Warren fell into the backseat of the taxi and let the stillness settle over him.
“The wind will tear the clothes off your bloody back,” the cab driver said.
“Yeah, well, at least it’s dry today.”
The cabby pulled away and switched on the radio. A sombre female reporter announced: It’s official, we can now add the Butterflyfish to the list of marine species extinct in the wild. Numbers of coral fish have dropped dramatically since the unexplained death of large parts of coral in the Indian and Pacific oceans.
“Is that for real, another one?” Warren said. He leaned forward. “Turn it up please?”
But it was too late; the reporter had moved on to the next horror story, yet another fatal air crash over the city. The Air Accidents Investigation Branch had cancelled all flights over central London until they carried out a full investigation into the multiple, seemingly unrelated accidents.
“Bloody madness,” the cabby mumbled. “People are wondering why this stuff is happening, ain’t they? Well, if they read the Bible they’d understand…”
Warren nodded politely and closed his mind to the cabby’s melodramatic reckonings. He was late visiting his mother and would have to put in another all-nighter at his lab tonight. The thought made his head throb.
The nursing home looked like the other neighbouring Victorian town houses. There was no shortage of profit in converting large houses into homes for the rising number of mentally ill. The only things that identified their purpose were subtle signs set back into the wide driveways. Warren’s mother, Joyce, had never outright said she liked it here, but Warren knew she enjoyed walking the grounds and listening to the residents natter.
Joyce was in her room. The walls were cream, the carpet a slightly darker wheatgrass. The cleaner had made the bed up with white linen to exact standards. Joyce’s only piece of personal furniture was her pale wooden chair with white floral cushions. A far-side window overlooked well-tended gardens, and the TV hanging from the wall angled down towards the chair, switched off. But Joyce stared up at it as if enthralled by an epic romance.
“Hi, Mum. What’s happening?”
She stiffened slightly, but didn’t face him.
Warren pulled up a stool from under a desk and lightly touched Joyce’s arm. Perhaps there was a hint of a smile, perhaps not.
“Are you okay, Mum?”
It was a standard question. He didn’t expect an answer, not when she was like this. He’d be lucky to get a coherent sentence out of her today.
“Work’s busy. The project deadline is this Friday and I haven’t even tested my scanning system yet.”
Joyce jolted like she’d just woken up. Her lips curled up into a sharp smile. “You better get it finished or they won’t pay you,” she said.
“Well, yeah. I know that, Mum. I was just… Never mind.”
“Your grandfather used to spend most of his money hot from the pay envelope, you know? The landlord of the Dog’s Inn did well, mind. I bet his daughters didn’t go hungry.”
Joyce’s breathing quickened, and her eyes glinted with tears.
“It’s okay.” Warren took her hand and looked her in the eye. “It’s my turn to look after you now, me and the nurses here.”
Joyce relaxed. Her frightened expression dissipated through an emerging smile, a breath-taking glimpse of the strong woman she had been. “Warren, I know you look out for me. You’re a good boy.” She giggled, then leant forward, her face darkened to a knowing frown. Warren braced himself.
“I see them every day now, the hidden people. They fly in the clouds and spit their germs down on us. They make us crazy.”
Warren choked back sorrow. “Things will get better. The work we’re doing is taking us closer to mapping the brain. We’ll soon understand why so many people are falling ill like you. Maybe, one day soon, we will find a cure.”
Joyce’s expression glazed over. Her gaze stared through her son. He waited a minute, still and silent, then leant forward and kissed her.
“See you tomorrow, Mum.”
Warren connected the MR equipment to a completed electroencephalography system. His head ached from working through the night, and his limbs were vibrating with too much caffeine. But this moment was four years in the making and to meet his project deliverable Warren knew it was make or break.
With bleary eyes, he glanced up at the clock – a little after 10am. His workplace was also his home. Worktops lined three walls, each filled with equipment, cables, and scribbled notes. A high-powered generator hummed loudly in the corner. On the forth wall, next to a door, was a prototype test tunnel clamped to the ceiling, above a plastic chair.
Warren’s lab was a 5th storey deserted office building. It had taken him considerable effort to move and assemble his equipment up here, where Warren did his contract R&D work. But he had to be realistic, this place, an ex-Magnetix lab, had a Faraday Cage fitted to the room, something he simply couldn’t afford, and without it the MR system wouldn’t work.
He used the grant money to fund his research and pay himself a small salary covering the rent. His mother’s care fees took the rest.
Warren looked out the window. The sun had made a rare appearance firing rays through the parting clouds. He took a moment to appreciate the sight. From the north-facing window in South London, Warren looked out across rolling rooftops and tower blocks, past metal spires, and all the way to the skyscrapers that defined The City.
His mobile phone rang.
“Hello, WJ Technologies,” Warren said.
“Hey Warren, it’s David Harris from Magnetix.”
Oh no. Not now… “Hi David.”
“Just a quick call to make sure you received my email. I didn’t get a response…”
Damn. “Sorry, I meant to get back sooner, but I was waiting to collate some results. Give you something solid.”
There was a stretched silence. “I should hope so.” David laughed. “Three days to deadline and we still haven’t had a full system check. Look, if you’re struggling to finish this we need to know. We can allocate you some resources, help speed things up.”
Warren knew what ‘some resources’ meant PhD students eager to prove themselves. Even if he could reveal to David that he was working in a deserted building he didn’t own, they’d only get in his way. Christ, it would take more than three days to get them up to speed. “That’s very kind, but not necessary. The scanning module is ready. I’ll have the test results written up before Friday.”
“Okay, Warren, I trust you, but I haven’t seen you at the last two project meetings and there have been some significant advances in the other camps. The Americans are claiming a novel scanning system using hyperpolarized compounds to increase scanning sensitivity. The Japanese have engineered a similar fMRI EEG hybrid system like ours. Eighteen months ago, we were miles ahead. The commission expects big things from this project, they believe we are world leaders. Anything other than a world-first paper next week will be considered a failure.”
There was a pause. Warren knew David was gearing up for a sucker shot. He braced himself.
“We need to get a post-deadline paper in at OTT Conference next week. A full system ‘hybrid’ test will get us that, but without your contribution, we have nothing. Our reputation as leaders will be gone.”
David stopped talking as if a response was expected.
Warren felt his skin grow hot; beads of sweat formed on his forehead.
He said nothing.
“We’re ready to go as soon as you meet your deliverable. Can we count on you?”
Warren didn’t have a test subject to authenticate his system. Even if he did, and it worked perfectly without any modifications – which was practically unheard of – it would take at least a day to write his report.
His mind clouded with panic, he tried to calculate the likely time he would need to complete… It was technically possible he could finish in three days, but he would be relying on luck and very little sleep.
“No problem,” he replied. “I’ll keep you up to date.” He could hardly believe he was uttering the words with such confidence.
“Okay, great,” David said. “And, Warren, if you want my advice, don’t get pulled into the details. Sometimes it helps to step away and look at the bigger picture. The devil lives in the details, and he’s your worst enemy. We need a solution here, not more problems.”
The phone went dead but David’s voice still rang in his ears.
His chair creaked alarmingly as he leant back. The enormity of the work was an invisible ocean above him, pinning him to the spot, inactive. Where was he going to start?
Warren already knew the answer to that. He’d be testing himself. He figured there wasn’t any danger in it – it might be a little awkward – but it was his only option.
Warren rigged himself beneath the makeshift scanning tunnel, provided to him by his old University friend Tony, another researcher working within the project.
The machine activated with a deafening hum. The scanning tunnel was vertical, attached to the ceiling and chair so he could scan his metabolic activity under normal weight- bearing conditions. It also allowed Warren to control remotely control his magnetically armoured PC from the hot seat.
It was past 4pm when he finished studying the test results. The sensitivity improvement was phenomenal, even better than he could have hoped. But there was something else, something inconsistent in the reading. A small section of his brain remained active throughout all stages of the tests; it seemed to vary slightly under each phase, but was entirely unrelated to the simple tasks he had performed. A rare pulse of anger throbbed in his temples. Why now? Why couldn’t the results be simple, conclusive?
He leant back in his chair and clasped his head in both hands. Tears welled in his eyes. He was too tired for this news, news that could only result in more work.
David’s voice rang clear in his mind: The devil lives in the details.
It wouldn’t take a lot to modify the results, take out the anomalous reading, but he needed to study it further. He had to understand the implications. Could it be simple noise, a fault with the Faraday Cage? No, too ordered. Perhaps a glitch in the software? A bug to fix…? No, he would have seen it before. Maybe it was something unseen, an active, undiscovered section in the brain, no, surely not. What if he let this go and later they found his manipulation of the results caused misdiagnosis in patients. Or worse.
Nevertheless, if he didn’t provide something, he wouldn’t get his grant money and that was not an option. He had to submit a successful report. It was that, or fail to pay for his mother’s care.
Warren stood up, felt disconcertingly dizzy, and steadied himself with a hand on the desk. He had to get some sleep. Then take a break. Well, his mother would be expecting him.
Joyce was staring out of her window, her hands tightly gripped on the windowsill, knuckles shaking and white.
Warren stood beside her and took in the scene. The sky was dark grey, almost green.
“What do you see?” Warren said.
Joyce appeared to deflate, all the tension seeping from her. She smiled, “The sky is darkened by their cities. Thousands of faces peer at me, filling me with their poison.” She looked at Warren. Her face seemed alive, coloured with emotion, and untouched by medication. “The doctors think I’m crazy. That to indulge others in my hallucinations is counterproductive. They say medication will help…”
Joyce opened a clenched fist, revealing three blue pills in her open palm. “They make me forget about the hallucinations… or stop caring about them, I don’t know. But they take away so much more than just the bad stuff. Everything becomes fog.”
“Do you want to get out of here for a couple of hours?”
Joyce glanced up . Tension contorted her expression.
“What is it, Mum?”
Warren took his mother’s arm. “Come on, Ma, we can go grab a coffee – I’ll look after you.”
Joyce’s shoulders slouched forward, as if she were trying to fold herself away. She started to shake as if freezing cold. Warren held her until she began to calm.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I just can’t.”
“It’s okay… It’s fine.”
Joyce quickly swallowed her pills, closed her eyes for a moment. “Come and see me again soon?”
“Of course I will.”
The day before deadline, Warren woke at 6am. The wind hissed outside, rattling through vents like wailing ghosts. Rain pelted loudly against the office window. Through it all, Warren heard pounding footsteps in the dark hallway outside.
He jumped up and struggled into his tracksuit bottoms and t-shirt.
A man, completely covered by a waterproof anorak and carrying a heavy-duty umbrella stood outside in the narrow corridor.
“Hey, Tony, what brings you to my little backwater dump?”
Tony’s face was visible above his pulled up collar. “Are we going to talk out here or are you going to make me a coffee? You have got coffee in this ‘backwater dump’ I assume?”
Warren chuckled. “Yup, plenty of coffee and toast… just don’t tell the council I’ve rigged up a 7 Tesla magnet in one of their properties…”
Warren opened up and led Tony into his workshop.
Tony discarded his anorak and left it dripping on a wall hook. He was a little taller than Warren but massed only two-thirds his weight. “Fancy place you’ve got here.”
Warren filled the kettle. “Just because I don’t genuflect for David Harris on a daily basis,” Warren put his hand on Tony’s shoulder. “Like some people. It doesn’t make me a loser.”
Tony raised a single eyebrow, but couldn’t hide his smile from lifting his cheekbones. “So you’re keeping it real for the little guy? Battling one research project at a time, taking what you can from the evil corporations?”
Tony grinned wide, and it made Warren want to drop what he was doing, forget about the project, and take his old friend out and get drunk.
“You’re taking one for the team?”
“Screw you, Tony.”
Warren filled two cups with instant coffee, sugar, and milk. “Clear a space. Grab a seat on the bench.”
Warren sat back and cradled his coffee. He let the silence settle between them and enjoyed the moment before the imminent heavy conversation ensued.
“You know, if you didn’t keep pissing people off you’d be running your own team somewhere like Magnetix.” He gestured to old test equipment lining the grey stained walls. “You’d have access to all the equipment you could ask for and not be hiding out in an abandoned shithole with rats and the odd pigeon for company.”
Warren stiffened with tension. He’d tried to explain it before but Tony just didn’t get it. “I do what is necessary to finish a job properly. If I missed a couple of deadlines along the way, that’s because I needed more time to study the—”
“Stop it, Warren. You’re a bloody control freak, and you’re not a team player.” Tony drilled Warren with stern gaze. “Dress it up how you like, mate, but you’re a difficult guy to work with. Believe me. I know.”
“So why are you here then? Actually, let me guess, David sent you to make sure his ‘wild card’ isn’t going to cock up his precious publication deadline?”
The silence answered him clearly enough.
“David spoke to me, sure. He just needs his nerves un-jangled. His reputation is riding on this.” Tony hopped off the bench. “Which I don’t give a rat’s arse about, but, if he doesn’t get this paper submitted you can be sure he’ll hold you responsible, and he’s the kind of guy you need on your side in this industry.” Tony pulled himself back onto the bench and leant forward, forearms on knees. “Regardless, I didn’t come here for him. I came for you. No results equals no pay. I’m here to help.” He rolled up his shirtsleeves and clapped his hands together. “Where shall I start?”
Warren wrestled with his instinct to throw Tony out. He figured Tony would forgive him… eventually. Below his pride, though, Warren felt lingering helplessness, the nagging thought of moving his mother to a cheaper home, the stress of having to spend many more nights in this place. No, he needed a place of his own, but first, he needed complete his part of the project and collect payment.
He couldn’t deny it. He needed Tony’s help.
“As a matter of fact,” Warren said. “There seems to be some anomalous metabolic activity in my initial test.”
“Who’s the subject?”
“That would be me.”
Tony grinned. “I wouldn’t have expected anything else.”
Warren ignored the gibe. He brought up the results on his PC screen. “Look.”
“Christ, these are awesome. The sensitivity is amazing.”
“Right, but look here.” Warren pointed to the image of his brain on the screen. Red and yellow patches of colour vibrated in various sections. “At first glance it all looks pretty familiar.” He zoomed in. “But there are active sections in the thalamus and cortex. Here.” He pointed with a pen to a small coloured segment, zoomed in again. “This is way outside the current state-of-the-art measuring capability.” Dozens of segments were alight within the area. “The odd thing is that they remained stable and active throughout the test.”
Tony looked at Warren. He was transfixed. “Could it be noise?”
“I thought the same, but it’s not random.”
Tony shook his head. “Is this the only data you have, just one test?”
“Look around, buddy, you think I have an assistant in here?”
“Okay, okay… perhaps the contamination is environmental,” Tony said. “I’ll play lab rat this time and we can compare results. If the anomalous activity shows up in my test, then we can assume it is noise related, and take steps to eliminate it.”
It was the next logical step. Warren couldn’t argue.
Warren displayed Tony’s test on the screen. The metabolic activity was so clear that Warren almost dared to believe he would make the deadline. But he knew these results had to be better than good. They had to be perfect.
“Zoom in here,” Tony said.
Warren zoomed in and corrected the screen resolution. “There.” Tony pointed. “It’s the same as yours.”
Warren felt his pulse jump a couple of beats. “Wait a minute.” He hit the print button, got his results up under the same resolution, and hit print again.
Warren placed the printouts over one another against the window. They didn’t line up. “The anomalies are similar, Tony, but they’re not identical.”
“So what does that mean?”
“If the anomalies are produced by the scanner, I would have expected them to be identical in both tests. This makes it tricky.” Warren pushed his forehead against the window, he let his mind wander with the view of the wet, wind-swept city. “Wait.”
Warren stalked back to his PC.
“Well?” Tony asked.
“The activity is generated in slightly different areas, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t caused by interference in the magnetic field.” He compared two similar segments from Tony and his own tests. “See? Both are pulsing at the same frequency.”
“Well I’ll be buggered. You’re right.” Tony slowly shook his head. “Magnetic interference… fine, so we just need to counter the signal, block it somehow.”
“Right. I can extrapolate the frequency and program the software to block the unwanted noise.” Warren checked the time. 7pm. He had until tomorrow night to submit his results. “I’ll go under the magnet this time.”
Warren sat back in the test chair. His eyes were heavy, but his mind was reeling with anticipation.
The scanning tunnel buzzed down on transition stages. Warren looked across the room. Through the window, the sky was beginning to darken. Heavy rain clouds covered in a blanket of swirling grey.
The shapes seemed almost to have depth, as if he could reach out and touch them.
The humming stopped. The scanning tunnel was in place.
Warren tried to clear his mind and concentrate on the coming questions.
“Are you ready?” Tony asked.
Tony switched on the system. The room filled with the incessant screams of the scanning system, like a malfunctioning robot from an old movie, or the dying splutters of an old floppy disc magnified a hundred fold.
Tony raised his thumb and mouthed “All good. Don’t move a muscle.” He started tapping into the PC, presumably activating the signal block.
Warren continued to stare out the window, trying to block out the sound of the machine. In the sky, thick clouds vibrated. They took on substance.
What had been miserable grey had somehow transformed into a collection of horrendous structures that hung in the sky like angry gods.
Warren closed his eyes tightly.
When he opened them again, the world was a different place. He ducked out of the machine, his gaze transfixed on what lay outside. The structures were shadowed with dark ridges and ugly extrusions that leaked black vapour. Like floating cities, dozens of them darkened the entire sky. Spires rose kilometres further through the clouds above.
Below them, thousands of machines whirled through the air like swarms of insects.
Warren felt Tony stand beside him. He heard his quickened breaths above the racket of the machine. A single look in Tony’s direction confirmed that he too saw the impossible picture before them.
“Hallucination…” Tony managed. “The signal is messing with our information processing.”
Warren didn’t take his eyes of the scene. “Tell me what you see?”
Tony’s voice was a throaty quiver. “I see what looks like metallic ships floating…” He pointed. “There, there… Christ, they’re everywhere. Flying things… another one over there.”
Warren pointed to the north-west. “Over there… see the cables?”
Maybe a mile off, cables as wide as trucks fell from an airborne structure. They penetrated the ground in a park close to the river. All around it, thousands of flying things heaved and shifted in the sky. The black sheet seemed to grow as Warren watched.
“I see it,” Tony said.
“They’re coming this way.”
Warren couldn’t drag himself away, and watched as the things drew closer. He could appreciate their scale now – each was size of a house cat. Multiple appendages spiralled out from each individual in all directions.
Warren’s gaze flicked from one to the other in the cloud of the massing swarm. Each was similar in size and design, but all were fundamentally individual. Different limbs, or colour. The common denominator on each was two central stalked eyes, black and glistening like oil.
Warren felt the air around him charge with energy, like the moment before a lightning bolt hit. There was an ear-deafening crash behind him. The room filled with the smell of burning plastic—
—And the world snapped back into focus. They were gone.
The room was silent. Smoke rose from the inert scanning machine. The view was clear. Grey, wet, and miserable, and no sign of activity in the sky.
Warren thought of his mother staring out her window, knuckles white against the ledge. He thought about the billions of Euros spent developing technologies to cater the exponential increase in mental health problems.
He thought about the freak weather and the inexplicable death of wildlife across the globe.
Tony stood at the window with his head slumped forward. His eyes were sunken in ashen sockets. The only sign of movement came from involuntary shakes that, on any other day, Warren would have mistaken for laughter. He pulled his phone out and searched for News stations: BBC, CNN, CBS… all nothing. “It’s not on the News. Perhaps some kind of shared hallucination…”
“Don’t you see? We are the only ones that could have seen it…” Warren pointed to the machine. “The scanner is passive; it can’t interfere with our processing of information.”
“No, but the signal could have.” Tony said.
“Tony, the system didn’t generate metabolic activity in our brains… believe me I designed this prototype. We simply blocked what is already there… Something else is interfering with our processing.”
He let the thought settle on him, sink into his skin and freeze his blood. “We unblocked an already existing signal… then, our reality is a lie. I–we-that bloody machine, just opened our eyes to a hidden world?” Warren joined Tony by the window and gazed over the Greater London sprawl – miles of land where millions of people lived and worked. “Those things are still out there.”
“We just can’t see them.”
“People need to know. We’ve got to tell someone.” Tony took his phone out and started to dial.
“Who are you calling?”
“The police. We need to explain what’s going on and get them to talk to the government.”
Warren gently took the phone away. “This isn’t something we can just tell people about. You really think they’ll believe you?”
Tony seemed to surrender. His arms went up, palms out. “Well what do you suggest we do?”
“I don’t know. Go see your family, girlfriend, whatever, make sure they’re okay. I’m going to see my mother.”
Warren felt the anger radiating from his friend, barely contained frustration born from fright.
Being scared Warren could understand. It loomed large and heavy, so strong, Warren could taste it like bile, blinding him of all rational thought.
“Like hell you are.” Tony said. “If we can’t tell people about this then we’re going to bloody show them.”
“Show them what? The scanner’s fried.”
Warren could see an idea forming on Tony’s face, his eyes ignited with mischief. He ripped off the scanner’s outer shell and poked around inside. “Some components are fried, but I think I can fix it.” He carefully removed a module and handed it Warren. “We’ve got a magnet a hundred times more powerful at Magnetix. We take your program, bolt on your system, and then rip a hole so everyone can see through this fairy-tale bullshit.”
Warren tried to argue, he explored every avenue of defence he could find… but nothing materialised.
In the end, he adopted his stance – a single plea. “I’ll do it, but first I want to visit my mother.”
It was dark outside the nursing home, and well past visiting hours.
The on-duty nurse was plump and bouncy. Warren watched her through the window as she rushed to open the door. She pulled it open only slightly, the chain still attached.
“I need to see my mother Joyce. It’s an emergency.”
The nurse looked unsure, was about to say something-
“An emergency,” Warren repeated. Not wanting to make a scene.
She mumbled something about signing a register. Warren ignored her and headed upstairs at once. Tony followed close behind.
He knocked twice and didn’t wait for an answer.
Joyce was sitting in her chair with the curtains closed. She was watching the News. Images of dead coral reef dominated the picture.
Joyce smiled. “Oh what a surprise. How lovely to see you both-” She stopped talking with an abruptness that sent a chill through Warren’s spine.
Joyce screamed with deafening intensity. Shock contorted her face into an ugly mask. Her skin turned white and she scrambled to get away from him.
Warren ran to her.
“No! No!” she screamed, her hands coming up in protective defence. “Leave my son alone!”
Warren stopped dead in his tracks.
Her expression charged with soft lines of sympathy wrestling against hollow-eyed fright. But her focus was sharp. He couldn’t detect her usual drug-induced glaze. “You have to run, boy, get away from them,” she whispered. “Do you hear me?”
Warren felt strong arms push past him. Two nurses ran past in a flash of white and blue.
Joyce had fallen to the floor, cowering. One of the nurses produced a syringe and stuck it in Joyce’s arm.
Warren hurried over and tried to hold is mother.
The nurse looked back at him. “Just something to calm her. She’ll be okay but she needs to rest now.”
Warren backed away, unable to take his eyes off his mother slumped and shivering in the corner.
“Come on, Warren, we can come back in the morning,” Tony said. “There’s nothing you can do here tonight.”
The walk to Magnetix passed in a dreamlike haze. Warren carried a rucksack weighted with the scanning modules and components. It rubbed his back with each step. Warren’s mind bounced from the earlier impossible sights—a tear in reality, as he’d come to consider it – to Joyce’s reaction to him.
But really, it was the opposite to a tear in reality. His—no, everyone’s processing of reality couldn’t be trusted.
Magnetix loomed above them – a glass building eight storeys high. The lights were off on all floors, apart from the lobby.
Warren followed Tony through the rotating entrance. Tony flashed a badge at the security guard.
They rode the lift up to the fifth floor. Tony took white overalls and a hair net from a locker, and passed them to Warren. “Put them on.”
They walked through two doors into the cleanroom. The lab was a pristine example of what big money could buy. Warren felt a sharp pang of regret that he didn’t have the opportunity to work in such a place, but it passed just as quickly as he considered working for men like David Harris.
Tony flicked on the lights and the room came alive with a low hum. Before them, in the centre of the open plan lab was a fully operating MR scanner.
Warren checked his watch. “It’s gone nine, it’s probably going to take all night to get this hooked up and active. Are you ready?”
Tony nodded. His face was hard to read, but Warren thought he glimpsed a hard line of determination behind the white of his receding shock. “Let’s do it.”
The morning sun warmed Warren’s forearms as he screwed the panel back into the MRI machine. He looked left. Tony was still asleep, his rolled-up jacket supporting his head. Even in his sleep, his brows were furrowed.
Warren turned back. Just a few more tweaks and the system would be ready for testing.
God only knew what was going to happen when he switched the power on. Am I even doing the right thing? Warren wondered. Do people want to know what’s really out there?
What would happen when the world saw behind the veil? Christ, does it even matter? People have a right to know what’s happening to their world.
The door behind slammed open.
Tony sat upright so quickly it looked like he’d been electrocuted. The man that entered hadn’t bothered to don overalls. He wore a tailored suit with a slight sheen. His shiny shoes clipped loudly on the resin floor. He wore the skin of an executive, but it would take more than a good tailor to hide his slime-over cut and bad posture.
David Harris came straight for Warren and stopped inches away. His eyes were ablaze with fragrant anger. Warren nearly fell backwards from the force of it.
“What the hell are you doing to my machine?”
David used a conversational tone that made his anger even more real. Warren felt his shoulders tense and in that moment, he wanted nothing more than to be away from David Harris.
Warren stumbled for words, somehow trying to explain the past twelve hours in a sentence but not being able to articulate a single point.
Tony loomed close and David snapped his focus on him.
Warren let out a long breath.
“Warren,” Tony said. “How long before we can test the machine?”
“Pretty soon I guess. A few minutes and I’ll have it hooked up with my PC.”
David’s face creased up into a wrinkled ball. Warren took an involuntary step backwards.
Tony put a hand on David’s back. “Sir, please, just watch. Give us five minutes and you’ll understand.”
David blinked, as if waking from a bad dream. “No way. You tell me right now why you’ve destroyed my equipment.”
Warren slowly backed away. It took him a few seconds to connect his computer to the machine. There were a few panels still to be mounted, and a couple of solder joints that could do with cleaning, but it wasn’t necessary. Not really.
Warren switched the power on. “Hey,” he said, looking directly at David. “I’m sorry.” And he set the blocking program running.
Shadows moved and changed, and the room dropped a shade darker.
The air became thick with the stench of diesel fuel and the atmosphere vibrated with a low groaning. Warren closed his eyes against the onslaught; it was as if he’d transported to a different room, a different world.
Warren counted a dozen or more things buzzing about. They held still for a second, then moved to a new, seemingly random, place in a blink. They would linger for just a fleeting moment. Like faces flying past on a speeding train, Warren couldn’t absorb their features. He saw glimpses of metal fused with flesh, engines that spat black smoke, and large stalked eyes as black as his darkest nightmare.
Warren was aware of sounds from outside, it might have been screams, or the screeching of brakes. Explosions shook the building.
Warren moved to the window. On the streets below, people gathered and watched the skies. Others ran in panic trying to flee the inescapable horror above them.
David fell to the ground. He let out a rush of air as he hit the ground.
Tony’s eyes followed the buzzing creatures that infested the lab. Together they moved towards Warren’s computer. They seemed to slow a beat, heaving slowly as if one independent creature.
And they disappeared.
Outside, the floating cities had fallen behind their cloak. The room once again smelt clean and felt safe.
“Did they switch the machine off?” Tony said.
Warren checked over the system. He made sure his program was still running. “It’s still going. All functioning.” He checked his PC and ran some numbers.
“The bastards have changed the interference frequency, they modified their blocking signal.”
Warren said. “We just need to scan someone again and we should be able to update my program.”
Tony nodded. Then his entire body lifted off the ground as if by magic, and struck the ceiling of the lab. He fell to the ground like a crash-test dummy. Blood spilled from his head in a growing circle of dark red.
In a similar way, David flew across the lab bouncing off the MRI machine to land in a broken heap next to Tony’s limp body.
Warren’s body filled with a sharp spike of adrenalin. He ran for the door. He pulled himself into the corridor and ran for the stairwell. His heart pounded in his ears, his breath wheezed alarmingly in his chest, but somehow he managed to find himself outside.
All sight of the intruders were gone, but everywhere Warren saw the devastation they inflicted. The invisible attackers smashed cars and crushed them into sheet metal. They threw bodies through the air like toys, piling them in hideous heaps of broken limbs and ripped flesh.
Warren tried to block out the terrible screams and deafening sounds of exploding concrete and smashing glass.
He pushed onwards, away from the city and the smell of fear, towards his mother’s nursing home. His feet pounded on the floor, step after step until eventually he arrived at the Victorian home.
All was quiet inside. No sign of the nurses. The only sound was the distant whimpering of residents behind closed doors.
Warren found his mother in her room. She sat in her chair staring at white noise on the buzzing TV. The curtains were open. Smoke billowed in the distance. Military aeroplanes roared across the sky.
Warren sat on the bed. He took his mother’s hand in his. “Mum?”
Joyce’s eyes flickered and then focused. “Oh hello, Warren. How lovely to see you.” She gestured to the TV with a mild sneer. “There’s nothing on the damn TV these days. So tell me, how is work?”
Warren quickly closed the curtains and knelt down. He held his mother’s hand tightly, thankfully.
He closed his eyes and let his mind search for the words – an explanation for the destruction outside. Words that might soothe the final moments of their lives.
Finally, he resisted the urge to explain. At least here, they could hide. Wait and hope the threat would pass them by. At least here, Joyce was comfortable, and if they came, Warren knew the end would be quick.
The sound of splintering wood resounded downstairs. Glass smashed and clattered loudly.
Joyce seemed oblivious.
The crashing sounds raged closer. Warren felt the vibration as the invisible invaders tore the house apart below them.
Warren breathed in deeply and tried to lift his lips into a smile.
“Work is… great,” he managed, before the door disintegrated into a thousand splinters and viscous pincers wrapped around his waist.