IT STARTED WITH A KISS By Lorraine Holloway-White
Walking in the dark her collar turned up against the chilly night air, Julia’s mind was buzzing. She’d chosen to walk home without her friends hoping the crisp air would make some sense of what she had been told and clear her head from the thoughts filling it.
Invited earlier that day to join them in an open circle at a new spiritual centre opened by a controversial medium, Julia was of the opinion most people attending circles were either barking mad or just plain deluded, but decided it would be something different to do and good for a laugh. Besides, even though she had no idea what they were talking about, her friends had laughingly told her she was rather strange at times herself so thought she’d fit right in.
It wasn’t as she’d expected due to the medium running the show not being a spiritualist and doing things in a different way that seemed more, dare she say, ‘normal’ than anything she’d seen done before on television. She’d also been surprised at the calibre of people attending the new centre. That and the discovered fact Lorraine called herself, A Sceptical Medium had piqued Julia’s interest from the start.
As they sat in the circle, a light breeze had seemingly come from nowhere and brushed Julia’s left cheek gently. Raising her hand, she’d stroked the place it had touched and wondered why only one side and not her whole face had felt it. Looking around her, she was positive a window or door must have been left ajar, but there were none where the draught had come from.
It had come again later, sneaking upon her as suddenly as the first time she’d felt it, only this time it was stronger and came with an accompanying whisper in her ear that seemed almost ghostly. Like a caress from a lover rather than a coldness sent to chill her, both times it had left her warm and comforted as though there was someone standing with her bringing love. The feeling that had spread from deep inside her had a sense of something she couldn’t quite put her finger on and made her feel excited as though something new was about to happen in her life.
Later on the medium had told Julia she too was a natural medium saying everyone became aware in their own unique way. For Julia, it started with a kiss on her cheek and a whispered voice in her ear.
A SERIES OF UNFORTUNATE TEXTS by Scratch
How’s it going?
Great, much better post-op.
You finally did it?
The doctor just snipped it off.
Dude, that's intense. You miss it?
Miss it? It was a tiny little thing. Didn't even realize it was there.
You don't think you'll want it back?
What for? Can't use it for anything.
I use mine, all the time.
You do? Mine was dripping pus.
Oh you had an appendectomy. Whew.
That it wasn't the other operation.
What other operation?
You know THE operation.
How you always felt like a woman on the inside.
How I what?
CONFERENCE CALL by TRM
The corridor still looks normal.
Too brightly lit with all those halogen spots, but normal. And the reception area. Normal, too. Same views from the 17th floor over Tower Bridge. Same chrome and glass everywhere. Same shiny plaque embossed with the corporate logo. Same colourful, spiky plants on the glass coffee table. Same plush leather seats for the visitors.
Hell. How do I broach this?
Behind the vast granite reception desk, the new girl. Prim, proper, tailored pencil suit. Hair scraped back into a tight bun. Sharp make-up. Normal.
What was her name again? Katrin? Kayleigh? Kerry. It’s Kerry. Damn. Why does she have to wear her name badge just there?
This isn’t going well.
Fumbling, without doubt blushing, I decide to get to the point. “Ah ... I just popped into Conference Three. I’ve got it booked out, for a video link. In about five minutes. Um ...”
Bored, but professional, she replies. “Is there a problem? Should I call IT?”
“Well ... they might not be ... the right people. You see, um ... There’s a camel. Uh. A camel, in Conference Three.”
A big smile now. “Oh. You mean Bill?”
“Sorry? It’s called Bill?”
“Yes! Bill the Bactrian Camel. He’s a cutie isn’t he?”
“And ... he’s a permanent fixture, now?”
“Well, not quite. He’s on loan from Richmond zoo. Is he being a pest?”
“Technically, no. However ... ”
She gets up and totters around the long, long reception desk. I’m towed along as she babbles. “He’s really good, you know. It’s all about the new sustainability policy. And the corporate responsibility plan. You see, the Board decided to replace our local artists programme with support for local zoos. Instead of having paintings on loan, we have animals. You’ll have noticed we removed the DeWitter triptych.”
“That’s a small mercy I suppose. But ... a camel? In a boardroom? I have a video link. With a big client. In Des Moines.”
Oblivious to my pleas, she pushes the door open. And there it is.
In Conference Three.
Huge damn thing, shaggy as hell. Stood there, without a care in the world, chewing on my hastily abandoned briefcase.
Kerry sidles up and gives the beast an affectionate pat before rescuing my slobbered-on property and sliding that onto the long, oval table. “He does need a little more space than the others, being so big. But he’s no trouble, really. He likes cabbages and turnips. That keeps him busy.”
“Oh, good. If he doesn’t spit me to death, I’ll die asphyxiated.”
“Don’t be silly. He’s gorgeous. If you need coffee or anything else, just dial six-oh-oh-seven.”
And she’s gone. Leaving me with the camel.
“All right, Bill. Looks like you and me might have to be friends.”
I look around. And notice that Conference Three is separated from Conference Four only by one of those silly foldable partitions. I quickly rummage in the drawers of the little fridge and stationery cabinet and find the thingy-jig tool for winding the partition open. And some cauliflower in the next drawer down.
Right, I have a plan.
Quick as I can, I wind the partition open just far enough, I think, I hope, for Bill to wander through in pursuit of a nice juicy cauliflower. Yes. He’s interested. Excellent.
“Come on now, through you go Bill. Go and find your cauliflower and ... keep that Shetland pony company, why don’t you? Play nice now, you two.”
The partition winds back in a moment and the click of the latch is a blessed relief.
Quick now. I snap open the briefcase, sit myself down opposite the television and camera array and spread out my papers. Back to normal.
Management accounts for Quarters One and Two, projections, cash flow, market reports, independent valuations ... where the hell are they? Oh. Yes. Here we are.
And now this device. What button is it to switch it all on? Less than one minute to go. All normal, once more. Normal and professional. Normal. Is it the green button or the blue one, now? Let’s try this.
And the dulcet tones of J. Hunter Tannenbaum echo around the room. “Hi there, Bainbridge! Damn good to see you again.”
I snap my head up from the buttons on the central microphone and remote control thing. And give a nice, normal smile to my big, important client, ready to start my nice, normal presentation.
My big, important client is stroking a penguin on his lap.
One of those with the funny tufted ears.
In his boardroom.
“And where’s my big buddy Bill then, Bainbridge?”
“Um. I think ... He’s just finishing a previous call next door, Mister Tannenbaum. I’m sure he’ll be with us in ... uh ... in a moment.”
Keep calm. And carry on.
THE SKITTERLINGS by Patrick Whittaker
Before he destroyed the world, Farnsworth came down to New York City. He would rather have stayed at home watching teevix, but the Skitterlings had other ideas.
So here he was in a spit-and-sawdust bar, hoping no one would recognise him. Up to now he’d been lucky. A waitress had told him he looked a bit like ‘that Farnsworth guy. You know – the one who saved Earth’, but it hadn’t crossed her mind that anyone famous would venture into such a sleazy joint.
At the next table, two guys talked about overpopulation and what could be done to remedy it. One was a uniformed policeman whose body language said he would rather be somewhere else. The other wore a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of the United Brotherhood of Space Truckers.
Farnsworth considered informing them that right now overpopulation was the least of humanity’s worries.
- Stay out of it, said the Skitterlings. – And drink your bourbon, Earthboy.
- Screw you, he thought. - Tonight, we’re doing things my way or not at all.
The Skitterlings laughed. It translated as a tingling in his frontal lobes and a rustling down his spine.
- Wanna bet? they said, tweaking his brain’s reward centre and instantly turning him into an alcoholic.
Farnsworth’s hands shook. Anxiety and dread threatened to overwhelm him and he knew the only thing that could keep them at bay was alcohol.
He knocked back his bourbon and slammed the glass on the table.
The Skitterlings allowed him a brief respite from his craving before ramping it back up again.
A bottle of bourbon stood on the table where the cop and the space trucker were putting the world to rights. Farnsworth couldn’t take his eyes off it. Everything else was a blur.
- Take it, said the Skitterlings. - It’s yours.
- No, damn you. I’ll get my own bottle.
- It’ll be ages before you get served. You need a drink right now.
- I’m not getting into a fight! Find some other way to amuse yourselves.
‘Hey, you! Buddy!’ It was the space trucker. His eyes drilled into Farnsworth. ‘What’s your problem?’
The cop raised his hands. ‘Steady, Pete. He’s not doing any harm.’
‘The faggot’s staring at me.’
‘No he’s not.’ The cop smiled apologetically at Farnsworth. ‘Sorry about this. He gets a bit mental at times.’
The space trucker snorted. ‘Who you calling mental?’
‘You, you moron,’ said Farnsworth. He was immediately rewarded with a lessening of his thirst. ‘And after hearing the claptrap you’ve been spouting, I have to say I agree with him.’
‘Why you!’ The space trucker was on his feet and ready to brawl. The cop, knowing what to expect, had his stunner out. Without bothering to issue a caution, he hit the fire button. A green beam leapt from the stunner to Pete’s forehead causing the synapses in his brain to misfire.
With a look of surprise, Pete fell forward, knocking over the table he’d been sitting at.
Silence fell. Heads turned.
Farnsworth suppressed a shiver. The Skitterlings weren’t pleased. They’d been looking forward to a brawl and now they weren’t getting one. And for that they blamed Farnsworth. Which was why he felt like he was sitting in an ice box.
And still he craved alcohol.
The cop held up his left hand. A police identity hologram sprang from the ring on his index finger. To protect, deliver and serve! it said.
‘Eastern Seaboard Police!’ he announced. ‘Everything’s under control. Go back to your drinking.’
As the buzz of conversation returned, the cop stood up to allow a waiter to right his table. He retrieved the bottle of bourbon from the floor and checked it for cracks.
‘Sorry about that.’ The cop stepped over the unconscious space trucker and took a seat at Farnsworth’s table. ‘Pete should have been sectioned years ago but his union won’t allow it. So the Eastern Seaboard has me permanently tailing him. If he gets out of hand, I send him off to La-La Land. And that’s my job in its entirety.’
The cop held out his hand. ‘Officer Dave Balcerzak.’
Farnsworth automatically shook it. ‘Crispin Farnsworth. Citizen Grade B.’
‘Yes. I recognised you when you came in.’
‘In that case you’ll appreciate me not wanting to share my table with a low-life like you.’ The Skitterlings showed their approval by normalising Farnsworth’s body temperature and mitigating his thirst. ‘Go back to whatever pig sty you came from.’
Dave chuckled. ‘You’re looking for a fight, aren’t you?’
‘Too damned right I am.’
‘It’s not going to work. Not with me.’
‘Oh yeah? What if I told you I saw your mother in the space port turning tricks with asteroid miners?’
‘I have no mother.’ Dave rotated his head 180 degrees. He lifted the flap on the back of his head to expose a network of winking lights and glowing fibre optic tubes. ‘Positronic. Model Delta VII.’
Dave closed his skull and shifted his head back to its normal position. ‘I prefer the term differently human, if you don’t mind. Or android.’
- Make friends with him, said the Skitterlings. - He could be useful.
‘What class are you?’ Farnsworth asked.
‘Mallard. Which means I must obey Grade As and Grade Bs. Anyone below that is answerable to me.’
‘Officer Dave Balcerzak, how would you like to come back to my place?’
‘My orders are to keep an eye on Citizen Grade E Peter Hammond.’
‘As a Grade B, I’m countermanding those orders. Any objections?’
‘None that matter, sir.’
‘Good. Call us a taxi.’
Farnsworth lived two miles above New York City in a torus-shaped apartment he called the Flying Doughnut. Giving it a daft name made him feel better about the obscene cost of running its antigrav generator.
‘I don’t actually know how many rooms it’s got,’ he told the flying taxi carrying him and Officer Dave Balcerzak. ‘I’ve never been in half of them.’
The taxi whistled appreciatively. ‘You sure are lucky,’ its positronic brain relayed through the roof speaker. ‘But you deserve it.’
Dodging between two belts of flying cars, the vehicle turned down a narrow canyon formed by buildings a mile high. And then it swiftly ascended, taking them to the sparsely populated aerial zone where only As and Bs could afford to live.
They passed a floating cube with nine windows on each face. It was home to Vanessa Frolander, the newsreader who had been the first person to interview him on teevix after his triumphant return to Earth. She was also the first of many women he had bedded since then.
Up ahead, a fairy tale castle floated on a holographic image of a cloud. For Farnsworth, any magic the castle might possess was negated by it being owned by Sun Wu whose syndicate had a near-monopoly of the narcotics trade in North America. The taxi steered the castle a wide berth,
‘I tell you,’ said the taxi. ‘It’s time someone brought that Wu guy down to Earth. When I think of the misery he’s caused, it makes me want to spit.’
Up ahead Farnsworth saw the welcome sight of a glowing circle. The Flying Doughnut.
‘Home, sweet home,’ he muttered.
As the taxi homed in on the Flying Doughnut, the Skitterlings co-opted his optic nerves. Now he was looking at darkness peppered with stars. A chunk of dirty ice drifted by.
- Where are we? he demanded.
- You’re still in a taxi flying above New York City.
- I meant –
- We know what you meant, idiot. You’re looking through one of the positronic eyes of the Elmore James, a deep space sentinel stationed in the Kuiper Belt just beyond Uranus.
- There’s nothing here. Why are you showing me this?
- Watch. You’re going to like this.
Space shimmered. The stars in the background twinkled as if through a haze of hot air. And then, amidst the blackness, there appeared something even blacker. But for it blocking out the stars, he would have sworn it wasn’t there.
- What is it? he asked.
- Ever since you discovered the Visitors on Titan, your people have wondered how they got there. And here’s your answer.
The blackness turned to steely grey. Now it was possible to make out the sleek outline of an spacecraft shaped like an elongated arrowhead.
- It’s been hiding in deep space since long before your race appeared, said the Skitterlings. And now it’s on its way to Earth. It’ll be here in a few hours to take us to some other civilisation waiting to be destroyed.
- What’s wrong with live and let live?
- What’s wrong with live and let die?
The observation deck was the largest room on the Flying Doughnut. Its glass floor, walls and ceiling offered a godlike view of city and sky.
‘Peaceful, isn’t it?’ Farnsworth said, taking a cocktail from the drinks dispenser.
‘If you say so,’ said Officer Dave who hadn’t been programmed to appreciate the finer things in life.
Farnsworth joined him at the window bar. They stood looking out at the night sky. In the distance, Sun Wu’s castle shimmered behind its forcefield.
Officer Dave stirred his bourbon with his finger. Ice clinked against glass. Although he had no taste buds and no nervous system for the alcohol to affect, Farnsworth had insisted he have a drink.
‘Do you want to know why I brought you here?’ Farnsworth asked.
‘Hell no! Why would I want to have sex with a robot?’
‘Some people enjoy that kind of thing.’
- Kiss him, said the Skitterlings.
- We want you to kiss the robot.
- Kiss him or we’ll make it seem like an elephant’s standing on your balls.
‘I have to kiss you,’ Farnsworth told Dave. ‘Do you mind?’
Dave shrugged. ‘I am yours to command.’
- On the lips! Put your tongue in his mouth.
‘It has to be a French kiss.’
With a shudder, Farnsworth leant forward and closed his eyes. He felt Dave’s mechanical lips touch his own.
- Hold it there, Earthboy... That’s good. Now open your mouth.
- I can’t!
- Do it. Or else!
Farnsworth reminded himself he was kissing a machine, not a person. It didn’t make him any less queasy.
He parted his lips and felt Dave’s respond in kind.
- And now the tongue. All the way in. Make sure you leave plenty of spit.
The tip of Farnsworth’s tongue touched the top of Dave’s mouth. Starting to gag, he hastily withdrew.
The Skitterlings laughed.
- You bastards! Farnsworth took a mouthful of cocktail and slooshed like his life depended on it. Then he spat the drink back in his glass.
‘It’s all right,’ said Dave. ‘We can take this as slowly as you like.’
‘I’m not after sex!’ Farnsworth swapped his sullied cocktail for a fresh one. ‘I just don’t want to be alone. Not tonight of all nights.’
‘Surely you have friends?’
‘I have people who like to be seen with me, people who suck up to me and people who want to sleep with me because I’m famous. But nobody I would call a friend. Besides, right now I don’t want to be around people. I just want to talk.’
Officer Dave nodded sagely. ‘You need a confessor. Someone you can unburden yourself on.’
‘I take it you’re transmitting?’
‘Everything I experience is monitored and recorded at Police Central.’
‘Fine by me, Dave. By the time your superiors understand what’s going on, it’ll be too late to stop it.’
‘You sound like you know something you should be sharing.’
‘We’re being invaded, Dave. It’s all over. Has been ever since I found the Visitors on Titan.’
‘But you killed them.’
‘They died millions of years ago. I had nothing to do with it.’
‘You’re just being modest. It’s a matter of public record that you single-handedly slew them in a gun fight, thus saving mankind from certain destruction.’
‘The Skitterlings killed them.’
‘Who or what are the Skitterlings? That word is not in my database.’
‘They’re a parasitic life form roaming the galaxy and wiping out entire civilisations. They destroyed the Visitors’ home planet. Then they took control of the last few survivors and commandeered one of their spacecraft. About a million years ago they landed on Titan and built a base. Then they waited for us to find them.’
‘That makes no sense. Why didn’t they come to Earth?’
‘There was no civilisation here. Until a race becomes technically advanced, they’re not considered ready for harvesting.
‘When I found the Visitors, they were lying on their bunk beds looking like waxworks. They were dead but perfectly preserved and full of hibernating Skitterlings. When I touched an alien, some of their Skitterling passed from it, through my spacesuit and into my bloodstream where they multiplied.
‘Of course I didn’t know that was happening. The first inkling I had of anything being wrong was when I started feeling them moving along my nerves, creating a noise that sounded like skitter-skitter-skitter.
‘At first, it was barely noticeable. But after a while, I sensed them invading cell after cell, replicating as they went. And it drove me crazy. I wanted to rip off my space suit and scratch through my skin and get at my nerves and muscles. Anything to get those bloody things out of me!
‘Then - just as I was on the verge of losing my sanity - a great calmness descended. It was the Skitterlings. They had control of my brain, and they made me feel happy and secure and at peace with myself. But only long enough for me to get used to it. Then they gave me pain beyond all imagining. It was like every fibre of my being was being simultaneously torn apart, squashed, burned and frozen. My agony lasted just a few seconds but it was enough to teach me to never defy them.
‘They spoke to me. I could hear them in my head. They told me they were going to destroy humanity and I was going to help them do it.
‘Ten hours later, when the back-up team arrived, I’d arranged things to look like the Visitors were the vanguard of an invasion force and my heroic actions had saved the world.’
Farnsworth paused to allow Officer Dave – and by extension Police Central - to absorb the information he was divulging. And he did so in the certain knowledge they wouldn’t believe a word of it.
‘Question,’ said Dave. ‘If these Skitterlings are so tiny, how come they have intelligence?’
‘It’s hive intelligence. Like ants and bees. They communicate psychically and act as one giant brain.’
‘I had a feeling you were going to say something like that.’
‘Pardon me for interupting, Citizen Farnsworth’ said the silky voice of the Flying Doughnut’s domestic computer. ‘But it looks like we have a visitor.’
Farnsworth spotted a figure in a white levitation suit flying towards his home. The way she occasionally flapped her arms like a bird, told him who she was.
‘Citizen Grade B Anastasia Devlin requests permission to come aboard.’
‘Permission denied.’ Farnsworth threw his empty glass into a disposal shaft and took a fresh cocktail from the drinks machine. Then he came back to the bar and slapped Officer Dave on the back. ‘What do you say? Have I got you believing in Skitterlings yet?’
‘No,’ said Dave. ‘And Police Central aren’t buying it either.’
‘Each and every one of the hundred trillion cells in my body is inhabited by a Skitterling. There are more of them inside me than there are stars in the galaxy.’
‘And yet my censors can find no trace of them. How do you explain that?’
Farnsworth shrugged. ‘They’re more alien than you could ever imagine. Looking for them with our technology is like searching for viruses with a magnifying glass.’
Anastasia Devlin was now at the perimeter of the Flying Doughnut. She did a quick circuit before stopping outside the observation deck. She hovered feet from where Farnsworth stood, no doubt cursing the near-indestructible glass that kept them apart.
She and Farnsworth locked eyes. He could see his face reflected in her visor.
‘Miss Devlin,’ said the computer, ‘wishes to communicate.’
‘Put her on.’
Anastasia’s voice sounded as clear as if she’d been standing in the room. ‘Crispin! You bad boy!’ She pouted. Her pixie-like face screwed up in mock vexation. ‘Why don’t you come to see me any more?’
‘Because,’ said Farnsworth, ‘you’re a spoilt brat with too much money and no thought for anyone’s needs but your own.’
‘I took care of yours, didn’t I?’ She turned a dial on her wrist. Immediately, her lev suit disappeared. It was replaced by a white dress that showed off her petite body to perfection. ‘Remind you of anything?’
‘Nice hologram,’ said Dave. ‘Must be one of the new Seyeca projectors.’
Anastasia twirled in mid-air, sprinkling fairy dust that danced around her like fire flies. ‘You asked me to wear this hologram so we could play at being Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. That was the night we flew to Jamaica and made love above the Blue Mountains.’
‘Listen,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You don’t want to be wasting your time on me. Go enjoy yourself while you still can.’
‘But what about the magic, Crispin? You can’t deny we had something wonderful.’
Farnsworth had no inclination to be nostalgic about the past, no matter how recent or wonderful. ‘Maximum opacity,’ he instructed the computer. The glass walls frosted, cutting off the outside world.
‘Crispin!’ Anastasia wailed. ‘You can’t do this to me.’
‘Computer, cut the connection.’ Silence.
But the Skitterlings weren’t happy. - Let her in.
- No. I’m fed up with having coitus for your entertainment.
- We’re getting bored with it ourselves.
- And you know how she natters. Do we really want her burbling in my ear while we’re witnessing the end of the world as we know it?
- Good point. She can stay out for now.
- If Armageddon has an up side, it’s that I won’t have to put up with her much longer.
- Wrong, Earthboy. You, Anastasia and Officer Dave will survive the apocalypse
- Not Anastasia! Anyone but her!
- We like Anastasia. She makes us laugh. Especially when she’s annoying the crap out of you.
Dave drained his glass. ‘Can you fix me a sour mash?’ he asked. ‘On the rocks?’
‘American or Martian?’
‘Martian whiskey? That must have set you back a bit.’
‘Thanks to the grateful citizenry of this fair Earth, I haven’t had to pay for a damned thing since I came back from Titan.’
‘They should have made you a Grade A for what you did.’
‘The whole of humanity agrees with you – except for the Grade As.’ Farnsworth fetched Dave a glass of Martian sour mash
‘Pardon me, Citizen Farnsworth,’ said the computer. ‘But six women have joined Citizen Devlin. They want to be let in.’
‘This I have to see,’ said Farnsworth, ‘Computer. Make the glass transparent.’
The computer obeyed, treating Farnsworth to the sight of seven beautiful women vying for his attention. They used their holographic projectors to present themselves in a series of different outfits and postures. In a bid to outdo each other, they made each successive outfit just that bit more daring and each pose a little more lewd. Finally, they were all apparently naked. Floating in the air. Spreading their legs. Bending forward. Opening orifices. Dancing suggestively. Contorting their supple bodies into unnatural poses.
‘The ladies,’ said the computer, ‘wish to make radio contact.’
‘They can wish all they like. And frost the glass, will you?’ The window turned opaque. ‘Some people have no respect for themselves.’
‘I recognised those women,’ said Dave. ‘They’re all famous beauties.’
‘I’ve slept with each and every one of them, which is why they’re behaving like that. The Skitterlings are making them do it.
‘Every time I have sex, I infect my partner with Skitterlings. And since I became a hero, I’ve slept with over a thousand women who between them have slept with thousands of men who in turn have slept with thousands more women. As a result of which, approximately one person in every thousand is carrying Skitterlings without even knowing it.’
- Teevix, said the Skitterlings. - Channel 46. The fun’s about to begin.
’Computer. Teevix, if you please.’
High up on the wall, a door irised open. Farnsworth’s teevix drifted in through the opening. The transparent sphere floated around the room like a giant soap bubble before coming to rest on its podium.
Farnsworth and Officer Dave sat in matching leather chairs in front of the teevix. Without being asked, a service drone scuttled in and deposited two six packs of cold beer at their feet. Then it scuttled out again.
‘Teevix,’ said Farnsworth, picking up a six pack, ‘give us Channel 46.’
‘Channel 46,’ echoed the teevix. It disappeared behind a holographic shot of a baseball stadium. ‘Live from Tokyo Superdrome. Tokyo Redsocks vs. Beijing Tigers.’
It was the pre-match session. A marching band trooped out of the arena. As the last majorette disappeared down the player’s tunnel, a hover platform glided to the middle of the pitch. Maria Grayling, the world’s most famous tenor, stood on the platform. She was held in place by a force field.
‘Ah, Maria,’ Farnsworth sighed. ‘What sweet music we made.’
The crowd applauded as the platform rose a hundred metres above the ground. The introduction to the International Anthem blared out of speakers all over the stadium.
Maria spread her arms wide as if she was about to sing. But she remained silent.
Someone switched off the music. Paramedics raced to their hover platforms and started up towards her.
At which point, Maria stepped off the platform and somersaulted once before hitting the ground with a loud splat! and bursting apart like a ripe melon. There was no trace of bones or internal organs. Just a pink gloop that rapidly shrank as tiny black things emerged and gathered in a dark swarm.
Stunned silence quickly gave way to shouts and screams.
‘Sound off,’ said Farnsworth.
The teevix fell silent as the swarm expanded. It grew upwards and outwards, a black cloud with malevolence and purpose.
‘This is impossible,’ said Dave. ‘The forcefield should have kept her from jumping.’
‘The Skitterlings turned it off.’.
‘And those black things? What the hell are they?’
‘You said they’re microscopic.’
‘Not when they’re swarming. As soon as Maria stepped off the platform, they grew and absorbed every last gram of nutrition in her. Which was why her flesh turned to gunk.’
‘You’re not even upset, are you?’
‘The Skitterlings control my empathic functions. They’ve switched off my conscience.’
Farnsworth turned his attention back to the teevix. There was panic in the stands as trillions of Skitterlings attacked. They flew into every orifice they could find. Mouths, nostrils, anuses, vaginas, urethras, sweat glands. Even tear ducts.
Once inside a host, they multiplied, doubling their numbers every few seconds. Some people exploded. Others melted. And from their liquidised remains rose trillions of hungry Skitterlings..
The picture blanked out and the teevix reappeared, saying, ‘We apologise for the loss of transmission. This is due to problems beyond our control.’
Dave got to his feet and stood over Farnsworth. ‘Police Central have ordered me to kill you.’
Farnsworth shrugged. ‘Go ahead.’
‘I can’t. Something is preventing me.’
‘When we kissed, I infected you with Skitterlings. They’ve reproduced and taken over your circuits.’
‘This is bad, Citizen Farnsworth. Really bad.’
‘It is what it is. The Skitterlings are following their biological imperative.’
‘But what’s the point of them if all they do is destroy?’
‘Are you looking for some meaning to this planet’s imminent demise?’
The Skitterlings laughed. – You think our primary concern is survival.
- And it isn’t?
- Put away your anthropocentric, Darwinist preconceptions about the nature of life. We’re not human. Mortality holds no terrors for us. All we want is to destroy. Our continued existence is but a means to that end and that’s why in a few million years we’ll be the only life in the galaxy.
- And what then?
- We’ll destroy each other.
Farnsworth cracked open a fresh can of beer and took a swig. ‘How are things around the world?’
‘It’s chaos,’ said Dave. ‘According to Police Central, people are exploding left right and centre. And there are riots in every major city.’
‘Drink up, old chum.’ Farnsworth handed Dave a beer. ‘Pick a news channel and let’s see how the world ends.’
‘Police Central says Channel 83 has extensive coverage of the riots in Sydney.’
‘Channel 83 it is then. Would you care for some pretzels?’
Hopping from channel to channel, they watched the world fall apart. Throughout the solar system, 18 billion souls perished.
Dave remained in touch with Police Central who informed him the Grade As had ordered all teevix broadcasts to cease, but to no avail. Just about every machine on Earth was infected with Skitterlings and they wanted the apocalypse televised.
From the comfort of their armchairs, Farnsworth and Dave witnessed cities being torn down and crowds of frightened people exploding. And not just people. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, machines. Anything living or electronic was fair game to the aliens.
At shortly before 4 in the morning, the teevix could no longer find any coherent broadcasts and switched to standby mode.
Farnsworth stood and stretched. Then he emptied his bladder against the back of Dave’s chair. What did it matter where he pissed now?
A pair of cleaning drones scurried from their hidey holes and set about removing all traces of Farnsworth’s urine. As he sat back down, he noticed a look of bewilderment on Dave’s face.
‘What’s the matter, Dave?’
‘I don’t know.’ The android frowned and tilted his head. ‘I feel… Well, it doesn’t matter what I feel. The point is that I shouldn’t feel anything – but I do.’
‘That’s the Skitterlings. They’ve given you emotions.’
‘And I’ll tell you exactly what you feel. It’s called happiness.’
‘Is that what it is?’ Dave popped a pretzel into his mouth. ‘You know I first felt it – albeit at a much lower intensity – when I drank that Martian sour mash. And it’s been growing ever since. I suppose it’s a terrible thing to say, but I actually enjoyed watching humanity’s perdition.’
‘So did I,’ said Farnsworth. ‘But that’s the Skitterlings. So long as you play ball, they’ll make you happy. Don’t ever cross them though. Not unless you want to know what black despair feels like.’
‘If it’s the opposite of what I feel now, it must be a truly awful thing.’
‘It is, Dave. It is.’
‘So what do we do now?’
‘Now we join all the beautiful ladies waiting outside.’
Crispin Farnsworth, slayer of the human race, and Officer Dave Balcerzak put on levitation suits and stepped out of the Flying Doughnut.
As they hovered in a sky turned vermillion by fires blazing miles below, they were joined by dozens of beautiful women. Even in their lev suits, they were female sexuality personified.
- Nubile, said the Skitterlings. – That’s the word you’re looking for.
- I’ve had sex with each and every one of them. And I am very, very grateful.
- Before we came along, you were practically a virgin.
- If Hitachi Magazine can be believed, I’ve slept with 99 of the 100 most desirable women in the world. I suppose it would be 100 if Zara Makepeace wasn’t in a coma.
- The Visitors’ ship has passed the moon. In a few minutes it will be in Earth orbit.
- Wow. That thing’s fast.
- It’s a thousand generations more advanced than anything your lot has managed to develop. A week from now, we’ll arrive at Sirius III where some bright spark has just invented gunpowder. We’ll orbit for a couple of centuries – give them time to develop the silicon chip - and then it’s party time once more.
New York burned. From high above, it was a sea of flame and smoke, like an angel’s view of Hell. Skyscrapers toppled. Rubble cascaded down the sides of burning buildings. Cars flew into each other. Out over the Atlantic, a circling aircraft ran out of fuel and dropped into the sea.
The Skitterlings arranged Farnsworth’s women into lines facing Sun Wu’s Flying Castle. All except Anastasia.
The women blew kisses at Farnsworth. Then they moved in formation towards the Flying Castle. At first they flew slowly, almost drifting in the rarefied air. But they accelerated at a steady rate and by the time they reached Sun Wu’s security zone they had hit their top speed of 120 miles per hour.
When they ran into the forcefield, each girl exploded in a blue flash, releasing trillions of Skitterlings into the atmosphere.
- Beautiful, said the Skitterlings. – But nothing compared with what’s to come. As soon as we’re at a safe distance, we’re going to simultaneously let off every nuclear device on Earth.
Some of the Skitterlings flew through the forcefield and invaded the building’s electronics. They turned off the antigrav generator. The building plummeted. It hit the top of a skyscraper and exploded, sending up a jet of blue and orange flame.
Anastasia grabbed Farnsworth’s hand and nestled up to him. He didn’t try to stop her. As she was the only woman left, it seemed a good idea to try and get along.
Soon they’d be heading to Sirius III. The first humans to visit another star.
Perhaps on the way, thought Farnsworth, I can figure out how to stop the Skitterlings from destroying any more civilisations.
Catching his thought, the Skitterlings laughed. – Dream on, Earthboy, they said. - Dream on.