Here, There and Everywhere

by Mark Cane

Copyright© 2018 by Mark Cane

Science Fiction Story: Max Pirbright's luck is out. His car is clapped out; he is out of a job; his wife has left him for a millionaire and he is broke. His Christmas is likely to be lonely and dull. Then he has a chance encounter with a lost teenager and everything changes in an unexpected way. The few days leading up to Christmas are anything but boring.

Tags: Ma/ft   Heterosexual   Fiction   Science Fiction   Aliens   Extra Sensory Perception  

Edited by Angie Everhart

Foreword

This is my first Sci-fi short story. Angie encouraged me to give it a try and I wish to record my gratitude for her unstinting and patient encouragement. I would also like to thank her for editing my work, injecting character into the dialogue and colour into the descriptions. Thank you Angie.

19 Dec 2017

At 3:30 pm, Briggate was a riot of colour. Christmas illuminations decorated the street and all the big stores - Debenhams, Harvey-Nichols - had elaborate window displays, beckoning holiday shoppers in from the cold. Temporarily out of a job, I was not tempted inside. With the exception of a Christmas gift for my 20 year old daughter, Claire, all available cash was needed for essentials.

Claire abodes with my ex-wife, Jenny in Penistone. Jenny has found a property developer to shack up with, and, being on the wealthy end, he will take good care of her in the Christmas gift department. Nevertheless, improperly imbued with Christmas spirit, I did purchase Jenny a small bottle of her favourite fragrance in The Perfume Store.

My main reason to shop in Leeds, rather than Beverley, my home town, was to look for work. An old army friend runs a security consultancy off Commercial Street in Leeds centre, and said he might have something for me in the new year. Leaving Briggate, I headed for the rail station, intending to catch the metro back to Glasshoughton, near Junction 32 on the M62. I had left my ancient VW there in a car park close to the metro stop. I found it more convenient than driving right into Leeds, with the hassle of trying to find a car park and negotiate the one-way traffic circuit round town.

The station concourse was the crush you’d expect a week before Christmas. Shoppers and commuters moving this way and that to the various platforms, bumping, back-stepping, offering apology, edging sideways to get through. By-passing the mainline terminals, I headed for the metro, operated by The West Yorkshire Transport Authority, to serve local stops.

A youngster in the crowd ahead caught my attention. She was alone, her expression anxious verging on distraught, gazing in all directions at once. I guessed her age at 16; a lost schoolgirl?

Men need be so careful these days. Someone my age approaching a youngster alone would immediately be suspected of predation. Rather than offer help as parental instinct directed, I slowed and then halted a dozen steps away. A parent or friend would shortly appear, I assured myself, relieve the student’s anxiety, and I could continue on, free of guilt.

Though perfectly attired for a late December afternoon - knee-length lambswool coat over black leather boots, a heavy knit top and skirt - something nagged at me about the girl’s appearance. On a subliminal level, I imagine, as her attire looked perfectly normal from a distance. Was it her blonde hair, or pale complexion? The handbag over her shoulder? The slightly odd sheen of her boots? Or was it just the unmistakable look of a potential victim?

You would not leave Claire in danger like this I told myself, and this girl, however I knew it, was in danger. Closing the distance without further thought, I said, “My name is Max. I have a daughter no more than 5 years older than you, and as a parent, I know a child in trouble when I see one. Not that you’re a child, I apologize for that, but you are someone’s child. Can I help?”

The girl’s immediate reaction was to recoil from me and back away. Her secondary reaction was one of relief and hopefulness. “You are father?” she asked tremulously.

“I have a 20 year old daughter named Claire. Are you lost?”

The girl had eyes the strangest blue I’d ever seen, the color of the stone-washed jeans that Claire prefers. Frightened eyes, borderline desperate eyes.

“Lost?” she repeated. “Lost, yes. Lost.”

What kind of accent was that? Leeds is a cosmopolitan city, a melting pot of the different races, but this girl had an accent like no other I had heard. Highlander mixed with Nordic? It was then I noticed her lambswool coat was anything but true wool.

This can’t be, I thought. Looked at closely, the material gave the appearance of moulded plastic. The buttons down the left side seemed in fact to be black-painted projections, the slant pockets not pockets at all, but coloured creases designed to look like pockets. How could a garment so authentic looking from a distance, prove to be so fraudulent in reality?

“Oh, no,” she moaned. “No, no. No, no, please?”

She grabbed my arm. Following her near-panicked gaze, I spotted two men at the far end of the concourse, head and shoulders above the crowd, standing either side of a staircase. Both were oddly blonde with identical haircuts and severely cut, expensive blue suits. If not for the colouring and features, you might guess them functionaries of a North Korean government agency.

Too late, the girl slipped behind me, trying to hide. At a whistle and nod from the agent on the right, both descended the steps into the crowd and vanished. No one needed explain to me whose direction they headed.

“Are they after you?” I asked. Not awaiting an answer, I grabbed her elbow and pushed through the crowd on a diagonal toward the New Station Street entrance. “No, no. No, no, no,” she continued to moan.

I caught a glimpse of our pursuers just before reaching the doors. Having seen me or not from the stairs, they had guessed my intention. Adding weird to weird, both had donned identical dark sunglasses and pushed through the crowd like paired icebreakers, leaving discontent and outrage in their wake. I noted a Bobby had taken notice and given chase. Would these two take a no if intercepted? I thought not.

Barely a dozen steps ahead, we pushed outside and to the taxi rank, proceeding alongside the vehicles to the front. Yanking open the rear door, I unceremoniously shoved the girl inside, climbed in behind her and snapped: “M62. Junction 32. Quick as you can, driver!”

Whether responding to my gruff command, or the expectation of adequate remuneration, the driver immediately pulled away from the kerb. “OK, Cock, but the traffic’s busy at this time of day. You just sit tight and I’ll do my best.”

“Do better than that,” I ordered, looking back at the entrance, “and there’s extra in it for you, driver.”

Blue Suits had burst through the doors and were visually searching in all directions for the girl. The one closest seemed to home on my gaze, following it directly back to the taxi. “Fuck,” I muttered as he swatted his companion’s arm. They took off after us; we were moving much too slowly.

“Lock your doors, cabbie. Can you do that for me?” He met my eye in the mirror. The door locks snapped down.

“In a bit of a pickle, are we?” Ahead, and to the left, vehicles proceeded bumper to bumper, scarcely making walking speed. Blue Suits were in pursuit along the pavement, making up distance quickly. I noted the Bobby had not preceded them out the doors. We were on our own.

“The lass looks a bit upset.”

In fact, the lass was breathing open-mouthed in fear, staring at the pursuit through the side window. As one broke from the curb and made to grab the door handle, the driver dodged left into a space inappropriately small for the taxi, gathering blaring horns of protest. Blue Suit missed the handle, banging the window instead in anger. It would have done him no good anyway, with the doors locked. Accelerating, the driver took advantage of another undersized space.

“Thank you,” I acknowledged, sitting back to relax. “A bit of a fall-out in the family about who entertains my daughter for Christmas lunch.” If my young companion was upset being referring to her as my daughter, she did not react.

The driver chuckled. “In my experience, there are more family rows at Christmas than any other time of the year. Come on you!” he yelled at another driver, pounding his horn. “Were you bred in a brewery?”

The girl sat back, biting her lower lip, and scooted in against me. I put a protective arm around her shoulder. “It’s okay, love. You’re safe.”

I had no idea if that was true, or whether she even understood what I said. I was relieved that she had backed down from hysteria, no longer looked as though she’d burst into tears. I didn’t like the feel of her strange coat, though. It was like polyurethane to the touch, with a slight tackiness, as though it had not quite set after moulding.

I’ll be the first to concede that I am no expert on haute couture. I do know that fashion fads come and go. Just a week or two ago, a fashion item in the paper caught my eye. Pictured was a tall, slender catwalk model with dark hair, nearly bosom-less, yet provocative in a shapeless black rubber creation with diagonal ridges. The article reported that someone had purchased a set of rubber car mats from Halfords for £29, creating an outfit nearly identical to the model’s, priced at over two grand. A bit puzzled over the girl’s strange attire, I nonetheless let it pass.

“Here we are, mate, and in record time!” The driver pulled in against the kerb at Junction 32 Retail Outlet, named after the nearby junction on the M62 motorway. Paying the fare with a fiver tip that I could hardly afford, I opened the door and helped my supposed daughter from the car.

“Thank you again,” I told the driver. “Merry Christmas to you.”

“You too, mate. Take care of this little lady.” Winking, he pulled away into traffic, leaving us at the kerb. What now, I thought.

I pointed to my chest. “Max. My name is Max. What is your name?”

After a few moments hesitation, the girl tapped her chest and replied with a name I mistook for, “Tania.” She shook her head at my repetition, pronouncing her name more clearly, this time.

“Zanya,” I repeated correctly. She nodded. We were communicating.

I decided the best course of action was to step into the shelter of Junction 32. Although an outdoor pedestrianised precinct, there were plenty of stores to offer a temporary respite from the cool air. Zanya looked intently at everything. She inspected the shop windows from edge to edge, studied the men and women shopping, investigated every item on display as though never seen before. After a time it became apparent that was exactly the case: rather than browsing, she was soaking up information.

Did she suffer amnesia? Was she new to the country, unaccustomed to shopping malls? In actuality, from North Korea, or the like? The truth, I was to discover, was so much stranger than I could have imagined.

Given the circumstances, contacting the authorities seemed the best thing to do. A female PCSO (police community support officer) stood not far away, hands behind her back, scanning the mall crowd. Her blue uniform, belt replete with handcuffs and telescopic stick, lent her a distinct air of authority. Tapping Zanya’s shoulder, I pointed her out.

“We should probably go talk to her, wouldn’t you say, dear?”

Zanya reacted as though I had suggested petting a shark. “No!” she squeaked. “No, please. No!” She scooted behind me as she had in Leeds Station.

She’s illegal, I thought. The only explanation. But how did a pale-complexioned, blue-eyed blonde fit any profile of illegal immigration? We suddenly had in in-pouring of Scandinavian schoolgirls? Finland or Sweden was the new Ethiopia? Why was she so adamant about not meeting the police, though? A runaway?

I turned my back to the female PCSO. “OK, Zanya. No police. Tell me what you want to do.”

She was back to biting her lip and wanting to cry. “My car is near. If you have no place to stay, tonight, I can take you home with me. I’ll call my ex-wife, Jenny, and see what advice she has. Maybe you could stay with her and my daughter, Claire, for a while. Until we sort you out.” That will go over big with her property developer boyfriend, I thought, wryly. Or maybe it would, just as worrisome a thought. I didn’t know the bloke from Adam.

“I don’t know what else to do, Zanya. Help me out, what?” She tentatively took my hand.

“Go your house would be good. For tonight, Max.”

I nodded. “You’ll be safe there,” I promised. If I can get you past my landlady without getting the police called, I added silently

If anything should have scared off the waif, it was my car. 20 years old, the VW had no heat, was rusted out along the entire frame, and had what amounted to no muffler. The suspension was shot 10 years ago; every pebble on the road made itself felt. Zanya didn’t bat an eye, however, climbing in. She needed assistance belting in - the concept seemed foreign to her - but she folded her hands in her lap and sat there smiling primly. I had forgotten what being a father felt like.

“Are you hungry, Zanya?”

She thought about it. “Yes?” she replied uncertainly.

“I shopped yesterday, so I have a few provisions at the house. Is soup okay for dinner? I could stop for something on the way, if you’d like.” As long as McDonalds is acceptable, I thought.

Zanya nodded, equally uncertain. “Soup, okay? We headed east on in the M62, the VW keeping up a steady 60 mph. My old car can still touch 60 given a fair tail wind, before the vibrations become too disconcerting. I kept watch in my rear view mirror to make sure we weren’t being followed. Each time a vehicle overtook us, which was quite often, Zanya cast an anxious glance at the occupants.

Zanya remained quiet on the drive. To be honest, attempting conversation over the blown exhaust pipe would be useless, anyway. Reaching B1230 at junction 38, I eased off the M62, letting the speed drop to a more comfortable 40 mph. Approaching the village of North Cave, I dropped to the 30 MPH posted limit, and glanced across at Zanya-and nearly ran into the ditch.

Bloody fucking hell! Her coat!

“How... ? How did that happen?” I croaked. Somehow, the imitation lambswool coat Zanya was wearing had become the real thing, with proper wooden buttons and pockets that opened.

She looked down in confusion. “Max no like?”

“Yes, I like,” I admitted. “It just gave me a shock, is all.” It was obvious that something was very, very unusual about my passenger. I pulled carefully off to the side of the road, and shifted into neutral.

“Where are you from Zanya? Exactly, who are you?’

Blinking, smiling enigmatically, Zanya faced forward and said nothing. When traffic cleared, and my heartbeat had returned to normal I touched the shoulder of her coat; it was definitely lambswool now - I steered the VW back onto the road and accelerated. I hoped the Blue Suits wouldn’t turn up on my doorstep; I hadn’t been half as vigilant as circumstances demanded.

Continuing on to Beverley, I paid more attention to the rear view mirror. My immediate concern was getting us into the flat under the watchful eye of Mrs. Fentiman in flat 104. Since Jenny left following the split up, Mrs. Fentiman had made it her personal mission in life to keep an eye on me. I had invited only one woman home in the stead, simply for drinks and a movie, and though it was plain I’d finished the night alone, Mrs. Fentiman had stared daggers at me for weeks. Katherine is my age; imagine how Mrs. Fentiman would react to Zanya.

Reaching the A164, I exited and took it north toward home. Zanya appeared to doze, but awakened at the blare from a lorry’s horn outside Skidby. By now, it was fully dark and the glare of approaching headlights had me squinting and looking away, muttering under my breath. Zanya appeared unbothered by the lights. More anomalous behaviour.

Reaching Beverley, I took Lairgate rather than loop around on the A164, slowed at the road repair work at New Walk, and after waiting out the temporary traffic lights, proceeded on to Norfolk Street, where I turned left. Zanya remained her inquisitive self, examining every passed building.

“This is home,” I said. She gazed up at the converted Victorian villa as I pulled into my space. Jenny’s space beside it was empty, save an inch of blighted snow. “I think we lucked out. Yes, I think we did,” I confirmed, eyeing Mrs. Fentiman’s empty parking space, and her darkened windows. “Probably out doing some Christmas shopping. Bless our luck.”

Without being unduly obvious, I rushed Zanya from the car and to the entrance. I guided her to the stairs inside, rather than await the lift. At the second floor landing, I guided her right along the corridor to my door. “203,” I announced, inserting the key. “Home.”

“Home,” she repeated in her soft voice.

As she had in the mall, Zanya intently examined everything in detail-I was grateful now that I had straightened this morning and put away the dishes-almost, as though she had never been in a flat before.

“Cup of tea?” I enquired. When unsure of what to do next, Earl Grey is always a good option.

Zanya looked at me, puzzled. Repeating the question, I enunciated each syllable precisely. At the same time, I pantomimed holding a cup and saucer, and then raising the cup to my lips for a sip. Zanya smiled and shook her head.

I laughed, feeling slightly the fool. I had an idea.

Retrieving my iPad, I tapped Google Maps. Hitting the locate button, I waited while it zoomed on our location, and then pointed at the pulsing blue dot. “We are here,” I annunciated. “Where are you from?”

No response. Not from the area, I reminded myself; probably not from Blighty, at all. Using thumb and forefinger, I zoomed out the map to include all of Europe and the U.K.

“Where-Zanya-from?”

She examined the map, tracing her forefinger above it in obvious wonder. She laughed as a random touch moved the map beneath her fingertip. She looked up at me grinning, and again I was struck by her alien beauty.

“I, uh ... I’m gonna make us some tea, love. I’ll make you one too. Of course, I will,” I muttered, turning away. She followed my retreat to Jenny’s one-time kitchen, now my own.

What are you doing, I demanded. She’s maybe 16, lost, and vulnerable. You’re 42. We’re not even having this conversation, bloke.

Opening the cupboard, I removed two mugs. The inscription on one read Lord Of the Manor, the other read Lady of the Manor. The latter had not been used for quite a while.

Then I had second thoughts. When we had guests Jenny had always used her best china. I put the mugs back and went to the china cabinet which had remained untouched since Jenny’s departure., I brought out the teapot, an ‘Old Country Roses’ style that had been a wedding gift for Jenny and me. I filled the electric kettle with just enough water to fill the teapot (no point in over-filling – it only delays the process and uses more electricity). A lesson in home economics drummed into me by my ex. I wonder if she is so fussy now she’s living on millionaire’s row. When the kettle had almost boiled I poured a little of the hot water into the china tea pot. Never make tea in a cold pot – the lesson was passed down from earlier generations. Then when the kettle reached boiling point, I emptied the water from the now warm tea pot, quickly dropped in two tea bags and poured on the boiling water from the kettle. A purist would have used loose tea leaves, but I had long since opted for the more convenient bags. I placed the china lid in place and left the tea to brew while I set out a tray, onto which I placed the Old Country Roses sugar bowl and matching milk jug. I added a plate from the same tea service and carefully arranged a dozen Maryland cookies. Finally I placed the Old Country Roses teapot onto the tray together with a pair of cups and saucers from the set. I checked on my house guest; Zanya sat with the iPad in her lap, tapping the screen and zooming it in and out. It still appeared to be on the maps app. “Tea is served madam,” I advised, fervently hoping that my young guest would be suitably impressed with my artistry and the Old Country Roses service. She smiled as I set down the tea tray. Zanya set the iPad aside, eyeing the tray and its offerings.

“Shall I pour?” I asked. She smiled. “Right, then, I’ll be the mother.” Pouring two cups, I said, “Help yourself to milk, and sugar Zanya. The cookies too, if you please.” I realized I had put off an important function, too long. “Um, if you’ll excuse me a minute... ?” She placed a hand on my forearm.

“Bathroom?” She had put off the function too long, as well, it seemed.

“Ah, yes ... bathroom. Indeed.” I held out my hand. “This way?”

I demonstrated the shower, and removed a clean towel from the airing cupboard. Across the hall was the third bedroom, and I showed her the long-unused bed. Drawing back the covers, I offered the universal gesture of sleep by closing my eyes, and leaning my head onto my hands. Zanya eyed me curiously, but said nothing.

“You sleep here tonight. That is your bathroom right there,” I said indicating across the hall. “I have my own in the master suite. Do you understand, Zanya?”

She nodded.

“OK. Then I will see you in the lounge for tea.” Smiling and backing from the bedroom, I headed up the hall to relieve myself. I prayed she’d not embarrass us both by following. She did not. Once done, I returned to the service and began to sip my tea.

“What is that?” I asked. The IPad beside her showed a jumble of characters scrolling up the screen. This was not Google Maps. “I hope you’re not surfing the dark web, Zanya. I don’t want to be arrested for dealing drugs.”

So much for humour, I thought, Ill-advised or not. Zanya was too completely absorbed in the character storm to respond.

“Don’t forget your tea, luv; it’ll go cold on you, quickly. The biscuits are good, too,” I advised.

Fifteen minutes later, the tea had gone cold and the biscuits remained on the plate while Zanya tapped away on the iPad, studying the endless gibberish stream. Should I be concerned, I wondered. Tired and frustrated, I abandoned hope of making a breakthrough this evening, and turned in.


20th December 2017

I did not sleep well. It took me ages to fall asleep. It is unsettling, a stranger under your roof, doing goodness what on your iPad. As I started to finally nod off, a car door slamming jarred me awake. In a shot, I was on my feet and at the bedroom window. Between the slats I watched Colin and Brenda Dunscroft returning home late. Not men in blue suits and sunglasses. “Jesus, Max,” I muttered. “What did you get into here?”

On impulse, I checked the lounge. To my relief it was empty, the iPad closed and sitting atop the lamp table, the door to Zanya’s bedroom closed. A quick peek inside the guest bathroom proved it empty, also. I stood silent a moment, listening, and then returned to my bedroom.

My dreams were unsettling, verging upon bizarre. I was followed by men in blue suits and dark sunglasses down narrowing streets, cold wind whipping snow around my ankles. I encountered a beautiful young girl whose clothing morphed along with her frantic gestures, her excited babble in a foreign tongue that I nonetheless perfectly understood and responded to. Her eyes were alternately the colour of stone-washed jeans, and the impenetrable blue of dark sunglasses. I awoke, I thought, to find Zanya beside me in bed, snuggled intimately close, neither of us clothed. We seemed to be fused, two beings with one skin, and it felt good. Too good, as I started awake with a cry.

“Zanya?” I smacked the empty half of the bed and found only cold sheets. “Thank God,” I muttered in relief. I was also relieved not to discover an unwelcome erection; though non-sexual, the dream had a disquieting sensual element, almost spiritual, in nature. I once again arose and checked the flat. All seemed well. Not so my continuing dreams.

I encountered a race of beings. Formless in body as each existed as pure thought, intellectual energy. Their habitat consisted of no geography, no place, no physical possessions. The beings, whom I found myself calling Plenums, existed in peace and contentment. Crime was unknown as nothing existed to steal, or fight over. No sense of place or geography existed; hence, no territorial disputes.

Yenhab changed things. One of the youngest, and thus most free-thinking of the ancient beings, Yenhab fomented a corrupting influence in the otherwise perfect existence: The search for power, controlling power. By persuasive argument, Yenhab convinced the most tractable of his fellow beings that order was needed to progress, to achieve their potential. Soon, Yenhab had a number of followers and an oppressive regime was established. Any dissenting thoughts were brought to heel by Yenhab’s secret police. Yenhab turned to face me.

I snapped awake again. “What? Zanya?” I slapped the sheets, this time not expecting to find her there. She wasn’t. Groggy, feeling almost hungover, I sat up. I was 4:00 am.

In the kitchen, I drew a glass of water and downed a paracetamol. Wearing only my boxers, and thinking how dumb this was, I checked the lounge; my iPad, which I had no idea could do such a thing, was open again and churning out gibberish at a monumental rate. Zanya had attached the power cord. Where was she?

Tapping first with my knuckle and announcing myself, I cracked her bedroom door and peeked inside. The room was empty, the bed unchanged from when I’d pulled back the covers. Across the hall, the bathroom door stood open; I checked behind the shower curtain to no avail.

My immediate thought - and an in-admirably hopeful one - was that she had fled while I slept. However, approaching the front door, I discovered it locked, the security chain engaged. Had she left by a window, I wondered? Had she hidden away in a cupboard? Suddenly paranoid, I spun around, hands up and ready to fight. No one was there.

“Christ on a chariot, Max ... get a hold of yourself.”

I checked the lobby cupboard, where the vacuum cleaner is stored, and then returned to the lounge, intending to check the cupboards there, and then everywhere else in the flat. The girl had not escaped out of a stupid window. Not expecting to find her there, I stumbled at the entrance and let out a gasp. Her back to me, iPad obviously on her lap, sat my guest, jarringly nude.

“Zanya?” I choked. “You can’t be out here naked, child!”

Flummoxed, I spun about, spotting and grabbing the dining room tablecloth, lifting and placing back the bowl of imitation fruit as I whipped the piece of linen aside. The four place settings flew off in various directions.

“Zanya, luv, stay put! Please don’t turn around!”

Glancing at me over her shoulder with a ghost of a smile, she did just that, rising to face me. The impression of unnaturally, impossibly, flawless skin extended to her frontside as she turned. Like a Barbie doll, she had normal size breasts, but no nipples or surrounding areola. Absent also was any hint of a navel, or reproductive organs between her legs. Smooth as an unadorned Harvey-Nichols display manikin.

“Holy mother,” I croaked. Racing forward, I shrouded Zanya in the tablecloth.

I had no appetite. I made myself a cup of tea. I didn’t bother making Zanya a cup; her Old Country Roses cup remained untouched on the lamp table. I had begun to realise why that was.

I sat down on the sofa, looking at Zanya wrapped in the tablecloth, shivering uncontrollably in the chair. The iPad sat beside her on the arm, no longer spewing digital invective. I didn’t know what it was doing.

Zanya was a Plenum, one of the thought beings from my dreams. She had communicated with me telepathically while I slept. She hadn’t eaten or imbibed the tea, because she wasn’t physically able. Her nutrient source was pure energy, I suspected, not material. She had run afoul of Yenhab and his cronies.

“Your skin...” I tapped my bare forearm. “It’s malleable. You used it to create your clothing, outer garments included, and that put a strain on your ... remodelling ability? You convert matter from energy to hold human form. The Blue Suits, also. They seem more adept, meaning they’ve been at it a while. Hunting other’s like you: dissidents.”

She nodded weakly. “It’s difficult holding this form, in any configuration. I abandoned the exterior constructs when you went to bed. When you fell asleep, I reverted to my natural state to conserve energy.” She laughed bitterly. “I am too weak now to restore even the skirt and top, sorry. I know that embarrasses you.”

Not in the way you imagine, I didn’t say.

She grinned wryly. “I’m aware of my ... inappropriate age appearance, yes. I am brand new as a corporeal being, and inexperienced. I took what I thought was the least suspicion-arousing actualization of the form, but I admit failing in that miserably. I could make myself appear older, but not without sacrificing a facial feature or two, my hair, or maybe a hand?” Raising her right, she laughed. “I will do better my next incorporation, I promise.”

Beside her, the IPad pinged. “Really?” she chirped in surprise. “This quickly?” Setting the tablet on her lap, she tapped various blinking icons, following a pattern, or possibly answering a question, I couldn’t guess. Whatever the process, what appeared next was a hypnotic orange spiral. Though stationary, it appeared to revolve inside the display. Even viewed from a distance, the effect caused a queasy stomach lurch

“Um, Zanya... ?”

She arose, and with some difficultly keeping the tablecloth curtained about her, sat beside me on the sofa. I looked away, suffering vertigo at the best of times.

“It will adjust, Max. Eye it peripherally for a moment, then bring your eyes to the centre and let the effect take place. Any discomfort will be momentary, I promise you.” She gripped my left hand reassuringly. It felt like the warmest of flesh and underlying tendon and bone.

“If I make a sickening irking sound,” I warned, “it would do you to scoot aside quickly as possible, Zanya.”

She laughed. “In this form, I feel it also, so you are not alone. We’ll barf on our shoes together, if necessary.”

Chuckling, I did as suggested, eyeing the spiral peripherally, and glancing away as necessary. It took a full minute of unsettling anxiety, but eventually I made it to the centre of the spiral. Talk about your bottomless pits.

“Zanya... !”

She gripped my hand tightly and patted my knee, though I was unsure how that was possible with one hand. “It’s okay to close your eyes; it’s better if you do, in fact.”

Anything to get rid of that fucking spiral, I thought.

The grey of my eyelids gave way to a slowly pulsing white, growing from a soft point to envelope my visual field. Within it glowed translucent globes, in varying pastel shades, rising and falling languidly, like molten wax in a Lava Lamp. Each of these globes resolved as a source of telepathic thought. The iPad allowed me to visualize the Plenums in their natural state

“Tell me I’m not tripping here,” I murmured

Still gripping my hand-it was a woman’s hand, not that of a child-Zanya laughed. “Fellow escapees. My compatriots. This portal allows communication between our altered states. You are aware of them as these iridescent lights; I see them as energy fields, Plenums in our true form. This is Usuary, who is my brother in thought.”

A pale green globe with vertical bands like zebra stripes pulsed at her introduction. Without moving, it shifted to the foreground, thumping deeply, like a bass drum.

“And this is Merkina, my infinite source of encouragement and wisdom.”

A chalky purple globe with black leopard spots offered greeting, somehow moving alongside her associate. Was I experiencing an increase in volume, I wondered. Her “voice” was that of a cello.

“Maxwell, greetings. Our thanks for rescuing Zanya, our sister, despite unknown personal risk to yourself. Since discovering Earth, our experience with humans, tends us toward a different consideration.”

“We’ve a few Yenhab’s of our own,” I murmured in assent, “and quite a few lost souls.”

In the background of cerebration, I discerned no individual voices, but an underlying consensus of dissent against the ruling elite, a desire for abdication, a clarion call to revolt. These were expatriates and revolutionaries alike, a still powerful block of Plenum society, whittled down by the Brownshirts-as Zanya and her human-kind had come to see them-while secretly replenished from greater society, even the so-called elite.

Zanya’s thought-brother spoke: “Zanya’s continued freedom is of utmost importance to our existence. She must be delivered safely to the closest locus; otherwise, she risks capture, or dissolution. At the locus is a portal. Once through, she will be safe with our kind. The between state is too great a risk.”

Someone: Usuary, Merkina or Zanya herself, led me to understand that escape through the portal delivered the being to a frequency range beyond control of the rulers, from which a defence could be mounted, a counter-insurgency to dethrone Yenhab and his followers. Minions, I reclassified sourly.

“Where are the captured sent?” I questioned. I was made to understand that Zanya’s ‘rehabilitation hospital’ would be the mental equivalent of a guarded pen, a place to re-educate/reform dissenters. Orwellians rejoice!

And that was it. Collapsing into the cushions, I dropped the IPad from numb fingertips. Zanya, weak as she was, caught it before it hit the floor.

“Max... ?”

I gripped her hand. “How much longer can you ... hold this form?”

“Not much longer, I’m afraid. I’ve almost depleted my reserves.”

The IPad pinged. The screen no longer contained the sickening orange spiral. The word HUMBER AREA flashed on and off in green letters at the top; below, a map of sorts occupied the display. It looked like an air traffic control panel.

Points of green light flashed on the eerie green grid; observed closer, the points were just-discernible stick-men-or stick-women. A few dozen populated the screen. A circle-enclosed stick figure located in Beverley slowly blinked. I looked at Zanya, mouth stupidly open. “Is that... ?”

“Do you know this place?” she asked. Her complexion had paled to a deathly white; her lips were tinged blue. She touched a spot on the display.

“Drax? You mean, Drax Power Station?”

Drax is a huge power station on the River Ouse between Selby, and Goole. Long slandered as a major air and water polluter, Drax supplied electricity across a huge portion of grid, the largest plant of its kind in the U.K.-the 2nd largest in Western Europe. It resided west of us, about 30 miles distant.

“You need to go there? That will work?” I asked desperately.

Weakly, she nodded. “Is it possible?”

“Of course it is!” I exclaimed. “We’re going, right now!” Not in a tablecloth, we weren’t. Running to the bathroom, I grabbed my towelling robe off the door, and dashed back. Zanya had fallen onto the cushions in exhaustion. Leave her wrapped as-is, I manhandled her into the robe, not caring what uncovered flesh I saw. We were so far beyond that now. What alarmed me was how pasty-looking she was, like freshly made dough. Brushing her bare skin made me shiver.

“Hurry, Max,” she whispered. “Must have power.”

Throwing on clothes, I donned my coat and zipped up, jammed on a hat, and grabbed my keys. I could not negotiate the front door with Zanya in my arms, so I opened it first and went back to the sofa. Grabbing her up - God, she weighed nothing! - I ran for the door. I used her slipper clad feet to swing it closed. At least I had been smart enough to protect her feet. Down the stairs, out the door and across the lot to my car. If Mrs Fentiman saw anything, I never heard.

“Can you stand?” I asked. What a stupid question! Propping her on my knee, I inserted the key and popped open her passenger-side door. Getting her in the seat was nothing, neither was belting her in. Kissing her on the forehead, I banged the door closed and ran about the front end to the other side. I knew to get the aged engine started, before scraping the windscreen clear of ice. It was a quarter-inch thick from the persistent, overnight misting. Thank God I had left my heavy gloves in the car.

“Max ... hurry.”

I patted her knee as I belted in. “Don’t worry, love ... rolling right now.” Looking over my shoulder, I backed the VW out, skidding around in a half-circle to face the correct direction. The lot was a sheet of ice.

“Fuck,” I growled, throwing the gear stick into 1st. “Of course, it is.”

To my surprise, the old bucket handled the icy lot and Beverley roads quite well. Faster than I had any reason to hope, we were on the M62, tearing west. The roadway had been properly treated for once.

“Goole is 20 miles!” I yelled. “We’ll be there in 15 minutes.” I held the speedometer at 70 miles per hour, not caring about shimmy, or shake, or blaring exhaust pipe. She took my hand and nodded. Her eyes were closed. We encountered little traffic and 15 minutes later, I bore north onto A614 at Junction 36, heading for Drax village. The road was clear, and all went well until the roundabout at A645. There, our way was blocked by two police constables, hands held high, ordering me to stop.

“Shit!” I spat, crashing into 3rd gear. “We don’t need this now!” I put my hand out to pat Zanya’s knee, assure her that I would explain our way past this roadblock. I didn’t see any wrecked cars, or warning flares. She grabbed my hand in the air.

“Don’t stop! Not police!”

“I have to,” I objected, stupidly letting the speed bleed away. “It’s the law, Zanya.”

“Not police,” she repeated. “Go, Max!”

She was right! The pair were the same from the station-I saw that now: blonde hair, same Nordic features, same frozen expressions. I floored the accelerator.

“Hold on! This could be bad!”

I planned to mow them down if necessary, until neither moved aside, instead running toward us with their hands outstretched.

“I’m gonna go around them!” I yelled. “Hold onto something tight!”

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