By Alan Baxter
A concussive crack exploded into Bob's ears with a bone deep whine making him stagger involuntarily to his left. As he bumped hard into a brick wall, his left shoulder distantly registering the pain of impact, he saw a slow motion fountain of dark, viscous blood erupt from the chest of a woman not five paces from him. Her arms spasmed, a shopping bag and an umbrella flying in random directions, before her knees followed suit, buckling under her. In Bob's slow motion perception she folded almost gracefully to the dirty, grey concrete.
With a dry-ripping of reality time roared forward again, the sights flooding back to natural speed. Bob twisted his back flat to the rough brick wall and slid down into a stunned crouch. There was a sound of sucking wind in his ears as his normal hearing came slowly back.
For a few seconds he could not tear his eyes away from the twisted corpse of the woman on the pavement. Her umbrella lay in the gutter several feet away and her shopping bag had split as it landed, tins and vegetables rolling to a halt on the ground. He distantly noticed that she liked the same pasta sauce he did, though her choice of cheese was a little disappointing. It occurred to him how ridiculous these thoughts were.
He turned his head, wondering where the shot might have come from. It was so loud, his ears were still ringing. Why would someone shoot an innocent middle-aged lady with shopping? Bob's train of thought derailed as his eyes fell upon a huge pair of legs in tight leather trousers only a metre from him. Laid casually along one broad, flat thigh was the biggest handgun he had ever seen. No wonder his ears were ringing if that had just been fired this close to his head.
The man was enormous, at least seven feet tall, broader than a barn. His shoulders bulged in a leather jacket that would have been sagging like grain sack on Bob. The man's large, grizzled head swivelled from its contemplation of the woman to look down at Bob with hard, flinty eyes. Time slowed down again as the man raised his gun from his thigh, the barrel swinging towards Bob's head. Bob's stomach cramped and he felt as though his bladder was about to escape his control. Then the man gestured roughly with the gun. "Master, come on." His voice was as rough and hard as his appearance.
Bob stayed squatting by the wall, small and trembling, looking from the big face to the big gun and back again. "Wha... whaa...," he managed.
The big man reached down with his free hand and grabbed a handful of jacket. Straightening with no effort at all he dragged Bob to his feet and pushed him back against the wall. He pressed one meaty hand, bigger than a dinner plate, into his chest to stop him from collapsing back down to the pavement. Bob stared into the man's dark eyes, his mind a maelstrom of unconnected thoughts, half formed words, He must be able to feel my heart beating, hammering against his hand. The man leaned towards him, speaking slowly and deliberately. "Come on or we'll both get picked up." He turned and took a pace along the pavement then paused to look back.
Bob stood against the wall like a rabbit in headlights. He glanced again at the woman, now lying in a dark pool, her blood almost black, spreading slowly out from her like a blooming flower from the gaping wound in her chest. He realised that people were beginning to scream and run around, some running towards the fallen woman, some running just as hard in the opposite direction. He saw two different people talking into phones, looking at him and the giant a couple of paces from him. He looked at the big man again, the smoking gun hanging once more along that enormous thigh. The man's eyes were hard, merciless, but they were looking at him with a certain desperation. And no malice. His mind was slowly collating everything that had happened. Master?
"Who are you?"
The big man rolled his eyes. "You don't know, do you? Look, just come on, please. Come with me and I'll explain along the way."
More confused than ever Bob began to slowly walk towards the stranger. His legs felt as though they were rippling like seaweed in a current, his knees weak. He heard a distant siren, drifting through the quickly growing activity like a shadow in a storm. The big man winced. "Master, please!"
Bob pointed helplessly at the woman on the pavement. "But you just... you killed... you shot..."
The big man turned and grabbed his shoulder in one huge hand, dragged him to the woman lying on the ground and bent him over, forcing his face to within inches of the dead woman. "Look at her face. Look at her eyes."
He could smell, taste even, the heavy scent of death rising from the corpse. He realised with a hitch of his stomach that he was standing in the pool of her blood, his boot soles making strange smears and bubbles in it. Her face was twisted in a rictus of pain, her lips drawn back, her eyes wide open... Her eyes! They were yellow, gold even, like a cat, her pupils elongated. But the glaze on those eyes was definitely death. His mouth worked again as he gasped for breath. "What the fuck?"
He was dragged upright and pulled along the path, his boots making wet slaps as he left a trail of dark footprints in his wake. As they walked the big man talked, quickly and forcefully. "You have to listen to me and you have to listen good. You don't have much time and I have even less and if you haven't even started your journey yet then we have a lot to do. They promised nothing like this could happen."
"Please, just listen. My name is Jerrod. You are someone else entirely. You should be back by now!" Jerrod seemed to say this last to himself. He looked at Bob closely as they walked along, searching his face, his eyes. "You really aren't out yet are you?"
"Out?" Bob nearly fell as Jerrod's big hand thrust him roughly down an alleyway.
"Don't talk. First we have to get off the street, then we can talk."
Jerrod dragged him along, to the end of the alley, across the street, down another alley, then another. After what seemed an eternity of lefts and rights, Jerrod finally stopped before a boarded up building. He looked left and right before pushing against some boards. They swung easily inwards, hidden hinges silently granting them access to the dark interior. Jerrod pointed inside. "Quickly, through there."
Bob, past wondering what was going on by now, stepped through. He stood on the other side, straining to see past the pool of light coming in through the open boards. Jerrod stepped in behind him, letting the boards swing closed. They were plunged into total blackness. Bob felt Jerrod's hand clamp around his upper arm and lead him into the darkness. He stumbled along, trying not to panic. "I need some answers, okay?" he said. "What the fuck is going on?"
"Just a minute more, Master, please. There are some stairs just ahead. Down the stairs, into the Den, then we can relax a moment and talk."
"Why do you keep calling me Master?"
"Please, just down the stairs?"
He let himself be led along again. After a few paces he was stopped by one heavy hand. He heard Jerrod grunt and the scrape of wood on wood. "Down here. Watch your step, it's a steep stairway leading down."
"Any chance of a light, Jerrod?"
"Downstairs. Light, food, drink, friends. It's all downstairs."
Bob put his hands to either side as he carefully made his way down the steps, wincing as tiny splinters bit into his fingertips. With a grunt his foot came up with jarring impact against the floor where he had expected another step. He felt Jerrod step past him and a tapping sound as Jerrod rapped on what sounded like a heavy wooden door. After a moment there was some speech in a guttural language he had never heard before. Jerrod answered in the same tongue and light burst into his eyes, blinding him. After a second his vision began to swim back as Jerrod led him through the open door, closing it behind him.
As his vision cleared his mouth fell open. Before him was an enormous room, twice the size of a football field. Scattered around the room were various steel tables and benches, chairs and cabinets. There were strange looking vehicles parked among the furniture, six wheeled armoured buggies and four wheeled bikes. Some of them were travelling around the tables and chairs, but they seemed to make no noise as they moved. There was noise in the huge room, however, from the voices of dozens and dozens of... beings. He stared wide eyed and open mouthed, his mind falling over itself as it tried to assimilate the variety of creatures before him. Some were simply huge, but basically normal people, like Jerrod. Others were anything but normal; gangly insect-like creatures standing up to ten feet tall; huge, lumpy troll-like beings; tiny, furry things; strange suited animals with two, four, six legs. They all milled about the enormous room, carrying things, reading things, writing things, accessing computer terminals. Slowly they all began to realise that someone had entered and one by one they stopped what they were doing to watch the newcomers. Bob wished he had some idea how to read expressions on that range of faces. For some of them he was not entirely sure which bit was the face.
Jerrod put a hand onto his back. "It's all right, Master." The mass of bizarre creatures began to gather in front of him, dropping to their knees or whatever passed for joints in their limbs, before him. They were bowing. Jerrod spoke again. "Your disciples don't realise that you're not out yet."
He turned slowly to face Jerrod. "What?"
Jerrod spoke in that strange language again and the creatures returned to their tasks, occasionally casting quick glances back. Jerrod led him through the enormous room towards the far wall. There were three doors in that wall, made of heavy steel. For that matter, it looked as though the entire room was made of heavy steel. All this under the street in some half abandoned end of town?
Jerrod swiped a metallic looking card through a sensor on the middle door and gestured for him to walk through as it hissed smoothly open. Hesitantly he stepped into the room beyond. It was a small office, desk, two chairs before it, one large chair behind it. A bookshelf along one wall had what seemed to be hundreds and hundreds of CDs lined up neatly. There was nothing on the desk but a computer terminal.
Jerrod laid a heavy hand on Bob's shoulder and gestured to one of the free chairs with his other. "Please, Master, sit. The Co-ordinator is on his way."
He sat, grateful for the chance to take the weight from his jellified knees. "What is going on here? Why do you keep calling me master? What did you kill out there and why?" His voice tailed off in frustration. He took a deep breath. Jerrod looked down at him, his eyes a combination of concern and sorrow. "Okay," Bob said finally. "I'm just Robert Taylor. I'm a thirty three year old nobody. I don't have a wife or even a girlfriend, I have shitty dead-end job in a stuffy office. If I'm a master of anything it's non-achievement. I don't know anyone with a life as unimpressive as mine. Why do you keep calling me master?"
As Jerrod opened his mouth to speak the door behind him swung open. A creature stepped into the room. "This is Qellac, the Co-ordinator," Jerrod said.
Qellac looked at him for a moment with all five of his eyes. He was a short creature, though stocky, muscular even. His skin was a blue-tinged brown and his face was wide, his mouth broad like a toad. His eyes, five in a line across, were a glittering green colour. After a second Qellac looked to Jerrod. "He has zero recall?" Jerrod nodded. "So he's not out in any way?" Jerrod shook his head.
Qellac took a deep breath before pulling up the chair next to Bob's. Funny, I thought he'd sit in the big chair. Bob watched Qellac silently for a moment, trying not to stare into those eyes. Eventually he said, "So are you in charge here?"
Qellac glanced at Jerrod and they both grinned. "Not exactly. I'm second in command, first assistant to the Master. I am the Co-ordinator."
Bob nodded slowly. "So who is the Master?" he asked slowly.
Qellac leaned forward. "You are."
He shook his head. Pointing at Jerrod he said, "He keeps calling me master, all those... those... out there, they all bowed to me, for Christ's sake! I'm no master. I'm totally unremarkable."
Qellac nodded. "That was the whole idea. But it seems to have gone a little too far."
Qellac took another deep breath. "We are a universal organisation that is dedicated to protecting the lesser species of the universe." Qellac held up a hand at Bob's widening eyes. "Please, try to listen and understand. There are many races throughout the universe that aren't anywhere close to others in terms of development and technological advancement. The people of this Earth planet, for example, are still burning fossil fuels and haven't ventured far beyond their own satellite yet. Mind you, that much you already know. So you see, there are folk out there that will take advantage of lesser beings like Earthlings. We are committed to protecting those lesser beings until they can look after themselves. In secret, of course."
Jerrod leaned forward. "The woman I shot wasn't a woman. She was a Thangali, bent on infiltrating and corrupting the human race, enslaving them to Thangali ways. She must have recognised your physical form. She was coming straight for you and you hadn't even noticed her."
Bob shook his head. "My physical form? But apparently I'm a lesser being! What exactly are you trying to say? Why did all those creatures out there bow to me?"
Qellac shrugged. "They recognise only your body too. They're not aware of the mind inside."
"But my body is human, nothing like any of them. What did they recognise?"
Qellac and Jerrod exchanged a quick glance. "When did you last look in a mirror?" Qellac asked.
Bob raised an eyebrow in confusion. "What do you mean?"
Qellac walked around the large desk and fumbled for a moment in one of the drawers on the other side. After a moment he pulled out a folded plastic case. He unfolded it and turned its mirrored inside surface towards Bob. For a moment he felt dizzy as he looked at his reflection. It wasn't his reflection. The face he looked at was long and thin, a slightly grey palour to the skin. It looked basically human, but old and lined. He looked like a very ill human. His eyes were hidden by large, dark glasses that he hadn't even been aware he was wearing. He slowly reached up and slipped the glasses off the thin nose in his reflection. He gasped as large, shiny, almond shaped black eyes were revealed, a deep blue glow in the centre of each. He tried to remember when he did last look in a mirror. Probably this morning, but he could not seem to remember getting out of bed today. "How long have I been like this?" he asked. His voice sounded thin and distant to his own ears.
Qellac lowered the mirror. "Since early this morning," he said. "The Master knew the Thangali were present on this planet in great numbers, manufacturing a massive chemical weapon."
Bob gasped. "For what purpose?"
"Malleability. To make your race susceptible to Thangali control. The Master was anxious to stop this and needed to infiltrate the same place the Thangali had. He had the means to neutralise the Thangali agent, but he needed someone that worked in the processing plant to proceed."
"I work in admin for..." Bob paused, realisation sinking in. He pictured his desk, one of many in a nondescript cubicle farm above the water processing plant. The source of the entire city's drinking water.
Qellac nodded. "One of our number has been working on a technique of swapping the conscious mind of a person from one body to another. The Master decided to risk the new technique in order to inhabit a human body and infiltrate undetected. He chose you, and the process was completed last night while you slept."
"Okay," Bob managed. "Assuming I accept what you're telling me, what went wrong?"
Jerrod stepped forward and crouched down beside the two chairs. "This afternoon we got a report that the Master had been spotted in the city. I went to find out why he hadn't returned or reported in. We assumed that his mission was a success."
"But it wasn't him. It was me, still in his body. No wonder people were looking at me strangely today."
Jerrod nodded. "He would have immobilised his body, with your mind in it, while he went to investigate the target in your body. Then he could have snuck back, switched the two of you back again and you'd have awoken none the wiser."
Bob laughed a short laugh. "Except maybe I'd wonder why I'd been asleep all day. I don't usually sleep through my days off."
Qellac's brow creased in what looked like a frown. "Your day off?"
"Yeah. I haven't used enough holiday and work insisted I use some before the year's out. So I've been taking days off here and there."
"You weren't expected in work today?"
They were all silent for a moment. Eventually Bob said, "I don't remember waking up this morning and I don't know how I ended up in the High Street."
Qellac nodded slowly. He pulled out a small plastic tube and began puffing at it like a cigarette. "It would seem that something delayed the return of the Master. He didn't get back to you in order to swap your bodies back. The immobilisation must have worn off, leaving you free to get on with your daily routine. You look sufficiently human not to stand out in the street, especially in a city like this. Mind you, the glasses were a good idea."
"I don't remember it being my idea," Bob said, rubbing his forehead. It felt... alien.
"Either way," Jerrod said, standing up. "We're left with one overriding problem. What has happened to the Master?"
Qellac puffed on his little plastic tube. "Yes. What indeed."
In a small grey room on the east side of the city Detective Sergeant Peter Rampling stared at the small object in his hand. It looked like a tiny computer made of extremely light metal. Light, yet equally strong. There was a small headset attached by a glittering wire, like stretched diamonds. He looked across the table at the small, unremarkable looking man opposite him. The man's eyes were calm, but wary. He had a hunted look about him. Rampling had seen a lot villains caught in the act, but there was something different about this one.
He looked down at the table, at the few possessions the man had had on him. A wallet, another small, strangely metallic device, like a swipe card. He pulled the drivers licence from the wallet and stared at the picture for a moment. Eventually he took a deep breath. "Okay. So you won't tell me what this is," he waved the small computer device before laying it back on the table. Then he pointed to the metallic swipe card. "You won't tell me what this is for, either. So," he paused to look at the driver's licence again, "Robert Taylor. Maybe you'd like to tell me exactly what you were doing sneaking around the processing plant, so far from your desk on your day off."
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