Reviews for other books by this author.

The Planet Dweller

Jane Palmer’s first novel Is a real find -definitely a specimen of higher lunacy. The Planet Dweller appropriates all the furniture of TV sci-fi and duly stands it on its head, with a wonderfully pragmatic absurdity - that’s been done before, of course (Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams), but not quite this way.
Mary Gentle Interzone

A hilarious story in which the Earth is threatened by the deadliest life-form in the universe: the Mott. Diana, a menopausal mother, and Yuri, a practised drunk, are the two humans destined to fight them
SFF Books

Palmer has more in common with Muriel Spark than Marge Piercy. Her alien invasion of Earth takes place among the kind of people who cause havoc at the supermarket checkout.
Jane Solanas Time Out

Jane Palmer’s novel, The Planet Dweller quite unashamedly a good sci-fi adventure,
Liz Adams Chartist

The Planet Dweller is a much more traditionally sf novel, and also funny in a Tom Sharpe/Douglas Adams sort of way:
Paperback Inferno

Jane Palmer’s first novel The Planet Dweller comically (and Britishly) juxtaposes menopausal female reality with a farcical chauvinist SF subplot about the Molt and their plan to rule the galaxy.

The Planet Dweller has more in common with Dr Who . . . including a sense of humour.
David Sexton Sunday Times

Jane Palmer spins a confused but amusing tale of earth menaced by extragalactic baddies. Her heroine, Diana, a menopausal housewife and administrator of an architectural museum, is original, sympatico and fun.
Sunday Times Supplement

The Drune

As in her 1985 debut novel The Planet Dweller, Jane Palmer likes to confront wildly eccentric but plausible humans with alien weirdness, producing offbeat SF comedy containing the occasional serious barb ... Palmer's narrative bubbles with frivolous inventiveness and unhinged dialogue, and has a gentle sting in the tail.
David Langford

Palmer has some points to make about humans, civilization, and civility. The fact that she works them in to a wild, through-the-looking-glass adventure eases the lessons into the most resistant brain, with little or no pain.
Lisa DuMond SFF Site

Jane Palmer's fabulous and complex universe is pleasantly refreshing … [this] lively, bubbling and buzzing universe is a gentle call for a more harmonious, tolerant and generous society.
Martha Fumagalli WiPlash

And the story itself is the most remarkable blend of sci-fi, fantasy, the self-defeating effects of bigotry, power, control, love, self-sacrifice - and the ending is simply perfect.
Joules Taylor WordWrights



Jane Palmer


First published in Great Britain
by Dodo Books 2008

Copyright © Jane Palmer 2008

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction and any
resemblance to persons living or dead is
purely coincidental.

The author asserts the moral right to be identified as
the author of this work.

ISBN 978-1-906442-09-5

All right reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior permission of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published and without a similar condition being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.

Other science fiction books by this author



‘Four legs!’ snorted Tino, the strong man, ‘You never saw an alien, it was probably a goat.’
‘I know what I saw.’ Ponder reeled a little. At any other time they would have said it was a surfeit of home brew. Now the tent master was too ashen to be anything but cold sober. ‘On the top of the downs - I thought it was coming after me. If I hadn't taken that tumble I wouldn't be here now.’
Bernice laughed and pulled some burrs from his jacket. ‘What would it want with you? I've been married to you for fifteen years and still can't see the point.’
Despite his impressive bruises, Ponder knew it was useless trying to make the performers and crew take him seriously. ‘All right, all right. If this is where you want me to pitch the tent, then I'll do it, but don't say I didn't warn you.’
Hector, the ringmaster, straightened his top hat and waved a batch of handouts under Ponder's nose. ‘We're not moving on after delivering a ton of these things to the district. Out here, we'll have days before anyone comes asking to see our licence.’
Angela petted one of her rather plump performing dogs. ‘Well, it's not as if we use wild animals.’
‘Yeah,’ grunted Tino. ‘Those things are so well fed it's a wonder they can get through the hoop.’
‘Alright!’ Hector bellowed in his stentorian stage voice. ‘No aggravation! There's too much to do. Get your compressor working, Ponder. We want the tent ready for an evening performance.’
‘Trapeze as well?’
‘Of course.’
‘But Chas Tharby is still on the North Sea ferry,’ Sandra reminded him. ‘He won't be here before midnight. With a test pilot for a wife, you know what he thinks about beam ships.’
Tino was unable to comprehend how anyone capable of performing dangerous stunts high above the arena could be afraid of flying. ‘As soon as his child’s born, he said he was leaving the high wire to do a tumbling act.’
‘Freelancers,’ murmured the disconsolate Ponder. ‘You can’t rely on them.’
Hector twirled his waxed moustaches like a benevolent demon barber and placed a paternal hand on Sandra’s shoulder. ‘This is the night of your debut, my dear.’
The young acrobat should have been elated at her sudden promotion, but had just prepared a huge bowl of spaghetti and all her tights needed mending. Her digestion could easily recover from a mere tumbling act and ladders in the hosiery of an acrobat performing with the clowns were quite acceptable. In the harsh spotlight above the audience, sequins, straight seams and a pinched waist became obligatory. Sandra should have cursed Chas Tharby. The man was entitled to his idiosyncrasies, though. He had come to the rescue of many small circuses like theirs at the risk of losing his performer’s licence. She hoped his child wouldn’t become a test pilot like its mother. Wrong moves in that occupation tended to end up in permanent closure.
Under a leaden sky dotted with circling seagulls, the tent was pumped up to sit like an inviting raspberry blancmange on the rolling downs. It used to be bright pink and was easily picked out from the air by patrolling community police. Though happy to let the circus carry on, they were obliged to turn over all their surveillance footage to the National Security computers. It would have been difficult to pretend they had missed a brilliant pink tent sitting on the landscape like a boil on the backside of a slumbering hippo. If it weren't for government control of the entertainment channels, the population would have been happy to stay at home and watch television. However, most people can only take so much brainwashing and mental pap. Circuses may have been mindless and lowbrow, but they were exciting. The authorities were suspicious of anything that was not soporific. Having reduced all the theatres to performing works of spectacle with the lowest common denominator which only a few could afford, there were no alternatives to small troupes like Hector's.
As Sandra, in tights borrowed from the knife thrower, somersaulted and span through her practise routine on the trapeze the clowns, dogs and trick cyclists went through their acts beneath the safety net with surprisingly few collisions. The opening night would yet again be snatched from the jaws of every performer's nightmare. Ponder felt mellow enough to put the sight of the monster on the top of the downs to the back of his mind. It wasn't an apparition any sober brain wanted to dwell on for too long anyway.
The audience began to trickle in with their toffee apples, popcorn, crisps, and bioplastic bottles of lemonade that collapsed when emptied; a precaution taken to prevent anything rolling under the feet of the clowns who could get very annoyed about taking unintended pratfalls. Only a dozen strong, plus four musicians, the company were an energetic team and always gave of their best, whatever the size of the audience.
One school had risked forfeiting their term's funding by hiring an airbeam ship to bring several classes that should have been studying social discipline. It was also necessary for Ponder to remove some seating to accommodate a retirement club who had streamed along the valley in their monofloats.
Surfeited on the smell of sawdust, acrobatic stunts that had been outlawed for years and dazzled by rhinestones and sequins, the audience roared for encores and clapped until their self-correcting watches forgot what time it was. Hector's troupe was riding on the crest of adulation that made all the hassle worth while. How could anyone in such a state of exhilaration have anticipated the hideous incident that would torment them for the rest of their lives?
It began with a sound.
Sandra was first to hear it as she took her bow from the trapeze. It was a high pitched whine which penetrated the top of the tent like a needle.
She dropped into the safety net.
The applause died away and everyone listened.
During the catastrophic plague years that decimated the human race and deluges that tried to wash the survivors away, many different warning sirens had been used. Some to remind people to wear their filter masks when a new pneumonic infection appeared, others to get to high ground before a flash flood. This sound was like none of them. Having lived with alarms for so long, it could not be ignored. The floods had now settled at their optimum level and the plagues that couldn’t be treated run their course. After so much trauma, everyone expected a new horror to present itself at any moment.
Tino put down the four acrobats he was supporting and darted out of the audience entrance. Ponder and Hector followed him.
A globe of brilliant ultraviolet illuminated the brow of the hill. Ponder dashed off to arrange some light while Tino and Hector bounded up the slope in the thin moonlight.
A stream of people from the tent followed, their way lit by the floodlight Ponder had redirected.
Seconds later, the air was filled with screams.

* * *

The only warning the circus troupe had of Nightingale’s approach, was when one of Angela’s dogs heard the faint purr of her powerful Amethyst. Bernice, who was on lookout, was first to see the sleek body of the gleaming car as it wound its way down the narrow road like a magenta serpent.
Hector couldn't guess how the strange woman had found his troupe furtively huddled in the old Dutch barn due for demolition. The local community leader had promised to give them time to get away before they were obliged to call in the authorities; time to roll up the tent, pack the equipment onto their antiquated trailer, and recharge the gas cylinders that powered the circus from one secret location to another.
The visitor was no normal woman. Nightingale was long, lean, lantern jawed, and looked too scary to put in a sideshow. She may have appeared as dangerous as an old tiger act but at least she hadn’t brought a security team with her. Not only was Nightingale as long as an anaconda, she was a very strange colour for a human. That was not the troupe’s immediate concern.
They watched apprehensively as she pulled out an identification card. Billy Bloggs, the clown and one-time master forger, examined it. Satisfied, he handed it back to Nightingale. Only then did they relax.
Hector played with the rim of the top hat that he had been carrying around like a security blanket ever since it had happened. ‘What is Group Indigo then?’
Nightingale slumped onto some bales of straw. ‘We investigate unexplained phenomena. I understand you have one for us?’
Bernice was suspicious. ‘Who told you?’
‘I have contacts.’
‘Security contacts?’
‘Not if I can help it. I have to be careful.’
‘World Government set up Group Indigo to investigate these occurrences. Security would soon become interested if they thought anything threatened the planet.’
‘For pity's sake!’ blurted out Ponder. ‘That bloody creature snatched Tino!’
‘He was your strong man?’
‘We always thought so.’ Ponder calmed down. ‘I saw the thing earlier in the day, but no one would have it. I thought it wanted to snatch me.’
Nightingale stretched her long legs and the black zipped body suit faintly creaked. ‘What did this creature look like?’
‘Horrible. Large glowing eyes like a fly’s and four legs! Four legs! I ask you, what creature needs four legs?’
‘What happened?’
Hector stopped toying with his hat. ‘He dissolved. Tino rushed towards the thing - I don't know what he thought he was going to do. And just as he reached this odd violet glow, he ... dissolved. Not like fading from view. He fell apart!’ The ringmaster took a deep breath. ‘Each particle - he was a big man - floated away. It was like an explosion in slow motion. Horrible it was! Never seen anything like it before, and I've seen a few things in this business I can tell you.’ He looked Nightingale in the eye. ‘Will we ever see him again?’
Nightingale paused. Despite her natural brevity, there was no point in being brutal. ‘I'm sorry. We've had reports of this happening before, and there is no record of anyone ever being retrieved.’
‘What was it, for pity's sake?’ asked a trick cyclist.
‘As yet, we have no idea,’ she lied. ‘Whatever you do, keep well away from the creature if you see it again and leave a message on this machine.’ She handed Hector a card with a number, then rose.
‘But?’ protested Sandra. ‘What about us?’
Circuses were a world away from Nightingale’s priorities. ‘What about you?’
‘We're bound to be taken off the road,’ complained the trapeze artist. ‘They're not going to let this pass when they find out Tino's missing. I know the way they work.’
‘Just as well Chas Tharby never turned up after all,’ muttered Ponder.
‘Shut up!’ hissed Bernice.
Nightingale half heard him. ‘Chas Tharby?’
‘He wasn’t here,’ Hector quickly said.
She already knew the name. ‘Wife’s a test pilot.’ Dangerous machines she could understand. ‘Proto-aviation reckon it was bloody inconvenient of her getting pregnant like that.’
Nightingale reached into an inside pocket of her ankle length black coat and pulled out a small coder. After tapping in a few words, it printed a strip of plasticized card. She stamped the corner of it with an authorisation insignia on a small pendant hanging from her collar zip and then handed it to Hector. ‘This will give you clearance for as long as you want, but get a few social awareness discs for the intervals. No need to show them. It'll just look better if you're searched.’
Sandra was exasperated. ‘So what was the thing that snatched Tino? We’ve got to have something to tell his mother. The last rise in sea level washed away the family home in the Med. She’s an old woman. She won’t be able to cope.’
Nightingale handed her a very low-tech writing pad. ‘Jot her contact code on here.’
The acrobat was apprehensive. ‘Why?’
‘Because it’ll save me having to access her address from World Government files.’
‘Why don’t you?’
The tall woman shrugged almost girlishly. ‘They tend to be suspicious of anything I do.’
Sandra’s common sense tended to agree with them, though her instincts trusted the woman. If authority kept a cautious eye on Nightingale, she must have been a kindred spirit.
Sandra jotted down the contact code of Tino’s mother.
Nightingale took the pad back without a word.
The company silently watched as she sped away in her Amethyst.
Hector carefully tucked the plasticized card in his wallet, then took a map from his briefcase. ‘Well, about time we were back on the road again.’


Ben watched in sour disapproval as thousands of bees swarmed in the branches of his favourite apple tree. It had the sweetest fruit and lowest branches. His father forbade him to climb trees. The eight-year-old was expected to keep wicket when the village's most ferocious spinners bowled, though was not allowed to chase butterflies through the nettles or explore anything more than a metre from the ground. Those activities were immature, even if the resulting injuries were less severe than being struck by a lump of wood and leather travelling at thirty miles an hour.
The bees belonged to Mr Humphreys. More swarms were busy in the stand of orange blossom which had sent perfume wafting into his bedroom as the sun rose that morning.
Out of sight of the French windows, Ben skipped with all the immaturity he could muster through the orchard to call over the hedge to the old beekeeper. Something attracted his attention before he reached it. A bonfire? There was a still smouldering pile of ashes in a depression near the compost heap. The gardener never burnt anything there. She claimed it frightened off the beasts making all that wonderful compost. Ben hadn't seen Bertha for several days. He would certainly have compelled the gardener into conversation if he had, even though she usually ended up telling him that such a wise head should be on wider shoulders because it was bound to be knocked off sooner or later.
The eight-year-old carefully poked the ashes to see what felony had been committed. As he was also forbidden to play with other children, his imagination was not yet prepared to accept the mundane. How was he to know that the remains of every bonfire didn’t necessarily conceal a crime? It seemed that the culprit had incinerated all the evidence.
Then a sparkling jewel bounced off the end of his stick. Ben snatched up the hot glittering bauble - and quickly dropped it. He flicked his find away from the embers and waited until it had cooled.
Even when it was no longer hot, it tingled the tips of his fingers. Then Ben remembered where he had seen it before. When his mother had last visited, she had been wearing a pendant exactly like it. She had taken it off and placed it in the secret compartment at the back of her dressing table drawer with a bundle of letters.
The pendant was with a fine chain, which he rubbed clean with some dock leaves. The catch still worked, so he threaded the pendant onto the chain and spun it in the sunlight to watch the jewel's iridescence. It refracted the colours in a strange way, not like the cut crystal in the cabinet that Ben shone his torch through. Each facet of his mother’s jewel had minute squiggles engraved on it, as though a millipede had been using it as an ice rink and lost control of its skates.
The eight-year-old was subject to spot checks and told to empty his pockets at the most unlikely moments. Where could keep the pendant? Being a scrupulously honest child, he would naturally ask his mother if she wanted it back. Until then, he decided to put the chain round his neck and tuck it under his shirt.
By the time he had finished exploring the rest of the orchard for more treasures, Ben had forgotten he was wearing the jewel and didn’t rediscover it until he was changing into his pyjamas, so he kept it on as an act of defiance.
The light slowly seeped from the chintz curtains. Eventually, the eight-year-old's fear of the dark could no longer keep him awake. Thinking up some dastardly prank he would never dare commit was a better aid to sleep than counting the sheep on his farmyard wallpaper. Fancy giving him a room with walls covered in cattle! Everyone knew he was terrified of anything that had horns or so much as bleated.
But weirder night companions appeared over the horizon of his slumber.
These creatures were not much taller than Ben and whispered amongst themselves in an alien language. Despite his father's efforts to drill any niceties out of him, he was an innately polite little boy and stood watching from a proper distance until they noticed him.
Because it was only a dream, he wasn’t too worried about whose tea party he might have gate crashed, though he hoped that the spherical room they were floating about in wasn't surrounded by a herd of cattle. After all, the four creatures did have the same number of legs as a cow. Fortunately, there the difference ended. Their movements were far too deft to belong to something as clumsy as a cow. They were more like the centaurs in his “Stories of Ancient Greece”. They had small pointed feet that resembled hooves in dainty cream boots and feathery heads that were an orangish gold. The same shade in the pattern of the front room carpet - in the spot where he had spilt the paint that Agatha had spent an hour trying to clean off.
It was odd to see the floating creatures tip toe about in mid air as though on some invisible floor. They might have turned off the gravity to assemble the machine they were working on because its components were so delicate. They made strange noises, but their eyes were even more puzzling. Three pairs of multi faceted discs that occasionally blinked were lined up above their mouths. Ben was surprised that with so many eyes, they never realised he was there. They were too intent on their task. With alien nimbleness, they passed the components of the machine to each other. After holding each item up to the six winking discs, it was replaced in the machine.
The creatures only become aware of Ben's presence when they stopped working.
The smallest of them lost its footing on the invisible floor and tipped over in surprise. The others reached for the tops of their heads and pulled off their three sets of eyes.
Then Ben tipped over.
Once upright, he reached out to try and pull off the smaller creature's mask, but his hand refused to make contact. However hard he tried, he couldn’t grasp it.
Now he could see their real faces, it was obvious that they were laughing at him. Although very weird, he was able to make sense of them. Apart from the feathery hair sprouting eccentrically from the top of their heads, they had no ears, two huge faceted globes for eyes and tiny noses that looked as though they had been glued on as an afterthought to keep the eyes and mouth apart.
One of the creatures flicked a switch. The machine lit up and Ben heard a voice say, ‘We have caught a fish.’
The eight-year-old was indignant. ‘I’m not a fish.’
‘Whatever you are, little minnow, your molecules are very uncertain of themselves.’
‘What are molecules?’
‘They are what this machine assembles.’
‘Did it make you?’
‘It is a very bright little minnow,’ said the smallest creature.
‘Shall we throw it back,’ said the tallest.
‘Oh no. It cannot do any harm. It would wake too suddenly and fall out of bed, wouldn't you, little minnow?’
‘I'm a boy.’
One of the larger creatures interrupted. ‘Do not listen to these jokers. What is your name?’
‘I am Tamble. The short one is Hysle, the tall one is Dey and the serious one is Datch.’
‘But ... What are you?’
‘What do you mean?’
‘Boys or girls?’
‘Oh. The small one, Hysle, is a boy, the rest of us are girls.’
‘But that's not right. He should be taller than you.’
‘We are big girls.’
‘The boys here are always smaller, little minnow,’ added Hysle. ‘There is no point in us being large as well.’
‘Why not?’
‘Then we would be expected to do all the work.’
‘But my mother and Agatha do far more work than father, and he's taller than both of them.’
‘Put together?’
‘How could anyone be put together?’ scoffed Ben.
‘Oh, we do it all the time.’ Hysle patted the machine.
‘With that thing?’ Ben took a closer look. Now he thought about it, the apparatus seemed more organic, like a complex colony of fungi, coil upon coil pulsating with a muted glow.
‘Of course,’ Hysle went on, ‘we have to use a big box to keep the molecules from floating off.’
‘Can you change things into something else? Like a bird into a bat?’
‘It is possible.’
‘Shut-up!’ a voice in the background snapped.
Ben paid no attention. He thought hard as though confronting a genie willing to only give one wish. ‘Can you change me into a ... a seagull?’
‘What do you want to be a bird for?’
‘So I can fly away from home.’
Hysle considered the suggestion. ‘No, you would need a similar number of molecules. They can only be compressed so much.’
‘You mean, you can't pour a pint into a quart pot?’ Ben wasn’t sure what a pint and quart were. One of his father's cricket team was always using that expression, and many others he only half understood.
The alien hesitated. He obviously had little idea what it meant as well. ‘Why would I want to do that? I know I could not turn you into a rabbit - five rather plump rabbits perhaps.’
‘Shut-up, Hysle!’ scolded Tamble. ‘Stop teasing the child.’
‘Well, I am only a bad dream he will not remember.’
‘I am not so sure. Do you understand what has happened to you, Ben?’
‘I think I fell asleep.’
‘Did you find a pretty bauble?’
‘Why yes. How did you know?’ Ben pulled it from his pyjama top. The aliens gazed at the iridescent jewel as though holding back their terror. ‘It belongs to my mother.’
There was a desperate edge to Tamble's tone. ‘Well, return it to her as soon as you can and say nothing about it to anyone else.’
‘Why not?’
‘Questions, questions - the child is full of questions,’ complained Dey. ‘That is your fault for encouraging him, Hysle.’
‘It is part of their growing process,’ Datch explained. ‘They have to struggle for every scrap of information they absorb, not take it for granted as we do.’
Hysle laughed. ‘He is cute, though. Can we keep him?’
‘Do not be absurd. He would be unable to understand anything useful to us.’
‘He managed to operate that “pretty bauble”.’
‘Why can't I stay?’ asked Ben.
‘We do not want you to be upset.’
‘Upset? Why should I be upset?’
Datch hesitated. ‘There are things here you can never comprehend.’
‘But I like it here, even though you are so strange.’
Dey sneered. ‘Perceptive as well.’
‘And I don't know where my mother is anyway, so I can't give her the pendant. My father will probably find it and put it back on the bonfire.’
Hysle was puzzled. ‘Why?’
‘He doesn't like Mummy very much. I don't know why.’
‘He sounds quite a shark.’
‘And he parts his hair in the middle.’
‘How did you end up in the same pond, little minnow?’
‘I don't know.’
‘It is important you return the pendant, Ben.’
‘But I don't know where she is.’
‘We will tell you.’
‘No,’ cautioned Datch. ‘He is too young to wander about unaccompanied.’
‘It is only a short distance.’
‘I do not like it. They can face dangers we are unable to comprehend.’
Despite everything, Ben was an innately helpful child. ‘Oh, I'll do it.’
‘You could remember us when you wake,’ Tamble warned. ‘You may not be frightened by our appearance now ...’
‘Oh I won't be, I promise. I want to see Mummy.'
Tamble adjusted the machine, and the creatures discussed something in their own strange language. As he listened, the eight-year-old fancied that he could make sense of the odd word.
Eventually Tamble asked, ‘Do you know Bellwood Farm, Ben?’
‘Yes, we often take our Sunday walk in that direction. One of the cricket team owns a real pub near there.’
Tamble indicated a map projected onto the far wall. The child recognised it. ‘Just a little way down the farm lane is another road. It is quite narrow and not signposted.’
‘Oh yes, that leads to the hayricks.’
‘If you follow it past the hayricks you will come to some locked gates. On the other side of them is another road.’
‘I didn't know that.’
‘If you turn right and follow the road for twenty minutes you will come to a high wall. This is the place where your mother works.’
Ben was silent for a moment. ‘But I thought she was a long way away?’
‘Not even your father knows this. You must promise not to tell anyone else.’
‘I promise.’
‘He is far too young to walk that distance by himself,’ said Dey.
Tamble disagreed. ‘Given how honest he is, he needs to be tough.’
‘His father might punish him.’
‘Oh, he's going to Scotland and Agatha won't be back from her sister's until tomorrow morning,’ Ben explained.
‘He leaves you on your own, little minnow?’
‘Quite often.'
‘Yes, he is a tough little fish,’ agreed Dey. ‘Perhaps we should keep him.’
‘How do I get over the wall?’
‘There are several breaks in it,’ explained Tamble. ‘You should not have any trouble finding the large house. There is no need to knock the door. A voice will ask why you are there. You must say that you want to speak to Nightingale.’
Dey gave a hard laugh. ‘Oh that will please her.’
‘She will be even angrier if that transmitter key is not returned.’
‘Who is she?’ asked Ben.
‘The Senior Controller.’
‘Is she in the army?’
Tamble laughed. ‘Oh no. She does not care much for soldiers. You will be quite safe as long as you do what I tell you. When you have returned the pendant, you will forget everything and never dream of us again.’
‘There, little minnow, we cannot keep you after all,’ Hysle sighed.
‘All right,’ Ben yawned. ‘All right ...’

Ben rolled over and saw the early morning sunlight glowing through the curtains. The scent of orange blossom wafted into the room and the bees busily buzzed. He lay thinking for some while, and then his hand automatically reached up to grasp the pendant. He quickly took it off and reached over the side of the bed to tuck it under the rug. It was only five o'clock. His father wouldn't be leaving until eight. But what if he finished his research and decided to come back early?
‘Oh, who cares,’ Ben thought to himself. ‘I’ll stay in the big house with Mummy and that woman called Nightingale-’
Suddenly Ben remembered the sinister night creatures. They hadn't been conjured up on his teaching screen - they had been real!
He leapt out of bed. Had he really been talking to them with the same familiarity he used on Mr Humphreys' dog? It must have happened. The child was too young to deceive himself that it had only been a dream. The aliens had been so friendly. He could hardly dash out and return the pendant to the ashes of the fire.
Ben sat on his bed and thought. Should he risk the rage of an already wrathful father for their sake? The aliens insisted it was very important he returned the pendant. He picked up his well-worn teddy bear and hugged it. Now Ben was eight, he would soon be parted from the toy. He would need another friend.


Jeff Devlin noted the thermometer reading then deftly confused the mercury with a flick of his wrist. There was no point in shaking the antique so brutally, but every movement he made had to have a cavalier flourish about it. After nine years of infatuation, Sally was just beginning to see her colleague for what he was.
Devlin had an eagle-like glamour and, when thwarted, his brow furrowed with a predator’s cruelty. No one was sure why he had given up his smart Space Security uniform to join Group Indigo. Even Nightingale hadn’t been told. As she was obliged to take at least one assistant selected by World Security, there was nothing she could do about it anyway.
The awareness of Jeff Devlin’s true nature had come as a perverse relief to Sally and she no longer had any qualms about him standing hostage at the next encounter. If someone had to run the risk of having their molecules disassembled and reconstructed in a different dimension, Sally preferred them to be those of her self-obsessed lover. No alien was likely to be conned by his stunning good looks.
Jeff replaced the thermometer in its case and they once again paced the well-trodden grass to check the layout of the proposed location. Although the Lictana were the ones who controlled things, a little pointless preparation helped steady the nerves.
‘How do you think they do it?’ Sally asked.
Jeff stopped pacing to patronise. ‘Well, they align their atomic structure with our dimension, don't they.’
‘I didn't mean that.’
‘We’ll ask them the next time we meet.’
‘Nightingale is the only one who understands.’
‘Then she should be risking her atoms instead of ours.’
‘You know what the regulations say about her taking risks.’
Jeff laughed loudly. ‘Given the way she looks, I bet she took quite a few.’
‘Shut-up! You know she can lip read.’ Sally darted a glance at the tall angular figure watching them.
‘So what? Any woman who looks like that must be used to having comments made about her.’
A cuckoo made its presence known a short distance away.
‘Damn, that bird scarer isn't working again,’ cursed Sally.
‘Leave it alone. It's only after crumpet.’
Sally was quiet for a moment, then suddenly snapped, ‘You don't give a toss about what happens to poor little Ben, do you?’
Jeff was unfazed. ‘Well, when the divorce comes through, your husband won't have any claim on him, will he?’
‘Right. And nor will you!’
It took Jeff a few seconds to register what she had just said. ‘What do you mean?’
Sally fastened her tunic belt. ‘If I can't find him a decent father, he'll be better off without one.’
Jeff's disconcerted gaze fell on the golden buckle she had just pulled tight. He walked away without a word.
Sally pursued him, so he was compelled to turn and face her.
‘You would like the aliens to carry me off, wouldn't you?’ he accused.
Sally could now see that the tight frown she had always taken to be inscrutability was actually dangerous malice. ‘It'd solve a lot of problems. You can't prove paternity without your body and, from what we already know, matter from each others dimensions breaks up pretty quickly.’
As well has the malevolent streak in Jeff Devlin’s character, he was also full of clichés, bravado and bull. Sally wondered how he had managed to get into Group Indigo as well as her bed. Even the military division responsible for World Security must have known what they were planting in the secret investigation group formed by World Government. Nightingale was very touchy about being compelled to take on anyone from a military division. Jeff must have looked very impressive in his blue and gold Space Security uniform. Nightingale, however, believed that it took more intelligence to be a civilian.
Though not much older than Sally, Nightingale had clocked up a record in energy research that awed other scientists with twice her experience. It was her success in fuel cell development that now maximised the advances in renewable energy. With a windmill and solar panels on their property, householders could store as much power as they needed and be independent of such monsters as the old fossil fuel suppliers. None of them knew that they had Nightingale to thank. Even the grateful World Government she had freed from one of its greatest problems, only reluctantly allowed her to pursue her new obsession. Chasing aliens.
The authorities assumed that her eccentric interest was a side effect of genius. Also, Nightingale was safer where they could keep an eye on her. No alien could be more dangerous than this scientist with a grudge. Nightingale was to be indulged until the next catastrophe when she would be needed again.
World Security had been aware for several years of interdimensional alien intrusions. They had been insignificant compared to the decimation of the human race by antibiotic resistant plagues and climate change. Nightingale would have been more useful researching weather control. When her credibility was eventually compromised by her pursuit of extraterrestrials, the scientist would have to return to the fold of conformity, and no one else was willing to risk their integrity to investigate reports of ghostly aliens and missing people. The military would prefer to lock away anyone who reported such encounters and bury the evidence in a restricted file, even though there could be no doubt that the Earth was in collision with a planet from another dimension.
No one else understood Nightingale’s research, any more than they understood the disastrous fuel cell experiment that left her brown skin with a purplish patina which blocked out ultraviolet and scared small dogs.
As Nightingale was playing around with dimensionally volatile atoms, Group Indigo carried out their research in an HQ isolated at the centre of a large country estate. They had insisted she take Jeff Devlin as an assistant and Sally, because she would be near to her son, was the only molecular biologist willing to join the mad scientist. Nightingale eventually tired of her assistants bickering. ‘That's enough you two. Inside.’
More used to obeying orders, Jeff turned without waiting for Sally. He marched up the steps into the large house. She followed on thoughtfully, oblivious of the impatient Nightingale waiting for her.
‘What's the problem?’
Sally hesitated. ‘You don't have any children, do you?’
‘Wouldn't recognise one if I met it.’
‘No. Given how much you worry about yours, it can hardly help anyone's peace of mind.’
‘Just how safe is this encounter?’
‘There's no reason not to trust them.’ Nightingale always put on a taciturn front, but could tell someone needed reassurance. She stopped climbing the steps two at a time. ‘What do you want me to do?’
‘If something does go wrong, there’s no one to look out for Ben. The mutated virus he inherited from his father may only make my son a carrier, like him. Then there is a chance it could attack his mind. No doctors I’ve consulted know enough about it. I don’t want him to live with that. He must have proper treatment. My husband would just give him tranquillisers and tell him that it was all a figment of his imagination.’
Nightingale pondered for a few seconds. She didn't need to meet the child to understand his mother’s problem. With a deceitful philanderer for a father and gullible flibbertigibbet for a mother, Ben needed all the help he could get. Nightingale had enough access to World Government database to destabilise nations. She might as well use it for something positive, and the luxury of being generous was seductive. Despite her ruthless persona, Nightingale never saw the point in doing harm if she couldn’t do good.
‘I’ll see what I can do about it,’ the Senior Controller announced. She strode inside.
Sally gave a sigh of relief. No down payment in any of the world's four currencies could equal the value of her superior’s word.
When they caught up with him, Jeff was on the roof irritably pacing up and down by the photovoltaic panels as though trying to prevent the sunlight from reaching as many cells as he could. A light deep in the cellars may have flickered, though little else made note of his annoyance. He sensed that the two women were talking about him or, even worse, perhaps they weren't. By the look of relief on Sally's face and the enigmatic expression Nightingale perpetually wore, he was unable to confirm or dismiss his worse suspicions. He had always believed Sally to be the best catch of his many affairs. Now her ardour had cooled, he could only see a cunning woman trying to outmanoeuvre him at every turn. Nightingale, her long, dour face framed by mass of tightly curled hair, was just another unexploded bomb.
‘Is the perimeter secure?’ she demanded.
Jeff looked through some binoculars, then at the small screen that mapped out the grounds. ‘Few rabbits. No breaks in the current made by anything larger than that.’
‘Good. Get Perry to reset the current and put down the flags.’
‘Not expecting an alien invasion are you?’
Nightingale gave Jeff a long hard look that unsettled even Sally. On the verge of hearing the detonator ticking, Jeff quickly made the call down to security.
Nightingale scanned the grounds with the binoculars.
‘Is everything clear?’ asked Sally.
‘Too much wildlife.’
‘Well, Conservation's done a marvellous job over the last fifty years.’
Nightingale slowly lowered the glasses. ‘I hope this sudden bout of sarcasm from both of you is due to nerves and not a cluster of loose molecules somewhere? At this moment in time, every atom needs to be in the right place.’ She sometimes wondered how safe Group Indigo's valuable equipment was in their hands. Sometimes it was like trusting a couple of marmosets at the wheel of her state-of-the-art Amethyst car.
Nightingale glanced at Sally's belt. ‘Loosen that buckle, it's too tight. Not metal is it?’
‘And lose those earrings.’
‘Resin and amber.’
Nightingale grunted. ‘Can't understand what you need jewellery and tight clothes for?’
Nor did Sally, so she never replied.
Nightingale turned to Jeff. Although she counted on him to check out the wildlife, she trusted him with little else. ‘When Perry's team have finished resetting the flags, tell him to mend the bird scarer and flush some of that fur out. We don't want anything interfering with the signal.’
‘The aliens said it wouldn't make any difference to them.’
‘I'm damned if the first creature to witness the success of an experiment this important is going to be a hedgehog. Do as I tell you!’
Jeff obeyed.
Sally sighed. ‘I can't understand why they wouldn't allow the materialisation inside the house.’
Nightingale did. ‘They still don't trust us. How are they to know we don't have some sort of containment portal to trap them?’
Sally paused. ‘Do they really believe that the disappearance of my transmitter key is some sort of plot?’
‘By the last message they sent through, they didn't seem unduly bothered by it.’
‘I got the impression they already know.’
‘What?’ Nightingale was uneasy. Sally was an expert communicator. Though often irrationally sensitive, she had an agile mind able to use language comprehensible to the alien's translator. She wasn’t likely to be mistaken over something like that.
Jeff waved the receiver of the roof's intercom. ‘Perry wants to talk to you on this line, Controller.’
‘What's wrong with his phone?’
‘Doesn't have voice security.’
Nightingale swore at herself for restricting the number of secure lines to stop the staff bothering her.
She leaned precariously over the parapet to call five stories down. ‘You'll have to wait!’ then muttered under her breath, ‘He'd want the end of the world announced in triplicate.’ She turned to Sally and Jeff. ‘Now we've established the whereabouts of the wildlife, you can go and check your kit.’
‘We still don't know when they're coming through,’ protested Jeff.
‘As the aliens are the ones operating the portal, we'll have to wait around until they're ready. Not having any more “bowel problems”, are you?’
Jeff flushed in anger and left the roof.
Sally giggled.
‘And how is your problem caused by his “bowels”?’ Nightingale asked.
‘Heggarty's tablets worked. I haven't had a bout for five months now.’
‘Might have more to do with you keeping away from the source.’ Sally opened her mouth to protest. ‘I wasn't being moralistic, just practical.’
‘What else?’ Sally had no idea that the rare virus Jeff had infected her with would prove fatal and Nightingale saw little point in enlightening her. ‘You might be more inclined to watch your ex inamorato with a less infatuated eye.’
‘Watch him?’
‘Very closely.’
‘I don't understand?’
‘You don't need to.’ Nightingale pulled on her driving gloves. ‘Let me know as soon as they make contact. I won't go too far.’ She then descended the fire escape to see the officious Perry and take her Amethyst for a brief spin.


Ben carefully slipped past the hayricks without catching the attention of the farm equipment sensors. He darted towards the large five bar gate at the end of the manure-covered lane. After scraping the muck from his shoes, he climbed through the gate's bars and onto the road the other side.
The countryside was suddenly different, as though he had passed through an invisible curtain. To one side was a vast water meadow where the stunted remains of a town built on a flood plain had been undermined and allowed to crumble. Come autumn, they would be immersed yet again.
Ben had to go in the other direction, where the countryside undulated up and away from the river’s clutches.
He strained his eyes to try and see the ubiquitous power generating windmills or solar sails that usually peppered the land. The child had often wondered whether such a plethora of the machines speeded up the rotation of the Earth or slowed it down. But here all the land's furniture was totally natural, bar a tiled road. He gingerly picked his way along it and the smell of manure gave way to the odd pocket of perfume wafted from foliage he was unable to identify.
Distracted by the wonder of what he had trespassed into, Ben didn’t hear the purr of a car's engine behind him. Its sudden warble made the eight-year-old freeze to the spot in fright. As she stopped, the driver slowly removed her polarised glasses and looked at the small, fair interloper with more curiosity than annoyance. Ben gazed back at the angular mauvish-brown features of the woman with a huge shock of tightly curled hair. There was something fierce about her and she drove the sleekest vehicle he had ever set eyes on. The battery for the Amethyst must have had at least four charging units that needed a whole windmill's worth of power.
The woman's features creased into a tight smile and Ben discovered he could move after all. He scrambled up the buttercup-covered bank and the car sped off.
Ben reached a grassy verge that made his journey much safer. On either side, downland peppered with bright flowers rolled away like an ancient French tapestry. He half expected to find knights, damsels and dragons woven into the landscape and, sure enough, a huge unicorn had been carved into a distant chalk hillside. It must have been near the virtual fantasy park Agatha had promised to take him to. Ben was tempted to go there instead, but he only had one entertainment token and packet of biscuits in his pocket and, of course, was on a mission as bizarre as anything he was liable to find in a virtual reality cubicle.
The tiled road led to a long, high stone wall. What if that strange woman in the car was on the other side? What would he say if he met her? She was very intimidating, even though she hadn't tried to run him over.
Ben looked up at the stone blanketed in ivy. He was frightened. There must have been hungry wild animals on the other side.
He cautiously trudged through the weeds outside the perimeter. Even though he had braved a field of cows to reach here, things that no campaigning zoologist would be willing to pluck out of the grass by its whiskers and conserve must have lurked on the other side of that wall.
The eight-year-old was growing weary. He knew it wasn't possible to put off the mission any longer. Ben gingerly clambered up the ivy and into the estate beyond at the next section of crumbling stone.
It was like stepping into one of those ancient fairy stories from his grandmother's collection. Though the regular world Ben lived in was green and buzzing with life, it was also organised, cultivated and cared for. Here, he half expected the fearsome sprite and her sleek car to suddenly come charging out of the undergrowth at him. This was the unruly world he had been taught to fear in social awareness classes. “The disorganised is wasteful, the undisciplined dangerous and the imagination a wild beast.” The child hadn't understood what it all meant of course, even though he was shown pictures. He was very good at organisation, though suspected that an undisciplined imagination would be the death of him.
‘Oh well,’ Ben sighed fatalistically, ‘at least I can't be told off when I'm dead.’ He jumped down into the mysterious wood.
He felt a tingling sensation as though something had registered his presence. Alarmed, Ben bounded for the cover of the bracken. As he ducked out of sight, a bright orange flag snapped up from nowhere. Realising that this meant discovery, the eight-year-old plunged deeper into the thicket.
By the time Ben stopped to look about he was lost and very scared. It was becoming difficult to remember the odd dream instructions, so he sat at the foot of a tree to organise his thoughts. He had run in a more or less straight line away from the wall that was probably circular. So, if the large house was in the centre of the grounds, all he needed to do was keep moving in the same direction. He was bound to reach it sooner or later.
Ben struck out through the bracken again. At times, the tall fronds totally obscured the eight-years-old's view and made him wish he had brought his pocket compass.
He heard the murmuring of voices. Ahead, a lattice of sunlight patterned a small arena of closely cropped grass. Spotlighted in the centre was a man wearing a magenta suit. He remained still for some while, listening to instructions coming from his lapel receiver. Then he strode to where a machine sat on a pedestal. There was a similar device quite near to where Ben hid. The sight of it filled him with inexplicable terror.
Another figure, also wearing magenta, walked in from the other side of the clearing. She silently made her way to the machine near Ben then turned to face her companion.
The woman was his mother.
Ben nearly called out. She was obviously doing something very important, so he stopped himself.
His mother and her companion placed their hands on the alien looking machines and synchronously turned two keys. The devices began to thrum loudly. Ben covered his ears.
‘Translator engaged,’ a metallic voice droned over the din.
Eventually the sound stopped pounding Ben's eardrums. He carefully moved closer as a third figure started to take shape in a busy, ultraviolet cloud. The softer the thrumming grew, the more distinct the strange creature became.
It was standing quite near his mother.
The prickling terror of recognition combed Ben's scalp.
The alien had four legs. That bizarre feathery hair and large facetted eyes - it was one of the creatures he had met in his dream!
He now knew for sure that this errand was no flight of his own fancy. What sort of trick had these alien creatures played on him?
And what sort of trick were they playing on his mother?
The creature was now quite solid and moved from foot to foot to foot as Ben's mother held a conversation with it. Suddenly the child became tearful. The experience was overwhelming him, even though he could tell by the relaxed way his mother stood that she was quite enjoying the encounter. For fear of her hearing him cry, he silently pushed his way through the bracken and round to the other side of the clearing.
The man by the second machine was watching the meeting with a tense, twitching expression. Ben studied the intensely handsome face. The eight-year-old didn't like him. About the same age as his mother, the man had a cold look in his eyes. Having been sheltered from normal human contact, Ben could see into the depths of a depraved psyche which social conditioning would have blinded anyone else to. He also noticed something familiar about him. That was more terrifying than anything alien.
Ben shuddered and quickly returned his attention to what was happening.
The alien and his mother were enclosed in a large bubble that curved the ultraviolet light about them like a lens. Inside it, the air seemed to buzz as though fine sand was being whipped up by a vortex. She was treating the occasion with such nonchalance that they might have been discussing the new fuel cell she wanted for her car.
As though he had just been about to leap away from his post, the cold gaze of the man in the magenta suit suddenly fell on Ben. He was startled and hesitated. For a second the man was frozen in mid air. Then suddenly dissolved!
As that happened, there was silent explosion. Ben's mother and the alien were shattered to pieces. The bubble disappeared. Fragments of his mother and the alien lay strewn about the clearing.
Nothing moved.
Ben suddenly missed the bird song. He heard himself whimpering. That bloody mass of dismembered limbs must have appeared from nowhere. That had to be it.
The eight-year-old felt sick and couldn’t stop trembling.
He was moving. He didn’t know how and was hardly aware of climbing back through the gap in the wall.
As Ben tumbled onto the road, he heard voices calling. They must have been on another planet - this one had become a blur.
As the eight-year-old ran, the tapestry landscape was transformed into a realm of dreams where he could escape the brutality of recollection.
He had to reach his room and hide under his duvet. Only there could he be safe -safe behind the bolted door of the new compartment in his mind. Anyone trying to drag him from it had to be fought off at all costs.
Ben was inexplicably calm by the time he reached his front door. He went to the kitchen and poured himself a glass of milk. Agatha had left him a meal, so he microwaved it and sat down on the living room sofa to eat. His father would have been furious if he knew.
The child slowly placed his knife and fork on his plate then realised that he had forgotten what his father looked like. It didn’t matter.
Ben went to the picture window to stare at high nacreous clouds and dangerous dimensions buzzing outside his secure sanctuary.


Perry pushed the orange flag back into its slot. The scanner's needle indicated that it had been activated by something heavier than a muntjac. Whatever it was, trespassing wildlife was nothing compared to the tall savage human he had to go back and report to.
The security chief ordered his team to methodically pace every metre of the estate. They only found body parts. The remains they had collected added up to one human and a rapidly dissolving alien with four legs. Jeff Devlin, or his remains, was probably further away than Perry's organised brain could imagine. Nightingale knew. If he was that cynical, Perry would have realised how pleased she was at the prospect of never having to see his glamorous good looks again. This was not a logical deduction for a uniformed mind like his to make. The explanation had to be spelt out for him in the secrecy of Nightingale's basement laboratory.
‘He was a plant.'
Perry's jaw dropped. ‘What makes you say that?’
‘He couldn’t have been anything else. When you see an urban rat, you can be sure the sewer isn’t too far away.’
That made sense. Being an uncomplicated security man, Perry had easily comprehended Jeff Devlin’s true nature. It was the machines, laser tools and circuits Nightingale was forever tinkering with he couldn’t make sense of and he hardly dared look into the anteroom where she kept her biological samples. The place had that odd antiseptic smell of the cheap mortuaries that had once prepared the dead for quick cremation. Since the plagues, nobody would handle bodies without enough disinfectant to wipe out the region's cockroach population. For all Perry knew, Nightingale was creating a human species resistant to all the mutated viruses, germs, and bacteria that had devastated the immune systems of the old one. Given the massive range of technology the survivors had inherited, the Chief of Security supposed somebody ought to make use of it.
Perry was suddenly aware that Nightingale was waiting for a response. ‘Plant?’ He darted an uneasy glance over his shoulder to make sure none of the equipment was listening.
‘World Security planted Jeff Devlin when Group Indigo was being formed.’
‘How can you be so sure? World Security were the ones who set us up. They've access to everything we do, so why should they need a spy?’
Nightingale lounged back in her chair and swung her feet onto a bench. She had a far worse suspicion than the one that she was prepared to admit to Perry. It would endanger him and his family if she aired it. ‘They are beginning to realise that these aliens could be dangerous and that they have invested the safety of this planet in Group Indigo. When World Government decided we should be a civilian organisation, World Security found it difficult to swallow.’
‘Well that's the way it had to be. There are still plenty of regions who refuse to trust uniforms after the clampdowns. It's not as if this is some natural disaster or nuclear waste clearance that only the military can tackle. They would go crazy if they suspected that aliens had managed to penetrate our defences.’
‘And now these aliens believe that Group Indigo blew up one of their agents, we probably do have something to panic about.’
The admission coming from someone as adamantine as Nightingale was enough to daunt Perry.
He took a short intake of breath. ‘Can't we contact them again?’
‘Devlin's key is damaged, Sally's is still missing, and mine was destroyed in the explosion.’
‘Did you find out what happened to hers?’
‘She thought her husband took it. He probably keeps it with the wax effigy of me stuck with antique hypodermics.’
‘That bad is he?’
‘Like Dracula with a toothache. He'll sink those fangs into her child if he isn’t stopped.’
Perry looked worried. Nightingale was no child snatcher. She was more likely to put a silver bullet through the Dr. Harold’s brain.
‘Surely he won't make a fuss over parting with the boy?’
‘The housekeeper reported him to Social Concern centres twice. You know what they're like where the medical profession is involved. Prosecuting a doctor doing research for a popular provincial government is like trying to slice a slug with a feather. No, I’ll work something out.’ When Nightingale told Sally that she would look out for her child, she didn’t think it would involve adoption. Wriggling out of that commitment without breaking her word would take more working out than the blueprint for her revolutionary fuel cell. Dealing with people was more difficult than mathematics.
Perry always found her calculating expression disconcerting. There was the inevitable fallout to clear up afterwards. ‘You will be careful, won't you boss?’
Nightingale looked up. ‘Careful? I'm always careful.’
Perry resolved not to mention the word “doctor” for at least six months. With a little luck and her preoccupation with damage limitation after the disastrous alien encounter, premeditated murder might somehow slip the Senior Controller's mind.
‘Have you any idea what caused this explosion?’ he asked.
‘No,’ Nightingale lied. The only thing which puzzled her was why Devlin was willing to stand as surety, only to miscalculate the time of the detonation and not jump clear.
‘It must have been someone who knew Sally well,’ Perry went on. ‘As far as we can tell from her injuries, she was carrying the explosive in her belt, probably disguised as a buckle.’
‘Little present from an affectionate “friend”.’
Perry had no idea what she was driving at. ‘There's not much left of her torso, though ...’
‘All right, all right. We'll have to think up a cover story for her husband. Something to do with radiation. That'll ensure he doesn't ask to inspect the remains.’
‘Lead coffin?’
‘Largest you can find. There must be plenty in government storage since they over anticipated the casualties from the last nuclear accident.’
‘Thank God we're now driven by wind, waves and sunbeams.’ Then Perry inwardly groaned as he remembered the car that had been crushed for being a serious pollution hazard.
‘The worst thing a windmill can do is whine when it needs servicing, although too many neat sunbeams can give you a complexion like mine?’
Perry feigned ignorance. Some things Nightingale consistently lied about. ‘Thought that was genes?’
‘Playing with the wrong end of the spectrum. Luckily I was brown to begin with. The other two were white and turned cobalt violet.’
Against his better judgement, Perry believed her. ‘How the hell-?’
‘Never mind, Perry. We gave up that line of research when the ozone renewal plant in the Antarctic was put on stream and it became evident that we weren't going to lose the ozone layer after all.’
Perry shook his head. With her fuel cell research and the Natural Energy Grid she had helped to bring on line, she had enough qualifications to comment on the state of the planet. He had no intention of asking what there were. He knew he wouldn't like the answer.
‘I'll see what the database can dig out in the way of lead coffins. What about the alien?’ he asked.
‘She's still breaking up. We've got her remains in a vacuum but the molecules won't be stable in our dimension for very long. By the time we get her companions to speak to us again, we'll be able to hand her back in an egg-cup.’
The grisly always brought out Perry’s longing for the security a military uniform had given him. He had an overwhelming urge to salute Nightingale as he left, before remembering her reaction to any form of forelock tugging.
The Senior Controller paid no attention. She was deep in thought.
As soon as Perry had gone, she leapt up and flicked the cover from the machine that had transmitted Jeff Devlin to another dimension. She threw the lever on her console and thick lead screens slid into place, sealing the laboratory in an airtight shell.
With some difficulty, Nightingale wriggled the distorted crystal that had been Jeff Devlin's transmitter key into place.
She hardly expected anything to happen. The Lictana were the ones who controlled their encounters. It was somewhat optimistic to hope that they still wanted to talk.
There was no sound for some while, then an erratic whirring.
It rapidly built to a crescendo.
With controlled desperation, Nightingale tried to pull the key free. It had jammed tight.
Before she could take cover, an almighty “crack” lashed out from the machine and sent her sprawling. It was like colliding with the blade of a rotating windmill.
Feeling more like a stunned Don Quixote than Senior Controller, Nightingale tried to regain her senses. It was obvious by the machine's furious reaction that she had managed to raise something.
An alien voice activated the translator. ‘Who is there?’
The scientist gave her temple a swift rap to make her name come. ‘Nightingale.’
‘What do you want?’
‘To talk to Tamble.’
‘Not possible.’
‘Who is that?’
Nightingale daren't hesitate in case the translator cut out. ‘You know what happened?’
‘No. We assume you do?’
‘We're still trying to find out.’
‘You are aware that we have your agent hostage?’
‘Keep him. He probably planted the explosive on Sally.’
Datch sounded less mechanical. ‘Why?’
‘Someone in World Security obviously doesn't want Group Indigo to fraternise with aliens.’
‘We understand that they set Group Indigo up for that purpose.’
‘That's what I thought. Now it's apparent they're worried about us making too much progress.’
‘That sounds like a problem even you cannot solve.’
Nightingale chuckled. ‘Oh yes I will, even if it takes the next hundred years. This situation is too serious to trust to authority.’
‘You realise that if your agent is to remain molecularly intact, we will have to keep him in suspension?’
‘Spread him on toast if you want. It wouldn't bother me if his molecules did drift apart. There's nothing much left of your agent, I'm afraid.’
There was a brief silence.
Nightingale sensed the calculation in Datch's next question.
‘Was the missing transmitter key returned to you?’
On hearing that, a chasm opened up in her carefully laid plans. Nightingale was plotting even before she found out what the Lictana were up to. How could the aliens know where the transmitter key was? As it wasn't molecularly stable in their dimension, they shouldn’t even know that it was missing, unless... If Jeff Devlin didn't take it, there was another player in the field! Someone else without a name or identity recorded on her database. Nightingale’s scars tingled in terror at the thought.
She tried not to sound alarmed. ‘Should the key have been returned to me?’
‘The incident probably interfered with our plan.’
‘What plan?’
‘I have said enough.’
Enough to worry the wits out of the Senior Controller. ‘If there is another agent I know nothing about, you do realise what that means? Perry can keep his mouth shut. I can't speak for anyone else.’
‘We control the link and will be prepared for further sabotage.’
‘You seem sure that I'll never make it a two-way system?’
‘That, Nightingale, will take you longer than a human life span.’
‘So how many years will our planets remain interdimensionally linked? How many more alien sightings can we expect to hear about?’
‘You sound as though you do not trust us?’
‘People have disappeared.’
‘Some other aliens nearer to home, perhaps.’
‘Yes, I suppose there are bigger monsters than you walking the Earth. Before I do anything else, I have to pay one of them a visit.’
‘Do not take our willingness to negotiate with you for granted,’ warned Datch.
‘We've never been any threat to you.’
‘While our dimensions overlap, you will keep trying to cross into our world as easily as we can cross into yours.’
‘Group Indigo are the only ones able to contact you and I protect the system like a basilisk with a platinum egg.’
‘Is this another aspect of your perverted diet?’
Nightingale wasn’t taken in. ‘Don't try to kid me you don't understand irony after the amount of “research” you've done on humans.’
‘We could learn more.’
‘What for?’
‘Our own security. What else.’ Despite the translator, the threat in Datch's tone was unmistakable.
‘I'm the only one you can make contact through. I'll decide how much you need to learn.’
There was a pause. Datch was conferring with someone else.
‘You will have no choice but to come to an arrangement with us before long,’ the Lictanan eventually announced.
‘Don't try and blackmail me with Jeff Devlin.’
‘Nothing could be further from our wicked alien minds. But we will keep him all the same.’
Nightingale was silent. Behind the creature's familiarity was a culture she couldn’t visualise, though she knew that the Lictana were testing the resolve of the human species.
Then she remembered the missing transmitter key. Datch knew who had the device. Nightingale had to get to it first. She would sooner shake the truth out of Sally's husband than discover what “arrangement” Datch had in mind. Although the aliens had been cooperative so far, that could change if they had found a human able to operate the key.


Although he was a physician, Colin Harold had never been able to fathom the chemical reactions that had conspired to give Nightingale her purplish brown complexion. He had only ever seen the woman once, and that was early in his marriage when he had arranged to meet Sally at a restaurant on one of London's park domes.
Dr. Harold had stowed his car half a kilometre beneath the green turf, next to one of the City's main arterial roads. He took the lift up to the pure food restaurant and saw his wife step from an alpha licensed vehicle. The Amethyst was being driven by Nightingale, of course.
It was hate at first sight.
Nightingale needed only one look at the man to confirm the suspicions she had about Sally's taste in the opposite sex. Dr. Harold immediately realised that the Senior Controller had been the one to try and talk his wife out of the marriage. Most people now thought that the concept was a decadent arrangement and the legal contract that catered for all combination of genders was quite adequate. Dr. Harold liked order in his life, though. Knowing his wife was involved in important secret work that she was not allowed to discuss with him only added to his resentment.
On that occasion, Nightingale had not stepped from her car to further daunt the doctor with her height and taciturn manner. Now, ten years later, Dr. Harold looked out of his study window and saw every inch of that towering purple affront to his ego. He had just arrived back from Scotland where, ostensibly, he had been doing research for a government report on the hazards of living in sealed air conditioned housing.
But Dr. Harold had gone out of his way to find other masters. Given his wife's important status, his ego demanded he approach World Security. He had gleaned enough from Sally to realise they were a massive bramble in Nightingale's secret garden. The doctor also craved that magic pass which would let him through doors bolted against the usual hoi polloi, and the sense of knowing that, although he may not have been on the right side, he was on the winning one. It was a comedown to learn that they were only interested in his wife.
When Colin Harold had learnt about Sally's death, he cut short his trip to Scotland, which was probably the excuse World Security used to keep him out of the way. They assumed he would ask too many awkward questions about why his wife was killed. With all the evidence safely salted away, her husband would have to take Nightingale’s word for what had happened. She was unlikely to tell Dr. Harold that a World Security agent had blown up his wife while she had been in conversation with an alien.
They had badly miscalculated. Dr. Harold had been more annoyed by the early morning mists and several checks by conservation squads for the odd hitchhiking bear than distraught at losing his unfaithful partner.
The doctor knew why Nightingale had come and saw no reason why he should he part with Ben. Legally he was responsible for the boy, if not biologically. She would only have him fostered out to some comfortable family circle with enlightened attitudes and solar powered toothbrushes. That was certain to announce to the world that the physician's wife had cuckolded him. In fact, the world had too much on its mind to worry about his private life and probably forgotten what cuckold meant.
Dr Harold summoned Agatha and asked her to send Ben in. She told him that Ben wasn't well enough to come down so soon after his mother's death. The housekeeper was disconcerted by the child’s remote behaviour as though he hadn’t taken in what had happened. She would have called in a therapist to investigate Ben’s dissociated state of mind, but the doctor refused to allow it. All Agatha could do was humour the eight-year-old.
She went to the stair cupboard where Ben was hiding and gave him a glass of orange juice and several biscuits then persuaded him to go to his room. As soon as he was out of sight, the housekeeper opened the front door to see what manner of creature was casting the weird silhouette on its stained glass.
Throwing a steepling shadow into the hall, over two metres of lean, mean, secret scientist peered down at the homely pink housekeeper.
With mutually amazed curiosity, Nightingale noted Agatha's apron and rolled down socks. Given the advances in domestic technology, it had never occurred to the Senior Controller that people were still employed to do housework. When Sally had mentioned what a blessing Agatha was, Nightingale assumed she had been referring to some domestic appliance.
There was even more to wonder at inside the house. Its interior had stopped evolving over a century ago. Instead of a positive ion counter and humidity dial, there was an antique barometer by an equally old-fashioned coat stand. Neither of the hall windows was triple glazed, though judging by the amount of stained glass, there was no lack of funds. Every door had a gap of at least a centimetre below it as well as being hinged instead of sliding. Dr. Harold might have had some exemption on grounds of preservation so Nightingale went on to count a dozen more transgressions she could have had him prosecuted for. It was hardly surprising that Sally had been trying to get authorisation to place Ben in a more civilised environment.
The Senior Controller stiffened. She felt a pang of guilt for insisting that Sally live at Group Indigo's HQ where no pets or children were allowed. Even watching Perry scream at the wildlife and his security team would have been less traumatic for the child than having to contend with an emotionally stunted guardian and illegal draughts.
Agatha dawdled off to see if Dr. Harold was ready to meet the visitor.
As Nightingale waited in the hall, she noticed a movement at the top of the stairs. Sitting there was a fair-haired child with a solemn expression and large blue eyes. His gaze was motionless. Unlike many eight-year-olds, who all tended to look the same to Nightingale, this was not an easily forgotten face. It was the same boy she had encountered on the road leading to Group Indigo's HQ.
The truth dawned like a supernova.
Immediately all the plans the Senior Controller had so methodically calculated to confound Dr. Harold and the Lictana started to unravel. The aliens knew where the transmitter key was. In all probability, so did Sally's son.
Still mentally reeling from the revelation, Nightingale was escorted with old-fashioned courtesy into Dr. Harold's presence. As he set eyes on the tall purple creature in the long black coat, both noted that their mutual dislike had not waned.
He hardly seemed overcome with grief, so she never bothered to offer her condolences over Sally's death.
Nightingale towered over the doctor like a Norway spruce, so he insisted she take a seat. She slumped into a wicker chair without moving her gaze from the sternly handsome face just beginning to be pinched by intolerance. Again she wondered why Sally had always set so much store by the way her men looked without bothering to analyse those embryo lines of meanness. Given her late assistant's intelligence, there must have been some deep-seated aberration learnt in babyhood that had not shown up in a personality scan.
Harold flicked a strand of black wavy hair from his forehead. ‘What can I do for you, Senior Controller?’
‘I understand that our provincial government has commissioned you to undertake the research for a report of a delicate nature?’
He smiled smoothly. ‘Yes, though there's nothing secret about it. Unlike projects some other people are engaged in.’
‘It will ensure you are away from home a good deal.’
‘Quite possibly.’ So she didn't know about his connection with World Security. An idea started to form. ‘Some intensive interviewing will be necessary. Very few subjects are local.’
Nightingale couldn't tell if he was lying. He would have sounded just as devious if he was telling the truth.
‘Your wife was concerned that, if anything happened to her, Ben should be brought up in a family circle.’
‘Yes, I know. After Ben has recovered from the shock I think the matter should be looked into.’
This was too easy. Something was wrong. Nightingale was unable to work out what. ‘I have approached various agencies. You will naturally be consulted about the home he goes to. For the boy's sake, things should not be left too long.’
‘I will contact you in a couple of weeks.’
The man could have got up to anything in that time. ‘I'll contact you. How is the child?’
‘Agatha tells me that he hasn’t been able to take his mother’s death in.’
‘You prescribe for him yourself?’
Dr. Harold sensed that she was dangling a noose in the hope he would put his head into it. ‘I've never treated any of my family. If his condition deteriorates I will take him to a colleague. He should be all right, though.’ The doctor was obviously not going to acknowledge the condition that Ben had inherited from his true father.
Nightingale recalled Ben’s motionless gaze and wondered if the man really knew how serious the boy's condition was. ‘A very active child, is he?’
‘Not very. The furthest he ventures is to the far side of the orchard. Wouldn't go into the fields. He's terrified of cattle.’
‘So he would never wander off by himself?’
‘He wouldn't dare. Courage has never been one of his strong points.’
‘I see.’ Dr. Harold knew even less about his “son” than Nightingale had suspected. ‘Oh, by the way, your wife was entrusted with a small transmission device. You may have seen her wearing it? It looked like a pendant.’ By the expression Harold tried to suppress, it was obvious that he had assumed it to be a gift from a lover. ‘We must have it back as soon as possible. I will naturally expect to hear from you as soon as you come across it. My ferrets are well trained, but tend to mess up any burrow they’re let loose in.’
Her threat certainly had an electric effect on Dr. Harold. Unfortunately, it wasn’t the one she had intended.
Nightingale rose. ‘I'll contact you within the week. Can't leave you my number I'm afraid.’
‘Of course not.’
The Senior Controller left without another word, grateful for a few days grace to work on a new scheme. Though she felt guilty about it, Sally's child had now assumed an importance that wasn’t necessarily going to help his welfare.
Before Nightingale could step outside, Agatha caught her arm. ‘When does the child go?’
‘Within the fortnight I hope.’
‘He agreed then?’
‘Yes. Why shouldn't he?’
‘He's up to something.’
‘That's the sort of man he is.’ Agatha rummaged in her apron pocket for a stub of pencil and shopping pad. ‘Give me your number.’
‘It's not possible to contact me.’
‘Then give me a number I can leave a message with.’
‘I know that man. You may just dislike him, but beneath that efficient exterior beats the heart of a medieval torturer.’
‘Sounds eerily quaint.’
‘Now his mother's dead, someone's got to look out for Ben. I thought you were going to do it.’
‘You were listening at the door,’ Nightingale accused.
‘So what?’ During her time, Agatha had stood up to bigger tyrants than Nightingale. The young now counted more than ever and she was determined to do what she could for Ben. The child was swimming with sharks without a flight reflex left in his brain.
Faced down by the scruffy, middle-aged woman with the pitted pink complexion, Nightingale relented. ‘Ring X line 20ZA7. There's a tape you can leave a message on. It's checked every hour.’
Agatha scribbled the number down. Nightingale strode back to her Amethyst, which
purred off through the tidy patchwork countryside.


Ben tried to get a closer look at the clucking creatures in the lollipop-shaped trees. There was a whirring in his ears and lights throbbed behind his eyes. He wanted to wake up but couldn't turn back now. There was something he had to know.
The child concentrated and found himself back in the spherical room with the Lictana.
‘Why what, little minnow?’ asked Hysle brightly.
‘You said everything would be all right.’
‘We did not know someone was going to sabotage the meeting.’
‘What's sabotage?’
‘The explosion. It killed one of our best communication agents.’
Ben was outraged. ‘It killed my mother as well! You have to catch who did it!’
Hysle sighed. ‘We would need help to do that.’
‘I want whoever killed her punished! I'll help you.’
‘Would you, little minnow?’
‘Of course I will.’
‘Perhaps you would,’ humoured Tamble, ‘but you are very young.’
‘I don't want to grow any older. I don't like adults.’
‘I am sure all human adults cannot be that bad, can they?’
‘I don't know many others apart from Agatha and Bertha, and they’re all right.’
‘You live a very sheltered life, little minnow,’ laughed Hysle. ‘Would you like to know the Lictana better?’
‘That is what we are called.’
Ben hesitated. Just because the four-legged aliens were very odd, it didn't mean they shouldn't have a name. Knowing it somehow helped him see them in a clearer light. Strangely balletic, the Lictana weren't half a human grafted onto the body of a horse and were as carefully designed as any creature he knew; they probably never had back trouble. It must have been difficult to make their four-legged overalls with so many fringes and pockets.
The eight-year-old was also little suspicious. ‘You don't really know that much about us, do you?’
Datch was quick to mollify him. ‘Not as much as we would like to.’
‘Why do you want to know about us?’
‘We are close neighbours.’
‘How close?’
‘Closer than most humans would dare guess.’
‘As close as ... Jupiter?’
‘Closer than that.’
‘The moon?’
Dey decided to join the game. ‘Even closer. From here we can count the welds on that new base being built on the moon.’
Ben gasped. ‘I didn't know they were building a base there!’
‘Right next to the one that decompressed suddenly and killed all its occupants. This new base has a double pressurised shell. The air in the outer one collects the sun's heat during the day and it is used to keep the hydroponics dome warm.’
Ben gave sour look. ‘My father said that now there's a world government, we'll never know what's going on.’
Hysle laughed. ‘You are an old-fashioned little thing, aren't you.’
‘Very proper,’ agreed Tamble.
‘Would you like to stay the same age, Ben, yet know everything an adult does?’ Datch suggested calculatingly.
He would have liked nothing more. However, he lived with a doctor whose patients died more frequently than on average. This made him a realist on the subject. ‘It's not possible.’
‘Oh, it is. Can you guess how old we are?’
How could Ben know what the signs of ageing in a Lictanan were? They might have grown even more legs for all he knew. ‘No.’
‘We are all over two hundred of your years and will probably live to twice that.’
‘But I don't want to live to be four hundred; I just don't want to grow any older.’
‘We could help you do that.’
Datch's serious manner didn’t intimidate Ben. If anything, he trusted her because of it. ‘Would you really?’
‘We can teach you everything you want to know while you are asleep,’ Hysle added.
Datch gave him a disapproving glance.
‘Would it be a sort of swop for all the things I can tell you?’
The small Lictanan laughed. ‘My goodness, you are a quick little minnow.’
‘But I don't know that much.’
‘Do not worry. We will tell you the sort of things we are interested in.’
His suspicions addressed, Ben felt more comfortable. Though he would never see his mother again, he had found some friends in a place nobody else could find. He knew there was no world closer to the Earth than the moon, and they would easily explain that when they were ready. He needed someone to depend on too much to worry about elementary astronomy. He felt so comfortable he started to fade.
The Lictana switched off their translators.
‘Damn,’ cursed Datch. ‘What is he doing?’
Tamble turned on her and Hysle. ‘What do you two think you are up to? How could an eight-year-old human know anything that would be useful to us?’
‘Nightingale is in a corner. She might be prepared to take a gamble to maintain contact,’ Datch explained.
‘What sort of gamble?’
‘The sort their World Security would kill her for if they found out.’
Hysle laughed. ‘She does not seem to be the sort of human easily killed off.’
‘Can't you take anything seriously?’
‘Earth's small mammals, pond life, and children.’
‘You may know more about those subjects than anyone else, but they will not be any use if Nightingale manages to build a portal and Earth's military finds out.’
Dey realised what Datch was driving at. ‘If we use Ben as a spy, we will have something to blackmail Nightingale with. She is not to know whether he can tell us anything useful or not.’
‘Neat,’ agreed Tamble. ‘How do we go about it?’
‘We are going to be very nice to an eight-year-old human as soon as he comes back.’

* * *

Ben briefly woke to smell the orange blossom scent filling his bedroom. The rays of the rising sun shone through the chintz curtains. Someone was thumping about downstairs. It was too early for Agatha, so it had to be his father. The child pulled the duvet over his head and returned to the safety of that room in the back of his mind.

* * *

Ben glanced out at the puzzling Lictanan landscape. Nothing was the right colour or had shapes he was familiar with. He felt like a hamster escaping from the known world of its cage and quickly returned to the spherical room.
‘Where did you go, little minnow?’ asked Hysle.
‘Nowhere. I just looked outside. That’s all.’
The other Lictana froze in alarm.
They turned on Hysle.
He had forgotten to switch on his translator!
Datch was the first to say something, albeit under her breath. ‘What an adept.’ She just hoped that Ben hadn't overheard them plotting.
‘Not many Earth’s small fish would be capable of doing that,’ agreed Tamble.
Hysle felt protective. ‘He has just had an awful shock. How about frightening you out of your skin in the name of science.’
‘Do not argue you two. He is important to us.’ Datch scolded.
‘Oh now we must keep you, little minnow.’ Hysle was thrilled at the prospect.
Tamble took Datch aside. ‘Do you think there is a chance we could stabilise his molecules?’
‘He could never become solid.’
‘He is able to communicate without the translator. That is more than we ever managed to do before disintegration set in.’
Hysle skipped about the sphere like a cartoon centaur. ‘I want to see if he can move away from the transmission portal.’
Datch wasn't enthusiastic.
‘Oh he will be all right. The worst thing he could do is wake up.’
‘Oh yes, I would like to explore,’ Ben joined in.
‘I will go with them,’ said Dey.
Datch was worried that her careful scheme could be scuppered by Hysle's ebullience. ‘I am concerned about the effect on his mind. If he is fully conscious, it might be traumatic.’
‘What could be more traumatic than seeing his mother killed?’
‘All right. Do not take him past the perimeter.’
Ben had no idea why Datch was being so stern. In his excitement, he tried to grasp Hysle's hand. His fingers passed through it.
Hysle and Ben fell about laughing.
‘Calm down you two,' Dey warned.
‘Where shall we take him?’
Ben remembered an ancient book he had seen. ‘Have you got a zoo?’
‘A zoo?’
‘A home for different sorts of animals. The last one was closed down long before I was born.’
‘What did you need zoos for?’
‘Oh, that was when there were far more people. They took up all the space the animals used to live in. Putting the ones that were left in cages was the only way to keep them alive. Now there's much more space they could go home to the wild. Not many people get to see them, except on holiday. Daddy would never take me on holiday, and now that Mummy's ...’ Ben sniffed. ‘I've always wanted to see a zoo.’
Before the idea appealed to Hysle as well, Dey quickly suggested the next best thing. ‘Let us show him the Spacers' canteen. There is always a weird bunch in there.’
‘Spacers?’ echoed Ben.
‘Space travellers,’ said Hysle.
Ben wasn't sure whether it was right to stare at other people, even if they weren't in cages. ‘Space travellers?’
Dey couldn’t comprehend Ben's limited existence. ‘Lictan is a busy place. It is at the centre of what you would call a throbbing civilisation.’
‘Why would any civilisation want to throb?’
‘Oh come on, little minnow.’ Hysle guided the eight-year-old outside.
Ben immediately found himself tumbling out of what looked like a huge toadstool.
Hysle flapped his arms mockingly in mid leap then landed daintily on a lift platform. ‘He does not fly very well.’
Dey refused to see the joke. ‘Not many minnows do.’
Ben tried to slow his fall by clutching at a wall of leaves. ‘Stop calling me a minnow!’
‘Poor Omcrom,’ laughed Hysle. ‘Stop pulling its scales.’
Ben floated to the ground. He looked up to see that the leaves belonged to a massive creature with no interest whatsoever in his presence. It had a huge, doleful expression as though resigned to the fact that it would eke out its existence being mistaken for a hill of foliage.
Ben was amazed. ‘What is it for?’
Hysle stepped from the lift platform and joined him. ‘For?’
‘What does it do?’
‘Interrupts the view mainly. The Omcrom has a remarkable digestive tract that wastes nothing it eats. Consequently they can go on for ages, browsing the foliage about them, and not need to stand up for anything very much. They can make dents in the lawns when they move, but nobody really minds.’
‘Now I know you've been telling fibs.’
‘Why do you say that, Ben?’ asked Dey.
‘There's no creature like that on Earth and, if you're closer to us than the moon, then we must be somewhere on Earth.’
Hysle was perversely pleased that Ben was beginning the bite back. ‘What impeccable logic, little minnow. What do you say to that, friend Dey?’
Ben had hoped to provoke them into telling the truth, but Dey evaded. ‘He is too young to understand.’
The child was used to the response. ‘That's what Daddy always says.’
Dey hoped the eight-year-old would find something else of interest. Ben was more disciplined than that and his expression demanded an answer.
‘Oh very well, I will try to explain.’
‘Go on? ’
‘How would you travel to Jupiter?’
‘On a spaceship.’
‘In what direction?’
‘Towards Jupiter's orbit.’
‘How would you travel to another star?’
‘The same way I suppose, though it would take much longer.’
‘Another galaxy?’
‘Even longer. By the time we arrived, it might not even be there any more.’
‘Oh very good,’ chuckled Hysle.
Dey hesitated. ‘How about another universe?’
Ben thought. ‘I don't really know what another universe is.’
‘He must be the only one willing to admit it,’ Hysle murmured.
‘Well, what is another universe?’
‘We are in another universe, Ben,’ explained Dey.
The child had some trouble with this. ‘Like ghosts, you mean?’
‘Not quite. If you went to another star, do you believe you would travel in a straight line?’
‘I suppose so.’
‘But you cannot travel in straight lines through space. You just think in straight lines.’
Ben was puzzled. ‘So everything's really curved?’
‘Everything. Now, imagine what is a solid to you as curving in one direction, and what you cannot feel, like us, curving in another. Two dimensions in collision where none of our atoms can touch. This is how our universes are overlapping.’
‘How odd.’ Ben would have to take this conundrum home and give it some thought. The auto teacher could probably explain it. ‘Can we see the Spacers now, please?’
‘Do you think they are ready to meet our little minnow?’ asked Hysle.
Ben was irritated. ‘Why does he have to keep calling me a minnow?’
‘Humour him,’ said Dey. ‘In the selection tests for our unit, he came first in your Northern Hemisphere's pond life. We only took him on because he makes us look so efficient.’
‘Oh,’ said Ben.
Ben was no longer interested in where Lictan was or why Hysle glowered at Dey. He darted enthusiastically ahead towards a spot of bright orange in a wall of shimmering stone. It was the oval entrance to a huge hall. Inside, the large sun’s rays shone through a concave roof.
As they entered, Hysle caught sight of some frantic attendants clustered about an inflated spacesuit. ‘Oh look, there been a decompression.’
Dey ushered Ben away from the sight. ‘They never learn.’
‘What's a decompression?’
‘Usually fatal and always messy. We would rather you met people who at least had the wit to remember to check their life support suits before they disembark.’
‘I thought only very intelligent people were allowed to be astronauts?’
Hysle laughed. ‘Hardly, little minnow. Who, with any intelligence worth using, would want to spend at least half their life asleep and the other half talking to computers?’
‘Our spaceships have only gone as far as Jupiter, and the crews didn't sleep all the way.’
Dey was impressed. ‘These humans sound positively advanced at times.’
Hysle murmured. ‘I only hope Nightingale does not manage to become as advanced us.’
‘Shut up you fool!’
Ben only half heard. He was too busy looking at the visitors in the Spacers' canteen. Now used to the alien, they all seemed quite mundane - nothing green, slimy or bug-eyed about any of them. Inside their thermal and atmosphere suits, they appeared to be a friendly enough bunch.
Dey noticed his disappointment. ‘Seems our charge can stand more stimulation.’
‘Shall we ask the Omcrom if it is hungry?’ Hysle teased.
‘Oh, a minnow would get stuck in its throat.’
‘No, no, that's a stickleback.’
Ben had a better idea. ‘Why don't we ask it to eat one of you two instead?’
Hysle was delighted. ‘I think I hear the murmurings of rebellion.’
In this safe, surreal world, the nightmare of his mother's death no longer troubled Ben. ‘I think it's about time I woke up. If I'm not downstairs for breakfast before eight there's always trouble.’
‘What does that monster make you eat? Gruel?’
‘No,’ snapped Ben. ‘Pondweed!’ and he woke with a start.
Dey and Hysle knew he would be back soon enough.


Agatha dashed up the drive to meet the sleek Amethyst car.
Nightingale had been sending out a scout every evening for the past week to keep an eye on Dr. Harold, and the housekeeper's urgent call had not been expected.
Nothing about the house and grounds looked any more eccentric than when the Senior Controller had first called. Local officialdom had made a half-hearted attempt to serve an energy conservation notice. That had been left pinned to the gate in its clear plastic envelope for all the world and its goat to read - apparently it was the third attempt. The prosecution of doctors was fraught with difficulty. Nightingale assumed that the man had somehow escaped the obligatory social conditioning as a child that produces responsible, homogeneous citizens. She certainly had.
She strode over to Agatha who was flapping about in agitation.
As they reached the antique front door with its stained glass heat waster, Nightingale guessed the worst. She followed the housekeeper inside.
The bookshelves in Dr. Harold's study looked like so many rows of gappy teeth where he had hastily snatched his most essential volumes.
Very little else was missing. He obviously had a furnished home to move into. But where? Dr. Harold had plenty of time to make good his escape. Nightingale wished that there was still such a thing as an old fashioned passport. Under World Government, it had fallen into disuse, being regarded as an affront to a person's self esteem. Now, with far fewer people to keep tabs on, the individual was allowed freedom from carrying such demeaning documents and this, on the whole, encouraged better behaviour from a population being cosseted back from the edge of extinction. There was the fingerprint pass. All air and seaports insisted on them for casual travellers as identification in the event of accidents or anti social behaviour. Civilian ranks like lawyers and doctors were exempted. It was politely assumed that their agents would know their whereabouts. Unfortunately, Dr. Harold only answered to provincial government.
Nightingale lifted the receiver of the ancient phone on the desk and tapped out a complex code. Then, NIGHTINGALE. REQUEST VOICEPRINT PASS. Her voice signature approved, she was connected to a department deep in the hive of government records. ‘Check: - Harold, Colin; medical doctor. Should be registered under research.’ Agatha could hear the clicking and bleeping of an electronic index file. ‘Discharged.’ Nightingale sighed. ‘Fully paid up two weeks ago.’
‘Well I never!’ gasped Agatha.
‘Damn!’ Nightingale replaced the receiver.
‘But he was researching something.’
‘Probably how to evade minor agencies, like World Government.’
‘Why didn't I realise he was going to take off like that?’
Nightingale was light years away from Agatha's self-recrimination. ‘Perhaps he knew that his wife was going to meet with an “accident”.’
The housekeeper registered the sarcasm in her tone. ‘Accident?’
‘You don’t seriously believe it was a radiation leak, do you?’
‘Well, that’s what Dr. Harold was told?’
‘The last nuclear reactor was buried in radiation proof silicon over ten years ago.’
Agatha had to give that some thought. ‘So you think he had something to do with Sally’s death?’
Nightingale shrugged.
‘You can't be serious?’
‘Wiring a miniaturised bomb does have some similarity with micro-surgery.’
‘Well, that lets Dr. Harold out. He still uses the needle on his patients. You ask Bertha about her wart.’
Bertha's wart was the last thing on Nightingale's mind. ‘You're probably right. Sally wouldn't have given him the chance to plant explosives on her.’
‘Harold was an ill-natured sod, but he wouldn’t take those sort of risks.’
‘Have you been paid?’ the Senior Controller suddenly asked.
‘Oh yes. Left what he owed me, but no discharge bonus.’
As the doctor had flouted every other rule, he was bound to have ignored the caffeine regulations. ‘Make me a cup of real coffee and I'll make sure you get it.’
Agatha padded out to the kitchen.
Nightingale returned to the phone and tapped in another number.
‘Jock ... Yes, Nightingale ... I know I always mean trouble, but this is only a fraction of the favour you owe me ... "Who knows who" this time. Rack that gin soaked brain of yours. “Dr. Colin Harold”.’ There was a lengthy pause. ‘Are you sure? ... That's right, antique in every objectionable sense of the word.’ She gasped in amazement. ‘Hecuba? That's World Security's number two code. If he's had access to that I'm not surprised he could vanish off the face of the Earth ... No Jock, that doesn't make me just the person to go and look for him. He must have a totally new identity by now ... Business? Not so good. Communication problems ... What new communications base on the moon? ... No, of course I didn't ... Four years ago ... Well, seems we're quits now. I'll have to see that the right applicants apply for some of the posts there ... What do you mean? Only one? It's not possible for just one person to crew a moon base. I'll believe that when it's announced, you old soak ... Cheers.’ She replaced the receiver just as the housekeeper came back with a large mug of coffee.
‘Didn't leave a note or anything with my money,’ Agatha said. ‘So he couldn't have gone for good.’
‘Oh, he's gone for good. Neither of us will see Ben again.’
The pink flush left Agatha's pitted cheeks. ‘But ... Goodness knows what will happen to that child.’
‘It's worse than you think. Ben has inherited a clinical condition that could affect his mind without competent treatment.’
‘Well he certainly won't get it from that quack.’
‘And without knowing his whereabouts, there's no guarantee a community therapy unit will find him in time.’
‘Oh dear,’ sniffled Agatha. ‘I knew I should have done something a long while ago.’
‘If it'll make you feel any better, we could search the house for clues. I've no doubt an estate broker will walk in any minute and take possession.’
‘Yes, there’s a lot of Sally's stuff lying around.’
That was what Nightingale had in mind of course. It was her only hope of finding the missing transmitter key.
‘I don't know what we should do with it though?’ worried the housekeeper.
‘I'll hold onto anything of value, just in case we eventually do find her son.’
Although Agatha was already reasonably familiar with the contents of most cupboards and drawers, Nightingale noticed her badly suppressed glee as she riffled through them as though they were a diamond merchant's lucky dip.
‘Little Ben's,’ she would say, putting an article of clothing or toy onto a neat pile, then, ‘That's Sally's,’ as she found some diaphanous item to put into another beside it. Agatha's grandparents had no doubt told her about the 21st century. Perhaps she was entitled to empathise with her late employer's decadent tastes.
The frills and jewellery her late assistant had hoarded over the years puzzled Nightingale. Some of the fabrics were made from ancient petroleum based synthetics which shimmered against her black coat.
By the time Sally's wardrobe lay strewn over the bed, Nightingale was craving her black zipped body suit made of fabric so dense it could block out infra red. She wondered if Group Indigo had been nursing some closet 20th century female. Sally hadn’t displayed much tendency towards feminine exhibitionism when working. The condition was probably related to her disastrous tastes in men. She could hardly blame her for that, as one epidemic had made sure there were now so few of them.
Nightingale examined each piece of lace and embroidery with a forensic investigator's eye. There was no sign of the missing transmitter key amongst the trinkets and exotic fabrics.
Agatha packed everything of Ben's into a case. Nothing belonging to Dr. Harold interested Nightingale, though she did pick up several items in the hope of collecting traces of hair and skin for DNA mapping or a genuine clairvoyant.
She left Agatha to sort through the rest and wandered out of the back door.
A flurry of frogs dived into their pond and a diamond-eyed cat gazed from the roof of a small shed. Someone must have had a licence for it because there was a defiance in its manner not seen in feral cats liable to be shot as vermin.
The garden contained an inordinate amount of early lavender which, combined with the orange blossom, could have purged the emanations of a sewage recycling plant from the air.
Nightingale suspiciously eyed the odd pot of datura. She recalled that the shrub had been banned because everything about it, from scent to foliage, was toxic. They could have been forgiven mass poisoning for the beauty of their starched handkerchief flowers. The sunflowers were as impertinent as the cat, and tall enough to return her two metre high gaze.
Dr. Harold's garden was as decadent as his house. The blooms were like candles that refused to be extinguished by the coming of electricity. It contained no hybrid orchids, miniature Wollemi pines, or giant jasmine. Everything here had been grown from genetically unaltered seeds and cuttings with no help from plant plugs and their own self-contained ecosystems.
Nightingale wondered if she had spent too long in her basement of bizarre gadgets. She strode down some irregular steps crowded with stonecrop and briefly toured the orchard. After kicking the ashes of the bonfire and watching the bees swarm in the apple trees she had a short conversation with Mr Humphreys about his honey.
Nightingale had turned to go back to the house when someone called to her.
‘So they've gone then, have they?’
A short, youngish woman was leaning against an apple tree, a pipe clenched in her yellow teeth. She wore a much muddied and washed duffle coat and knee-length boots two sizes too large.
‘Got a note this morning with me pay. Mean, surly beggar that man was. Wanted me to nail back anything overgrowing the paths and kept a cat because he didn't like birds shitting on the solar panels of his car. Did the neighbourhood a favour in shooting his bolt he did.’
Nightingale was fazed for a moment, so the woman announced, ‘Gardener I am. Bertha Mooney's the name. Admit it; you don't often come across a handle like that nowadays.’
The Senior Controller joined her under the tree. ‘Bit like Agatha.’
‘Reckon that's why he took us on. To him it must have sounded biblical, that and us both being the most broke around here. Old Albert reckoned he was more broke than we were, but Aggie and me both had children so got more employment credits. Never forgiven us, Albert ain't. Reckons a womb ain't no reason why anyone should get job preference - not that Aggie's still got hers. Sour old critter he is.’
‘I don't suppose you know where ..?’
‘Where Harold's gone?’ Bertha sucked her pipe into life. ‘Not a clue. I wouldn't wish him on diseased camels. Dracula's got a better bedside manner. Claimed he could cure my wart, he did. Bloody agony I went through with those injections. So’s I eventually cut the thing off meself. Didn't half bleed too.’ Bertha could tell that her pipe intrigued Nightingale. ‘Not much of this stuff around now, eh?’
‘I thought the trade was banned?’
‘Grow me own, don't I. Grow anything if you know how. Weeds can cure anything - or kill you.’
Nightingale was aware that her purplish complexion had come under scrutiny. ‘It's not curable. Was on the wrong end of an experiment to screen out ultraviolet.’
‘Bet you can screen out light on any wavelength now.’
‘I'm vitamin D dependent.’
‘Pity they patched up the ozone layer. Might have come in useful.’
‘If we had pursued that line of research, everyone could have ended up this colour.’
‘Well, don't suppose someone your height gets that many remarks made about them. Not that it would have bothered little Ben. Wits like drawn cutlasses, that lad. Could cut any adult down to size and read their entrails. Pity he won't be about any more.’
‘How perceptive was he?’
‘Never met sharper. Blade of grass out of place. Cat chasing the frogs. Tendrils growing in the wrong direction. They all got sorted out. Tartar for order he was.’
‘Pity I never knew him. Sounds like the sort of assistant I need.’
‘He'll survive I suppose. I know Harold's a tyrant, but Ben'll be a match for him before long.’
‘If he's still got a brain to cope,’ the Senior Controller said under her breath.
Bertha clenched the pipe in her teeth and hummed. ‘If you do find Ben, you will let old Bertha Mooney know?’
Nightingale hesitated. ‘Why not? Might take a long while, though.’
‘I just want to see the lad once more, however long it takes. I'll always be around.’
Nightingale gave a half nod and muttered to herself, ‘Oh, so will I. So will I.’


Forty years of tinkering to correct climatic imbalance was at last bearing fruit. The still declining population was not large enough to repollute the environment so Weather Control had inherited some interesting toys to play with.
It was decided to keep the world at a warmer temperature and control the weather patterns. The larger equatorial regions and deserts were reforested by introducing inland seas to produce cloud cover. With little left of the ice caps, Antarctica was now a popular holiday resort.
The Northern Hemisphere had suffered the most from the antibiotic resistant plagues and the centre of world power had shifted. The descendants of once starving nations could now dictate where and when the next monsoon, or light shower, would fall. Where there had once been encroaching desert, fresh water seas produced rich alluvial mud for their robot farmers.
Repeated inundations and meltwater began to interfere with the saline balance of the North Atlantic Drift and the UK should have been plunged into an Arctic climate. Weather Control restored the balance so successfully, only Scotland experienced winter - and that was through choice. To accommodate the confused wildlife, reserves with tailor-made microclimates were set aside.

* * *

On many plants, at the crucial junction of a sap-supplying limb, there often appears a blister. No creature worth the name of parasite misses the opportunity to fasten into the nourishment supplied by growths that are too large to notice their presence. Especially large growths like world bureaucracy, top heavy with facts about everything from ants’ kneecaps to the ice terraces of Europa.
Four decades had passed since Nightingale asked her last favour of the gin melancholy Jock. As the power of World Government grew, her occasional mole was replaced by the professional sifter - an intellectual anteater with a mental proboscis capable of reaching into everyone else’s secrets.
After forty years of dealing with her, no bureaucracy dare retire Nightingale, even World Government’s. This intimidating, purplish-brown steeple had evolved into a formidable tower of clandestine alien knowledge Babel would have been proud to own. She may have aged; she certainly hadn’t withered. The steely glance had been perfected and the shutter that concealed any chink from an intimated world was virtually impenetrable. One or two other women, and a hyper sensitive secretary, had managed to peer through the chinks. What they saw, they kept to themselves. Nightingale preferred to hold just enough empathy on stand-by to wrong foot anyone who believed they understood her.
After so long perfecting her espionage resources, the Senior Controller now needed more than moles or anteaters. She replaced them with parasites.
Newly installed in their blister, Hazlewood and Nichols scanned the equipment left in immaculate condition by their predecessor, Arachne. They had been waiting years for this chance. Arachne had been honest, diligent, and steady, showing no inclination to illicitly use the secrets gleaned in that blister on the junction of World Government communications.
Hazlewood and Nichols were not so scrupulous. Unlike in appearance, the women had the reflexes of hyperactive ferrets. Trustworthiness may not have been stamped at the top of their CVs, but they were able to solve computer crosswords without an encyclopaedia.
Hazlewood was a large, square-faced woman. Her hair was tufted, like a badly knotted carpet, and her eyebrows unsure which way to grow. She was obliged to occasionally push them up to prevent them being tangled with her ridiculously long eyelashes.
Nichols was sharper featured. She moved with a cutting motion as though demanding the air part before her. Her tone could skewer any opposition. Hazlewood’s pocked complexion could well have proved it.
Their natural habitat was below ground and they had no time for social interaction.
In dowdy overalls, they could have been taken for subterranean maintenance as they worked to reinforce the walls of their blister with enough security traps to keep out free-lance sewer rats. Arachne had used hundreds of security access codes at the heart of the complex and they had to break every one before picking up a spanner.
By the time the pair returned to their control, Hazlewood had suspicions. ‘Do you think Nightingale arranged everything just to confuse us?’
Nichols was too busy retuning the satellite dish to bother with such imponderables. ‘I doubt it. Check our access to World Security files.’
Hazlewood tapped out several different codes and watched her monitor. ‘We have got access.’
‘What next?’
‘We need to go for a walk.’
‘A walk?’
‘To check the dish.’
They ascended in their secret lift to one of London's green domes. The fresh air struck them like a surfer's dream wave.
‘I could get used to this,’ coughed Nichols.
Floods had submerged Central London. At first, the Fleet had relieved the rising water of the Thames, but not for long. London was a natural flood plain. Barriers had to be built to hold the river back. This left a large area of London below sea level. Historic buildings worth preserving had been surrounded by cofferdams and the water pumped out. Those ubiquitous turfed domes continued to cover the remaining wreckage of the City long after the water had seeped away. As a consequence, many facilities became subterranean, much to the benefit of troglodytes and people like Nightingale’s spies.
Nichols briefly held her scanner up to check the satellite dish. ‘No problem there.’
Hazlewood gazed at the sky as though she could see the signal being transmitted to them. ‘What were you expecting?’
‘Not sure. Having come this far, we cannot take chances.’
‘Do you really think Nightingale is monitoring us?’
‘It would not surprise me. She might have held onto a few moles.’
‘What does she think we are liable to get up to?’
‘We are her eyes and ears. She is bound to be wary.’
‘This planet has not evolved much over the last few years, has it?’
Nichols shrugged. ‘Regressed if anything. I will never get used to this clean-minded indifference to everything.’
‘We are so isolated down there we do not need to.’
The two women sauntered past the remains of a major accident that had happened earlier that week.
Hazlewood peered into the cavernous depths where the neighbouring landscaped dome had collapsed onto an office block. The building had been renovated after the floods and thought sound enough to store old records salvaged from the water.
‘Looks as though someone's moles went berserk.’
‘Probably molecular reversion.’
‘Molecular reversion?’
Casualties were still being brought out of the underground complex. The manner in which the corroded buttresses were being hauled away suggested that there were no plans to rebuild it. Another victory for The Natural Living Campaign. That small, dedicated band had spent decades arguing that, as traffic and industry were no longer pollution threats, there was no need to bury either and court such disasters. Pushing workers and commuters underground so hills could drop on them was no way to restore the population.
Those living on the equator had the right idea. Now climate controlled, more temperate and with unlimited solar power, they let their machines do the work while they went on airbeam ship cruises through the rainforests to watch wildlife. The only fun anyone seemed to have in the Northern Hemisphere was gratifying weird dietary cravings and watching the sentimental soaps regional governments made to reassure the population that they would never need to think for themselves again.
Nichols and Hazlewood dawdled on, comfortable in the knowledge that their complex was effectively reinforced.
‘Does anyone realise that Nightingale is actually able to operate the other transmission portal at her HQ?’ asked Hazlewood when they were out of earshot of the rescue workers.
‘No,’ Nichols said. ‘Not even her chief assistant.’
‘Good. Then the only other person who knew was Perry.’
‘And he died fifteen years ago.’
‘Nightingale has the uncanny knack of outliving everyone. I wonder how she manages it?’
‘Grim determination, a good medic, and no rust.’
‘When does she want us to set up the next contact with Lictan?’
‘As soon as we have settled in.’
‘Are you sure that she is the only one who knows about us?’
Nichols had her suspicions about Nightingale, but she was predictable. ‘She has no reason to trust assistants.’
‘Those agents were killed over forty years ago?’
‘And it has taken her much of that time to make up lost ground. If Jeff Devlin planted that explosive for World Security, she is unlikely to trust anyone close to her again.’
‘I still do not understand why they did it?’
‘Might have been to warn off the wicked aliens. Why bother to negotiate when you can blow them up.’
‘Not a very subtle way of managing the planet's affairs. Even Nightingale has a lighter touch than that.’
‘World Security were scared. If they found out what she was doing now, they would be terrified.’
After touring a couple of reconstructed churches, Nichols and Hazlewood returned to their subterranean complex. This time they entered through the tunnels where the apparatus tapping the communication lines of World Government was installed.
The planet was no longer bombarded by signals from satellites because plenty of radio bands were available: they were easily intercepted, so allocated mainly to astronomers. Digital connections fanned out from their meridian to the network that linked World Security control points about the globe. Flame, flood and impact proof, the engineers had not taken into account Nightingale.
The discovery of aliens so many decades ago had concentrated authority's mind wonderfully. They still didn’t trust Group Indigo, but there was no one else with the expertise to deal with it. Nightingale should have told the agency that renovated old radio telescopes to scan the stars that they were looking in the wrong place, only then she would have been scrutinised even more closely.
Nichols and Hazlewood made a cursory inspection of the communication junctions before returning to their control room.
‘What is bothering you?’ Hazlewood eventually asked.
‘I don't know.’ Nichols began collating information on uniformed security movements. ‘There is something fishy about World Security.’
‘That is what Nightingale has been saying for over forty years. They might sabotage her again.’
‘Well, we had better make sure they never find out that she is doing something worth blowing her up for.’
Hazlewood went to her monitor and started to flash up information on “Occurrences - Inexplicable or Unexplained.”
‘What are you doing?’ asked Nichols.
‘I thought I might dig out a file to keep that chief assistant of hers happy.’
‘Nothing short of abolishing the monthly "Happy Morning" would cheer him up.’
‘He cannot be that miserable?’
‘He is not miserable. He is virtuous. He would make the hedgehogs at Group Indigo's HQ carry phosphorescent passes to give beetles without flash torches a chance,’ said Nichols.
‘It is surprising that Nightingale does not have the grounds patrolled by tigers.’
‘Given her achievements in biochemistry, I am not too sure I would trust the hedgehogs.’
Hazlewood remembered something. ‘Nightingale said Sendall was ill. Sudden losses of co-ordination.’
‘You mean he keeps falling over? Not very often. Nightingale's secretary is medically trained. He maintains a close watch on him.’
‘Nightingale has a secretary?’
‘You know, the pink pudding with vanilla perfume who doubles up as Sendall's assistant.’
Hazlewood laughed. ‘That is her secretary? I thought he was Group Indigo's hairdresser.’
‘Comes from a line of jugglers or whatever. I know there was some connection with circuses.’
‘You know, before the human dignity legislation was passed. Nightingale probably picked him up in a job lot.’
‘What a pair. The more we can keep Sendall occupied, the less chance of him discovering us, and I certainly would not fancy being upwind of his assistant.’
Nichols sighed. ‘Oh find something to keep them happy then.’
Hazlewood pushed her heavy eyebrows back into position before settling down to concentrate.
‘I wish you would stop doing that.’
‘I am sorry.’
‘It just annoys me.’
Nichols left Hazlewood to search for a credible UFO sighting and turned on the surveillance monitor to watch mere mortals go about their mundane lives. It was always boring up there. With everything safely homogenised, there wasn't any scope for adventurers and eccentrics. Nightingale was an aberration.
Most people lived in their self-contained bungalow units with their own private parks where they could operate a work terminal without having to set foot over a neighbour's threshold. In their ample free time, they were able to wander from cafe to play to exhibition over the rolling green domes that covered the capital. They seldom had to risk being inside one when the collapse sirens sounded or the flood barrier holding back the Thames sprang a leak. It was one of the few rivers you could see at its best by looking up through the safety screens.
Nichols switched to the moon monitor. World Government's base there had been fully operational for over thirty years and was still top secret.
Few people wanted to go to the moon any more. After the decompression disaster on the old moon base, it wasn’t surprising. Why travel all the way there to see Neil Armstrong's footprint when a virtual reality unit could rerun the highlights of the landing with you as the astronaut? No wonder people could be fooled into believing there was nothing left to achieve: all diseases and genetic aberrations cured, free energy forever more and criminal behaviour eradicated.
The plagues had necessitated rapid advances in medicine and technology. As a consequence, a small population had inherited some very sophisticated engineering without the creative imagination to use it. All people really wanted was someone to blame when things went wrong. A scapegoat for all their ills was worth giving up a few freedoms for. World Government had no choice but to take up the reins cast aside by a population unwilling to believe that they had brought so many disasters on themselves.
When N