THE ENERGAX ARRANGEMENT
By Ben Croshaw
Mark and Mike were friends. The best of chums. For most of their lives thus far they had been chums, mates, pals, cohorts, companions, compadres, colleagues, comrades, and all that. They had been as brothers for so long that there no longer seemed to be any division between themselves, their homes, their parents and their possessions. If one was in danger, the other would believe himself to also be in danger. Not out of any fine motives, but because it had always been that way. If one won the lottery, they would instinctively know that they had both won the lottery. Their friendship had mutated into that stage where they no longer had to invite each other to their birthday parties, or knock before entering each other’s houses.
Which is odd, because other than their ages both being fifteen years they couldn’t be more perfect opposites if they tried. Mike was tall and thin with a dark shock of hair. Mark’s hair was neatly trimmed and blond, his waist expanded slightly, his height a small amount over five feet. The lankiest of the two wore metal-rimmed spectacles, khakis and a black trenchcoat; his companion was rarely to be seen without jeans, a white long-sleeved shirt, a black waistcoat and a pair of dark glasses. The latter he wore at all times of the day and night, due to some throwback gene from his American ancestry.
Mike had been brought up a Christian and had never sought to question these views, but he was no stubborn bible basher. Mark’s parents had been modern types who allowed their son to develop his own beliefs, so the boy had grown to become an adamant atheist. Mark was a big fan of the Spice Girls, believing them to be a quintet of raw talent in boob tubes. Mike thought they were the most shamelessly commercial and exploitative venture ever to emerge from the pungent posterior of the decaying British music industry. You could be forgiven for thinking that they would probably dislike each other because of their views, but not so; it was widely believed around their school - St. Jim Comprehensive - that Armageddon would take place on the day Mark and Mike ever separated.
Perhaps the old adage that opposites attract was not one to be sneered at. Perhaps a duo of men with similar tastes would run out of conversation after a few months of togetherness. The truth could not be known, as not even Mark and Mike knew why they were such good buddies - in the social class system of the playground, the unstoppable Brownian motion of the environment had sent the pair drifting ever further towards each other.
On this day of all days, this sunny Sunday evening in late September, the teen team were enjoying an invigorating use of their kinetically-powered wheeled contrivances. In other words, they were on a bike ride.
And what a fine day this was indeed for a bike ride. Even if it was no longer day in the technical sense but the darkened portion of late evening and therefore early night. So it wasn’t sunny at all and when I said it was so in the preceding paragraph I was obviously alluding to the nice mild temperature and not the bright illumination. So there.
The metaphorical camera of narrative observed as a pair of cycles, mounted by none other than the aforementioned blood-buddies, tore through the undergrowth with no wheels upon Mother Earth and landed with a clatter of components and a crunch of despairing brakes. Not breaking from this one cut the camera pans right and observes the contrivances wheel around a curve in the gravel path that marked the recommended passage through this particular National Trust-listed forest.
And the bikes of the pair that had nothing in common were equal in this. Mike, the lanky one in the spectacles, rode transport with a jet-black frame, a coal-black saddle, midnight-black handlebars and a pitch-black chain and pedal mechanism. His trenchcoat billowed stylishly behind him, kept far from the spokes by an occasional outward-bound thrust of one of his booted feet.
Mark, the shorter one in the shades, perched and pedalled upon a bike that his naive parents had purchased for some birthday years bygone. I say naive for reasons that will soon become clear. The colours of the bike, in the order that we took Mike’s ones in, were bathroom pink, jade white, Pale Scrotum pink and Parisian Moonlight White. It was a girly bike. There could be no doubt of this. There was even a little white basket in the front for putting your dolly in. It was at least a third too small and Mark was forced to stand upright on the pedals, and wisely so, for the saddle had not been designed with the exclusively male betwixt-lower-body-appendage objects in mind. Nothing billowed behind him, except perhaps his dignity.
"Mike," called the blond one to his compadre a few feet ahead, "why is it that our race has developed a machine that could land one of its kind on the moon, but cannot think of a way to make Galaxy Caramel Swirls easy to unwrap?"
"A commendable observation," said the blackest of riders over his shoulder. "I think perhaps that your efforts would be facilitated if you opened the morsel by the small slit in the wrapping, placed there for that very purpose." He did have a way with words, did Mike.
"I thought about it," said Mark, "but having always stripped a similarly-attired confection with a sharp twist of each end, I decided that it was no place of Galaxy’s to revolutionise the art." Mark also had a way with words. The pair did tend to inflict themselves on each other.
"Ever the sentimentalist."
The duo pedalled with a swirl of Doppler effect past an elderly lady holding a piece of string with a cat on the end, sending her into a daze and giving her cause to wonder if she had been visited by the mythical Wheeled Warriors. But then she was a bit batty.
The forestry thinned out a bit and the pair found themselves on the peak of an ever-familiar grassy knoll, looking out on the increasingly inspiring Rugby skyline. A sparkling night sky and a positively glowing full moon smiled down on the industrial town, as it did on our two heroes as they freewheeled across the grass.
Sadly this inspiring scene had to die a horrible death when Mike, distracted by the beauty of his homeland, forgot to kick his trenchcoat away from the fluttering spokes. His mode of transport came to an unscheduled and undignified halt, sending its pilot hurtling betwixt those which had so recently housed his pale, thin hands. But, of course, his flight was halted sharply by the tails of his coat still twisted within the rear wheel. There was an enjoyable brief fraction of a second in which Mike and bike hung in an undignified clinch above the ground. Then the former collapsed painfully over the handlebars, sending the creation toppling into stony ground and the ex-rider rolling in the dust.
Mark skidded to a halt, spraying the local insect community with deadly flying gravel, and spoke the mantra one must always speak on these occasions. "Are you alright, Mike?"
"I appreciate your concern, but I do not appear to have sustained damage," said Mike, then remained silent for several seconds, sprawled awkwardly upon the gravelly ground and staring straight up at the benevolent sky.
"Do you need any assistance?" asked Mark, approaching cautiously. Mike was behaving rather oddly.
"Thank you, no," said Mike stiffly. "I would, however, be intrigued to know your opinions on that."
Forehead crinkled in bewilderment, Mark pulled the black bike from under his friend and cast it aside, thinking it may be causing further injury. Then, not soliciting a response, he sat upon the dusty ground, soiling the seat of his jeans, and lay back to his partner’s side. As one they stared upwards at those that would twinkle in the Infinite.
There are some that would argue that, seeing as the universe is of infinite size and that there are very nearly an infinite number of stars, a lot more of the buggers should be visible from terra firma. Some go on to say that we should be able to see so many that the night sky would look spookily like the day one. But these chaps aren’t taking into account the sheer distance between those stars and our own, the presence of nebulaic dust, and that scourge of our senses, light pollution. None of these factors, however, stood in the way of Mike and Mark’s vision of what bore down on them.
"A shooting star, Mike?"
"I always found that expression somewhat misleading, my esteemed comrade of nearly a decade," said Mike suavely. "It’s neither shooting nor a star. It’s simply a lump of asteroid rock that has survived the tribulations of our atmosphere and as we speak is about to make terminal contact with our interstellar homeland."
They watched the misleadingly-named shooting star in silence for nearly a minute, before Mark found his voice. "It gets bigger the more I look at it."
"It does seem to be coming at us at a fair turn of speed."
There was awkward silence for a few more seconds, and the asteroid continued to grow.
"Excuse the rhetoric, Mark," continued the betrenchcoated youth, "but is it coming towards us?"
"It is an alternative that briefly presented itself to me," said Mark flatly, as if something important had occurred to him.
They remained soundless for a bit longer, staring with increasingly widening eyes at the increasingly accelerating space rock.
"Shall we -"
"- leg it?"
"I’m in if you are."
Mark arranged himself rapidly into a crouch, then pounced like a coiled spring behind a convenient ridge of rock. Mike pulled his lanky carcass painfully to its feet and dived behind a sturdy wall of foliage growing nicely on the opposite side of the clearing.
After that display of agility, the actual landing of the meteorite was a pretty big disappointment. It may be considered exciting in that it landed exactly where Mark and Mike had been lying not so long ago, but beyond that all it did was dive screaming through the air and land with a definite thud, embedding itself half-way into the grassy surface.
The youths rose from their respective hiding spots, and looked each other in the eye. Their mouths were open as they emerged and approached the fallen satellite, from which a tall column of smoke rose transparently. As meteorites go, it wasn’t as interestingly shaped as your average Hollywood city-buster. It was a perfect black sphere, about a metre across, half of which gazed up sheepishly at the boys.
"There’s an unusual meteorite," said Mike.
"That’s never a meteorite!" retorted Mark. "It’s too round."
"This does seem to be the case, but then our Mother Earth is a perfect sphere, as are its interstellar neighbours. Since perfect spheres appear to be the norm up there, I wonder if we should draw attention to this, for fear of appearing dense."
They stared at their cosmic prize for a few awkward seconds, then as one the pair turned to face each other. "Who do you think would want to buy it?" they asked each other.
"NASA, possibly," said Mike. "Or that Secret World Government so beloved of conspiracy theorists."
"Why should we cart this off to the Merkins? It landed, after all, on British soil."
"It very nearly landed on British citizens."
"There you go, then."
"Do we know any perfectly spherical asteroid dealers in Britain?"
"I’m thinking perhaps we could pass it on to the observatory at the grammar school," thought Mark aloud. "They’d know who to pass it on to."
"I am thinking perhaps that we’re jumping the gun here," said Mike sternly. "It does seem firmly embedded in our aforementioned British soil, perhaps we should see if it is possible to shift the blighter before we think about flogging it."
Mark nodded slowly. "Good idea," he said, jerking his head towards said blighter. "Off you go, then."
As his compadre stood with his back to it, head snapping left and right for fear of prying eyes, Mike puffed on his palms, rubbed them together, and planted them either side of the earthbound sphere. As his hands splayed across the shiny black surface, the bits under his hands seemed to glow imperceptibly, then fade to nothingness again.
"Did you see that?" asked Mike fatuously.
"Mm? No, I was looking over there. What happened?"
"Nothing. Must have imagined it."
"Is it moving, then?"
Mike forced himself into the black mass, face screwed up with the effort, sweat beading on his forehead and messing further his unkempt hair. Eventually he visibly slumped against it, breathing in and out. "I’m sure it shifted a smidgeon there," he said, face pressed against it. "But perhaps some implement would be in order."
Mike detached himself from the meteor.
Or at least tried to.
The jolt back down as he tried to stand up served to bruise further his already well-bruised limbs. "Er, Mark," he said flatly, "my hands seem to be stuck."
"As in immobile. They won’t move. I’m stuck to the meteorite."
"I feel I must further doubt the thought that it’s just any old meteorite. Look, it’s made of metal." He flicked it with a thumbnail. It made a sound not unlike a half-full can of deodorant being tapped with a biro (try it, kids).
"Rock, metal, it’s all mineral," said Mike. Had his hands not been under enforced lack of movement he would have waved one dismissively.
"I’m beginning to think," said Mark with a creeping edge of horror in his voice, "that it’s one of those sticky bombs we hear so much about."
This thought had occurred to Mike, but not being a pessimist he had chosen not to consider it. "Hang on, hang on," he said hurriedly, not wishing to aid the rising panic, "I always thought sticky bombs are sticky because they had big metal spikes for embedding themselves in walls and vehicles. Not because they’re covered in glue or," he tugged on his unresponsive palms again, "some other, extremely efficient adhesive."
"Maybe it was built by an amateur terrorist who couldn’t be bothered to weld spikes on. Then they launched it high into the sky and sent it screaming down to us."
Mike examined the possible-bomb again. "You could be right there," he said distractedly, "I always saw military-issue weapons with little logos on them, like a flag of some distant country with a nuclear armament, or a slogan saying ‘boo sucks to you, your majesty’. If you catch my drift."
Mark rounded the sphere and the attached youth, eyeing both up and down, trying to spot some metaphorical crack into which the metaphorical crowbar could be fruitfully inserted. "I must confess to being baffled," he said. "Maybe I should go and fetch someone -"
"Don’t leave me!" said Mike suddenly, and for the first time his friend saw the terror that was unfolding behind the tall one’s eyes.
"OK, but my bomb-disposal skills are a little rusty." Again the metal thing went under inspection. "I don’t see any panels to open."
Mike blew out sharply between his lips. "Must be on the underside. Oh - ah - wait - yes, if I had the ability I would click my fingers triumphantly."
"What is it?"
"All we have to do is dig out this soft earth around the enigmatic object," said Mike, becoming more and more excited. "Then we could roll it to someone who knows about these things."
Mark was already on his knees. "A sound idea!" He nearly started work before realising something. "Hang on - if I did that my hands would be more than likely to touch the ball, leaving us both adhered and improving the situation little."
"We’ll have to do something about the adhesive, then."
"Some sort of fluid might create the appropriate alleviation."
Mark snorted up the nose to loosen the mucus, rattled his uvula to bring the phlegm within his maw, and swirled it around to break it down into a slightly more fluidic consistency. Mike watched all this with some distaste, then shut his eyes when his companion propelled the dollop smoothly along a downward-pointing arc, ending with a point on the shell opposite the unmovable youth. It sat there on the metal, dribbling slowly down the curve.
"Did it work?" asked Mike when he could stomach opening his eyes again, then regretted doing it when Mark poked the tiny puddle with a fingertip, not allowing it to touch the metal for more than a fraction of a second. The boy tapped it again, with slightly more confidence, then several more times before convincing himself that the fingertip was refusing to connect permanently to the pseudo-sticky bomb. Encouraged by this, he smeared the saliva left and right across the sphere, first with just the one finger, then with two, and finally with a whole palm, gradually covering the whole of half a hemisphere with his expectoration. He turned to his friend for an opinion.
"It sickens me to see such a display, and normally I would object," said Mike truthfully, "but considering the circumstances, you should continue."
"It looks pretty light, I think I could probably yank it from the ground in one," said Mark, hand still held against the sphere. "If you could give me a hand here."
Mark planted his other palm against another spittle-coated section of steel, and pulled. His hands didn’t slip off, to his surprise. In fact, they didn’t move at all. Again the ball glowed slightly as the two new palms became sealed onto the shell, but neither lad noticed it.
"Bugger," said a pair of youthful voices.
"This is one clever bomb," said Mark. "It seems to only stick to people if they use both hands."
"Must be an anti-personnel weapon," thought Mike aloud.
They knelt there for some time, looking sheepishly in all directions, wondering half-heartedly if they were going to be blown to bits. The sphere had no comment to make. Nearly half an hour passed in silence, and it looked like the duo were about to drop off with the fatigue, when suddenly Mike jerked upright and pressed his palms even further against the bomb. "Do you feel that?" he asked after a few seconds.
Mark did likewise, and concentrated on the sensations in his hands. "If you’re referring to what feels like some kind of weak pulse, then yes, I do."
The shell was visibly wobbling with each faint thump. "It’s getting stronger! There’s something moving in there!"
"It’s going to blow!" shrieked Mark, then continued his inspiring speech with his friend. "HELP!!!!"
The surrounding foliage were obviously in no position to offer a helping branch. Aside from the vegetation, there was no living thing around that could hear their cries. So did their cries make any noise at all? Such a matter is for a full hour-long debate on Channel 4, and not for this precarious predicament.
Eventually they stopped shouting and turned their attentions back to the wriggling object between them. "It doesn’t seem to be blowing up in a hurry," said the shorter boy, but down on their knees there wasn’t much apparent difference.
"You know, I really am having my doubts as to this being a bomb at all."
"And not a meteorite, either. I am perplexed."
"As am I."
"Perhaps we should proceed with the original plan of extracting it from the soil and taking it to someone in the know on these matters."
"I second that."
"After three, then. Three."
The duo strained once again, summoning all their energy into their shoulders and urging them sharply upwards in order to move the not-a-bomb. This not being a fruitful movement, they nodded to each other and, as one kid, shifted the weight of their bodies from their knees to their feet and tried to straighten up. This time they felt the sphere shift an inch in its crater before returning to its resting place.
"We nearly had it, then!" said Mark triumphantly. "One more strain. Three!"
They strained and heaved and hoed, until the sphere was yanked clear of the hole, but the sheer weight of the wobbling mass tweaked at their complaining biceps. They both took one step away from the small hole, and prepared through unspoken agreement to drop it onto the grass again. Mike relaxed his elbows and tried to bring it down, but it stubbornly remained one foot in mid air and rising.
"What the hell are you doing?!" shouted the same bespectacled youth, taking the strain again. "Put it down!"
"I’m trying!" shouted Mark back. They both relaxed their arms, but the meteorite-cum-bomb-cum-enigma remained hovering apparently without their assistance, now two feet above the ground and still rising. Finally it had reached the same level as the lads’ wide, terror-stricken eyes, and there it stopped.
"Well," said Mike, trying to sound level but unable to stop a slight quaver enter his tone. "It’s not a meteorite."
Then the shell began to glow again, but this time both of the attached noticed it, and for good reason. This time the whole thing was glowing, first from blue to black, then from light blue to blue, then from white to light blue, then from white to a white so bright and so complete that your average run-of-the-mill overcast-sky whiteness seemed light grey by comparison. Then when it became illuminated to a point even beyond that the dynamic duo were forced to avert their eyes from the reaction. They weren’t too stunned to shout, though.
"It’s going into critical mass! We’ll be blown to bits!"
"I love you, Mike!"
"Just as a friend!"
Then the whiteness disappeared, and darkness returned once again to the clearing. The light from the meteorite had been so bright that even though their eyes had been shut Mark and Mike still had to blink a few times to dispel the splodges obscuring their visions. They rubbed their eyes, and in doing so noticed that they were no longer attached to any meteorites that pretended to be bombs. Then, upon flicking back their eyelids, they noticed as a sort of follow-up to the earlier revelation that the meteorite had also disappeared.
"Strike me down with sauerkraut," said Mike quietly. "What was that all about?"
"This is getting too eldritch for my liking. Let’s get out of here."
As they picked up their bikes, which were incidentally still there, something occurred to the rider of the black steel steed. "Shouldn’t we tell someone?"
"If you have a plausible suggestion as to who, I would be willing to here it."
"I see your point. Shall we then away to our sleeping pits, in order to be ready for the tribulations of the morrow?"
"I’m for that."
And they rode away into the night, leaving behind them a small, perfectly round crater and the watcher in the bushes.
Circling far above, unseen in a cloak of darkness, a seagull refused to comment and departed on some apparently important venture.
The place, the same clearing. The time, dawn the next morning. And I’m not talking about the sunlight-falls-on-your-face-through-a-crack-in-the-curtains type of dawn, I’m talking about the sun-pokes-over-the-horizon-as-dew-gets-into-your-shoes-and-you’ve-hardly-had-any-sleep-last-night sort of dawn.
The clearing has not changed physically - the grass is still there, as are the trees and the skyline, as well as that perfectly hemispherical crater dug out of the ground. It’s a bit more crowded in the cold light of day, however, what with the collection of pale men in dark suits and darker glasses roaming around, poking the undergrowth with big sticks and examining the metre-wide hole.
"I don’t understand it," said one of the darkly-clad men. "It landed here. I’m sure it landed here. We followed it through every stage of it’s descent."
"Could there have been a malfunction?" asked another darkly-clad man, who was probably the leader, seeing as he wasn’t doing any work.
The man he was apparently addressing shook his head fervently. "Not a chance. This has never happened before. Besides, it’s clearly been here. The crater’s exactly the right size."
A third darkly-clad man removed his dark glasses and rubbed his forehead with some exasperation. "I still think it must have bounced into the bushes."
The leader called to some of the delegates whacking the foliage with their big sticks. "Find anything?"
There was a collective shaking of heads and negative replies. One of the bush-whackers approached the leader. "Er, sir," he said timidly, "I have a theory."
"We don’t need to listen to this," said the apparent second-in-command, looking down his nose at the newcomer.
"Let’s hear him out," replied the leader.
"It’s just a thought, really," continued the timid man. "But isn’t it more than slightly possible that perhaps the Energum was discovered and, er, hosted?"
As one darkly-clad man, the assembled multitude turned to face the second-in-command, whose sunglasses were incidentally prescription.
"It’s a possibility," he said cautiously. "They do stop sending out signals when hosted - but the hosts should be lit up on radar like Christmas trees, and we’ve seen nothing of the sort."
"But it’s still possible. The hosts, for instance, could be special circumstances, but all this is academic as without a radar signal we’ll never find them." He addressed the entire assembly. "Right, listen everybody. Agent 2, Agent 3 and me are going back to HQ. You lot stay here until further notice and see if you can find anything."
The three highest-ranking agents simultaneously touched their right shoulders, and vanished in a haze of special effects.
At more or less the same time as all this, give or take a few blissful hours of snoozy dream time before the inevitable, Mark had woken up in his room, plastered with posters of aliens and nubile young ladies with an apparent dislike of clothing, dragged himself upright and made his way downstairs. Meanwhile, Mike erupted into consciousness in his own room, with the posters of the Spice Girls and other nubile young ladies with an apparent dislike of clothing (who also lived on a part-time basis under his mattress), and also made his way along the hall to breakfast. He lived in a bungalow.
Mark parked his hips upon the stool that was officially registered as his own, on the southern side of the breakfast bar.
Mike curved his lanky frame onto the seating arrangement by his bungalow’s dining table, slid along the bench to his allotted space and supported his pale chin upon his palm.
Mark’s mother, a very liberal forty-year-old who liked to have little to do with her first born as possible, slid a box of Sugar Puffs along the bar towards the bowl and spoon arrangement Mark had already set up before him. Almost simultaneously, Mike reached over for the carton of orange juice and the bowl of corn flakes that his doting maternal parent had already prepared for him.
And stopped dead.
Mark poured his honey-laced breakfast treat into his dish, and replaced the box in the upright position. As he reached for the milk, he stopped dead, and took a double take.
It’s important that you get the scene set properly in your mind. Mark was sitting at breakfast, arm extended in front of him, hand open to accept the milk bottle, fingers pointing to the left, palm facing inwards. Mike was also sitting at breakfast, arms extended in front of him, elbows slightly bent, fingers unfolded and ready to accept the bowl and the carton, palms facing inwards.
The palms are the important bit, as it was because of these that the important thing appeared in each of the young chaps’ minds.
Mark stared at his palm. Then he dug out his other hand and stared at that as well.
Mike just stayed perfectly still, eyes flicking from one palm to the other.
After a good few horrified seconds, Mark leapt to his feet (knocking over his stool), grabbed his coat and satchel, tore open the front door, slammed it shut behind him, and fled with all haste along the street towards the abode of his long-term companion. With perfect synchronicity, Mike leapt onto the bench, hit his head on a low beam, raced along the pew, grabbed his trenchcoat and backpack, kicked open the front door, and fled along the roadway towards the semi-detached Chez Mark.
And with equally perfect synchronicity, Mark and Mike both stopped rather suddenly in the middle of the pavement and fell over backwards. This was something to do with having approached each other without paying much attention to the world around them, just at the palms they held at arms length like unexploded explosives.
They stared at each other over their respective groins, then stretched out their palms to show each other. "Look!" they said.
On each of Mark’s palms was a symbol. A single, narrow rectangle, little more than four centimetres across and another one thick, horizontally oriented. It was dark brown, and didn’t give the impression of having been simply drawn onto the skin with, say, permanent marker. It resembled, if anything, a mold or a fungus, one that had sprouted into this perfect oblong.
Mike had something similar, except that he had two similar rectangles on each of his palms that crossed over each other. In other words, plus symbols. Mike had a plus symbol on each of his palms, Mark had a minus.
"You’ve got minuses," said Mike superfluously.
"And you’ve got pluses," said Mark, equally so.
"What in the name of Sodom’s Scrotum is going on here?"
"I’ve no idea, but I definitely think it is linked directly with a certain bomb scare twelve hours beforehand."
They stared at each other’s and their own palms for several seconds, still sitting in that undignified sitting position on the pavement of Lower Hillmorton Road, Rugby. "They don’t seem to be causing us any harm," hazarded Mark.
"You’re right," said Mike, with growing confidence. "Probably just coincidence that these dirty marks have formed the symbols of positivity and negativity."
"Let’s get to our compulsory education, then, and eradicate the besmirchment when the opportunity presents itself."
"A sound idea. Come, Michael, to the hallowed learning institution with us."
By now they were not only on their feet, but also standing side-by-side, so they marched confidently in the direction of St. Jim Comprehensive, in their trademarked perfect unison, all thoughts of mysterious meteorites forgotten and schoolbags slung behind them, observed only by a few bemused motorists and a seagull perched on a nearby fence. It wasn’t bemused, it was maintaining that arrogant expression seagulls always give. But it should be assumed that it didn’t think the two boys were playing with a full deck either.
The first problem presented itself during morning assembly.
Everything before that, fine. Leaming, the school bully, had hurled a few insults in their direction before registration, but people like Mike and Mark can ignore their intellectual inferiors by keeping a suitably wide berth. Registration had been more or less eventless, unless you count that weird kid Winslow having his daily encounter with invisible spectres. But assembly brought about a new hazard.
As anyone who has ever sat in on a school assembly will know, you can’t escape from one without being forced to clap your hands at some point. Either some sixth form lad will read out some convoluted information on recent sports events, after which all the players involved would have to stand up and receive a round of applause. Or, on the other end of the scale, some first-year will have received some swimming certificate or accolade for playing the recorder, and will have to smile bashfully as half-hearted clapping echoes around the hall. And therein lay the problem.
Neither Mark nor Mike were capable of it.
Not because they both had fractured wrists or shattered finger bones. They always sat together in assembly so were able to watch each other wave their arms around stupidly in a vain attempt to get their palms to touch. The symbols were repelling each other.
"My symbols are refusing to connect," hissed Mike out of the corner of his mouth, as all sounds were drowned out in handclaps. His hands were about six inches apart, and no amount of pushing could persuade his palms to have anything more to do with each other. He looked across at Mark, who was attempting to catch the symbols by surprise with a rapid volley of claps. All was fruitless, and they were attracting some funny looks from their fellow students. Eventually they gave up and sat through the rest of the assembly with their arms folded, attracting some even worse funny looks from a nearby teacher.
This particular teacher was a needlessly vindictive one whose favourite hobby was penalising youths for the slightest error. As the assembly drew to a unimpressive close and the two non-clappers mooched past, he grabbed both of them by the arms and frog-marched them to the headmaster’s office. This looked a trifle silly, what with said teacher being shorter even than Mark, but the duo knew better than to resist this particular harbinger of doom.
The headmaster of St. Jim Comprehensive, in a stark contrast to his staff, was one of those modern types who believe that the phrase ‘spare the rod and spoil the child’ was made up by philistines and wholly un-modern types. He firmly believed that if you show a student understanding and care, instead of a lengthy bit of wood which has known intimate contact with several young bottoms and has the potential to know many more, then the youth would develop much faster and possibly of their own accord.
So the boys of St. Jim Comprehensive were largely layabout good-for-nothings who had as much chance of making a hundred grand a year upon leaving school as they had of being implanted with the knowledge of an alien species as part of a hideous interstellar experiment.
Mr. Farquarharson, the headmaster, gazed up over his clenched hands at the boys that occupied the comfy chairs on the other side of his nice modern desk. The teacher who had brought them in was standing by the door with his arms folded and wearing the expression that says ‘you’re for it now’.
"Problem, Mr. Tendril?" said the headmaster, not taking his eyes from the rather worried-looking boys.
"These boys refused to applaud during assembly," said Mr. Tendril smugly.
"I see. Leave us, please."
Tendril left with an orgasmic sigh of pleasure, closing the door lightly behind him. Mr. Farquarharson stared at the boys, who were showing no interest at all in the older man, preferring to stare at their palms with varying degrees of horror.
"Names?" said the chief of staff, simply.
Mike and Mark seemed to notice him for the first time, and their expressions changed to ones almost of relief and not a little contempt. "Our epithets are Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier, O thoroughly modern and well-informed head of the institute," said the trenchcoat boy.
The names rang a bell in the master’s modern mind. He remembered them as the identities brought up in a staff meeting, apparently connected with accusations of speaking in a method that was deemed offensive to the English department. "Mr. Tendril tells me you don’t seem to be showing the appropriate enthusiasm of the school," he said awkwardly, as the boys shifted their attention to their extremities again.
The boys exchanged glances. "I confess to being perplexed, friend beanpole," said Mark to his friend.
"Be reassured that you are not alone on that front, O vertically challenged one," replied his friend. "I do not recall being briefed on our purpose here."
"You weren’t clapping," said the headmaster weakly, feeling a little left out.
The degree of contempt on the faces of the boys rose to the threshold of pity, and they turned to each other again. "I was not aware that the education system has mutated to such a degree that one can be penalised for deciding against offering acclaim to those whom you don’t consider worthy of your praise," said Mark, ad-libbing beautifully.
"Is that it?" said the head quickly. "You didn’t think -" he consulted his notes, "- that Tom Jericho’s silver swimming certificate was worth applauding?"
The contempt was definitely there in the voice, now. "Frankly, no."
More notes were consulted. "Or Kevin Twynholm of 5I winning the regional Weetabix competition? Or Jonathan Simian of 8K getting into the National Youth Orchestra? Or Stuart Sirloin of 6N being awarded the OBE? Surely if Her Majesty could bring herself to applaud him, then -"
It was Mike’s turn to lie his head off. "We’ve both become anarchists and anti-royalists," he said quickly. "We’re marching on the Winter Palace come Saturday."
"Nice one, Mike."
"Thank you, Mark."
"Look, boys," continued the headmaster, resorting to shaming the youngsters. "You’re two of the brightest young men in the school. You’ve clearly got excellent wordpower and vast intellect. But you’ve got no pride in your school at all, your test scores are appalling, your schoolwork is below gradeable level ..."
And this was all true. Mike and Mark both had abysmal records. Obviously not because they weren’t very clever. They were. Exceedingly clever. Abnormally so. That was the problem, in fact. Mike’s answer to question four of his Mental Arithmetic mock exam only a week beforehand had been ‘I refuse to answer this question because I consider it an insult to my intelligence and a frank disregard of my last month’s tuition’. Mark once lost interest during a geography test and wrote a university-level essay on how, if he ruled the world, mankind would become twice as strong, twice as intelligent and free of disease within three generations. The thing that really put the wind up his tutor was that, going over the details in the paper, he was probably right.
The nature of Mike and Mark’s terrible grades thoroughly confused Leaming and his gang, staunch intelligence-haters, who had pledged to annihilate all kids with high test scores. It also thoroughly confused the headmaster, who couldn’t decide whether to suspend these university-level boys or move them straight to sixth form. In the end it was decided just to watch and wait for further developments.
"If I might just interrupt," interrupted Mark, "my colleague and I have felt and have always felt that the school environment just doesn’t allow the overly vast intellect to flourish. Taking by way of example that loathsome lout Leaming and his lackeys, those morons are the first to isolate they who would take advantage of a clearly superior intelligence quotient."
"Well put, Mark."
"Thank you, Mike."
Mr. Farquarharson made a small note on one of several pieces of paper upon his modern desk. "Leaming, right?" he said. "I’ll have him see me. Thanks for letting me know, boys, most victims of bullies are too scared to come forward in case the bully takes revenge -"
Mark and Mike looked at each other fearfully. "It would seem," whispered Mike harshly, "that our hastily assembled untruths are rebounding back on us in accordance with the threefold law of return. The wrath of the aforementioned loathsome lout Leaming shall surely be incurred in our direction."
"We should maintain a suitably vast distance between ourselves and the loathsome one. Thirty or forty thousand miles should be sufficient."
The headmaster opened a drawer, in which a copy of ‘Management for Dummies’ was hidden and open on the chapter entitled ‘Be Assertive’. He read a couple of lines, lips moving imperceptibly, shut the drawer again and turned to face his tormentees. "Right, run along then, chaps," he said in a modern and assertive way, "and don’t - do it - again."
On the way to the boy’s toilets, in which the duo were intending to skulk until the end of morning break, Mark and Mike stood shoulder to shoulder, or at least shoulder to waist in accordance with their differing heights, and discussed the outcome of the meeting.
"Of course, we could have just displayed the symbols and explained the matter thoroughly to the moustachioed cretin,"
"Picture this, O constant wearer of sunglasses: ‘Hello, Mr. Farquarharfarharson. We didn’t clap in assembly today because we’ve been respectively positively and negatively charged by a meteorite-cum-bomb that wasn’t really a meteorite and didn’t turn out to be a bomb.’"
"I see your point." Mark hesitated. "What do you mean, ‘positively and negatively charged’?"
Mike extended his hands, and Mark did likewise in response. "Seems obvious to me," said the lanky lad. "Plus and minus. And they won’t touch."
"Hm. It did cross my mind."
"Great minds -" began Mike.
"- think alike," finished both in unison.
Marching through the corridors, they passed a certain bulky and scruffily dressed young man, with Mr. Tendril on one arm and Mrs. Tumour on the other, being frogmarched in the direction of Mr. Farquarharson’s room.
"Hello Leaming," greeted Mike and Mark, not making eye contact and swerving quite heavily to avoid the bully.
"Yu grassed, yu smartarse bastards!" grunted the bulky one back as he was propelled out of earshot. "I’ll kick yur arses later!"
"He doesn’t get any better, does he."
"Six foot broom handle up the rectal passage should help."
"Help us, certainly."
By now the pair had arrived at the boy’s washroom. The washrooms of boys and gents are always a direct contrast to the washrooms of girls and ladies, which are always pleasant-smelling and clean, devoid of graffiti and filth. On the other hand, and I’m sure any man will agree with me, the male-oriented toilets are always covered in cracked mirrors and tiles and unspeakable homosexuality-based daubings on walls and interior sides of doors. The ceramic bowls themselves emit a foul aroma and provide the home of little floaters no-one will own up to.
So why, do you ask yourselves, are there always floaters in the boy’s bogs at school? Some rather untrusting people will point the finger at lazy people who think that their hands are too important to suffer the grease and finger grime usually coating the flush handles and chains. Personally I vouch for the theory that there dwells within the sewers a race of troglodyte creatures who consider the brown log-like objects and bits of soggy paper constantly pouring onto them as gifts from the gods. These monsters do not, however, feel themselves worthy of such marvellous presents, and endeavour to push them all back to the gracious deities. But where did they come from, these misguided little smelly things? Why, they evolved from germs and bacteria. Germs and bacteria that come from the pustules on the faces of young men. The same faces that get regularly forced into school toilet bowls by brutish people like Leaming. And thats why the sub-dwellers only live under schools.
See, it’s all so obvious when it’s explained.
"The sewer-dwellers have returned their regular offerings, I see," commented Mark, sniffing the air.
"Perhaps someone should go and set the record straight with the poor things."
"Rather them than us."
They marched up to the chipped washbasins and eyed the mirrors, on one of which some bored person had scrawled the enigmatic phrase ‘BG 4 JC’. Whoever BG and JC were, or what the scribe evidently considered was going on between them was, would never be known.
"Right," said Mike, "let us erase these repellent oblongs from our palms without further ado."
"Indeed, O fellow symbol-bearing youth."
They both turned on the tap in closest vicinity to their hands, then had to move to different sinks until they found two that worked, and quickly made further offerings to the sewer-dwellers. Liquid soap applied to palms, they pushed their symbols under the streams and began to scrub.
Five minutes later, and coming up to the end of break, no progress had been made. The pair had resorted to using small scrubbing brushes and scouring pads hastily borrowed from the janitor, but nothing was helping. Then Mike chose to examine his soaked and reddened hands more closely.
"Look at this," he said in wonder.
Mark did so, and found that his palms were no different. A large and seemingly unmovable air bubble had formed around the symbols, which were glowing yellowly, almost spitefully.
"If I was any particularly cynical lad," said Mark, "I’d swear that the symbols are repelling the water."
Mike stuck his hand palm-up directly under the cascade of water that was still emerging from his tap. When the water reached his symbol it split into two separate streams, pouring in opposite directions over and under his hand.
"It’s almost as if the symbols don’t want to be washed," he said.
"Don’t be absurd," said his partner in a hopeless tone of voice. "Palm-mounted symbols aren’t sentient."
"I hasten to remind you that your experience with palm-mounted symbols is not exactly encyclopaedic," said Mike, still keeping his eyes on same.
Mark withdrew his hands, and shook off the excess soap and water. "Forget it," he said. "We’ll just have to ignore them with a little more effort."
"Perhaps it would be wiser to attempt to learn more about the problem?"
Mark shook his blond head stubbornly. "We can’t let the accursed things take over our lives," he said. "Perhaps if we leave them they’ll go away, like mouth ulcers."
Mike was dubious, and said so, but grudgingly agreed to his companion’s logic. "Alright," he said, "let us continue with the day’s activities and leave them be until, as you have foreseen, they vanish without trace."
When the bully Leaming had left the office of Mr. Farquarharson, grumbling something about revenge and certain local smartarses, the owner of said office took an aloe-vera-scented napkin from a box in another drawer, and wiped the sweat and saliva from his forehead. Then he opened the other drawer with the copy of Management For Dummies in it and consulted the index for anything about trying to get someone to stop spitting when they spoke.
"There’re two gentlemen to see you, sir," went the intercom.
"Not now, Doris."
"They say it’s urgent, sir. They say they’re from the EDF."
Mr. Farquarharson considered that anyone who represents an organization with three letters in the name has to be important. "Well, show them in."
He hastily slammed shut the desk drawers containing his reference book, the hanky box and the potted geraniums, and pretended to do some marking as the two gentlemen walked in.
In appearance, the pair looked so alike it would be fruitless to describe them individually. They both wore dark suits and darker glasses, which they slipped into their top pockets as they entered (just the dark glasses, of course, not the suits, that would be a physical impossibility). They both had a very short, black hairstyle, skinny features and a pale complexion that comes from not going out much. Mr. Farquarharson could clearly see the blue veins on their temples pulse slightly, and felt quite ill.
"Can I help you, gentlemen?" he asked, swallowing. "Tea? Coffee? Mad Dog 20/20?"
One of the besuited men went and closed the blinds. The other checked the door. "It is important," said the latter, "that what is said in this room does not go beyond we three."
"Okay ..." said the headmaster warily.
"We’ll get straight to the point, Mr. Farquarharson. We represent a government-funded and extremely secretive organization that deals with, ahm, the unusual, and we’re looking for two people who may be in the local vicinity. We’ve spoken to the police station, several large employers and several schools, come up with nothing, and are getting pretty desperate."
"What do they look like?"
"They’ll have tattoos on their palms. One will have plus symbols, the other will have minuses."
"Don’t think I’ve seen anything like that ... do you have any other details?"
The two gentlemen looked at each other, wearing the expression that says we’re-wasting-our-time-here. Almost as a last resort, one said, "They won’t be able to get their own palms to touch each other, and there may be reports of unusual physical activity around them."
The headmaster’s eyebrows rose. He was no idiot. His thoughts turned to two boys who refused to applaud, and offered some pretty lame excuses afterwards. But then, his next thought said, they were some pretty weird kids, they were more than likely to be telling the truth, or some variation on it. "Sorry I can’t help you, gentlemen. Could you leave a telephone number, so I could tell you if I see any further evidence? Er, I mean, if I see anyone like that?"
One of the men smiled. "We prefer not to give out phone numbers," he said in a slightly reptilian voice. "We will contact you if it suits us."
"This is some really secretive stuff, isn’t it."
"Indeed. And vital to global security. So keep shtum. Right?"
After the EDF representatives had gone, as quietly as before, fondling the doorknob more than was necessary, the hassled headmaster held down a button on his intercom and leaned over it. "Doris, send a memo to all staff. Keep an eye on the hands of Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier. Report anything unusual. Got that?"
"Right. See that it’s circulated quickly." He added "over" as an afterthought, and went back to his aloe-vera hankies.
And a tiny piece of electronic gadgetry on the doorknob recorded everything it saw and everything it heard, missing nothing. It was all straight out of Mission Impossible, or possibly James Bond.
The woes of Mike Skipwith and Mark Dossier, already long as a toilet roll (compressed), received a pretty hefty addition come the end of school. The rest of the day had passed without event, except perhaps Mr. Haystack leaning over and checking their hands without explanation, but it was only when they were hanging around in the playground, chatting for a few minutes before they had to leave, as usual, when a further development gave cause for concern.
"Are you familiar with that inimitable sandwich-filling treat Dairylea?" asked Mark, amongst other things.
"It is a substance of which I am aware, yes."
"Well, have you any theories as to the origin of the name? It does seem a rather unlikely pseudonym for spreading cheese."
Mike thought about this. "The meaning of the ‘dairy’ portion of the title is obvious, however, it is the ‘lea’ that throws me."
"That’s what I thought."
Mike thought a bit more about this. "I’m uncertain, but it sounds to me like one of those hyphenated names used in the American Deep South. You know, ‘here’s my son Bobby-Joe and my daughter Dairy-Lea’."
Not the most exciting of exchanges, I have to admit, but it hots up a bit here.
"Do you see what I see?" enquired Mark, peering into the middle distance.
"Probably, seeing as we are more or less in the same geographical position and angled in the same direction."
"Tell me what you see."
During the following sentence, Mike’s normal sprightly and intelligent voice faded to a flat, dull tone, brimming with the fear of death. "I see that loathsome lout Leaming and his colleagues offering us the immortal ‘funny look’ from the far side of the playground."
A pause, then Mark said, "Now tell me what you see."
"I see much the same thing, except the loathsome one has stopped offering us the aforementioned and is rocketing towards us at an alarming pace with his gang in tow."
"Shall we away to our heels?"
"It would only encourage them."
"Given the choice, I would much rather encourage the louts, rather than risk their displeasure."
"I believe their displeasure has been risked enough today by us. However, I see your point."
"So, to proceed with the original plan?"
"Would be a sound idea."
And what an epic chase it was. Although crowds of four and above always run faster than individuals (try it and see), the loathsome lout and his equally unwholesome mates were weighed down by muscle, fat and rocks in the head, while Mike was aided by his long strides and Mark, although small, was lighter and therefore less encumbered by gravity. It was conceivable that the duo could stay several steps ahead of the bullies at all times and lose them in the mazelike school garden round the back, but as will soon be revealed this alternative turned out to be not an option.
Mike and Mark were chased right across the playground, down to the bottom of the playing field (scattering a crowd of seagulls in the process), all the way back up, all the way round the playground again, twice round the shed where the sports equipment (and, in accordance with popular belief, the janitor’s headless wife) is kept, right round the technology block, right round the art block, right over the sports hall, and finally back to the field. This last node was on the route from the sports hall to the aforementioned gardens, where the chased boys were intending to lose their pursuers, one of whom had already retired due to asthma.
Upon reaching the borders of the garden, the pursued found their paths blocked by an eight-foot chain-link fence that surrounded the vegetative area. Experimentally Mike made a standing jump and grabbed the top of the blockage, then tried to struggle upwards. A globdule of bird poo put this attempt to a close and sent him back to ground level to face the louts.
"We’re gonna kick yur arses," said Leaming in what he thought was a menacing tone, spoiled somewhat by his gulping in air and clutching his heart. It should be noted that neither Mike nor Mark showed any signs of fatigue, but a fair amount of fear.
"May I be frank, O renowned local thug," said Mark, adjusting his slightly lopsided dark glasses. "Both you and I know - or perhaps not - that embarking on an undisciplined scuffle this way is no longer the accepted norm. Perhaps our dispute would be better settled in a place of civilization, the ropéd ring for example, where you will be free to punish us under the rules of Queensbury."
As blank faces stared back at them, Mike leant over and hissed into the ear of his closest friend. "Is this some form of subterfuge?"
"As perceptive as ever, I see. I am thinking that should we talk what they consider as gibberish, perhaps they will give up and go away."
Leaming, however, did not know the meaning of the word ‘subterfuge’, ‘gibberish’ or, for that matter, ‘thinking’. Having hastily gathered his breath back to his lungs, he swept his beefy palms forwards. "Let’s get them!"
"Oh, blow," said Mike. "A concerted effort though, my friend. Perhaps we shall have to resort to our usual solution to these situations."
"You mean feign unconsciousness come the first moderately powerful blow to the skull."
"That is exactly what I mean."
"Then let us take it like men, and meet up later in the matron’s office for a note excusing us from education on the morrow and a strengthening cup of tea."
"Let’s do it."
As they put up their paws to make fists, they noticed their symbols glowing. Glowing from its usual dull brown shade to a healthy golden colour, and from there to an even brighter shade. The exploits of the bully and his murderous colleagues fell to background as the young heroes watched in wonder, the symbols filling their world. Sound seemed to fade away, and then even Leaming was as of further blackness in void. All that they saw, and all that was important, were the symbols and their increasingly bright shades.
A most unusual feeling fell over them. It was as if their living brains were having sparkling champagne poured over them. Energy popped and sparked in their heads, a waterfall of golden stars filled their vision. They stiffened as the energy cascaded down through the shoulders and down to the feet, filling up their arms and other extremities. The ground beneath their feet seemed to disappear - they no longer had any feeling in their bodies. They were totally numb.
Wonder became fear and the real world returned to them. They could see out of their eyes, but it was as if they were looking the wrong way through binoculars. Sounds seemed to come to them through fifteen layers of tissue paper. They were powerless to resist as they saw and felt their arms extend, sticking out forwards at right angles to their bodies. They watched with some horror as their fingers uncurled and their palms splayed, as if displaying the glowing symbols for Leaming and company.
The bullies stopped dead. From their point of view, something was happening to Mike and Mark. Their arms were out and their hands open, displaying the glowing symbols like some kind of offering. Their jaws hung open and their eyes sparked yellowly.
"What the -" began Carlisle, a friend of Leaming’s.
Carlisle’s chosen expletive was never known, as he was silenced by an impossibly bright flash. Mike and Mark felt the energy that held them captive disappear in an odd way, projecting itself out of the symbols like water down a plughole. With an almighty bang their ears popped and their vision whitened.
When their sight returned to them, they found themselves slumped against the fence, only each other’s bodys preventing them from toppling over. The grass below them - and all of it in a wide radius - was blackened and smoking, some parts even still burning. Leaming and friends lay groaning in a heap some one hundred yards away, smoke rising from the folds in their clothing and suffering from what looked like sunburn. Mark and Mike were totally unharmed.
Their palms and extremities tingled slightly, but this was a normal pins-and-needles tingling, not the champagne supernova so recently experienced. The symbols had faded back to their original colour. Life had returned to normalcy for the time being.
"Bugger me," slurred Mike.
Leaming, waking from his forced slumber, wisely chose to take his leave. Throughout the evening his friends would do likewise one by one.
Mike and Mark, meanwhile, just lay there, eyes staring straight ahead and lower jaws flapping. "What - was - that?" enquired Mark, gaining control.
"It - is - inconclusive," replied Mike.
"It was the meteorite, wasn’t it."
"I would certainly wager on that being the case. I doubt somehow that this was the work of too many Sugar Puffs."
While the smartarses talked gibberish and the bullies ran away, a rustling in a nearby bush went understandably undetected. Understandably because all potential watchers were otherwise engaged, not because the dweller of the bush was a master of espionage. He wasn’t. He was an investigative journalist for the local sensationalistic tabloid by the name of Justin Ramsbotham, and he was playing spy.
From the bottom of his unpolished shoes and dirty trenchcoat to the tip of his brimméd hat, out of which the little white card with ‘press’ written on it poked cheekily, Justin was every inch a journalist. His hands groped a camera whose shutter was clicking nicely, but he usually preferred to carry a ringed notepad and pencil. A pencil he would lick before using. What a very stereotypical man he was.
He peered out through the foliage of the school garden at the twosome slumped against the chain-link fence. They were definitely the same boys he had seen - quite by accident - on the hilltop, where he had followed the meteorite to. Following the youths had seemed a good idea, but he had had to go home for his camera and ringed notepad first and the trail was lost. Having camped out in the school garden all day he was growing hungry, tired and not a little low in self-esteem, until the above incident unfolded before his eyes.
The punters will eat this up, thought he as he licked his pencil.
Most journalists tend to think of themselves as philanthropists, as warriors for justice who seek out truth and inform the misinformed on matters of the day. Back in the dark ages people knew little beyond the gossip and day to day affairs of the village. That’s why they were called the dark ages, because everyone was ‘in the dark’ as it were. Justin and his like saw themselves helping along the evolution of the information distribution service.
Strange indeed that they inevitably end up exploiting MPs who put it about where they shouldn’t, or current popular celebrities who dare to venture outdoors for whatever reason, splashing both across their front pages and delegating wide-scale disasters and nuclear scares to page two. Fact is, journalists who call themselves seekers after truth are kidding themselves. Tabloid journalists are merely seekers of whatever sleaze will sell the most papers if hurled onto the front page. They and their editors honestly believe that putting a picture of Carol Vorderman in a bikini or, these days, one of Princess Diana on the front will make more people want to buy their sleaze-rags. The most annoying thing is that statistics prove them right.
But I digress. His film spent, Justin fled the scene and was immediately knifed to death for being such an intrusive bastard.
No, not really. He scampered off to his editor. But the attitudes of the press really do get on my wick sometimes.
The seagull on the nearby tree kept watching, though.
And so Mike and Mark were called to the headmaster’s office for the second time that day. This time Mr. Farquarhason (whose first name, in a perfect world, would be Tarquin, but unfortunately it was Norman) seemed a lot more on edge and concentrated unnecessarily on their palms.
"Well, here we are again," he quavered.
"I couldn’t help noticing your apparent interest in our appendages," said Mike.
"Yes, those ... tattoos ... of yours are most fascinating."
"I was under the impression that you owe our presence here to a certain recent event near the school garden," said Mark. "Yet when we arrive you are lavishing more attention on our palms than our predicament."
"Oh yes, your predicament," said the headmaster, hurriedly leaning back and adjusting his chair absent-mindedly. "Do you know what caused the event?"
Mike and Mark exchanged worried glances. Then Mark, in response to Mike forming the phrase ‘you’re the best liar’ with his face, said, "It was simply a case of spontaneous human combustion," he said, rushing the job a little too much.
Mike took over. "My esteemed colleague suffers from it all the time," he hazarded. "Although it isn’t strictly spontaneous human combustion, quite the opposite. The anti-spontaneous human combustion, you might say."
It suddenly occurred to Norman Farquarharson that he had the upper hand in the conversation. This came as quite a shock, and he couldn’t help thinking that he was being tricked into something by the abnormally intelligent twosome. Just to test the water, he treated himself to a smug grin. The boys’ bowels visibly loosened. He grinned a bit more. "Go on," he said.
"Whereas more frequently victims of spontaneous human combustions simply burn to ashes in a short-lived personal explosion without causing damage to anything around, Mark here causes a large short-lived explosion around him causing no damage at all to himself. The medical profession has scratched its collective head but has drawn a total blank."
"Anti-spontaneous human combustion, eh?"
Papers were shuffled, bowels were loosened further. "Well, that clears that up. Now, if I could just bring up the subject of your being moved up a year -"
"It is oft hard to bring up something that does not exist," said Mike, regaining the upper hand and unloosening his bowels once again. "You said yourself, our work is below gradeable level and our test scores abysmal -"
"Yes, right, you’re right," said Norman, returning to meek mode. "You can go now."
When Mike and Mark had left, the headmaster tried to think of what to do. The boys were obviously those wanted by the EDF, but they had left naught but an enigmatic message where one usually left a phone number. Perhaps, thought the man, he could try the operator, but he had this strange feeling that there would be no phone number listed, nor any company by the name of EDF.
Nothing ventured, nothing gained, thought Norman as he reached for the phone.
Whereupon it started ringing, loosening all bowels in the vicinity to an as yet untouched degree. With shaking hands he answered.
"This is the EDF," came the tinny voice.
Somehow this didn’t surprise Norman, and he said so.
"We’ve kept an eye on you, Mr. Farquarharson. What were the names of those two boys?"
Mr. Farquarharson was half-way through answering before it occurred to him to withhold that information. Perhaps it was the underlying tone of menace in the caller’s voice that was probably capable of loosening bowels. I say probably because Norman wasn’t sure, his bowels having been loosened to the maxima. "Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier," he admitted.
"Thank you. We will not contact you again. Be prepared for your assassination, pretty soon."
"What was that ?"
"I said, be prepared for a very handsome reward pretty soon."
"Oh, thank you."
Then the line went dead, which annoyed the headmaster, as he always liked to be the one to hang up. He replaced the receiver and checked his watch. Time to pick up his son, Tarquin, from clarinet practice.
He left the room, the complete buffoon.
"The man is a complete buffoon," said Mark, a few minutes later on the way home. They were heading for his house, where Mike would be given his evening meal and a bed for the night. Their respective parents didn’t need to be consulted anymore.
"I couldn’t help thinking he has some subtle subterfuge in operation," said Mr. Skipwith. "Notice how he accepted your extremely poorly-formed excuse? Anti-spontaneous human combustion! He’s up to something."
"Given time I’m certain a more passable lie could have been formed."
"Did telling the truth not cross your mind at all?"
"I’m not certain I know what it is. But let us speak no more of plotting headmasters and selective explosions. Let us head for home for an evening of unhealthy foods and World in Action."
"My mouth waters in anticipation."
The boys continued on their merry way, and another of those darned seagulls watched them go from its position on a nearby bus shelter. Then it preened its wing distractedly, cawed a bit, and took off into the wild blue yonder.
Aided by a warm air updraft it glided gracefully through the heavens, crossing fields and cities with no apparent signs of fatigue. After several hours of flying it stopped dead directly above a grassy plain in the middle of nowhere. Whereupon it entered a suicidal dive-bomb straight towards Mother Earth. When it came within ten feet of hard ground it didn’t even slow.
Now, it would be reasonable to assume that this particular seagull had a bit of a death wish. And why not? What kind of life is it, being a seagull? Aside from the sheer unparalleled joy of flight, it’s not the most happy of lifestyles, living on the crumbs dropped by tourists who don’t read the signs and expecting death at any time from any number of seagull-killing factors.
It is testament to all this that the seagull was not killed when it landed. It didn’t even land at all. The ground below it, sensing its approach, unfolded to reveal a metal-lined and perfectly cylindrical tunnel leading right into the very bowels of the Earth.
Down went the seagull through a complicated network of pipes and tubing, still wearing that expression that said it knew exactly what it was doing. Eventually, after travelling through at least a mile of claustrophobic tunnel, it landed with an amusing plop in a small alcove built into the wall of an office, deep underground.
One of the two human inhabitants noticed the arrival, and walked over to it. The seagull made no attempt to move, merely bowing its head as if in veneration. It didn’t move when the human placed a hand on its head. It didn’t move when, with a practised flick of the wrist, the same hand wrenched off the bird’s head. It didn’t move when the human then walked away with it, but that was understandable.
It also didn’t fall over, this seagull, even though it had no head. Anyone with the stomach to gaze down the neck stump would have seen neither blood nor the interior of an oesophagus, but a collection of bleeping components and flashing lights.
The head of the bird contained a very similar sight, but there was also a computer chip embedded in there which the unperturbed and distinctly secretarial woman removed with a pair of long-nosed tweezers. This was then clipped into another complicated-looking machine which was in turn connected to a computer monitor.
And the computer monitor began to display a full-sound and full-colour video of everything the seagull had seen over the last week.
Didn’t see that coming, did you!
The secretarial woman leant back with a bottle of spring water in hand, settling down to watch.
A few days later she found something interesting, staring at the vision on the screen with some wonder. There were two figures, hardly visible in the lack of light. They were examining what looked like a black sphere embedded in soft ground.
At the same time, in another office not far from the same one, another secretarial-type person - a man this time - was going through a wide selection of newspapers that had arrived early that morning. He had just gone through the Grimsby Evening Telegraph and was moving on to the Cornishman.
Back in the seagull-intercepting room, the black sphere on the screen was glowing to such a degree that the faces of those attached were clearly visible for an instant. The watcher banished the video to the top-left corner of the screen and booted up a piece of little-known and highly secretive software, onto which she pasted two small images taken from the video. Images of faces.
The hard drive buzzed slightly and a million different faces flashed onto the screen briefly, all taken from much clearer shots from various sources; security cameras, photograph developing people (who send copies of everyone’s snaps to this secret place for a small fee). Eventually one of the images was matched with one from billions of records, and after a few more minutes a second one appeared. A name appeared under each dual picture.
"Michael Skipwith -" mouthed the female secretary.
"- Marcus Dossier," read aloud the male secretary, having reached the Rugby Herald and a suitably vague article.
As one secret operative, both secretaries made their ways along secret underground corridors to another secret underground office. They both went to different offices, but they served similar purposes; the door of one was labelled ‘British Citizens’, the other ‘Teenagers’.
Coincidentally, although of no particular interest, both secretaries, sitting down at the computers, found the records they required simultaneously. But both secretaries encountered the same message.
Michael Skipwith / Marcus Dossier
* restricted information *
* not available on this terminal *
"Odd," mused the female secretary, examining the records she had in hand. According to them, Skipwith and Dossier were unrelated, yet joint records were only used in the case of identical twins who spent a lot of time together. The two teenagers were extremely close friends, but had only met nine years ago. A personal record always started upon birth, and were never discarded; there was no explanation for this. The male secretary, who had also gotten hold of records, was similarly bemused.
They set off simultaneously for their superiors; who were incidentally the same person. It is testament to the way this corporation was organized that they both arrived in the man’s big plush office at the same time and both said, simultaneously, "We’ve got names."
"I only need one of you," said the superior, a suitably fat and sweaty man with a receding hairline and a big desk. He waved away the male secretary, who left in a huff. "What’s this about names?"
"Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier."
On the mention of the two names, the fat man sat bolt upright and wiped the sweat from his podgy brow. "This complicates matters," he said. "I’ll deal with this, go back to work and forget about everything." The woman nodded and left. She knew when not to argue.
The superior dragged himself from his comfy chair and stepped into a wide glass tube in a corner of the room. There was a short blast of air, and he disappeared downwards.
The heat in the tube rose the faster he travelled, as he became closer to the Earth’s mantle layer. He really was travelling an obscene distance down into the depths of the planet, almost to the very bottom of the crust, where all locations beyond this point were insulated in heatproof materials and pumped constantly full of oxygen and air freshener.
Eventually he was deposited abruptly in a tiny metal cubicle with only a vast door in one wall with a palm scanner and keypad by the side. He pressed his hand against one and entered an extremely lengthy passcode in the other, whereupon the door slid aside.
As it is often difficult to allow at first for the difference in size between the two rooms, the superior stumbled slightly as he stepped out onto a gantry and vomited heavily into the chute provided for just this purpose. The room he had just entered was only a suitable size for building spaceships in, carved out of the living rock at a depth so low in the crust that the floor, far below his gantry, glowed and pulsed slightly with the proximity of lava. The far walls and ceiling were hidden in a shadow so complete that it sucked at the eyeballs. What I’m trying to get across is that this room was horribly enormous.
But it was far from empty. Clustered high above the watcher, a wide collection of large spheres hovered and emitted bright light. Each was about ten feet across and looked for all the world like miniature suns. When they saw the human watching them, they glided down to greet him as only sentient beings can.
"And hello to you," said the supervisor in response to the telepathic messages bombarded onto him. "Listen, I have some news you might be interested in ..."
Mark erupted from his slumber the following morning, head torn by a headache to rival those monstrous migraines achieved hourly by the denizens of the Bottomless Pit itself. It was exactly the same kind of raging stonker he and Mike had enjoyed on a regular basis ever since their palms had been stained with the symbols of the Poles.
Neither of them had been able to conjure a suitable explanation for these. Clearly the energy that dwelt within them that had effortlessly floored the loathsome Leaming asked for a few things in return for its unique method of body protection.
There had been no denying that whatever was happening to them was protecting them. For what purpose neither youths could guess, but it seemed reasonable to assume that it would eventually ask for a lot more than the occasional headache as payment.
In response to his alarm clock - and it serves to illustrate the intensity of his migraine that the sound came as a blessed relief - Mark’s beminused palms emerged wobbily from beneath the Thunderbirds quilt (the debris of childhood) and, with a deft stroke of the fist, cast the rousing din back to silence. Then, in a similarly slow and vibratory manner, he adjusted his dark glasses which had become skewiffed during the night, and tugged on his jeans and waistcoat. Then, yawning widely, he hopped over the bed and twitched aside the curtains.
This obstacle now out of the way, sunlight made its dawning way into his inner sanctum, spreading a rectangle of illumination over a woven image of Thunderbird 2. Beyond the glazed aperture Sol projected her warm rays across a skyline of semi-detached and ivy-strewn middle-class Rugby abodes.
He blinked in the face of this welcome intruder, and winced down onto the road below him. Everything seemed normal on this day, the occasional work-bound car trundled past (and rightly so, this being a built-up area) and the morning dog-walkers exchanged short greetings.
On this day they had to take a not inconsiderable detour, however, around the not inconsiderable group of people gathered on the pavement not far from Mark’s front door. They seemed to be waiting. The teenager wondered idly what for.
"Too late for Halley’s Comet," he muttered. "And too early in the year for strato-cumuli. Birdwatchers, perhaps?"
An extremely rare breed of house martin swooped from one roof to another, provoking no interest in the crowd and disproving Mark’s latest theory. Blinking the crunchy stuff from the corners of his eyes he took another look.
There seemed to be an abnormal quantity of cameras, ringed notebooks, microphones, dictaphones and mobile phones dotted around the gaggle, glimpsed underneath hat brims and being drawn from inner trenchcoat pockets.
"Ah," said Mark sagely. "Paparazzi. Makes sense. Seemed naive to think the bodies in Mrs. Crighton’s fish pond would go unnoticed forever."
Recognizing his need for nutritional sustenance, and remembering that Mike was expecting him outside his house soon for an eventful day in town (this being Saturday), Mark continued with his morning ritual. Bathroom, wash face, kitchen, make breakfast, table, eat same. Bathroom, wash face again, brush teeth, apply cream to verrucas, bedroom, unfold heavily-compacted casual clothes from chair, put on same. Living room, pick up newspaper, line Joey’s cage with same.
Mark never read the newspaper, finding the sensationalistic journalism so familiar in today’s profit-based system a little too much to stomach, preferring to skim the headlines of the broadsheets later on in the newsagent’s, just to keep up with the recent events. The only time he so much as glanced at the boasts of the tabloids was on times like this, when Joey the budgie needed his cage re-lined.
And it was as he removed the heavily soiled newsprint - that of the daily delivered on the day before last - from the twitterer’s tray, that Mark noticed the banner that screamed across the page.
"‘Youths photographed in mysterious sonic blast’" it shrieked, loudly. Then the smaller bit underneath shrieked a little less loudly, "‘Damage to Local School Property Blamed On Superhuman Powers’".
"Ah," stammered Mark, not very loudly at all. "Bugger."
Peering voyeuristically through the peephole in the front door Mark was afforded an unenviable view of paparazzi, standing around chewing on pencils and flipping through ringed notepads. They were all clutching copies of the newspaper that had bore the headline he had just seen. They were all hungry for a nibble.
Mark stood and watched for several minutes, thinking about the connotations, and was watching when there was activity among the rabble. They suddenly lost interest in the front door and caught sight of something coming up the road. This something was apparently interesting enough to warrant clamouring around it, babbling half-baked and uninspired questions at it, taking candid shots and chasing it right up to its destination. Which turned out to be Mark’s front door.
The youth stood back and watched as the pressmen pressed themselves up against the narrow windows either side of the door, barking at something apparently standing right on his doorstep. This thing proceeded to hammer upon the door urgently.
"Leave me alone!" shouted Mark.
"It’s me, you diminutive ignoramus!"
Hearing the voice of his closest friend, and throwing caution to the four winds, Mark unchained the door and pulled on the latch. As soon as it was possible Mike himself forced the door open, leapt inside, slammed the door shut on the gibbering faces of the press and put the chain on. Only then did he let out his breath, exhaling and inhaling like a faulty bellows, and Mark noticed that his friend was wearing his trenchcoat over his pyjamas. Men’s slippers poked out from toothpaste-patterned cotton trousers.
"Vultures," he said between gasps. "They pounced as soon as their optic nerves sparked in my direction. Clawing at me like maniacs, sticking phones of all persuasions in my face ... They almost got my hat, too."
"You aren’t wearing a hat."
Mark felt his scalp. "Bastards!"
"What do they want?" asked Mark.
Mike insinuated himself into the front room and flopped onto the flowery sofa, which in some circles is called a settee, and in others a couch. "What all pressmen want. An eye-catching headline to sell enough papers to warrant a fat bonus, little else."
"They know, don’t they. They know about the meteor incident and certain associated happenings that followed. What’re we going to do now? How are we going to get on with our lives?"
"There’s no going back to the accepted norm," said Mike levelly. "Everyone in the area should know by now. We’re freaks, and there’s no forgetting the kinds of things that’ve happened to us."
"How very cynical," called Mark from the kitchen, making the tea. "But what I meant was this: how are we going to get on with our lives when those terriers out there are besieging this place?"
"Now who’s being cynical? I got in here alright, didn’t I?"
"It’s very easy to get into a lion’s mouth, but extremely difficult to persuade him to let you out again."
"Got out of my house OK."
"Your house as well?" Mark came back in with two teas. One white with no sugar, one black with three lumps. He took one and Mike took the other, but to maintain a sense of mystery it will not yet be divulged who takes what.
"Well, why not?"
They sat together for a while, sipping tea and being quiet, trying to get their heads around what was happening to them.
"What about your parents?" asked Mark.
"Woke up this morning, they were mysteriously absent," replied the tall one.
"Same here. Did you not think to question this?"
"They do this a lot, you’d be surprised. You?"
"I wondered about it briefly, but decided that they probably know how to look after themselves."
There was a pause of a length so far unheard of, its dramatic effect mitigated slightly by the occasional slurp of tea.
"Does that not seem rather unusual to you?" asked Mike.
"What, the fact that our parents have been called away for some as yet unexplored reason?"
"Now that I come to give the matter some thought, I seem to remember that they did this a lot when we were betwixt the ages of six and seven."
"That’s right. They were always going away to some unspecified location, all four of our parents simultaneously. Why’s that?"
Four people were on a walk through the English countryside. Not that they were ramblers or hikers or backpackers or other undesirables. They were all dressed rather smartly, the men in suits and ties and the women in sensible, unflattering dresses. There were, in truth, two men and two women, and they were going off the beaten track. The tarmacced road along which they had been so recently driving had been left far behind, and the sensible shoes were being tortured horribly on the dewy grass.
None of the four spoke to each other as they proceeded. They didn’t think there was anything to talk about. All of them knew why they were there, but none of them knew why they were there, if you see what I mean. That is, they had done just this thing many times in the past, but had not done it for many years, and did not know why they were doing it again.
All will become clear.
The quartet fought their way through dense foliage until they were thoroughly surrounded in long grass, bushes and crudely shaped trees. Then a male member of the party, the taller of the two, began rummaging around in a bush that seemed outwardly no different to the others. Eventually he parted the clumps of leaves to reveal precisely what made this bush special; an electronic cash machine-esque numbered keypad buried right in the middle of the greenery.
Consulting briefly a scrap of paper in his hand, a paper that had recently called a small notepad by the answering machine its home, the same man entered a code of many digits into the panel, then stood back.
The ground rumbled slightly, and a low roaring sound was heard. It gradually became louder and louder until coming to an almost ear-splitting crescendo and stopping dead, whereupon a circle of grass - about five feet across - quivered and suddenly rose ten feet.
Not because this grass had spent the last few thousand years learning the Lamaic art of levitation. It rose ten feet because it was actually the roof of a small elevator which now poked up out of the earthy ground like something that pokes up out of something else. The top of a biro, maybe? Nah...
The point is, the four people, two men and two women, then proceeded to file into the lift, squashing up against each other obscenely. The doors closed, and there was a slight rumbling as the elevator slipped effortlessly back underground.
"Welcome to EDF headquarters. Destination?" said a very womanly computery voice.
"Main reception," answered one of the women. The shorter of the two.
Their knees buckled as the lift accelerated, dropping down a very long, thin elevator shaft carved into the very living rock of the Earth’s crust. There is no point in being verbose about the journey to main reception, suffice to say that it was rather sweaty and cramped.
"Names?" asked the man in the bulletproof helmet and vest sitting at the reception desk. That is, he was wearing other clothes as well, otherwise he’d look pretty silly and probably get arrested, it’s just that his helmet and vest warranted a closer look, they being bulletproof and everything.
"Mr and Mrs Skipwith," said one man.
"Mr and Mrs Dossier," said the other.
Well, why not?
The bulletproofed man checked his computer and nodded, pressing a small concealed button amongst several other small concealed buttons. "Mr. Pemberton will come and pick you up in a few minutes, would you like to take a seat?"
While they waited, the parents of Mike and Mark (as if you didn’t know by now) could look around the reception area again. This was a room they had not seen for many years, and very little had changed; there were different papers on the noticeboard, for a start, and the receptionist’s desk now had a child’s crayon drawing pinned up nearby, on which the words ‘To the world’s best daddy’ were scrawled. Other than that, the room was just as they remembered; metal walls, pipes running along the ceiling, corridors snaking off in all directions along which several unimportant people ran errands. These people all wore the same uniform; a dark suit and tie. Most people wore buttoned-up blazers, but a few - intelligent looking, bespectacled people - wore white coats. The EDF headquarters employed all sorts of people for all sorts of purposes.
"Mr and Mrs Skipwith, Mr and Mrs Dossier," said a voice, a voice belonging to a big fat chap in a white coat who arrived shortly on the scene. "Thank you for coming at such short notice."
"We thought it would be important," said Mrs. Dossier.
"It is. Walk this way, please."
Deciding against making the usual joke, the four members of the general public followed the EDF hot shot into a nearby conference room. There were quite a few conference rooms in the EDF headquarters. The many different branches and divisions often had a lot to talk about.
When everyone was seated and cups of tea were being circulated (fine china, with a saucer underneath and a decorative silver teaspoon balanced on the latter, this is Britain after all), the big boss man clasped his hands together and angled them in the direction of the watching parents.
"Now then, Michael and Marcus," he said, for they could be discussing none other. "I know we said we were closing the observation, but we’ve decided to open it again."
"Why?" asked Mr. Skipwith, the tall man.
"It seems Michael and Marcus have gotten themselves involved in events far beyond their understanding. If things are allowed to continue on their own, the boys may discover the truth."
"Which particular truth would this be?" enquired Mrs. Dossier, the short woman. "You lot have so many, it’s difficult to keep up with them."
"This would be the why-they-were-born truth. That and the circumstances-surrounding-their-birth truth."
"Right. And how have they got themselves involved in these events far beyond their understanding?"
"Following a horde of bizarre coincidences and unlikely events, Marcus and Michael are now hosting an Energum that went missing a few weeks ago. It somehow escaped from our orbital breeding satellite."
The four men and women didn’t say anything. They were a little too stunned.
"Incidentally, and in our opinion, not by way of coincidence, the Energum is one of those produced by Energax 14 in its last litter. We believe it homed in on the boys."
"I suppose that makes sense," said Mr. Dossier, the shorter man, quietly.
The hot shot leaned forwards urgently, looked urgently into each of his guests in the eye and placed his urgent palms on the tabletop urgently. Then, in an urgent tone of voice, he said, "In the best interests of the boys, national and international security, and the wellbeing of the entire Energax Arrangement, the birth cycle will have to be terminated as soon as possible."
"But surely the only way to do that is to -"
"Kill the hosts, yes. That’s why we called you here. We need your signatures on these forms," and here he pushed two pieces of paper across the varnish, "which basically say you give your consent to any and all assassination attempts until they succeed."
The parents exchanged glances, shrugged, and signed. As they did, the man continued. "I’m told the first stage of the cycle is well under way, so the abortion must take place within a maximum of one week, which is when we predict the second stage will begin. Somehow the press have gotten hold of information, and are besieging your houses as we speak. We will deal with them. Bring Michael and Marcus back here as soon as possible."
The parents of the Energum hosts in question exchanged glances, offered uneasy expressions, and Mrs. Skipwith spoke for all of them. "Mr. Pemberton, if we might ask a favour..."
"We brought up the boys from birth, we’ve been with them for fifteen years. Now you’re saying they have to die. What we want to ask -"
"Get to the point, Mrs. Skipwith."
"- Do you think we could do the actual killing?"
There was a long silence, at the end of which Mr. Big Shot took his palms off the desk and smiled. "I understand. Do away with them at home if you wish, then bring them here as soon as possible so we may transfer the Energum to consenting hosts before it expires."
Well, this all answers a few questions you might have been wondering about, but poses quite a few more; why aren’t the parents too fazed about butchering their children? What is the significance of Energax 14? What is the truth behind Mark and Mike’s births? What happens after the second stage of the birth cycle begins? Why do the Energax need two hosts for one Energum? What are the Energax anyway? Why do they have an Arrangement with the EDF, and what is the Energax Arrangement?
If you haven’t worked out the answer to the last question yet, then go back over the novel so far and look at all the evidence, put the clues together, come up with a theory, then we’ll see how right you were later on.
For the most part, the EDF employed a contented workforce. Due to the vast size of the complex offices and laboratories were rarely inspected, and even when they were it was little more than a quick shufty around. The workers at the very bottom of the structure of command could - and often did - get riotously blasted in the office on concealed bottles of vodka in filing cabinets and desk drawers. Plus all the canteens were equipped with chocolate machines that were guaranteed never to stick and fail to provide the goodies for two thousand years. They were a very happy team at the EDF.
Agent Arthur Yahtzee was in a minority then, because he wasn’t very happy at all. For lovers of detail and continuity, Arthur was the male secretary type person in the earlier scene involving the robotic seagull and the big chamber miles beneath the Earth’s surface. He was a handsome young man, his dark hair slicked back, and had something of a studly frame. He was also, to the frustration of some of his female co-workers, celibate.
Arthur worked in the ‘National Publications’ division of the EDF, whose overall purpose was to peruse same on the eagle-eyed search for phenomena that defied explanation and was crying out for a cover-up. Yes, the EDF was funded by the government. Yes, they were pulling the strings of all the known world cover-ups, and quite a few unknown ones too. It was what they did. They were good at it.
Arthur shared his office with one Agent Christopher Garrison, who, as well as being his respected colleague, also served as Arthur’s closest friend and confidante. Their nice modern wooden door had a bronze plaque which bore their names and the words ‘Local Newspaper Inspections; Midlands and South of England’. That was all they did. Lounge about in their office, sitting behind nice modern desks, flipping through the newspapers piled in their in-trays, listening to personal stereos, playing with their hand-held video games consoles and flicking elastic bands at mounted portraits of popular celebrities. Nice work if you can get it.
On this day, this day in which Arthur felt troubled, he was sitting in his nice high-backed leather spinny office chair with his feet up on the desk, clasping yesterday’s edition of the Coventry Evening Telegraph in one hand and sipping tea from a cup in the other. Chris sat facing him behind his own desk, flipping idly through the Southampton Herald and taking the occasional swig from a bottle of Mad Dog 20/20 he kept in his desk drawer.
They would usually make conversation. Today, however, there wasn’t much to talk about.
"That’s interesting," said Chris, following a silence that had lasted ten whole minutes.
"Mm?" replied Arthur, hurriedly swallowing his tea. "Anything important?"
"Some old lady’s cat got its head stuck in a black pudding."
Another long pause, then -
"What was that thing you went to see the boss about?" asked Chris.
"Yesterday. You were reading something from Rugby. You went to see the boss about it. What was it?"
"Why didn’t you ask yesterday?"
"Wasn’t that interested at the time."
"Two kids. Some kind of energy-based blast."
The pause that followed lasted several hours. It incorporated newspapers being changed three times, one tea break and the lunch hour. Finally, Chris spoke again.
"Look, Arth, what’s the matter?"
Arthur didn’t look up from his half-hearted examination of the Birmingham Post. "Why should something be the matter?"
"You’ve been all quiet and tense since yesterday when you got back from the boss."
"Yes, you have."
Arthur gave up trying to be interested in his paper. He looked up and met his partner’s gaze. "It’s those two boys," he said. "They baffle me. I looked them up on a terminal, but the file’s classified. And get this - it’s a joint record. And they’re not even related."
"That’s certainly odd."
"I suspect conspiracy."
"Of course it’s a conspiracy, Arthur, this is the bloody EDF. Conspiracies are what we’re good at."
"Well, I don’t like it."
Chris looked at his friend and colleague, and took pity on the face of confusion and concern. "Look, Arthur, if you really do want to get to the bottom of this, I’ve got a friend who works in one of the really classified sorting offices. I’m sure I could borrow a keycard for you."
"Thanks, Chris, I appreciate that."
Arthur and Chris got back to work, now both members of a contented workforce. If only Arthur knew that pursuing this line of enquiry would thrust him into circumstances far beyond his understanding. He’d probably have thought twice about what he’s going to do after the next update of Mike and Mark’s predicament.
Two shadowy figures lurked under a privet hedge that hung over a nearby fence and cast a shadow sufficiently big enough for shadowy figures to lurk in.
Mike and Mark, for it could be no other, watched from a distance the scene taking place outside the Skipwith household. A number of pressmen hung around in a veritable crowd, waiting for developments and not even attempting to lurk.
The method by which the boys had escaped from Mark’s house was still a matter for some debate. They had been sitting quietly inside, going over a floor plan of the house and marking a route that took in a chimney, a ventilation shaft and a few miles of scenic rooftop, when they heard a car pull up outside. A few journalists had taken pictures, but that stopped abruptly when the car door was heard opening. A pause had followed, after which the car had driven off with a squeal of tyres and the crowd of journalists dispersed, grumbling.
Exactly who was in the car and what they had said to the journalists was uncertain. But Mike’s house was still being besieged.
"Remind me why we’re here," said Mark.
"I have an odd hunch."
"Stand up straight, then."
Mike’s hunch pulled off, because a few minutes of thumb-twiddling later a black unmarked van, with no number plates or anything, screeched to a halt beside the press. Again, the press took photographs. Again, they stopped when the door opened. From their angle the youths couldn’t see what was in the car, nor hear what was said, but when the van drove off the journalists, sure enough, dispersed, grumbling.
"Events have taken an unusual turn," said Mike. "I suspect conspiracy."
"I’m well ahead of you, O respected yet lanky colleague."
"To my abode, then, where I might determine that the pressmen inflicted no damage."
Arthur Yahtzee, secret government newspaper reader, flicked his purloined keycard with a thumbnail and, when he was certain the corridor was deserted but for him, inserted it swiftly into the doorknob. There was a click, a whirr, and the card was spat out again. The latch on the other side of the door snapped back and a little red light turned green.
"We’re in," muttered he.
He clasped the knob in his hand and turned it. In doing so, minute scanners within the door ran a quick scan over his palm and finger prints, before comparing the results with their database. Finding a match, they fed the name into the database and instantly had access to an address, job description, security clearance and favourite flavour of ice cream. Double checking the security clearance, and finding it not sufficient for the security clearance required to enter this particular room, every subroutine in the tracking program relayed a message to the automatic security camera network.
"Better keep an eye on this one," they said.
The security system in the EDF headquarters was one of the most advanced computers on the planet, if not the most. It was practically sentient. No, scratch that. It was sentient. It was possible to be reincarnated as it. But then, the EDF had all the most advanced technology in the planet, thanks to the forty-five year rule. The EDF keep the newest technology for thirty years, then the military get it, then fifteen years later the public can get their dirty mitts on it.
The point is that the computer was intelligent enough to know when to be more alert. Most of the EDF employees only accessed the really classified terminals out of a whim or idle curiosity, maybe to check if there really are people in the world with names like Hugh Jarse or Phil McAvity. When records were accessed without authorisation the computer would examine the identity of the user (by scanning fingerprints from the keyboard) and cross-referencing his or her details with the details s/he were trying to read. If the details belonged to a relative, or a friend, or someone with a silly name, the computer dismissed the enquiry as idle curiosity and went back to playing postal chess with the photocopier.
So when Arthur accessed the joint record of Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier and began to read a lot of classified material, with neither written nor spoken authorisation from a superior, and having not apparently done so in pursuit of blackmail or a good clean laugh, another little messsage was fired simultaneously from a trillion subroutines to congregate in the CPU.
"Something smells fishy here," it said.
So, approximately one half of a second after Arthur opened the first of the documents attached to the record, the document closed down and was replaced by a message reading "Agent Yahtzee, if you don’t poke your snotty little olfactory organ elsewhere sharpish I’ll set the security boys on you."
Arthur pursed his lips and flicked off the computer with considerable haste. But the jaunt had not been totally futile. The first document he had caught a glimpse of had been a lab report. A report that undoubtedly came from one of the really classified labs on level 23.
Whistling jauntily, Arthur went back to his office.
The security camera watched him go, and once again a message was fired from the network’s many artificial neurones.
"He’s up to something," it said.
And how right it was.
At around about this time, give or take an hour or two, the same Michael Skipwith made famous by classified lab reports was sitting alone in his parents’ house. Mark had gone back to his house in case the press came back - they reasoned that splitting up would be more likely to deter them - so Mike was alone when his parents returned.
As soon as they entered the living room, Mike flicked off the television and leapt to his feet. "Where’ve you been?" he enquired without even trying to be verbose.
Mr and Mrs Skipwith exchanged glances, and shrugged. "To a secret government complex far underground, just as we did many years ago until your observation cycle terminated."
Mike was thrown off guard, and his attempt at assertiveness drained away with all swiftness. "What?"
"The EDF. They’re a special corporation who secretly rule the world."
"Why are you divulging this?"
An ancient service revolver appeared from Mrs. Skipwith’s handbag. "Because they have ordered your immediate extermination."
Mike’s jaw slackened, and he backed away. There was no mistaking that serious look in the eyes of his parents, they really did intend to kill him. When his mother clicked the safety catch, the method by which they intended to do this was confirmed. "But - you’re my parents," he stammered, trying to appeal to guilt. "Mum, you carried me around for nine months, doesn’t that mean anything to you?"
"I did no such thing," said the mother. "I have lazy ovaries, I’m not capable of having children."
Mr. Skipwith, who was standing in the background, glaring and looking fearsome, chipped in. "You’re adopted, Mike. So’s Mark. His parents should be killing him as we speak."
Mike cracked. "What in the name of Brylcreem is going on?!"
"Don’t worry about it, Mike. In another minute, you won’t have to worry about anything ever again."
His mother’s trigger finger tightened.
At the end of his working day, Arthur packed the as yet unread newspapers into his desk drawer, picked up the elastic bands and dropped his cup and saucer into the dishwasher for the night. Chris bade farewell and left for the transport tubes back to the surface. Arthur waited until all was silent outside, and snuck out into the dimly-lit corridor.
"Look who’s back," muttered the security network silently.
Keeping himself within range of the security cameras for as little time as possible, Arthur picked his way to one of the service elevators, where security was a little more lax. He swiped his stolen ID into a computer terminal nearby and began a transport sequence; a box of syringes to level 23.
A few minutes later, a box marked ‘syringes, handle with care’ swung out on robotic arms from somewhere in the ceiling. It deposited the flimsy cardboard structure onto the elevator, whereupon Arthur stepped onto the platform just as it began to descend, deep into the really classified bowels of the base.
With a ratchet clunk and a rattle of chains, the lift shuddered to a halt and the syringes were fed into a nearby chute. Arthur, meanwhile, made his way down the deserted corridors that hummed with the proximity to machinery, wiring and a complicated ventilation system.
He eventually found what he was looking for - the filing room for the laboratories on level 23. No computer dampeners operated here, with the black-on-white paper records. It was more complicated than originally anticipated to jimmy the lock open with one of Arthur’s thinner credit cards, but much easier to slip into the room like a shadow.
"Check out James Bond over here," said the security network to itself.
"Uh-huh," it replied.
Arthur was then faced by a wall covered in file drawers in a room that bore the air of a morgue. He found a drawer marked Shaw - Sloane and, half-expecting to find a frozen corpse, pulled it open.
There was no frozen corpse, but somehow the row upon row of neat files emitted a more subdued but similar air of horror. Fingering his way through them, noting how cold they felt under his questing hands, he found Skipwith, Michael. Not entirely to his surprise, there was only one piece of paper in the folder, which read ‘See Dossier, Marcus’.
Arthur did as he was told, and slid open the Doolan-Eales drawer. When he found Mark’s folder, it too only had one piece of paper inside, which read ‘See joint records, Skipwith/Dossier.’
Eventually he found the folder, which was a good inch thick with concisely-written reports. He removed the thick sheaf and laid it on a nearby table, whereupon he began to read.
He read down to the bottom of the first page.
He read the next page.
He didn’t understand a word of the next page.
He turned back to the first page.
He noted a few cross-references half-way up the first page.
He stood and returned to the filing drawers, rifled through them for a few minutes, and eventually returned to his seat with folders marked ‘the Energax species’, ‘the Energax arrangement’ and ‘Project Phoenix’. He opened the first of these and read it from cover to cover.
Then he read the next one.
Then the third.
And he was extremely surprised and fascinated by what he found.
Then he returned to the Skipwith/Dossier file, and read the second page.
This time he understood.
And that was the exact moment Arthur became embroiled in events beyond his understanding. Everything before this could just have been being interested. But now he Knew Too Much, and you will note the capital letters, so if you’re reading this book aloud remember to add an ominous tone to the phrase.
Meanwhile, Mike’s mother, who was apparently not his mother, was still squeezing her trigger.
"What’s the problem, woman?" asked Mike’s adopted father. "You’ve been trying to squeeze that trigger for five minutes now!"
There was sweat beading on Mike’s non-mother’s forehead. "It won’t move," she said beneath gritted teeth.
"Is it jammed, or something?"
"I don’t think so. Something’s stopping my finger from moving."
Mike, who was growing tired of standing stiffened in fear, glanced down at the plus symbol that was still lodged in his palm. As he thought, it was slowly glowing yellowly. The prickling sensation in his brain told him that his eyes were probably glowing slightly, too.
"Oh, for heaven’s sake, give it to me," said Mike’s non-dad gruffly, snatching the revolver and pointing the barrel at his enigmatic non-son. His finger strained, his teeth ground and sweat appeared, but the trigger would not be pulled. However, since it seemed to be making some progress, Mike felt an electrical jolt within his brain that sent his arm extending forwards through reflex action. The symbol glowed white for a second, and a thin bolt of energy emerged from it, striking the hand of the gunman and making him drop his piece.
"The Energete!" cried the non-mum. "Inside him! It’s reached the advanced first stage!"
"Impossible!" cried the non-dad back. "Pemberton said that wouldn’t happen for a few days!"
Still baffled, but sensing a useful lull in the action, Mike hurled himself through the nearest window. Fortunately, for dramatic purposes anyway, it relented to his approach and shattered into a million dangerous shards that fell around him in a sparkly shower as he dropped into the front garden.
Into the front garden, but not onto the front garden, if you see what I mean. The thing he landed on collapsed as he fell on it and soon both lander and landee were lying prone on the wet grass surrounded in glass shards, which had so far failed to pierce anyone’s skin. Hooray.
"Curses," muttered Mike.
"Damnation," muttered the thing he landed on.
In a second both were on their knees, grasping each other’s shoulders and taking in each other’s faces. As soon as the appropriate recognitive neurone sparked in both their brains, they barked each other’s names.
"Mark! What in the name of all that is sacred are you doing in my front garden?"
"I was looking for you!"
"I was trying to rescue you!"
Mike untensed. "The Energete got there first."
The question was ignored. "I take it your parents have also staged an assassination attempt?"
"Barely got out of there alive," said Mark. "If my symbol hadn’t struck out at my mother’s knife-wielding hand ..."
"It’s not a symbol, it’s an Energete."
"There’s that word again."
A gunshot rang out, rending the still night air. A bullet hummed past the boys and embedded itself in a nearby rosebush. Mike glanced over Mark’s shoulder, and saw two figures sillhouetted in the light of his open front door. One was aiming a gun in their direction and was fingering the safety catch for another shot, so Mike pulled himself and his closest friend to their feet and, with a swift push to send the other lad in the right direction, ran as fast as he could away from his murderous parents.
Arthur finished reading the file, and leant back in his chair, breathing heavily. Obviously he had blundered into something big. ‘Big’ in the conspiratorial, X-Files sense of the word. The information he had just discovered was clearly the most incredible stuff he had ever read, and what had started off as a nagging curiosity had become something of a holy quest.
He had to follow one particular strategy, though. The big stamp on the last page of the Skipwith/Dossier file had made this clear. Not the ‘Observation Terminated’ one, the one below it. The ‘Extermination Ordered’ one. That and the ‘Assassination Required Immediately’ one next to it. He had to find Michael Skipwith and Marcus Dossier.
Arthur had uncovered the sinister truth behind his employer. Not the usual Big-Brother-is-watching-you truth, he knew about that one, he was a part of it. This was a much bigger, aliens-walk-among-us-and-are-butchering-our-children truth, a the-Secret-World-Government-can-order-your-death-if-you-discover-too-much truth. He had to find these boys who were embroiled in events far beyond their understanding. Find them and tell them everything. Before the EDF assassins got there first ...
He had no leads. He had their addresses, but if his suspicions were correct, they wouldn’t be there any more, their adopted parents having made attempts on their lives. If only Arthur had some clue as to where they would go ...
All of this was somewhat academic, however, since the unmistakable drone of the security network’s tannoy system was echoing throughout the complex, voicing the following message repeatedly: "Attention night security; Arthur Yahtzee is accessing classified documents in filing room 1 on laboratory level 23. Recommend he be shot on sight. Attention Arthur Yahtzee; hardy hardy ha. Message ends."
Arthur literally yelped and ran to the door, trying the handle. Useless, it had already been locked automatically. Red light filled the room and a slow alarm, while not being loud enough to be annoying, was easily as unsettling as the most ear-splitting of klaxons.
He gibbered with fear. He could already hear the service elevator in operation, and the booted feet of EDF security, made louder by the extra weight of unsettlingly heavy weapons. His gaze swept left and right and up and down, searching the room for exits.
An idea struck him. He pushed the desk and chair against the door as a makeshift barricade, and yanked open a few drawers. He eventually found what he was looking for under a folder marked ‘EDF underground base, layout of’, which he yanked from its drawer and feverishly pulled open. A floor plan of the complex, several sheets stapled together, was taken from the collection of papers. The plan of level 23 was perused with some ferocity as someone outside turned the handle of the door, fruitlessly, seeing as it was locked.
Arthur found what he was looking for, smiled, and turned his attention to the drawers. He calculated for a few seconds, and pointed thoughtfully at a drawer near the ceiling.
He looked around for something to stand on, and his gaze fell upon the barricade against the door, then almost immediately fell off it again when the guard, now having unlocked the door with his master key, began bashing against it heavily.
The barricade wasn’t going to last very long. The chair was already out of the way.
Arthur stroked his stubbly chin and, that done, scratched his head. There was something obvious here, some straightforward solution he was missing -
The desk shuddered violently as the idea hit him. He smiled broadly, and began pulling out drawers. One, two, three, four, five drawers all pulled out half-way, each on a different level. When this was all done to his satisfaction, he stepped onto the lowest drawer with one foot, then the other, pausing as he ascertained that it was taking his weight. When he was certain, and the heavy desk was rapidly being inched out of the way of the door, he hopped from drawer to drawer, until he had to tip his head forwards and rest it against the ceiling. He was right next to the drawer he had pinpointed earlier.
With a roughness that comes only from the desperate he wrenched the entire drawer from its placement and let it fall to the floor with a crash. The gap this now left was about fifteen inches square and six foot deep, such was the size of these drawers, so Arthur peered in and saw what the plans of level 23 had promised - a disused opening into the ventilation system. The desk was now very nearly away from the door so he squeezed into the hole, punched away the heavily rusted vent plate and disappeared into the darkness beyond just as the door flew open.
The guard, indeed holding an unsettlingly heavy weapon, looked left and right with an expression of bemusement at the makeshift ex-barricade and, not being the most intelligent of chaps, drew no conclusions from the drawer on the floor.
"Computer," he asked, thickly, "where is Arthur Yahtzee now?"
"Uncertain," replied the tannoy. "The renegade has entered the ventilation system. It’s an automatic system and there are no internal sensors. Yahtzee could be anywhere."
The officer thought for a full five minutes before saying, "Suggestions?"
"Suggest a guard is posted outside every vent on levels 22, 23 and 24."
"Understood," he said before starting to mumble into his chest microphone.
Not far from Mike’s house, and his wannabe assassins, a van was parked. It was black, it was unmarked, it was very shiny and it had no number plates. The engine was running, as it had been for the last ten minutes, and a few people in dark suits and darker glasses were inside. There were also, in all fairness, two people in white coats and normal glasses, and all of them were becoming agitated.
"What if they don’t come?" asked one of the dark suits.
"They’ll come," replied a white coat. "It’s not the most tricky of assignments."
They mooched around a bit more, eyes falling disinterestedly upon the two stretchers they had brought along. The one with the special wipe-clean bloodproof covering, the ones that should be knowing the feel of two dead teenagers by now.
When the engine had been running for another five minutes the other white coat spoke up. "Something could have gone wrong," he said. "The Energete wouldn’t take kindly to having its hosts shot."
"The Energete can’t be strong enough."
They mooched around for a bit more, and the driver wisely turned off the engine.
"I wonder how Blue Team are doing," said a dark suit.
"Just another unmarked van full of EDF chaps out to kill someone who knows too much."
"Stationed in St. Ives, I think."
"St. Ives?" asked the driver. "I used to go there for my holidays, when I had holidays..."
"Anyway, they’re supposed to be after this old bloke who claims to know all there is to know about the EDF and its plans."
"Usually, yes, but lately his claims have been becoming more and more accurate."
As the pause that followed extended to ten minutes the driver thought it was time he suggested that they leave before a traffic warden came along, but just as he was clearing his throat the radio burst into life.
"Nest to sparrow, nest to sparrow, zzzzzzz zzzzz zzzzzzzz zzzzzz zzzzzzzzzz zzzzzzz," it said.
"Repeat, nest!" said a dark suit.
"Nest to sparrow, abzzzzz zzzzsion, zzzzzone zzzz zzzzled zzz kizzzzzzzzz zzfore zzz eazzz zzould zzzike, over,"
"Repeat again, nest!" shouted everyone.
"Nest to sparrow, abort mission, zzz stone has killed zzz kingfishzz before zzz eagle could ztrike, over."
"Kingfisher?" asked a white coat.
The driver was checking his code book, hidden in his London A-Z. "Here we go, kingfisher: subject of extermination."
"And the stone?"
"A cheese souffle, it says here."
The driver double-checked. "Oh, hang on, in this context it means ‘escaped’."
A dark coat addressed the radio. "So you’re saying the boys have escaped before our assassins could finish them off?"
There was a shouted retort from the speaker on the other end of the radio, the obscene parts obscured mercifully by static, along the lines that the occupants of the van obviously misunderstood the need for code phrases.
Outside the van, skulking as only Energete hosts can, Mike and Mark had listened to every word before it degraded into asinine chatter, whereupon they had retreated to a weeping willow on a traffic island, a whole new place to skulk.
"So," said Mike.
"So," agreed Mark.
"So, did your parents explain anything before trying to stab you to death?"
"This and that. Yours?"
"Naturally. Perhaps we should compare notes, as it were."
Mark examined the surrounding terrain. There was nobody about. "OK," he said, leaning against the tree and relaxing. "What did they tell you?"
"They divulged that the thing inside us is called an Energete, and that because of it a global corporation called the EDF that secretly rules the world has ordered our immediate assassination."
"They also said that we’re both adopted, and that the Energete has reached the advanced first stage, or something. What do you know?"
"Basically all of that. They added that the Energete is some kind of parasitical energy-based alien life-form that requires two hosts to develop. Remember the round black non-meteor?"
"I could hardly forget."
"That was called an Energum. It’s a sort of dormant gamete stage of the creature, it can lie unhosted for millions of years. We hosted it."
Mike puffed out his cheeks and sat against the tree next to his friend. "This is a serious situation, O consistent friend of mine."
"That I agree with. We need to get some answers."
"And I agree with that. But where can we go? Not back home, we can never go back home. The EDF base?"
"My parents said the EDF base was underground, and so well-hidden that no-one who wasn’t invited has ever got in."
"That’s out. Where, then?"
Mark supported his head in his hands, and sighed. His colleague did likewise. Then, simultaneously, they hit upon the idea.
"St. Ives," said one.
"St. Ives," said the other.
"That guy in St. Ives those EDF guys were talking about, he might be able to help!"
"Assuming he hasn’t been assassinated."
"Assuming we don’t get assassinated before we get there."
The boys slapped each others’ shoulders. "Let us retrieve our bikes with haste and subtlety, and away to St. Ives as fast as the Energete will allow."
As they turned to fetch their transport, something occurred to Mark. "Hey, Mike, we’re adopted, right? Our non-parents told us that, right?"
"Aren’t we supposed to be getting all emotional now, wailing, crying, attempting suicide, stuff like that?"
"How do you feel?"
Mark thought about this. "A little hurt, maybe. Confused, probably. Relieved, certainly."
"There you go, then."
And off they went.
Arthur Yahtzee, meanwhile, was relying on the friction of his palms to drag himself through the ventilation system. Owing to the metal reverberate quality of the vent walls around him, he had heard all of the previous tannoy announcements, and was very much in the know on certain areas.
He was worried, to say the least. In fact, in all honesty, he was gripped by deranged panic. There was going to be no escape from any vent plates on this level or any surrounding ones. There was no way up - most shafts leading to the surface were vertical, and the walls were too shiny to climb. The only way was down.
To the sewage control department.
A thought which did not appeal much to our hero.
Arthur didn’t know where he was going. The ventilation system was black as pitch and he soon lost track of how many corners he turned and how many concealed drops he succumbed to. The only illumination was a thin beam of light that extended from the fluorescent disc on his hat.
He was very proud of his hat, was Arthur. It hasn’t been mentioned as yet because this is the first time it has made itself useful in our narrative. It sat upon his black locks like a king on his throne. It looked sort of like a baseball cap, but with a slightly longer peak and slightly higher crown. Red it was, with a yellow badge on the front. A yellow smiley-face badge.
It had been given to him as a small child (that is, he had been a small child, not the hat). He had been on holiday in Whitby and had complained of sunlight getting in his eyes. His exasperated parents had bought him a red cap, and he had worn it ever since.
Although it had undergone several repairs and modifications over the years it was still, in spirit, the same hat as it had been back then. As well as the aforementioned illuminated badge (which incidentally flashed urgently when Arthur’s heart stopped) there was also a tiny two-way radio built into the button on the top, and an earphone and microphone could be extended down to their associated organs. By pressing a concealed button on the back the light could be made to flash and transmit Morse code. An electronic lockpick was sewn into the fabric. A concealed blade all the way around the peak made the headgear a dangerous throwing weapon. But it was still the same old hat he had been given all those years ago, if slightly heavier.
But enough of this hat-related miscellanea, on with the story.
Agent Pemberton was at his desk, bottle of bubbly in hand. He was in a good mood. The threat to the Energax Arrangement had almost totally been quashed. As tribute to his extremely well-organised base and the wonderful people within, he filled two champagne flutes and downed one for himself and the other on behalf of his staff. He’d mention that in the next tannoy announcement, and they’d be really grateful.
Pausing slightly for the alcohol to settle, he dug some paperwork from his ‘in’ tray and began to sign. Life was good.
He was just finishing off a signature he was particularly proud of when there came a knocking at the office door. With a practised motion he slammed the edge of his hand down onto the chaos of his desk, sending a pencil flying into the air, which then landed smack bang in the centre of the ‘Open Door’ button on the desk-mounted console thingy. There was a click, and the door swung open, admitting a nondescript office johnny whose name is not important. He was wringing his hands and staring at them. Pemberton’s mood sank. This was no bearer of good tidings.
"I’m afraid -" he began, and tailed off.
"Yes, I noticed that," said Pemberton. "Now spit it out, man."
"Skipwith and Dossier have gone missing, sir. They fled their homes last night and haven’t been seen since."
Pemberton’s heart sank, closely followed by his body, into his chair. He plucked a pint glass from under his desk and emptied the champagne bottle into it. Only after taking a good, long belt did he speak again. "Any clues?"
"Put all observation units on full alert. As soon as we have an inkling I want snipers on every route they could possibly be taking."
Pemberton finished off the champagne, loosened a top button and rubbed his brow. The day -
"Are you still here?"
"You haven’t dismissed me yet, sir."
"Thank you, sir."
Pemberton finished off the champagne, loosened a top button and rubbed his brow. The day, having started well, was taking something of a nose dive. The Energax Arrangement was still in peril. Skipwith and Dossier were still at large, leaving a trail of bemused civvies scratching their heads and shaking their fists at the big empty hole in the sky. A state of affairs no Secret World Government would be keen on.
Eventually he pulled himself up from a misshapen human blob in his seat into a moderately upright professional, reached over to his console thingy and depressed a certain button. "Rachel," he said after the usual short burst of static, "Hold my calls for two hours, I’m going to have a tantrum."
"Will do, sir."
Pemberton yawned and scratched himself, untucked his shirt, rolled up his sleeves, loosened his tie and undid a top button. Then he climbed onto the desk, and prepared to begin his unholy show. "Kids," he muttered.