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Chapters

Monday (Armageddon)

Tuesday (Revelations)

Wednesday (The Malevolence)

Thursday (Third Eye)

Friday (The Human System)

Saturday (Epilogue)

Author

Chapter One

Monday

(Armageddon)

‘Come on, Margaret! Remember, no pain, no gain!’

The septuagenarian grimaced at Russell and began pumping her arms back and forth like the pistons of a steam locomotive.

Russell Tebb, of Russell Tebb Aerobics, nodded his approval and moved on to appraise the other members of his class. ‘Yes, yes, yes!’ he enthused, pumping his fist in time to the music. ‘Nice thrusting, Joyce! Let’s see if we can’t shake those new hips loose!’

‘You’re killing us, Russell!’

Russell turned, ready to bawl-out his complainant but a movement in the corner of his eye distracted him; his secretary, Meg, stood at the office door, mouthing the word “urgent” as she brandished a phone receiver in the air. This was followed by a shrug. Obviously the caller thought it was important, but Meg wasn’t so sure. He batted her away and returned his attention to the class.

‘That’s good, Stephen, one hundred and ten percent! We tolerate nothing less here!’

Eventually the song ended, much to the relief of everyone except Russell, who frowned menacingly at his class. He set up the next track but then glanced back at his office. Maybe he should take that call; give this lot a break before one of them keels over. ‘Five minutes, everyone… but I’ll be back,’ he said, with a wink at Margaret.

‘What’s this urgent call, Meg?’

‘Dunno, someone called Michael. Claims you need to call him back asap,’ replied Meg, with little interest.

Did he know any Michaels? Probably, but no close friends or business associates sprang to mind. He sighed loudly. ‘Well did you ask what it was about!?’

‘He wouldn’t say, just that–’

‘–it was urgent. It’s probably just spam.’ Russell regarded his class through the office window. They were exhausted for this session, anyway. ‘What the hell, give me the phone!’

‘Hello, this is Russell Tebb, am I speaking to “Michael”?’ A few electronic clicks and splutters followed suggesting he was about to be put through to a call centre. Russell dabbed sweat away from his eyes and waited, temper rising...

‘Hello, Russell, thanks for returning my call,’ came the polite English voice. ‘We met during your recent visit to Ayahuasca.’

‘Excuse me?’

‘We met during your recent visit to Ayahuasca.’

What the hell was this guy talking about? He’d not stepped outside of London for over a year! But then the penny dropped, and he thought he knew who this person must be. This “visit to Ayahuasca” was the caller’s glib way of saying “ayahuasca trip”:

About six months earlier Russell had come to hear of a visiting Brazilian shaman who was running an ayahuasca-based workshop in Hammersmith. The controversy surrounding this had received some publicity and Russell began to take an interest in the story when it was reported that drug addicts had been able to kick their habits after only one session with the shaman and his powerful hallucinogen. Some friends of his then suggested he try it himself – for his own cocaine dependency. Russell was somewhat affronted by this, and sceptical, but he was willing to give it a try, since nothing else had worked, and he did want to be clean. He booked himself a rather expensive session with the shaman.

‘This your first time?’ the long-haired eco-warrior type had enquired, as he joined Russell in a waiting area.

‘Yeah, first and only probably… got a bit of a coke issue.’

The man nodded. ‘If you’re looking to break a drug addiction, this will certainly help, it’s very good at that – as long as you have a shaman along to prepare everything and guide you through the ritual.’

‘Ritual!?’

‘Yeah, but don’t worry, man, this guy’s good. One of the most celebrated shamans in the world!’

‘Well, that would account for the cost,’ replied Russell, with a nervous laugh. The crusty scrutinized him closely, but did not reply.

‘Have you done this before?’ Russell asked.

‘Yep, this’ll be my fourth trip on A,’ replied the man, with some pride.

‘What, so it didn’t work first time for you?’

Russell’s new scruffy friend grunted a laugh and replied rather grandly: ‘I’m not here to deal with any drug or mental-health issues, I’m here to “commune”.’ Russell stared blankly at the man, who then pointed up: ‘With ET.’

No mental-health issues, right? But Russell’s companion picked up on his scepticism.

‘Oh, they’re real, man. They’re called the Sponsors, and they’ve been involved in human affairs for a very long time.’

Russell had wanted to end this conversation and was even thinking of leaving, but the man persisted: ‘Every aspect of human affairs is run, err, guided, by the Sponsors.

Only with ayahuasca do you get to deal with them on equal terms.’

‘Are they friendly, these aliens?’

For the first time the man looked pensive, ‘Not really–’

It was at this point that Russell, his new chum and about eight others had been ushered through to the main hall and instructed to drink from a communal bowl of milky sludge. Not long after, the whole ghastly business began...

‘Hello? Russell? Are you still there?’

Russell glared at the phone receiver. If this “Michael” thought he’d be interested in another dalliance with ayahuasca he could shove it!

‘Michael!! That “visit to ayahuasca” was utterly horrifying,’ Russell bellowed down the phone, to the shock of Meg who jumped back, ‘I was completely off my head!!’ ‘Yes, haha, you were talking nonsense most of the time. It was very funny!’

‘Funny!!??’

‘Yes, anyway, I want to talk to you about the Sponsors. We’ve looked into the matter and there is, as you pointed out, a serious issue here.’

Oh, God... ‘Listen, Michael… wait a minute, you told me about the bloody

Sponsors.’

The caller persisted, ‘We need to meet right now.’

‘I know shit about any of this, Michael, so why don’t you go and take a running jump, …into the Thames, preferably!?’

‘What would be the point of that?’

Russell was lost for words. He really didn’t need this; the ayahuasca was something he thought he’d put behind him, but it sounded as though Michael had persisted with the drug, finally becoming addled enough to believe that all this alien conspiracy crap had originated from him!

‘You need help, Michael.’

‘Yes, help from you, Russell. I’m outside your studio now.’

This was starting to take a somewhat sinister turn. Russell did not recall telling this person anything about himself nor where he worked, and yet… here he was. He peered out of his office window down to the busy street below but was unable to see anyone obviously loitering. No sign of the crusty. He briefly considered calling the police but then decided he really needed to deal with this himself.

‘You’re outside now?’

‘Yes.’

‘Very well, I’ll see you briefly but I’m running a class at the moment, so you’ve only got a few minutes, and if you start any trouble, I should warn you I’m–’

The phone line went dead just as the front door buzzed several times. Urgent bastard, Russell thought, as he put down the phone and wondered how to proceed. His class had almost finished their session and would no doubt be grateful if let off a little early, but he didn’t want this geezer entering the premises and bothering them, or Meg.

He’d release the class and deal with Michael at the front door.

‘What on earth was all that about?’ enquired Meg.

Russell smiled and shook his head, ‘Nothing much, just some rubbish, I’ll deal with it now. Could you inform the class that their session is over?’ ‘Sure,’ replied Meg, frowning.

Russell departed from the office with Meg and paused briefly at the dance-floor door to check there were no complaints about the early finish. As he’d hoped, there were none. He headed down the stairs and braced himself for a potentially difficult confrontation. He paused at the front door, inhaled to puff himself up and opened it.

‘Hi, I’m Michael. We met during your recent visit to Ayahuasca.’

It wasn’t the crusty guy after all, but Michael was correct, they had already met:

The ayahuasca trip turned out to be a chaotic, delirious nightmare set in some fetid jungle swamp. Everything around him was alive and stinking: plants, insects, things in the water… Worst of all was that damned spider! The oversized tarantula kept approaching him from the undergrowth, or from the trees. He would try to kick it away but it would always evade him with its lightning-fast reactions. Then it would be back. Sometimes it was literally on his back. He’d struggle frantically to grab it and wrench it free, but again it would dodge him and be lost to the jungle – only to reappear again shortly thereafter.

During a partially lucid moment – one in which he knew himself to be tripping, but was still nonetheless stuck in the jungle – he remembered the man and his blissful communing with aliens. So Russell closed his eyes, deliberately steadied his nerves and his breathing; he ignored the sounds and smells of his surroundings and thought only about flying saucers and shit. But when he again opened his eyes, the spider would be standing directly ahead, mere inches away: black and lustrous, the size of a dog, its multiple eyes blazing an iridescent green. And then it would dart away again. At least it never bit him.

And so the nightmare continued – for hour after torturous hour. When he did finally begin to straighten out he felt terribly, terribly ill and the nausea that had accompanied the trip persisted for weeks afterwards; ironically it was that that finally got him off the coke.

The giant spider from the jungle swamp extended a forepaw and Russell instinctively shook it. ‘Can we come in? Thanks.’ Without waiting for a reply the spider pushed past Russell and scuttled up the stairs; behind it strode a statuesque woman, and behind her came a fat tomcat. The cat glared at him as it sauntered in. In a moment all three were out of sight.

Russell was stunned. Seconds later his dance class came down the steps.

‘See you next week, Russell,’ said Margaret, with a wink. The others smiled; everyone seemed to be in good cheer.

‘Great workout!’ said one old chap, Russell couldn’t remember his name.

Meg followed, putting on her coat.

‘See you later, Russell,’ she said, with a smile.

Russell grabbed her arm, ‘Did you just see what came up there!?’

‘Was that your phone call?’

‘Huh?’ Russell was about to describe exactly what he’d just seen but then it occurred to him that all of this could just be some kind of flashback. No point advertising the fact to Meg, so he just said: ‘Yes.’

Meg shrugged, ‘See ya later!’ and she was gone, closing the front door behind her.

The aerobics studio should be empty now, apart from the visitors, but were they real? Christ, he hoped not, although that would imply he was seriously delusional. Better that than Mike the spider! He dashed up the stairs and onto the dance floor.

He was not alone. The three manifestations of his “flashback” were present also, but spread out across the large room. The tall woman stood near him by the front door, the tomcat paced back and forth on the low stage Russell normally occupied during dance classes and “Michael” was stationary by his office door. All of them were staring at him. He decided to start with the woman and regarded her closely for the first time:

She had short, wavy-brown hair, and wore a simple, black, knee-length dress. She was well proportioned, athletic even, with clear muscle definition to her arms and legs. At well over six feet in height she towered over Russell. Her eyes, a vivid blue/green surrounding small, penetrating pupils, focused hard on Russell. Was that a shotgun over her shoulder? The woman leant against a wall so it was not easy to tell; the meat cleaver held in a calf holster was in stark view, however. She seemed to be very tooled up. And there was a smell, what was that? Raspberries? The woman’s full red lips pursed as they sucked languidly on... something. Russell stared, hypnotized.

At that instant the woman suddenly spat out the contents of her mouth and Russell felt something adhere to his forehead; he wrenched it off and inspected a red boiled sweet. He heard sniggering and quickly turned around. The cat and the spider were still gawping at him but the cat had stopped pacing. As Russell tentatively approached, it squared up to him in a classic come-and-have-a-go-if-you-think-you’re-hard-enough stance. With its Mike-Tyson head, muscular, thick-set body and gunmetal grey pelt – more like that of a seal than a cat – it certainly looked dangerous. If the woman had the demeanour of a gangster boss then this cat was the hard-man enforcer. Russell stopped, he wasn’t going to step any closer to it.

And so that left Mike. Odd that in this company only the gigantic tarantula appeared to be the approachable one. Well, it did have a pleasant phone manner.

‘Alright, Michael,’ said Russell, approaching the spider slowly, ‘You want to talk about the Sponsors?’ but the spider moved away to its right without replying. Hmm, surreal though this experience was it completely lacked the chaos of the original ayahuasca trip. An obvious thought occurred:

‘Are you the Sponsors?’ he asked, but the spider kept moving away to its right without answering. Russell continued approaching realizing that he was walking towards the stage, and the angry tomcat, but the cat had also moved away to its right. He glanced back at the woman and saw that she too had begun to circle in the same direction. Russell continued to advance on the spider as it retreated right, but as the pace quickened he suddenly realized that the three things were not just circling, they were in fact spiralling in towards him. He stopped abruptly.

‘Halt!’ he shouted, and the three things obliged; all were suddenly motionless, now just a few feet away, surrounding him. He made ready to bolt. The exit door! But something new had caught his eye. ‘Is that a blackboard?’ An old-style wooden blackboard, made lighter and shinier from years of overuse, now stood in the centre of the room...

And then the room seemed to swim as he found himself standing directly before the blackboard. The woman stood next to him brandishing a piece of hard, flinty chalk under his nose; she then deliberately placed it on the board and pressed hard, causing the tip to splinter.

‘Brace yourself, Russell,’ said the spider, finally breaking the intolerable silence, ‘at least this will be quicker than your visit to Ayahuasca.’

But Russell barely heard it. The tall, glamorous woman smiled a sort of ear-to-ear sneer as she began to drag the reluctant chalk down the blackboard. The high-pitched, ear-shattering screech was utterly unbearable. Russell primal screamed.

***

Alan Dosogne began to think about lunch; he fancied sushi. He was confident there would be no delays today as this meeting was progressing well.

‘And you want us to divest out of all of these?’ asked Al Nasa.

‘Yes,’ replied Alan, ‘and you should follow the schedule marked out… here,’ he handed the UAE citizen, distant cousin to the Sheik, another sheet of A4, ‘…to ensure the other investors don’t get spooked and drag the prices down.’

‘Indeed,’ the Arab chortled. He would be confident that Alan’s advice was correct, just like all the other advice he had provided over the years. To Al Nasa and the other investors, Alan Dosogne of Global Finance Sponsorship was a financial genius, a savant, a divvy. Everything always panned out as predicted, allowing Al Nasa and his associates to steadily convert billions into tens of billions.

‘And what about the cash pile that will result? Have you found me a football club yet, Alan?’ Al Nasa half-joked.

Alan laughed, ‘no, not yet, but for the time being you should just sit on the cash, there will be a correction in the markets shortly, but after that we should have some very interesting morsels with which to tempt you.’ His thoughts returned to lunch… ‘What about gold?’ asked Al Nasa.

‘No,’ replied Alan, casually, ‘it will continue to drift sideways. You could consider government bonds?’

‘Nah, too cumbersome, too visible,’ replied Al Nasa, just as Alan knew he would. Alan sat back and patiently waited for Al Nasa to ask his remaining questions.

Twenty minutes later and the meeting concluded with the shaking of hands and much hugging and back slapping. Al Nasa and his people were happy, Alan was happy. No doubt his reputation as a miracle worker would be further enhanced by these transactions, assuming Al Nasa did as he was told, and why wouldn’t he?

But in truth Alan knew next to nothing about high finance, his only skills were in handling the rich and powerful, being diplomatic and always being able to read the mood of the room. The investment details were handed down to him by his boss, who probably understood more, but not that much more. It was the system that really called the shots, the system set up and controlled by the Sponsors. High finance deals were just a small part of it. Manipulating politicians was more important but Alan, at only 0.3 percent Sponsor, as measured by genome, was too human to be allowed near all that. Pity, it looked like fun.

With the morning’s business completed he grabbed his jacket and made ready to leave his office. Out in the open-plan section of the department he spied his boss addressing one of the secretaries. Bruce, at 0.8 percent Sponsor, had Sponsor characteristics to his personality, unlike Alan, who merely boasted the few alien ‘apps’ that gave him his negotiating skills. Bruce was a humourless workaholic who demanded the same from all his underlings. He would not be happy seeing Alan sloping off for an extended lunch. Too late, he’d been spotted, and Bruce was beckoning him over. Shit, the dickhead was probably telepathic. Shit, he must stop thinking these thoughts, and he must stop referring to Bruce as a dickhead.

‘Alan, quick word please.’ Bruce led Alan into his office and closed the door behind him. Whether or not he’d heard Alan’s thoughts was not clear. It never was, but it was doubtful he really cared, as long as the work got done.

‘Wassup?’ asked Alan, knowing such a jocular manner sailed right over Bruce’s head.

‘The division supervisor will be paying this department a visit this afternoon to discuss how we’ll handle the recession.’

‘What recession? Oh, you mean the one that’s planned for September 16th.’ Alan felt queasy, not about the recession – but about meeting the division head. At 1.9 percent Sponsor he was as good as alien as far as Alan was concerned. Fully telepathic, he’d pick up on all of Alan’s disloyal musings. However, it wasn’t as if any aspect of himself remained hidden from the Sponsors, they simply wouldn’t care what he thought as long as he did his job. Alan imagined the Sponsors viewed him as a farmer might a temperamental sheepdog: who cared what the dog thought as long as the sheep ended up in the pen? Still, this news had put him off his sushi.

***

Russell became aware of his surroundings; he was sitting in his office chair and was apparently alone, but within seconds Michael suddenly emerged from around the side of his desk to place several of its legs over his. Russell involuntarily jerked.

‘Cup of tea?’

Russell nodded weakly and the spider dashed off only to instantly return with a steaming mug. ‘Careful, it’s hot.’

‘Thanks,’ said Russell, taking the mug and placing it carefully on his desk. Michael scrutinized him from a distance of inches; clearly this oversized arachnid didn’t care much about personal space.

‘How are you feeling? Bit shaky?’ Michael asked.

‘Hmm,’ offered Russell, reaching out for his tea. He sipped it and gave an appreciative nod to the spider. He placed the mug back on his desk. ‘What just happened, Michael?’ But he didn’t need to ask. For once everything was crystal clear. He had been made aware of the facts, almost all facts.

‘You were shown The Truth, Russell. Drug effects, delirium, perception filters, mind control, madness, you name it – they all reside to the right of your sense of reality, only The Truth lies to the left… Not literally, of course.’

Russell knew exactly what Michael meant but now that his awareness had degraded back to “reality” a lot of the detail was becoming hard to grasp. However, the main theme remained shockingly vivid. He glanced out of the office window towards the dance hall. The woman and the cat were both standing at his stage, but their attention had shifted to his sound equipment. The cat in particular appeared to be fascinated by it. ‘I can’t believe it.’

‘Yes you can.’

‘I mean… those two, ...and you! I can’t believe…’

‘You can’t believe that we’re here in your studio?’ The spider chuckled. ‘Yes, I suppose that must seem odd… why you, huh?’

‘Exactly!’ agreed Russell, drinking more of his tea.

‘But you know that we are here.’

Russell glanced over again at the two individuals on his stage. The woman seemed to be explaining something about his equipment to the cat, who was still engrossed by it. She shot a glance back at Russell and he quickly averted his gaze.

‘Now, Russell,’ began the spider, in a serious tone, ‘the aliens known as the Sponsors–’

‘I told you, I don’t know anything about them, it was some other guy who claimed to have had communications with them – during an ayahuasca trip.’

‘Yes, we know, but you brought this information to our attention. You are the catalyst. You may even be able to boast one day of having saved the planet! What do you think of that!?’

‘That I wish some other chump had been the catalyst.’ Russell felt close to tears.

‘Oh, Russell!’ the spider admonished, ‘you need to man-up!’

‘Why do I need to man-up!?’ wailed Russell, ‘I mean, why have you come to see me anyway?’

‘It has been decided!’ replied the spider firmly, closing down any further discussion on the matter. Russell gulped down the remainder of his tea and felt better. The trauma of The Truth was fading fast, but there was still the question of why these things were here – in London.

‘So this is a fact-finding mission, is that it?’ asked Russell, ‘a chance to get some intel on the aliens?’

The spider considered this for a moment. ‘Knowledge and understanding is always important but we have more immediate goals concerning the Sponsors.’

‘And what are those?’

‘We’re going to obliterate them, Russell. Here, grab these keys, your first job is to be our driver.’

***

Alan returned from a rather unsatisfying lunch to discover that the division supervisor had already arrived and was sitting in Bruce’s office. He knocked a couple of gentle taps and entered.

‘Good afternoon, sir.’

The supervisor, a tall, well-built man, wore a black suit; it matched his charcoal eyes

– eyes impenetrable but highly penetrating. Don’t think the c-word, thought Alan. Too late. The supervisor stared hard at him and motioned that he should grab a chair from the open-plan office. Alan did as instructed and then placed it down in an open space in Bruce’s office.

‘Over here,’ said the supervisor, and Alan reluctantly complied by pushing his chair next to the supervisor. He then sat down and looked over to Bruce who was also watching him closely.

Alan couldn’t be sure of the origins of the supervisor, but he suspected vat-grown. Operators such as himself, the “low percentages” who did the grunt-work, were typically abducted several times throughout childhood and tampered with genetically. At some point in adolescence another operator, like this supervisor, would make contact and reveal much of the truth about how things really were in the world – how humans were all just sheep. A sobering and disturbing revelation for an adolescent but one that came with some reimbursement: as a human/Sponsor hybrid he’d occupy a privileged position in society. He’d know more, he’d have special abilities, and he could be supported by the system should he need it. He’d be able to call upon better medical and financial resources…

Alan listened as Bruce and the supervisor explained a complex web of transactions and their immediate consequences. These were due to take place during the forthcoming recession. But to what end? It was impossible to see how all this contributed to the bigger picture as everything discussed here was just a tiny part of it. What he did know, or could surmise, was that the recession was a simple device utilized with the underlying aim of causing much fear and panic – particularly amongst the people the Sponsors wanted to be fearful and panicked. Thus the ‘human system’ as it was sometimes known could be realigned more quickly. It was like taking a super tanker and lifting it bodily out of the water to point in a new direction. And what would be the point of that? Again, the whole operation would be but a small manoeuvre in the larger dance that was humanity’s artificial evolution. The fact that the Sponsors had been manipulating humans from behind the scenes since they were lowly hominids demonstrated the scale of their operation.

What was their ultimate long-term goal? It was unlikely that any being containing human DNA was privy to that secret.

Alan listened as attentively as he could as the two bores droned on.

***

Michael shepherded Russell down to the street door with a number of heavy prods to his lower back every time Russell slowed, spoke, gestured or veered – which was often.

Before he knew it Russell was out on Tooley Street taking in the familiar sounds of traffic and bustle. It was reassuringly familiar and for a second he forgot about everything that had just happened. He thought of Meg, she would be back from her lunch soon and within an hour another aerobics class was due to begin. He wheeled around:

‘I have obligat–’ His three new pals were out on the street with him and looked extraordinarily incongruous – even for London, but they were being ignored by the passers-by. ‘Why’s no one paying you any attention?’

‘Light perception filter: a selective misdirection, sleight-of-hand if you will,’ replied Michael, nonchalantly. ‘Regarding your obligations: Meg is currently on a tube passing through Wembley on her way home and as for your class – by the time it is due to commence they’ll either be dead or preoccupied by various bits of shit hitting various bits of fan.’

Russell was aghast to hear this and was about to demand an explanation when he received more prods to his lower back. ‘This way,’ commanded Michael, ‘check out your new motor!’ Russell was pushed unceremoniously along the street to a waiting, blingedup, open-top Bentley. It was crimson with cream leather seats. ‘Ma’am.’ Michael opened one of the rear doors for the woman. ‘Open the other door for Mr. Waterstone, would you, Russell?’ he added. Russell complied and in stepped the tomcat, eyeing Russell with menace. Michael opened the front passenger door and hopped in. Russell stared at them all.

‘Get in!’ growled the tall woman. It was the first time he’d heard her voice. Deep and loud it was the voice of authority, one that would clearly brook no dissension. So Russell got in. Michael fussed over this-and-that and mentioned a few aspects of the car’s controls to Russell. He explained the satnav and indicated their destination, Whitehall. He then instructed him to drive.

But Russell was still attempting to digest the spider’s words from earlier. It sounded like some impending catastrophe was about to befall London, or maybe the whole world. Michael’s voice interrupted his thoughts:

‘Drive, Russell!’

Shaking his head, Russell used the ignition key he had been given and the car purred into life; it rolled slowly into the busy street.

‘Watch the cyclists!!’ Michael shouted. Russell, more used to driving a Fiat500 around London, was finding the long-wheel-base Bentley somewhat cumbersome. One of the cyclists that Russell had only narrowly missed gave an aggressive, multi-faceted hand gesture towards the Bentley. ‘Try it!!’ Michael yelled back.

Stopping at the first set of red lights Russell turned around to face the woman who was seated behind Michael. ‘Why do you need to take military action at this stage? Why not talk to the Sponsors, maybe negotiate a deal or something. Is there some sort of cosmic rule that says extra-terrestrials can’t live here?’ The woman leaned forwards: ‘Drive.’ ‘What!?’ replied Russell.

‘The lights have turned green!’ shouted Michael.

‘Oh.’ Russell sent the whale of a car trundling along towards the next set of lights. As he was forced to stop at these he tried to engage the woman again, but Michael preempted him.

‘The Sponsors have been extracting heavy metals from the Earth’s core,’ he said, by way of justification for war.

‘Mr. Waterstone is livid,’ added the woman, in a voice dripping with foreboding.

Russell glanced over his other shoulder to view the cat but it was studying the various sights and sounds of London with interest. It did not appear to be engaged in the conversation.

‘Green!!’ barked Michael again.

Russell sighed and followed the satnav directions onto Southwark Street eventually crossing the Thames via Blackfriars bridge. On the north side he drove along the treelined Victoria Embankment. It was another pleasant summer’s day in London with mostly unbroken blue skies overhead, but big cumulus clouds were beginning to tower in the west.

‘How many deaths are you anticipating?’ Russell asked bluntly, glancing to his left. There was a pause and he anticipated not getting an answer, but Michael eventually had a stab at it:

‘Difficult to say. It all depends on what the Sentinel does.’

‘The Sentinel?’

‘Yep, their big mother ship. It is currently parked around Jupiter, but it will be turning up overhead soon enough.’

‘Good God!’ said Russell. He pulled up at a set of lights near the Houses of Parliament and glanced back at the tomcat. It noticed him looking and began to assume that aggressive stance again. Russell turned away. The spider leaned across him and pointed right.

‘There’s Whitehall.’

Russell felt his bowels loosening.

***

The Prime Minister left his aides at the top of the blue carpeted stairwell that spiralled down to Number Ten’s basement. He wasn’t happy to be called away at such short notice for this security briefing when he should have been locked in emergency consultations with his chancellor and various Treasury staff discussing the developing financial storm clouds that were brewing up alarmingly quickly.

The general public were still enjoying an extended economic boom, but this had begun to overheat as early as last year, and now a crash seemed imminent. The stock markets, too, remained blissfully unaware and were simply serving to fan the flames by inflating asset prices still further. Save for a few doom-monger pundits, only a small select number of government officials knew the full scale of the crisis. Soon there would be leaks, and once the more savvy within The City put two and two together they’d start shorting the life out of equities. Then the whole house of cards would come crashing down. The Prime Minister felt panicked by this. They’d all blame him. And they’d all be right, he thought.

‘Prime Minister.’

‘Sir James.’

Pleasantries over, the Prime Minister and Sir James Hampton-Staines, the most senior civil servant in the land, awaited the opening of the large metal blast door ahead.

Sir James was even more senior than the Cabinet Secretary and yet he never got mentioned by the press; a secretive, shadowy figure he somehow managed to stay hidden below the radar. The Prime Minister was secretly jealous of this fact and had almost forgotten what it was like to go about one’s business without being scrutinized ferociously. At any time he could be felled by some controversy or other, something he himself would have no inkling of, and yet he’d have to be the fall guy. God, how naïve he was in the early days to think he had power. This man standing next to him really did have power and he’d been wielding it in and around Whitehall for decades it seemed. Civil servants and politicians feared him, but based on reputation alone, apparently, as Sir James never directly bullied or threatened. He just existed – like a bad smell in a cake shop. The silence of the press could only mean that the proprietors were similarly wary, and probably without ever having met him.

Face to face he lived up to this scary image: Tall, thin, serious, observant. You felt he missed nothing. Those bloody eyes, too big for his head, and irises so black you couldn’t tell where they stopped and the pupils began. Thankfully he tended to wear shaded spectacles most of the time so you rarely got a clear view of them.

There was a loud buzz and the huge steel blast door leisurely swung open. Sir James politely indicated that the Prime Minister should step through first.

The two men walked for some time along a long echoing corridor that branched off to the left and right a few times. They were no longer under Number Ten but, presumably, somewhere deep underneath the Foreign Office, or some other Whitehall building.

The loud sound of their footsteps gave a dramatic air to the bland setting but the Prime Minister had walked these corridors many times before. He wondered what this briefing could be about; if it weren’t for the looming financial crisis he might be interested, though all past briefings had been frightfully dull. Come to think of it: so dull he couldn’t recall a single detail from any of them. Christ, he needed to pay more attention to these things, but, as always, his preoccupation was with saving his political neck, and so his attention invariably tended to focus on press and parliament, just about to the exclusion of everything else – including family.

They arrived at another closed steel door and Sir James leaned forwards to enter in a key-code. The door opened and the two men entered an office complex full of men and women at computer consoles. The place was busy, but there was no conversation at all.

The PM was ushered to a desk in this area and he sat down, still distracted by his worries. Thankfully his mind went blank as the insectoid thing sat down opposite him.

***

Alan followed the division supervisor’s rapid-fire analyses on the tablet he had been given. Charts, numbers and large blocks of text all had to be assimilated quickly and his alien apps were the only thing making that possible. He was grasping the essentials, the stuff he’d need for future dealings with investors such as Al Nasa, but it was a strain. However, when the time came he knew he’d be able to perform his duties capably and in a less fraught manner than this. The supervisor was certainly no skilled orator, droning on quickly in that flat manner; the sound reminded Alan of a bluebottle bouncing off a pane of glass. Imagine if this guy had to deal with the likes of Al Nasa directly, he’d confuse the hell out of them. This thought instilled in Alan a modicum of pride; he may well be the most human of the hybrids present but only he had people skills.

‘Alan.’ It was Bruce.

Shit, he’d lost the thread of the supervisor’s discourse.

‘The supervisor asked you a question,’ added his boss.

‘Will you be able to convince Helen Warner to start shorting the banks on this date, or will you require assistance?’ The supervisor repeated.

‘Yes,’ replied Alan, assuming he could handle it. But Helen Warner was never easy, she was another of those powerful players that this department ‘herded’ from time to time, but she was extremely smart and occasionally, inexplicably, didn’t always do what was required of her.

‘Good,’ replied the supervisor, apparently satisfied. He started off again but then paused, ‘Ah, our esteemed Prime Minister is receiving his conditioning as we speak.’

Alan knew from the material covered in this briefing that the British Prime Minister was to be a key player in all of this. By manipulating his limbic system, and planting a few subliminal commands, the PM would be made so fraught by this upcoming recession that at key moments, when it truly would be his call, he could be relied upon to make the wrong decisions.

The conditioning was most likely being administered directly by a thoroughbred Sponsor. The hybrids had many skills equivalent to mind control, but an important player such as the PM needed expert handling. How distasteful, thought Alan. Manipulating bankers and investors by giving them such obvious logical choices was one thing, but dragging the leader of the country away to be brain-fucked by an alien was quite another. At what point would humanity ever operate independently from these praying-mantis beasts? Alan silently fumed, oblivious to the fact that the supervisor had stopped, and was regarding him closely.

‘Your persistent hostility towards our Sponsors is perplexing, Alan,’ he said, flatly.

‘I’m sorry, sir, I can understand how they have helped us, and continue to do so, but manipulation like this is... it is a reminder perhaps of how far we still have to go.’

The supervisor considered this for a moment and then placed his tablet on the table and swivelled his chair to fully face Alan. ‘You know that without them the human system would collapse?’

Would it? Thought Alan, it seemed like most of the time the Sponsors’ interventions just increased unrest and general angst around the globe, but he replied:

‘Yes, sir.’

‘They have also prevented a full-scale nuclear conflagration on more than one occasion: 1962, 1973, 1983, 20–’

‘Yes, sir, but why let us have nukes in the first place?’

The supervisor reached for his tablet as he replied to Alan’s question: ‘Because it’s a problem to deal with. Just like this recession. The human system as a whole learns slowly and only by presenting it with quandaries such as these can it gain wisdom, and overcome them.’

Alan considered this. It sounded logical, he supposed. Humanity was a young species; it was barely a dozen-or-so generations into industrialization. ‘I’m sorry, sir. I do understand, umm, please continue with the briefing.’

The supervisor studied Alan for several seconds before continuing with the day’s business. ‘…and by November 2nd the scale of household debt will become a focus for media outlets in…’ he trailed off and stared into space. ‘That’s odd,’ he said.

‘What is it, sir?’ asked Bruce, looking a little concerned.

‘…An anomaly,’ replied the supervisor. And then he frowned.

My God, thought Alan. Either this guy’s on Botox or he’s never tried to frown before.

***

The red, chrome-trimmed Bentley slipped around Parliament Square before taking the turning to Parliament Street and moving on to Whitehall.

‘That’s Downing Street over to the left,’ said Michael, acting like a tour guide.

‘Is that where we’re headed?’ asked Russell.

‘Nope, just a bit further along… there.’ Michael indicated a large, white, stone building opposite Horse Guards Avenue. ‘Park here.’ ‘There is no parking here,’ replied Russell.

‘Are you worried about a ticket? Just mount the pavement if you have to!’ Russell found a section of road that was clear but also a restricted parking zone. He pulled up there.

The doors flew open and his three passengers alighted sharply. Michael raced around to the boot where the other two met him. Russell followed awkwardly, eyeing the street for traffic wardens or cops.

‘Russell, grab this,’ Michael ordered, flinging a large briefcase from out of the boot of the car. ‘Sir.’ Michael then handed Mr. Waterstone a holster of sorts and tried to help him put it on. It strapped over the cat’s bulbous trunk presenting a metal support structure at the top that stretched the length of the cat’s back. ‘Fetch the tube gun, would you, Russell?’

Russell looked into the cavernous boot of the Bentley but failed to spot any guns. There was a hollow metal tube, however. He picked it up, surprised by its lightness; it closely resembled a relay baton. ‘This it?’

‘Yes,’ replied the spider, ‘give it here!’

Russell watched as the spider clicked it onto the cat’s holster. It looked feeble.

The woman studied her own gun, an oversized, single-barrel shotgun with a flared mouth: an elephant gun. Following the revelation of The Truth he had taken it as read that this outfit could take on the Sponsors, but now he started to have serious doubts; maybe he’d simply jumped to the obvious conclusion, the wrong conclusion. He decided to voice his concerns:

‘You sure you have a handle on the alien tech you’ll be facing? You know you’ll be up against a: “formidable, ruthless and highly advanced alien race” – your words, Michael.’

The woman just snorted in derision. Michael and Mr. Waterstone ignored him; the cat had contrived to get a strap caught around one of its legs and the spider was attempting to free it.

‘Oh, this’ll work,’ said Russell, to the woman. She responded by pointing the elephant gun at his head and making a shooting sound.

‘Okay, we’re ready,’ declared Michael, almost sounding tense. ‘Ma’am,’ he added, pointing to the revolving-door entrance.

The tall woman walked towards the front of the grand building and beckoned Russell to follow her. The spider and cat followed behind him.

As Russell entered the building behind the woman he instinctively glanced back to ensure the others had managed to negotiate the revolving door without incident. They had, and Russell felt slightly relieved. First obstacle over, he mused, now to slaughter some unknown, and possibly unknowable aliens.

The lobby to this (presumably) government building was oak panelled and rich with ornamentation. Huge and ancient oils hung from the walls, suits of armour and other details hid in the various recesses. The floor was marble and comprised of alternating dark and light diamonds, but the central section was carpeted with some kind of rich, patterned, burgundy shag. The sunlight streaming in from the street was minimal and so further illumination was provided by various wall-mounted lamps and further still by an enormous crystal chandelier.

Halfway between the door and the front desk, the wall panels made way for floorto-ceiling mirrors on both sides. As Russell passed by these he glanced over and was shocked to realize he still had on his aerobics garb: Tight, pink lycra top, yellow, tooshort shorts, white socks and chunky white trainers. To top it all, literally, he sported a head band. Oh God, he and the others looked like a circus act about to try their luck on Britain’s Got Talent. He tore off the head band.

The woman arrived at the desk and from behind it an unfriendly looking chap shouted: ‘This building is not open to the public!’ The woman held her ground and the man returned his attention to the various screens on his desk. Behind him, two heavily armed police or special-forces types gazed at the group but with only casual interest. The woman stepped around the desk and studied a floor plan before gesturing towards the corridor that branched off to the right.

‘Come on,’ murmured Michael, and Russell and Mr. Waterstone followed.

‘What about her?’ whispered Russell.

‘Why are you whispering?’

‘Erm…’

‘You can follow what ma’am gets up to once we are on the roof.’

‘The roof!?’

‘Yes! now come on… and you, too, sir.’

Russell and the cat followed the spider down the corridor and through some doors on the left. He half expected to hear ‘Halt!!!’ or some such from the security personnel in the lobby, but when he glanced back he saw that the three men just seemed to be going about their idle business. Presumably the perception filter, or whatever it was that had allowed this bunch of oddballs to pass through central London without being molested by pedestrians or fellow motorists, was still in force and working adequately here. Although the guy at the desk had shouted at them before becoming quiescent again. Were they trained for this sort of thing? And would it work on an alien? Russell was about to put this point to the spider but when he turned around again he found himself alone in a stairwell. Hmm, well, the roof had been mentioned; he ran up the steps as quickly as he could.

After a six-storey dash, made all the more exhausting by the heavy case he still carried, Russell finally emerged onto the roof of the Whitehall building. The views were impressive but not an unbroken panorama. Several of the neighbouring buildings, most obviously the Houses of Parliament, loomed over him, but there was a clear view out to the east and south. Only up to the north where the land rose gradually did London close in and significantly restrict the prospect. Up above, the sky had become noticeably more cloudy since he’d last paid it any attention, but the sun still shone on their location, and much of the scene around; mild summer zephyrs carried smells of diesel and cooking. He spied Michael and Mr. Waterstone standing on the highest flat surface amid various airconditioning vents. The spider beckoned him over.

‘The case, here!’ Michael’s voice was a bit breathy, was he nervous? Russell handed over the case and watched as the spider deftly re-orientated it, opened the clasps and extracted the contents: a large laptop and some exotic brass instrument that resembled several binoculars fused together. As the computer fired up, the spider grabbed the binocular device and held it to his eight emerald eyes. Ah, a telescopic lens for each of his eyes, nice. Michael perused the sky, the various telescopes adjusting their focus and orientation.

‘Anything?’ asked Russell.

‘Partly cloudy,’ replied the spider, removing the octoculars, but keeping them close.

He focused on the laptop. ‘How’s your awareness, Russell?’

‘I… come again?’

‘Can you sense what ma’am is seeing?’

Russell was baffled by that remark but then realized that part of what he assumed to be his imagination was now providing strikingly vivid visual imagery. ‘Oh yeah…’ He trailed off as his focus changed.

“Russell” entered an open office space and studied the sober, near-silent scene. Along with the predominantly human workforce various “things” moved slowly among them, apparently overseeing proceedings. So these were the Sponsors. Unpleasant looking bunch. He’d expected the Sponsors to be the classic ‘greys’ of ufology mythos; if aliens were real then it followed that most of the canons of ufology should likewise be true. But these aliens were tall, and clearly insect-like; their bodies a chaos of scaffolding, shinyblack and chitinous, like that of a beetle. Nevertheless, there were some overlaps with the ufo greys: the large, black eyes and almond head shapes seemed similar. Russell guessed that ufology as a whole was under the direction of the Sponsors who, perhaps, dropped it into the human subconscious experience from time to time, both to misdirect and to provide the occasional teaser – maybe to test reactions should the two species ever formally meet.

Such a meeting of equals would not be occurring anytime soon, though. He noticed

the Prime Minister sitting at a desk opposite one of the Sponsors. This was no meeting between statesmen, no interspecies negotiation. The PM was “out of it”, glassy-eyed, mouth agape and dribbling. He was like some poor beast at the vet’s: knocked out by general anaesthetic as the surgeon poked about amongst its innards. Except the innard here was the PM’s brain. Russell felt outrage!

‘Disgusting, init?’ remarked Michael, and Russell’s focus jerked across to the rooftop where he stood.

‘Yeah!’ he agreed, glancing the spider’s laptop. ‘What’s all this?’ he asked.

‘I’m tracking the Sentinel and any local aerial traffic.’

Russell studied the increasingly cloudy sky. ‘What’s up there?’

‘Sentinel’s still orbiting Jupiter, reciprocal to Ganymede,’ replied Michael, matter-offactly, ‘no local traffic, unless you count that Airbus.’

The laptop indicated the presence of the twin-engine jet passing nearby to the south on its way to Heathrow. Russell strained to hear it over the street sounds below and thought he could, just, although the heavy clouds were distorting and muffling its engine roar. Other blips moved over London, presumably more aircraft.

A clear image of the Sponsor facing the Prime Minister grabbed hold of his attention. The insect-thing was very close, presumably that meant the woman was very close to it. Russell tried to catch her actual thoughts, but there was nothing. It just felt as though he was watching this from a fully packed football stadium: there was a palpable sense of anticipation as “our guy” prepared to take a penalty. Russell pulled back to the roof.

‘Is this being broadcast to the whole population?’

‘No, just you.’

Russell shrugged and the scene occurring several storeys below returned.

The Sponsor’s head filled his “view”. He was observing something that very few fully-human beings had ever beheld without becoming ensnared by their exceedingly capable telepathic manipulation.

‘This mind control they exercise is creepy!’ Russell said, out loud.

‘It’s more of a hack, than mind control,’ remarked Michael, seemingly in his head. ‘When they constructed you they built these various “backdoors” into your mental architecture. Simply a case of accessing them. Even a human could do it – if it knew how.’

Russell watched in shock as the woman’s finely manicured hand reached out to the Sponsor; thick, claw-like scarlet nails dragged down its face ripping into flesh, bursting it open. The wounds instantly filled with a yellow puss and this soon began to sprout fungal structures. The Sponsor let out an ear-shattering shriek.

Russell continued to gaze as the Prime Minister came abruptly to his senses. He first looked confused, then horrified as he observed the disintegrating Sponsor before him.

‘Get out of here!!’ shouted Russell. The PM stared at him, or her, but then he vanished from vision and awareness.

A wider view. The humans, or human things, were slowly standing up and staring blankly at him. The other Sponsors, the insects, had stopped dead and were glaring.

‘Ooh, looks like we have a nibble,’ commented Michael, as Russell’s attention returned to the roof. ‘The Sentinel is on the move.’

***

‘What anomaly, sir?’ asked Bruce, now clearly very anxious.

The supervisor did not reply, but his frown began to morph into a look of absolute horror.

‘He’s picking up something from the psynet,’ suggested Alan, who was also growing very concerned. He’d never seen anything like this before.

‘Yes,’ replied Bruce, ‘but I can’t access the traffic, can you?’

Alan, along with all the hybrids, had access to the Sponsors’ psynet, an alien internet of sorts but one where the connections were purely mental and the transmission of data instantaneous. It could have been a treasure trove of information but unfortunately the Sponsors had seen fit to add numerous “parental controls” that effectively rendered it useless as a knowledge database. Alan could only access information that related to his work, and a few other boring features, like accurate weather forecasts. By the sounds of it Bruce was similarly constrained. But who knew what the regional supervisor was seeing, or experiencing? The psynet, when it did grant access, was remarkably immersive.

Alan attempted to gain access. Hmm, it seemed to be down, but the supervisor was clearly picking up something. He tried again and this time noticed a knot of activity, but it was more than a knot – all activity within their bizarre cyberspace was concentrated here – wherever here was. As expected, Alan found himself blocked and was about to pull out when he decided to play a hunch. Yes! The rest of the psynet did still exist – as a sort of framework, more like the internet now – and there were no lockouts in evidence! He’d have to move quickly, normal service could be resumed at any moment. He began to search for information on the Sponsors’ overall mission here on Earth. What was their master plan? Bombarded with an overload of data, Alan stopped and tried again; he needed a more specific question.

What are the Sponsors doing to our genomes? There was the answer: Nothing! They had barely tampered with our genetics since the beginning. But weren’t we hominids back then? Wait, there was a huge chunk of data on something called epigenetics. Alan began to read but struggled with the onslaught of alien technobabble… The supervisor suddenly screamed and Alan was forced to abandon his searches.

‘One of our brethren has been destroyed! There is an enemy… there is an enemy… the controller is imperilled, exposed!!’ He then slumped, apparently unconscious.

***

All hell broke loose. A group of three Sponsors suddenly surged forwards only to be instantly cut to splinters by something that had emerged from the elephant gun – it was an elephant. After scything through the Sponsors it punched a hole through the wall and was now bouncing around like a pinball in the next room cutting up more Sponsors. A stream of insects, then clouds of spores, along with numerous larger animals and plants burst out of the elephant gun and sprayed over the nearest Sponsors and hybrids. The reactions in every case were the same: violent thrashing of limbs, screams of agony and then a prompt death.

The scene changed and became chaotic as the woman rushed through the complex cutting down anything that moved. The speed and carnage were incredible and Russell began to feel dizzy. He pulled back to the relative calm of the rooftop.

‘Bloody hell!’ he exclaimed to the spider, who was engrossed by the patterns and blips on his laptop.

‘The Sentinel is almost over us,’ stated Michael.

‘What, already!? That thing can shift!’ Russell studied the sky again, ‘Where is it?’

‘Approximately one hundred kilometres to the east; eighty up. Just grazing the atmosphere over Belgium and heading this way.’ ‘Can we see it?’ asked Russell.

‘If there is a break in the clouds,’ replied Michael. He donned the octoculars and scanned the eastern skyline. ‘Yep, there.’

Russell was handed the octoculars but he could barely handle them let alone see anything out of them; he scanned the firmament with just his eyes. Banks of towering cumulonimbus were building up in all directions but the eastern aspect remained more broken with sections of pale, hazy-blue sky visible beyond the clouds. No sign of any spaceship; maybe at its present distance it was still too small to see with the naked eye.

‘I’m not seeing anything.’

‘Use the field glasses.’

Russell reluctantly picked up the heavy brass instrument. Studying it more closely he realized that the two central lenses could just about function as binoculars; lifting them to his eyes he viewed his surroundings: The London panorama appeared sharper than before with Michael’s instrument cutting through the haze, like a knife through butter. The sky in most directions turned a deep cobalt blue, except to the east, however, where it remained hazy. That was odd…

Russell studied a point in the sky where the two sections of blue met. The transition was very abrupt and as he traced the boundary between the two he suddenly realized that it formed an arc. The hazy sky was in fact the underside of the Sentinel.

‘My god that thing’s gimungus!’ Russell shrieked, startling Mr. Waterstone who had hitherto been engaged in a stare-out with a seagull which had also taken up a position on the roof.

‘Yes, bigger than Greater London, on a good day!’

Russell was astonished and overwhelmed by the scale of the spaceship. How were they going to deal with that!? And what was it going to do!? ‘Does it possess weaponry?’

Michael was about to reply when the woman suddenly joined them on the roof. She was covered in slime and debris but looked to be extremely happy with her afternoon’s work. The elephant gun had been re-holstered over her shoulder and in her right hand, held aloft like a trophy, was the head, exposed brain and spinal column of a Sponsor. Except this one was different, larger. She came up next to Russell and, grinning from earto-ear, slapped him hard across the back of his head.

‘This is their controller, Mr. Tebb,’ she declared triumphantly, brandishing the oversized Sponsor in Russell’s face. Various bits moved or thrashed, the beast was clearly still alive. ‘The only truly independent mind in the whole outfit. They will not tolerate its capture!’ she added.

‘Sentinel moving in over London, ma’am,’ declared Michael. The woman did not reply but just gazed up to the skies. ‘They are activating the Armageddon device,’ he added.

‘The what!!??’ shouted Russell.

‘They have concluded that this planet is lost,’ declared the woman. ‘And so,’ added Michael, ‘they will now scorch all of their assets.’ ‘That means you lot,’ the woman whispered into Russell’s ear.

Russell pulled back and calmly regarded the demented glee painted over the woman’s grimy face. So it was heading for this! Probably the plan all along: take out the Sponsors, then take out their unnatural experiment – us, humanity. There was nothing to say.

‘They’re firing!!’ yelled Michael, almost hysterically.

Russell closed his eyes and awaited extinction.

***

Alan assisted Bruce in trying to revive the supervisor who groaned quietly but kept his eyes closed.

‘Shouldn’t we try to find out what’s going on!?’ Alan demanded of Bruce, but in that instant the supervisor suddenly shuddered and fell to the floor, lifeless. ‘Oh my God!!’ Alan shouted at Bruce but his boss had slumped over his desk, also clearly dead.

Alan scarcely had a second to take all of this in before he felt agonising pains surge throughout his body. His head pounded and his vision swam as he collapsed to the floor. But he remained awake. He vomited a yellow/green foul stinking goo. What the hell was happening? The Sponsor network seemed to be under systemic attack and that, of course, included himself. He forced himself up to a kneeling position and hobbled to the office door. Just as he was about to open it a secretary burst in and began screaming hysterically. Alan fazed in and out of consciousness, barely caring.

***

Russell opened his eyes. Nothing had happened! He was still on the roof of the Whitehall building, the woman still gazing at him with expressions of mirth and madness. The Sponsor controller had been reduced to a black tar that dripped in globs from the woman’s hand.

‘Losers!’ exclaimed Michael.

‘What happened?’ Russell weakly asked.

‘Their Armageddon device keys onto species-distinct gene sequences. I took the liberty of hacking their armament software and replacing the unique human DNA with unique Sponsor DNA,’ the spider proudly replied. ‘They’ve just wiped their earthbound selves out!’

Russell glanced furtively at the woman. She looked less deranged than before, but that smirk was still on show. She turned to the cat. ‘Over to you, Ducky.’

Mr. Waterstone ignored everyone. Once again he was locked in a staring contest with that foolhardy seagull.

‘Sir!!’ yelled Michael, and the cat’s attention switched to the looming spaceship. The tube gun began to rumble and Russell felt an arm grab his; the woman dragged him forcibly away from the cat and threw him behind a protruding air-conditioning duct. The spider scurried about hither and thither looking for something to shelter under, eventually settling on the rear face of the stairwell.

Mr. Waterstone let rip. The tube gun sent out a deafening and continuous sheet of white-hot lava and pyroclast. It arced into the sky evaporating the clouds in its vicinity. After a few tens of seconds it impacted upon the hull of the Sentinel, first billowing out on contact but then it began to breach. Within seconds there came a massive flaring of white light that bathed all of London.

Mr. Waterstone curtailed the eruption of the tube gun in a series of spluttering down steps, the last of which sprayed the contents of the gun over the local area. Volcanic ash began to settle over the roof and surrounding parts of central London.

Michael was the first to emerge from his shelter. He hurried to his laptop and studied the data. Russell and the woman soon joined him, as did Mr. Waterstone – all were awaiting the next pronouncement:

‘It’s broken up; smashed to pieces. Twelve megaton blast – watch out for the shockwave, forty-five seconds…’

On cue an enormous thunder clap sent the recently settled dust and other light debris back into the sky. It was all too much for the seagull which finally fucked off.

Everyone seemed satisfied but then Michael suddenly shouted: ‘We have a

survivor!!’

The woman’s face swiftly turned to a scowl, ‘What manner of abomination is this!?’ she screamed.

‘It’s one of the hybrids, ma’am. Location: Finsbury Circus. Minimal Sponsor tissue, but he is dying. What should we do?’

The woman turned to Russell and grabbed him by the scruff of his neck. ‘Drive!’ she commanded.

***

Alan dropped in and out of consciousness as spasms of pain continued to flare. He was dying, and of that he felt sure; his body had been pulverized but temporarily left intact, left to disintegrate on its own terms, like a condemned building that had just been dynamited but, for a moment at least, was still bravely standing. Death could come in seconds.

He became more lucid for a while and noticed he now lay on a sofa in another office, and someone had placed a blanket over him. He tried to look up but the agony surged. He slumped back and tried once again to access the psynet. Nothing. Truly nothing at all this time. It simply didn’t exist. Something had done a right proper number on the Sponsors, and the hybrids, but apparently left the humans unharmed. He may well be the only survivor, but not for long.

Someone burst into the room. ‘We’ve called the company doctor, Alan, luckily she is still in the building. Hang tight, darling!’ he felt a hand on his brow. It was one of the administrators, Tilly, a sociable young woman with whom he’d shared office gossip from time to time, usually at the expense of Bruce. But he needed more than a house doctor.

‘Ambulance,’ he managed to drawl, almost choking in the process.

‘We called them as well, hopefully they’ll be along asap, but they’re probably struggling with casualties from the disaster. They’re saying an asteroid has exploded over

London! Can you believe that!!??’

‘No,’ replied Alan, truthfully. He did not believe that.

Tilly continued with enthusiasm: ‘Apparently it was massive and there’s a lot of debris coming down, and some windows blown in by the blast, but we’re alright here, most of the damage is out to the east! Do you know Bruce is dead, and the supervisor? Maybe you got hit by some ‘shrapnel’ or something. Strange, though, that no windows appeared to be broken, but maybe something small got through. We’ve locked Bruce’s office and we’ve called the police and…’

Alan stared at the pretty, young administrator as she continued to gabble. He felt concern for her, and everyone else. Maybe death was the preferred option right now, he pondered. What had done all this? It appeared as though the Sponsors had been wiped out and there was no force he knew of that could do that. That only left aliens: different aliens, extremely powerful aliens. What would be their plans for humanity? Several grisly images from Sci-Fi movies passed through his mind: images of farming, harvesting. Oh God!

‘Would you like a cup of tea?’

Alan dry retched at the thought of that as Tilly tried desperately to comfort him. ‘I’ll see where that doctor has got to,’ she said, in a panicky voice, before dashing out of the room.

Alan awaited the inevitable, but his body stubbornly held on. Maybe medical intervention could help him after all. The door to the office flew open and a tall woman stood at the entrance, glaring at him. At last, the doct-‘agh!’

What the–! He was being dragged by his hair along the floor of the open-plan office. He tried to see, but his eyes were rheumy; he tried to complain but could only make grunting, gurgling noises. He was now in a stairwell being forcibly dragged up the stairs.

‘Are we doing another roof!?’ came a complaining male voice from somewhere. There was the sound of many feet around him, crowding him. Near the top he was forced to a standing position and then used as a battering ram to burst open the fire doors. Out onto the roof of Finsbury Circus he flew.

Alan lay face down resting against the loose asphalt roofing for a few seconds, trying to make sense of the nonsensical. He was dead. That was the best explanation, nothing else worked. On the other hand his agonized body forced him back to the land of the living, if only for a brief, final hoorah. He made himself stand. Holy crap! What had happened to the sky!? Boiling black clouds; dancing, almost continuous lightning; a cacophony of thunder and other explosions. Never mind his body signals, he was right the first time, this was death, this was Hell!

His focus cleared somewhat and he noticed the surrounding buildings of the City district, the Square Mile. The nearby Tower 42, the Lloyds building and others all had their internal lights blazing. Below, street lamps were also on, and amid the continuous crashing and banging, a wailing soundtrack of sirens.

He was alone on the roof, just him and some hell beasts: An enormous tarantula paced around the edge of the roof; a demonic cat sat near his feet and studied him with a look of mirth; a furious banshee gesticulated wildly, shouting and screaming unintelligibly; and… a jogger! Yes, Hell, or Hell’s vestibule.

Tearing, groaning sounds came from above. A huge sheet of flaming something emerged from the pitch and glided across the sky, soon to be lost again to another angry wall of cloud. Dante would have loved this…

The banshee screamed at him: ‘Your Sponsors are no more, traitor!!’ Alan cowered before the onslaught of rage. ‘You will soon join them!!’ she wailed.

Eventually Alan glanced up… distracted.

‘Is that a blackboard?’ he asked, casually, no longer mindful of anything else.

‘Brace yourself!’ came a distant voice.

His own nails; somebody else’s nails; or a stick of shiny chalk, flinty and rough-hewn, plucked straight from the Cliffs of Dover. It does not matter which. The implement and the blackboard are fundamentally ill-matched. Matter and anti-matter dragged together and releasing their grievance in a purely acoustic blast. Endless, unbearable, tearing his mind apart. Or tearing it open!

The screeching stops.

A planet seen from space! And a nearby moon. He understands this: the closing stages of the late heavy bombardment, 3.9 billion years ago. Planet Earth as it was then. In place of oceans and continents, many seas and volcanic islands. In place of blue, a hazy grey/brown. And lifeless, just a ball of water and stone. But a perfect ball: perfect location, perfect mass, perfect sun, perfect moon, perfect balance of elements and minerals...

Mr. Waterstone has undeniably struck lucky pitching up here! But the truly hard work still lies ahead. How to assemble the jumbo jet from the scattered rubbish of a junk yard? There can be no planning, no intent. But Mr. Waterstone has luck, and he has will.

Directionless primordial chemistry sets to work and in due course Mr. Waterstone believes he is onto something: a simple RNA nucleus nestling in a haphazard bed of proteins. He examines it in the harsh light of the new sun. It is fragile, immobile and it needs exactly the conditions supplied here by this muddy volcanic vent.

But it is the first viable self-replicating entity: Ceres.

The cell copies itself, it mutates, it improves. At first progress is tortuously slow, but the adaptations keep coming. Photosynthesis! Now it can spread to many other environments on the planet.

Gradually that first clumsy cell evolves into a myriad of others. Internal complexity develops like a runaway mega city. These advanced cells begin to seek out cooperative arrangements with others: mats of bacteria, fungal macrostructures. Then tiny worms, true multi-cellular creatures begin to emerge.

Oxygen is infiltrating the atmosphere and oceans, providing a means to step-up metabolism and now there is an arms race. The mature biosphere emerges: rainforests, dinosaurs, oceans teeming. Then mammals, primates and the modern world.

The view pulls back to show the planet today: bursting at the seams with life. The view pulls back further and the planet becomes an eye, and the eye a face; all life on Earth given a single identity, the same identity it has always had: Ceres. Now it is all of Earth’s 1038 living cells, and standing before him, fierce and accusing.

Alan gazed blankly at the tall woman then collapsed to the ground, motionless, the aneurysm in his brain having finally popped.