Sci-Fi: Thirty Behind Us

 

More than anything, Alex wanted peace of mind. He wanted to be free of the endlessly nagging voices, and he would do anything to get what he needed.

Alex woke up slowly, the dividing line between sleep and consciousness vague and indistinct. Behind the threadbare curtains, the sky was the faintest pink of morning and Alex guessed at four, maybe five in the morning. There was an LED alarm clock on the bedside table, but without power, it was just another shape in the darkness.

Carefully, he shifted position to ease the dull ache of his bladder to enjoy a few more minutes’ peace. Of course, it was never really completely quiet. Somewhere in the distance was the one he had named Colonel Blimp droning on and on about the war, but even his voice was faint and indistinct. The endless tales of ‘charging the line’ and ‘the smell of cold shot’ were just a thin distant whine.

Reluctant to leave the clammy warmth of the bed, he used the unexpected peace to think. Over the last month, the need to urinate had become more and more frequent, and sometimes there was a burning sensation when he did go. At first, he had thought that it was just some minor infection, but now he was starting to think it might be something much more serious. Perhaps somewhere deep inside, the ring shaped muscle of his prostate had become cancerous and was eating him up cell by cell. In the darkness of the room, he grinned. He might have less than six months left.

There was the soft noise of Susan tossing and turning in the next room, and instantly he felt guilty at even thinking about leaving her alone with them. They relied on each other so much to make it through every day that the idea of being apart was almost obscene. He touched the separating wall as if he could impart some of his strength to her. Instantly, they knew that he was awake, and they started talking, shouting and nagging at him. His ears full of their din, drowning his thoughts under a tidal wave of their chatter. Some of them wanted him to read. Some of them wanted to taste something and the rest of them just wanted him to masturbate.

He knew that there was no chance of sleep now, and he swung himself out of bed. The floorboards were icy cold, and he searched in vain for the pair of old boots that he used around the house. There was an oil lamp and a box of matches ready on the bedside table, but there was also less than a gallon of paraffin left in the tank outside. In the end, he groped his way to the bathroom in the dark.

Half way there, he remembered the hammer he had left on the landing last night. Too tired to work any more. Unfortunately, he remembered it only half a second before he kicked it with his bare foot. The flare of pain from his bruised toe was bright and silvery, and he clutched his foot trying not to scream.

The only sound he made was a thin hiss, but that was completely drowned out by the internal chorus of their contempt.

“Ha Ha’ Ha” overlapped with “stupid fool” and “rub it man! Don’t bellow, rub it.” Nearly blocking out “poor boy’” and “precious lamb.” Somewhere in the distance, a hard voice said that he was shit. They were still laughing about it as he limped into the bathroom.

The dull pink of sunrise was brighter now, and lit the room in copper shades. Even though the need to urinate was urgent, Alex still took the time to close the make-shift window shutters, and soon the room was pitch dark.

There was a barrage of catcalls. “We know what you are doing.” And “you’ll go blind doing that.” But he knew that even after all this time, there was no way he could urinate, while they looked through his eyes and made rude comments about pink worms and pencils.

From window to toilet was just a single step, and he had barely sat down before he sighed in relief as he released the aching need.

After a moment, he noticed that the sound of rushing water was somehow wrong, and he realized that the toilet had frozen again. If it wouldn’t have amused them so much, he’d have held his head in his hands and cried.

After the open graves of London, finding the empty farmhouse had seemed a small miracle. Susan had poetically described it as ‘an oasis of peace where they could start coming to terms with the strangers in their head’. They had been here less than a week before they discovered that the open Norfolk vistas meant that there was nothing to shelter them from the weather. Summers were just ‘bracing’ and ‘exhilarating’, but in winter, the wind cut like a knife while the house leaked icy cold air. The only small mercy was that they were still together. Although even together was not what it used to be. There was a flash of memory, so quick that it barely existed, of holidays, lazy Sunday morning lie-ins and holding her, touching her. Almost unnoticed, the water sounds stopped and was replaced by a soft stirring between his legs.

Quickly, before they could sense what he was thinking, he stood up and then pulled up.  There was no sense in trying to flush the toilet; the whole thing must have frozen solid. He would have to come back later with a pan of water heated over the open fire to try to get it working again. Until then, they would have to use a bucket, and he could imagine what they would have to say about that.

Still half asleep as he opened the bathroom door, he thought for a moment that the glow of light that dazzled his eyes was some confused reflection of the dawn.  But as he wrinkled his eyes against the unexpected radiance, he realized that its source was Susan carrying an oil lamp. For a moment, he saw a chance to unload some of the hurt and anger the voices gave him, and he was on the point of calling her a stupid wasteful cow. Then he saw her face.

In the guttering light of the lamp, the wrinkles etched on her face cast deep shadows, and the bags under her eyes were black pits. Something glittered on her cheeks, and he realized that she had been crying.

She took a faltering step towards him. For a moment, her thick, heavy but above all, concealing nightdress clung to her and Alex realised that she had passed ‘slim’ along time ago, and was now well into ‘emaciated.’

She was only 48, four years younger than him, but as she stopped at a safe distance, she looked so much older and close to collapse. Once he would have held her and stroked her face, but they both knew how that would end. So instead, he smiled wanly at her.

“Have you slept at all?” he asked

“Not a second, at first it was just Old Mother Hubbard telling me exactly what I was doing wrong around the house. But that wasn’t too bad, but then Jack started telling me … things.” Susan shuddered, and Alex wanted to hold her more than ever.

Their continual demands that he masturbate for them was bad enough. But Susan’s sex made her the target of so much more foulness. Just once, she had let slip some of the things they whispered to her. What they would do to her, how they would use her. A continual waterfall of graphic pornographic descriptions poured into her head. Sometimes he saw her glance at something on the floor, and then jerk violently as the chorus of voices told her that they had seen her tits.

On the rare occasions that there was enough warm water to take a bath, he had to blindfold her before she could get undressed. Otherwise, the slightest chink of light would have had them howling at her.

“Don’t worry” he tried to make his smile warmer. He failed “we will” and then he stopped. What he wanted to say was “we’ll be ok” or “We can sort it out” but he knew that neither of these were true.

Instead, he said, “I’ll make you a nice cup of coffee.”

The kitchen was as icebox cold as the rest of the house, and Alex dropped a log on to the embers in the fireplace to try to cheer up the dismal room. It needed all the help it could get.

Most of the room looked as if it had been last decorated during the war, and then studiously ignored since then. The walls were a sickly shade of yellow that the layers of dirt didn’t quite hide, and the residue from years of cooking made their feet stick to the floor. The only incongruous thing in the room was the brand new IKEA table in one corner. The former owner must have bought it just before he killed himself.

The cracked window let in a thin blade of icy cold air, and Alex wrapped himself in an old raincoat in a desperate attempt to keep warm. He pushed Susan’s jacket across the table, making sure that their hands never touched and then started to make the coffee he had promised her.

Of course, they didn’t actually have any coffee. They had drunk the last over a year ago. But on their last foraging trip to the local village, he had picked up a copy of a WWII cook book. Which included a recipe for ‘war time coffee’ – made from ground acorns, dandelions and potato peel.

The result was something that looked exactly like coffee; even if it tasted nothing like coffee.

While he waited for the ice rimmed pan of water to boil he chatted as happily as he could.

“It will be spring soon and we could cut back the bushes around the back lawn and make a little sun terrace.”

Susan didn’t say anything.

While he sieved out the stalks and bits of shell from the coffee substitute, he prattled on about the vegetables they could grow to supplement their diet.

He turned with a flourish. “There you go madam, a Double Tall Cappuccino, extra shot with foam.” He pushed the chipped mug across the table to her.

She didn’t look up at him. Her head was bowed so low over the table that her forehead was nearly touching it. There was something bright on its slick surface that he realized was the pools of her tears.

“Susan?”

This time she did look at him, and for a moment, he almost wished that she had not. It was the face of someone that lived in Hell and knew its torments all too well. The look of bone aching exhaustion mixed with complete despair was bad enough, but it was the look in her eyes that scared him. They were empty; nothing lived behind them any more. The intelligence that had once sparkled with wit and charm was dead.

Then suddenly she smiled, and her face lit up in a away that he had not seen since OverSight day. The deeply etched wrinkles and tiredness dropped away from her. Once again, she was the beautiful girl who had smiled at him so sweetly on their wedding day. By the time he realized that she was not smiling at him, it was already too late.

Her chair shot back across the room as she stood up abruptly, and then she moved with almost balletic grace across the room. Her hand outstretched for the carving knife that Alex used for his amateur butchery. Once a week, while they watched very carefully, he stropped it on the back step until it was razor sharp.

Susan moved quickly and she actually managed to hold the knife to her throat before they began screaming. As she doubled over in agony, she covered her ears in a vain attempt to block out the sound.

All Alex could hear was her sharp intake of breath, but he knew far too well that the real pain was inside. The nerve jangling intensity of their shrill cries, disrupting every muscle, making control impossible.

The knife dropped from her wildly spasming hand and stuck point first into the wooden floor. A moment later, she collapsed next to it, uncontrollably twitching and writhing.

That was the moment when Alex made his mistake. He knew the rules of this strange new world far too well, but the instinctive need to help his wife was too much. Before he could reconsider, he had crossed the room, knelt down next to her and taken her hand.

The moment they touched, the small distant voices that nagged and whispered suddenly doubled in volume. Now they hectored, instructed and ordered him, and every voice said the same thing. “Fuck her, go on, fuck her, bend her over the table and rip her up. What are you waiting for? She’s there waiting. Do her!”

He tried to let go of her hand, only there was a moment when they were in charge and he twisted brutally at her fingers. She swore at him, and her free hand clawed at his eyes. There was nothing left in her face of the sweet bride he had so briefly seen and the vanishingly small part of him that they had not reached, knew that she was just their puppet.

The thought gave him the strength to do what he might not have been able to do unaided, and he pulled his hand away from her.

Instantly, the roar of their voices reverted to just a whisper. But now they were angry at their lost opportunity, and their thin voices became more inventive in the foul things they wanted him to do to Susan.

Bent down under the weight of their words, he saw Susan’s confusion of limbs straighten as she crawled away. Looking out through his eyes, they must have seen that they had lost their chance at fun and the intensity of their screams increased and threatened to split his head open. Ready to punish them both for their disobedience.

A normal punishment session would be just an hour or so twitching and thrashing on the floor before they became bored, but this was something special. For a moment, they had had power and the promise of violent sex. Only he had spoiled all that, and their punishment would probably last all day and night. In desperation, he decided to try something he had never done before. He lied.

“If I can’t work, then we will starve” and instantly their scolding stopped.

There was a thoughtful silence behind his eyes, and he knew that they were busy remembering exactly how much food they had left.

“The North field needs ploughing and seeding, otherwise we will run out of food before the rest of the crops come in. Susan needs to clean and store the vegetables in the outhouse before they rot.

“If we starve, then you will have no one to talk to” The silence became hard and brittle. Alex could almost taste their need to punish him for daring to use the ultimate threat.

Carefully, he sided towards the door “I’ll go and get the team set up while Susan starts work.” He said this louder than strictly necessary, but they both knew that they didn’t use ears.

As he closed the door, he saw that Susan was crying again and that sight hurt him more than anything they could ever do.

***

Back in the day, when Alex spent his days manipulating the numbers in Excel until they told the story he had wanted, he had seen many things in his future. A few nice holidays, perhaps a new hobby. But none of his dreams had included trying to get a horse into a harness.

The learning curve had been almost painfully sharp. In the first week, he had been kicked, sneezed on and suffered three cracked ribs when a horse had briefly lent on him.

This morning, the task seemed more difficult than ever. The stable was freezing cold, and Alex swore under his breath while he struggled with the mass of straps and buckles. The inadequate light of a candle somehow shedding more shadow than light.

While he worked, he wondered how much of that bullshit they had believed. They both knew far too well that they could experience everything they saw, heard or touched, but at least their thoughts were still private and they had not seen the deception. They were short of food. They were always short of food, but ploughing a field in mid December was an exercise in futility, but amazingly enough they had believed it.

He smiled, inside where they couldn’t feel it, at the thought that he had scored a small victory over them.

He was tightening the last buckle when it happened. At first, he thought that the freezing cold had just numbed his left arm, and he shook it to try to get the blood flowing again. Only the arm did not move at all. The suddenly unresponsive limb remained frozen in position, and he felt a sudden flare of panic.

Reaching across, he gripped his left wrist and pulled. He felt the warmth of his hand on his wrist. He felt the pull of his muscles, but the arm did not move. It was if his arm had been replaced by an artificial limb that had been attached too well, but it was NOT HIS.

Perhaps the horse sensed that something was wrong, because it whinnied and the strap he held whipped back through the buckle and out of sight. He felt the pain as it stripped the skin from his palm, and he stepped back and pulled his hand away.

Only he didn’t. His feet worked perfectly well, but his arm remained rigidly stuck out in front of him, the hand still grasping something that was not there.

Beyond horror now, he stared at this suddenly alien limb. Everything that had happened before, the uncounted numbers of suicides, the sudden emptiness of the cities, had all been things that had happened to the world outside. But the idea that even his body had betrayed him was somehow more threatening than anything that had gone before, in its feeling of immense wrongness. His arm suddenly seemed evil, almost intimidating in its sudden lack of control.

Under his feet, something moved and his tangled feet went out from under him, and he crashed to the floor. The mud and shit on the stable floor only cushioned the impact a little, and his breath left him in a coughing yelp.

Above him, the still frozen limb pointed mutely towards the sky. When it moved he thought that it had just been a trick of the light. But then it moved again and again, his arm moving jerkily as if driven by crude clockwork. Completely independently of any control from him. Alex screamed a little and pushed himself along the filth strewn floor with his feet. At first, it described raged circles, but as he pushed himself along, the circles became bigger and his hand blurred with its speed. Then it stopped abruptly. There was a brief moment when his hand hung like a huge naked spider over his face– and then it dropped down towards him.

There was a sudden blow on the side of his head from something on the floor as he moved away from the attacking thing. But his hand just thrashed around next to his ear for a few moments and then lifted up and away from him. Only now it was holding something.

Alex watched his suddenly alien hand clench the rotten apple it had picked up. Then apple pulp squirted from between his fingers and dripped down over his face.

There was a sudden dampness at his crotch where he had wet himself, and he used both hands to push himself further along the floor. He’d covered another few feet before he realized what he had done. He had used both hands. Very carefully, he lifted his left hand, dripping with apple juice and shit from the floor and very quietly said, “make a fist” and the hand. His hand again, obediently made a fist.

“Peace sign. Wave. Thumbs up” and his hand twisted itself from hippy symbol through ‘hello’ and finally ‘a-ok’ as his hand did everything he had asked it to. Carefully, he touched it with his right hand, and it was just the same hand that he shaved with every day. The same hand that had held Susan’s in happier days.

The whisper of voices grew louder and began to nag and scold at him. Slowly, he returned to strapping the horse into its harness and then the harness to the plough. All the time he checked his left hand, but by the time they had left the stable, he had dismissed the strange attack as just the result of tiredness and overwork.

They were half way to North field for a fruitless days work before he recalled how quiet the voices had been during his strange attack. He thought about that for the rest of the trip.

***

According to what they’d been able to read of the last owners crabbed handwriting, North field was the best piece of land on the farm. Its southern aspect and gentle slope for drainage made it perfect for both crops and livestock. They would have used it a long time ago; except for the crashed plane it had in it now.

Despite losing a wing to the trees on the hill, some unknown pilot had managed to bring down the huge 747 almost intact. The livid scar of its crash landing cut across three other fields before it had finally come to rest at the top of North field. The pilot must have been very good at his job; even the immense cigar tube of the passenger compartment was still intact. Not that anyone had made it out. They were probably all dead by then anyway.

When they had stumbled across the farm, the grass around the remaining engines had still been smouldering and they had spent most of the first day ferrying pails of water to stop the fire spreading. But now the grass had grown up around the plane and only its smooth upper curve showed above the waving stalks.

Alex tied the reins of the horse to a convenient tree, and then very carefully approached the downed giant. Trying to find its safe limit.

Part of the danger was the fuel and hydraulic fluid that had leaked from the plane. The grass for a hundred yards around it was a strange burnt orange colour and anything grown there would probably be inedible. Alex watched the ground carefully, trying to gauge the extent of the blight and then doubled and then tripled its limit before he started work.

The arctic wind chill had seeped through his multiple layers of clothes even before he had left the farm. But the moment he started to work his hands were instantly cold and stiff, almost numb in the biting wind. After a short while, a family of crows landed in one of the bare trees that edged the field and flapped their black shroud wings at him. The cackle of their cries almost sounded like laughter.

He spent the next hour hammering a raged line of thin stakes into the ground and then using the claw of his hammer to stretch a strand of wire from the previous post. Creating a taut barrier that would stop him accidentally getting too close to the wreck and its real danger, the mummified faces framed by the oval windows. Endlessly grinning at the outside world.

Just looking at the wreck made Alex wonder what it had been like for them when OverSight had happened. One minute, they had probably been watching the in-flight movie and complaining about the whining baby in seat F42. Then the sudden full sensation in their heads and voices whispering to them. They must have screamed and clawed at their ears, trying to stop the torrent of voices inside their heads. The ones that had not already opened an artery with their fingernails had probably welcomed the end when the plane had crashed.

As if they could sense the others in the plane, the endlessly nagging voices became louder. Telling him that he was using the hammer wrong, or that the stake wasn’t straight, or that he should scratch that itch. A continual torrent of voices giving him contradictory advice, help that he didn’t need and abuse when he ignored all of it.

Lost in thought, he didn’t even notice as the fence took on a slight but definite curve, bending away from the crashed plane, and away from what was inside it.

While his hands worked automatically, he did the maths. 62 windows on the plane, say a row of eight seats per window.  Working the numbers out was difficult with a head full of voices, and he used his fingers to calculate 496 seats. Even if it had been a slow day, there could have been two, maybe three hundred people on the plane. The thought of even more whispering voices inside his head made him shudder, and the curve of the fence became a definite L shape as he worked further away from the spirits of the dead and however they sensed the living.

On the dawn of what they had called OverSight day, the radio evangelists had claimed that the living stood out like a bright light on a dark night, and the spirits of the dead had learnt to cross the great divide to over see the world beyond. But the dying man they had met as they left the city had claimed that the voices were the result of a secret CIA experiment to talk to the ghosts of dead agents. Perhaps his death should have appalled them more, but already death was commonplace and their trip out of the city had been a walkthrough of an abattoir. Each tall building had been surrounded by a wall of the dead and still people had fought for the best points to jump from. When they had passed over the M25, its four lanes had just been a mass of twisted metal that shuddered as more cars joined it at maximum speed. And all the time they had thought how strong, how resolute they had been to survive it all.

Alex checked the distance left to cover, another three stakes and this part of the job would be done. But just as he brought the hammer down for a final blow, a voice that lived inside his head went “boo” and instead of a staple – the hammer hit his thumb.

There was a chorus of cheers and applause that went on for some time while he nursed the throbbing pain. Alex wondered just what those evangelists had thought when they realized that the voices inside their heads were not the gentle spirits of the world beyond, come to share the good news of their existence. Each of them used to be a person, and most of them were angry unpleasant little voices that didn’t understand what had happened to them. But every one of them wanted to feel something, even if it was pain. They liked pain.

Untying the horses and making the first of the long slow furrows that would begin the process of turning green field into growing soil was almost a relief. Walking behind the strong scent of the horses as they pulled the metal blade through the soil was strangely soothing and hypnotic. As he worked, the stark bare branches of the trees moved slowly in the rising breeze, waving to the sole moving dot in the empty landscape.

***

By the time he had finished it was nearly dark, and the world had been reduced to monochrome shades that turned everything into vague impressions. Underneath the lowering sky, he seemed to exist in a featureless space that seemed to unsettle the voices. They told him that they were tired of watching the landscape flow by. They wanted something to do, anything to do. A momentary thought that it was like having a head full of squabbling brats made Alex smile, but only for a moment. As he turned the team towards home, he counted the minutes until he could be with Susan again.

He hated to leave her alone with them. Although in a very real sense, they were always alone with them, but he clung to the hope that it had been a good day, and they had rewarded and not punished.

Most of the time, Alex was sure that the strangers in their heads just saw them as some sort of multi sensory, wide screen cinema. Something they could harass, beg and cajole until it gave them the sort of programmes that they wanted

But then there were the other times. Rare, intermittent times. When he thought that they saw them as pets. Something that they could reward if they had been good. If they had tasted something new for them or used a precious gallon of fuel to power the generator, so they could watch Bruce Willis on DVD saving the world again. Then they would be rewarded by an hour of peace inside their heads. If they did some of the other things that they wanted, the silence might last all day.

He hoped for Susan’s sake that it had been a good day, but then he remembered how it had started, and he hurried the team along as quickly as possible.

On the way back, he noticed that something had been digging at the shallow grave in front of the house. Trying to reach the well aged meat under a foot of soil. Despite the nagging voices and the pain in his back, he took a minute to drop a handful of earth on to the final resting place of the farms former owner.

Like so many others, he had not been able to deal with the sudden voices inside his head and had taken the easy way out. But in his case, the easy way had been to thrust his head into the rotating blades of the shredder he had been working on. When they had walked in, half dead from their trip from the city, small pieces of his skull had snapped under their feet like popcorn.

Alex dropped another handful of earth on to the shallow grave, this time he muttered beneath his breath “lucky bastard.” He had escaped, only no one else would now.  By the time they had come to envy the dead, it was too late because the dead had learnt to punish disobedience with their massed screams.  It had been a hard day when he had realized that this was going to be the rest of their lives. Working in the fields all day to make just enough food to subsist on, and all the time an endless sea of voices harassing them.

As he led the horses back into their stable, he knew that this was as bad as it could get.

***

Somehow, the inside of the farmhouse seemed even colder than the outside. There were no small personal touches here, no attempts to make it a home rather than a house. It’s only small redeeming feature was that here he was close to Susan.

His hopes that it had been a good day were dashed the moment he opened the kitchen door and saw that Susan looked even worse than she had this morning. Her hair was wild and unkempt, and her concealing tent like garment matted and filthy. Even from across the room he could see that her hands were bright red and painfully sore looking from a day of cleaning vegetables in the freezing cold.

Careful not to touch her; he pushed a chair against the back of her legs until she sat down almost automatically. As he sat down opposite her, he tried to smile. It wasn’t a very good attempt.

“Its cold in here, I’ll bring in some logs.” He tried to make the smile reach his lips. “Soon have it nice and warm, perhaps we can sit around the fire and have a quiet read.” Instantly, the chorus of voices began to demand their favourite authors “Agatha Christie, Stephen King, Hemingway.” The list went on and on, and then repeated over and over.

Reading was one of the few things that most of the voices liked. There was an almost reverential silence in his head while he moved his eyes over a page for them, The only thing he had never finished for them was some science fiction thing about monoliths on the moon. That book had been flung into the fire as soon as he had read the authors statement that behind every living person stood thirty ghosts. For that was the ratio by which the dead outnumbered the living.

He hadn’t believed that number at the time, and every day it seemed more implausible. Perhaps it had been true when the cities bustled and thronged with people, but now it must be 90 to one, perhaps even hundreds to one.  And every single one of them was a small insistent voice in some desperate survivor’s head.

He smiled again at Susan and tried to get up. But despite the messages he had sent to his muscles, he remained locked in place. The attempt at a smile frozen on his face, as a terrifying complete body paralysis gripped him. Unable to move even his eyes, the unfocused blur that was Susan also seemed oddly static. Whatever was going on had seized them both.

This morning, the paralysis had only affected his left arm, but now the same effect was complete for both of them. The only thing moving was the slow regular shift of his chest with each breath. Other than that, they both might have been shop window mannequins advertising some post modernist attempt at haute culture. There was just enough time for him to think that perhaps this was the end he had so much looked forward to.  Together, they would remain frozen in place until they starved to death, and then they could be free. Then his body stood up.

His chair scrapped back on the rough wooden floor, and then he stood swaying unsteadily. Convinced that he would fall over, Alex tried to order his body to sit down or hold the table, but all of these commands were ignored. He was just an observer as the room lurched and flowed around him as his suddenly uncontrolled body staggered across the room. There was some half seen motion out of the corner of one eye that he guessed was Susan also shambling around.

For the next few minutes, the two of them bounced off walls and furniture like human pinballs. Sometimes the two of them collided and then moved apart, and all the time the thin internal voices were silent.

Despite his growing horror at being just a passenger in his own body, Alex finally noticed the strange silence of the endlessly nagging voices. And then he realised that the voices were still there. But now they were somehow focused and directed, and he understood what was happening.

The voices had grown tired of asking, nagging and begging. They wanted control. They wanted to be in charge. While he had been reading to them and humouring them, they had been reaching down towards the deep structures of his brain to take control of the autonomic systems there that would give them full control. The strange uncoordinated actions of his body made sense. Some of them were operating his legs, some his arms, as if he were just some meat puppet.

Impact with another wall made his nose sting and brought tears to his eyes as he tried to understand why they had taken control. What good would it be to them to have a body controlled by committee? How could they achieve anything? Then he remembered what had happened when he had briefly held his wife’s hand this morning, and their united shouts of “Fuck her, Fuck her” when they had seen the opportunity for more entertainment. He thought that perhaps they could manage very well to operate their puppet to get it to do those things that they really wanted.

There was another collision with a wall, but this time Alex barely noticed it. Because he knew only too well the nasty spiteful things they said, and could guess how they would operate now they had control. Each night they would tear and rip at each other as they acted out each foul thing they had whispered to Susan, and each day they would work like robots in the fields to grow more food while their masters invented new foulness for their meat puppets to act out.

Probably, their minds would soon collapse from the strain. Even if their new masters gave them an hour off, they would only sit crying and moaning until they took control again. How long could they live like that? Months probably years, watching their stolen bodies hurt each other in new and inventive ways.

He staggered at the thought and put out a hand to steady him, and it took only a second before he realised that they had released control. Perhaps the effort had tired them or they were just congratulating themselves on a successful test run of their new puppet. But for the first time in a very long time he had his chance to escape.

The handle was smooth and cold in his hand. As he moved it towards his throat, there was the first suggestion of dismay from the chorus of their voices. But it was far too late.

There was just a silvery flash of pain and then the knife dropped from his hand as he slowly slumped to the floor. The first jet of blood from his severed jugular splattered against the ceiling. The second arterial spurt was much weaker and the third jet just a dribble down his chest. The room faded to grey and then to black. There was the sound of rushing wind, and the feeling of forever falling.

***

Alex woke up slowly, the dividing line between sleep and consciousness vague and indistinct. Everything that had happened before seemed distant and unimportant, an old story he had once heard. The space around him was soft and grey with no distinction between him and the space around him. For the first time in a very long time, he was not freezing cold, and his muscles no longer ached from labouring.

With no clocks or even the regular pulse of his heartbeat to mark out time, he might have lay there for minutes or hours. But little by little he became first bored, then restless, and finally, he began to panic. He tried to run, but there was no sensation of movement. He tried to shout but there was no sound. He flailed around wildly but there was nothing to touch. He felt the weight of the grey emptiness bearing down on him, crushing him under its suffocating bulk.

Then there was something else amongst the grey. At first, it was only the hint of a suggestion, but then it slowly became sound. It was if he was pushing through an invisible crowd, with only the sound of their whispering that told that they were there. Then at last, in the distance, there was light, colour and movement. He moved towards them urgently.

After the empty grey, the colours were dazzling and the sounds deep and sensuous. He knew that he would do anything to never lose them again.

He wallowed in the riot of colour and sound for a long time, before he realised that it was a familiar view seen from a new angle. Then he knew where he was. But that only made it more perfect. They had promised to be together forever, and now they could be. For a moment, the view tilted down abruptly and he had a fleeting glimpse of the smooth swell of Susan’s breasts, and he felt an almost painful stab of desire.

He spoke quickly, his voice little more than a whisper, to give her the good news.

“Don’t be afraid Susan; it’s Alex and I’m here with you now.”

But he stopped as quickly as he had begun. Suddenly acutely aware of the enormity of the gulf that had opened up between them. All of the common ground between them had vanished with one swift cut, and he felt no more empathy towards her than he had towards the dumb animals he used to lead.  The myriad voices of the crowd spoke to him again and he knew that he belonged with them.

He tried again, but this time his voice was patronizing, almost mocking, as if he were trying to get a particularly stupid pet to sit up and beg.

“Its such good news isn’t it. Because now we will be able to do all those things we haven’t done for so long.

Using the shared knowledge of the others around him, he reached down to the deep centres of control.

“Look.”

At first, finding the right connections was difficult, like a man trying to wire up a plug in the dark. But the others like him showed him the way. If this bundle of nerves was this muscle group, then this bundle was…

In the glorious wrap around screen of her eyes he watched her hand come up in front of her face, and he experimentally clenched it a few times to test his control.

“Look” he repeated and using her fingertips, he brushed the warm softness of her face.

“We’ll have plenty of time to do everything together, because I’ll always be with you.”

There was a distant shrill scream, but that had no more meaning for Alex than the twittering of birds in the trees and he joined with the others like him to play with their new toy. They were going to have such a wonderful time together.

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About Peter Bailey

Peter Bailey was first inspired to write by a combination of Las Vegas and a dental abscess. Since then, he has spent his days fixing IT issues and his nights trying to express the darkness inside us all, using a strange amalgam of the writing styles of Terry Pratchett, Stephen King and Dave Barry. You can find him on Facebook at: www.facebook.com/peter.bailey.writer