub but the stimulation level was far greater. Soon, the two quartets had reached a depth of a metre and a half, which was enough to begin their eightsome. They wouldn’t be able sit and use their toes but otherwise they’d do fine. They plugged into each other and began. Less than a minute into the session, they were interrupted by a friendly sea creature. Criq and Jiplez felt tentacles brushing and curling around their legs. They all had to stop signalling to each other.

“It’s a Dreamim!” said Criq. “We’re lucky: this is a rare occurrence.”

“I had a feeling that it wasn’t a great idea to shluk here,” said Jiplez, a little unnerved. The Dreamim stood up next to the eightsome, using its strongest tentacles to support itself. It was two and a quarter metres tall. It extended two long, thin tentacles and touched the hands of each person present. Criq recognised it as a greeting and clasped the tentacle briefly, as an approximation of a handshake. Presh copied him. The Dreamim then put the tentacles at the entrances to Criq and Jiplez’s shluks.

“It wants to join the circle for a little while,” said Criq. “It probably has something important to say.”

“I don’t really want to do this,” said Jiplez. “I’m not ready. I only want to shluk my own species today.”

“Jiplez, come on!” said Chep. “The Dreamims have been our occasional shluk buddies for thousands of years easily. Honour that friendship!” Jiplez still hesitated. She was too attached to her own quartet and the conventional eightsome.

“Fine, I’ll do it,” said Chep, moving to take Jiplez’s place. Jiplez shuffled over into Chep’s old place. The Dreamim explored Chep’s shluk with one tentacle and then used the other to ‘taste’ the skin of everyone else. They all stood and waited for a minute. The tentacle lingered on Presh for a few seconds but then it went into Criq’s shluk and the impromptu interspecies session began.

“Be gentle,” warned Criq as he stimulated the proto-shluk on the Dreamim’s left side. “They can’t handle too much signal.” This was a somewhat strange experience for most people in the circle. They had to signal very slowly because the Dreamim had only a fraction of their intelligence. However, the creature was good at understanding nuance. It could sense underlying emotions and did what it could to put people at ease. They told it simple stories of their lives. In turn, it showed them scenes of underwater hunting and interaction. They gained an insight into the subtleties of catching prey in an ocean where visibility was usually zero and currents often dragged Dreamims away from their communities. They also gained a sense of a new presence in the waters: a mass of electrically-charged, heavy metal things clustered around a large volcanic vent about five hundred kilometres away. Dreamims were avoiding those things and trying to persuade other aquatic species to do the same but many creatures didn’t listen. As predators, Dreamims were feared but not always obeyed.

“Fascinating,” said Monblux as the short shluking session ended. “We might have found the Transformer base!”

“We’ll probably never reach it, though,” said Klek. “It’s very inaccessible. Only the strongest submarine probes can survive down there.”

“Guys, this Dreamim is still groping me!” said Jiplez, stepping back. “The tentacles are going around behind me.”

“It only wants its payment,” said Criq. “The best thing is to turn around, stand legs apart, bend over a little and let it take some free food. I’ll show you.” He demonstrated the position and smiled. Jiplez’s mouth fell open as she realised what he meant.

“They’re coprophages,” continued Criq. “Don’t worry, it’s painless. They’ve been doing it for millions of years.” Reluctantly, Jiplez complied. A tentacle slowly slipped into her rear entrance and gently extracted some sustenance before withdrawing. The four men lined up to offer their own. It was gratefully accepted and the men enjoyed the sensation. Chep’s offering was also harvested but then the Dreamim stopped and patted what seemed to be its belly to indicate that it was full.

“Well, that wasn’t so bad,” said Jiplez. “A free colonic is actually a nice perk for some.”

“It helps the Dreamims to understand us a little better,” said Bkeisei. “They find out what we’re eating and how our bodies are coping with life.” The Dreamim walked up to Presh, held her with some sub-tentacles on its upper body and gave her a ‘kiss’ with an extruded organ that resembled a mouth but wasn’t actually a mouth. A few moments later, the Dreamim disengaged and swiftly swam away, back to its home beneath the waves where it could breathe more easily.

“Freaky underwater action, I love it!” said Chep, waggling her bottom. “We must do this more often!” The men agreed with her.

“I’m not so sure,” said Sciug. “It felt a little weird to me. It’s too primitive to appreciate every week, for instance. I prefer my own quartet and circles.”

“I think that that’s how it should be,” said Klek, putting his arm around her shoulders. “I wouldn’t want to wake up every day with a Dreamim in the bed next to me but I’ll shluk them every now and then, if we’re in the area and they happen to show up.”

“Let’s go back to dry land,” said Monblux, walking into shallower waters. “We can discuss what we just experienced.”

“This is not how I expected this holiday to be!” said Jiplez to Monblux, who chuckled.

“I was the only one to get a snog,” said Presh. “Maybe it recognised my magic.”

“It might also have been consoling you after your traumas,” said Criq. “Nevertheless, it’d be nice if you could remove the taste of mollusc from your lips before we kiss again!” said Criq. “Oh, wait a minute; I’m experiencing residual leakage from below. The Dreamim didn’t take it all.”

“For Furk’s sake!” said Sciug, moving away in disgust. “All you leakers let it go here and then we’ll get cleaned up on shore!” Chep, Jiplez, Monblux, Klek, Bkeisei and Criq released their residual matter into the sea and followed Sciug and Presh back onto the beach. Luckily, there was one unscreened public shower available in a gap between two sand dunes. Everyone took turns getting clean and also rehydrating. Chep had had the foresight to bring some liquid soap and tissue paper, which were passed around. Motherhood forced her to be prepared for such eventualities.

“It’s nice to be back in the warm sunshine,” said Sciug as she dried naturally on the sand. “I was starting to feel cold in the sea.” Hearing that, Klek dashed over and embraced Sciug for a few minutes, rubbing her back in an effort to warm her up further. Sciug rested her head on his chest, wrapped her arms around him and felt loved, secure and relaxed.

“I read a very interesting new theory about Dreamims recently,” said Monblux as he towelled himself. “Apparently, millions of years ago, our ancestors were coast dwellers. We killed and ate a wide variety of sea creatures, including the ancestors of the Dreamims. Over time, the early Dreamims discovered that they could stop our ancestors’ attacks by stimulating their flanks. In time, a relationship developed between the two groups. Both developed rudimentary shluks and used those to communicate with each other. There was an exchange of mutually beneficial information. The killing of Dreamims was greatly reduced. At some point, the coprophagy began as part of the ‘deal’. Later, our ancestors moved away from the coast, preferring to hunt and gather inland. Their relationship with the Dreamims passed into myth and was forgotten by many.”

“In the meantime, our general intelligence and shluking ability evolved a lot further than those of the Dreamims,” added Jiplez. “Now we have these amazing pockets of wonder!” She patted her shluks fondly.

“Unfortunately, because we forgot the relationship with the Dreamims, we started hunting them again a few centuries ago,” said Bkeisei. “Some of my forefathers took part in that slaughter. It is estimated that the Dreamim population declined by ninety five percent after two centuries of sanctioned annual culls. Happily, numbers are now building up again. The only Dreamims killed today are casualties of shipping accidents.”

“That’s a profound theory,” said Presh, sitting on a convenient stone block. “You’re saying that our entire shluking system originated in those cunning bottom-feeders. What an incredible quirk of evolutionary fate that would be! I’d like to look into it further if I have time later on.” She tried to imagine all the interactions that her ancestors had with their aquatic counterparts.

“Early people came to kill them and, in return, they gave us a vital part of our anatomy and hence our society,” said Criq. “It’s mind-boggling really. You couldn’t make it up!”

“I could,” said Chep. “I love dirty, sexy, way-out origin stories!” The others laughed at Chep’s presumption.

“So, what the heck are we going to do now?” asked Klek. “Shall we head back to the kids?”

“No, not yet,” said Presh. “I’m still thinking about the alien problem. I hope that the rest of you are too.”

“I certainly have been,” said Monblux, sitting on another stone block with Sciug on his lap. “I think that we should release our full potential. My first thought was that we should go on a world tour and shluk with the most important circles in each region. That way, we have a chance of spreading the magic as widely as possible. It may be able to cascade from the central circles into many of the peripheral ones.”

“It’s doable, I suppose,” said Presh, considering the proposal carefully. “Come to think of it, we’ve been living the conventional shluking life, much as our parents and grandparents did. It only goes so far. It’s not very radical. You’re saying that we should go much further, even go global.”

“Let me add my second thought,” continued Monblux. “How powerful do you think that your magic could be? We know that you banished a god and most of his servants in a matter of hours. Is it possible that you could spread your magic to millions of people in one massive shluking exercise?” Presh was taken aback by this unprecedented suggestion. In her early life, she had been conditioned to think small-scale and local. She wasn’t used to considering such ambitious national or international projects. Now, she realised that it was possible. She had felt the greatness of her power when she had wielded it before. She knew how Monblux’s quartet had a way of amplifying her magic. Her government could coordinate a great many meetings when necessary.

“I’ll have to do trials first,” said Presh. “I’m still not sure how successfully I’m spreading the magic. We’re going to need alien test subjects. They’re not always available. It’ll take time.”

“I hope that we have time,” said Klek. “Still, at least we have the core of a plan now. I hope that it works!”

“Before we all walk back, shall we investigate that gap in the sand dunes?” asked Bkeisei. “It intrigues me.” The others didn’t have a better suggestion. They were enjoying the bright sunshine and the beautiful sandy beach. Casually, they strolled toward the gap. As they approached, the beach seemed to slope upwards and more stone blocks could be seen to the left, on the landward side. After eight minutes, they were standing in the gap and looking beyond.

“There must have been a storm not so long ago,” said Bkeisei, examining the area. “The dune that was here was blown out and is now part of the beach. We just walked over the remains. A couple more were destroyed up ahead, as shown by the gaps in the next line of dunes.”

“I keep seeing these stone blocks,” said Klek, pointing at the latest examples. “They’re clearly artificial in shape. I can see a few chisel marks on that one.”

“These were buried under the sand dune until the storm exposed them,” noted Jiplez. “I reckon that they’ve been here for centuries. We may have discovered an ancient settlement.”

“I see a larger block on the far side of the gap,” said Criq. “I wonder what that could be.” They all sauntered over and were intrigued to find that the big block had been carved with a life-sized, woman-shaped indentation.

“Well, what do you know?!” said Klek, scratching his head. “Is this some kind of monument? It’s been skilfully done: very smooth indeed.”

“It’s been buried under the dune for a long time, like the other blocks,” said Jiplez. “It could be a tombstone for a revered woman of an earlier age. It could also be a sign of goddess worship.”

“She’s a small goddess, if that’s what she is,” said Bkeisei, casting his eye over the group. “She’s about the size of Sciug, I estimate. Would you like to compare yourself to this sculpture, Sciug?” She agreed and knelt down next to the finely carved stone. It looked very impressive, a labour of love. The strong wind had removed all traces of sand while the bright sun had dried it completely. Suddenly, she had a mysterious epiphany. She was supposed to put herself into the sculpture. She rose and brushed the sand from her knees. Then she stepped onto the sculpture and knelt in the indented legs. The stone was slightly above body temperature, which was ideal. She lowered herself down so that her breasts fitted into the assigned two hollows. Her forehead rested on a curved stone bar so that she didn’t crush her nose. Her arms extended either side at an angle of thirty degrees to her body.

“It’s a perfect fit!” said Jiplez. “You have a good eye, Bkeisei. How is it, Sciug?”

“It’s hard stone but it’s lovely and warm,” replied Sciug. “I could stay here for a short while. The sun is heating my back nicely.”

“The question still stands,” said Criq. “What’s the purpose of this solar-heated lady niche?” They all stared at the scene for a minute. Monblux, Klek and Jiplez loved looking at their partner’s naked rear side. Instinctively, they had the answer to Criq’s question. Almost simultaneously, they knelt down and started caressing Sciug, who made appreciative noises. Klek beckoned the other quartet over. They understood, knelt down and added another eight hands to the stroking of Sciug. She had never had this much manual stimulation before. She rapidly became aroused. After five minutes of attentive erotic massage, Jiplez reached between her girlfriend’s legs and inserted three fingers, as she had done hundreds of times before. A few minutes of rhythmic rubbing and probing brought Sciug to a shuddering, breathless climax, which was repeated several times as Jiplez continued to do exactly what Sciug liked. When it was finally over, Sciug was utterly overwhelmed with pleasure and lay breathing heavily in her snug-fitting stone capsule.

“We found out the purpose of the sculpture!” said Bkeisei, his skin flushed with excitement. “Yay for us!”

“It’s a shame that we three can’t fit into it,” said Presh to Chep and Jiplez. “I’d like one of those orgasms too!”

“I’m sure we’ll all have them soon enough!” said Jiplez, gazing at the men’s stiffened organs.

“Oh little Bkeisei, you eager old thing!” said Bkeisei, addressing his upright member. “I’ll have to walk around here until you subside.” He got up and wandered further through the gap in the dunes.

“So, here we have evidence that prehistoric people valued their women’s happiness,” said Criq, coming over to hug Presh and Chep. “Isn’t that wonderfully touching?”

“Absolutely, a lot of touching” said Chep. “Now, the next question is do we report this discovery to the archaeologists or do we keep it as our little secret?”

“I say that we should report it,” said Klek, sitting next to Sciug and gently massaging her head noddles. “They can protect it for future generations. Otherwise, it will be found and vandalised by thoughtless youths.” Everyone agreed with him.

“Good news!” said Bkeisei, returning from his brief stroll. “I found another sculpture just like this one, except showing the other side of a woman’s body.”

“Heh, are you ready for another round, Sciug?” asked Monblux.

“Aunh...” said Sciug, having temporarily lost the power of coherent speech.

“Tomorrow, Monblux,” said Jiplez, watching her girlfriend slip gradually into sleep. “She’s spent now.” Sciug began to snore.

“Or maybe the day after tomorrow,” said Jiplez, knowing Sciug well. “I think that we’ll have to carry her back to base.” There was a collective groan from the seven others.

* * * * *

“It was so sad that those guards were killed,” said Terzet that night as Monblux adorned her head noddles. “They say that we won’t get any new guards because it’s pointless and dangerous. The aliens can take over their bodies and make them shoot people.”

“Yes, guns are useless against those creatures,” agreed Monblux. “I only hope that our minds aren’t invaded.”

“We won’t be,” said Terzet confidently. “We have magic. I was starting to get to know some of the guards. Now, they probably won’t come back. It’s a shame. I miss them. At least you’re here. You have skilful, gentle hands.” She closed her eyes for a minute as Monblux wrapped silver string around each noddle several times. When he’d finished, he handed Terzet a mirror. Terzet was impressed at the difference in her appearance. The string glittered in the relatively dim light of the mobile home’s lounge. It was as if there was a metal web all over her head, spun by some kind of enterprising, generous glaphunter. Since they were bound in string, all her noddles stood on end, which made her look a little bigger and taller.

“How are you going to sleep like that?” queried Dee-Lys, Chep’s mother’s girlfriend.

“I could sleep sitting up,” said Terzet, starting to see the problem with her new sparkly style. “I’ve seen you four do it.”

“We’re older,” said Troab, Dee-Lys’s boyfriend. “We have special sleeping powers, of which kids can only dream!” He waved his arms and fingers around in a ‘spooky’ manner and then pretended to sleep sitting against the wall.

“OK, this is only temporary but tonight I am a dance princess!” said Terzet, getting up and bopping around a little in the confined lounge floor space.

“You can also dazzle oncoming traffic,” said Bkeisei. “I’m afraid you’ll have to take it off soon. It’s nearly bedtime.”

“In a minute!” said Terzet, continuing to strut her stuff. Monblux did a little dancing with her but he had to restrict his movements so that he didn’t hit anyone by mistake.

“What did you do to Sciug?” asked Siqurt innocently. “Why did she have to go to bed so early?”

“We didn’t do ... that much,” replied Bkeisei. “It’s the sea air. It makes a lot of people tired. She’d done plenty this week and she needed extra sleep.”

“She was talking about how ‘the old people loved her’,” said Dglef, looking up from her picture book. “What does that mean? Were there pensioners over there in the next bay?”

“We didn’t see any pensioners,” said Monblux. “I’m not really sure what she meant. It might have been a dream that she had.”

“Or you were giving her something that you shouldn’t,” said Shaplo, who was reading a magazine in the corner. “I know that you do it occasionally.”

“No, we told you that that stuff was a specialist fertiliser for houseplants,” said Bkeisei, keen to change the subject. “The driffit at home needs it. Having said that, you kids need your sleep. Bedtime!”

“Do we have to go?” pleaded Siqurt. “I like my colouring-in book.”

“Sorry, it’s time,” said Bkeisei. “You’re lucky that we’ve given you an extra hour tonight.” His partners walked in.

“Exit light,” said Criq, turning off most of the lounge lights.

“Enter night,” said Bkeisei, doing his best to loom over Siqurt and Dglef.

“Take my hand,” said Chep, beckoning to the two little ones.

“We’re off to Never-Never Land!” said Presh, opening the kids’ bedroom door.

“That’s supposed to be a nice rhyme but you managed to make it creepy,” said Terzet, unravelling the silver string on her head.

“It’s hard to take seriously with the famous glowing underpants area, Dad,” said Shaplo.

“There’s nothing I can do, son,” said Bkeisei. “The universe decided to do that to me.” All four kids went to their room. They had prepared beforehand.

“Why do they call it ‘Never-Never Land?” wondered Shaplo. “Is it full of people in debt? Is everything there on hire purchase?”

“I think you’re right!” said Criq. “They are forced to keep working every day to make their payments. Every night, they have to sleep well for the next day’s work. You’ve cracked the code, boy!” Shaplo shrugged and got into bed, along with his three siblings.

“When are we going home?” asked Terzet. “It’s quite crowded in here. The mobile home isn’t designed for sixteen people.”

“Actually, it is,” said Presh. “The manual says that the lounge becomes the fourth bedroom. Chep’s parents’ quartet will sleep there.”

“It’s nice at the seaside but I can’t wait to go back to school and see my friends,” said Terzet.

“I’m sure that we’ll find a way to send you back to school,” said Criq. “We’ll see how the situation unfolds. The enormous robot hasn’t been seen again. I’m guessing that our quartet won’t have to stay here much longer. Some of your grandparents could live with you in Bounds Grounds, if we can’t be there for some reason.” Terzet was satisfied.

“We think that we just discovered a big alien base deep in the ocean,” said Chep. “They’ll have to send ships out to investigate.”

“How could you know that?” queried Shaplo. “Your magic isn’t that good. I still think that you’re on drugs.”

“We met a Dreamim, OK?” said Bkeisei.

“Oh, one of those creatures that...,” said Shaplo with a smile.

“Yes,” said Presh, a little irritated.

“Right up your...?” said Shaplo.

“Correct,” said Criq. “We might introduce you to the Dreamims one day. Now, try to sleep.” The quartet turned off the light and left the room. Together with the other adults, they cleared up whatever hadn’t been cleared already and then went to their own room to make the thin walls creak and the vehicle rock slightly from side to side. Dglef and Siqurt managed to sleep but Shaplo and Terzet were kept awake and cringing for another half hour.

* * * * *

“Brood Leader, I’ve materialised in the wrong place,” says Trooper Byval 9744. “I’m surrounded by artificial objects. It’s fairly dark. It’s an enclosed space but I can see an exit. I see the night sky with the two moons. At least I’m on the right planet.”

“Stay right where you are,” says Brood Leader Dendreneden 768. “Don’t move. We’ll try to get a fix on you. We should be able to beam you out shortly.”

“Yes sir,” says Byval. “I knocked over an object when I arrived. It made some noise, I think. A native might have heard me.”

“You should be fine, Trooper,” says Dendreneden. “You’ve been dressed in the full battlefield outfit of the native military elite. Almost everyone will respect you and leave you alone.”

“We’ll see about that now, sir,” says Byval. “I hear a native approaching down what appears to be a set of wooden steps. I’ve only seen such things in museums before now.”

“Hold your ground,” says Dendreneden. “That’s an order. We’re triangulating your position now. We’re recalibrating our scanners to cope with local dimensional conditions.”

“As far as I can tell from the intelligence briefing, she’s a female,” reports Byval. “If I had to guess, I’d say she was adolescent. She’s seen me. She’s sitting quietly on a step. She seems to be a little frightened.”

“Naturally,” says Dendreneden. “Guider, oscillate the seventeenth treeg.”

“Aye sir,” says the Guider, who’s sitting next to Dendreneden in his temporary command post on this alien world.

“Now she’s coming closer,” says Byval. “She’s trying to communicate verbally. I can’t understand her. There could be a glitch in the translator. Perhaps her accent is unusually strong.”

“Mm hm,” says Dendreneden, watching the retrieval effort on his screen.

“She’s becoming more animated,” says Byval. “She jumped up and down a few times. Now she’s trying to embrace me but she’s too short.”

“Careful with your position,” says Dendreneden.

“She continues to talk in a high-pitched voice,” says Byval. “She’s pacing and hopping about in front of me. I wonder if she thinks that I’m someone else. She might have been expecting a genuine native soldier to appear in this structure. Now she’s running at me. She’s jumped onto me. Her arms are around my neck and her legs are around my waist.”

“You have permission to disengage from her in a courteous manner,” says Dendreneden. Byval uses his strong arms to pull her away from his torso and then put her on a padded object that could be some kind of primitive seat. She seems dismayed.

“Now she’s kneeling down in front of me,” says Byval. “I believe that she’s pleading with me. I’ve returned to my previous location.”

“You’re doing very well in a difficult situation,” says Dendreneden. “Keep it up.”

“She’s standing again,” Byval continues to report. “She’s still talking and now she’s disrobing slowly. I’m seeing more of her ugly alien skin. It seems that all her clothing has fallen to the floor. She’s rubbing her body against my combat outfit. This is awful, sir!”

“Hold on, Trooper!” says Dendreneden. “We’re very close to rescuing you.”

“She’s stopped doing that,” says Byval anxiously. “She’s turned around and dropped down into a four-legged position. She’s presenting her hind quarters to me, sir! Please pull me out of here! She slapped her rear to make her intentions clear. Oh no, two more natives are coming down the steps! They’re older than the first one. I have to conclude that they’re the parents or guardians. They’re shouting at us in alarm. The first native is shouting back at them and scrabbling around for her clothing.”

“Rescuing you now,” says Dendreneden, activating the teleporter. “You’re safe, Trooper. Well done.” Byval finds himself in the lower level of the command post. He’s a little traumatised by his close encounter. He’s prescribed mild sedatives and other medications to help reduce his agitation and shock. Dendreneden is somewhat ashamed that his men have to endure such horrors so that the Ga-Fnie Empire can continue to expand. However, they must all continue to do their duty as best they can. The Emperor Expects!

* * * * *

Activating death field. All life forms within a fourteen kilometre radius are being exterminated by selective disruption of their electromagnetic fields. More will come here later but we will have enough time to install our base. Our operatives move out across the island, which is a hundred and fifty kilometres from the continent known as ‘Ombliek’. We are on the less populated side of the planet, so detection is less likely here. Vegetation is already starting to wither. Leaves are dropping from trees. The fields and settlements are littered with fresh corpses. A few large fires are igniting because of unattended flames. There will be explosions and conflagrations later. Our main construction machines land on the most solid rock mass, near the centre of the island. They tear the biomass away and push it aside. Then, they start slicing through the rock and excavating a shaft. Meanwhile, scout units are checking as much territory as possible to see if there are other dangers.

Scout unit 691 reports that they have found traces of Cybertronian activity. There are scraps of metal and small components lying around forgotten in the dirt. There is a distinctive pattern of radiation and also a very faint signature of Transformer life force. However, as the hours pass, it becomes clear that someone has been here before us and removed the Cybertronians. There was a gateway to other realms here at some point in the last few years. We are very interested, of course. A scientific team arrives to assess the former gateway site. They do so carefully and comprehensively. We don’t want any complications. Our task is already difficult enough with dozens of other races targeting this world. We press on with our work. The shaft is deepening rapidly. Strengthening rods are being driven into the rocky sides. A very thick layer of impermeable resin is being injected to make those sides waterproof.

As the foundations of the base are being assembled underground, the scientific team reports a discovery. Apparently, there is another, hidden gateway not far from the place where the Cybertronians were exiled earlier. A specialist gateway team is summoned. It takes them a few hours to arrive. They collaborate with the scientific team to study this new gateway, which we had somehow failed to detect earlier. We are all concerned that such a well-hidden gateway implies a very advanced understanding of science by the creators. We must be very cautious. Some of us argue that it would be wise to withdraw now to avoid a potential disaster. However, that would defeat the object of this bid to conquer the planet. We decide to continue investigating the gateway while the base is built. It appears that the gateway isn’t too difficult to use. The creators intended it to be utilitarian, not fancy and tricksy. Eventually, we manage to prise it open a little and peek through.

On the far side, we see metal plates on the floor. Some are dull, some are covered with dust but others are still shiny. There are metal walls in the distance. It’s a structure of some kind. It’s about half a kilometre high and nearly a kilometre wide. Around the building there is a ring of metal ground but beyond that ring there is pure blackness. The specialist gateway team speculate that there are other gateways in the blackness, having seen such regions before elsewhere. We are now extremely interested. We believe that we have found a way to Cybertron. That would be a much greater prize than our current target: this ‘planet of the shlukers’ as some have called it. We debate what to do next. Our urge to conquer is very strong indeed. It is stronger than our desire to continue with building the base. We decide to send a scout unit into this Cybertronian zone.

Scout unit 489 ventures inside the gateway. They are glad that they used pressure suits. The air on the other side is very thin and somewhat poisonous. Immediately, this piece of Cybertron seems less desirable, except for robotic operations. The unit reports feeling of being observed, although they cannot spot any life forms. It’s very likely that there are creatures hidden all over the landscape, as well as automated sensors. The unit scans the area very thoroughly but can detect no life. Either the Cybertronians are all at a distance or they’re dead. We wonder if there’s been a disaster on Cybertron. Did someone use a death field against them? Just then, one of the scouts accidentally triggers an alert by stepping on a pressure panel. A ray strikes the scouts and disintegrates them. Larger panels open in the ground and war robots of various types spring forth. They fire weapons at our scientific and gateway teams, who are either incinerated or torn to shreds. Missiles fly out of the gateway and obliterate hundreds of our operatives. Energy beams follow. These are specially tuned beams that can change direction and strike multiple targets, resulting in mass casualties with devastating and gruesome injuries.

It’s mass slaughter. We reckon that this isn’t a full armed assault but rather an automated defensive response. As our people are scythed down, our vehicles wrecked and our structures collapsed, we order a general retreat to our own gateway. The ruins of our outpost are abandoned. Very few escape. We are no match for Cybertronian firepower. We survivors, who were lucky enough to be within reach of the gateway, report back to our superiors. We recommend that no one should attempt further invasions of the target planet or Cybertron. Our people at home are angry. Their lust for conquest is intense. When they are thwarted, they seek scapegoats. We are imprisoned to await execution. Others who helped to plan the invasion are rounded up and jailed with us. Some of us aren’t going to accept this unjustified oppression. We use our intimate knowledge of the prison system and structure to orchestrate a break-out. We may be fugitives in our own land now but we have some freedom and we will try to take action against the cruel regime.

* * * * *

“Oh Furk, it’s grabbed my boob!” said Chep as she struggled to choke the chitinous attacker. “It has extra arms! Presh, get it off me!” Presh tried to prise the two smaller arms away from her girlfriend but they were quite strong and had sharp claws. Also, the angle was too awkward. Chep yelled in pain but still tried to force a portion of mystery meat into the creature’s throat. Bkeisei was holding its larger arms, Presh was lying across its body and Criq was sitting on its legs. No one else on the stratocruiser could help because the creature was dimensionally unstable. Only Presh’s quartet could touch it and restrain it. The creature let the meat enter its mouth but then turned its head to the side and spat the chunk across the cabin. Chep gave up on the choking attempt and grabbed the creature’s claw. She prised open the fingers and released herself. The creature tried to grab her with the other claw but Chep seized that as well. She didn’t know what to do next.

“Sit on his face!” said Presh. “That could suffocate him!”

“I don’t really want to do that,” said Chep. “He bites!”

“You’re wearing some tough trousers,” said Presh. “That should protect you.” There wasn’t much option. They had to subdue this violent off-world attacker themselves. They had tried tying him up but he had simply ‘phased’ through the ropes. Chep did as Presh suggested. The creature tried to bite her but the trousers held and she exerted just enough downward force to keep his mouth covered and harmless. There were a few minutes of desperate struggle. The quartet prevented the creature from moving more than ten centimetres in any direction. Chep found the wriggling to be not unpleasant. After a while, the creature appeared to succumb to suffocation and its struggle slowed. Within five minutes, it lay still. The quartet kept hold of it for a few minutes more, in case it was faking unconsciousness or death.

“Is it really male?” asked Criq. “The anatomy is unfamiliar. Everything is covered in shell-type material.”

“Who knows?” said Bkeisei. “We just assume that it is because males are more aggressive on our world.”

“Not always!” said Presh. “Generally, I hate killing but this creature is ... I don’t know ... asking for it!”

“I’m so sorry that we couldn’t help,” said one of the stewards. “This is such a dangerous time! Thank Furk that you managed to contain this one.”

“We need to banish it,” said Criq. “If you’d do the honours, Presh?”

“Why don’t you give it a try?” asked Presh. “You may have the ability now.” Criq attempted to use the magic that Presh had passed on to him but nothing happened. Presh also tried but with the same result.

“Isn’t that a bad idea?” asked a stewardess. “If you create a portal here, won’t it depressurise the cabin?”

“I don’t know; I never tried it on a stratocruiser before,” said Presh. “You might have a point. Perhaps it’s just as well that we failed.”

“So what do we do with the shellfish kid, then?” asked Bkeisei. “Only we can hold him.” The steward tried to poke the creature with his foot but it went right through the body.

“We’ll have to dismember the thing with our bare hands,” said Criq. “Let’s get cracking!”

“Hah!” said Chep, crouching down to take hold of the creature’s smaller hands. Before she could reach them, the creature suddenly sank through the floor and into the cargo hold. The floor was still intact since the creature had ‘phased’ through.

“We have to check the cargo hold cameras,” said Criq, thinking quickly. “We can’t let that thing run loose below our feet.” The steward and stewardess took the quartet to the view screens and patched into the cargo hold video feeds. They found no sign of the creature. Next, they checked the exterior cameras and found images of what appeared to be the creature falling out of the stratocruiser.

“Are we over the ocean?” asked Bkeisei.

“Yes, I don’t think that the creature would have survived the impact,” said the steward. “It probably broke apart when it hit the water. Alternatively, it passed clean through the water and even the rock below. It might be burning in magma by now.”

“The important thing is it’s not threatening us anymore,” said Chep. “How many more of these assassination attempts are going to happen? It’s making us into nervous wrecks!”

“We could have been overrun by now but we haven’t been,” said Criq. “These creatures must find it difficult to reach us but they appear to be gaining strength.”

“We’ll have to keep trying to improve the situation,” said Presh. “We’re going to try passing on our magic to the people of the Brosterian continent today. We have other key meetings lined up for this week too.”

“I never shluked any Brosterians before,” said Bkeisei. “It should be fun.” The others hoped that he was right. The stratocruiser rushed on and arrived in Brosteria about ten minutes later. This was an exclusive, privileged flight, so Presh’s quartet didn’t have to go through any formalities at the airport. They disembarked from the stratocruiser, got into a waiting car and were taken quickly to a large hotel in the nearby city of Gesa Mijsya. There was some heavy traffic not far from the hotel but the chauffeur knew an alternative route to avoid the snarl-up. The quartet was greeted in the lobby with handshakes, kisses and the local ‘parallel forearms’ gesture by the people who were deemed to be at the centre of shluking activity in the city.

“Show me how you do that again, Mbaza,” said Bkeisei. “I put my forearm upright, you do the same...”

“We touch forearms on the inside surfaces and put our palms together,” said the man Mbaza. “It’s like a handshake only we are closer together.”

“It’s lovely to meet you all here today,” said Presh warmly. “It’s a pity that we can’t stay too long. Is this your regular venue for shluking? It seems to be ideal.”

“This is our main venue,” said the woman Haluse, who was fairly tall and slender. “I loved it the moment that I saw it. I hope that you enjoy yourselves here as much as we do.”

“I must warn you of the dangers that we face at present,” said Criq. “We are being attacked or threatened on a regular basis by people from other worlds. They appear and disappear at will. The only thing that can stop them is Presh’s magic, which we are trying to spread to people like you.”

“We were attacked less than an hour ago, on board the stratocruiser over the ocean,” said Chep. “It was a painful experience. We were forced to kill the creature that attacked us. Afterwards, it fell into the ocean.”

“I’m very sorry to hear about the attack!” said the man Vonjiv. “I hope that those creatures stay away while we’re here!”

“Somehow I doubt it,” said Presh, sensing more danger approaching.

“Do you need to eat or drink?” asked the woman Liagente. “The restaurant has an excellent selection.” She pointed to her left.

“Not yet,” said Presh, checking with her partners. “We had refreshments during the journey. Our government has been most generous to us.”

“They’ve paid us too!” said Mbaza. “Shall we proceed straight to the tub? I’ve been looking forward to this session. You’re such famous people!” He smiled broadly at Presh’s quartet and led them to the tub room, which was behind him and on the right. As they walked along, they passed a gymnasium where some athletic people were exercising. It was a parade of strong, beautiful bodies but they had urgent business in the tub, so they couldn’t stop to gawk.

“I’m seeing another intruder slowly materialising,” said Presh. “Let’s hurry!”

“I see nothing,” said Vonjiv, frowning as they entered the tub room. “You’ll have to open my eyes.” They locked the door and whipped off their clothes. The local quartet was only wearing light dresses and tunics that could be untied and shed in seconds. Presh’s quartet had invested in some clothes like blouses and shirts that had sticky loop fasteners and could be removed almost as quickly. The rest of their clothes took a few minutes to unfasten and kick off.

“You have a few battle scars,” said Liagente, stepping into the foam. “That last creature left an unfortunate set of bruises on you, Chep. The medicated oils in this tub should help.”

“It only aches a little,” said Chep, examining her breast. “The attacker didn’t break the skin.”

“I should still put some cream on it,” said Bkeisei, quickly reaching into his knapsack and taking out a tube of unguent. “We can’t let infections stop us.” He squeezed out some cream and applied it liberally to Chep’s breasts and surrounding skin.

“Thanks!” said Chep, holding her arms up so that he could reach her sides. Bkeisei recapped the tube and tossed it back into the knapsack. Then they strode into the tub together. The local quartet watched intently. They didn’t see many foreigners in the tub room. Meanwhile, Presh and Criq were looking at them. Hardly any Brosterians lived in places like Bounds Grounds. The local quartet had natural stripes on their skin, which were mid-brown and mid-green in colour. Originally, this had evolved as a form of camouflage.

“Ready?” asked Presh as everyone settled into their seats. The intruder was steadily gaining substance in the corner of the room. The eight people formed a shluk circle and began sending signals, probing and assessing each other.

“I see it!” said Mbaza, glimpsing the intruder. “You weren’t joking! Could you please give us the strength to fight that thing?!” He was startled, which was disrupting the harmony of the circle.

“Here goes,” said Presh. She had learnt enough to gauge how much power to circulate. These locals were tough and experienced. They could handle a strong charge. She concentrated and did all she could to imbue the whole circle with magic. Heads swam. Dizziness reigned. Spirits explored many realms. A range of profound sensations and visions ensued. Chep, Bkeisei and Criq had done this before a few times but the magic still had a powerful impact on their consciousness. Mbaza and his quartet felt that they were taking the next step in evolution. For the first time, they saw the web of shluk circles stretched out across the world. They also saw the many alien entities clustered around that web. They were able to trace their shluk connections much further than before, into other countries, other continents and even other times. They saw some people from long before they were born and long after they would die. They saw how they could draw strength from all this. Presh had opened wide doors in their minds. Everyone slept for a few minutes. Presh awoke to see Vonjiv and Mbaza struggling with the intruder in the corner of the room. She splashed water in the faces of her shluk-mates to wake them up and then she walked over to the corner.

“I’m going to kill this thing!” said Mbaza, lying across its chest and holding its arms. “It’s strong but I’ve found a vulnerable spot. I’m going to put my arm inside and pull out its organs!”

“There may be a better way,” said Presh, putting her hand on his shoulder. “We could create a portal and let this creature fall through. It would never escape. I’ve done it many times before. I haven’t had much luck with this type of alien, though. Perhaps you can do better.”

“If you let us restrain the alien, you could shluk in a standing foursome and maximise your power,” said Criq. “This way, you could remove many aliens at the same time with no physical risk.”

“This exercise is all about experimentation,” said Mbaza. “You’re right; we can’t fight millions of invaders in single combat. We have to use an intelligent strategy.” He allowed Presh’s quartet to lie on the alien and hold it down. There was just enough room on the floor for his quartet to stand above the alien and form a basic shluk circle. Together, they focused their new power and tried to emulate Presh. They had seen her on video many times, banishing thousands of aliens and then talking about her discoveries and techniques. Now, they felt that they were being assisted by many friends, relatives and even ancestors. They searched through their expanded horizons and came across a place that seemed best suited for disposing of this alien intruder. After seven minutes of tense grappling on the floor, Presh’s quartet felt the alien fading away. Finally, they could let go and the room was safe again.

“You’d better show me how you did that!” said Presh, getting up and grinning as she embraced Mbaza gratefully. His broad, muscular chest felt good after the hard, angular shell of the alien.

“Join our circle,” said Haluse as she and Mbaza separated. Presh, Haluse and Mbaza plugged into each other so that, with Vonjiv and Liagente, they formed a temporary quintet. The locals demonstrated what they had just done to the alien. It was obscure but relatively simple, once one had the correct knowledge. After a few minutes, they broke up their circle.

“That’s fantastic!” said Presh, her eyes glowing bright yellow and a few sparks playing across her skin. “You’ve helped me to fill a gap in my knowledge! I should have searched the dimensions more systematically.” She hugged Haluse in delight. Haluse was taken aback. She’d never met someone with such a supernatural appearance. After a moment, Presh broke off the hug.

“When we’re gone, you must keep practising,” she said, sitting on a tall stool nearby. “In time, you may become as accomplished as me. Watch!”

“Oh, I see another alien coming through,” said Bkeisei. “It’s a different species this time.” Presh waited until everyone could see this second alien and then opened a portal to send it away.

“Pass on the magic!” implored Presh. “Give it to everyone you can. Tell them all to pass it on. The fate of the world depends on it! At present, the aliens are targeting me but soon they will target you too, so be ready.”

“We will!” said Liagente, coming forward to embrace Presh. “Thank Furk! Perhaps now our children will be unharmed by these things.”

“We can only hope,” said Presh as Liagente stepped aside and Vonjiv came in for a hug. With the drama over, the eight people got back into the tub for another casual shluking session so that they could relax and share more knowledge. All too soon, though, it was time for Presh’s quartet to move on. They left the tub, dried themselves, got dressed and departed the hotel, heading back to the airport in their government car. As they went, they looked back at the hotel and could see portals opening up in a few places. Mbaza’s quartet was already at work, banishing the nearest alien intruders. Presh and the others helped out by removing a few more aliens on the streets where they were being driven. This plan might just work! Their next stop was the sub-continent of Lepeta, where dozens of armed aliens had already taken over one village in the eastern region. All being well, that incursion would soon be scraped away into a distant dimensional dustbin!

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Wed Nov 01, 2017 2:58 pm

The stink of abal ticu was everywhere. Sometimes Peraut Hembalstang thought that his lunglets were saturated and that he wouldn’t be able to breathe anymore. At those times, he felt obliged to stop and pulse his chest fully so that he could go on without losing his reason. In his opinion, this was a very poor location for the bridge-head. He cursed his leaders for choosing it. Yes, it was isolated and rural but the unchecked organic gases were excessive and might even cause the invasion to fail. Already his troops had detected two other intelligent races manifesting on the same continent. Progress in reinforcing this bridge head was falling behind schedule. Some new arrivals were proving to be weak. After only a few hours, they sickened in the alien atmosphere and had to return home. The rest were demoralised by the breathing difficulties. Many troopers of the first wave were having to retreat as well. Their cardiovascular systems had been compromised. Peraut wondered how long he would last. It was no good using respirators, which could only last a limited time. A strong invasion force had to adapt to local conditions. It had been discovered that troops from the Ejiltrinto region were best suited to this world. More of them were being sought urgently. It was estimated that at least a hundred thousand troops would be needed to eradicate the other two invasion forces. Peraut wasn’t too hopeful about their chances. Everything was going too slowly. He had to work out from where this choking smell came. He drew his weapon and forced the two native captives outside with him.

“Where is the abal ticu?” he demanded. “Point it out. Is it on the ground, in the trees, in the wind, on the crops? Maybe use your shluks to find it.”

“We told you that we don’t know,” said the native woman Eeraik. “We’ve never seen this abal ticu, let alone smelt it. Can’t you get a sample from your planet so that we can figure it out? Our shluks are no good for this, by the way.”

“The High Command has refused to cooperate,” said Peraut. “They think that we’re exaggerating about the state of your world. They won’t send any lumps of abal ticu through the mail. It’s considered a noxious substance.”

“They should be here to smell this place for themselves,” said the native man Teryackay. “Can’t you ask a delegation to come through for an inspection?”

“I requested it but they won’t come for another five days,” sighed Peraut. “Look, pick up some things around here and let me sniff them. I’m not crouching down like an animal. That’s for prisoners to do.” Reluctantly and awkwardly, the elderly couple Teryackay and Eeraik stooped down and picked up a few different objects, which they then presented to Peraut. Dutifully, he sniffed each one. They all smelt bad but a piece of earth was the worst. He asked for more pieces of earth and sniffed several that were gathered. The pieces were put on a table, ranked in order of abal ticu strength. Using a small knife, Peraut cut each piece into smaller fragments. It was difficult to suppress the urge to vomit. The smelliest pieces seemed to have more a certain kind of rotting leaf.

“What’s this?” asked Peraut, pointing out the decomposing flakes of leaf. The two natives looked closely and recognised some of their old crops.

“That’s last year’s dreung vine,” said Eeraik. “When the crop’s harvested, we plough the leaves back into the soil. They’re slow to rot but they release nutrients steadily.”

“And how much of this is around here?” asked Peraut, his eyes watering.

“The entire west field is full of it,” said Eeraik, glancing at her partner for confirmation. “The north field has nearly as much. The south and east fields have less but still substantial amounts. Essentially, the whole farm is full of old dreung vine, almost as far as the eye can see.”

“Tsk, your farms are too big!” said Peraut, shaking his head. “Also, it’s unnatural to let machines do the work when you could have large extended families around to do it. Machines won’t look after you like families can.” The native couple said nothing. Peraut was quietly furious that the locals had unwittingly made their land so disgusting for his kind. In a way, it made him look like a fool for coming here without making the proper checks.

“What about the surrounding farms?” he asked, breathing deeply. “Do they have dreung vine too?”

“Oh yes,” said Teryackay. “This is our regional speciality. Most of us devote at least eighty percent of our land to the vine. The produce is delicious. You should try it.”

“No thank you!” said Peraut emphatically. “Instead, I’m going to perform a little experiment.” He led his captives to a weapons pod, where he pulled out a device with a gun-like section on top and a long, narrow cylinder underneath. He rested the bottom of the cylinder on the ground while the ‘gun’ rested on top of the cylinder. He pulled the trigger and a large flame burst forth.

“No!” yelled Teryackay. “You’ll set fire to the whole farm! It’s tinder dry!”

“I couldn’t care less!” said Peraut. He continued setting fire to the mulch in the top soil. It was fortunate that there had been so little rainfall lately. The flames caught hold and started to spread beyond the reach of the flamethrower. Meanwhile, Eeraik shuffled quietly over to a small control unit attached to a cable-hose bundle. Teryackay watched her anxiously. Gingerly, she knelt down and pressed a few buttons on the unit. Some sprinklers that were spread across the field started to activate, one by one. Peraut saw this sabotage and then span around to see Eeraik standing up again. As the sprinklers put out the fire and made the ground too wet to burn for quite a while, Peraut took his club and rained down blows on the natives. He broke some of their fragile bones, bruised their skin extensively and knocked them both unconscious. When he looked up again, breathing heavily with the exertion of violence, he saw the smouldering ground around him and it smelt slightly better. He reckoned that he was on the right lines. The dreung vine was the immediate enemy. It had to be destroyed as far as possible.

As he kept watching, he spotted movement in a patch of woodland to his right. A sprinkler was soaking the wood, which was causing some creatures to stir and walk forward. Peraut looked closer and saw some little life forms with eight legs each, which were arranged in two lines of four. They didn’t seem to be animals. What else could they be? A horrible thought crossed his mind. Were these walking plants? Were they like the dreaded Dagalfirs of ancient times? On his second close look, Peraut became more convinced that these were indeed Dagalfirs. He had an instinctive fear of those lethal plants: one might call it an ancestral phobia. He knew that his flamethrower would be useless against them, especially when they were pouring out of the wood in their thousands. Legend had it that Dagalfirs were flameproof but could carry flames to their quarries. Peraut backed away and began to order a full evacuation of the invasion force. He believed that none of his troops could stand against the massed hordes of Dagalfirs, even with their advanced weapons. It was much better to avoid the swarm of poisonous botanical murderers. Peraut’s people would abandon this unhealthy world and leave the natives to the tender mercies of the killer walking plants. There were far more desirable planets to conquer in this galaxy.

The smoke from Peraut’s fire was noticed and reported by vigilant neighbours. Everyone was on alert against alien activity in their areas. When native government forces came to check on the site, they were relieved to find that this particular invasion had packed up and left. As they tried to save the lives of the injured Eeraik and Teryackay, they noticed that there were large numbers of walking smalkuts stumbling about in the sodden, rutted, ash-strewn fields. They would never realise how important those smalkuts had been in foiling this invasion. However, they did appreciate the tastiness of those walking vegetables when eating some of them for dinner that night.

* * * * *

“This house is ours now,” said Yz as he levelled his gun at Gvainal, one of the occupants. “Do you understand?”

“Er, yes,” said Gvainal, raising his hands. “You’re speaking my language.”

“Good, the translator works,” said Yz, stepping forward and forcing Gvainal back against the kitchen wall. “We have defeated your guardian and now we claim this building as our first little base.”

“L-lovely to meet you,” said Gvainal, quaking in his slippers. “We heard that off-worlders were coming but not exactly which ones.”

“You don’t need to know from whence we came,” said Yz. “You don’t need to know much at all. We’re taking over. Soon, you’ll be dead.”

“We’re peaceful and helpful people,” said Gvainal. “We can provide you with goods and services with which to begin your settlement here. We mean you no harm. Search me to see that I’m unarmed.”

“I’ve already scanned you,” said Yz. “The only significant weapons were with your guardian.” He dropped a few unfamiliar firearms onto the table. They looked and felt very alien.

“I don’t know anything about this guardian or those weapons,” said Gvainal.

“Really? You don’t know what’s under your own house?” queried Yz, lowering his gun but keeping it ready. “I suppose that’s slightly possible. He was well hidden. He was also very weak. We removed his life force emitter and crushed it.”

“I thought that I heard a noise,” said Gvainal. “Well, that’s one problem solved. Tell me, do you like bathing, sir? I was just about to start a tub session.” Yz was silent for a moment. The invitation had surprised him.

“I’ll try it,” he said. “One reason why we came here was because you have so many tubs on your world. We also appreciate a good soak. Our skins need to be softened a little now and then.” He tapped his arm against his leg.

“That’s your skin?” asked Gvainal. “I thought that you were wearing armour.”

“No, we don’t need to wear anything except bags and utility belts,” said Yz. “Our skin is strong.”

“Ours is weaker,” said Gvainal, taking off his robe to demonstrate. “Feel that.” He held out an arm and Yz pinched it between finger and thumb.

“Your world will fall so easily,” said Yz with a smirk as he withdrew his hand. “Show me your tub.” Gvainal draped his robe over a chair and led Yz into the basement. In the tub room, he found his partners Hunvor, Debjike and Celai being held at gunpoint by three other aliens of the same species.

“Comrades, I wish to try this tub,” said Yz to his friends. “Join me. Let us evaluate it together.”

“What of the natives?” asked Gcou.

“There’s room for all,” said Yz. “We can keep them in our sights while we enjoy the water.”

“Worry not, soft-skins!” said Amblan with an ugly grin. “Our weapons are fully waterproof!”

“Shall we add soap?” asked Debjike. “We normally use it on our world.”

“I’ll test this soap,” said Xorin, stepping forward. “I know that it’s not poison but it might be an irritant.” He picked up the container and tasted the contents. The local quartet wanted to advise against it but kept their mouths shut.

“It seems fine to me,” said Xorin. “There’s an exotic flavour.” He threw a generous handful into the tub. Hunvor activated the bubble jets and the foam began to form. It rose higher than usual because of the increased quantity of soap. The locals took their normal seats and the invaders occupied the other four.

“Yes, this is excellent,” said Yz, settling down. “The water’s a little warm for us but it’s fully adjustable, I’m sure. It’s just a shame that the pool isn’t deeper.”

“Try next door,” said Hunvor. “They have a higher-sided tub.” Yz nodded.

“So, is this only a place to get clean?” asked Amblan. “It seems a little too elaborate for that.”

“This is our place of shluking,” said Celai. “It’s my favourite part of the house.”

“Explain,” said Xorin, his mouth foaming slightly. Celai stood up and indicated her shluks.

“We put each others’ hands in these and we communicate on many levels,” she said. “You might call it ‘enhanced chatting’ or ‘synchronised dreaming’. It’s very important in maintaining our good mood and peacefulness.”

“Intriguing,” said Gcou. “I don’t think that it would be suitable for our people, though.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” said Yz. “I’ve always been a fan of connecting bodies.”

“What do you mean by that?” asked Gcou. “Soldiers don’t connect bodies. It reduces operational effectiveness.”

“Well, maybe I’m not a soldier,” said Yz. “I might be something else altogether.” Under the water, he extended tendrils from his midsection and connected them to the belly plugs of Amblan, Gcou and Xorin.

“You’re a female!” Xorin realised. “You’re not supposed to be here...” He lost consciousness, as did the others.

“This is my little mutiny,” explained Yz, turning her head toward Gvainal. “I’m taking these three men to be my sperm supply and larder. I’m going to start a family.”

“What about us?” asked Gvainal.

“If I were you, I’d get out of the tub,” said Yz. “It’s going to get messy in here. I have to dismantle these men and remove the parts that I don’t want. You sit on that bench for now. You can run errands for me shortly.” The four locals climbed out of the tub and sat down as ordered. They were shocked about what was occurring in their tub, their little sanctuary from the world. Yz used her tendrils to suck fluids out of the soldiers. As she did so, she thought about the situation.

“So, you people shluk here,” she said. “There are four of you but there are eight seats. Are there others or do your arms stretch out a long way?”

“We shluk with many other people,” said Debjike. “We’re expecting another quartet. They should be arriving right about now.”

“Oh, more people to hold hostage,” said Yz. “Wait, what’s happening? I’m fading, I’m falling...” The four invaders tumbled into a portal, along with a few hundred litres of warm, soapy water. They would never return. At that moment, the other quartet entered the tub room.

“Oh Klek, thank you!” said Debjike, rushing over to embrace the first man down the stairs. “You got rid of those things! You saved our lives!”

“This might not be over, I’m afraid,” said Klek. “More aliens are appearing all over town.”

* * * * *

“Things just got real here, Mum,” said Shaplo on the videophone. “Our school was attacked by an army.” Presh was absolutely terrified.

“Are you all OK?!” she asked, fearing the worst.

“We’re fine so far,” replied Shaplo. “We banished them and now we’re on the stide buggy, cruising around town and banishing more. Dglef’s having fun.” He turned the camera to show his little sister, who was standing in front of him and wielding her power with glee.

“How did you get rid of a whole army?” demanded Presh. “That’s not possible with only the two of you. They’d shoot you first.”

“Well, the teachers helped,” said Shaplo, turning the camera back to himself. “Then there were the janitors, the secretaries and a few visitors, plus some people passing by on the street outside...”

“And half the kids!” said Terzet, standing next to Shaplo. “It was such a blast! The aliens didn’t know what hit them! They made such a mistake coming here!”

“Fine, you’re all safe but that still doesn’t mean that I like underage shluking,” said Presh. “Oh, damn it! This situation is making my old attitudes look ridiculous. Anyway, whatever happens we’ll have to come home and protect you.”

“I think that we can handle this, Mum,” said Shaplo. “There’s been so much magical shluking that there are thousands of portal-makers here. Aren’t you needed more in Tur Vanagle?”

“We’re currently in Genjelia,” said Presh. “It’s freezing down here. At least the shluk houses are hot.” Presh laid the ‘phone on a table and held her head in her hands. She felt utterly torn. On the one hand, she was working as fast as she could to spread her magic across every continent. On the other hand, her family and homeland were being threatened by unlimited numbers of alien invaders.

“I don’t know what to do!” she said to the whole family.

“No one does, really,” said Criq, putting his hand on her shoulder. “There’s no knowing how many attackers we’re facing, or anything else about them. At least we can dispatch them all, so far.”

“How far along are you with the intercontinental project?” asked Terzet. “Have you hit all the main targets? You seemed optimistic yesterday.” Presh looked at her partners. They were fairly tired.

“We’ve reached every continent,” said Presh, looking back at the ‘phone. “We were supposed to do some supplementary sessions tomorrow around Genjelia. There are a lot of crazy people living here in the cold.”

“I hate for us to be tormented like this!” said Chep. “We have to go home. It’s a global emergency, for Furk’s sake! Let the Genjelians spread the magic from their capital. They’re efficient people! Our kids need us more now.”

“You’re right,” said Presh. “We’re coming, all of you. We’ll look out for each other. See you in a few hours!”

“We love you, sweeties!” said Chep to the kids.

“Are all our parents OK?” asked Bkeisei.

“As far as I know,” replied Shaplo. “I haven’t heard from all of them recently. You should call them if you’re worried.”

“Alright, we will,” said Bkeisei as Presh ended the call. The quartet said their goodbyes hurriedly and left the hall where they had just shluked four people with very pale skin. They jumped into an autocab and headed back to the airport. There were no aliens to remove along the way. Clearly, the off-worlders had the good sense not to invade the southern polar region.

“I’m too tired even to sleep,” complained Criq, sitting in his seat on the swift stratocruiser. “One thing still bothers me: why did we have to cover both East and West Amho Rikar? The two are so close together and they’re connected by seventeen bridges.”

“It was a matter of diplomacy,” said Bkeisei. “If we missed one out, the people there would have accused us of favouritism. They might even have invaded their neighbours. It’s happened before. They’re a weird bunch.” Criq rolled his eyes and then looked out of the window. The stratocruiser raced across the ocean, taking them all back to warmer climes and probably war with the dregs of the galaxy. No one was looking forward to it but family had to be preserved.

* * * * *

“Oh Furk, the door’s been kicked in!” said Vedsnef, worried that attackers were in the house in front of them. “We should call the police or someone. I don’t want to go in there. We should wait down the street and see what the authorities can do.”

“The police are swamped,” said Crendo. “We’re on our own. Look, we’ve come this far. We owe it to Rosogeny, to try to find some alien secret agents and send them packing.”

“We can do it from here,” said Yamor. “Come on, let’s use the magic. If we shluk, we’ll have more chance of success.” The quartet climbed out of the car, formed a circle, moistened their hands and shluked standing up. This was a quick session that was only a means to an end. They searched for alien influences. They found one wounded individual in a garden nearby and sent her away. Apparently, there were none in the house itself. The quartet separated hands from shluks and gingerly entered the building. There was evidence of neglect. There were dirty streaks on the walls. Mould and insects were common. In the parlour, there was an organic alien corpse that was badly decomposed. At the far end of the L-shaped hall, they found another two alien corpses. Five more were lying on the floor of the lounge. Sitting next to those five were eight people sitting motionless in armchairs. They appeared well-fed and healthy but a little mould was growing on their skin and clothes. As the quartet entered the lounge, the eight people turned their heads in unison to look at them. Their mechanical actions and unblinking stares were incredibly creepy.

“S-screw this!” said Vedsnef with a quavering voice. She backed out of the room and raced out of the house. The eight people had completely unnerved her.

“Sorry!” said Crendo to the eight strangers. “We’ve been through a lot of trauma lately!” With that, he dashed out to fetch Vedsnef. Yamor and Bilija were left staring at the unnatural-looking eight.

“Erm, we just have to fetch Vedsnef,” said Yamor. “We’ll be back soon, I hope. We want to talk with you.” He grabbed Bilija and took her outside with him.

“Why didn’t we detect them?!” said Vedsnef anxiously as she stood panting a few hundred metres down the street.

“I don’t know,” said Crendo, breathing heavily as he stood next to her. “They must be our species.”

“No way!” said Vedsnef as she watched Yamor and Bilija running towards them. “I told you at the start to get help but you twisted our arms and made us come along. Now we’re in trouble!” Crendo was at a loss. His other two partners arrived.

“Are you coming back in?” wheezed Yamor.

“Certainly not!” said Vedsnef.

“That’s OK, we’ve come to you,” said one of the eight people from the house. “What did you want to ask?” Crendo and his partners were shocked to see that the strangers had suddenly appeared next to them. The eight weren’t out of breath. Their clothes were hardly ruffled. They stood motionless in a line, like mannequins.

“What the hell are you?!” demanded Bilija.

“We’re just ordinary people living our lives here in Bluegrove Magna,” replied the same stranger. “Is there anything else?” Crendo looked at all of them. One of the women was familiar, from his vision.

“Denae, I’ve found you!” he said, moving boldly toward her. “I saw you in a dream and we’ve travelled a long way to see you.”

“Why?” asked Denae.

“Well, for one thing I’d like to try this!” said Crendo. He seized her head and twisted it. As he had seen in his vision, it was detachable. The others didn’t intervene at all.

“AHA!” said Crendo, showing his partners the head.

“Excuse me but I prefer to be in one piece!” said the head as the body reached around Crendo very quickly and snatched the head back. Within a few seconds, the head was back on the body as before. Vedsnef fainted: Yamor caught her before she fell. Bilija rushed to her side.

“Lay her down on the verge,” Bilija said to Yamor, keeping her eyes fixed on the eight, who were clearly robots.

“I just proved that you’re not ordinary,” said Crendo. “Explain yourselves!”

“We’re ordinary where we come from,” said Denae. “We’re so ordinary that we blend into the background there.”

“Well, you’re not managing it here!” said Bilija. “You’re not even properly alive! You’re undead, aren’t you?!”

“We’re not sure what we are anymore,” said Denae. “The last few years have been challenging in an existential way.”

“Oh no, the angst of the undead!” said Crendo, oddly amused. “There’s another thing I wanted to know. Why did one of your comrades kill our daughter? There was an explosion in her college back in our country. An alien disguised as a small silver gun was implicated.”

“That shouldn’t have happened,” said one of the men. “That was a serious error, caused by a breakdown of systems.”

“And what caused the breakdown?” asked Yamor, watching Vedsnef.

“Firstly, our father was sent far away by your people, that Presh and her son,” said the man. “Secondly, other races are trying to control us. We ourselves are currently under siege from those other races. They’ve nearly broken our codes.”

“What happens when your codes are broken?” asked Bilija.

“Then we advise that you leave here quickly,” said the man. “There’s no way of knowing what might happen when others take control of us.”

“Do you at least have names?” asked Yamor. In response, the robots produced name badges from their pockets and put them on their chests. The men were called Winquo, Gabar, Prond and Tyvil while the women were Snaif, Devda, Denae and Maish.

“Winquo, you and your friends are clearly very advanced machines,” said Crendo. “Is it possible that you could bring our daughter back? Do you have the technology?” Bilija was astounded by his proposal.

“We could rebuild her body,” replied Winquo. “She would be fairly similar to the woman you remember. However, we can give no guarantees that her spirit would return. Therefore, my answer has to be ‘probably not’.” As he spoke, the eight were considering what to do with Crendo’s quartet. They decided to control their minds for the time being, to prevent these natives from summoning the authorities. However, it would soon be time for the eight Cybertronians to change their identities again and move to a new country. Also, they would have to shut themselves down for a while, to prevent other races from hijacking their bodies. When they did that, their mind control of various locals would cease.

“So near and yet so far,” said Crendo, his eyes downcast. “Thank you for...” He looked back at the eight but they’d disappeared again.

“Where’d they go?” asked Crendo.

“Who?” asked Bilija. She, Crendo and Yamor all felt strange. It was as if someone had removed a few minutes from their lives and had cut away many small memories from their minds. They had no way of verifying that, though. Perhaps they were simply emerging from daydreams?

“Why are we here?” wondered Yamor.

“I’m guessing that we got out of the car to stretch our legs and have some fresh air,” said Bilija. “Look, Vedsnef’s taking a nap as well.”

“It’s a funny place for a nap,” said Yamor. “Why did we stop in this town anyway? It’s not special.”

“Neither were the previous six towns that we visited,” said Crendo. “You know, I don’t think that we’ll ever find Denae. We’ve tried our best but all the avenues led nowhere. We should go home now. There’s a global invasion crisis. We should try to protect our own country.”

“Agreed,” said Yamor. “It’s a shame that this turned out to be a waste of time.” He picked up Vedsnef and walked slowly to the car.

“I have this feeling that we’re still supposed to do something around here,” said Bilija, following Yamor. “I can’t remember what it is, though. I’ll probably remember later, when we’re far away.”

“We don’t have to rush home right this minute,” said Crendo, walking behind Bilija. “We could see some sights for a few hours. That might jog your memory.” He looked around the suburban street. One of the nondescript houses had a lovely, shiny new door. There was a pile of rubbish in sacks outside, awaiting collection. Apparently, it was ordinary renovation work, nothing else.

Why was he still staring at it? He was starting to doubt his own thoughts and perceptions. Damn the aliens! They’d left a daughter-shaped hole in his life.

* * * * *

A few weeks later, the situation seemed to calm down. Dozens of different alien species had tried to invade but all had been repelled. There had been some fire fights and mass casualty incidents but mostly the victories had been achieved through magical shluking. Sterock, the president of Presh’s home nation, sat in his office and waited for news of any further incursions. So far today, none had come. He was glad because he felt burnt out. He had had little sleep. He was surrounded by a rotating guard of magic wielders. Even that wasn’t always enough to protect him. Consequently, he had a few guns on his desk. Two of the guns were of alien origin. One worked by causing unconsciousness (the ‘sleep ray’) while the other made big holes in everything (the ‘blaster’). This latter gun was responsible for the four holes in his walls. The dead aliens had been cleared away but a few blood stains remained in the carpet. There hadn’t been the time or opportunity to arrange carpet cleaning or rebuilding of walls. Time ticked by: Sterock checked the network for updates. He was very thankful that no crises seemed to be happening today. It was the worst imaginable time to be president, surely! Maybe now it was over. Sterock’s over-stimulated brain slipped towards unconsciousness. His eyes closed. He folded his arms on his desk, leant forward and rested his head on his arms. Within a minute, he was asleep. His guards looked at him but didn’t want to wake him. The poor man looked so utterly exhausted. If he didn’t sleep then he might sicken and die. What no one realised was that the alien guns acted as portals to other realms. Information of all kinds drifted through the guns’ mechanisms into Sterock’s mind. However, he couldn’t tell the difference between this information and ordinary dreams. After a while, Sterock woke up briefly and stretched. He checked the network again. He looked for written notes on his desk. Still, there was nothing. He got up, went to the couch next to the only intact wall, lay down and slept. About two hours later, he fell off the couch with a thump. His guards rushed over but they discovered that he was dead. His last expression was one of fear and dismay.

* * * * *

“This must be the most unusual battlefield ever!” said Bkeisei as he drove around his home area with his family. “It’s utterly random. There’s the wing of a small aeroplane caught in some trees but the rest of the aeroplane is gone, as if it never existed. There isn’t even a crater or burnt patch to mark the spot.”

“Oh Furk, look at that horrible dead animal!” said Chep, grimacing. “The aliens must have picked the ugliest beasts to scare us, I guess. The side of it has split open after decomposition. It stinks too.”

“Riding a tzanjit is bad enough,” said Presh. “Imagine riding that thing! The back is all knobbly.”

“Has there been any clear-up here?” asked Criq. “There’s still quite a lot of debris.”

“I see some people collecting small stuff,” said Shaplo. “They’re volunteers, though. I reckon that the government is busy elsewhere. They’ll get around to our area in due course, I’m sure.”

“Damage is everywhere, as we’ve seen,” said Presh. “The worst of it is in people’s minds. They’re not in the best mood for clearing up. They’re waiting for the next attack. I understand exactly how they feel. Survival is more important than tidiness.” She felt very guilty. Things might have turned out very differently if she hadn’t eliminated so many robots years ago.

“You know, this is where our generation finally grew up,” said Terzet, proud of what her community had done. “We were severely tested but we passed. We’ve matured so quickly. We can defend ourselves very well. Shili broke his leg but I held him up so that he could push the approaching warriors out of the universe. Afterwards, when all the enemies had been vanquished, I laid him down gently and kissed him. It was the most romantic moment that I’ve ever had!” She smiled and sighed happily.

“Will you be visiting him in hospital again tomorrow?” asked Chep.

“I might,” replied Terzet. “It depends if Wota and Shali are there. I don’t want to cause jealousy. I’ll be at the hospital anyway. There are many other kids in there, sick or injured, or both. The doctors think that there are some alien diseases about. We haven’t seen an epidemic yet, though.”

“Damn, I hadn’t even considered disease!” said Presh. “We must all try to be more hygienic. We can’t let a bunch of bugs finish us off after all this chaos!”

“So far we’ve been very lucky,” said Criq. “We might have expected biological weapons but we haven’t seen anything that bad yet. Maybe there’s something counteracting the germs.”

“I don’t like this situation,” said Presh. “We shouldn’t relax our guard. Remember what happened with the god of the robots? Just when we thought that our problems were over, he showed up and threatened me. I nearly died. I hate all these intruders!” She went online with her ‘phone and tried to eliminate any aliens within easy reach of the network. There were only a few today but every little helped.

“That’s where we broke the army,” said Shaplo, pointing out a building about two hundred metres from the school grounds. “We were chasing them across the waste ground. They were in full retreat. We opened portals in front of them and amongst them. We must have removed half of them in only a few moments. The building blocked their path. A minority broke to the sides but reinforcements were coming up fast. The left flank was wiped out a minute later. The right flank had to be pursued a few hundred more metres before we could unleash a third wave of portals. A handful escaped into a zenistand but we kept going and eliminated them. After that, we spread out and became free-roaming alien hunters. We partly coordinated our actions by ‘phone. A few of us had the presence of mind to use our ‘phones to wipe out hundreds more aliens across the region.”

“I used to play soldiers but you’ve actually become one!” said Bkeisei. “You’re a great hero now, son. I’m so proud!” Shaplo reached forward and put his arms around his father, who wasn’t always easy to please. A minute later, the car was stopped by a clearance volunteer, who was standing in the road and waving.

“Do you want to buy some alien artefacts?” she said with a broad smile. “I’ve got shoulder pads, helmets, genital covers, rank markings and these metal things. I think that they’re paper weights.” She showed them one of the latter.

“They’re grenades,” said Shaplo, correcting her. “My history teacher and two boys were killed by one.” Her smile disappeared. Criq got out of the car and took the grenade from her hand.

“How do you set them off?” Criq asked Shaplo.

“I’m not very sure,” said Shaplo, becoming nervous. “I think that you twist the top and then throw. I don’t know how much delay there is before detonation.”

“Drive on to the intersection, Bkeisei,” said Criq. “Chep, call the police. We need the bomb squad as soon as possible. Girl, come with us. It’s not safe here. What’s your name, by the way?”

“Hydi,” said the girl as Criq put the grenade with the others. “I’m just trying to make some money. My family was killed by aliens a few days ago.” Criq took her hand and led her quickly to the intersection. Luckily, there weren’t many other people in the immediate area.

“You should have been given state aid by now, Hydi,” said Criq as they waited for the bomb squad. “Scavenging alien artefacts is extremely dangerous. I think that, in all the confusion, the local authorities have overlooked you.” He opened the car door and let Hydi sit in his seat for a while. Her facade of cheerfulness fell away and she slumped forward, her head bowed.

“Don’t worry, we’ll take you to the right office to get your grants and benefits,” said Chep. “I’ve been there many times, with friends who claim.”

“Thanks,” said Hydi, who then burst into tears. The family did their best to console her but the loss of six close relatives had been devastating. The bomb squad arrived quite quickly and examined the grenades. Given that they didn’t know how the grenades worked, they decided to attach a charge and force a detonation. The girl’s bag was reduced to tiny scraps of material in the explosion.

“It looks like we’ll have to buy you a new bag,” said Presh afterwards as they drove to the benefits office. “You’ll need one for school, of course.”

“I just left school,” said Hydi. “I’ve been looking for work. I’m still unemployed.”

“Can your partners help you out?” asked Bkeisei.

“I don’t have partners,” said Hydi. “I’m a big l-l-loser.” She sobbed again.

“You might be in luck, dear,” said Chep, hugging her. “We have a lot of friends. Seriously, we have to use databases to keep track of everyone!”

“We could set you up with at least seven dates right now!” added Criq. “Partnerships are always having problems and needing replacement members.”

“You’re so kind,” said Hydi, drying her tears with one of Chep’s tissues. “I’ll do my best to fit in. I’ll try not to be too sad.” She sniffed and tried to smile again. They introduced her to the benefits office staff, who promised to help as much as they could. Hydi’s spirits started to rise, gradually yet inexorably. Presh’s quartet gave her their contact details and told her that she could contact them anytime. Then, they drove back home to Bounds Grounds. As they arrived at the house, Presh received a message. She read it, put her ‘phone to her chest and closed her eyes.

“What is it?” asked Terzet.

“Sterock’s been found dead,” reported Presh.

“Oh Furk!” said Criq. “Not another funeral! Poor guy.”

“It’s one frigging thing after another!” added Chep, punching the car’s internal padding. They’d all got on well with Sterock. They were going to miss him greatly.

* * * * *

“Citizens, I apologise for bringing you such bad news but our world is still in grave danger,” broadcast Vice-President Sdulik. “Invaders from space have appeared on every continent and many islands. A few have even appeared on ships and stratocruisers. Most of them are aggressive and want to conquer our lands. It is our duty to resist them. Already, millions of these invaders have been neutralised. Some have been killed, some disabled and some forced to retreat to places unknown. The majority, however, have been dispatched permanently into another dimension through the use of our recently acquired magic. We are unable to explain how this magic works but it certainly does. Therefore, it is vital that we spread the power to as many people as possible, although not to aliens. Consequently, I am beginning a vital new project. This will involve the maximum use of shluking to spread the magic around the nation. Other nations are doing likewise. It means that every adult who can safely shluk should shluk. There will be a coordinated, countrywide strategy to oblige every capable adult to shluk at least once and thus have a chance to acquire the life-saving magical power. I know that some of you are ideologically or psychologically opposed to this but my government and I have decided that, in this case, the national interest outweighs the objections of the individual. Monitors will be provided to oversee the programme and combat any abuses that some people might try to inflict on others. At the same time, we will be bolstering our armed forces but this will be a secondary concern since many of the invaders have superior military capabilities to our own. The use of shluking to spread magic is our top priority.”

“No one’s ever gone this far before,” said Bkeisei, turning off the broadcast. “It’s going to open a huge can of...” He was interrupted by an urgent ‘phone message. His partners received the same message at the same time.

“Well, it looks like we’re off international duty and onto the domestic shluk outreach programme,” said Chep. “Sdulik’s wasted no time, to give her credit. We have to call our first household to let them know that we’re coming.”

“I’ll do it!” said Presh. She dialled the number.

“Hello sir, I don’t know if you’ve heard about the new government programme,” she said to the man called Cjinrom. “No, this isn’t a marketing call. It’s a compulsory scheme for national survival.”

“Excuse me for a moment,” said Cjinrom, perturbed. He put his hand over the ‘phone but Presh could still hear him faintly.

“Zbayta, do you know anything about a compulsory government scheme?” he called to his partner. Presh couldn’t hear her reply very clearly but evidently she gave a brief explanation.

“I never thought that it would come to this!” said Cjinrom, amazed by the news. “The government is forcing us to shluk outside our normal circles!”

“It’s true, sir,” said Presh. “I myself have seen the extent of the crisis that we face. It’s imperative that we all shluk more than usual to enable everyone to acquire the magical power.”

“Wow!” said Cjinrom, his heart beating faster. “Well, we’re out in the sticks. We haven’t seen any aliens around here: not yet, anyway. Can you bring us this magic?”

“Absolutely!” said Presh. “We can be there in a few hours. Would that be convenient?”

“I think so,” replied Cjinrom. “We’re all retired so we have plenty of time. Who are you, by the way? It says ‘Presh 555-6969’ on my ‘phone.”

“We live in Bounds Grounds,” said Presh. “You can search for us online. There are a lot of pictures of the whole family.”

“OK, give me a minute,” said Cjinrom, activating his pocketscreen and searching. Pictures appeared immediately. As he scrolled through, his heart rate climbed and climbed. There was her face, her entrancing, captivating face. There it was with a mask. There was the rest of her. He was stunned. She was coming over to his house! She was bringing her partners who were similarly beautiful! He felt a rapid stirring of panic. This was too much, too soon! His heart was now beating so fast that he couldn’t breathe quickly enough to keep pace. He gasped and lost consciousness.

“CJINROM!” cried Zbayta. Presh could hear her trying to make Cjinrom regain consciousness.

“He’s got a weak heart!” said Zbayta over the ‘phone connection that was still open. “I just saw your pictures. He can’t handle a shluk with the likes of you! Leave us alone! Find someone else to play your dirty games!”

“I’ll call an ambulance,” said Presh, horrified.

“Don’t bother, I’m not so useless that I can’t do it myself,” said Zbayta. “Come on, you old crock: roll over!” She was trying to put her partner into the recovery position. Moments later, she terminated the call.

“It doesn’t look like you were successful,” said Criq. “What now?”

“I nearly killed him with pictures of us!” said Presh, flabbergasted. “Archminyan, there’s a reason why we don’t shluk with certain types of people. We have to be more careful. I’ll have to try the alternative quartets listed in the government message.” She scrutinised the list. The next two quartets were also fairly elderly but the third was very acceptable.

“You’re not going to believe this!” she said to the others. “Alternative four is in Bluegrove Magna. They’re called Gabar, Winquo, Devda and Snaif.”

“Are you sure that we should be going back?” asked Chep. “Remember how we met several aliens there?”

“I’ve been assured that the town was cleansed,” replied Presh. “Besides, we can cope with any other aliens who arrive, can’t we? Don’t worry about it!”

“I am worrying about it!” said Chep. “I don’t want to be anywhere near those nightmarish robotic people!”

“OK, that’s a fair point,” said Presh, remembering their close encounter in Bluegrove Magna. “Moving on to alternative five: they’re a charming quartet from Bruk Zeid.”

“Oh good,” said Chep. “That’s quite close!”

* * * * *

“They’re saying that this is the most important year in recorded history!” said Monblux to Sciug as she lay in bed. He was reading excerpts from a news review.

“This was the year that we resisted an invasion from at least fifty different alien races!” said Jiplez, reading from the same text. “The first aliens arrived several years before but this year we saw the first open warfare. Many thousands of people died and some settlements were damaged or destroyed but virtually all the aliens were either exiled or killed. This was largely due to the appearance of a new power in the land. That power was distributed by people like us. Sciug, our quartet was one of the most effective in giving power to the people! Doesn’t that make you feel proud? I feel proud!” She managed to smile for a few moments but then it faded. Sciug could only lie on her back with her eyes closed. She was in some kind of coma. Doctors had visited but couldn’t explain it. Sciug would have to be taken for scans at the hospital soon, to try to diagnose the cause(s) of the coma. Jiplez, Monblux and Klek were profoundly concerned. Their quartet wasn’t complete without Sciug. They hadn’t shluked for a few days. They were becoming frustrated and tearful. Jiplez knelt on the floor by the bed and kissed her girlfriend’s cheek.

“Good news, Sciug,” said Klek, reading from the latest news. “The number of alien attacks is dropping steadily day by day. The government reckons that the alien races are giving up the fight. As far as we know, total victory is in sight! Our resistance is becoming more organised every day. Basically, we’ve done an excellent job and deserve our rest ... and recreation.” He folded back a corner of the bedclothes, took hold of Sciug’s left foot and began sucking the toes, just as she liked it. Her leg and foot twitched a little, so she was feeling his stimulation. However, her response went no further so Klek gave up after a minute. He covered her foot again and patted it softly.

“What are we going to do?” asked Jiplez, feeling like there were knots in her stomach. “We need her back! It’s not the same with substitutes, no matter how well-meaning they are! Oh, we’ve been spoilt with her, haven’t we? We climbed to the heights and now we’ve fallen a long way. It hurts like hell!”

“We might not get any scans for weeks,” said Monblux. “The hospital is full of war casualties and related cases. When the routines of life are disrupted, people suffer all sorts of abnormal accidents.”

“This whole problem started at the beach,” said Klek. “We might have pushed her too far there.”

“No, I don’t accept that,” said Jiplez. “It was normal stimulation, like we’ve given her many times before. Something else must have happened. It could have been the aliens or perhaps a disease that they brought.”

“We’ve dosed her with various popular remedies, including Medystical Compound,” Monblux pointed out. “I’m betting that those should have helped her to recover, although an alien disease is probably a lot harder to treat.”

“She did mention the ‘old people’ for a few days after we got home,” said Jiplez. “It was like she’d met them recently and that they might still be lurking around somewhere. Presh and Chep’s kids thought that it was strange.”

“Could she have been referring to the people who carved those stone blocks?” wondered Klek. “We might be dealing with spirits here.”

“I’m seeing a connection,” said Jiplez, remembering a vital fact. “When we make love, my pleasure levels are so high that I sometimes hallucinate. I see people who aren’t really there. I see landscapes and objects that are far away or non-existent. Sciug says that the same thing happens to her. At the beach, she could have forged a strong connection to the spirit world.”

“Are you saying that we should go back to the beach and investigate?” suggested Monblux.

“I think that it’s our best bet for rescuing Sciug,” said Jiplez, fairly confident in her assessment. “We can go right now!”

“It’ll be dark soon,” said Klek. “Can’t it wait until morning?”

“Come on, Klek!” protested Monblux. “Aren’t you eager to bring her out of this unnatural state? I definitely want her back to normal! Also, I don’t like all the nappy changes.”

“Thank goodness the government gave us a camper van with Autodriver,” said Klek. “Look, we can’t be gone too long. She has to see the outreach nurse at home on a regular basis. We can only stay at the beach for a day and then we have to drive back again.”

“Hopefully, that’ll be more than enough time,” said Jiplez. “I’m going to try my magic one more time before we leave.” She did so but found no obvious alien influences. After that, Sciug’s partners prepared for the trip, put her in the van and set off for the coast as fast as the law allowed. For two hours, Monblux drove. At a small village, they stopped for a few minutes’ break. For the next two hours, the roads were quieter so they let the van drive itself. They dozed fitfully. Sciug stirred a little, which was a hopeful sign. At around the four-hour mark, Klek awoke and checked his watch. Judging from the time, the beach was supposed to be nearby. He looked at the road and saw that they were approaching a tunnel. He didn’t remember any of those from the previous drive to the beach. Before he could react, the van entered the tunnel. It was much darker than a normal road tunnel. It curved gently to the right and there was a constant, gradual descent. In the dim light, Klek couldn’t see any other traffic. This seemed like it was the wrong way. Klek was in the driving seat, so he reached forward and tried to disengage Autodriver. There was no response: the van kept going the same way. The brakes didn’t work. The emergency override failed. They were trapped. He woke up Jiplez and Monblux and told them what was happening.

“Well, I thought that there was something odd going on in this area,” said Jiplez, breathing deeply to wake up as the hijacked van ploughed on. “I didn’t think that someone would build a new road tunnel, though!”

“It’s like one of those ‘ghost rides’ at the fairground!” said Monblux. “I know who probably did this. It’s the robots. They’re the only ones who can build big structures so quickly.”

“We can’t jump out of the car and leave Sciug,” fretted Klek. “Oh Furk, what are they going to do to us?!”

“I don’t know, but at least I’ll have you three by my side,” said Jiplez. “That’s the greatest comfort!” She felt unusually calm. Someone else had taken over their destiny for the time being and they didn’t have to worry about anything. She sniffed the air. Correction: they didn’t have to worry about anything except Sciug’s nappy changes and other basic needs. Behind them, advanced machines began work on dismantling the tunnel. The process would be finished in a matter of hours. The natives wouldn’t know that the tunnel had existed until much later, when they discovered the traces on the landscape and sea bed.

* * * * *

“Oh, how the mighty have fallen!” says High Executioner Hharyote as he takes his time over his latest, most illustrious victim. “You’ve been campaigning on behalf of the Lostle Ugej Consortium for seventy nine years. You’ve been decorated almost as often as the Grand Stander himself. Why is it that I’ve been given leave to end your existence as painfully as I please?”

“How can you not know?” demands Commander Zyga Zyga as he bleeds from twenty two peeler-blade wounds.

“I have the official explanation but I’d like to hear it direct from the condemned,” says Hharyote, wiping most of the muck off his next implement. “Believe it or not, my job may have numerous perks and benefits but I still get bored now and then. It helps if you doomed folk give your final confessions. That gives me a few things to think about in the evenings. Why did you attack that planet and why were you defeated so easily?”

“Go to hell, you hopeless sadist!” says Zyga, utterly disgusted with his fate at the hands of this vile creature.

“If you tell me, I’ll go easy with the wuddens puun!” offers Hharyote, brandishing the simple tool. It looks harmless but it can cause severe inflammation of the skin and total blockage of the organovent circles.

“OK, I’ll tell you!” says Zyga, leaning away from Hharyote because of his fear of the wuddens puun. “We received some automated signals from the mechanoids on that world. As far as we could tell, they’d experienced some kind of general malfunction and were slipping into an unconscious, pre-programmed state. That much was true. When we arrived on the planet, we found that they had converted themselves mainly into little crawling machines that had then gone underground. They were clearly no longer a great threat.”

“Ah, but mechanoids can be deceptive,” says Hharyote, slapping Zyga lightly on his shoulder knee. “Shouldn’t you have been more cautious?”

“F-fortune favours the bold,” stutters Zyga as the pain of the wuddens puun blow flashes through his nervous system. “Also, we had to send a substantial force to check the veracity of the signals. A small force could have been overwhelmed. Experience has taught me to reinforce troops wherever possible.”

“Assuming, of course, that our government can afford to do so,” comments Hharyote, hitting Zyga again. “I think that you wasted our money this time.”

“Ow! I did save money on the interdimensional transfer,” says Zyga. “The mechanoids’ signals were so clear that we could home in exactly on the frequency and thus materialise on the other side within a few minutes, local time. In that respect, it was one of my cheapest forays across the void.”

“But in another way, it was one of your most expensive!” Hharyote points out. “You lost all but two of your troops. That warrants my use of the long korkscru.” He picks up the motorised, rotating device and places it just beneath Zyga. He presses a button and it activates, in slow mode. Zyga knows now that the end is near, in more ways than one.

“We had no warning about the magic!” says Zyga. “We monitored the mechanoids’ signals as much as possible. Fair enough, we couldn’t translate every sentence but we got the gist of what they were saying to each other. We tried to monitor the natives’ signals but they were weaker and more garbled. Interdimensional eavesdropping is very difficult. You should try it for yourself one day!”

“If I can be bothered,” says Hharyote, turning away from Zyga and pressing buttons on another control panel. “It’s not my job and I’m not particularly interested in it. Anyway, your people failed to gather all relevant data and your troops paid with their lives. I heard that most of them were killed by a small child riding on an electric scooter. That is completely ridiculous and humiliating. Their families will never live it down.” Zyga can feel the korkscru penetrating his body and slowly moving upwards through layers of tissue. The blood flows out at an accelerating rate.

“I was only doing my job!” shouts Zyga in a panicky voice. “The Grand Stander asked me to attack other worlds for the glory of the Consortium. I couldn’t refuse. I performed very well for seventy nine years. I’m proud of my life’s work! By the way, we don’t know if the troops are dead or alive. All we know is that they disappeared.”

“They’re probably not coming back, so they’re dead to us,” retorts Hharyote. “It would help if you had a rescue planned for them but you haven’t mentioned one yet.” Zyga groans as the korkscru rips his bowels apart, centimetre by agonising centimetre.

“Hharyote, you must understand that my job is all about taking calculated risks,” says Zyga, feeling weaker all the time. “Sometimes I lose troops but, on balance, I bring back excellent rewards for the Consortium. This planet with the magic, it has enormous quantities of minerals, plus a huge variety of genetic material, some useful technology and a few billion potential slaves.”

“Yet it is worthless because of the MAGIC!” roars Hharyote. “It might as well not be there at all! Honestly, I despair of your stupidity!”

“It’s easy for you to stand there pontificating!” says Zyga. “Try doing my job, why don’t you? See if you can make a success of it for seventy nine years!”

“Huh!” says Hharyote. “Never mind that, I’m about to activate your final doom. Behold the Spiraliser!” Zyga glances upwards and sees a cylindrical device descending over his suspension pole.

“You are about to be cut into very long and bloody spiral strips of flesh,” explains Hharyote “The process will take about three minutes. It would be quicker but you’re not exactly petite are you, dear Commander?!” Zyga gives him one final withering gaze before his head is sliced into strips, followed by the rest of his body. The screams are powerful. The room is sprayed with blood. In the final seconds, the Spiraliser hits the korkscru and knocks it over. Hharyote is deeply satisfied to see another important man rendered into animal food. He licks some blood from his overalls and savours the taste, as he has done thousands of times before. He never seems to tire of the gore. After admiring his handiwork for a short while, he has to clear up. The body parts are put in sacks to send to the meat plant. The blood is mostly washed away with a high-pressure hose into a floor drain. Some small blood splashes are left untouched, to put fear into later victims. As Hharyote finishes the hosing, he receives a call from someone unknown.

“Hharyote, my old friend!” says the caller. “I heard that you were bored. I can fix that.”

“I’m sorry but who is this?” asks Hharyote.

“This is the Grand Stander,” says the caller. “I’m surprised that you didn’t recognise my voice. Perhaps it’s because my voice has changed with age. Whatever, I’m moving you to a new job. I hope that you’ll do well in it!”

“New job?” queries Hharyote. “B-but surely I’m best suited to being the High Executioner.”

“At the moment, perhaps,” says the Grand Stander. “However, we can all grow and change. I want you to take old Zyga’s job as Commander of the Interdimensional Raiding Force. I know that you’ll be totally ruthless as usual.”

“Erm, y-yes sir!” says Hharyote, looking at the meat sacks. “You know best. I’ll move into his old office tomorrow. I look forward to it. Thank you, sir!” He ends the call. He forgot about the listening devices in the room. The Grand Stander overheard him talking about his boredom. Now he’s lumbered with a thankless new job, which is a poisoned chalice. Worse than that, his own High Executioner will probably be his mentally deficient deputy, Gorsey Ramdon. Perhaps it will be less painful to die on the battlefield than be cut up slowly by young Gorsey! As he finishes the hosing, Hharyote begins to plot a new life course.

* * * * *

“You must excuse the state of the place,” said Ktingar, leading her latest shluk partners from the road to her house. “We had a terrible experience with the aliens. They ruined most of our buildings.” As they passed through the small wood and came within sight of the property, Crendo’s quartet could see that this was no exaggeration. The house had been largely demolished, as had the three outbuildings. An alien flying ship lay derelict on the ground about two hundred metres from the house. It had crashed in combat, destroying Ktingar’s home and hundreds of trees in the process. It had cut a swathe through the woods at the side of the house. Not much of the wreckage had been cleared as of yet.

“The government hasn’t sent any help,” said Ktingar. “They’ve had far too many other important things to do lately, including organising our shluk rosters!” She smiled at the visitors.

“What have you managed to do so far?” asked Yamor, dismayed by the scale of the destruction.

“We’re living in the old caravan,” replied Ktingar. “It’s cramped but cosy. We’ve rescued a lot of our useful and precious possessions. Most of them are stored in the shed next to the caravan. That area wasn’t hit by the alien ship.”

“Do you mind if we take a look at the house?” asked Crendo. “Perhaps there’s something that we can do.” Ktingar had no objections. Crendo stood at the edge of the main debris field and examined the broken superstructure. Ktingar, Yamor, Vedsnef and Bilija stood behind him and did the same.

“What’s that pipe in the middle?” asked Bilija. “It looks like a broken gas line.”

“We had our gas cut off years ago, when there was that advancement in renewable power generation,” replied Ktingar. “Electricity became so cheap that it wasn’t worth using gas anymore. Our gas line was deactivated. In fact, soon afterwards, the entire region stopped using gas. Now, the old pipes have no gas left in them. They’re safe.”

“G’day, shlukers!” came a voice from the right. “I’m sorry that you’ve arrived at our lowest time. We’ll do what we can to make you welcome.”

“Everyone, this is my boyfriend Gdunsq,” said Ktingar. “Behind him are my other boyfriend Kurplar and my girlfriend Tprow. They’ve been digging some toilet trenches in the garden behind the hedge. It’s not glamorous but it has to be done. Our regular toilets have been demolished by the enemy and our house water pipes have been severed. We have to keep the house water supply turned off most of the time, to prevent flooding.”

“That’s appalling!” said Vedsnef. “How do you cope?”

“We’re lucky that the tub’s separate plumbing survived unscathed,” answered Kurplar. “You have to see it. We think that it’s pretty amazing.” The eight people walked over to one of the outbuildings. Most of the walls had been knocked down but the sunken tub had survived. It had been cleared of debris and was now fully functional.

“We use the tub’s water supply for cooking, cleaning and watering the plants,” said Tprow, clearly pleased by this crucial piece of good fortune. “The power for the heaters is still connected as well, so we can shluk in comfort.”

“But you have no walls or roof here!” noted Vedsnef.

“We have trees instead of walls,” said Tprow with a grin. “No one can see us when we’re surrounded by woods. If it rains, it’s not usually a problem. We’re supposed to be wet in the tub anyway!”

“We all enjoy some open-air shluking now and then,” said Yamor. “However, I’m concerned about the alien spaceship over there. Is it going to explode?”

“We don’t think so,” said Gdunsq, looking over at the ship. “Some government engineers came round after the crash and removed any parts that could be dangerous: the engine, weapons, ammunition, ‘battery units’, chemicals and so forth. It’ll all go into the ‘great leap forward’ project. I wonder what inventions will come out of that?”

“So the ship was made safe: that’s a relief!” said Yamor. “Now, I think that we should do more than just shluk. Your situation is awful. I feel that we should help with the clear-up around here.”

“We were hoping that you would,” said Kurplar. “We’re not as limber as we used to be. We’ve made a start but it’s been slow progress. We have to keep stopping because of aches, pains, breathlessness and plain weariness.”

“What should we do first?” asked Bilija.

“There’s a large trash container at the front of the house,” said Ktingar. “You can fill it up with anything that’s broken: splintered wood, shattered roof tiles, cracked metal sheeting, torn fabrics and the like. Watch out for the smashed glass. Don’t rush!” Crendo’s quartet took off their jackets and began loading the trash container. As the sunshine got hotter, they took off more clothing. Ktingar’s quartet finished digging the toilet trenches and then did some minor tidying. After that, they made refreshments for their visitors. When four hours had passed, Ktingar’s quartet insisted that the visitors had done enough voluntary labour.

“That was quite exhausting,” said Vedsnef. “We’re not used to this kind of thing. At least it keeps our minds off other problems. They all sat in folding chairs around a large picnic table and had a late lunch. There was no surviving roof or even parasol, so they all sweated in the afternoon sun.

“That was good progress,” said Kurplar. “You filled half of the container. Also, you didn’t throw away the useful stuff. I see some intact planks and tiles still in the ruins. We’ll get those later when you’ve gone home.” Crendo and his quartet were glad to be of service. Tprow went to fill the tub. She added a scoop of refreshing, tangy soap. When the water was ready, the eight tired workers stripped off completely, left their clothes on the chairs and went to shluk.

“It’s weird to be in a tub surrounded by rubble,” said Crendo. “Our daughter died in a field of rubble. Her name was Rosogeny. There was some sort of accidental explosion caused by a robot. It demolished her college.”

“Oh yes, we heard about that,” said Gdunsq. “We’re so sorry for your loss. Our son Bkeisei was deeply worried about the extreme threat at the time. He’s becoming more used to it now.”

“Is that the famous Bkeisei, partner of Presh?” asked Vedsnef.

“The very same!” replied Gdunsq. “He and his friends are doing great things out there on the international stage.”

“If it wasn’t for them, the situation would be far worse now,” said Bilija. “We’d probably all be dead. My partners and I are supremely grateful for your son’s role in defending the world.”

“We help him out when we can,” said Kurplar. “We’re on the rota for childcare. We take turns with the other grandparents, looking after Dglef, Siqurt, Shaplo and Terzet. They’re good kids so it’s not that hard.” Everyone linked up hand-to-shluk and began the age-old group bonding process. Ktingar’s quartet passed on some magic while Crendo’s quartet unwittingly passed on some alien nanotechnology. The warm country air was glorious!

* * * * *
snavej
Minibot
Posts: 196
Joined: Wed Jul 13, 2005 11:24 am

Re: A world is infiltrated by something creepy...

Postby snavej » Wed Nov 01, 2017 3:02 pm

Thevrix dusted his chest and xuv slit with pling and waited for the effects to kick in. He was already on a natural high from defeating a bunch of aliens and then shluking greedily with several strangers. He wanted to take himself higher for longer. His normal life had been quite dull, raising some irritating kids and working in a pipe factory. The demand for pipes never dropped much. Everyone wanted tubs, which needed pipes. Those pipes were standardised and boring. Gradually, he had come to hate them. He was so glad that there had been something much more important to do this year. The magic had been transmitted to him and his quartet, carried across land and sea by thousands of other shlukers. It had come just in time for the first aliens, who’d been a useless, incompetent bunch. For a start, they were too small. The initial scouting group had been crushed underfoot, literally. After that, they came in greater numbers so the townspeople had had to start using magic. Entire battalions of ridiculous, heavily armed pixies had been cast screaming into the void. Of course, this would have been devastating for the other tiny aliens still on their home world but, to Thevrix and his neighbours, their death cries had sounded hilarious.

Before the townspeople had had time to reflect on their easy victory, they had been invaded again by a larger kind of alien. They had had to adjust their portals to accommodate this second type. This had taken a minute, during which time the larger aliens had managed to shoot some people. There had been hundreds of minor injuries but only four deaths because the aliens hadn’t phased fully into the world’s reality. The bullets could have only done limited damage in that minute. Afterwards, the larger aliens had been promptly tossed into the same dimension as the smaller aliens. They hadn’t screamed. Perhaps they’d been too proud to do so? Thevrix and many others had compensated by yelling in triumph. Next had come the waiting. On the home front, no one had dared to start any serious work except the bare basics. Each household now had at least one person on watch at all times. Invaders could come whenever they wanted, as was shown on the news networks. It had been sobering to see the struggle play out over the course of about three weeks. Most people had survived relatively unscathed but there had been many isolated casualties of sneak attacks. There had also been a few disasters, including the complete destruction of the remote island called Chemfel. These had galvanised the home side’s defence. Many people had learnt how to use the network to extend the reach of their magic. Regular sweeps of populated areas now ensured that almost all alien invaders were intercepted and removed fairly promptly. No groups had been able to establish bases, secret garrisons, infrastructure or other presence.

To pass the time between attacks, Thevrix and his quartet had shluked at least twice a day. On the fifth day, they had managed to conduct four sessions, which was the maximum that could be achieved without undue tiredness. Naturally, they had had to spread the magic. They had found themselves in the tub with complete strangers, allocated to them by computer. These unfamiliar quartets wouldn’t have been in their shluking circles normally but fate had forced them together. On the whole, sessions like this began awkwardly and hesitantly but ‘warmed up’ after a period of familiarisation. Everyone learnt some interesting facts and insights about each other and the world in general. A few times, there had been an urge to go beyond shluking. Given the situation, this had been readily allowed provided that precautions were taken. Thevrix looked back fondly on those encounters. The period of waiting had been essentially an enforced holiday at home. Nervousness had been counteracted by the chance of relaxation.

The third and, hopefully, final incursion into the town had come in the form of a giant alien monster. It had been the size of a small stadium and it had materialised in an eastern suburb, where it had crushed over a hundred houses and a few other buildings. Most inhabitants had survived the crushing of their houses by rushing to the cellars. A few had survived by creating portals and sending chunks of the jelly-like beast into oblivion, thus giving them room to breathe. Those around the outside of the creature had been initially unsure if they could actually do anything about it. It had been too big to shove through a portal in one piece. Quickly, though, people had realised that they could send it through portals in many pieces. Anyone looking from above would have seen a ring of portals opening around the creature, swallowing small portions and then disappearing. As the minutes had passed, the portals had moved inwards, steadily consuming more and more of the great, slimy bulk. Then more people had shown up, Thevrix among them. Thousands had arrived in cars, on Triplas and so forth. The monster had been chopped up and its blood had flooded through the streets. Any blood that was still warm enough could be sent away through portals. The crowd of magicians had swiftly reduced the ungainly beast to a residue of cold fluids. The main bulk of its body had been banished within half an hour. After that, there had been a few hundred people to rescue from their half-flooded basements. Twenty nine people had died, which was relatively few given the scale of the attack. Like most townspeople, Thevrix had been thankful to survive.

Further days had passed as before. Soon, it had become apparent that the wave of alien invasions was abating. The media had reported no further incidents in region after region. The general feeling among the population had been that the main danger was over. It was now time to relax a bit more and then catch up on neglected chores. In time, the people could return to their normal work. Some, like Thevrix, hadn’t been best pleased. Although the struggle against the invasions had been difficult and dangerous, it had opened up a sense of new possibilities. Thevrix was considering making changes in his life. He thought that he might take a new job but that would require adjustments like training courses and a period of tighter household budgeting. Before he embarked on any new path, he wanted to let himself go for at least one night. That was why he was now embarking on a pling trip. He had tried other drugs before but pling was the most comfortable and rewarding for him.

“Ganurei, I’m going to drink the rest of this flask,” said Aflus as she wiggled past the bedroom door. “It will only spoil otherwise.” She was wise. Otherwise! She knew what was going on; she knew about the hidden aspects of reality. After-images of her posterior were still drifting past the door although she was now two rooms away. Thevrix could see her swigging from the flask in the hall. He still liked her body but the drink had made her facial expressions looser and droopier, as if they were made of stretchy material that had perished. She had become somehow distorted, older and uglier, which repulsed him. The angles were wrong. Therefore, his consciousness wandered further. Tepuspae was asleep on the big bed. She was gesticulating and mouthing silent words. Her legs were shifting about as if she were walking. He knew her so well, he could tell that she was dreaming about a quartet with whom they regularly shluked. He followed her imagined conversation and interaction. He knew the exact moment when she would start shluking herself. It would be fun at first but then the accumulated feedback would force her to wake up and stop. Still, he liked to watch while he could. His boyfriend Ganurei was on watch in the lounge, calm and steadfast. Thevrix swooped past and stroked his cheek. Of course, Ganurei couldn’t feel it but, coincidentally at that moment, he smiled at a private joke. Thevrix was inspired to shoot upwards.

He saw the partly ruined town below. It was night time but some people were searching in the rubble for treasured possessions, vital supplies and maybe a few lost pets. Thevrix found a crushed snef beneath a toppled wall. It wasn’t something he liked to see, so he moved on. He wandered over to the municipal car park. There were some burnt trucks and cars on the side nearest to the town centre. Prompt action by the fire brigade over a week ago had extinguished the flames. In the middle of the car park, he stopped. There was an unusual vibration around a dull grey-blue car. He slowly circled the vehicle, trying to discover the nature of the vibration. As he did so, he felt the surroundings change. The town faded out, to be replaced by deep shadow. His vision adjusted to the gloom. He started to see darkened structures around him. He realised that he was in a foreign city of some sort. The buildings were packed close together and tall. He looked up. They were incredibly tall! Tiny lights appeared on their flanks. Their top floors were so far away that they couldn’t be seen. It made him feel giddy.

“Well, you certainly came from left-field, didn’t you?” said a voice next to the vehicle. “You’re having an out-of-body excursion. Congratulations, you’ve made it to my world!” Thevrix looked at the vehicle but saw only robotic legs. He looked up and saw glowing robotic eyes studying him. Instinct took over and he tried to flee. However, something bent space-time and forced him to circle around back to the robot.

“How can I be on another world, you freak?!” said Thevrix, remembering his magic.

“It’s called superpositioning,” said the robot. “Our world is overlaid onto yours at present. You managed to find me and I’m sitting on a crossover point. Hence, we’re on Cybertron.”

“Send me back or I’ll send you...” said Thevrix.

“Actually you won’t,” said the robot. “Your magic only works on your world, not ours.”

“Let me go!” demanded Thevrix, searching for an exit.

“I just wanted to say one thing,” said the robot, his face shuddering and crinkling. “You must shluk Gnijula and her partners. It’s imperative...” For unknown reasons, the Cybertronian cityscape collapsed and dissolved. Thevrix was flying free once again.

“Gnijula is a stuck-up veyx!” thought Thevrix as he shot across his home town. “She hardly looked at me when we were at school together. She’s very disdainful whenever I meet her. The robot doesn’t have a clue.” Just then, there was a jarring sense of being thrown back in time. He found himself in the nearby town of Daglhuit, facing a different set of aliens. They were chanting something as they were thrown into vortices by local magicians. Thevrix was able to stop and listen closely. They were uttering the same phrase over and over again. They weren’t retreating. They fell willingly into the void. He didn’t understand their language but he sensed that they were saying something like ‘Prepare the way’. It was as if their bodies were somehow pieces of a bridge. Could this be for the robots? No, why would they need it? They already had their own conduits. Naturally, Thevrix worried that another invasion was coming. He didn’t want to think about it. He looked for something more pleasant to occupy him.

As he glided across country, he felt familiar female hands rubbing his chest. Back home, Aflus must have found him on the guest bed. It was most peculiar to feel two sets of sensations at once, though it wasn’t unwelcome. Invisible lips met. A dimly lit village appeared below. There was a taste of inebriation in his mouth. He descended to find six alien troopers hacking at a house door with their battleaxes. His xuv slit was being licked. Someone was hiding behind an overgrown fence/hedge, generating a portal. A hand was in his trouser pocket, pulling out the pling dust sachet. The alien troopers were so intent on assaulting the inhabitants of the house that they didn’t notice the portal until it was upon them. Another hand was stroking his manhood. The troopers were sucked sideways into the aether, leaving a few axes embedded in the broken door. There was delightful undulation in the body next to him. The magician was checking the house. Aflus was clearly entering a pling trance. Behind the broken door, the magician was being hugged and kissed gratefully by three nervous young people. He saw Aflus hovering just below him.

“Here you are; I’ve found you!” said Aflus as she tried to adjust to the new environment. “Where are we? The stars are beautiful up there. I can’t feel the wind. You’re translated.”

“You’re so drunk,” said Thevrix, trying to touch her but failing. “How am I ‘translated’?”

“I can see through you!” said Aflus. “You’re ... what’s the word? ... transducent!”

“Translucent,” said Thevrix. “I’m also intangible. I can’t touch things.”

“TransLUcent,” repeated Aflus. “Luscious LUcent. I love it. You’re like a minyan!”

“You too!” said Thevrix, smiling warmly at the sight of his girl with a supernatural appearance.

“What’s going on here?” asked Aflus, returning the smile.

“Just some casual exploring,” replied Thevrix. “You could come with me or strike out on your own.”

“I’ll stay with you,” said Aflus warmly. “You’re my snuggle fruggle!” Together they cruised along, watching as life went on as normal for some people but others were fighting invaders from the stars. A few people could see them and waved at them, or at least stared.

“We’re a long way from home, aren’t we?” commented Aflus, who had sobered up due to being out-of-body. “The buildings look Brosterian.”

“This is the furthest that I’ve ever gone on pling,” said Thevrix. “Maybe I got a very pure batch this time.”

“I think that it’s the invasions,” said Aflus. “They’ve changed the world. Look at that fire over there!” She flew toward a large column of smoke in the distance. Thevrix followed her. A warehouse was being consumed by flames and no one was able to stop it because of a small gun battle nearby. The two trippers went in for a closer look. A group of alien warriors, of yet another type, was meeting fierce resistance.

“These things are so ugly,” said Aflus, hovering in front of an alien. “Perhaps that’s made them desperate enough to want our world. If I looked like that, I’d want some compensation! I’m going to try to make direct contact.” She flew directly into the alien’s head and attempted to establish a connection. Thevrix didn’t want her to do that. He knew that he couldn’t touch her but he went in after her regardless.

They found themselves in new bodies. It was extremely disconcerting but one thing was clear: they suddenly felt hatred for one another. However, their mutual love had not dimmed. They were in a lounge in a house somewhere. It was unfamiliar although they recognised some common styles of furniture and publications. Aflus was seized by a desire to hurt Thevrix. She hated his thoughtlessness. She reached into a drawer, pulled out a ceremonial fork and stabbed at him. The fork was a memento of a holiday in Ombliek. He had played cruel pranks on her in the hotel that time. Then, he had left her alone and gone out with strangers for several hours. Wait, that hadn’t happened! There hadn’t been a holiday! He hadn’t been thoughtless at all. Why were those memories in her head? Oh yes, she was another woman now. With a loud grunt, Thevrix pushed the fork away in the nick of time. Then, he grabbed Aflus’ throat with his right hand and squeezed hard. She wrenched herself away, leaving scratch marks from his dirty fingernails on her neck.

“Stop!” she screamed, addressing both him and herself. “What are we doing? Where are the aliens?”

“I don’t know but I can’t control myself right now,” said Thevrix. “Watch out, I’m in a killing mood!” He rushed at her. She dodged, ran to the patio door, wrestled it open and jumped out, then ran around the house. Thevrix pursued, though he was slowing down as he learnt how to control the impulses of this body. He could still feel the loathing for his partner. He ran through the front garden and then the front gate, which was swinging open. He looked down the street, left and right, but his infuriating girlfriend was nowhere in sight. Then, he remembered something about her: she was good at misdirecting people. He turned around and went back into the front garden. Aflus was racing around the corner and heading for the back garden. She had hidden and then doubled back. He chased her again. She tripped over a brick and stumbled. He grabbed the back of her blouse and yanked her to her feet. Before she could react, he wrapped his arm around her body and dragged her back into the house. She cried out for help but his other hand muffled her. He flung her to the floor, where she knocked her head on a decorative stone feature. He closed the patio door and then turned back to her.

“Get out of that body!” implored Aflus, slightly dazed.

“I don’t know how!” said Thevrix, coming forward to kick her hard. She blocked the kick with her arms but it still hurt a great deal. Thevrix gained a bit more control over his temporary body and ceased kicking her.

“This whole set-up is an illustration,” he said. “It’s showing us the feelings of the aliens. They’re so full of hate; they’d even kill their own families if that served their purposes.”

“But it feels so real!” said Aflus, scrambling to her feet and picking up a large jar from a shelf. She ripped off the jar’s lid and threw the powdery contents into Thevrix’s face. Caught unawares, Thevrix breathed in a quantity of the powder and started to choke. It was a massive overdose of pling dust. His throat became clogged with dust, mucus, saliva and inflamed tissue. His skin began to swell. His heart rate rose dangerously high. He lost consciousness and collapsed. Meanwhile, the door to the next room opened and in rushed another man and woman. Aflus flung the jar at the man and bruised his chest but he still reached her. He hit her hard in the head with a length of metal pipe, knocking her out. She discovered that she was finally free to leave her borrowed body. Once more, she was floating free with Thevrix by her side.

“For Furk’s sake, this quartet’s literally self-destructing!” she said, looking back at the fight in progress. “I’ve been in her body but I still don’t understand how they can be like that! It’s like a vision of our personal hell.” They could do nothing except watch as the second man smashed the first woman’s skull and then turned on the second woman. His motivation was baffling. Weren’t these two side by side only moments before? The second woman stabbed the first man repeatedly with a dagger until the metal pipe knocked her to the floor. The second man straddled her and choked her with the pipe pressed across her neck. As he did so, in a final act of malice, she stabbed him in the arm several times with her dagger. The man succeeded in killing her but then he collapsed too. The knife had been coated in pling dust from being in contact with the first man, so he had an overdose as well, only via a different route. The result was that the entire foursome had managed to kill each other.

“This day was supposed to be fun,” said Thevrix sadly. “I think that we should end this session now.” They were about to turn away and leave when Thevrix glimpsed a shiny trinket wedged between two bricks in the lounge wall. He peered at it intently. It moved unexpectedly. It appeared to be an eye. Thevrix moved back. The wall bricks started to shift, pushed from behind. A light dusting of cement fell from between them. The brickwork swung outwards on hinged metal rods to reveal a large cavity behind. From the cavity stepped a sinister black robot with glowing red eyes, a blank face and dangerously sharp finger-claws. It moved slowly and silently, like an obscene, otherworldly jelva on the hunt. It scanned the scene of murder and the surroundings. The brickwork returned to its original position. The robot saw Thevrix and Aflus somehow. It nodded at them in acknowledgment of their presence. Then, it went to the back door and left the house. Despite being disembodied, Thevrix and Aflus were frozen with fear for a few minutes. They were just ordinary folk, after all.

“I saw another robot earlier,” said Thevrix. “It wasn’t as scary as that one. It told me that its planet, Cybertron, was ‘superpositioned’ here on our planet. That’s how they can come and go here so easily.”

“Furk, a whole other planet lurking all around us,” said Aflus with foreboding. “That can’t be good in the long run, surely. What else did the first robot say?”

“It told me to shluk Gnijula’s quartet,” he said. “Apparently it’s very important.”

“That girl-hurg?” said Aflus in disbelief. “She’s one of the last people I’d like to shluk!” They thought for a few moments.

“Maybe that’s the point,” said Thevrix. “Look around you. We’re being given a choice. Do we end up like them, dead on the floor, or do we embrace as many neighbours as possible?”

“Well, if we have to shluk her, let’s check her out beforehand,” said Aflus with a shrug. “Let’s go. There’s nothing more we can do here.” They exited through the roof and tried to determine their location. They rose high into the sky and looked down on where they had been. The road layout twisted like a box of tangled string. The buildings were solid but had little architectural value. The smog was quite thick.

“We’re in Amho-Rikar,” concluded Thevrix. “It figures. We need to go South-East to get home.” They sped as fast as they could across the continent. On the far side, they stopped at the Statue of Idiocy, which was a great symbol of the Amho Rikan Way.

“Amho-Rikar welcomes all those who have been deemed ‘idiots’ by their own countries, because these so-called ‘idiots’ are actually the clevererest in the world,” said Aflus, reading the plaque on the statue’s base. “Ha, that never gets old, does it?!” Thevrix shook his head and smiled broadly. The pair flew on gladly, tearing across the ocean at hypersonic speed. The moons moved steadily past them and then sank below the western horizon.

“This is so crazy!” said Aflus as they zipped past the Cylanian Islands. “I never knew that pling would give us free world travel!”

“It normally doesn’t,” said Thevrix. “We’re living in interesting times, as the saying goes.” Soon, they were back in their own continent, their own country and then their own town. They hurried over to Gnijula’s house and found her asleep in bed. Unusually, she was sleeping alone in a sad little single bed, next to which were pictures of older relatives edged in black. This indicated that the relatives were deceased. Gnijula herself didn’t look too happy. There were plenty of ‘frown lines’ on her face. In the next room, two of her partners were sleeping together in the big bed while the third one slept in a single. Either this quartet had sleep-related health issues or their relationship was heading for the rocks.

“Either Ganurei or I will have to put a hand in that shluk,” said Thevrix, examining the slightly shrivelled opening on Gnijula’s side. “I’m not exactly looking forward to it.”

“Her hand will have to go into one of your shluks,” added Aflus. “Think happy thoughts!”

“She might have turned into one of those weird ‘girls sit together’ types,” said Thevrix. “Don’t have nightmares!” Aflus grimaced. They kept gazing at her unpromising, ageing shluk. It used to be prettier, back in the day. As they stared, a strange perception germinated in their minds. This was a shluk to represent all shluks. It was the global gateway to increased community spirit, understanding and general happiness. It was, ultimately, the path to enlightenment. They felt at ease with it. They were tired after their long pling trip. They knelt down next to Gnijula. They were being drawn slowly into her shluk. As they leant closer, they saw tiny lights glinting among the lines, creases and folds. They were reduced back to little drifting balls of energy. They approached the lip and saw that the tiny lights were actually villages, towns and cities. The shluk was the world. The world was the shluk. There was no danger here. They were going home to a better place. They entered and found themselves back in the guest bedroom in their own house, slumped on the bed with dry mouths and full bladders. It was momentarily uncomfortable but basically they had found a deeper contentment. They rose groggily and shuffled to the en suite together.

* * * * *

Why did this one not fight the takeover for those extra few seconds? He was certainly capable. They have full access to his systems now, so they know what he can do or could have done. They mustn’t relax their guard with this one. They keep him in his underground bunker for now. He has an extensive collection of spare parts and ammunition. There’s enough energon to keep him fully operational for a thousand years or more. His global surveillance system is second to none. He used his subsidiary machinery to dig himself a series of long tunnels for access to his bunker. He can fly with incredible precision, enabling him to traverse these narrow tunnels at supersonic speed. He emerges into the open air several kilometres from the bunker, does what he has to do and then dives back into another camouflaged tunnel when he’s finished. This way, he can keep the location of his bunker secret for a long time.

They check his systems as carefully as they can. They don’t want any slip-ups. After a few days, they feel confident enough to send him out on his first raid. He transforms to jet mode, speeds through a tunnel and bursts into the night sky. Travelling at seven times the speed of sound, he powers into the stratosphere and heads for Lepeta. He arrives one hour later and starts striking targets. He cuts off all electrical power on the subcontinent, breaks three hydroelectric dams, collapses four clusters of skyscrapers and starts some devastating wildfires in the wooded hills. As the response teams start to work, he releases large clouds of mini-mines across towns and cities. These mini-mines are only three centimetres long but each one is powerful enough to kill a local person. The first test is a success. They return him to base.

The next night, they send him to the large island known as Engulathon. People are on alert now but our mech is too quick for their air defences. There’s another Transformer inbound but he’s five thousand kilometres away, so they have time for their strike. Satellite signals are reaching them, trying to shut them down but they’re fully protected. Their Transformer reaches Engulathon within half an hour. This time, they don’t attack the obvious targets. They fly to the top of the central dormant volcano and dive into the crater. They transform and land on top of some ancient debris that’s plugging the defunct magma vent. They release some small crawler robots, which climb through gaps between rocks and make their way into the old magma chamber below. While the crawler robots get into position, their main robot transforms again and goes to intercept the other Transformer. Twenty minutes later, their slower rival is blown up in mid-air. They also take the time to bring down six native ‘stratocruisers’ and a war-plane. They return to base. Eight hours later, the crawler robots detonate their powerful explosives and thus collapse the magma chamber. Most of Engulathon falls into the chamber, which rapidly floods with seawater. Almost all the inhabitants drown and the island can no longer be used as a base.

By the third day, native air forces and satellites are searching the area around the secret tunnels. The commandeered Transformer goes into action, destroying dozens of aircraft with long-range missiles and then doing the same to seven satellites. He is able to reach orbital heights when he uses his boosters. After that, he turns his attention to the warships that are gathering in the nearest ocean. They have no defence against his particle cannons and are soon sunk. There are thousands of casualties but he’s still only warming up. They allow him to rearm and then send him on a bold daylight raid to smash the headquarters of the dominant military power. He approaches the coast of the Luberdon continent, puts the target complex in his sights and releases missiles. The natives are more prepared this time. They put up a great deal of flak and guided missiles, which can be dodged quite easily. Their most effective weapon, though, is a curtain of magical portals. The Transformer can’t get close and his missiles disappear in flight. Undaunted, he releases cluster bombs that pepper the magicians with shrapnel. Some of the portals are thus collapsed and the Transformer fires through the gaps, destroying or damaging most of the buildings in the headquarters. The Transformer returns to base again and prepares quickly for the next sortie.

Such relentless, far-reaching violence: it reminds him of the bad old days, a very long time ago. His name is Jetfire and he’s become an exceptionally accomplished scientist by now. He’s not really a slave, waging war on the local world’s population. He won’t actually be manufacturing and releasing hordes of death drones to annihilate shlukers in every corner of the globe. He loves peace and having the freedom to explore. Research is his life. In a way, he’s researching now. He’s testing his would-be controllers, to see what they want and how they want to get it. They’re clearly powerful but they’re not exceptionally bright. He dealt with much worse in the past. He watches as they work their way through his ultra-sophisticated simulation. Hardly anyone is able to tell the difference between that and reality. The simulated Jetfire fights on, using his superlative intelligence and boundless resourcefulness to crush the simulated global society, piece by piece. It’s not surprising: this is what war machines do. The real Jetfire becomes bored quickly and lets the simulation run on indefinitely. It will alert him when the enemy finally discovers the ruse. He goes back to his other projects. He hopes that he can stay alive long enough to finish them and then rejoin his creator. His spark is failing but he will continue for as long as he can.

* * * * *

“These adorable hurgs and snefs are actually heroes,” said Presh, stroking a snef that sat on her lap. “They’ve survived the alien invasions and the disasters that went with them. They’ve also survived deeply personal tragedies. They’ve lost friends, relatives, neighbours and, worst of all, their owners and homes. Now, they’re struggling with further hardships in the ruins.”

“The lucky ones have been rescued by charities or the government,” continued Criq, keeping his delivery as smooth as possible. “However, those agencies can only support a limited number. Resources are stretched due to the global crisis. There are currently far too many animals on the streets. They can’t all be cared for by official organisations. That’s why we’re asking for your help.” He patted a hurg that was sitting next to him, which had been chosen because it was docile and obedient.

“We understand that many of you are facing hard times,” said Chep. “You’re under a lot of pressure right now but we want to keep hope alive. We’re sure that there are some among you who are prepared to look after one or more of the animals. You can save their lives and prevent their suffering. Don’t they deserve some support, after what they’ve been through?”

“If you take some of these wonderful creatures home with you, the animal welfare agencies will then be able to help other animals,” added Bkeisei. “We can then solve the problem of homeless hurgs and snefs much more quickly. Are you willing to help? Please contact the Central Homeless Animal Programme online or by telephone on 7777 555 7679. If you can’t house any animals, perhaps you’d like to help financially? A donation of just two credits a month can support a hurg or snef until a home is found.”

“We know you can find it in your heart to help,” concluded Presh with a bright smile. “At times like these, we all have to pull together to help the less fortunate, especially these vulnerable little beauties!”

“I’ve adopted a hurg!” said Siqurt, standing next to Criq’s hurg. “Love the hurgs, everyone!”

“We also got this snef,” said Dglef with genuine childlike glee. “We’re going to take her home and give her a great life!” After a few seconds, the director called ‘Cut’.

“Was that a take?” asked Presh, looking up from stroking the snef. Meanwhile, the hurg next to her started sniffing Criq’s bottom.

“Yes, thank Furk!” said the director. “The damned critters behaved themselves just long enough. You’re very lucky that we didn’t have to do a single retake.” He took a deep breath, drank a little zeris and asked his staff for their opinions on the outcome of the filming. There had been a few very minor problems that could be fixed in post-production.

“That was excellent,” said Vonnrok, head of the ‘Cuddlums’ animal charity. “I’m deeply grateful that you could all come in and contribute so effectively to our appeal. I’m sure that we will see a major impact on animal rehoming and our funding after this video is aired tomorrow.”

“We had to come,” said Chep. “We’ve all seen the problem on the streets everywhere. We’ve been feeding strays in our neighbourhood. We’ve been trying to persuade our friends and relatives to take in pets that have lost owners. Most pressing of all, the kids have been pestering us to do something. They wouldn’t stop. Perhaps now they will.” She put her arm around Siqurt’s shoulders.

“If you could just take off your microphones and come back to the dressing rooms, the ladies can remove your make-up and costumes,” said Vonnrok. “I’m sorry but we can’t stay here any longer. They’re filming another commercial in half an hour and they need time to prepare.” Everyone did as he asked. Soon, they were out of the studio and driving home. Their new hurg and snef were in cages at the back of the car. The hurg was still calm but the snef was growling and warbling. It felt threatened and was alternately warning enemies away and calling for help. This was only one example of snefs’ confusing nature.

“I want to call the hurg ‘Hound’,” said Siqurt. “It sounds right.”

“Heh, that’s such a weird name,” said Bkeisei. “It sounds like ‘howed’. When you kids keep asking me how things work, I feel that I’ve been thoroughly ‘howed’.”

“I think that you’re right though, Siqurt,” said Chep. “It does sound fitting. I think that we should use that name.”

“We’ve been away a lot recently,” said Criq. “We’ve neglected you in a way. Now, we should indulge you more to make up for it. The name stays.”

“The snef should be called ‘Predaking’,” said Dglef. “It’s the king of predators!”

“It’s a girl, silly!” said Siqurt. “It’s ‘Predaqueen’!”

“It’s not a queen of anything, at least not yet,” said Bkeisei. “It’s young, small and thin. Why don’t we call it something traditional, like Zanipad?”

“I don’t want to stand on the doorstep late at night, calling for Predaqueen!” said Chep.

“OK, my second choice is Scourge because it will be a scourge of all bugs and gavioes,” said Dglef.

“Fine, Scourge it is,” said Presh. “I can live with that. To be honest, I’m amazed that you know the word. You’re only four and a half. Why didn’t you want regular names for the pets anyway?”

“I don’t know,” said Siqurt. “I’m just following my nose.”

“Me too,” said Dglef. “I’m following my three noses!” She held up her hand noses for a moment.

“Hmm,” said Presh, looking at Siqurt and Dglef. She suspected some kind of alien influence but she also knew that kids could act weirdly now and then. They drove on and soon arrived home. Waiting outside the house was a government car, inside which was a civil servant with a large box. Chep took the children into the house while Presh, Criq and Bkeisei went to see what the civil servant wanted.

“Hello all, I’m Thodi,” he said. “I’m one of Sdulik’s general assistants. I’ve been tasked with bringing you this gift. Sterock commissioned it before he passed away. It was delayed by a problem at the manufacturers. In fact, the chief craftswoman was injured by an alien.”

“That’s awful! I’m so sorry to hear it,” said Presh. “Would you like to come into our parlour and tell us all about it?”

“I believe that I should,” said Thodi. “This is an expensive gift. I don’t want everyone to see it. I have two guards with me.” He pointed behind him. In the darkened rear seats, the guards were sitting silently.

“You should be safe,” said Criq. “This suburb is well policed.” They all went inside and sat in the parlour. Shaplo and Terzet saw the guards and decided to keep an eye on them. They hadn’t forgotten that other guards had hurt Presh earlier. Thodi opened the box to reveal a glittering crown. It was made of precious metals and small, expensive crystals. It had stylised ‘wings’ that were swept back. These wings were at an approximate angle of forty five degrees from the vertical, horizontal and lateral. They were about twenty centimetres long, slender and highly decorated. The main body of the crown was similarly decorated and resembled a lightweight, perforated helmet. Presh looked at it in stunned silence.

“How much did this cost?” she asked a few moments later. “Why wasn’t the money spent on something more worthwhile?”

“Actually, the price is lower than you might think,” said Thodi. “Most of the materials came from salvaged alien metals and crystals. It’s based around an alien helmet. We came across an alien body that was virtually the same size as you. What do you think?”

“Well, it’s absolutely gorgeous but didn’t this sort of thing go out with the anti-monarchy movement?” said Presh.

“This is purely decorative, not a coronation,” said Thodi with a reassuring smile. “It’s symbolic of the high esteem in which we hold you. Would you like to try it on?”

“It would be rude to refuse,” said Presh. “They’ve gone to so much trouble!” She scanned it for malign alien influences but found nothing. Carefully, she picked it up, turned it around and lowered it onto her head. As she did so, she felt tiny moving parts inside picking up her head noddles. Alarmed, she raised the crown and looked inside. There were mechanisms there that she had never seen before, along with a series of small holes.

“Those are the automatic noddle inserters,” said Thodi. “Sorry, I should have told you about them. They stop your noddles from being squashed.” Presh was astonished at the precision engineering of these inserters. Slowly, she lowered the crown again. The inserters gingerly lifted her noddles and put them into the holes. It was a perfect fit. It was better than some headwear, which pressed down on her noddles. She held onto the crown, got up and looked in a large wall mirror. She looked incredible, like a minyan queen descended from a Furk-blessed idyll.

“Holy heck, what do you think?” she said after a few seconds and turned around to show everyone. She moved her hands slightly and accidentally pressed a button on the side of the crown. A set of stylish sunvisor glasses descended, startling her. She saw some technical read-outs on the inside of the glasses, which were left over from the deceased alien.

“You don’t have to keep holding it,” said Thodi. “If you press the button on the other side, there’s a pop-out chin strap.” Presh followed his instructions and felt the chin strap swing into place.

“It truly is a triumph of the jeweller’s art,” said Criq. “It isn’t a traditional crown, though. None of those had sunvisors or chin straps, as far as I remember. This is actually a soldier’s helmet that’s been repurposed.”

“Mum, we brought in Hound and Scourge from the car!” said Dglef, running into the room with Siqurt following behind. “They’re a bit scared so we’re leaving them to get used to the house.” Presh turned to look at her. Dglef stopped abruptly, surprised by the sight of the alien crown. Her mother’s eyes were obscured by large, unfamiliar lenses. There were robot-derived components all around Presh’s face. Dglef backed away a few steps and bumped into Siqurt.

“That’s an alien thing,” she said, suddenly worried. “Are you alright, Mum?” Presh rushed to unstrap and remove the crown. Dglef and Siqurt were relieved to see her natural face again.

“I’m so sorry, this is a present for me from the government,” explained Presh. “It’s to say ‘thank you’ for saving the world. Do you like it? They’ve worked very hard to make it. I think that it’s very, very pretty.” Dglef looked carefully at the crown. The high level of glitz was dizzying. It was better than anything that she could make.

“Yes, it’s ... so, so pretty,” said Dglef. “You keep wearing it, Mum. You’re the best.” She hardly smiled. She turned and left the room. Siqurt went with her. Why was she glum? A few seconds later, Presh remembered that Dglef and Siqurt had made their own crown for her. She called them back into the parlour.

“Look, they’re not trying to make you feel bad,” she said. “The people who made this: they’re grown-ups and they have all the best stuff for making crowns. When you made yours, we only gave you basic stuff. That doesn’t really matter. I love your crown more than this one because you made it. To me, you kids are the best crown makers in the world!” She put the expensive crown on a chair and hugged Dglef and Siqurt. They were happy with this clarification from Presh.

“Do they want you to be a new queen?” asked Dglef.

“No, they just gave me a present,” replied Presh. “We’re not going back to the old days. We’re going to stay as we are.”

“That’s OK,” said Dglef. “We’ll go and play with the new pets.”

“I’ll be with you soon,” said Presh. “Off you go. I have to talk with Thodi for a bit longer.” Dglef and Siqurt ran back to the pets.

“Of course, you’re a busy family so I won’t stay any longer,” said Thodi. “Before I go, would you like to look at a few pictures of accessories?”

“Why not?” said Presh, walking over to look at his screen, which had dozens of concept sketches.

“Stylish jacket,” she mused, scrolling through. “Strapless top, vest, slit skirt, mini skirt, high heels, narrow toes, tight trousers, bustle dress, gauntlets and ... what are these?”

“Shoulder pads,” said Thodi. “They’re impractical, so they’re purely for display. They’re so long and pointy. They’d be no good for going through doorways. All these things match the crown.”

“Well, it seems that you’re trying to turn me into a figure of fantasy!” said Presh, laughing. “I can’t dress like this except for occasional special events. A hands-on mother can’t wander around covered in jewels and precious metals. What’s this: a golden bikini? Give me a break! Ruby nipple tassels? Your designers need a cold shower!”

“Erm, send us the link to this list,” said Bkeisei to Thodi. “I’m very interested. Will these accessories fit Chep too?” Shaplo and Terzet left the room in disgust.

“Wait, think about this,” said Criq to Bkeisei. “These things are great but are they worth the expense? How long would they actually be worn? I guarantee that it would only be a few minutes!” He raised his eyebrows suggestively.

“Those few minutes would be incredible, though,” said Bkeisei dreamily. “Excuse me while I imagine it!”

“I don’t want any accessories,” said Presh bluntly. “They’re totally unnecessary. The money should go to the less fortunate.”

“Maybe we can get some later, when the less fortunate have had enough help?” asked Bkeisei.

“I’ll consider it,” said Presh with a little smile. “Thodi, the President and ex-President have been extremely generous. Thank you all so much! Now, don’t let us keep you from your other work. Send our regards to all the folks at the palace. See you in two months for a scheduled shluk!” Thodi said goodbye and departed. He had plenty of other work to do. Presh, Criq and Bkeisei looked at the crown.

“It just has that aura of otherness, doesn’t it?” remarked Bkeisei. “It’s basically the skull of a dead robot, crafted into this masterpiece. It brings out a whole new side of you, Presh: the side that could travel to other worlds as easily as you ride around town on your Tripla.”

“It’s very appropriate,” said Presh thoughtfully. “I’m the one who initiated the magic, who opened the gateways to other realms. It could be said that I’m some sort of emissary to those realms, although more of an ejector than a greeter.”

“Put it on again,” said Criq. “We’d like to experience your new side for a little longer.”

“No problem,” said Presh, doing as he wanted. “In my new position as pretend queen, I command you to clean the grill pan. Bkeisei, you are to damp dust all the dirty surfaces in the house. Meanwhile, I will fetch myself some cake.” She stood imperiously in front of them and pointed in the direction of the kitchen.

“We’ll have to hide that crown,” said Criq to Bkeisei as they both left the parlour.

“We don’t want burglars to find it,” said Bkeisei.

“Also, we don’t want Presh using it to boss us about too often,” added Criq.

“She does enough of that without the crown!” said Bkeisei. Meanwhile, Presh was discovering the head noddle massage function inside the crown. It was incongruous but very satisfying. The designers had excelled themselves!

* * * * *

“What do you think that you’ll do next year?” asked Jiplez as the group looked around the extensive collection of alien artefacts. “Sdulik and her government believe that it will soon be safe enough for more people to go back to work.” They had all travelled to the capital to see this impressive array, which had been put together soon after the wave of invasions. Most of the exhibits had little accompanying information since no one knew anything about them. The group had been obliged to visit in the early morning, before the general public entered and mobbed them.

“I don’t know,” said Bkeisei. “We have this feeling that the crisis isn’t over. These aliens keep returning. There are so many different types, as we see here.” He swept his arm from side to side, indicating all the artefacts.

“Right now, we’re feeling a sense of impending ... something,” said Criq. “I have a slight headache. Chep and Presh aren’t looking too happy either. There are more aliens lurking out there, or should I say ‘looming’. It feels like there are billions of them.”

“Maybe they won’t come into our world,” said Jiplez hopefully. “If they come here, they’ll see tokens of all the invaders who we beat. That should put off this new race.”

“My magical sense tells me otherwise,” said Bkeisei. “Some of these creatures are devoted to conquest. They won’t give up just because many others failed. Shouldn’t you be able to feel the same presence that we feel, Jiplez? I know that you’re very sensitive.”

“Well, umm, I’m showing a brave face,” said Jiplez, looking slightly nervous but trying to appear serious. “Also, I seem to have the ability to blot out the sense of presence. I deliberately ignore whoever is there.”

“That’s not a good idea,” warned Criq. “We have to stay alert.” He regarded her with concern. He also looked at Sciug, Monblux and Klek. None of them were showing signs of headache. Even more troubling, Dglef and Siqurt were running around and playing without a care in the world. Surely Dglef should have sensed something by now? Criq beckoned Bkeisei and the two of them went over to Chep and Presh.

“What do you think’s going on?” enquired Criq. “The interdimensional ‘atmosphere’ feels so heavy.” Presh shrugged, having no idea beyond that of ‘imminent invasion’. The smell of all the alien artefacts in one place was rather distracting.

“It could be something to do with these artefacts,” suggested Chep. “I mean, look at them: they’re mostly for hurting and killing!” There were indeed thousands of weapons and also tools that might be used as weapons. The four partners cast their gaze down the lines. Slowly, their headaches worsened but they managed to home in on a gun that seemed to feel worst of all. Reluctantly, they went closer to it. The other quartet followed behind.

“The ill will is simply oozing out of this chunky blaster,” noted Bkeisei. “It seems to be in the form of a constant diatribe against foreign species like us.”

“It’s really trying my patience,” said Criq. “Let’s move away. I can’t stand it.” They turned around to face the other quartet.

“Everyone back up,” said Chep, pointing away from the gun with the bad aura. “Over there is a better spot.” Sciug, Jiplez, Monblux and Klek did as prompted.

“If you say so,” said Klek, walking next to Chep.

“Can’t you feel that sickening propaganda vibe?” queried Chep. “What happened to you, Klek? You were very sensitive when we saw you last, a few weeks ago.” She noticed that Klek had a different scent today. It didn’t feel right.

“Maybe we toughened up,” said Klek. “We’ve been through a lot lately. It’s been hard. Poor Sciug had the worst of it.”

“We tried calling you but all your ‘phones were off,” said Chep. “How can people do that in this day and age, with a crisis going on?”

“There was a major network problem in Thornicay and down at the coast,” replied Monblux. “We went back there to see if it would help Sciug. It certainly did! She’s absolutely fine now.”

“I’ve been watching the networks recently and I know that you’re lying!” said Criq. “You’ve deliberately failed to call us or even answer our calls. Why is that? It’s very rude and it’s starting to look quite sinister, to be frank.” As they walked, the headaches were abating somewhat.

“There are times when we just want to be on our own,” said Sciug. “That’s especially true for me. I was in bad shape after my coma. I couldn’t have coped with a lot of conversations.”

“You recovered quicker than the doctors expected, though,” said Presh. “How did you manage that? Did you find a friendly alien to fix you up?”

“Maybe she did,” said Shaplo, entering the hall with his sister Terzet. “We thought you’d be glad to see her well again. Terzet and I certainly are.” The two older children came forward and stood at attention next to the two quartets. Everyone stopped because they were now far enough away from the ‘gun vibes’. Shaplo and Terzet still had their laser tag guns. Their stance was exactly like that of soldiers.

“Have you finished playing laser tag?” asked Criq.

“Yeah, we finished early,” said Terzet. “We’re superior players now that we’ve had our enhancements. We defeated the other teams in record time.”

“What do you mean ‘enhancements’?!” asked Chep urgently.

“These guys told us that we have zillions of little tiny machines inside us,” said Shaplo. “They’re fixing our bodies and making us better than ever in all kinds of activities. We feel fantastic!”

“What have you done to them?” demanded Presh, becoming angry. “Stop changing their bodies and put them back as they were!” She built up an electric charge in her body and released it through her outstretched finger into Sciug, who pulled her arm back in a reflex action. As Sciug did that, Presh and her partners noticed that her arm moved and flexed in an unnatural way. It was too quick and the skin rippled like waves on a pond.

“Who are you?” asked Criq. “Are you friends or impostors?!”

“Hah, looks like the game’s up!” said Sciug. “It’s very difficult to impersonate organic people and get away with it.” Her entire body began rippling. She transformed her appearance from Sciug into her true form, Denae. Monblux became Prond, Klek became Tyvil and Jiplez became...

“Maish!” cried Presh. “Oh Furk, you crafty bi...” At that moment, Siqurt and Dglef ran up to Maish and hugged her legs.

“Don’t hurt them, Mummy!” said Dglef. “They’re really nice people. We love them. We want them to be our best friends! Can we live with them?”

“No!” said Criq. “Get out of the way, kids. We have to send them away. They’re trying to trick us all!” The quartet tried to activate their magic but nothing happened.

“Oh dear, having trouble?” said Maish, picking up Dglef while Prond picked up Siqurt. “You stay here and keep trying. We’ll be on our way. We’ve seen enough artefacts for one day.” Maish and her partners started to walk away with the four children. Presh and her partners rushed forward to try to rescue the children but they were thrown violently backwards by Denae and Tyvil, who were very strong. Bkeisei fell against a display of artefacts and knocked it down.

“Why are you doing this?!” yelled Criq as they all got back on their feet.

“We’re improving your race with our technology,” said Tyvil. “You’ll find that we’ve already done it to all your parents. Our machines will soon spread through the entire global population. You’ll all have great lives under our benevolent rule!”

“Shluk me!” said Presh to her partners. Hurriedly, they formed a circle and linked up.

“I’m going to push this to the max,” she said. “It’s the only way to stop them.”

“What do you mean?” asked Chep, terrified by the abduction of the children. Presh said nothing but started a process that she’d never tried before, only considered. She was opening up interdimensional links to every shluk circle on the planet. More than that, she was warping reality all over the globe. The whole world was becoming a gigantic portal. Criq, Chep and Bkeisei could see her plan now. They were astounded by its scale.

“Help me!” she implored her partners. “Make the portal as wide as possible! We have to eradicate them all, permanently!”

“Are you sure?” asked Bkeisei, deeply worried. “Won’t we destroy the world? How can we control this vast portal?”

“Have faith,” said Presh. “I’ve been working on this quietly since we saw that giant in the sea. We have to unite all the circles around the world. It’ll be fine!”

“I wish that you’d told us about this!” said Bkeisei, unleashing all his magic with the others. Presh guided them. Desperation pushed them to perform feats that would have seemed hopelessly unrealistic only yesterday. All the shluk circles fell into place, to form a hyperdimensional construct that was overlaid onto the world. For some unexplained reason, the ‘centre’ of the construct was on the intersection of eight people called Thevrix, Ganurei, Aflus, Tepuspae, Gnijula, Prymoola, Emefy and Shyngen. Around Presh’s quartet, in every direction, there were scenes from other realities. Some of them were faint while others were very clear. As they kept watching, more and more aliens seemed to be rushing past. It developed into a huge cascade of off-world people pouring into the abyss. None of them were in the right reality to collide with Presh’s world, though. Presh and her partners watched in awe. They had remodelled the entire dimensional environment.

“Congratulations!” said Maish, walking nonchalantly back into the hall with her partners and the four children. “You did it just in time! You averted the invasion of the body rippers!” Presh and her quartet looked at the returnees with amazement and consternation.

“Why aren’t you gone?” asked Bkeisei. “No living aliens can survive here now.”

“Who said we were aliens?” said Maish. “Granted, these robot bodies are alien but the spirits inside are native. We’re ancestors of yours!” There was a moment of stunned silence.

“Sciug mentioned something about the ‘old people’,” recalled Criq. “Are you them?”

“That’s right,” said Tyvil. “We saw the danger coming your way and we had to stop it. Look around you. These aliens flying past are ‘body rippers’. They’re actually an army of clones that fight and kill for a dark power. They destroy civilisations by ... erm ... well, the clue’s in the name. Luckily, the tables have turned. You’ve destroyed them.”

“And you abducted the kids to make us do it?!” said Chep, still angry about it.

“It was the surest way to make you act,” said Prond. “We had our own problems when we were alive. We knew that you’d go to extreme lengths to rescue them.”

“Damn right!” said Chep. “Now take the alien machines out of them!”

“Should we leave some in?” asked Denae. “They’re very good for the health!”

“No, they’ve all got to go!” said Chep. “None of us want them! Alien devices shouldn’t be messing about with our innards!”

“That’s OK, our nanobots will leave your kids and everyone else,” said Denae. “Your scientists will be making their own nanobots soon anyway.”

“What happened to the alien spirits in those bodies?” asked Presh.

“They died and moved on,” replied Maish. “We sensed it and took over the bodies immediately. We didn’t want any evil creatures possessing them.”

“So, what are you going to do with them now?” asked Presh. “I think that they’re too dangerous to leave here.”

“Quite right,” said Prond. “We’re going to return them to their home world. After that, we spirits will go back to roaming free. We’ll watch over you. Oh, there’s one final thing: your friends Sciug, Monblux, Klek and Jiplez will be returned very soon. We held them temporarily in an undersea base. They were well treated and also Sciug was healed.” Maish, Tyvil, Denae and Prond walked out and headed for the nearest gateway back to Cybertron. Shaplo, Terzet, Dglef and Siqurt were sad to see them go.

“No more aliens,” said Presh quietly. “We finally did it. I hope to Furk that the giant portal holds!” A little voice in her head told her that it would.

* * * * *

There she is, wearing that old helmet. It’s been decorated very well and it suits her perfectly. She’s holding court in her big circular bath, as usual. The other people are flattering her lavishly today. She’s also being given a full service, so to speak. Still, I won’t be watching much longer. I’m withdrawing most of my infrastructure from her world. I’m leaving the underground bugs, of course. They’re necessary for keeping the global portal stable, at least for the first few years. The bases on the ocean floor are being dismantled and brought home but I’m leaving a few monitoring drones just in case. It’s vital that the global portal stays open. It’s the conduit for the cleansing of her universe. My allies will throw all the significant dark forces through that portal. Thank Furk for Presh and her people. They’ve saved me a huge amount of work!

The abuser with the purple eyes has spoken. Yes, I heard him and I’m aware of you too. I’m evolving thanks to him and his awful, treacherous troops. I can sense many universes and dimensions around me. At present, I’m still living my life in Bounds Grounds. We haven’t had any alien trouble since we created the global portal. The crown / helmet is proving its worth. It seems to galvanise our many shluk partners to reach new heights of achievement, in various fields. The ancient desire to please ‘royalty’ is still as strong as ever. There’s an online campaign to make our family official royalty. I sense that it’s gaining traction. I hope that it won’t cause too many problems. I’m taking great pains to behave myself, to spread good feelings and to encourage harmonious shluking. More people are showing high levels of spiritual maturity. We are rebuilding our damaged infrastructure and also our population. (As part of that, Chep and I are expecting more children soon.) Our scientists are making full use of the alien artefacts to discover new technologies and natural phenomena. The future’s looking bright. With our new understanding of dimensions, we’ve even managed to establish communication with some other species. On a domestic level, we’ve successfully persuaded the hurg Hound and the snef Scourge to live together peacefully. It used to be said that hurgs and snefs living together was a sign of the apocalypse but, in fact, it is a part of the peaceful global changes. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have yet another tub full of people to shluk. They’re going to have the time of their lives! Where are those tassels....?
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Transformers Podcast: Twincast / Podcast #188 - Mutinous Intent
Twincast / Podcast #188:
"Mutinous Intent"
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Posted: Monday, November 13th, 2017