by Allison Symes
‘I don’t care how you do it but Marc must be stopped. He’s asking awkward questions about our experiments and I tell you he’s looking for a way out. He’ll find some suitable planet to defect to and we’ll lose him. He has got the talent to outwit us all.’ The Grand Inquisitor stared down at his quivering deputy. ‘Our lives will be on the line if that happens. You know how compassionate the Grand Council can be.’
The trembling deputy did know. Failure on Anarect meant a horribly slow, lingering death, which was televised to act as a warning for the masses. As a policy it worked. Within a year of its implementation, crime rates dropped by over 80%. The worst crime now was littering. The first offence led to a public flogging, the second one a jail sentence of at least five years and the third time led to the death penalty. The Grand Council adopted the three strikes and you’re out rule with alacrity. Anarect was also one of the tidiest planets in any solar system. The deputy knew that wasn’t coincidental.
‘I assure you, sir, Marc has never given me any trouble. He brings us plenty of live subjects for our experiments. He cares for his acquisitions properly which helps us. It means they get here in one piece for one thing. It’s more than some of our other suppliers can claim. His record is second to none there.’
The Grand Inquisitor nodded. ‘True but he is asking questions. You must’ve heard him. Everybody has. Marc knows there is such as thing as discretion but has no concept on when to practice it and he should know for his own sake. Someone should tell him. That’s your job.’
‘Surely his defection is unlikely. You know what he is. This must be some kind of joke. Look at the way he wound up those new cadets last week by putting an Earth horse’s head in their beds. Told them they had to get used to the realities of dissection at some point so may as well start now. Okay so it was only the head of a hobby horse but they didn’t know. He knew damned well they wouldn’t know. Six of the cadets fainted. He went around bragging yesterday about that.’
The Grand Inquisitor sighed. What was needed was someone who just did their job. What was not needed was a joker. In Marc they had both. It was a pity he was the most efficient collector of specimens for the planet’s experiments. It made it so much harder to get rid of the pest. They could always try reforming the guy. They had nothing to lose. If he didn’t play ball, despite everything, the Grand Council would have to execute him. Nobody challenged the ruling authority (even if it was just by implication).
* * *
It was bloody unfair. He was tired. Stop running and he’d die. He’d completed all his employers wanted and still they wanted more, even his blood or so the Grand Inquisitor’s deputy had told him repeatedly. When Marc refused to believe it on the grounds his employment record was so good, the Grand Inquisitor himself came down from his literally high house to tell Marc. Then even Marc conceded he might have to watch his behaviour.
Which was a pity, Marc thought, winding up those cadets was a good laugh. It hadn’t been that easy to get hold of those hobby horses’ heads.
The Grand Council will not have my blood. I’m keeping it. For once they won’t get things all their own way. I’m off to have a life of my own. While I have still got one I can call my own.
For the umpteenth time in the last year, Marc was doing his duty, having the privilege of being shot at for it and he’d had enough. His only surprise was the Grand Council’s surprise he was getting tired of it all.
It was time to leave this dirty, violent, forsaken planet and find somewhere new. Somewhere his people would never come looking for him. Somewhere they’d consider backward could be the ideal place. Anarect’s people were all snobs. Backward planets were only to be mined for their resources, including their live specimens. And there was nothing Marc didn’t know about dodging the specimen collectors. Too many of them in the past had tried to watch him at work and find out the secret of his success. Marc had grown tired of telling them all to go away in forcible terms so had a certain amount of fun giving them the slip. Yes, he could make this work.
Marc’s three pulses raced. He wasn’t sure if it was the adrenalin (it was just as well he couldn’t get addicted to that stuff, otherwise he’d been in rehab years ago for overdosing on it) or his new ploy had ticked all the right boxes.
There was only one way to find out. He was supposed to use his initiative, right. For once he’d use it only for himself.
* * *
Marc couldn’t believe his good luck when he met Barbara. A new life well away from his old job was appealing in itself but to meet someone wonderful, intelligent and beautiful to share it with had been the icing on a very sweet cake. He also couldn’t believe his bad luck when he met her mother, Grace. Marc could only assume Barbara’s charm, love for life (and sex, which Marc wasn’t complaining about), and humour were all inherited from her father. He died five years before. Marc wondered if the guy did so to get away from the nagging Grace and, if so, Marc could only assume the poor sod couldn’t take any more. Marc understood this. Grace could’ve made a living hollering for her cattle to come home without the need for amplification.
Given a choice between the Grand Inquisitor and the battle axe, Marc thought, I’ll handle the latter. I shall have fun blunting that particular instrument. Barbara doesn’t seem to mind. Feels her mother has it coming. Barbara should’ve got out years ago. I would’ve done had my mother been like Grace. I wonder why Barbara didn’t. Too much misplaced affection perhaps? Still she can place her affection in my direction now…
It took Marc a year to believe he was at last free to enjoy what he planned to be a long and happy life with Barbara. (He planned to shorten Grace’s life, one could only take so much nagging and he wasn’t adopting Barbara’s dad’s exit strategy, but until the day came when such a scenario definitely wouldn’t upset Barbara, the wretched Grace lived). On every trip out he watched for all the tell-tale signs the Grand Inquisitor had sent someone after him but there was nothing. No suspicious characters hanging around. No coded messages sent in the usual places and media. Sometimes the Council could be blatant and send someone obviously looking like an alien to a planet like Earth. Most locals wouldn’t see it (the ones that did were always dismissed as geeks/sci-fi nuts/drunk/on drugs or sometimes any combination or even the lot) but Marc would. He could spot alien life a mile off. He wondered idly if all aliens could. Perhaps it was just a survival mechanism. There were primitive worlds out there and the jury at home was still out as to whether Earth was civilized now.
Marc was relieved to be free. He deserved to be free. If he was free, so would Barbara be. They could get on with life at last. And then it happened…
* * *
‘For goodness sake, put your newspaper down and just listen to me for once in your life,’ said Barbara.
The paper rustled. Barbara snatched it away only to get a pained look, the one Marc always used when things weren’t going his way. She threw the paper behind her.
‘Don’t you darling me. I’ve tried getting through to you all morning. What planet are you on, Marc?
The Times isn’t that engrossing. You haven’t turned a page for twenty minutes.’
‘I’m reading the adverts, darling.’
Barbara stepped back and looked at Marc as if he was a new life form. ‘You read the adverts?’ She said it so slowly there could be no doubting the sarcasm.
Marc flinched. ‘Yes, darling. All human life is in the adverts. They’re a fascinating study.’
‘I wouldn’t know. Someone in this house hogs the papers. I know you hate leaving that chair before bedtime but go and look out of the window and then tell me there’s nothing odd about this place. I’ve said before now there are funny people living here. Now I’ve got proof. Look by the bus stop.’
Reluctantly Marc left his leather recliner and went to the bay window. Lifting the nets, he peered out.
‘There’s old Mr Jackson. He’ll be moaning at his neighbour about the smashed bus stop again… I wish he’d stop going on about that. Moan, moan, moan. It’s all he does all day.’
‘So? It’s an old man’s privilege. What did you think you see?’
‘I didn’t think it, Marc. I saw an alien.’
Marc laughed. ‘What did I say about not watching those sci-fi films so late at night? I’ve warned you about that before.’
Barbara joined her husband and pointed to their right. ‘Behind Mr Jackson, you must see it. The green blob with legs, two heads, two you’ll note, not common round here, you must’ve spotted we usually run to just the one, and a big mouth. Nor am I impressed by those fangs.’
‘Darling, there is nothing like that out there.’
Marc gently swung his wife round to face him. ‘Darling, you’ve been overdoing it. It’s making you see things. Relax Do you honestly think I’d pick a neighbourhood for us to live in where anything like alien visitations was a remote possibility? Can you imagine the affect on property prices?’
Come on, Barbara, smile, Marc thought. There’s a good girl. I’ve got to think a way out of this fast. Why the hell have they come after me now? I had bloody lost them. I will not let them ruin things for me now.
* * *
Barbara nodded, reluctantly, but Marc had a good nose for a decent property deal and they’d been fortunate to get their semi-detached at the price they did. Barbara smiled. It was one of Marc’s better ideas and it annoyed her mother so…
* * *
‘I’ll get the papers, darling,’ Marc called at 7.30 the next morning jumping off the last two stairs as he did when Barbara wasn’t looking. ‘I won’t be long.’
‘Pick up milk and teabags, would you? Mother might pop in later. You know what she is for tea.’ Barbara called from their bedroom. ‘It’s just as well the stuff isn’t alcoholic. She’d be permanently drunk otherwise.’
‘Okay,’ Marc called. He had no problem in assisting Grace to drink. It kept her quiet which was always a good thing. Marc slung his black leather jacket on, checked he had his wallet and left. If he could prevent a mother-in-law visit, he would. Grace had never liked him because he resisted her interrogations or responded flippantly. Maybe her parents wished desperately when they named her, selecting their desired characteristic for her. It was a shame they hadn’t wished hard enough. Nowhere near hard enough. He couldn’t think of anyone or anything less appropriately named. The incessant tea drinking also worried Marc. It was a sign of being taken over by something… the tea presumably.
Marc strode to the smashed bus stop where he scowled on finding what he sought. It wasn’t what he wanted to find but it was no good pretending it wasn’t there. The Council really were here. Marc scowled. He’d covered his tracks well. How had they found him? Perhaps he could nip trouble in the bud if he acted now. He’d do a great deal for Barbara. He never imagined in his younger self when causing trouble was fun, he’d now do all he could to stop it.
* * *
‘Yes, I’m new, so what, but I was told to watch you,’ the green blob looked defiant. ‘You’ve not filed any reports, Marc. What is it about you and paperwork? I’ve seen your records. You are useless at providing any! The bosses were bound to pick you up on this.’
‘I was told to make a new life on Earth. That takes time.’
‘You’ve been here five years, Marc. You know that’s too long. You’re only ever meant to be in one place for a maximum of one year. It looks suspiciously like you weren’t planning to return to Anarect. You weren’t supposed to mate with the locals either. That kind of thing gives aliens a bad name. What have you got to say for yourself then?’
Marc grinned. Barbara was saddled with a harridan of a mother but the girl’s luscious hourglass figure, long brunette hair, beautiful blue eyes and almost insatiable appetite for sex compensated . ‘I never expected to fall in love. Barbara is special. What if I didn’t want to return? I’ve easily done my stint of specimen collecting. Other collectors have retired. Why shouldn’t I? What is so odd about me wanting to have a life of my own, especially since I met someone wonderful to share it with?’
The green blob grinned. ‘We’ve heard about Barbara. You are taking precautions? The last thing we need is something that only looks human running about, except you and we know about you. You are far too young to step down. The bosses want their pound of flesh out of you and they will get it literally if they feel they must so I’d co-operate if I were you. They decide if you step down. You know that is just how it is and they won’t tolerate anyone challenging the system.’
‘It’s a bit late for the warning. It would’ve been noticed if Barbara and I had kids. We’re not doing any harm. Why can’t we be left alone?’
‘Barbara hasn’t wanted kids?’
‘She’s afraid they’ll turn out like her mother. And the bosses say human fears are irrational - that one isn’t! I’ve scanned the adverts for the planet’s news. I sent reports from wherever I’ve been in the past. Only this place is the exception and anyway there’s been nothing worth reporting. Yet they sent you. Why didn’t they call me first rather than assume I was up to no good?’
‘You have a record as long as my fangs for upping and going before the bosses say so. You’ve tried to escape before. They warned you before. Believe me when I say this time they don’t intend for you to get away with just a warning. You know how they like imaginative discipline. They intend to be inventive with you because if they’re not the Grand Council will be so with them. As I said…’
‘Loads of Memory Adjusted Recruitment Creatures run late with paperwork. I’ve never heard of enforcers being sent after them. Why me? And choose a better covering. Barbara spotted you last night.’ Marc gritted his teeth. Some things were best left unsaid and he was an idiot. He’d just come out with the one thing best left unthought, yet alone verbalised.
The green blob looked impressed. ‘Really? You did choose a good specimen.’
‘Leave her alone, she’s mine.’
‘You know the rules. The moment our selections can spot extra-terrestrial life, we absorb them. Start the procedure. Don’t try to outwit us. Nobody has ever managed it. You will not be the first. We will find you. We will make you pay if you try. She will suffer more too, we will ensure that so it warns others. If you care for her, and not just her body, you will follow the rules for once. Just how selfish are you, Marc?’
* * *
Marc walked glumly home. He’d known the day for choosing between his old world and new one would come. He’d also known the chances of outwitting his old world were slim given they had spies everywhere. Still that was no reason not to try. Instructions were given via The Times’ personal column and he carried them out, as diligently as ever. But now this…
They owe me. I killed for them, I lied for them, hell I died for them a few times too. Regeneration hurts. Why must I lose the one thing to turn out well for me? The one thing that distinguishes me from every other bloody alien they send here? Why can’t they see I am serious about having my own life? Anything I owed them I’ve repaid years ago.
Turning into his cul-de-sac and spotting Barbara waving through the bay window, he made himself wave back. Being absorbed was painful. There were brain adjustments for a start. Had they wanted Grace, Marc would have rushed her through but Barbara, no. Marc had lost count of the species he’d helped on their way to losing their identity. He would always remember the screams…
Barbara would not go through that. If this wasn’t a time to use his more questionable skills to help rather than abuse, Marc didn’t know what was, but how? Seeing one’s smiling beloved holding the door open sank his morale. He couldn’t explain this. This was the one time her gift for getting right to the heart of the matter would be a complete pain. Barbara would only see his deceit.
* * *
‘I’m off to get more tea, Marc,’ Barbara, wandered into the bathroom, smiled at her handsome husband as he soaked in gallons of Radox. ‘Mother always clears us out, regardless of how much tea we’ve got. It’s a special talent.’
‘I’ll go later. I want the evening edition of The Echo.’
‘I’ll go. You mustn’t run around all the time. Keep your strength up for other things.’ Barbara grinned as Marc gathered up bubbles and blew them at her. To his surprise, she held up her hand, the bubbles halted in mid-air and turned back and hit him in the face. ‘See you later.’
Marc frowned. Stopping things mid-air signalled something. His pre-assignment lecture had mentioned it. What was it now?
* * *
Barbara went to the bus stop. There was no sign of Marc at the windows but in front of her was what she sought. She glared.
‘I can see you.’
‘I know, Mrs Wilson,’ the green blob bowed.
Barbara was thrown when its second head wobbled like a drunk blancmange. She shook herself.
Now was not the time to lose her nerve. ‘Why are you here? What did you tell Marc? He looks as if the world’s about to end when he thinks I’m not looking…’
The green blob looked impressed. ‘I see why he fell for you. Intelligence and sex combined. I note you don’t ask what I am. I wonder why.’
‘You’re an enforcer and ensure deployed aliens behave on other planets. Or at the very least ensure they don’t start a stampede of panicking humans.’
The green blob stared. ‘Is there something you’ve not told me, Mrs Wilson? Marc too, come to that?’
‘Yes, a lot, but all I want from you is to leave Marc alone. It is me you want?’
‘What have you done with her?’ Marc shook the green blob so hard before dropping him. The blob’s two heads were still shaking several minutes later.
The blob was impressed Marc realised Barbara had gone within ten minutes of her “calling”. It usually took four hours plus. The bosses were thorough. Marc must know at least some of their schemes then. ‘I did nothing. She visited me.’
Marc looked sceptical as he dropped the blob. ‘Course she did.’
‘Ask Mr Johnson. He sees everything here.’
‘How come he hasn’t been called up then?’
‘He’s too old. He’d never survive the process. You know we like live selections.’
‘Where have they sent Barbara?’
The blob looked at its clawed feet.
Marc felt his blood get cold. It wasn’t pleasant. It took fifteen minutes to raise it to the proper temperature again. ‘She’s back on Anarect?’
‘Headquarters too. She didn’t suffer. We can be kind to our specimens.’
Marc snarled. ‘You’ve never heard the screams.’
‘I’m told Barbara didn’t scream. She was calm, as if expecting it.’
‘Yeah, right, course she would. One moment you’re an Earth-based housewife, course you’ll expect to be beamed up somewhere unpleasant.’
‘You would if you weren’t all you appeared to be.’
‘There’s nothing fake about Barbara and…’
‘She’s one of us, Marc. I didn’t know until she showed her true form last night.’ The blob grinned.
‘She has a decent figure under that skin. Lovely fangs too. Far better than mine.’ The blob frowned. Marc’s scowl usually meant someone got hurt. The blob coughed. ‘The bosses said she didn’t file her reports. She said someone kept hogging the papers so she couldn’t follow events at home. Know about that?’
The blob wasn’t surprised at Marc’s silence.
Finally Marc coughed. ‘If what you’re saying is true, why was she here? Why send me to join her?’
‘You were supposed to make her file her reports but you….’
Marc grinned. ‘We enjoyed life, sex and chocolate on Earth. I’ll join Barbara. We’ll resume our way of life on Anarect! And I can stop running away. I won’t be sorry. I’ll have my new life at home with my wife.’
‘As you wish,’ and the blob thrust his second head at Marc, so it touched the man’s elbow, making Marc vanish.
The blob sighed. A cough made him start. He turned to see Mr Johnson.
‘I said the newspaper idea was bad,’ the old man said. ‘Get engrossed in them, you get engrossed in life here. When will you lot fix that bus stop? It was smashed five years ago. Marc’s a rotten flyer. If you can make a being vanish to another world and dimension, fixing the glass shouldn’t be beyond you. Or are you as incompetent as our local Councils? I think we deserve better from aliens like you using our planet for your own ends.
Allison Symes is published by Chapeltown Books, Cafelit, and Bridge House Publishing, amongst others. She is a member of the Society of Authors and Association of Christian Writers. A round-up of what she writes where is at http://allisonsymescollectedworks.wordpress.com and she blogs for Chandler’s Ford Today - http://chandlersfordtoday.co.uk/author/allison-symes/