Moon over Sedna

The cast of characters

Foreword

The 2008 Outer Reaches conference had reached the last day and the topic was Sedna. The hall was packed. This slide [later part of the Wiki entry] was projected on the large screen:

Sedna (provisionally designated 2003 VB12) was discovered by Michael Brown (Caltech), Chad Trujillo (Gemini Observatory), and David Rabinowitz (Yale University) on 14 November 2003. The discovery formed part of a survey begun in 2001 with the Samuel Oschin telescope at Palomar Observatory near San Diego, California using Yale’s 160 megapixel Palomar Quest camera.

It was question time:

‘Joel Parris, Associated Press: Mr. Brown, your team discovered the planet Sedna. What went wrong?’

‘Mike Brown: Dwarf planet, Joel, not a full planet. We came up against one tiny little glitch. Thirty-five Hubble Space Telescope images taken in mid-March said there was no moon and the question of whether this was even a planet therefore arose.’

‘I read you originally thought there were two moons.’

‘That’s correct. We were sure it must have had at least one – the slow speed of rotation, at least twenty earth days, instead of a few hours like most other asteroids. Further observation and calculations told us there wasn’t.’

‘Susan Hobbes, Reuters: Mr. Brown, what can you tell us about Sedna that most astronomers are actually agreed on?’

‘We calculate Sedna to be about 1,770km in diameter, slightly smaller than Pluto and about three times further away. We don’t know a heck of a lot more, except that it’s cold, red-coloured and a slow-moving place: a year on Sedna is equivalent to about 10,500 Earth years or even more, maybe 11,400. It’s composed mainly of frozen methane and other ice – it’s cold. Sorry we can’t give you more at this time.’

‘Maxim Shemkoff, Pravda -’

I

Dean Freeman turned to the five they’d brought into the John A Lassky Centre and added, ‘Brown took the question, apologized once more and left the press conference. As well he might.

That was nine years ago and there’s been no official movement in astronomical circles since that time. Sedna’s regarded, as he said, as a dwarf planet, it’s going to be closest to our earth around 2075, there’s talk at NASA about a craft to meet it.’

‘But you said earlier that Sedna does, in fact, have a moon,’ clarified Jay Richards, ‘a moon called Zoe, one tenth the size of Sedna, plus one other moon.’

‘Zoe’s an interesting tale. If 90377 Sedna is named after the Inuit goddess of the sea, then we thought we’d name this moon after something Greek, Hebrew or even Assyrian but it appears it was already named. The name does not refer to anything in mythology whatever, it seems just a girl’s name.’

‘Are you saying, Mr. Freeman,’ asked Jane Curtis, ‘that it was known from 2004 that Sedna did have two moons -’

‘One.’

‘I thought you said there were two, I’m confused.’

‘There were two. We blew the second one up.’

‘With all due respect, Mr. Freeman,’ objected Roland Parris, ‘we don’t possess the technology to get that close, even the stuff we keep closeted, and we sure as hell haven’t had time to transport a weapon of that kind of firepower that far.’

‘Nor would it have been much use if we had. The Zoessi possess the means though. We just relayed them the message to go ahead and they did the rest.’

‘Whoa, I can’t see your dust. You ‘relayed’ something to them? Who the hell is ‘them’? And you’re still talking over 25 years just to get a message there.’

‘That’s incorrect.’

‘Incorrect?’

‘Incorrect, Roland. My attention wasn’t to mislead you. When I say we relayed it, we relayed it to their people here on earth, at the Centre and their people on earth communicated with them and they, on Zoe, did the rest.’

Jay chuckled. ‘It gets worse. All right, Mr. Freeman, can we put this thing in perspective? The sheeple out there believe the Royal Society line, right, which is that natural laws apply in time and space, and that’s reinforced by Newton, Galileo and those sorts of people. Now, granted we’ve discovered a possible black hole in the outer reaches of the solar system or just beyond, and the solar system might extend much further than previously thought, plus we’re in here now with you, then clearly we need to expand our own horizons. But Zoe people relaying messages?’

‘They call themselves the Zoessi,’ he grinned. ‘As a matter of fact, there’s one of them in the room with us now, one of us.’

‘All right,’ conceded Jay, ‘I can admit it – I asked for that. Could you tell me exactly why these particular five, including myself, are here? Why were we asked in, under great secrecy I might add? Why us? Why have we gone through such detailed filtration?’

‘I was about to get onto this. You all were, as Jay says, brought in by degrees, with a lot of checking and confirmation along the way. You’re here for a project which involves communicating with another world – we need your skills and we need your temperament. This is a contractual arrangement – if you like us, if we like you, then we go ahead.’

Susan Robinson chipped in. ‘Just how were we selected? What common factor do we all have?’

‘You may not like it.’

‘Try me.’

‘The only reason I’ll try you all is that you’ve got this far, after a rigid process. You were all selected because you were not extraordinary.’

‘Ordinary in other words.’

‘No, not ordinary in the least. Just not extraordinary. You’ve answered the questions you’ve been asked all the way along the line to this point but it’s fair you’re told what some of the 200 plus criteria were.

‘We’ve already told you you were selected for being not extraordinary but the most important factor, way above any others, was your ability to empath. None of you are overly-emotional beings, yet you have compassion and can open your minds, this is beyond price. There is no way the Zoessi can communicate with you unless that is so.’

‘Hang on,’ said Jay, ‘we haven’t even got to these so-called Zoessi yet.’

‘We will,’ smiled Freeman. ‘The other factors are all assessed with that empathy in mind.

With the males for example – nothing overly alpha, no Adonises but also no elephant men, just in the middle or rather – away from the edges. All the males are strong enough and can step up when required.

With the females, it’s lack of stridency, lack of wailing, not too troublesome monthly issues, no extremes in other words.

With ethnicity – it’s not for reasons of dislike but because the Zoessi find it far easier with your profiling, going back into history and they feel similar is better.’

‘I’m the only non-Anglo,’ commented Jacinta, drily.

‘That’s true but you had so many of the other criteria that it just had to be. You’ve all had your moments in life but haven’t had high stress, except in one or two things. Everyone has a personal tale to tell – we can’t have perfect beings, we need flawed -’

‘Well you’ve certainly got that with me,’ laughed Susan.

‘Yes but you five are also not too self-effacing, you’re realistic about your abilities. You have human strengths and human weaknesses. It’s a corny way to put it but you’re ‘nice’ people who have their moments. You’re sane. The Zoessi can do business with such people.’

‘And the Zoessi themselves,’ said Jacinta, ‘are they ‘nice’?’

‘Essentially, yes, people tend to gravitate towards similar types. They are a people, not just a force or power although they can only manifest themselves outside their ‘moon’ by empath methods. They have developed these over time.’

‘If they were to assume their own form,’ continued Jacinta, ‘assuming these people do exist, if they could appear here now, would they look like us?’

‘Yes, we would. We prefer the human form, it’s closest to ours. The differences between Chinese and Africans, Europeans and South Americans – this is the level of difference.’

‘Except for your vast superiority, technically.’

‘We certainly have that, as we’re further down the track than you – you’re a younger people – but you will get to this point one day and hopefully, we’ll be further along too.’

‘Sounds a bit too good to be true,’ observed Jacinta.

‘It does at a first meeting. Meetings like this are always nicey-nicey, everyone being pleasant – it’s the nature of meetings. When we’re getting down to work, it’s as people always are – someone will have an idea, someone will disagree, the first will be unhappy with that.’

‘But you said we’d all be happy.’

‘I said you’d all be taken care of, as any company would. You’ll not want for things. As for whether you’ll be happy, that’s up to you. You were selected because you are essentially happy types, you don’t brood, nor grow bitter. There is one other thing no one has asked about but I need to mention it -’

‘No one’s married,’ supplied Jacinta, ‘no one has children. The men are all 35-45, somewhere there, the women all 30-40, very traditional, very ‘middling’.’

‘Yes. You’ll be working for days, weeks on end with each other for company – we had to make sure that the least trouble possible would come from this. We need you working, not bickering, as any company needs. You’ll work a standard day for us, in two shifts – one of four hours, then a two hour break, and another four hours after that, staggered so that someone is always on duty. Though you have no spouse or child, you still have family and you can webcam Skype them whenever you wish, from here, not from Zoe, you’ll have days off, the usual thing you’d expect, you’ll have eight weeks annual leave altogether, in four two-week stints. We know you’re all in good health.’

‘What about the long term, say ten years down the track?’

‘Or even earlier, let’s be honest. Should you lose your ability, you’re pensioned off but your family, those you select to go with you, will go to a place by the lake and forest which we own, a large area, a community of huts, or lodges.’

‘Or on Zoe?’

‘Yes, it’s possible, if you wish, that’s your choice, not ours. Now I must get to a most important point. Before you know anything more about this operation, which is tantamount to knowing our industrial secrets, nothing at all untoward, then you’ll need to sign a joint document which you’ll read at your leisure in a minute or two, stating that nothing that is divulged to you about the operation after this point can ever be divulged to anyone else, even family.

I point out and emphasize that there is nothing illegal being asked of you, nothing beyond your capacities, which are well known by now. But we really do have secrets to keep from our opposition.’

They looked at one another. Asked Roland: ‘Are we actually working for these supposed forces behind governments, these evil mothers who control the world?’

‘Yes and no. There’s certainly funding, just as there was with the Manhattan Project and similar, but this project has no military purpose, it’s of no value to those who control things.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because they can never control the six of us – yes, I’m just one of you, a bit further down the track. The skills you possess can only be accessed by our friends, not by our opposition, which makes you of inestimable value to the project.’

‘Not sure I like the idea of these ‘friends’.’

‘Remember, I’m one of those ‘friends’.’

‘So, if we decline now and take our leave, we will not meet with an accident?’

‘Not on my watch. This is a contract over a period of time. Read it, if you’re happy, sign it, then join me in the next room. That’s where we’ll get down to the fine detail. Should you not wish, you’re free to leave and anything you’ve been told so far is not confidential – it’s just that no one would believe you except the opposition – and they already know.

I’ll be next door.’

There’d been a healthy discussion, no doubt monitored, but in the end, they realized they’d got this far, so why not?

They’d all agreed.

The next room, as Freeman had put it, was awesome and if the other had just been a foyer, this was like a giant war room. The six of them were on the walkway at one end, looking down on banks of computers being operated by people of all ages – they seemed human enough.

At the other end, where Jay was now looking, was a big board and projected onto that board, or from behind, was a picture of Zoe.

‘Hardly a moon,’ commented Jay, ‘at least not of the solid rock variety. It’s a space station.’

‘It is, it’s made of metal. It cannot be observed from earth, it’s about 170 miles across, in imperial, and inside is a living, thriving community. Work parties go out from there to mine minerals. The nearest idea of the inside is to think Eiffel Tower, the metal work on that.’

‘Tell me,’ asked Roland. ‘If you’re one of them, are you going to suddenly turn alien and eat us or lay your eggs in us or something worse?’

‘I’m human, Roland, you’re looking at a human but I also have a Zoessian inside, in mind. This is how they travel and how we will too. The technology we have is separation of mind and body.’

‘You mean astral projection?’

‘No, that’s the field the opposition gets into – we’ve nothing to do with those things. We can simply use thought in the way we used voice before. I have to say – we, the humans, have not achieved this – it’s a Zoessian achievement. When I say ‘we’, I can sometimes mean me but sometimes it is a Zoessian speaking to you, on technical matters, on how our world is.

‘Explain the project,’ asked Jay.

‘It’s commercial, we’re in the mining business, we extract the solid methane on Sedna, tap it.’

‘As methane?’ asked Roland.

‘Good question – no, not just as methane. Methane, as you know, is difficult to control. It reacts and if it’s not kept under control, then it goes all the way to carbon dioxide and water, even without enough oxygen. As it melts, it becomes … difficult.’

‘You’ve just described elements we need and use on earth,’ said Jay. ‘ Is this a zero sum? In other words, how much goes to your people, whoever they are, and how much to earth people?’

‘It would be zero sum if there were peak amounts, but there are not – it keeps coming back in from outlying debris. It would supply both peoples but I’ll play fair – we get the better deal, the Zoessians I mean, not by a lot.’

‘Why the huge secrecy? Is it that humans, at this stage of their development, cannot be allowed to know because they’re not sufficiently developed? They would panic?’

‘Look how quickly you’ve accepted two things – not officially, I know, but to the point we can even discuss such matters – the existence of the Zoessi and the ability to communicate with them. Most of your people could not get their heads around half of it, not really, truly, and yet that is not the primary reason.

As I’ve already mentioned, it’s not you yourselves who are any sort of problem, it’s those controlling you. I’m not going into who the ones are who control you because your internet is already onto it and so, let it take its own course.

Look, this is a commercial operation and that’s it. We can’t colonize you, nor you us, as we can only survive artificially for some time on this planet. I must return within twenty nine of your earth days.’

‘You can come back later?’

‘Oh yes, not a problem – R&R, I think you call it. Yep, give me a couple of earth months at home, then I can come back for another 29 days.’

‘You seem human.’

‘I am human – Dean Freeman speaking, but my visitor is also in here.’

‘And we can all do this?’

‘Probably. We’ll find out.’

‘I’m still concerned,’ said Susan, ‘what happens if we fail to measure up?’

‘Other projects, Susan. We need to keep you within the field of protection, as the opposition have nasty ways.’

‘Do you have nasty ways?’ asked Jacinta.

‘Not to our payroll. Quite the opposite, as you’re about to find out. But the opposition are still out there, they wish to muscle in and destroy our operation. Yes, we’re terminal towards them, hence the blowing up of that other ‘moon’.

‘It’s only the methane you’re extracting?’ Roland returned to the topic.

‘No, we also need triton-type tholins. They’re of little use to earth.’

‘Obvious question,’ asked Jay, ‘but describe the station more.’

‘It’s a giant station with shielding. It doesn’t show up on optical telescopes.’

‘But it does on other types.’

‘It does on other types, yes. Hence we had to blow up the second ‘moon’. It was threatening our existence.’

‘You murdered them?’

‘If there are some fifteen thousand of us and two million of them, with bots, all coming at us – yes, we blow them up.’

‘And I suppose they had cladding too.’

‘All the best planets and moons do. Yours will too one day.’

‘Is it a type, like a TX324, something like that?’

Freeman laughed. ‘It’s cobbled together from scrap. No one else out there wants anything to do with us.’

‘The people you mention who run this earth of ours here – do they have any capacity for such things?’

‘It was they who commissioned the pirate station – that’s what the other ‘moon’ was. Best description I can give is they’re demi-human, they’re not civilized, as both our peoples largely are. You really do not wish to have anything to do with those entities – you see the grief in your own world, caused by them.’

Jacinta spoke. ‘Describe the – well, the telepathy.’

‘The mind can project via our pathway, we’re not giving away why it works, however, he must have a host once he reaches the land he is travelling to, otherwise he’s in ‘no man’s land’. That’s not traumatic because there is no sensitivity, no feelings, no moods which travel, only reasoning. However, we’ve found it’s far better to get inside a host quickly and that host must be receptive. That’s why you’re here. I am one host to a Zoessian here.

There are a dozen Zoessi currently on earth, not all in this Centre. Your job will be to host, for the Zoessian to learn the technology from your own sources – libraries, internet – we expand your capacity and speed of uploading but with failsafes of course. It is then transferred via these conduits to our people on Zoe and we implement it.’

‘What’s in it for the earthlings?’

‘We pass back our tech to you, you become professors, you publish papers, mankind improves by degrees. We have our limits too of course.’

‘And what of our methane here?’

‘It’s nowhere near the issue of CO2. Being produced by micro-organisms, we can’t extract it in the same way as on Sedna and we haven’t the tech – we still only have the mind projection.’

They broke to eat.

II

They’d been three weeks at this work and at their desks in the communications room for two hours today, the work was not arduous, it was mainly research at this stage and the five thought it a quite pleasant way to be earning inordinate sums.

Each was accommodated in quarters like small cottages outside the first perimeter fence but there were two more fences before the big wild world out there. It was better than a typical town for workers, the landscaping was pleasant and green, there were tree lined streets, there were many such huts and each had a different design in some respect. They’d clearly gone to some trouble. One interesting aspect was that the cottages were all in wood.

After work they’d either use the company facilities in the main building – the gym, the entertainment centre, whatever, but generally they’d hurry home after the shift ended, via the step-on shuttle which came past the front door every 20 minutes.

This though was not the end of the day, it wasn’t even lunchtime and yet two of them who worked close to each other both stopped now, no one looked at them.

‘Jacinta, do you have a moment?’

Thus spake Jay.

‘You know I do, you know what’s on my mind – it’s on your mind too. There’ve been some interesting things these three weeks, Jay. Sue’s gravitated towards Dean, Roland to Jane and they’ve moved in together …’

‘As if by design. Or awfully good recruiting.’

‘We’ve all become more sensitized. I can pick up how Jane’s feeling, less so Sue but you – I’m pretty sure of what you’re feeling and when. I want to know how far they can control us, whether they can direct our actions, stop certain behaviours, all in a good cause, of course, keeping us on an even keel.’

At the end of each bank of computers was a sitting area for four or five and they’d drifted over there now.

‘Seems to me,’ he said, ‘they can pick up on our moods, not so sure they know what we’re thinking. I know the tech is about mind projection but that doesn’t mean that outside the conduit, the pathway, they can do it. What about in our quarters? I’m sure they can pick up on moods though, feelings, anxiety, joy -’

‘And lust. I’m no prude, Jay, but I was never a first nighter, and the feeling I’m getting now – look, I’m also no feminist but this feeling seems a bit much ‘need a man at all costs’, if you catch my drift.’

‘That first ‘attack’ yesterday, we … er … well, there were no inhibitions, were there? I mean, it was just suddenly frenetic … and yet I’d not describe either of us as satyr or nympho.’

‘And that’s what worries me. No regrets, Jay and here’s hoping there’s more but I’ve been thinking about this expanded state of ours, whether it removes all inhibitions. And if it removes those, what about anger and things like that?’

‘Do you know what I’m thinking now?

She concentrated and concentrated but then shook her head. ‘I get your mood loud and clear and it’s the same as mine. Your actual thoughts though? No, not yet.’

‘So,’ he said, ‘perhaps they can’t mind-read.’

‘I can certainly feel Dean’s feeling of unease in our direction, I’m not sure I like it. And now I want you, we both know what’s about to happen … and we can’t stop.’

There was not even time for reply, she’d stood, dropped the light blue dress from her shoulders, the bra to her waist and then off, one shoe was off, he’d only dropped his trousers, she it was who knocked him over backwards and he fell onto the tiles between two computer rows, the connection was bruising, brutal as she grabbed it and forced it in, no finesse at all.

They were aware two people had come in by the end door and those two people were not shocked, they were titillated, which made the cut and thrust faster and harder, until he went over the top and though she had not, she still fell off and lay beside him, getting her breath back, it oozing over the white tiles.

‘I hate this,’ she said. ‘I don’t want it. I want the lovemaking, yes, for sure, but not this way, not if someone’s controlling it.’

‘Same here, I have to know it’s because you want.’

‘And no one’s even looking at us, no one’s even noticed, except for those two who came into the room.’

‘Did you feel,’ he asked, ‘that the feeling, which had been so intense, suddenly left us?’ She nodded. He added, ‘Two humans can’t do that sort of thing and not feel something for each other or if they can, I don’t want it.’

‘Agree completely. Let’s clean up and get dressed.’

III

It was the fifth week when Dean Freeman finally had them all in the one room again and they talked, or rather – mainly listened.

‘You’ve been run off your feet, your hours are staggered, it’s been impossible to have this until today but I convinced our hosts we needed it, otherwise the human component of the equation is going to burn out. They’re well aware of what’s been happening and want it stopped.

You’re well aware that sudden urges are involved, sometimes sexual, sometimes anger, sometimes lethargy and we weren’t able to get you working again. We’re all aware it’s beyond normal, almost as if a normal feeling has been taken and just cranked up to full speed.’

He looked around and they were looking at each other – knowingly and a bit sheepishly.

‘The Zoessi have been in this game quite a while now. While Sedna is still within range of earth, we’ve had this joint communication between us. We, the Zoessi speaking now, have seen it all, we’ve seen the moods, what can be, what can’t. We know humans, how you operate. And we know that something has got into the pathway to make you this way, it’s alien, neither you nor we are responsible for it.

We’ve told you about the ‘opposition’ – that’s a kind word for them. It’s actually any of thousands of possible entities out there. We have suppressors, we have all sorts of failsafes, we have our monitoring of you which a couple of you are worried about.’ He did not look at anyone. ‘You might think that it’s prying, spying but if you only knew – it is so we can take instant action if we see something happening.

Of late, with four of you, something has been preventing the monitoring and we believe that it’s this alien element which has got through. With two of you, it’s been annoyance, bordering on anger – problem with humans being human is that it could just be natural – or maybe it’s the interference. And for the other two, it’s been sexual. That might not sound a problem but it is when no feelings enter into it, except for one.

We know this enemy and you do not want to make their acquaintance. The Zoessi can’t combat them, let alone you attempting to.’

‘Who are they?’ asked Jane.

‘They’re scouting parties, mischief makers. Some are what humans give names to in films – gremlins, goblins – and the females have names too. Of late, we’ve been having issues with these females – we call them Sirens. They’re lost girls from history, were probably raped and/or murdered and they’re out there doing the bidding of others. At least they think they are, they’ve long since lost any reason, they are base.’

‘Were these the inhabitants of the second ‘moon’?’

‘No, the second ‘moon’ had warriors and mining crews, but they fell under the influence of these elements, let alone the way that ‘moon’ had just muscled in on our patch anyway, which we weren’t putting up with.’

‘Where are they generating from?’ asked Susan. ‘These Sirens, not the ‘moon’ crew.’

‘From here, from this end. They’re actually going through the pathway outwards from here, causing mayhem and coming back here. There’s a certain opinion on Zoe, I have to tell you, which is not well disposed towards you for this reason. They want the project stopped.

So what you, what we must do is stay vigilant, we the Zoessi have ways of dispersing them but they still come back. There’s not a lot you can personally do – I can’t ask you not to be annoyed or not to make love – but be aware you might be facilitating this thing.

At a minimum, shut down any of these feelings until you’re back in your quarters, don’t bring them into the Centre or if it does happen while you’re working, then excuse yourself and the Zoessi will understand why.’

‘Will we ever visit Zoe?’ asked Roland.

‘Susan already has. You want to speak of it, Sue?’

‘I don’t want to be rude to our guests but it’s like living in some sort of giant metallic barracks, people sleeping in tiny rooms, two to a room, food provided centrally, they’re cheerful enough, apart from the Siren issue they have now but sorry, I can’t see that it’s any way to live. There’s no great smell, it’s extracted well, there are hydroponic gardens everywhere, there are entertainment points for those who want it, there’s an awful lot of sex going on.’

‘Publicly, as we did?’ asked Jacinta.

‘No, as you’d expect any community to. They’re not religious but do accept a Deity. They know the enemy well. In fact, you might almost call their lives boring for us. It’s like, say, going to eastern Europe for a holiday – yes, people are friendly, there are dangers but ultimately, I wanted home.’

‘And you were in a host. Are they like us?’

‘Not a lot different, broader foreheads, more sallow cheeks, not as physically thickset but quite strong. Not a lot to describe really, sorry to be disappointing.’

‘You’re not, you’re reassuring. The little kids are sweet?’

‘Sweet, monsters, all sorts. Good parents, not so good. They’re just a civilization, only much more cooped up.’

‘And are you changed?’

‘As much as education does that, plus I’m sure all this does expand the mind. We do become brighter. They get colds too but if that happens, there’s instant quarantine, as you’d gather.’

‘Jay and Jacinta have some R&R coming up,’ put in Freeman, ‘they’re going to visit the Scholars, as we call them, at their lake resort. They’ll be able to report at our next meeting, the more you know, the better.’

IV

Jacinta gazed out of the car window, nearing the retirement place, and reflected on their own quarters.

The Centre was stuck out in fields back there, rather than out in the desert with spinifex and all that and if they walked outside, they’d find civilization in an hour, so it was hardly hi-security.

This place they’d travelled to now was miles from anywhere, a clump of woods down by a lake, on about ten acres at the end of a twelve mile road, with nothing either side. Someone had had the idea, maybe twenty years ago, for just such a resort but it had never gone commercial.

She had to own, coming over the last rise on this brilliantly sunny day, rare for early spring, that it wasn’t a bad retirement place.

The driver, Charlie, dropped them at a cabin belonging to a happy enough couple, Daniel and Dara and they noticed that each cabin, though about the same size, had some small idiosyncratic design feature, quite clever and it did help. Each had gardens, trees, it was all quite civilized.

Each though was wooden, entirely wooden, including the roof.

Over coffee, Jay and she learnt what fifteen years of ‘hosting’ does – the mind expands to a point, then plateaus, then slowly burns out. People retire before that happens. Looking about the front room where they were, there were the usual trinkets, pictures and photos on the wall and there was no rental payable, according to Dara.

They thanked their hosts, went out to the car and were dropped next at Aubrey and Sophia, some way down, who were a different matter, particularly Aubrey.

There was something in his manner not effusive, the first one they’d met like that, a bit withdrawn, the way he engaged Jay’s eye was as if he wanted to say something but knew he must not … and Jay was expansive enough to realize it, he could feel the man’s mood, which meant the other two could too.

He’d been at it eighteen years and it had aged him, early. Business shirt, greying hair – he was 51 but looked older, acted older. She was more youthful. He apparently loved his morning constitutional walks, she liked to knit, so who was the more youthful?

‘Are you with host?’ asked Jacinta, of Aubrey.

‘Aubrey isn’t, I still am,’ smiled Sophia pleasantly and Jacinta immediately thought ‘jailer’, which Jay picked up on and thought Sophia must have too.

What was clear was that if there was anything wrong at all – and there was no reason for it to be – they’d learnt not to think about it, they’d learnt how to put it out of mind, so they could not be monitored. The way they did it was to engage in an emotion of some kind, any kind, usually lust and under cover of that, exchange messages.

The tea and club sandwiches were yummy enough, the view of the lake through that bay window with the chintz curtains to the sides was magnificent, Jay wondered if Aubrey would ask him out for a canoe paddle but then realized he could never communicate anyway, he gave every impression of being watched.

‘Do come back and see us,’ urged the lovely Sophia, all smiles, and Jacinta had the presence of mind to distract her with a ruse. She fell on the way out, Sophia came to her aid, bent down to help, then suddenly realized, spun around and took her partner in again, the smile quite out of place in the light of Jacinta having just fallen.

In short, no one was fooling anyone and it was not good.

To cover it, the two of them resorted to the usual thoughts of sex for later and continued thinking of only of that, all the way back in the car.  The realized of course that much of the shock, the moods, maybe even the thoughts, had also got through. Thing was, they just didn’t know how far it went.

The journey back was uneventful, dusk was falling.

Now they were on the backroads again and the lights of the facility could be seen in the distance, if they’d had any fear of a detour or something untoward, it did not eventuate.

They reached the gatehouse, were ushered through, went through the second, were dropped off at their quarters, went straight for their room and got down to the sex.

Dean Freeman had been about to go and see them, realized and let it go, with a chuckle. Ten hours without it, dear oh dear, thought Dean, however had they managed?

When the lovemaking got to the main course, he wanted Jacinta above, she climbed on board, he casually spread the slip of paper on his chest, she read it as far as possible without ‘noticing’, without breaking the mood, as if the continuous mood also masked the perceptions, she said she wanted to lie down, they changed places, she put the slip of paper on her upper chest but it wouldn’t sit flat, not with that writhing and heaving, at which he chuckled, she held it in place, he noted it, took the note, put it in his mouth, chewed and ate it, then came at the other end, which set the mood for the remainder of the evening.

After an hour, a short time for them, they called it a night, cuddled up and that was that, she dropped off first in his arms.

V

‘Roland? Jane? You ready?’

Their first trip, they were in the comfortable non-threatening armchairs in the smaller suite beside the main computer room, no nasty straps nor metal cages, no horrible helmets with wires.

There certainly were earphone headsets but thankfully no mood music.

‘How long’s the journey?’ asked Roland – a late stage to ask such a thing.

‘Meaningless,’ said Dean. ‘Fraction of a fraction of a second, actually some minutes in your terms.’

‘And this host is ready … and she’s a woman?’ added Jane.

Why do people ask inane questions or those which should have been asked long ago? Then again, if Dean Freeman had left it this late himself to inform them, then perhaps their concern was legit.

‘Just as yours is.’

‘Where’s mine go, the one in me now?’

‘Home to the lady in the chair on Zoe, just as you are here.’

‘So she’s a vegetable at this moment, as I’m about to become.’

Her own Zoess said through her, drily, ‘I’m looking forward to seeing home, I don’t see myself as a ‘vegetable’.’

‘Tell us what to expect,’ asked Roland, ‘any rush, any short pain?’

‘There’s a hollowness, you can feel the travel. At the other end, you feel yourself settle inside and around your host, your host then speaks as you or as him or herself. But he or she is in control – you have no bodily needs of your own, no fears, no joy – you yourself are pure reasoning mind. You’ve a set tour of duty, then you return, as you know.’

‘And you’ve done 29 days of this?’

‘I’ve built up to it by degrees, this will be my 81st time next week.’

‘Well, that’s reassuring at least. All right, let’s do it.’

There was a nothingness, that was the only way Jane could describe it. To be fair, there was no pain, no bodily sensation … no mood and that was probably good, but it was still weird to know you’re travelling and not actually feel anything.

She felt they were there now but nothing had happened, there was no eye-opening or hearing, there was nothing. She had no way of knowing where she was, where Roland was, she was pretty sure she was not within her host and now she reasoned that if she … they … were stuck someplace, then reason told her there was no way out of this … ever.

There was no anxiety, there couldn’t be, just the knowledge that his may have gone wrong, might have been the greatest mistake of her life.

A voice suggested itself to her – that was the only way she could put it – a soft voice actually … her own:

‘Welcome, Jane.’

Not cold, not warm, not nice, not horrible. Nothing. But it was in English.

She waited and thought of Roland.

‘He is safe, as you are. Why are you not in your host, you ask? It was not safe to put you into your host immediately.’ The voice did not tell her not to worry, as she couldn’t have. ‘You will work in ten minutes, a Zoessan four hours, as agreed.’

It was clear Jane was thinking on this, as the voice then added, ‘I have said – your host is not ready. These things happen. When your host is ready, you will join her.’

Slowly, she became conscious of Roland, so that was good, and now there were others. It felt as if they were in conference, various voices came through with questions, technical information, questions of temperature, of conditions, of timeframes of stability, they weren’t overwhelmed but did find themselves speeding up the responses.

The original voice cut in. ‘Do not rush – if a dozen questions come at you, then just as on earth, decide which first, prioritize, choose your own pace. At the end of four hours, I will tell them – enough – and you will rest.’

VI

Jay and Jacinta had been invited back to the Lake for lunch. That was the first thing and it had come via Dean.

The second was that, according to that slip of paper, there was not one but two ways of disrupting the monitoring – one of them they knew already and how. The other was apparently more technical – Aubrey had concealed a second paper somewhere and that, he had written, they would discover today.

Regarding this sexual congress and why it had this masking effect on feelings coming to them and they reasoned it worked the other way too – they put it down, variously, to the mixing of chemicals in their respective bodily fluids, then he thought it might be something about her perfume.

What seemed to put paid to any other explanation was that at its messiest, so to speak, the masking was near total, at least as far as they could tell. Was this peculiar to them or was it so with everyone? Well, they were hardly going to ask. And they’d experimented with the whole thing last evening, discovering that mixing one sexual fluid and one oral would not do it – it had to be the combined procreative article.

What they’d also discovered was that as the ‘attacks’ of that sudden urge they used to have had diminished – and they had – the masking power of the joined fluids had increased. They were not going to try to fathom why, they would just go with the flow, so to speak.

But the N1 question, the one they could not answer was – did it mask their thoughts going out, did it mask the spoken word as well, as it did the mood?  They were not at the level of the Zoessi, nor of Dean who’d been with them for so long and had expanded perceptions way beyond them – and yet they felt they could guess – thoughts from outside, which had started to come through with the moods of other people most certainly diminished to near zero when they were ‘in congress’, as they called it. Peak moment was a minute or so after that other [ahem] peak moment.

The biggest shock on that slip of paper, by the way, was that he’d told them to get real – did they really think only their moods were being monitored? How did earth communicate then with Zoe and back? Well yes, it was so blindingly obvious, wasn’t it – of course minds, thoughts, could be monitored.

Aubrey had taken one hell of a risk though, they did fear for him and weren’t sure this return visit was the wisest thing for his health.

They were dropped off at the top of the pathway leading down to the lake, they’d been given a collection time and down they carefully trod, towards the hut. A lake was a delight today, the waves barely lapping.

Stepping up onto the porch, he knocked, stepped back and they waited. There were noises and it was Sophia who opened the door. Her face was ashen.

‘You’re too late.’

They looked at each other, back at Sophia, then through the door, across at Aubrey – he was seated in his favourite armchair, his eyes staring up at the ceiling, there was no life in him. They wondered why she did not close his eyelids.

All sorts of apologies followed, condolences and so on as they backed out of the door, the door closed behind them, they stumbled back down the steps, then Jay nodded for them to walk by the lake.

A realization dawned in both but they suppressed it, that they’d have to get some masking going so they could discuss this thing and even that was a huge risk, if thoughts themselves were not masked. But how on earth could they do such a callous thing after seeing Aubrey that way? It was just barbarous. And if they did, how would that go down back at the Centre?

As they walked the lakeside brick path, the venue slowly came into view – it was so blindingly obvious where they’d have to go. It was a clearing, the edges under overhanging trees which she knew to be Aspen, or populus tremula, there were neither conifers nor willows about. She’d noticed last time but now she looked about and reasoned – they must have been planted here twenty years or so ago.

The clearing was the obvious place indeed and now they looked at each other, actually sighed and got down to undressing.

They went hard at it for about ten minutes and when she said, ‘All right, enough for now,’ he lay beside her but felt the masking slipping, so he climbed on and went inside again – the masking increased. He rested his head over her left shoulder, she stared straight up at the sky.

‘Jay,’ she whispered, though not unmoved by what had just happened either, ‘think, think where he could have left it? He must have thought this through, must have known we’d go for this walk –  by the way, keep moving, we need to prolong this – well, you know what I mean.’

Then she saw it. Now looking towards the overhanding foliage, there on the underside of a branch were two carved in numbers. She whispered the numbers, telling him not to lookup. ‘I think they’re coordinates, how do coordinates work?’

He took a quick look around the clearing, which was roughly rectangular. He didn’t know why but it seemed obvious – if they divided the width by ten, it was roughly ten paces. Latitude or northings would be maybe 15-17. But her numbers had been 3 and 7 and that, in his view, marked a spot by a fallen tree over there.

Now he kissed her with a final burst of passion, then whispered, ‘We need to dress and go out of this clearing, past that fallen tree.’

They cleaned up and dressed, knowing they’d now lose the masking but it was clear what he was going to do. As they went past the end of the fallen tree, he saw the empty knot hole and stepped over to it, drawing a note out of the hole but this time reading it together. It began with a biblical quote or rather, a reference:

‘Job 21:27’

Where were they going to find a bible, except online – that most likely giving them away. Perhaps this had been Aubrey’s intention.

The next bit said:

‘I’ve discovered a way to intercept messages between my wife and Zoe base. This includes signal and decryption of protocols, not message content. This is a risk for Zoe.’

Uh-huh, it went on:

‘It uses obsolete technology, microdots, which Zoe does not know of and within that is a means, by reverse-engineering, to decide when you wish to be monitored, given that some monitoring is necessary to allay suspicion. It can also be used to monitor them but they would see that, so best not done.’

And the last bit had the names and numbers of some gear they’d need, plus how to use it.

He’d brought a pen and now wrote on the back of the slip, ‘We need a portable version. If our car had an accident in the town -’

She took the pen: ‘Not going back at all? Daunting.’

Now he wrote: ‘You see any other way?’

She took the pen again: ‘Not really. You want me for life?’

‘Was there any doubt?’ he wrote.

‘It’s us now, Jay. You seem a player.’

‘Was. Then I found a good woman.’

They’d run out of room on the paper. She offered her forearm – less hairy than his.

‘What worries me is that if we can interfere with the monitoring, then that offers a route for the Sirens.’

‘Yes but we’re taking Dean’s word in the first place that there even are Sirens – who’s to say the Zoessi themselves are not the baddies? Other arm please, dear heart.’ She proffered, he wrote: ‘I didn’t like seeing Aubrey that way … or the lengths he had to go.’

She wasn’t very good at writing a response with her left, so she just nodded and then kissed him.

VII

In their quarters, lying on the bed, Susan said to him. ‘You’re unsure about something.’

‘They’re suspicious, those two, they’re frightened.’

‘Jay and Jacinta?’

‘Yes. I think it has something to do with one of our retired people, Aubrey – they visited twice. He was not at one with us at the end.’

‘Then why let them visit?’

‘They both need to see things for themselves. My feeling was that when they arrived, he was actually asleep, which they interpreted wrongly. Sophia needed to explain what was happening, that she didn’t is a worry for me, for all of us.’

‘Enemy?’

‘Correct. She may have been taken over by a Siren, temporarily, more permanently, can’t know. We’ve had an unusual situation on Zoe in the past few earth days – we had an attack, Sirens, they can appear and disappear, they can enter hosts that we were preparing. Roland and Jane are currently in suspension, nothing bad, nothing good as they can’t feel. They just are. They’ve been working though, quite well by all accounts and are on a promise to go into the hosts but the hosts themselves – one is dead, the other has had cold feet and is showing signs of slow takeover by a Siren.’

‘Well, get another host.’

‘We will, we have a list but it does take time and we are under attack, it’s a situation we’re struggling with, barely coping.’

‘Why did you let Roland and Jane go?’

‘Because the Zoessi who do the transfers said they had the situation under control.’

‘So one of them might be a Siren.’

‘I’d say there’s a good chance, though the Zoessi have the capacity to throw them out after their first rush.’

‘And if Jay and Jacinta can do this now – switch off, what then? What does it actually switch off?’

‘Everything – moods, thoughts, actions. They may well feel we’re the enemy now, even you – that you’ve been taken over as you have, as I have, as Jay and Jacinta have and so they’ll not communicate with us and they’d not be wrong in so doing – that’s the problem. They really don’t know who’s good and who’s bad. I can’t blame them.’

‘Could I go?’

‘We don’t know where they are. We know they’re with Charlie but we’re not getting read-back on where that is. Simple, basic data is deteriorating by the day and hour. We’ll probably have to shut down the pathway for now but those two would still have to come in to let their mind-visitors to go home. It’s not all about Jay and Jacinta – hope they realize this.’

‘Tell me about these Sirens if you can. If you don’t want, I’ll understand.’

‘Humans have always wondered if there are other dimensions, time warps, tears in the fabric and so on but one of our forbears made a discovery as a result of one of these Sirens whom he succumbed to, sadly, but he did get a message out. The thing which happened to him, under control, was that his perceptions changed.

Think of it this way – we have five primary senses and many consider we have others. Now imagine if our senses had been, say, factory-set, that is – we can only ever perceive a certain amount. It doesn’t mean everything else does not exist, it just means we can’t see it. I had a friend for whom – if he couldn’t read it by one of his five senses, then it didn’t exist.’

‘But that’s insane.’

On earth, they’re called ‘rational people’. The Sirens, in taking over so many humans over time, expanded human consciousness, human sensory apparatus, enough for various humans to perceive them and in that very perception lay the danger. The Sirens have no power over those who cannot perceive them – only over those who can.

This whole mind pathway we use does expand consciousness and that’s where the danger is. At the moment, it’s Sirens, but with time, it could be any of a number of horrible entities it’s best not to know about. Someone once said humans should not dabble – those were wise words. Don’t dabble, don’t invoke.

But they want you to invoke them, don’t they? They can always perceive you, for the very simple reason that they have broader perception than humans, but the laws of physics in the wider universe – that is, outside human perception – are a bit different to those within. Human perception was designed to be what it is.’

‘But humans have always had that exploring urge,’ she said.

‘Yes and it was always a question of time. Eden, Noah, Babel – these are allegories for this process.’

‘So where does that leave us?’

‘In trouble, unless we can get Jay and Jacinta in before the Sirens get to them.’

VIII

They saw the woman and the timing was perfect.

Charles, their driver, had to slow to a crawl here, they were acting nonchalantly but that woman had just put her shopping in the back of the wagon and would probably close the hatch. Jacinta pushed Charles with all she had, holding the wheel over, the car hit the kerb and the lightpole stopped it, they were out and into the back of that wagon, the woman started shouting at them but they begged her to drive, Jacinta put on her most imploring look and the bank notes did the rest, she pulled out and Jacinta begged her to go fast, it was life and death, they were going to have to jump out soon anyway, they needed another similar situation, could the lady please look out for one.

Once she understood she would be both rid of them and considerably better off than earlier, she did search and quickly saw the next one, she pulled up quickly, she it was who spoke, Jacinta put on the forlorn again, the new woman saw the notes, the first explained it was life or death, off both cars went, which was just as well because Charles’s car cut off their first lady and the last they saw, an animated conversation was taking place.

They were both in the back seat now, Jacinta on the passenger side. ‘Lady, my name,’ and she showed her badge, Jay followed suit. ‘We’re not terrorists, we’re not anything but ordinary but we have criminals after us and we have to hide, our lives do depend on this now and we’re in your hands.’

They’d got the right woman this time, a feisty gal who did not appear to have family to go to. ‘You gonna tell me?’

‘We are but out of sight first – you know anywhere?’

‘I know just the place.’ She was pulling into a driveway.

‘No, they’ll trace your car, they’ll make the first lady talk, she’ll describe you.’

‘Have faith.’ She called on her mobile.

Another lady, a girl came out, obviously a friend and not of this country, their driver explained all, said it was kosher, the friend was reassured – Jay was a choirboy and Jacinta – well, butter would not have melted, the girl now climbed into the front and they talked it out as they drove slowly, thinking.

Turns out the driver was Simone and the foreign girl was Antal, from Hungary. Ah, they understood, Simone had taken pity on her.

They pulled up in a back lane, the fair-haired and cuddly [thought Jay] Simone undid the lock and beckoned them through, then through the backdoor. It was a terraced house and the question was the neighbours.

Jacinta called for a pen and paper, they were brought and she wrote it all on the paper – why they could not afford to think, who they were, why they’d run, she now produced the same bank notes for Antal and continued writing. Would the girls help out?

Would they ever.

Jay asked about the house. Girlfriend, away in Mauritius, Simone watered the plants. Neighbours only came back in the evening, no activity after 9 or before 4. There were tins of food for now and Simone would get fresh food to them tomorrow. Antal would remain with them.

‘Thank you so, so much.’

IX

Dean Freeman swore. He saw it all now, how scared they really were and yet it had not shown up on the monitor – they were out there somewhere, sentient and alive, they must have had help staying incognito.

He turned to Susan. He wanted to say, ‘Whoever or whatever we are, these Sirens are a hundred times worse,’ but realized he couldn’t. But he was 100% right about the Sirens – once they were down this pathway, there was no putting them back in the bottle.

He wanted to explain that yes, all right, they had not come clean altogether, the Zoessi, they were ripping earth off but he’d also been right – it was a drop in the earth ocean. The Zoessi had no really bad habits, they did not eat their young or anything like that, they did not experiment on humans, he had not lied as far as that went.

They were miners, salvage crews, that was their livelihood. That’s all they’d ever been. And Jacinta and Jay were now threatening the entire operation, not to mention what the Sirens were doing. If he couldn’t get them in voluntarily, then for the sake of Zoe, he would have to make a decision.

X

‘I’m uneasy,’ said Jacinta. I get vibes from the Centre, from Dean, and he’s terrified, but what of? That we’re going to block him? You wouldn’t be terrified of that, you’d be angry, haughty, all of those things. And as I’m saying this openly, he knows too and is now feeling hope. I think we need to at least talk to him without him able to track us. And he’s agreeing. And he’s telling us one other thing – that both of us have Zoessi inside and they would like to go home. Jay, I’d forgotten about that.’

‘How to contact him? Phone? We can get Simone to buy one tomorrow, use it as a one off. Anyway, I don’t know his number.’

‘I do. We’ll do it. Let’s face it, we really do need to let these two go home.

‘Yes.’

Antal offered her mobile. ‘Would this help?’

‘But it can be traced to you.’

‘No it cannot. It was given to me by a friend of Simone’s, who bought him a much better one.’

‘I see,’ said Jacinta. ‘Yes, it will do fine but we can’t phone till tomorrow, away from here. Dean is agreeing, he feels a whole lot better now. Yes, it’s the right thing to do.’

‘I think we owe it to Antal to explain the Sirens.’

‘Jay! Yes, OK, we do.’

Antal looked over expectantly. ‘You see, Antal,’ started Jay, ‘there are these creatures, they have no form, they appear and float into people, they -’

‘I know this.’

‘You know this?’

‘Where do you think I come from?’

They told what they knew, she added what she knew. The house they were in was gloomy too, that did not help.

Antal was not a fool, she knew they would want to do certain things, it could not be at night when she was there, therefore it would be now. She announced she would meet Simone and get food.

XI

They’d slept all right, no nightmares, no trauma, the mood was good because they were coming in and the Zoessi inside them were content as well. They’d each apologized to their visitors and had been told it did not signify.

Simone had turned up and she and Antal had done scrambled eggs, with herbs, along with other goodies, it was nice. Around eleven, they’d walk into town, find an open place and phone.

In the meantime, Antal regaled them with tales of old Hungary – of the 1285 Mongol return and Bela’s fortifications, of the Árpádian kings, of Transylvania and the Carpathians – quite a storyteller was Antal.

She was still chatting about it all as they locked up and went uptown, delighted no doubt to find a patient and willing audience for once. They had to decide where to stand and Antal suggested a place in the memorial part of a square which had three roads coming off it. In the middle was a grey/green gunmetal statue of seven fierce warriors they knew not of and there was a fountain either side.

Dean Freeman was on standby at the Centre, he had been since 10.

Antal handed over her phone, Jacinta called, he picked up immediately, pleasantries were exchanged, it was down to business.

‘Yes, it’s true,’ he admitted, ‘we were monitoring you, we must do this, yes we can read minds and moods as well, yes we have issues on Zoe with Roland and Jane there, the issue is the Sirens have got through.’

‘How did you blow up that ‘moon’?

‘The ‘moon’? That was the missiles we stole in our last operation. We’re space pirates if you like, our people are, it’s a rough game but that is nothing, nothing,’ his anxiety was building again, ‘to what would happen should one of those Sirens get to you and you’re helping them by going offline.’

‘You lied to us,’ Jacinta was reproachful, ‘to us all.’

‘Yes, we had to, but -’

‘How can we be sure now that anything you say, anything at all, is true?’

‘Because it is.’

The abruptness, the exasperation they felt in him, also the reasoning by their visitors inside, had them looking at one another.

OK, they bought this but that still did not mean they were coming in, as it seemed there were more problems at the Centre and with Zoe than they currently had where they were.

They felt him agreeing in principle but: ‘Please come in.’

‘For what, Dean? So that you can eliminate us? Blank our minds out?’

‘We have shields on the building, we have shields on the equipment, we have them wherever we go, we have them on the pathway – the monitoring is also a protective device – it monitors them too, the Sirens, Jacinta and other beings as well. It’s all we have … and you out there have nothing, no protection whatever.’

‘You can launch a mind attack on us right now.’

‘We can, yes, but we won’t, have we ever shown any signs of that? What do your visitors say?’

‘You’re being honest for once, Dean.’ She handed the mobile to Jay because she’d just seen something.

‘We have to work out a compromise position,’ continued Dean, unaware he was now speaking with Jay. ‘How many minutes on your mobile?’

‘Plenty,’ said Jay.

Suddenly there was a commotion at the Centre and they felt Freeman’s heart rate jump, something was wrong, he snapped, ‘Have to go. Call again in two hours.’

Jay looked at the phone, snapped it shut and gave it back to Antal.

Jacinta though, now standing in front of them, looking over their shoulders, put out a frightened hand to his shoulder. ‘Look behind you, Jay. L-l-look.’

He turned and though it was broad daylight, in a public square, it was still chilling. Moving slowly through the plinth of the statue were four young women, they reappeared this side and Jay thought it had been quite gratuitous, completely unnecessary – they could have walked around. They were just showing off.

‘Antal,’ he suddenly asked, ‘who’s the statue of?’

She was now too frightened to speak, shaking her head slowly, then started muttering, ‘Nem, kérem, nem, nem ebben az országban!’

‘What’s she saying?’ he asked and Jacinta gave a rough translation: ‘No, no, not in this country. Antal, who is the statue of? Antal?’

‘Ezek a hét vezér.’

‘She said they are the seven leaders but she means, I think, the seven Magyar chieftains who led their people to the Carpathian basin.’

‘Ah, this does not sound excellent, Jacinta.’ He looked over at Antal who was as white as a sheet and kept repeating, over and over, ‘Távozz, nem jött erre a helyre.’

‘What’s she saying?’

‘She’s telling them to begone. There’s also a name she says, I can’t pick it up, starts with S, think she means the fair-haired one, part of their legend.’

‘How do we get ourselves into these situations?’

‘Don’t ask me, they look … not good.’

Indeed they didn’t, they seriously looked like they were straight out of the crypt, talk about goth, obviously not those ones who can’t stay in the light but not nice all the same. One, maybe the leader, was fair-haired and looked the least mangy of the four, she seemed the most dangerous all the same, the second had long, drak locks and was sullen, the third had long, matted hair, dirty and the last was the youngest, looking for all the world like some ancient victim of an outrage.

Two now just disappeared. The other two glided over to them and hell, they really were floating, hovering two yards before them. This was terrifying but also exciting – at close quarters, they had the perfect view of these creatures and they seemed so real, so human, the skin was not all that bad, not a bit like the monsters of legend but all the same, they were distinctly unhealthy and he for one didn’t fancy them getting any closer.

One of them now disappeared. Then the other. The two ladies just stood there, not knowing what to do, the only thing he could think to say was, ‘Well at least they’ve gone.’

‘Yes, they’ve gone,’ said Jacinta. ‘You like pizza, Antal?’ The girl nodded.

They went to Carlo’s about six shops away and ordered the meat for Antal and for her, pepperoni for him. They sat in the alcove and the girl came over. ‘Three glasses of house red,’ said Jay.

Jacinta smiled, giving him that old look. ‘Had enough shocks for one day,’ he muttered. Antal was also looking at him the same way.

‘You want to know a joke on my name?’ asked Jacinta. He nodded ‘Jacinta. Sin ta later. Not a very good joke.’

‘It’s a great joke,’ he smiled and reached for her hand. She allowed it to be taken. Antal now put out her hand too, he took it, she looked into his eyes.

The pizzas arrived, cut into eighths. The girls tucked in straight away. ‘Whoa,’ he cried, ‘toast first.’

‘Of course. Who to?’

‘To … er … the seven Magyar chieftains.’

There was total silence from both, then Jacinta downed her glass in one gulp, Antal followed suit and they tucked into the pizza again. ‘Eat, Jay, eat,’ Antal finally spoke, ‘You’ll need all your strength.’

He faced her. ‘Er … what did you plan to … um … to do today? Later, I mean.’ Her face was a blank. ‘I mean, when we get back, well, Jacinta and I might …’ Her face was still a blank. Thing was, so was Jacinta’s.

He sighed, they’d sort this out back at the house.

Wandering back down the main street and turning left, their house some hundred yards along on the right, Jacinta had her arm locked in his, Antal trotted along beside them.

Antal suddenly asked, ‘You want children?’

Neither answered.

‘Jay?’

‘Er … yes … Jacinta and I haven’t talked about it.’

‘I want,’ answered Jacinta. Then added: ‘When Jay does.’

‘That is good,’ said Antal, it seemed to make her happy. ‘Here we are.’

They were going to stay overnight they supposed, they’d thought it would be back in the Centre. Presumably Antal would be in the other room, they’d take their leave tomorrow and just go into the Centre.

Jacinta didn’t wait, she came up to him and started to undress him. ‘Jacinta [cough] … er … Antal’s here.’

She looked across at Antal. ‘Yes, yes she is.’ Then she finished undressing him and he felt like a shorn lamb in that room, with them, they were being weird.

She dropped to her knees and the other did not even move a muscle as he saw his thing disappear and appear, disappear and appear, those lips like a gasket.

It went on for longer than usual. ‘Full service eh?’ he made light of it.

She stopped. ‘Yes, the full service.’

‘You really are serious, aren’t you? I’ve not seen you like this.’

‘Yes, deadly serious.’

She was on some sort of high that had nothing to do with – then suddenly, it seemed as if she were the fairest haired of the goths they’d seen, then the sullen one, then the one with matted hair, then the fourth and the fourth was now Antal and she was upon him but she did not look like – suddenly, it was Jacinta again, then the matted haired, then the pale one, then a scrawny hand reached out and touched his forehead, he was out like a light, staring up into space.

She became Jacinta again, climbed off, a mess down her leg and the moment her feet touched the floor, she changed to the fair-haired goth. Her sisters appeared on the other three walls, of Antal there was no sign.

‘Yes?’ asked matted hair.

‘Yes,’ answered fair-haired. ‘And you?’

‘Yes.’

She looked at the sullen one and the look was a question.

‘Yes.’

She looked at the last, the youngest and her look was a question.

‘Yes.’

‘Then it is well.’

Three departed, fair-haired became Jacinta again, she placed a kiss on his forehead, her body dressed itself and she took her leave, gliding in the direction of the Centre.

XII

‘Here I am, Dean.’

‘Yes, yes you are. And Jay?’

‘He’s resting. I came alone.’

‘You appreciate we have no time to lose, we have to let your guests return. You ready?’

She’d already moved into the conduit suite and taken her seat, relaxing, ready. She looked across at the bodies of Roland and Jane in their seats, both staring up into space.

‘OK.’

She placed the headset on her head.

There was a low hum, the process began, Dean watching, then she started to shudder, it became worse, it became uncontrollable, suddenly she shrieked and her head fell back, then to the side.

Dean rushed over, ripped off the phones and lifted her bodily onto the rug.

It was some twelve minutes before she came to, he was kneeling beside her with a hot chocolate. She sat up, one hand behind on the rug and took the cup.

One sip and it was good. ‘What happened?’ Then, ‘Where is Jay?’

‘He might not come back, I’m sorry, Jacinta.’ She looked over at Roland and Jane and he answered before she asked. ‘No, they’re in limbo on Zoe, we might be able and we’d need to do it soon. I’ve had no response yet whether it succeeded or not. I’m assuming it did, as we’ve had none of the other … of the consequences if we hadn’t.’

‘Who were they?’

‘As we said – malevolent beings, let’s not rationalize them any more than that.’

‘And inside me – do I have his child?’

‘I don’t know, that you’ll know soon enough. On the basis of no response down the pathway, I’d assume they’re gone, they won’t have their children.’

‘Thank goodness for that. And no way to … bring Jay back?’

‘I don’t know, I really don’t. If you trust me enough, we’ll go there and see. I have Sue to get back to -’

‘She’s on Zoe?’

‘No, she’s here but I was keeping her hidden from you.’

‘You knew?’

‘Of course I knew – needle was going off the deep end.’

‘And now it’s not.’

‘Now it’s not.’

‘Suddenly I feel alone. Would you give me time to myself?’

‘Of course. I’ll be in the monitoring room. I won’t say I’m terribly sorry yet, as we don’t know. When we get there, we’ll know then.

XIII

The journey was much longer than her return had taken, she didn’t even know the way but they worked it out.

They reached the outskirts, the rest became easier.

Yes, that was the corner.

Yes, there was the pizza place.

Yes, turn here.

Yes, this is the lane.

They parked and went inside. She ran to the main room and he was not there. But Simone was. She was delighted to see Jacinta but also unsure of Freeman.

Jacinta explained but it did not help Simone’s anxiety any.

They sat down and Jacinta looked around at this place, this place where she had … done something but she knew not what. It was a blank and yet not completely a blank.

‘When you came in today, Simone, what did you see?’

Simone looked across at Freeman, Jacinta nodded that she could, and she began. ‘Jay was lying over there.’ She indicated. ‘He seemed dead. I’m sorry, Jacinta. I was looking for Antal, she was nowhere, her things were next door though, all of them. Do you know where she is?’

She broke down and Jacinta went over. ‘There’s much we don’t know. How much can you take?’

Simone looked up. ‘Go on.’

‘I suspect, very much suspect, Simone, that my news may be better than yours. I’m sorry. After you came back from next door, Jay had gone, hadn’t he?’

‘How did you … well, of course you would. He’d gone, yes. And Antal?’

‘Oh Simone, how can I ever explain that part of it? I can’t even be sure myself – but I don’t think she’ll return. Something happened to all of us, this man here snapped me out of it at the Center.’

‘What will you do, go back?’

‘Hadn’t thought of it. May I stay here tonight with you?’

‘I was hoping.’

Dean stood and made ready to go. ‘You have the mobile?’

‘No, Antal took it back.’

‘There’s mine,’ said Simone. Call me now on the number I’ll tell you.’

He did … and there was little left to say. Dean hugged Jacinta, thanked her profusely and took his leave.

.o0o.

Many thanks to readers who helped – Nigel, Demetrius, Chuckles, Distant Relative, haiku, Daniel 1979 – with what was on the second slip of paper. Hope it was resolved satisfactorily. We’ve sorted the masking and monitoring issue too.

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