"Dead? What do you mean, dead?" General Xan furrowed both layers of eyes and used his tail to clean the wax out of his single huge abdominal ear.
"Yes, dead, I'm afraid," said Captain Funnelsqueak apologetically. "It seems these creatures are a particularly hard breed of nut to crack. Not one of them so much as gave even name, rank, or number, not even under the most exquisite forms of torture we have at our disposal. They simply endure; then they die."
General Xan growled deep in his underthroat.
"Blast it!" he exclaimed. "Well then, there's nothing for it: we'll have to get another one of the buggers."
Captain Funnelsqueak bowed.
"Of course, sir," he acquiesced. "I have taken the liberty already of determining suitable coordinates. I have located what seems to be a promising indigene. All that we require is your word, and we shall jaunt out of low orbit and obtain the subject directly."
General Xan nodded his upper head in assent, signalled the audience was at an end with a casual flick of his tail, and idly regurgitated the solid portion of his recent meal back into his first three stomachs.
Captain Funnelsqueak bowed once more and took his leave.
"And Captain," General Xan called after his departing minion. "No more mistakes. Darkstar is ready for the invasion. All we require..."
are the coordinates of their secret base, and their world will be ours for the taking..."
General Xan cackled to himself, shook his golden mane manfully, and with a vain glance in the mirror, straightened a few of his more unruly antennae.
* * *
In his attic bedroom, surrounded on three sides by walls crowded with pictures and postcards and newspaper cuttings, Matthew ate the plate of food his mother had kept warm for him and continued composing his letter to UFOlogy UK magazine.
He had been working on the letter for most of the evening. He was rather proud of it. The letter was addressed to the editor, but the main body of the work (which took up 17 pages so far) was concerned with enumerating the many errors and misconceptions contained within a letter that had appeared in the previous issue of UFOlogy UK magazine. The letter had been authored by Philip Frogmore, who was acknowledged as an expert in the field, which rather rankled with Mathew, who acknowledged the man as nothing more than a rather tall species of buffoon. Mathew regularly ran into Mr Frogmore on the convention circuit, and had enjoyed a spirited enmity with him ever since it had become obvious (to Matthew) that the older man had been stealing his ideas from an Internet chat room they both frequented. Mathew wouldn't have minded so much, only the ideas had proven wildly popular with other UFO enthusiasts, and had resulted in Mr Frogmore gaining a sort of golden cache within the community.
The light slanting in through the large attic window that occupied most of one wall had begun to fade, but Mathew had been so absorbed in his work that he had hardly noticed.
He frowned, crossed out the word "flawed", replaced it with the word "moronic", and completely failed to notice Moses snuffling under his fingers and absconding with half a sausage.
He yawned and squinted in the darkness. This was taking longer than he had anticipated.
He put the end of the pencil in his mouth, placed a chip firmly behind his ear, and got up to turn the light on.
His hand was just about to touch the switch, when a strange humming noise began to permeate the room. It started very softly, a subtle shifting, buzzing sound that seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere, from behind the walls, even from within Mathew himself.
He stopped and cocked his head to one side.
As suddenly as it had begun, the noise subsided.
"Squeak," said Moses, poking his nose out guiltily from behind a pile of cushions. His fat little cheeks were stuffed full of sausage, and his whiskers quivered, testing the air carefully.
"Did you hear that too, Moses?" asked Mathew.
"Squeak," replied Moses, which is pretty much the extent of a hamster's vocabulary.
"What do you think it was?"
"Squeak," said Moses thoughtfully, before scuttling up onto the bedpost and flinging himself with suicidal gusto off into space and towards his master's outstretched hand.
Mathew caught the little ball of fur as it blurred through the air. He gave Moses an idle stroke, and listened again for the noise.
There was nothing now.
Just the beating of his heart.
Just the distant gusting of the wind outside.
A beam of intense green light shot in through the window. The entire room was bathed in a strange, otherworldly luminescence, picking out the posters and pictures pasted to the walls.
I WANT TO BELIEVE, screamed a tatty poster in the bilious reflected light that was shouldering its way into the room.
Outside the window, a humming, spinning disk of boiling illumination rotated in the darkness.
"Oh," he said.
The shape outside the window loomed closer.
It was huge.
As Mathew stared on, a tubular structure folded out of the shining smoothness of the ship's hull. It prodded experimentally at the window, seemed satisfied with the diagnosis of "glass" and pulled back.
Then it rammed the window.
There was a shattering noise, and all at once wind seemed to own the whole world.
It was roaring in past the broken shards of glass, rustling the papers on the desk, sucking up the unfinished plate of food, tussling the bed sheets and pulling at Mathew's clothes.
Surely the weather outside wasn't as windy as this?
Then the wind was clawing at Mathew's hair, ruffling his shirt collar and ballooning the bottoms out of his flared trousers.
It was a funny thing, reflected the calm part of Mathew's mind. You waited your whole life to be abducted by aliens, you researched the topic exhaustively, you actually attempted to contact UFOs directly by means of amateur radio, trance-like meditation, and even (during a time of particularly intense paranoia) via a personal advert in the local newspaper's dating section. But when it actually came to it, being abducted by aliens was rather a frightening experience, and one that Mathew decided he would rather avoid, if at all possible.
Battling against the raging wind, Mathew turned around and made for the door.
He placed one hand on the handle.
"Squeaaaaak," said Moses, forlornly.
With a small slurping noise, the little hamster was sucked out of Mathew's hand. He whipped around, just in time to see the ball of fur zoom across the room towards the window.
And into the mouth of the tube that was protruding in from the spaceship outside.
Mathew suddenly realised.
The tube wasn't just a tube.
It was a giant vacuum cleaner.
And it had just sucked Moses away.
For a moment, Mathew wavered, torn between the loyalty he felt towards his hamster (of whom he was very fond) and an intense desire not to recast himself in the grand opera of life as a human piece of dirt.
A last, morose, "Squeak," echoed back out of the tube.
Mathew locked eyes with the beautiful woman depicted numerous times on posters around the room.
"I...WANT...TO...BELIEVE!" he shouted, and threw himself towards the sucking tube.
There was a loud popping noise.
Everything went black.
* * *
Captain Funnelsqueak rubbed his talons together nervously and signalled for permission to enter the recreational bathing suite.
There was a haughty pause before the bioware computer that controlled the whole ship bleeped briskly and slid the door open, engulfing him in a plume of boiling green steam.
"Funnelsqueak?" boomed the voice of General Xan. "Is that you?"
Captain Funnelsqueak ducked to allow his ridged spine entry beneath the low doorway and made his oblations before his superior.
"Yes, my lord," confirmed Funnelsqueak. "I am sorry to interrupt your ablutions, but I came to tell you that we have obtained a new captive from the doomed planet."
Funnelsqueak moved forward and the steam thinned a little, to reveal the vast glistening bulk of General Xan, and the three small votaries that darted around him, cleaning his nooks with small wire brushes.
"Ah, excellent work, Funnelsqueak!" exclaimed General Xan. "All go smoothly, did it?"
Captain Funnelsqueak opened his gills to allow the delicious rot-scented steam in and nodded to the affirmative.
"Yes indeed, my lord," he said brightly. "Our cloaking device is still holding up admirably against the native's attempts to break it, and though they are no doubt aware that we are here in a general sense, they have no clue as to our current location, and could not have hoped to intercept us during our brief jaunt down to the planet's surface."
General Xan gurgled and eyed the votary that was cleaning between his lateral noses with hunger.
"Good, good," he said. "And this subject is high up in their command, is he?"
Captain Funnelsqueak smiled broadly.
"Oh, yes, sir," he replied. "Our intelligence reports that the subject is a member of the elite ranks of those who rule this puny planet. He will know the location of the base, for certain,"
"Marvellous," muttered General Xan, before opening his mouth and signalling impatiently for the votary to get inside. Thrilled at the honour, the small creature gave a shrill shriek of delight at the prospect of being assimilated, made a small obeisance to the gods, and leapt into the gaping maw.
There was a steady crunching noise.
General Xan burped loudly.
"Urgh!" he spat, his face folding in on itself in disgust. "That votary had some quite unholy thoughts! I must obtain more devout servants in the future..."
"Um, there was one thing," Funnelsqueak began nervously. "It seems that we inadvertently obtained the subject's pet, as well as the subject himself."
General Xan mulled the thought over.
"Is it dangerous?" he asked at length.
"Oh, no! Not at all!" Funnelsqueak replied hastily. "Quite a stupid, peaceful species. I understand that they are quite popular pets with the members of the elite of this world. Something of a status symbol."
General Xan did some more mulling. He rather enjoyed a good mull.
"Not to worry, Captain," he pronounced at length. "And if he really is that fond of his pet, perhaps the blasted thing will give us some more leverage with the subject. Now," he went on, heaving himself out of the boiling, putrid pool and carelessly crushing one of the two remaining votaries beneath his hoof, "since time is such a pressing matter in this regard, let us not waste any! We must interrogate the prisoner directly!"
Captain Funnelsqueak nodded his antlers enthusiastically, and backed out of the bathing suite.
"Now, it seems to me that the best form of torture for something like this..." said General Xan, his voice fading to silence as he and the Captain made their way to meet the prisoner.
Alone, rejected, denied the great honour enjoyed by its sisters, the last remaining votary knelt in the steaming, bubbling pool of sloughed filth and tried to console itself with a long, soothing drink.
* * *
The darkness was so complete that at first Mathew thought he was dead. His body felt strange and light, and his head seemed clouded, as if someone had pumped smoke in through his ears and short-circuited his brain.
Where am I? he thought.
The events immediately preceding his arrival here in the darkness seemed rather confused. He remembered eating his dinner...and he was writing a letter to someone...then there was a strange sound...and then...
All at once, he recalled the huge, glowing shape outside his window, and the questing vacuum cleaner that had sucked him away...
He had been abducted.
He tried to stand up, an act which was hampered considerably by the fact that he was hanging upside down by a rope tied to his feet.
The rope bit into his ankles, and he yelped.
Well, it didn't seem as if he would be walking around any time soon...
Instead he tried looking around. This attempt was, essentially, no more effective than the first, given the almost complete lack of light in...well, in whatever sort of room it was that he was hanging upside down in.
The room was totally dark.
Actually, it seemed a little more greyish than it had done a minute before.
He fancied he could just make out the edges of surfaces, faint traces in the blackness.
He opened his eyes as wide as he could.
Yes, the room was definitely getting lighter.
He could just about make out his hand when he flapped it in front of his face. He looked up towards his feet. The rope wrapped around his ankles and glinted in the twilight. He could see where it joined the ceiling, maybe ten feet above his, well, feet.
Something glinted brightly in the corner of his vision. He swung his body around in time to see earthrise through the large porthole window that took up a huge chunk of the room.
It was magnificent.
Sunlight glinted on the Atlantic, slanting down through iridescent patches of white cloud, sparkling off the yellow sands of Africa and blotting out the stars in half the sky. He could see the wave of nighttime that still engulfed half of Europe, could see a thousand pinpricks of light glittering up from the cities filled with the teeming millions of pulsing humanity.
"My days..." breathed Matt.
"Squeak," agreed a familiar voice from behind him.
Matt whipped around. The room was fully illuminated now, bathed in the reflected luminescence of Earth. Moses was only a few feet away from him. He hadn't noticed him in the darkness
The small hamster hung by his own, much thinner, length of rope from the ceiling. His forepaws were tied together, too.
"Squeak," he said again, his nose twitching earnestly.
Matthew reached out a hand. Strain as he might, he could not quite reach Moses.
He began rocking his body back and forth, trying to build up enough momentum to carry him within grasping range of his beloved pet.
There was a cold, grinding noise.
A door opened in the wall opposite the porthole. Suddenly, a new light was streaming into the room, bright and clinical.
And with the light came the aliens.
Mathew considered himself fairly well versed in the various types of extraterrestrials that other enthusiasts had catalogued and categorised over the years. Some were small and thin, with big heads and grey skins. Some were tall and broad, with tails and forked tongues. Some looked rather like human beings with Cornish Pasties glued to their foreheads.
But none of them looked like the two ghastly creatures that were even now rolling in through the door towards him.
They were enormous and slimy and scaled. They had eyes where there should be noses and buttocks where there should be mouths. They had at least seven appendages that Mathew could not even name.
And they smelt awful.
Mathew tried to scream, but all that came out was a twisted little, "Pth," sound.
They loomed towards him.
They reached out horrible sharp talons to rend him...
They ignored him entirely.
* * *
"So, my pretty," gloated General Xan, reaching out his three primary hands towards the alien leader. "It seems that you are in quite a pickle, aren't you?"
"Squeak," said Moses, firmly.
"Yes, yes, I believe that's what your comrades said, too," General Xan gave an ugly laugh. "They said that right up to the end. It took rather a long time though, didn't it Captain Funnelsqueak?"
"Oh, indeed my lord," agreed the Captain. "Quite an excruciatingly long time. They begged us to stop, in the end."
"Squeak?" said Moses, the first trace of doubt entering his voice.
"Stop? Of course we didn't stop!" replied General Xan, who had grown so excited by all this ghastliness that his stink gland had started to boil. "Oh no, we didn't stop for them, and we won't stop for you...unless, of course, you would care to tell us the location of your secret base?"
Moses twitched his whiskers uncertainly.
"Squeak," he said at length, narrowing his eyes.
"Very well," laughed General Xan. "It seems you give us no choice..."
He reached out towards the furry alien leader...
At the last moment he pivoted round on his central boneshaft and leered at the alien's pet.
"What a horrible little toy you have," General Xan declaimed, then, as an aside to Captain Funnelsqueak. "Is it sentient, do you think?"
Captain Funnelsqueak shook his head firmly to the negative.
"A salient point, my lord, but no," he said. "It is quite impossible that such an unfathomably ugly creature could attain anything but the most rudimentary trappings of awareness. For instance I am sure it can perceive pain..."
"Argh!" said Mathew.
"Oooh!" said Mathew.
"But beyond that, it is quite a simple, harmless life form, I am sure," concluded Captain Funnelsqueak, removing his organic nerve stimulation appendage from the alien pet.
General Xan moved closer to get a better look.
"My, my, what a hideous thing..." he mused. He began poking randomly at parts of the strange creature.
"What is this, Funnelsqueak?" he demanded.
"Ah, I believe that is the life form's nose, sir," supplied the Captain.
"What, it only has the one?" General Xan was incredulous. "And what about this?"
"That, if I am not very much mistaken, is the creature's windpipe," said Captain Funnelsqueak. "You can tell by the rather pleasing shade of blue its face is turning."
"I see," General Xan was nodding, "And what about...oh!"
Captain Funnelsqueak stared on in horror.
* * *
The terrible creature relaxed its iron grip on Mathew's throat, letting air back into his starved lungs.
He was trying to scream, but no sound would come.
He watched in horror as the monster reached up towards his trousers.
Something slipped out of his pocket, dislodged by the brushing of the hand.
It caught the light as it fell towards the floor.
It was half a chip.
He remembered now. He had accidentally put it behind his ear just before this whole abduction business had taken place. From there he had shoved it in his pocket just before being sucked up by the giant vacuum cleaner.
Now it was spinning down towards the ground.
It surprised General Xan as it fell past his lower nose, causing him to breath in sharply from the shock.
The chip was sucked into the General's gaping maw.
"Urgh!" said General Xan. "What the hell was that?"
But already his highly advanced digestive system had begun to work on the alien organic matter.
General Xan was a member of an extremely evolved species, battered into shape by countless millions of years of ruthless natural selection, and honed to utter sharpness by the very latest in intergalactic genetic engineering. And owing to his role as ultimate religious leader aboard the ship, he had been designed with a few special features in mind.
High Priests – such as General Xan – were endowed with the ability to consume their underlings and assimilate their thoughts, feelings, even nuances of character into their own being. This gave some sway with the devout underlings, who were very much reassured by the fact that, if they were given the honour of being consumed by their priest, the afterlife would be on the cards almost as quickly as the after dinner mints. Of course, the real reason why the ruling class had adopted this system was that it was very easy to become aware of an impending revolution when all one had to do to find out was eat one of the suspected conspirators.
On the other hand, none of the highly intelligent genetic engineers who had designed General Xan's germ line had considered the perspective of an average English potato, let alone how it felt about being turned into an oven chip and marinated in a chemical soup of tomato ketchup and vinegar, before being stuffed into some ingrate's pocket, abducted, and finally consumed by a strange and horrible organism from a distant world.
In short, the potato was pissed.
Deep in its unravelling genetic code, the potato was furious.
And it was conveying its anger and confusion to General Xan.
"Urgh! Argh! Phnggg!" screamed General Xan, writhing around in agony and smashing into the walls of the room.
"My lord!" shouted Captain Funnelsqueak. "What's wrong?"
"Spling!" explained General Xan desperately, "Knurg! Phlug! Jhlinget!"
But try as he might, his language centres had been irrevocably scrambled by the alien DNA. He closed his eyelids to try and clear his head, but his mind was abruptly filled with the taste of mud and the endless clay of potato fields.
Captain Funnelsqueak leapt upon his raving leader, trying to subdue him.
Unnoticed, forgotten, Mathew began slowly swinging his body back and forth. After a few moments he had built up sufficient momentum. He made a swing for Moses.
He waited until he swung close again, and made another lunge.
This time he managed to grab the tiny ball of fur in one hand. As quick as he could, he undid the little knots that bound the hamster tight.
"Squeak!" exclaimed Moses triumphantly: he was free!
Now it was Mathew's turn. In a blur of fur, Moses scampered up Mathew's legs and began gnawing at the rope that bound his feet.
There was an ominous creaking noise.
Suddenly, the rope gave way.
"Ow!" said Mathew, rubbing his head. "You could have warned me you were about to do that!"
"Squeak!" tutted Moses reproachfully, before dashing off across the floor and out through the open door.
Mathew gave one last glance at the pair of horrible alien forms writhing around on the floor.
"The Masher!" General Xan was howling, while Captain Funnelsqueak tried desperately to calm him. "Oh! How we must fear the dreaded Masher!"
Shaking his head in disbelief, Mathew ran out of the room, following in the footsteps of Moses.
* * *
The ship was a maze. There were hundreds of corridors and passageway, portholes and doorways and rooms filled with strange, ominous machinery and sickly luminescent computer consoles that looked as if they had been grown rather than built.
But somehow, Moses seemed to know what he was doing.
Mathew followed the hamster as he scampered down a corridor, before ducking into a recess just in time to avoid a patrol of horrible, slimy aliens.
Then they were off again.
At last, they reached a door that was closed to them. Something was written in a brutal-looking language above the doorway. Mathew couldn't read the words of course, but he got the distinct impression that the message was a threatening one.
But Moses scampered up towards the door and leapt from one recess to another, higher and higher, until he was standing on the level of a sort of hand pad, though the sort of hand that must fit a pad like that would be exactly the sort of hand the owner of which one would not like to meet on a dark night.
Moses nuzzled the pad with his nose.
There was an unhappy beeping noise.
A red light lit up above the door.
"Oh dear," said Mathew.
But Moses simply coughed.
With a wet little chewing noise, the remains of half a sausage were brought forth from his podgy cheeks.
The semi digested food fell into the bio-sampler of the computerised door.
The red light above the door began flashing urgently. A siren started howling.
There was a broken hissing noise, and the door slid open in a plume of ominous black smoke.
"Squeak!" shouted Moses, and dashed inside. Mathew followed.
Further in, there was another set of doors. These ones were open. Moses scampered through.
Mathew jumped in after the hamster, and the doors closed shut behind them. They were in a small round room filled with computer equipment and keyboards. Lights flashed on and off efficiently. Through a small porthole, Matt could see the beloved blues and greens of Earth turning slowly in the void.
Moses poked at the controls with his nose.
There was a heavy thudding noise. The room seemed to shift under them.
Suddenly, the view out of the window was spinning, Earth rotating round and round, and alternating with a view of something huge and shining and ugly.
It took Mathew a moment to realise they had jettisoned out into space in some kind of escape pod.
But why is their ship on fire? wondered Mathew.
It was true. Out in space, the mother ship was being torn apart by fires and explosions. It was spinning away from them and breaking up.
Inside their escape capsule, one small monitor showed a view from within the dying mothership.
"Don't fry me!" General Xan was wailing. "I don't want to be a Kettle Chip!"
"Not the abattoir!" screeched the electronic voice of the ship's bioware mainframe. "I don't want to be a salami!"
"Squeak," coughed Moses, and nosed a button. The screen went dark.
Mathew breathed a sigh of relief, as through the small porthole, beautiful Earth gradually swelled until it was - once again - the whole world.
* * *
Philip Frogmore stretched out one long, exquisitely manicured finger, and paused in the act of explaining why his theories about the connections between Atlantis and the Greys were so groundbreaking.
The rapt crowd looked on. It was mainly made up of young women – an abnormality for a convention such as this – and Mr. Frogmore was greatly enjoying the attention.
"So you see," he continued, "when the Greys left Atlantis, not only did they know about the impending disaster, they had, in fact, actually engineered it..."
"What?" said a particularly pretty girl standing near the front of the crowd.
"I SAID," repeated Philip Frogmore, having to shout over the rising roar of noise that had just started up, and which was threatening to drown him out, "WHEN THE GREYS LEFT..."
But at that moment there was a tremendous crash. The world was cacophony.
Something came hurtling in through the roof of the convention centre. Stalls and counters and people were overturned and went flying.
Philip Frogmore was thrown from the podium and landed in a battered pile some meters away.
When he came to, he was amazed to see the strange object that had appeared on the stage. He looked up at the bright rays of sunlight that were slanting in through the staved-in roof. Dust and pieces of plaster were raining down on the crowd as they dashed up to the large object and began to investigate.
With a hissing noise, a hatch on top of the object popped open.
"Squeak!" said Moses.
"Oh, look – a hamster!" exclaimed the pretty young woman. "How adorable! Is there anyone else in there?"
Philip Frogmore gaped on in disbelief as the familiar face of his nemesis emerged from the alien escape pod.
"Hi everyone," said Mathew, clambering out of the pod, and sharing a smile with the particularly pretty young woman. "Well, have I got a story to tell you all..."
* * *
Deep underground, in a secret location known only to the elite few who ruled the world and defended it ever and anon against the constant threat of alien invasion, Special Agent Ulfarious Sprinklenose III, AKA "Agent Moses", finished filing his report to his senior operative and relaxed back, enjoying the small crystal goblet of scented milk that was his one occasional vice.
There was silence for a long time.
"And your pet really has no idea about your true identity?" inquired the superior operative at length. "After all that he has seen, would it not be safer to liquefy him before he can compromise us?"
Agent Sprinklenose pondered the question, and ran one paw thoughtfully though his whiskers.
"No, I think we are safe on that score, at least," he pronounced after a moment. "He is more interested in the female he met when we landed than he is in the details of our little adventure."
"Good," said the superior operative. "I hope they behave themselves."
"And anyway," continued Agent Sprinklenose, "if he did decide to talk, who would believe him?"
The superior operative nodded sagely.
"He really thinks you are just another dumb animal?"
Agent Sprinklenose chuckled and shrugged his narrow shoulders.
"Squeak," he said.