THE BEGINNING HOUR

DANNY RAVEN

4 SHORT STORIES

9 SCIENCE FICTION SHORT STORIES

CROSSING

DEFORMED

THE CHESS PLAYERS

THE BEGINNING HOUR

THE RETRIEVER

THE RETRIEVER 2: COMING TO A HIGH SCHOOL NEAR YOU

THE RETRIEVER 3: BEST PART OF THE DAY IS NIGHT

THE RETRIEVER 4: FAREWELL EARTHLINGS

THE FARM

THE PLANET THAT LOVED PEOPLE

THE DWARVES OF CERES

THE MAN WHO TIDIED UP THE PLANET

SOFT LAUGHTER

CROSSING

The last thing I remembered was the sharp pain under my breast bone, like somebody was twisting a knife in there then I was on my knees on the thick carpet in my study, clawing under my shirt at my chest. The pain got worse after that and I suppose I must have passed out.

When I came to I was fully clothed, lying on top of a large bed. It was pretty comfortable there, the bed swaying gently from side to side and I lay awhile, just staring at the ceiling, so glad the pain had gone.

'Somebody must've found me and called a doctor,' I thought. 'They've given me a shot and left me here to recover.'

I closed my eyes and enjoyed the comforting swaying of the bed. Then a few things occurred to me.

'Hospital beds don't usually sway from side to side,' I thought. 'The rooms aren't as bare as this. There's usually someone around.'

Where was I?

I sat up slowly, a hand tight over my chest, not wanting that pain to start up again. My head felt surprisingly clear considering what they'd given me and I swung my legs onto the floor. Gingerly I stood up, waiting for the knife to twist in my chest but thankfully it didn't. I walked over to the door, opened it and looked out.

It was daytime. There was a broad passageway outside the door. Beyond that a wooden topped railing. Beyond that a river.

A river!?

Puzzled and a little afraid I leaned against the doorway, wondering how I had come to be on this boat instead of recovering in hospital. Maybe I was dreaming, having a nightmare of some kind brought on by what they'd given me for the pain. The slap of the water against the boat's hull sounded real enough to me though.

I stepped out and glanced up and down the passageway. There was no-one else around. I walked over and leaned on the rail and looked out. The boat was on a very broad river moving diagonally against the current towards the opposite bank but it was too far away to make out any details.

Just then I heard a door opening at the top of the passageway. I turned and saw a man coming out. He must've seen me when he glanced round but he didn't give any indication. He walked over to the rail, took a pipe from his jacket pocket and started cleaning it out with a short silver knife.

He didn't seem particularly sociable and I would normally have let it go but he seemed to be the only one around and I had to find out what was going on. I strolled up beside him and leaned on the rail but he didn't look up, just continued cleaning out his pipe, tapping the bowl on the rail and letting the ashes fall over the side.

"I think there's been some mistake," I said to him eventually but he didn't even acknowledge my presence and carried on scraping at the bowl of his pipe. "There's been a mistake," I repeated. "I shouldn't be here. I ought to be in hospital."

He continued to ignore me and tapped his pipe on the rail again and emptied it. I could see some coils of dead tobacco falling into the water below.

For the first time I noticed how black the water was. Black like I'd never seen before. Black and deep. Where the boat knifed across the current, the water foamed white against the hull but this only made the black even blacker. A tiny shiver of fear wriggled through me but I tried to shrug it aside.

I looked back at the stranger beside me. His attitude was beginning to irritate me. "Look, there's something wrong here!" I said sharply. "How did I get on board this boat?"

The man finished cleaning his damned pipe then slowly looked round. He stared at me for a time before speaking. "You don't know?" he grunted.

"Know what?" I asked.

"Why you're here?"

"Of course not," I told him. "The last thing I remember was the pain in my chest then I must've passed out. When I came round I was…. I was…."

The look of understanding that came into my eyes must've told him I suddenly knew. He turned away and started filling his pipe.

I gripped the rail tighter, the realization of what had happened stunning me. "So I died!" I muttered aloud, gazing out unseeing over the dark water. "Back there in my study – I died!" I glanced at the stranger for a reaction but he didn't say anything so his silence confirmed that I had guessed correctly.

Fear and wonder ran through me at the same time. Dead! I was dead! My life had ended! At least it had happened quickly and I was grateful for that. There had been no long drawn out suffering.

Then something else occurred to me. I was dead yet still felt, well….alive. I mean I could see, hear, think, feel. If there was supposed to be nothing after death, I wouldn't be capable of these, wouldn't be here now.

"So there is life after death!" I muttered in amazement.

"For some," the stranger muttered, tamping down the tobacco in his pipe.

I didn't really hear him. I was still staring out over the river, still getting used to the discoveries I'd just made.

We were nearing the opposite bank now and I could make out some of it. A jetty pointed towards us, sticking out into the river like a long, bony, beckoning finger. There was a figure standing on the bank watching us approach but I couldn't make him out from this distance.

I glanced back at the stranger. He had filled his pipe and was now lighting it, holding a match over the bowl and puffing out small wisps of smoke. I smiled at him, suddenly understanding his earlier attitude. He was puzzled and afraid, just like me.

"So you died too?" I asked, still smiling at him.

He shook his head and continued to puff on his pipe.

I frowned. "Not dead? Then who-"

"I'm the Ferryman," he interrupted, taking the pipe from his mouth.

"The Ferryman?" I repeated, frowning. "You mean this is your work?"

He nodded.

It all seemed strange, unreal somehow but I decided I had to play along with it all till I got to the bottom of things. Then I thought, 'If this chap says he's the Ferryman I suppose I ought to humour him.' I felt for my wallet but it wasn't where I usually keep it. I searched through my other pockets but they were all empty.

"I'm sorry," I said to him, "I can't seem to find my wallet. I won't be able to pay."

He glanced at me. "You will," he replied.

His pipe was well lit now and he seemed satisfied with it. The smell of the tobacco was strong and sweet as the soft breeze wafted it past me. He turned and started back to the door he'd come out of earlier and I could see now that it was the wheelhouse. I caught his arm as he walked away.

"If you're the Ferryman you'll know where we're going," I said.

He jerked with his pipe in the direction of the approaching jetty. "There," was all he said.

"Does it have a name, this place?" I asked.

He didn't answer, just stared at me in silence.

"Well the river then, do I know it?"

He continued to stare at me. It was a strange look. Not pity or contempt or anything like that. More puzzlement. Like I should have known.

"It's called the Styx," he said eventually, then jerked his arm free and went back into the wheelhouse.

I staggered back against the rail then turned and looked down at the dark river. Something started gnawing away at me then. Cold and black. Like the water.

The boat started to slow and I glanced up. We were nearing the jetty and the figure I'd seen earlier was strolling along it. He seemed in no hurry, like he had all the time in the world.

It was with a sickening comprehension that I realized who he was and why he was there. He was coming to meet us.

To meet me.

The throb of the engine died in the boat and it coasted slowly in the last few yards then bumped softly against the jetty. The figure walking along was closer and I could make him out quite clearly now. Quite clearly.

And he was grinning.

DEFORMED

Krebbs brought the car to a screeching halt outside the Hospital and struggled out the door.

People on the street stopped and turned to look, thinking maybe there'd been an accident then carried on when they saw it was nothing. Some of the women exchanged knowing smiles when they saw where he was going.

Krebbs had to take the steps one at a time and he cursed his leg for slowing him. He reached the top of the steps and limped along the short path to the Hospital's main entrance. The receptionist looked up sharply as he crashed through the doors but then she too smiled, used to this sort of thing.

"They phoned me at the office!" Krebbs said, panting, as he reached the counter. "My wife – which room is she in?"

The receptionist smiled again. She was really all right. "Perhaps if you gave me her name, sir?"

Krebbs looked puzzled then he too smiled. In his excitement he had forgotten to give his wife's name. "Sorry, Alice Krebbs," he said, reddening. "It's my first you see. Our first I mean," he corrected himself.

"Alice Krebbs," the receptionist repeated. "One moment, sir." She swung round in her seat and started tapping the name in on her keyboard.

Krebbs wanted to yell at her to hurry but bit his lip instead. One of the woman's arms was completely withered and it hung shrivelled and unmoving at her side. This made her search take even longer.

At last she turned to him. "Room 306," she said. "Third floor. If you take the lift along the-"

But Krebbs was already limping along the corridor to the lifts. The receptionist smiled and returned to her work.

Krebbs pressed the 'down' button and waited impatiently for the lift to arrive. He squinted through his good eye and watched the numbers light up above the doors, marking its progress as it descended. At last the 'ground' circle lit up and the doors slid open. He limped in and pressed the button for the third floor.

As the lift slowly ascended it suddenly occurred to Krebbs that he was now a father. "A father!" he said aloud in wonder and a huge grin spread over his face. "I'm a father!" he repeated. Up till now it had only registered that his wife had had a baby. Their baby. It hadn't really sunk in that he was now a father.

At last the lift reached the third floor and the doors slid open. It was a long corridor and as Krebbs limped along, he thought he'd never get there. When he reached room 306 he knocked and was opening the door before his wife could say "Come in."

She was sitting up in bed and as soon as he looked at her he knew something was wrong. Tears were running down one side of her face and she was dabbing at them with a handkerchief.

He limped over and put his arms round her, trying to calm her but this only made her worse. "What is it, Alice?" he asked gently. "What's happened?"

He looked at her and his heart turned over. Despite the tears he'd never seen her look so pretty. He smiled and she tried to respond. A brief smile appeared on half of her face, the other half remaining fixed and unmoving. Then she remembered and started sobbing again. "The baby," she said between sobs, "there's something-"

Just then the door opened and a doctor came in. "Are you Mr Krebbs?" he asked, looking at him.

Krebbs nodded.

"If you'd care to follow me," the doctor said. "We must talk."

Krebbs smiled once more at his wife then limped over to the door. The doctor followed him out.

"Is there something wrong with the baby?" Krebbs asked as they walked along the corridor.

The doctor didn't reply. He stopped and checked the number on a room door then took a key from his pocket and unlocked it. "In here please, "he said and they entered.

The room had no windows and was dimly lit. There was a single cot in the centre of the room and Krebbs could hear some gurgling noises coming from it.

"I'm afraid we've had one of those rare occurrences," the doctor told him, indicating the cot. "They still happen from time to time. We don't really know why."

Krebbs moved towards the cot but the doctor gently held him back. "You don't have to see it if you don't want to," he said. "I'm afraid it's not pretty to look at."

Krebbs turned and looked at him. "I must see it," he said. "It's mine."

The doctor flicked on the main light then led him over and pulled back the sheet on the cot.

Krebbs recoiled in disgust. The baby was deformed. Horribly deformed. The worst he'd ever seen. It lay naked on the cot, kicking its legs and waving its arms about. Two legs. Two arms. Krebbs counted the fingers and toes. Ten of each. He shook his head and shuddered.

The baby's skin was pale. Smooth and pale. Smooth and unmarked. Krebbs glanced at the doctor's hands where they held the sheet back, comparing his rough, mottled skin with the baby's smooth, unmarked skin. He shuddered again.

And the baby's face! Its face was horrible. A round soft mouth. A nose. Two ears. And the eyes! Two blue eyes blinked up at the lights in the ceiling.

The doctor covered the baby and gently led Krebbs from the room, flicking off the main light and locking the door after him. "You know what we have to do?" he asked softly.

Krebbs nodded. He knew the rules.

"It's a kindness," the doctor said, as they walked back along the corridor. "Best putting it out of its misery. Can you imagine the life something as deformed as that would have? Imagine the teasing at school from the other children. And later," he went on, shuddering involuntarily, "can you imagine any young woman who would marry someone like that? No, it would be too cruel to keep it alive. Too cruel. It's best this way."

They reached Room 306 again and stood in awkward silence outside the door.

"Go to her," the doctor eventually said. "She needs you." He brightened and half smiled. "Who knows….maybe in the future," he said.

Krebbs glanced at him and nodded. "Yes," he agreed, "maybe in the future."

THE CHESS PLAYERS

On a flat area of a hill overlooking the small town, the chess table had been set up. It was a dark mahogany table, beautifully carved, with the board inlaid on the top. The game had been going on for almost an hour but was now drawing to a close.

"Knight takes Bishop," Black said, moving his Knight and removing White's Bishop. He leaned back in his chair and looked across the table. "Check and mate, I would say."

White studied the board in silence. Black waited patiently while he worked out the moves. At last White reached out and knocked over his King then cursed and swept all the pieces from the board.

Black ignored him and gazed down in the direction of the small town, a distant look in his eyes.

White rose from the table. He started picking up the pieces from where they'd landed on the grass, placing them in their individual slots in a mahogany box. "Your move," he said, without turning.

"I know," said Black. "My win therefore my decision on what happens next to the human race."

"Well?"

Black continued to stare down at the small town. "It concerns that virus I introduced some years ago. I believe they call it AIDS." He smiled. "A particular favourite that virus. One of my best moves in recent times."

"What of the virus?" White asked gruffly.

Black looked over at him. "Despite the amount of research they've been doing on it and the medicine they've produced so far, they still won't find a cure - I'm blocking it."

White gathered up the last of the pieces. He muttered something obscene to himself.

"Did you hear?" Black asked.

"I heard!" White retorted. He snapped the box shut then walked over and threw it on the table.

"I bid you goodbye for the present then," Black said, standing up. "We can decide on the location of our next game nearer the time. Agreed?"

White nodded.

Black shimmered and was gone.

White sighed and slumped down in his chair. 'How many more millions of deaths will there be from that bastard virus?' he thought and angrily thumped the table.

He had hoped for a victory in the chess game and the chance to give mankind the gift of a cure for AIDS. Now he would have to wait another year for his next opportunity.

He stared down at the small town and sighed again. "Sorry," he muttered. "So sorry." He stood up, shimmered and was gone.

Shortly afterwards the table and chairs shimmered then vanished, leaving no trace on the hill. A gentle breeze wafted softly across the grass and down towards the small town.

THE BEGINNING HOUR

'A golden age of poetry and power

Of which this noonday's the beginning hour.'

I

The slim, dark-haired man finished his coffee, threw some money on the table and left the café. Mexico City was still busy this late in the year and in a few minutes he was just one of the hundreds strolling along the crowded streets. Not that there was anything unusual about him anyway – he was casually dressed, was wearing sunglasses and had a camera slung over his shoulder.

He stopped now and then to look in some shop windows or at some leathers but he didn't buy anything.

Further along the street he came across a line of taxis waiting for business. He strolled over and leaned in at the open window of the first and gave the driver an address before climbing in the back.

Fifteen minutes later they had left the crowds behind and were driving slowly along a backstreet of non-descript buildings and drab grey government offices. The dark-haired man was leaning forward in his seat, glancing at all the buildings as they passed.

When he spotted the one he was looking for he gave no indication that he'd seen it and the driver stopped further along the street at the address he'd given earlier.

After the taxi had gone, there was an oppressive quiet about the area, broken only by the distant hum of the traffic from the busier part of the city. He waited on the corner awhile, the hot afternoon sun beating down on him.

Satisfied that he hadn't been followed, he headed back down the empty street, casually glancing round now and then. As he approached the building he wanted, he looked at his watch. He had timed it perfectly.

He smiled and walked into the Cuban Embassy.

Inside, the small reception room was cool after the dusty heat of the street. He removed his sunglasses and mopped his face with a handkerchief. Across the room, a door opened and a clerk appeared.

There was no conversation. The dark-haired man reached into his jacket pocket, withdrew his passport and handed it over. The clerk glanced at the name and the photograph then withdrew.

He was staring at an oil painting of Fidel Castro when the door opened again. He turned and a uniformed, bearded man was standing in the doorway. The man was holding his passport and smiling, his teeth white against the dark beard.

He held the door open and in heavily accented English said, "Come in, Mr Oswald. We've been expecting you."

Two hours later, Lee Harvey Oswald was sitting at a table at another of the city's many outdoor cafés. He drank some coffee then took out an envelope from his inside jacket pocket. He opened the envelope and with a slightly trembling hand, removed the single small sheet of paper. All that had been typed on it was - N22.

He took out a small notebook and flicked it open to November. Running his finger down the column of dates, he came to the twenty second. Next to it was written - Dallas.

He replaced the notebook then burned the small sheet of paper, letting the ashes fall and grinding them underfoot. He leaned back in his chair and drank some more coffee.

N22 – November the twenty second, in Dallas, Texas. Two months to make his arrangements. Two months until the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.

II

Rain sleeked down over the White House. It formed small pools on the manicured green lawns and the long sweeping drives. A chill wind gusted in now and again, drifting the rain against the front of the building.

From a small, dimly lit office in the sprawling east wing, a man watched it running down the windows. He liked to slip away to this rarely used side-room from time to time while the elite argued about policies in the main offices. He'd made some important decisions here, decisions which had been incorporated into current legislation but the enormity of what he'd arranged with Oswald completely overshadowed all of them.

Sometimes the sheer immensity of what he'd done stunned him and he could only sit and stare. More so now, with Dallas only a few days away but then the familiar cold logic would reassert itself and he'd realise his decision had been correct.

He poured himself a drink and carried it over to a small desk near the window. He sat down, lit a cigarette and stared out at the late November gloom.

It was all like a dream this Kennedy presidency. A big dream. A thousand day dream - but it was a dream we'd all wanted. Every one of us. Me included. We'd all wanted so badly to believe in that dream and Kennedy was the one who put us all to sleep to dream it.

Well now it was time to wake up. To wake from this dream of life before we all slipped into a fucking coma.

He sipped his drink and looked out at the rain. He drew heavily on his cigarette and ash fell on the uncarpeted floor but he never noticed it.

He shook his head as he thought of all that foolish idealism, that ridiculous Kennedy idealism…between the idea and the reality always falls the shadow…Kennedy was the idea and the price they were all now paying was the reality. And there was an immense black shadow hanging over the country. The shadow of Vietnam, of the Bay of Pigs, of the Cuban Missiles Crisis, of problems with Congress, of race riots.

He stubbed out his cigarette and leaned back in his chair, feet up on the desk, hands clasped behind his head.

Jesus, this Vietnam thing looked like it was getting out of hand, even though they'd had the best advice on it. General Douglas MacArthur himself had said don't get involved in any land battles in Asia. MacArthur! The top military mind in the country. So what did the Kennedy administration do? Send in troops. Advisers. Twenty thousand of them now in full combat gear.

He sneered in the darkening room. Advisers!

He shook his head angrily. And the two Cuban fiascos – the shambles of the Bay of Pigs invasion followed by the Missiles Crisis a year later. And what did the Kennedy elite do after the Missiles Crisis? Ordered all those ICBMs.

Naturally the Russians found out and naturally they started their own arsenal. So from now on they would have to match each other weapon for weapon. What kind of world will that bring? Christ in the future when these times are re-examined they'll blame Kennedy for starting the nuclear arms race.

And that stone-hearted bastard Khrushchev had thrown up the Berlin Wall after the Cuban shit too!

Just two years and ten months in power, Jack and so far you've managed to separate East from West with a wall, behind which each side is racing to out-manufacture the other in nuclear arms! So much for idealism. So much for the great Kennedy dream.

No, it has to stop now. Before any more damage is done. Before people wake up themselves and see their expectations shattered.

Christ, it's not exactly as if the dream's running smoothly here either. Already you're having big problems with Congress, Jack. Well what the hell did you expect after you and your elitist White House fraternity alienated them? Co-operation? No wonder they're blocking some of your economic policies and you can't get your campaign promises fulfilled.

And Civil Rights? You jumped on that bandwagon when you thought it was heading in the right direction and where did it lead? Race riots, lynchings, more problems in the South than ever before. Murders that are turning people like Medgar Evers into martyrs.

He sighed and shook his head then stood up and walked over to the window and looked out. The sky was dull and the rain showed no signs of stopping. He watched it awhile as it fell into the small pools on the lawn.

All his cold logic made sense as he knew it would and the earlier doubts vanished.

"Your dream's turning into a nightmare, Jack," he said softly, "and somebody has to wake us up. Now!"

The country would be stunned when it happened. Sure it would. People would be dazed awhile but everybody's dazed when they first wake up. It takes time to adjust to reality again but once people were fully awake, they'd start to forget all about their dreams.

There was one major point about it all that still bothered him though.

He walked back to the desk and opened his brief-case. He took out the book and glanced at the now familiar cover. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. He'd read it some time ago and after he'd set up the deal with Oswald, a particular line from it strayed into his mind.

He opened the book at the corner he'd turned down and stared at the sentence he'd carefully underlined in red ink. He read it to himself quietly a few times. It comforted him that the problem had been acknowledged hundreds of years ago.

"Why does it comfort you?" he asked himself. He was too honest not to give a truthful answer. "Because I'm afraid of the punishment to come," he answered softly.

He sighed and slipped the book back into his brief-case then left the office.

III

Oswald raised the curtained window about a foot then studied it from behind the table. Too high. He lowered it a few inches then studied it again. It would do for now.

He unzipped the case and piece by piece, removed the rifle. He looked down the barrel, checked the firing mechanism, ran his hand along the stock. Then he cleaned and assembled it, using a small screwdriver.

There was a straight-backed wooden chair in the corner of the room and he kicked some books out of the way and dragged it over to the table near the window. The floor creaked as he moved but there was no-one around to hear him anyway.

He sat down and laid the rifle across the small sandbag he'd already placed on the table. The barrel rolled smoothly across the top but he'd need to wedge it somehow till he sighted it.

He reached over and chopped the sandbag with the edge of his hand then laid the barrel in the groove. It held. He settled in the chair, the stock snug against his shoulder and looked through the sights.

The crowd across the street jumped into blurred nearness. He slowly revolved the sights until they swam into sharp focus. He slipped his finger round the trigger and steadied the barrel with his other hand.

Faces. They were just faces. A lot of faces. He picked one. A man. In a blue baseball cap. Smiling. Talking to his neighbour. Could see his lips moving. See his teeth. The man leaned back and laughed. Opened his mouth wide. Oswald pulled the trigger and blew off the back of his head.

The hammer fell on an empty chamber.

He smiled, lifted the rifle and swept it up and down the street. A minute adjustment to the sights. Flatten out the sandbag.

He stood the gun against the table and took out a small cardboard box from his jacket pocket. A clip of six bullets nestled inside on some cotton wool. He snapped the clip into the rifle and clicked a bullet into the breech.

He was ready.

He leaned back in the chair and stared up at the dull sky. A chill breeze blew in the window but he never noticed it. From far below, the noise of the crowd drifted up to him, a dull roaring.

Something occurred to him and he smiled and pulled himself back from the sky.

He picked up the rifle and peered through the sights. A slight sweep. Found what he was looking for. Stared and felt his finger tensing on the trigger. NOT NOW! DON'T PULL NOW! He smiled and eased off the pressure and laid the rifle on the table.

The man in the blue baseball cap had been eating popcorn.

IV

Sitting in a small ante-room in the Dallas hotel, staring out the window, he was still brooding over the implications of the sentence he'd underlined in the book.

The weather matched his mood. The sky was a dirty grey and still held the threat of rain. Earlier, he'd seen the Secret Service Agents pulling the top up on the presidential limousine, then it had cleared a little and they'd taken it down again. Strange, he'd thought at the time, how the weather might have cancelled an assassination. But then if it didn't happen today, it would happen some other time.

He opened his briefcase and took out the book. It flipped open at the page he'd turned down and he read the passage again.

It still bothered him. More so than any of the other after-effects and they were going to be bad enough. It went against everything he'd been taught but there was no way round it. Arranged any other way, the implications would still be the same. The one redeeming feature was that given different circumstances it would never have entered his mind. If the President had been somebody else, it would never have been considered. It was being done for the country. No other reason.

He smiled in the dimly lit room. He was beginning to believe his own rationalisation.

He laid the book down on the window ledge, stood up and looked out the window. Down in the cordoned-off courtyard he saw the Agents making their final check on the limousine. 'You're wasting your time,' he thought.

He watched them until they finished and the outriders mounted their Harleys. The courtyard was now full of people milling around. There was a knock on the door behind him and he turned and saw a smiling Governor Connally and one of his aides come in.

It was time.

V

The crowd began cheering further up the street. The motorcade was coming. He glanced down. All craning their heads away to the right.

The sky's pulling me. Up. Pulling me up….Leave the sky alone. Held out his hand – only a slight tremor. Saw the hand pick up the rifle. Felt the stock smooth and hard against his cheek. The crowd in focus. Flags. Waving flags.

Seconds stretched out inside his head. Someone turned the volume down in the crowd.

A white helmet on a Harley. Then another. Like they were sailing along. Not touching the ground. The limousine floated in. A small American flag fluttering on the bonnet.

Looks so clean. Kennedy looks so clean. Smiling and waving. Saying something to Jackie. Glancing round. Eyes met. Then away.

HE LOOKED AT ME! HE LOOKED AT ME! CAN'T KILL A MAN SO CLEAN! LOOKED AT ME! PULL THE FUCKING TRIGGER! NOW!

He pulled. The shot hit him in the neck. Saw Jackie turn to him. Surprised.

No noise from the crowd at all. Why so quiet? Why so quiet?

He pulled again. Missed. Hit Connally.

The third bullet shattered Kennedy's head. Saw him jump then fall against Jackie.

He leaned back. Laid the rifle down. Head on the table.

Oh man, the way he jumped way he jumped….why'd you fire three fire three….just to make sure make sure….

Someone turned the volume up in the crowd.

VI

They'd just seen it on TV back at the hotel. It was difficult to take in.

"The President's been shot!" somebody screamed in the hall.

Others were openly weeping. A couple of women became hysterical but everybody was too stunned to do anything about them.

"But we only said goodbye to him a short time ago," the Manager said to those beside him. Nobody heard him.

In his room on the top floor one of the off duty desk-clerks had also seen it on TV. "It happens every day," he muttered, turning the sound down and walking over to the door. He looked out into the corridor. No-one around. He slipped his jacket on then strolled along to the lift and took it down to the ground floor.

The entrance hall was full of confused, weeping people. He smiled and took the lift back up to the second floor. It was deserted. So was the suite Kennedy and his aides had used for their brief stay.

He searched the main rooms looking for anything that might have been left behind but there was nothing.

"There must be something," he said to himself. "People always forget something. Clothes or papers or maybe some jewellery."

In one of the small ante-rooms he almost missed it. A book lying on the window ledge. He picked it up and flicked it open. The inscription on the inside cover said, 'To Jack from Jackie.' He grinned. It was Kennedy's!

He slipped it inside his jacket and strolled back to the lift. The corridor was still deserted. Back in his room a re-run of the shooting was being shown on TV. He glanced at it then took out the book. Hamlet, Prince of Denmark.

"Big deal," he said and flipped through the pages. Maybe some notes or pictures shoved into it. There was nothing.

He read the inscription again. It was definitely Kennedy's. There would be a good price for this once the heat had died down. Better leave it for a few months though. There's gonna be some shit flyin after this one.

He flicked through the book again in case he'd missed something and noticed that the corner of one of the pages had been turned down. He glanced at the page and saw that part of a sentence had been carefully underlined in red ink: 'Or that the Everlasting had not fixed His canon gainst self-slaughter.'

He frowned and shook his head. It meant nothing to him. He strolled over to his wardrobe, opened it and unlocked a drawer inside it. He shoved the book way at the back under some papers. Nobody would find it there. Probably nobody would be looking for it anyway. He grinned and locked the drawer.

THE RETRIEVER

Personally I've never seen what's so damned interesting about that shabby little planet of yours - Earth I believe you call it.

All your childish games and your plots and your counter plots. One half of your world starving while the other half destroys food. How absurd.

Then there are your war threats. They really make me laugh. Facing up like beasts in the jungle, each hoping the other will back down so you don't have to use those ridiculous, puny weapons you've developed. Your 'nuclear arsenals' I believe you call them. Designed to wipe each other out too. How pathetic.

If you could only see yourselves.

We can. Anytime. We can watch you continually from this dimension although it beats me why anybody wants to waste their time on you when we're so advanced here.

Strangely some people do. I suppose what starts out initially as mild curiosity could eventually become so engrossing that they want a closer look. Which is when they go and see The Director and put in their request – to enter your dimension on Earth and study the person or event in detail.

The Director doesn't usually refuse because everybody's permitted a trip across. They're allowed a three month stay then they must return voluntarily.

It's so easy once they've crossed over. So simple. They just locate the person they've been watching and infiltrate their mind, occupying one of those dark, unused corners and they're right at the centre of what interests them. Hey, you have to admit, you can't get closer to a person than if you're inside their mind! Watching. Listening. Understanding why they make certain decisions. Their true reactions to events around them.

We've been doing it for hundreds of years now and you've never even suspected.

Now and then however we have a problem. Sometimes the person who crossed over won't return when they're supposed to. They get so involved in whoever they're studying, so curious about how things are going to turn out that they don't want to leave. And there's only one way to bring them back.

Which is where I come in. The Retriever.

I shouldn't complain really because it's interesting work and just recently I've added a new twist to make it even more interesting. Well, everybody's got their little games, haven't they!?

You see in your dimension there are two kinds of minds, the weak ones and the strong ones. Now I suppose I must give you some praise for your strong minds, the ones we usually infiltrate and observe. They can't be pushed around or influenced, those minds. They're too strong for that. Too independent.

But the weak ones! Ha! Once they're infiltrated the person can be taken over completely and their thoughts, their actions, their whole lives can be dominated.

When The Director sends for me, tells me someone from our dimension has to be brought back and I cross into your dimension, it's a weak mind I go for. There are so many to choose from. It's childishly simple to select one, dominate the person then direct him to kill the individual with the strong mind and thus retrieve the person from our dimension.

Like the way I infiltrated the mind of somebody called Mark Chapman and directed him to assassinate somebody called John Lennon.

There have been others. Lots. I'm sure you can recall them easily enough.

There are several from our dimension who are overdue at the moment and I'm working on them. Maybe I'll use the new twist I mentioned that I added just for my own amusement, the one The Director hasn't cottoned on to yet…like every now and then when I fail in the assassinations.

Deliberately.

THE RETRIEVER 2 : COMING TO A HIGH SCHOOL NEAR YOU

As they say in the worst of your science fiction movies - Greetings, Earthlings!

The Retriever is back with you once again and I'm here to tell you about the latest games I've been playing on that shabby little planet of yours. That's one of the reasons I haven't spoken to you for some time - my latest games. I've been playing quite a few over the years and between them and returning to my own dimension for long periods I just haven't had the time to communicate with you.

Although it's rather tiresome, here's a brief explanation for those of you not familiar with my work.

In my dimension we are so advanced that you are like cave men compared to us. Despite that, a few of our beings find some of your people interesting although I fail to see why.

Anybody from our dimension is allowed a three month trip across to your dimension where they can easily infiltrate the mind of the person that interests them and observe them close-up.

Sometimes however they get so immersed in the person they're studying that they won't come back when their three months have ended. Which is where I come in - The Retriever.

When The Director sends for me and tells me someone from our dimension has to be brought back and I visit your planet, I simply infiltrate the mind of a weak person, dominate them, then direct them to kill the person being studied and thus retrieve the being from our dimension.

At first this work interested me and I was responsible for some notable assassinations over the years - President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and John Lennon to name but a few.

In parallel with the work, I then looked around for some amusement for myself, some of the games I mentioned earlier. These had nothing to do with my true work as The Retriever but were just for my own entertainment.

Again I chose some of the weak minds on your planet to play my games through and this time it wasn't just single assassinations I went for, it was multiple killings. Just for the hell of it. Just to watch you panic.

And the killings? Ah yes. Ever wondered about all those High School shootings in America in recent years? Or the College or Campus shootings? Well wonder no more. I was behind the notable ones. Me. The Retriever.

You see, there are two types of minds on your planet, the strong and the weak. Now I suppose I must give you some credit for your strong minds, the ones the beings from my dimension infiltrate and observe. They can't be pushed around or influenced, those minds. They're too strong for that. Too independent.

But the weak minds! Ha! Once they're infiltrated the person can be taken over completely and their thoughts, their actions, their whole lives can be dominated. And I can dominate a couple of weak minds at the same time.

As I dominated the minds of one Eric Harris and one Dylan Klebold. Both of them already loved guns and for a long time had secret fantasies about using them but didn't quite have the courage. Well I gave them it. Big style.

All I had to do then was point them in the direction where I had chosen the killings to take place - Columbine High School. And the rest is history.

Shocking? To you - probably. To me - no. You see, you just have no conception of what a backward race you are. To me, my killing some of you is the equivalent of you killing some flies. You are of no consequence to me as flies are of no consequence to you. Understand? Good.

Well I have to return to my own dimension for a while now. I have a real life to catch up on. Communicate with beings on a higher plane. Learn what new advances we've made.

I'll be gone for some time but when I visit you again, I think another shooting spree will take place. How I love the panic. And the fear. And the death. So watch your television news closely in about six months because when I return and my plans are made, I'll be coming to a High School near you.

I haven't quite decided which one it'll be yet, so just think…it could be yours.

THE RETRIEVER 3 : BEST PART OF THE DAY IS NIGHT

'Best part of the day is night

that's when the bastard light

grows dim….

and lets my work begin.'

Those were the words I whispered into the mind of the Night Stalker, Richard Ramirez and didn't he just rise to the bait. Then I led him on his black dance through one long year of night. Till I ditched him at dawn, fifteen bodies later. 'See you in Disneyland, Richard!'

Yes a fine willing subject, the Night Stalker. Such a weak mind. So easy to dominate. To direct to kill.

Just as I have done with so many others on your shabby little planet over the years. All for my own dark amusement. And who would have this incredible power? I do - The Retriever. Read my previous communications for an explanation. When you have you'll understand that I can cross from my dimension to yours, infiltrate the minds of weak people and direct them to kill anyone I want.

Just as I did with Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy. I believe you call them Serial Killers. Serial morons, more like. Both of them weak. Both of them ready to kill.

Now take Ted Bundy. He was young, handsome, intelligent. Women were attracted to him. Ted didn't need to sneak around in the night to get women. Until I whispered to him that he did. Showed him what a grand idea it was. And didn't Ted just love it!

Then there was Jeffrey Dahmer. Such a lonely boy. "Want some company, Jeffrey? Company you can eat!? Snuff out some lovers, Jeffrey! Store them in the freezer - then they'll never leave you!"

There have been others over the years that I've amused myself with - the Zodiac and the Green River Killer to name but two. I needed the Zodiac for an important experiment and I'll tell you about it later.

Sure there have been many other Serial Killers apart from mine. Copycat morons. You can probably name some yourself but they didn't generate the same fear as my subjects.

If I'm so incredibly powerful and advanced how do my subjects get caught if I'm directing them, I hear you ask? Very simple. They get caught when I tire of them and dump them. That's when they start to kill without my guidance. They think they can get away with it. They make mistakes. They leave clues. They get arrested.

Then they go to Court and how it amuses me to listen to their pleas. "It wasn't me! I didn't want to do any of it! It was the voice! It was the voice in my head that made me do it!"

Of course it was the voice in your head. It was me. My voice. The Retriever. But try proving that to the Judge!

Now back to the Zodiac. He was different from the others in that he was part killer, part experiment. And the experiment? I wanted to see if I could suggest to him that he stop killing when I left him. It worked. He did. And the Zodiac has never been caught.

This was important you see for my finale.

Because my next subject will be my last and finest. He will reign supreme for twenty years. He will terrorize all of America and Canada. He will kill five hundred. He will never be caught.

So the next time I return to your shabby little planet I'll be searching for someone to turn into the most notorious Serial Killer ever.

Any volunteers?

THE RETRIEVER 4 : FAREWELL EARTHLINGS

This is my last communication with you Earthlings as I have now grown weary of my games on Play Station Earth. After this there will be no more messages and in the not too distant future, no more Earth. Read on and find out why.

The theme for my last communication revolves around a term you frequently use for a person who has messed things up rather badly in their silly little life on Earth - I believe your expression aptly describes them as being a 'fuck up'.

This expression covers people who have screwed things up by their own foolish actions. When I became involved however, people 'fucked up big style'!

These were people I gradually guided to great heights. Allowed them to enjoy their success. Then guided them into destroying all they'd achieved and watched them drop like rocks into the sea.

As you are aware from my previous messages to you, I can cross from my dimension to yours at any time, infiltrate the mind of a weak person, dominate them and then direct them to carry out the actions I want.

My first subject goes back some time but you've probably heard of him anyway - one Adolf Hitler. Such a weak mind and so easy to dominate. Oh how I led him from the start, suggesting all the right moves to him. And didn't everything just fall into place for Adolf until he eventually became the Fuhrer and led Germany into World War Two. Then just as it looked as if he was set to win the war and rule your planet, I suggested the massive 'fuck up' to him - why not invade Russia? And that was the beginning of the end for the German Army. Bogged down in the Russian winter and then defeated by the Allies. Bye-bye Herr Hitler! So much for ruling the world!

My next subject was a more recent one and you probably know of him - one Saddam Hussein. Yet another very weak mind and again so easy to dominate. And so I led him over the years as he worked his way up through his political party. By double-cross. By torture. By murder. Until he stood proud at the head of Iraq and its Army. Invincible. Or so he thought. Especially after he easily defeated a small, neighbouring country. Then I suggested to him that he was capable of taking on America and its allies and defeating them. Big mistake. Very big mistake. Bye-bye Saddam! So much for ruling the world!

These games and all the others I have played on your shabby little planet amused me over the years but I have now become bored with your predictable backward world and I am moving on to play some intelligent games on a more advanced planet so distant you don't even know it exists.

My final act on Earth will be my last and it concerns two of your minor countries - Iran and North Korea. I'll admit I spent some time guiding the leaders of both countries into their respective positions of power. Allowing them to think they were achieving everything by themselves. Encouraging their highest ambition which was to have nuclear capability and they are both slowly getting there.

In the near future, both will possess nuclear weapons. Shortly afterwards I will direct both leaders to use them. Which is when other countries will respond with theirs and things will rapidly get out of hand. All out, total nuclear war will follow. Then it will be goodbye Earth.

Well it's been fun playing with you on Play Station Earth but it's over. You will not hear from me again. Your shabby little planet will soon be an uninhabitable wasteland. I'll watch for the big orange mushroom clouds.

Farewell then, Earthlings.

THE FARM

We're humane about the way we do things on The Farm nowadays. None of the suffering is permitted today which went on in the past. All the men and women are now given strong pain killing injections after the capsules containing the seed are fed to them so take it from me they don't feel the slightest thing. Not a twinge.

Of course we have to keep them alive while the seeds are growing within them, absorbing all those magical ingredients the body possesses and then, when it's ready, when the young shoot finally bursts through the skin….well you can imagine the pain if the unfortunate man or woman hadn't been given the injections!

My God when I think what it must have been like for them in the past without the injections. They were just forced to swallow the seeds and then strapped down in rows. It was said you could hear the screaming for days.

None of that now though. No it's frequent injections so there's no pain and no screaming. It's better this way really because we need to keep these men and women alive as long as possible. We find we get a better quality of crop that way so along with the pain killers there are regular injections of vitamins and minerals. I'm telling you some of these people look far better after they came to The Farm than they did before!

Where is The Farm located you're possibly thinking? Why has nobody ever found it? Well it's way underground for a start and it's in a very remote desert location. Remote as in nobody ever goes there because there's nothing but sand and rocks and snakes. Not exactly the type of place people would choose to visit, not even the adventurous types so nobody's going to stumble on it by accident.

How did all this start you're probably wondering? What do we do with the crops once we harvest them?

Well like a lot of amazing things the whole thing happened purely by chance. It resulted from something so simple it's hard to believe – picnics!

You know what people are like during summer picnics. Lying there on the ground with the sun overhead, relaxed, chatting away, enjoying themselves. Some of them might reach out and pull up a stalk of grass or a small shoot and nibble on it. You've probably done it yourself.

After one of those picnics several people reported to a hospital with severe abdominal cramps. Investigations showed a growth in the stomach. No-one, not even the best surgeons in the land knew what it was and sadly all the people died.

The post-mortems all revealed the same findings – the picnickers must have ingested some kind of seeds and they had rooted in the stomach wall and then started to grow into small plants. Purely for research and also out of curiosity, the plants were allowed to grow fully and how they flourished!

So one bright spark in the laboratory investigated the plants and ran some tests on the strange looking sap that oozed down their stalks. He couldn't believe the outcome! The sap contained an element that scientists had been trying unsuccessfully to produce for years. It was the final element needed in the complex drug to eliminate that disease which is the curse of the planet – cancer.

Amazing isn't it but it's true! The drug was then quickly produced and used with excellent results. The incidence of cancer has fallen dramatically in recent times and some areas are now completely free of the disease. The Surgeon General assures me that it will be completely eradicated in about five more years.

Wonderful news isn't it!?

Oh before I go, one last thing. You're possibly wondering about all those men and women, young and healthy most of them, who donate their lives and bodies to us here on The Farm.

Well they're not volunteers actually….more like conscripts.

So where do they come from you're probably thinking? I suppose I shouldn't tell you but I will because nobody will believe you anyway.

It's to do with all those strange sightings you have in the skies round your planet. Unidentified Flying Objects I believe you quaintly call them there on Earth. And all the people, all over your planet, hundreds of them every year, who disappear mysteriously….without trace….never to be seen again.

I suppose if you compared the areas where the sightings take place and the areas where the disappearances take place, things would start to match up but nobody would believe you now, would they?

I was talking to one of the doctors the other day down on The Farm. He says we're almost ready for the spring planting and we need a whole new supply of conscripts.

Watch those night skies and even the day skies my friend because we're coming to visit you again.

Soon.

THE PLANET THAT LOVED PEOPLE

On the thirty fifth day out he came to the conclusion that he needed a break from the Ship. It was either that or go crazy.

Christ, thirty five days searching for uranium deposits. Running scans on planets deep in the Protion System. Finding deposits. Recording co-ordinates. Dropping marker beacons.

He needed to get his feet on solid ground again. Feel some rain on his face. He was sick and tired of the same bed, the same cabin, the same walls.

The Company could screw off for a couple of days. They would never know anyway. He felt good now that he'd made the decision. Relieved.

He whistled happily to himself as he tapped in a request on the Ship's computer for the nearest planet capable of supporting human life. The information came up quickly on the screen. The planet was small, of no economic importance, uninhabited. It was so remote it only had a number.

'Who cares?' he thought. 'As long as I can walk around awhile.'

He punched in the new co-ordinates and felt the Ship changing course as he strolled through to the galley to make himself a cup of coffee.

The planet was bleak but it seemed like paradise to him. Hell, anything would after thirty five days on the Ship.

He walked around awhile in the heavy slanting rain, slowly getting used to the feel of solid ground under him again. He found a beach and strolled along it then stopped and glanced up at the leaden sky. The rain plastered his hair to his face.

"Christ you're ugly!" he shouted to the planet "But I love you anyway!"

He danced happily along the sand, running in and out of the cold sea then dashing up to swing round some brooding, dark trees. He made his way back to the Ship and had a hot shower, singing loudly and out of tune.

Despite the rain, he decided to sleep outside. He rigged up the one-man shelter and crawled in. It was warm inside and soon his eyes were closing.

"Christ you're ugly!" he mumbled to the planet and drifted off to sleep with the rain hammering against the shelter walls.

In the morning the rain had stopped but the sky was still dull and heavy.

He opened the shelter's hatch and looked round. "Good morning ugly planet!" he yelled and laughed. From here he could see part of the beach. The sea looked tempting.

"Why not?" he said, grinning. "Why the hell not!?"

He climbed out the shelter and ran down to the sand, stripping as he went and throwing his clothes wildly over his shoulder. He plunged into the sea and the cold took his breath away. He shrieked and screamed and splashed about like a boy.

When he returned to the Ship he had a hot shower then a hot breakfast. As he sat in the Observation Bay with a cup of steaming coffee, looking out at the planet, he decided to take a longer walk round.

The planet definitely looked a little better this morning. Not quite as ugly. Or maybe it was just him. The sea seemed to have a trace of a sparkle. Trees and bushes which yesterday seemed dark and brooding shimmered a little. The air seemed warmer.

He walked for an hour then stopped for a break in a small clearing. As he sat on a large rock, looking round, something strange happened.

Amongst the grass, a lovely flower appeared. Came straight up out of nowhere and bloomed in front of him – a long stalk and brightly coloured petals. He could even catch its scent on the breeze.

Then more appeared. All over the grass. All round him.

At first he was puzzled then he understood – it was the rain. The flowers must bloom quickly after the rain. Satisfied with the explanation he hummed his way happily back to the Ship.

There was an even bigger difference to the planet when he woke from his afternoon nap.

The sun was breaking out from behind some clouds and its rays sparkled on the sea and the sand and the trees. Things were certainly improving. Maybe he had arrived during a storm. Yeah, that was the answer – he had arrived during a storm and now it had passed. He would give the place the benefit of the doubt.

He went for another walk and yes, he had to admit that the planet was beginning to look pretty. There were more flowers out, their scent mingling with the salty air. The sea looked a little brighter. The trees a deeper green.

"You're not so ugly after all!" he shouted to the planet.

He decided to stay one more night. There was a new warmth in the air and he slept on the beach in a sleeping bag he found in the Ship's stores.

The birds' singing wakened him.

He looked round in wonder. The planet was almost beautiful. The sun was high in a crystal clear blue sky and he could feel its warmth on him. He climbed out of the sleeping bag and stood up and stretched. He stopped suddenly in mid-yawn as something outrageous popped into his mind.

'Couldn't be!' he thought, shaking his head. But the doubt persisted. 'Why not try it?' he thought. 'There's nobody around to call you crazy if you're wrong.'

He walked up the beach and into the forest until he found a spot that was still desolate. No flowers. Leaves hanging limply on trees. Sparse grass. He stayed awhile, whistling happily to himself. Then it damn well happened! Now he was sure!

The planet came to life before his eyes. Flowers bloomed. The breeze rustled the trees to life. The grass spread and became lush. What he'd thought earlier was true – the planet was responding to him! Was responding to him being there! Was responding to having company! He danced all the way back to the Ship, stopping now and then to kiss the ground.

He stayed a few more days and the transformation in the planet was incredible. From a bleak, rain sodden wilderness it had changed into clear blue skies, sparkling seas and shimmering trees.

The weather stayed warm but not hot and there was a gentle breeze blowing in from the sea. It rained once every day and once at night – a pleasant cooling drizzle for fifteen minutes in the afternoon and then a heavier, longer shower late at night. He was still sleeping outside and loved drifting off to sleep with the rain drumming against the shelter walls.

There was food in abundance – plump fish which he hooked in streams and aromatic fruit which grew everywhere. There was a spring of fresh water near where he had landed and he had ran everything through the Ship's medical computer before trying it.

'A man could live here,' he thought as he sat on a small hill overlooking a stunning waterfall. 'The planet's beautiful. The weather's fine. There's enough food. There's no threat of any kind. Yeah, a man could live here.'

The planet had definitely responded to him. Of that he was sure. He was convinced it was glad of the company. It must've been helluva lonely way out here in the deep wastes of space.

There was something else drifting up through his mind though. He didn't just think the planet was responding to him – he was beginning to think there was more to it than that.

What happened to him on the following day convinced him.

He had been sitting on a favourite flat boulder for half an hour, relaxing and watching the waves breaking on the shore when he decided it was time to eat. He was strolling back to the Ship, whistling happily, when something caught his eye.

A few feet in front of him, something glittered on the beach. He bent down and picked it up, brushing the sand from it and when he realised what it was, his mouth dropped open in amazement.

A diamond! A beautiful sparkling diamond as big as his thumbnail! He couldn't believe his luck! He held it up and it glittered in the sunlight. This would fetch a small fortune. He whooped and tossed it in the air then clumsily dropped it.

When he bent to pick it up he saw the others. A dozen all together. All different sizes and shapes. All beautiful. All worth a fortune. He gathered them up and sang his way along the beach then halted as that something which had been drifting up through his mind finally surfaced.

The planet had just deliberately given him a gift. An unbelievably wonderful gift. It had made him a rich man. This planet didn't just respond to people - it loved them!

"The feeling's mutual!" he yelled and laughed his way back to the Ship.

He had to leave.

There were a few things to be straightened out now that he was rich. For a start, just one of those diamonds would easily buy him his own Ship. The Company would try to change his mind but he'd decided. Hell, he could buy the Company now but he had other plans.

He knew what would happen when he fired up the Ship for lift-off. It did. The rain started again, gently at first, then hammering down. The planet was sad because he was leaving.

He smiled out at it from the Bridge. "I'll be coming back soon," he said softly. "Very soon. With someone I want you to meet. She'll love it here, I know she will and what's just as important…. you'll love her!"

THE DWARVES OF CERES

I

Even from a distance, Ceres looked fertile. In the black wastes of space it hung like a rich green ball, bright and alive. It was easy to see why farmers liked coming to such a planet – without much effort you could imagine crops growing there, could picture the bountiful harvests a farming man might raise.

From the Observation Room on Solnas 3, such a farmer was looking at Ceres, a faint smile spreading across his creased, weather-beaten face. In his mind Sam Harding was already there, feeling the rich dark soil underfoot and smelling the rain on the abundant green foliage. Looking further ahead he could see himself on the porch of the farmhouse, the day's work done, puffing contentedly on his pipe and watching the first of the crops growing up towards the sun and swaying gently in the breeze.

Sam's reverie was interrupted as the door of the Observation Room slid open and the Navigator came in. "Thought I'd find you here," he said, smiling.

"'Fraid you'll have to tear yourself away from Ceres for the moment, Sam. We'll be entering her gravity field shortly and everybody will have to be locked into their seats. D'you want to return to your cabin?"

"Sure," said Sam, returning the smile and moving towards the door. It slid open and he turned for a final look at Ceres.

The Navigator waited for Sam and watched him gazing back at the planet. "Don't worry, Sam," he said, "you'll be there soon enough. Then it'll be just you and Ceres for the next few months. You'll probably be so sick of the place by then that you'll be glad when we come back for you."

Sam just nodded and smiled and they strolled along the short corridor to the lift.

As they descended, Sam reflected on what the Navigator had said. 'Sick of Ceres,' he thought to himself. 'How could a farming man get sick of a planet like Ceres? How could a man ever get sick of planting and growing and harvesting?'

Sam Harding came from a long line of farmers, a line that stretched back to the times when farmers ploughed their fields with horses and sowed the seed by hand. Farming was in his blood and now, after only two visits, so was Ceres.

The lift doors slid open and the two men stepped out. The Navigator made his way back to the Bridge and Sam strolled along to his cabin.

II

From a small hill overlooking the Landing Bay, Sam watched Solnas 3 depart. His supplies for the next few months had been unloaded and transported to the farmhouse for him. He raised his hand and waved but knew that everyone would be locked into their seats and wouldn't see the gesture. He was glad to see the Ship go.

He turned and looked at Ceres and a smile of contentment spread over his face. The trees, the grass, the soil all looked fertile and in the distance he could see the empty fields where he would plant the seeds from which the crops would grow.

He knelt and scooped up a handful of soil. He raised it to his nose and smelled it. It smelled good. Rich and earthy. "Earthy!" Sam said aloud and smiled as the word brought back memories of home. He squeezed the soil through his fingers and let it fall to the ground.

He picked up his small suitcase and started walking towards the farmhouse. The day was almost through. The second of Ceres' suns was already half-way through its orbit. On Ceres there was no darkness. It was always light. It had been arranged that way. For the crops.

'Start work tomorrow,' thought Sam as he walked along the path to the farmhouse. 'Yep, settle in the rest of today and start work tomorrow. Sounds fine to me!'

He arrived at the farmhouse and climbed the stairs on to the veranda. He turned and had a look at the empty field in front. It was broad and long and the soil lay dark and waiting. It seemed to hold the promise of a good harvest to come.

Sam turned and let himself into the farmhouse. Inside, it was fairly clean considering it had been a month since the last man had left although a faint coating of dust clung to the furniture.

'Shift that soon enough,' thought Sam, 'but first best check the controls.'

In the middle of the Control Room, on a narrow table, the main computer and monitor had been covered by a sheet to protect them from the dust. Sam removed the sheet and tossed it into a corner. He turned the computer on and waited while the monitor flickered to life. He pressed the 'test' button and several panels on the monitor in front of him lit up one after the other. The computer then ran a test which took a few minutes until a message appeared on the monitor showing that the system was working properly. Sam grunted his satisfaction and shut the computer down.

Happy with the controls Sam strolled through to the kitchen and made himself a sandwich then took it through to the living room. He loved the view from there - two of the walls were glass and afforded an excellent view of the fields. They looked good and Sam was tempted to start work right away but he felt tired after the journey from Earth. Tomorrow he would start working them. As he ate his sandwich he thought of how he would till the soil, plant the seeds and then tend the crops while they grew. Then the harvest. The fields would give him a good harvest.

"Yes sir, a good harvest!" he said aloud. He stretched and yawned. Having finished his sandwich he went through to the kitchen and took a bottle of beer from the fridge. Not bothering with a glass, he made his way upstairs to bed.

III

He was in the fields early next day. The automatic plougher was already half-way across the first field leaving neat lines of furrowed soil behind it.

Sam was sitting on the grass under a large oak tree, smoking his pipe and watching as the plougher traversed the field in the pattern he had set it for that morning. Another hour or so and it would be finished then it would move into the second field where it would continue its process of furrowing. After that it would move on to the third and fourth fields.

Sam was a happy man. He settled himself against the oak tree and watched the plougher rhythmically moving back and forth. He glanced up at Ceres' first sun and felt the rays warming his face. A slight breeze wafted away his pipe smoke.

'Should be through ploughing here by the time the sun's overhead,' he thought. Then he could start sowing. A smile spread across his face. Sowing was the part he liked best. He leaned his head back against the oak tree and dozed.

Sam woke to the sound of the plougher moving over to the second field. He stood up and stretched then picked up the bag of seed which had been lying by his side. He slipped the strap over his head and tied the two cords behind his back so the bag rested against his waist.

He strolled along the side of the field until he came to the start of the furrowed rows. The rows were interrupted occasionally by a narrow grass path. Sam stepped on to the first path and put his hand into the bag and withdrew a handful of seed. Moving his arm in a wide arc, he scattered the seed over the ploughed soil. He strolled along at an even pace, scattering seed to left and right with both hands.

This was the part Sam liked best, sowing the seed the way he had read farmers sowed their crops thousands of years ago and although it was wasteful, all his harvests were successful so the Commissioners back on Earth didn't complain.

Sam chuckled to himself as he strolled along, scattering. If they could see him now, walking along like this, seed being wasted, while the expensive automatic seed-implanter lay unused in the hanger! Still, they were billions of miles away and he was here. They'd never know. He was still chuckling, lost in his rhythm, when he reached the end of the path. He moved along the field until he came to the next path. His measured scattering resumed.

The second sun was rising as Sam finished sowing. He felt tired and hungry. He had sown the first two fields.

"Lunch time," he said to himself. "Then a nap, then finish the last two fields. Should be through before the second sun goes down." Laying his bag on the grass, he made his way back to the farmhouse.

Sam was in the Control Room. He had finished the sowing and the plougher was back in the hanger. Although it was still light outside, the day was almost through and Sam was tired. All that remained of today's work was to set up the controlled climate cycle. Sam had already decided on a cycle which would allow him to harvest in two weeks :

2 days of light rain showers to vitalise the soil

4 days of uninterrupted sunshine to encourage growth

4 days of vitamin showers to feed the growing crops

3 more days of sunshine then harvest at the end of the second week.

Sam turned the main computer on and yawned as he waited for the monitor flickering to life. He sat down in front of the keyboard and tapped in the programme.

He could hear the light rain starting to fall as he climbed the stairs to bed.

IV

It was the beginning of the second week of the cycle. The crops were about half-way towards maturity. Sam stood at the edge of the field watching them swaying to and fro in the afternoon breeze.

He strolled along until he came to one of the narrow grass paths between the swaying rows, one of the paths where a week earlier he'd scattered the seed. He strolled along the path, stopping here and there to check the crops. He was satisfied – they were coming on fine.

He knelt and examined one of the growths. A strong green stalk grew from the ground and supported the main body of the crop. Sam ran his hand over the stalk and marvelled at its thickness – it was through this that all nourishment passed to the dwarf-like human which was growing on the stalk, attached at the navel. Sam reached out and touched one of the dwarf's small hands with his finger. Its fingers slowly curled round his.

Sam grinned. 'Almost alive,' he thought. He examined the torso, the legs and the arms. All were perfect. The small, finely shaped head moved slowly in the breeze. Sam gently touched the eyes but there was no movement there yet – they would open in a few more days, as he had planned it, in time for harvesting. Sam stood up and brushed the soil from his trousers.

'Perfect,' he thought, looking down at the dwarf. He looked over the field with its sea of dwarves, swaying backwards and forwards on their stalks in the gentle breeze. 'Whole field looks perfect,' he thought.

Sam was pleased with his work. Smiling, he set off to inspect the other fields before dinner.

The day's work done, Sam was sitting on the rocking chair on the porch, slowly rocking himself back and forth. He was content. He puffed on his pipe, releasing small wisps of smoke which were borne away on the soft breeze.

'Should be a good harvest,' he thought. 'One hundred of the dwarves to a field…four fields…that'll be four hundred of them. Say five harvests before the Transporters arrive…that'll be two thousand of the dwarves!'

From Ceres, they would be transported to Earth. From Earth, they would be sold to other planets as workers and as there was a big demand for the Dwarves of Ceres, the price would be high.

'Yup, a good harvest,' thought Sam. They would be pleased with him back on Earth. Might even let him come here more often. Might even let him stay for good one day.

"Wouldn't mind that at all!" Sam said aloud, grinning and rocking back and forth. "Nope, wouldn't mind that one little bit!"

THE MAN WHO TIDIED UP THE PLANET

Having recently completed yet another business deal which netted me yet another million, I was relaxing one evening on a favourite balcony of my modest five storey mansion, enjoying brandy and cigar. If truth be told I was actually starting to feel at rather a loose end, the inactivity of the last few days beginning to jar and I was unconsciously searching around for my next project. A non-business deal this time, something that would satisfy the aesthete in me. In a happy act of serendipity I discovered it!

As I glanced beneath me at the exquisite pale blue, sub-lit waters of my diamond shaped swimming pool, I noticed that many of the sun loungers which bordered it were slightly askew, not arranged in their usual preferred neat lines. I also observed that several of the sun umbrellas on the poolside tables had been opened at different angles, the entire area creating an impression of gross untidiness, a subject which deeply bothered me.

It was perfectly obvious then that the pool area needed tidying up which led me to thinking that probably so did the mansion and probably so did the grounds and this is where I joyously encountered serendipity! If my own home required tidying then why not other people's? Why not the towns and villages? Why not the countryside? Indeed, why not the planet!?

It must have been brewing in my subconscious for quite some time now as I travelled worldwide on my frequent, lucrative business trips – the general sloppiness and disarray I encountered practically everywhere must have penetrated without my noticing and gradually grated on my nerves. So that was it decided. A grand, general tidy up financed and organized by myself. Actually I didn't really envisage much opposition to the project mainly due to the fact that I owned more than half the planet anyway.

Naturally, as an example, I decided to put my own house in order first and started the following day. I had noticed a cut crystal ashtray out of position in my West Wing study and in the East Wing library, the Seurats hung millimeters out of line. All this untidiness was swiftly remedied. The Gauguins and Van Goghs had to go. They had been bothering me, to be honest with you, since their acquisition – all that gaudy colour carelessly splashed around with no thought for symmetry at all. No. They wouldn't do. Much better with Seurat and those perfectly arranged pointillistic dots.

My mansion now in perfect order I turned my attention to the houses of my neighbours. When I say neighbours I mean they were an enjoyable heli-mobile ride away, after all I owned the surrounding land for twenty square miles, preferring not to have people too close to me. Some of them quite docilely allowed me to tidy up their homes and gardens, others were persuaded for an agreeable fee but a few proved stubborn although not impossible.

One such difficult case involved a group of so called musicians. Their villa and gardens were an absolute disgrace – empty bottles, broken glasses and all manner of clothing and other unspeakable items strewn everywhere. Suffice it to say they resisted all attempts to have them tidy up and were, on occasion, exceptionally rude regarding my suggestions. Eventually I lost patience and was left with no choice but to have them, shall we say, removed. Permanently. I had them replaced with some of my perfect android doubles. To this day no-one has noticed the difference and they are still doing well in what I believe are known as 'The Charts'.

You see that's where I acquired my practically incalculable wealth. No, not through 'The Charts', through the androids or Droids as I prefer to call them. Darcy's Droids, as they are affectionately known by the general populace. So beautifully made, so wonderfully lifelike are they that it is absolutely impossible to differentiate between them and us. Indeed the President of a minor country is one and the Prime Minister of another is married to one but only I know that! I am the only person on the entire planet who knows how to tell the difference and I'm not about to give that secret away, am I?

But back to our story. The cities and towns and villages featured next on my list and although time consuming, all were eventually left in neat, pristine condition, my army of specifically programmed Droids excelling themselves. Of course the usual large bribes to the usual outstretched hands somewhat facilitated the task.

Next I moved on to the countryside. The countryside! Good grief, have you ever noticed how untidy God actually is!? I mean all those plants and weeds and trees and bushes growing haphazardly everywhere with no thought whatsoever for neatness and tidiness! No. They had to go. Everything was removed and replaced by realistic versions my scientists specially devised. To pacify those irritating conservationists I did leave some of the real forests, plants and bushes. All in precise rows of course and all neatly tended and trimmed.

Now I turned my attention to the oceans and beaches. The oceans! Those damn fish! If only they'd keep still for a while! Always darting and zigzagging around and thoroughly grating on one's nerves. Well not any more. All were removed and I mean all. Naturally they were replaced with marvelous marine specimens of Darcy's Droids, exquisitely crafted in my laboratories. Now they hang in neat and tidy lines, gently swaying in the ocean current, a delight to the aesthetic eye.

The ocean floors I had bulldozed flat – too many caverns and crevices there for my liking and the beaches were ploughed and left in neat furrows. No-one is permitted to use them anymore of course, lest they disturb the furrows.

The Polar Regions were relatively simple to attend to, snow being pleasantly neat to start with. Some more bulldozing for a uniform flatness and that was that.

Lastly came the equatorial regions and what a nightmare they were! Lianas and vines and trees and rotting vegetation and those irritating animals! Everything had to go, especially the animals. I mean all that screeching and throwing half-eaten food around! It simply wouldn't do. No. Everything was removed and replaced with animal specimens of Darcy's Droids.

My task of tidying up the planet took just a couple of years and the project recently completed, I was relaxing once again on my favourite balcony enjoying brandy and cigar. If truth be told I was actually starting to feel at rather a loose end for although content in the knowledge of a tidy planet, the inactivity of the last few days was beginning to jar and I was unconsciously searching around for my next project.

I had been reflectively puffing on my cigar and admiring how neatly the soft evening breeze dispersed the smoke when I happened to glance upwards and lo and behold, in another joyous act of serendipity, there was my next project staring me in the face!…The heavens!…The night skies!…Ever notice how untidy all those stars look!?

SOFT LAUGHTER

I

The Uranium Converter started playing up when was still several billion miles from home.

He'd been deep in the Karina System for weeks, mapping gold deposits on a land-search pattern and the increased pull of the planets there had begun to affect it. The thrust required when he left the System had been the last straw.

Deep in the Ship, the main computer registered the change in the low humming of the Drive and instantly triggered the alarm in the panel above his head. A two-tone whining began. It echoed all over the Bridge, breaking the peaceful silence of his meditation.

When he'd settled down on the circular mat some time ago for a meditation session, things had been running smoothly and he'd expected them to stay that way. He'd been into meditation for years and it helped keep him mentally balanced on these long, lonesome voyages.

Irritated, he tried to tune out the sound but the alarm was insistent. He cursed softly and descended from the silent plateau he'd reached and allowed his mind to identify the noise.

It was the alarm….probably the damn Stabiliser again. It had given him trouble before but it was nothing urgent and later would do. Slowly he reached up and felt for the Stabiliser square on the panel above his head and pressed it. He resumed his position and tried to regain the level he'd left. It was a few seconds before he realised the alarm was continuing.

He cursed and reluctantly opened his eyes. The Bridge swam into focus, lit by the dim glow of the instrument panels. He uncoiled slowly from his cross-legged position on the mat and stretched like a cat then froze when he saw where the light was flashing.

It took his nervous system a few seconds to react then the adrenaline pumped into his bloodstream and his heart started thudding in his chest. He scrambled over to the main console to double check but the Uranium Converter square was flashing there as well. His legs suddenly weak, he slumped into the Pilot's seat and stared disbelievingly at the panel.

'It's not happening!' he thought stupidly. 'It can't be!….Well it is….Hey come on, Converters don't malfunction, they never malfunction, they just don't. Well this one has. The light's flashing in the goddamn square, look – on off, on off, on off. And the alarm's going, hear it? This is for real, for real, so what the hell are you gonna do about it?'

He bit his lip then reached out a trembling finger and pressed the Converter square. The alarm died but the red light continued to blink on and off. He leaned back in the chair and tried to fight the panic rising in his gut.

The critical corner of his mind had already appraised the situation and was trying to reach him through the jumbled fear.

'Calm down,' it told him. 'Calm down. Relax. Relax.'

He tried to tune in to it. Brush the fear aside.

'Breathe deeply,' it commanded.

He closed his eyes and obeyed. Long slow breaths. In through the nose, out through the mouth. Repeat. Concentrate on the breathing. In through the nose. Hold. Out through the mouth. Pause. Repeat. Relax. Concentrate.

He could feel the immediate panic receding. The hammering in his chest slowly subsided. He tried to swallow but his mouth was still dry.

Calmer, he opened his eyes and considered his next move. There was nothing he could do up here – the problem lay in the Drive section. He would have to make a visual inspection.

On still shaky legs he walked through to the stores cabin and pulled a repair suit from a locker. He climbed into it and went below.

II

The inspection confirmed his worst fears. Substantiated his earlier panic. The Uranium Converter was damaged beyond repair and would shut down completely very soon, which led to a very simple equation : no Converter means no power, no power means no Drive, no Drive means you drift, drift means you don't get home. Very simple really.

"Very simple really!" he said aloud and giggled idiotically.

He was slumped in the Pilot's seat, the repair suit strewn carelessly on the floor around him, staring out the forward windows. The Ship seemed motionless. Frozen. Far off stars twinkled in the deep blue-black of space. He'd never noticed how pretty the deep blue-black was before or how nice it felt to be motionless. He could sit here forever and just stare out at space.

Except the critical corner of his mind wouldn't let him. He could feel it nagging away back there behind the warm fog which was drifting down.

'Come on!' it nagged. 'Come on, come on - make a decision!'

He tried to ignore it and lit a cigarette, his first in a week. He leaned back in the chair and inhaled deeply, concentrating on the tingling spreading through his body.

'Come on!' the critical corner nagged. 'Come on!'

It was as insistent as the alarm had been and he knew there was only one way to shut it off.

He sighed and stared at the ceiling. 'Okay, I've got two choices,' he thought lazily. 'One – I could put out a distress message then sit back and wait for a Rescue Ship.' He considered this idea briefly then nodded in agreement with himself. 'Yeah, that sounds alright. The Company must have several Ships roaming round this area. One of them's bound to pick up the message and respond.'

'No good,' said the critical corner. 'With no Drive power how can you avoid the pull of any planets you pass or space debris or meteors. No good. Next.'

He drew on his cigarette while the second choice worked itself out.

'Two – I could land on the nearest planet. Put out a distress message. Wait for a Rescue Ship.'

The critical corner considered this idea. It seemed to like it. Approval flowed warmly through his mind.

He sighed and drew again on his cigarette. For a while he lay back and watched the smoke drifting upwards until it was sucked into an air-scrubbing vent in the Bridge ceiling.

'Move!' ordered the critical corner.

Reluctantly he complied. He drew once more on the cigarette then stubbed it out and swung round in the chair to the navigation computer and tapped in a request for the nearest planet and any significant data. White letters soon began flickering across the blue background of the screen….

NEAREST PLANET : CYRAS.

"Never heard of it," he muttered.

The information on the screen continued….

NEAREST PLANET : CYRAS.

POPULATION : ZERO.

ATMOSPHERE : COMPATIBLE.

FOOD SOURCE : ZERO.

MAIN LANDSCAPES : DESERTS AND MOUNTAINS.

'Great,' he thought. 'Couldn't be better. An uninhabited wilderness. Terrific.'

He shook his head and tapped in a request for the planet's co-ordinates. He leaned back in the Pilot's seat and wearily closed his eyes – maybe the Rescue Ship would arrive soon.

III

Three days after he landed on Cyras there was still no message of a Rescue Ship.

Each day he'd taken the airmobile and explored the planet, leaving the distress message beaming out continually from the main computer and praying for a reply. Each time he'd returned he'd cursed loudly when the monitor's blank screen told him there'd been no response so far.

The information on the planet had been correct though – it was a dull brownish wilderness of vast empty desert plains broken only by ugly black mountains and cliffs with no signs of life apart from insects and flies.

He brushed some away from his face as he sat on a hill overlooking the Ship, smoking and gazing around as the planet's red sun slowly climbed down the sky. It was the only interesting thing about the place and bathed everything in a soft reddish glow. He reviewed his situation as the shadows lengthened.

Only two more days fuel left in the airmobile. After that any exploring would have to be done on foot, although there didn't seem much point – he'd seen enough of the place to tell him it would be a waste of time.

The food should last about another six weeks with the rationing he'd already started. Water could be a problem though. Even on the absolute minimum, it would only last another month. Still he thought he'd seen a stream about a mile into the-

'Hello, Alex.'

He spun round but there was no-one there. He heard the voice again inside his head and his skin crawled.

'Hello, Alex.'

'I imagined it,' he thought, trying to reassure himself, glancing all around but still not seeing anyone. 'Too much time on my own.'

He heard soft laughter inside his head. 'No you didn't imagine it, Alex. I'm real. At the bottom of the hill. Come and look.'

He walked over to the side of the hill and looked down, not expecting to see anyone but someone was there, waving. A man in a white robe. Relief flowed through him and he felt himself relax.

'So I didn't imagine it,' he thought. 'Thank God for that.' He smiled and waved back then started downhill towards him.

The first things he noticed about the man were that he was completely bald and extremely thin. How skinny his arms were before they disappeared into the white robe he was wearing and how pronounced the bones were in his face but he was so relieved to have some company that he didn't give it much thought. Then he heard the voice inside his head again, welcoming him but the man hadn't spoken aloud. He frowned, puzzled.

The man smiled. 'Relax, Alex. I'm a telepath. We all are here.'

"We? " Alex questioned. "You mean there are more of you? Where?"

Soft laughter inside his head. 'We've been out of sight, Alex. We had to be sure you meant us no harm.'

"How come you know my name?" Alex asked him.

The man smiled again. A gentle smile. 'I've been inside your mind since you arrived. I know all about you, Alex Franks. Come, meet the others.' He turned and walked away.

For a few seconds Alex hesitated then he shrugged and followed.

They walked for some distance, heading away from the Ship, the red sun casting long, narrow shadows in front of them. At the foot of one of the ugly, black cliffs they finally halted. Beside him, the man smiled then began climbing the rocky slope.

Alex groaned. 'Not up there?' he thought, lagging behind. The cliff was steep and he was tired from the walk and the rationing of the last few days.

Above him, the man turned. 'No, not up, Alex – in.'

As if on cue, one of the boulders on the slope slid aside, revealing a dimly lit passageway. Impressed, Alex glanced up at the white-robed figure then heard the soft laughter in his head again.

'I didn't move it, Alex. The others were waiting for us. They moved the boulder from the inside. Come.' He held his hand out towards the passage.

Alex hesitated.

'Come, Alex. Don't be afraid. We mean you no harm.' He smiled his gentle smile again then turned and disappeared into the opening.

Again Alex thought about it briefly then dismissed his fears. He climbed the slope and followed him in.

IV

He would never have found them, no matter how long he'd explored the planet.

Carved out of solid rock, the passageway stretched a long way into the cliff. The red sunlight streaming in guided them at first then the passage curved and after that they were walking in a red hazy darkness.

Tendrils of fear began drifting around Alex's mind. He slowed, feeling his way along, the rock cold and damp under his hand. He was considering turning back when he caught the soft glow of a light up ahead.

'We're almost there, Alex,' the voice in his head said, reassuringly. 'You can rest soon.'

The light ahead grew closer and eventually the passage opened into a well-furnished room. By the soft light, Alex could see a group of white-robed men and women sitting around. All were thin and none had any hair. They rose to greet him when he entered. They all looked so pleased to see him and he felt himself relax again. He heard their voices inside his head as one by one they came over and welcomed him and said hello.

"Hi," Alex said, nodding and smiling. "Great to meet you all."

'You don't have to speak aloud, Alex,' he heard in his head. 'We're all telepaths, two-way. Just think what you want to say and we'll pick it up.'

Alex nodded. He looked round at the smiling group. 'You all seem to know my name,' he thought, 'but I don't know any of yours.'

'Oh we don't use names much, Alex. We can recognise each other's voices so we hardly use them much but think of me as Derv if it makes things easier for you.'

Alex nodded again but he was only half-listening – he had caught sight of all the food on the table and it was pushing everything else from his mind.

Derv saw him looking at it. 'Hungry, Alex?'

'Very.'

'Then please sit down and eat. Forgive us for not joining you but we've already eaten.'

'You've eaten?' Alex asked, glancing round at everyone. 'But you all look so thin.'

Tinkling laughter inside his head.

Derv smiled. 'I suppose we must to someone like you but this is the way we are. Please, sit down and help yourself.'

The food was good after his meagre diet of the last few days and Alex relished it. He chatted with Derv as he ate, surprised at how quickly he'd adapted to the new form of communication. 'So you live here inside the cliff?' he thought, indicating the room.

'It's always been this way, Alex,' Derv said. 'Even on our own planet we lived like this. Sunlight can be harmful to us if we stay out in it too long.'

Alex frowned. 'Your own planet? You mean you don't belong here?'

'I'm afraid not, Alex. We had to leave our home a long time ago. Our planet was dying. It couldn't support us any longer. We set off in a few Ships – those of us that were left. Our computer chose this place for us. We like it but it's not our home.'

'How many of you came?'

'Oh there weren't too many of us left at the end. Some wouldn't leave. But we're recovering slowly. You may be able to help us.'

Alex looked surprised. 'Me? I don't see how.'

Derv smiled. 'But you're helping us now, Alex. Just by being here. You've no idea how pleasant it is to have a visitor after all this time.'

The meal was over and Alex felt full for the first time in days. He leaned back in his chair and sighed contentedly.

'What happened to your Ship, Alex?' Derv asked. 'Tell us about it. Perhaps we can help you to repair it.'

Alex laughed. 'Not unless you've got a Uranium Converter you can't!'

They all smiled. As if they had been waiting for him to say it. He could hear their tinkling laughter inside his head.

Derv rose. 'Follow me, Alex. We may have what you need.'

They took another long passage which led in a different direction from the first one. It sloped up gradually as they walked and after a while Alex could feel a change in the air and up ahead saw some of the red light filtering in around a large boulder which blocked the entrance.

'Help me move the boulder, Alex,' Derv said to him.

Between them they moved it, Alex doing most of the work. Derv smiled and beckoned for Alex to follow.

The passage came out on the side of the cliff and Derv pointed to a plain not far below. The light was poor and at first Alex thought he was looking at his own Ship, that somehow they had circled back inside the cliff. Slowly he began to pick his way down the rocky slope.

About half-way down he could see the Ship more clearly. His heart leapt when he saw the markings. Same kind of Ship but another Company's markings. Heedless of the rocks, he charged downhill towards it. Behind him, Derv smiled and leisurely began to follow.

Alex was in the Observation Bay when he re-joined him. The last rays of the sun slanted through the observation windows, painting the inside of the Ship a dark red.

In his excitement, Alex spoke aloud. "There's a Converter on board!" he told Derv. "It's an earlier model than mine but if I can remove it, I think I can fit it into my own Ship!"

Then he was silent awhile, his mind analysing the problem. How far was it from here to his own Ship? What tools would he need? Did he still have the skill to do the job? His mind raced on and Derv listened as darkness filled the Observation Bay.

At last Alex said, "It's a long time since I did any work like this but I think I can do it."

Derv smiled across at him. 'Oh I'm sure you can do it, Alex. If you put your mind to it.'

V

He worked hard at removing the Converter over the next few days.

His hands were clumsy round the tools at first but gradually old skills came back and he achieved a semblance of dexterity. Often it was the technical side that held him up then he had to make the long trek over to his own Ship to find the answers in the main computer.

One of the others was always with him. At times he was glad of the company but often he was so immersed in a particular problem that they ceased to exist physically. But he could always feel them there, inside his mind.

Sometimes he took a break and went back to the room inside the cliff for a meal but usually he was too busy and they brought food out to him. When they insisted that he stop and eat he would grow irritated with them.

'You must eat, Alex. Keep your strength up,' he would hear from whoever brought the food.

Once he asked in a half-hearted way where all the food came from.

'We have lots of supplies, Alex,' Derv told him, 'and we don't eat much ourselves. Besides, we do manage to grow a little – there are some fertile places on this new home of ours.'

But he didn't really care. He would be gone soon.

Transporting the Converter was almost as difficult as removing it. The others were no help at all, proving useless at physical work, till eventually he'd yelled at them to clear off and groaned and sweated and carted the damned thing himself.

By the end of the week he was exhausted but the Converter was now in the Drive section of his Ship instead of the Drive section of the other.

He wiped sweat and oil from his face with a rag and slumped down on the floor beside it. Christ he was tired. Dog tired. He hadn't done so much physical work in years. All that easy living as a Pilot must've turned him soft. Still, the worst of it was over and things should be easier from now on. Say another few days to remove the faulty Converter and fit this one. Then he would be away.

He closed his eyes and the fatigue washed over him in waves. Wearily he dragged himself to his feet and stumbled back up to his cabin. He collapsed onto his bed fully clothed and was asleep instantly.

In his sleep he dreamed of a huge black leech which fed off him. It grew and grew and grew until it burst, covering him with his own sticky red blood. He was too exhausted to wake.

VI

The sun was high in the sky and the inside of his cabin bathed in the soft red light when he woke.

His head throbbed and every part of his body ached. He pulled himself out of bed and on shaky legs made his way through to the bathroom. His reflection in the mirror shocked him – a haggard, unshaved face stared back, the cheekbones prominent, the eyes sunken and black.

He stripped and examined himself, surprised to find how thin his body looked. His ribs stood out in his chest and arms and legs, once muscular, now looked as if they belonged to an old man.

He pulled on clean shorts then stumbled through to the Medical Bay and climbed onto the examination table. He tapped in a request on the computer for a full physical check-up and lay back while his body was scanned. A couple of minutes later the scan was complete and he leaned on an elbow while he read the results on the screen….

DISEASE : NONE PRESENT.

CLINICAL FINDINGS : BODY HEALTHY BUT SIX KILOGRAMS UNDER NORMAL WEIGHT.

TREATMENT : INCREASE FOOD INTAKE.

Six kilos underweight!? Almost fourteen pounds! How could he lose that so fast? Puzzled, he walked shakily through to the Observation Bay. He poured himself some coffee, lit a cigarette and sank into a chair. No illness – yet he felt like a wreck. Increase food intake – yet he'd been eating well over the last week.

'But they haven't!' flashed through his mind and he sat upright so quickly that some of his coffee slopped onto his legs, scalding him. He cursed but the pain seemed to return some sharpness to his mind. He wiped the coffee from his legs and tried to think things through logically.

He hadn't seen them eating at all, not once. And yet they all seemed much fatter since that first time he'd met them in the room inside the cliff. At the same time, he who was eating two or three times a day was becoming much thinner.

Conclusion?

He didn't like the way this was heading.

Conclusion?

He drank some coffee, not wanting to face it.

CONCLUSION?

They must be feeding on something and that could only be one thing – him.

How?

'Vampires!' shot into his mind and a chill ran over him. He began sweating, despite the coolness of the Observation Bay.

He went back to the Medical Bay and examined himself in the full length mirror. He looked at his neck first but there were no bite marks under the stubble. There were a few scratches on his hands where he'd cut himself while working on the Converter. A few small red marks, insect bites, on his arms. But nothing tell-tale, no obvious puncture wounds.

There was one definite way to find out – a blood test.

He punched in a request on the medical computer and held out his thumb to be pricked on the small, sharp needle when it appeared. The results came up on the screen a minute later….

BLOOD CELLS ARE HEALTHY. CIRCULATING VOLUME IS NORMAL. NO ABNORMALITIES DETECTED.

Relief flowed through him – his blood was okay.

So they weren't vampires. What then? How were they feeding off him?

He stumbled back through to the Observation Bay and flopped into a chair. The throbbing in his head had stopped but something else was there. Them. He could feel their presence. They were listening to him. But they were always there and he could feel them inside his mind all the time. Now it was different. There was some subtle change. Like they were irritated.

He ignored them and returned to his thoughts.

'They don't eat food. They're not vampires. They're feeding off me in some way. How?'

He lay back in his chair, lit a cigarette and concentrated. Away somewhere in the depths of his mind he could feel an idea swimming round, slowly making its way up. He closed his eyes and waited for it to surface. At the exact moment it did, he heard a sigh in his mind.

'So now you know, Alex,' Derv said inside his head.

"Now I know," he said, sitting up. "You're feeding off my thoughts somehow."

'I'm afraid so, Alex. We live on thoughts the way you live on food.'

'How the hell can you live on thoughts?'

It's the way we are, Alex. You eat food – we eat thoughts. We're two-way telepaths, remember? We pick up thoughts…then we feed on them.'

Suddenly it all made sense and he cursed his stupidity. Him working on the Converter. Thinking about the problems all the time. Derv encouraging him. Bringing him food. Them growing fat at his expense. He shook his head – Christ, he'd walked right into it.

And his weight loss. Six kilos in a week. Somehow he must have lost weight quite quickly as they fed on his thoughts.

'There's really nothing you can do, Alex,' Derv told him. 'There have been others before you. We fed off them as well.'

'The Ship I took the Converter from?'

'Yes and many more before that.'

'And the food came from the other Ships too?'

'Yes. You're not the first, Alex and you won't be the last. You can't escape.'

He sat in silence awhile.

Eventually Derv asked. 'So what are you going to do, Alex?'

'I'm not sure,' he replied. Because he'd only half-understood the plan that was forming in the critical corner of his mind.

VII

His plan started the following day.

The Ship was locked, so they couldn't get in. He knew he would still hear them but not seeing them gave him a little more confidence.

He took the circular mat into the Observation Bay and laid it where it would catch the sunlight slanting in through the windows. Two or three days he had thought, to reverse the process. They would grow weak again and he strong. Two or three days without any thoughts for them to feed on. Two or three days of pure meditation when there was only silence in his mind.

He sat down on the mat and eased his tired body into a cross-legged position. Rested his hands lightly on his knees. Straightened his back. Closed his eyes.

He tried to clear his mind but in his weakened state it was difficult and anyway they knew what he was trying to do. Knew he was trying to starve them to death.

It took him five minutes to empty his mind of all thoughts. Then silence in his head. Silence. No thoughts. Nothing for them to feed on.

He heard Derv almost immediately. 'There's no point, Alex. You can't win.'

He replied automatically, before he could stop himself. 'Yeah I can. I can. I can beat you.'

Soft laughter inside his head.

He cursed himself. Began again. Tried to empty his mind. And Derv kept on provoking him – floated questions into his head, simple questions he couldn't stop himself half-answering.

'How are you, Alex?'

'Tired. Every part of-'

Silence.

'Hungry, Alex?'

'No but I could use a-'

Soft laughter.

'You can't beat us, Alex.'

'Yeah I can. I-'

The battle raged all morning. It took him till the sun was directly overhead before he had some kind of control. He slipped through to the Galley and prepared a few sandwiches before he returned to the circular mat.

In the afternoon they began attacking him in earnest.

It wasn't just Derv now. The others joined in. They whispered at him from all the corners of his mind. Quietly. Very quietly. So quietly he found himself straining to catch them.

'Alex…Alex…Alex…Alex…'

Then the whispering gave way to their normal voices. Having a conversation all across his mind. Not talking directly to him. Then occasionally darting a question at him to which he half-replied before he caught himself.

Then the shouting began. All of them. Six or seven or eight. Shouting at him. Each other. Anything. Singly. In two's and three's. Altogether.

Then they were screaming. Shrill cries and screams screeching and echoing inside his head. Howling. Jangling. Piercing. Shrieking like knives all across his mind.

Then silence. Long, empty, eerie silence.

The sweat ran down his back, his chest, his legs. He dug his nails into his palms, waiting for them to begin again.

Soft laughter echoed round his head. Was joined by other laughter. All soft. Like children's. It deepened. Criss-crossed his head. Deeper laughter. Growing. Building. Pulsing. Evil, crazy laughter. All inside his mind. On and on and on till he thought his head would explode.

He started screaming and shouting to try and kill the noise….long seconds dragged by before he realised the only thing he could hear was his own voice.

Silence.

At night he took a couple of tablets to help him stay awake. He suspected they could feed on his dreams.

VIII

On the second day the voices inside his head grew more sporadic.

Sometimes he slipped and responded to them but he was gaining control all the time, growing stronger. After a long silent period, they tried what he prayed was their last attempt to break him. They set up an echo effect inside his head. All of them, one after the other, from all the dark corners of his mind.

'Alex…Alex…Alex…Alex..'

'Alex Franks…Alex Franks…Alex Franks…Alex Franks…'

Overlapping and on and on, growing louder and louder. Then some of them started laughing while the others continued the echoes. But he was becoming detached enough to ignore them and he knew they couldn't keep it up for much longer. The echoes and the laughter trailed away and stopped.

By mid-afternoon he was confident enough to leave the mat again and heat some food. Then a shower. He did it all purely by reflex – there were no thoughts involved.

Towards evening he detected a subtle change in the way they spoke to him. There was just a touch of desperation about it, as if they knew there was now a chance they might lose. He ignored them and strengthened his resolve not to respond. Later on he allowed himself a meal then a sleep on the couch. He instructed the computer to wake him in two hours.

At night some more of the tablets helped him to stay awake.

The following morning found them strangely silent and him much stronger. There was the occasional pleading which he ignored.

Once Derv asked him, 'Is it too much to ask for just a few thoughts, Alex?'

He smiled broadly but his mind stayed silent as he breakfasted.

At lunch time he prepared a healthy meal then slept for three hours. In the evening he walked through to the Medical Bay on stronger legs and weighed himself. His weight had increased by nearly a kilo. He grinned at the healthier looking man in the mirror and allowed himself another sleep.

For the third night running he stayed awake, mainly in silent meditation and when the first red rays of dawn entered the Observation Bay it was time to put the next part of his plan into action. He wondered if putting any distance between them and him would reduce their power and anyway, he was tired of staying in the Ship. He showered and packed some food.

When he opened the door they were waiting for him.

IX

He came down the steps of the Ship slowly, never taking his eyes off them.

They made no move towards him, just stood there in a semi-circle, watching him. His heart surged when he saw how much thinner they were and it made him feel even stronger. At the bottom of the steps he halted.

Derv said, 'It's pointless, Alex. No matter how far you go we can still reach you. We can still feed on you. Distance means nothing to us.'

He stared at them coldly but didn't respond. He began edging away from them but they made no attempt to stop him, didn't even move. Just watched him in silence.

When he was a hundred yards from the Ship, he turned and looked back. They had started to follow him. He grinned then turned and headed into the red-tinged wilderness.

He didn't stray too far and after an hour he started back to the Ship in a wide circle. The voices were always with him but there was a definite change in them now – they were pleading almost all the time and he noticed that there didn't seem so many of them.

'Talk to us, Alex. Just a few thoughts.'

'It's agony, Alex. The hunger is terrible. Can't you give us some thoughts?'

He heard a woman weeping but he ignored it and continued leading them round and round in the wilderness.

There was another reason why he wanted to keep them after him. It had occurred to him earlier that they would probably use up energy as they moved around but as there would be no thoughts for them to feed on, their reserves would be used up pretty fast. Which meant they'd be growing thinner and weaker all the time. He walked on.

When the sun was higher in the sky and was casting a warm glow over the planet he stopped to eat. This gave them time to catch up but he wasn't worried. He leisurely finished his meal then picked some cover when they drew near – he wanted to see them.

He almost laughed when he did. There were only five of them left and they were very, very thin. So his reasoning about them losing weight quite quickly was correct. He smiled and watched them go by.

They tried a new tactic.

Derv said, 'How will you repair your Ship without thinking, Alex?'

The others took it up. 'You'll never do it, Alex. You'll never do it. You'll have to start thinking again. How can you work without thoughts in your mind?'

He grinned – that one had already been worked out a few days ago. Still grinning, he allowed a single, loud thought to run triumphantly through his head. 'Easy – I wait till you're all fucking dead!'

In the silence of his mind, there might have been a hint of soft laughter but he shook his head. No, he must have imagined it.

X

A few days later only Derv was left alive and barely at that. Alex tracked him to the shelter of some rocks where he'd crawled. Compared to his own body which was gradually returning to normal, he was a living skeleton – some of his bones were visible and the skin on his face had started to split around the nose and chin.

As Alex watched him writhing about feebly among the rocks and sand, he felt a weak thought coming into his mind.

'Just a few thoughts, Alex….please.'

Despite the nightmare he'd been through he found himself curious about how they grew. He wanted to see it happening with his own eyes. He sat on a boulder near Derv and allowed a stream of thoughts to run through his mind.

It happened very fast. Within minutes, he could see the flesh growing on Derv's face. Saw the skin join and become thicker around the nose and chin. Saw the grateful look in his eyes. He'd seen enough. He closed his mind down again.

When he returned a few hours before sunset Derv was dead. He wept with relief. One by one, he found the skeletons of the others, every single one he'd met in the room inside the cliff. Accounted for them all.

A wild joy exploded in his heart and mind. He was free of the bastards! The goddamned leeches! He ran and danced and sang his way back to the Ship, feeling a wonderful glorious lightness in his head.

For the first time in weeks his mind felt empty, except for his own thoughts.

XI

He slept soundly for twelve hours when he returned to the Ship. When he woke, he planned out the work he still had to do over a leisurely breakfast. The useless Uranium Converter had to be removed and the other fitted. He smiled as he allowed different parts of the work to run through his mind – it was such a relief to be able to think freely again.

He strolled through to the Observation Bay with a cigarette and a cup of coffee and began to consider the problems. It was going to take about a week to complete the work, which meant his food supplies would be adequate. His water could do with topping up though and later he would stroll over and collect some from the room inside the cliff but he wanted to start work on the Converter right away.

He finished his coffee and cigarette and humming happily to himself, pulled on a work-suit, collected his tools and went below to the Drive section.

He worked hard for two days but the job proved more difficult than he'd thought. The removal had been straightforward enough but fitting the other Converter wasn't as simple as he'd hoped. There were a few alterations and modifications he'd need to make.

He felt irritable. The hard work and the lack of sleep the previous week had left him feeling worn and tired and the fact that he'd walked over to the cliff and found both entrances to the room heavily blocked hadn't improved his state of mind.

He took a break one afternoon and carried a cup of coffee through to the Observation Bay. The view from there was calming and he wanted to try to relax and get the work into perspective. He lit a cigarette and stared out the observation windows.

The red sun was climbing down the sky, flooding the landscape with its soothing light. A vast sandy plain stretched away to some mountains in the distance. The sky behind them was a deep crimson, lightening up in stages to a soft pink.

Some of the irritation receded in his mind and he finished the coffee and lay back on the couch. He closed his eyes and tried to think rationally about the job.

'Okay, you've ran into a few snags – so what? They're minor things, trivia. They won't keep you here forever, just delay you, that's all. A few more days won't kill you, so relax. Take the problems one by one. You know you can solve them. Then you'll be away.'

Away. He smiled. What would it be like getting home after all this? He sighed. It would be so good. So damn good. He lay there and daydreamed about it for a while as the red sun slid further down the sky. He would have lain there a while longer, just daydreaming but the critical corner of his mind was growing impatient.

'Move!' it ordered.

Alex grinned. "All right, I'm moving," he said and reluctantly rose to his feet.

He yawned and took a last look at the view from the observation windows. He turned to go and Derv was standing in the open doorway. A partly fleshed skeleton. There was only one eye in the half-formed face. There was no skin at all over his nose and mouth. All the bones in his hands and feet were visible.

Alex screamed and staggered back against the couch.

Derv smiled a hideous smile. 'Hello, Alex.'

"You're dead!" Alex screamed. "I killed you! All of you!"

Soft laughter in his head.

'Not quite, Alex. You reduced us to bare bones, that's all. You didn't kill our life-force. No-one can. I told you that you couldn't win.'

"But if I die you'll have no-one to feed on!" Alex screamed at him. "You'll all die too!"

'No, Alex. We can stay as skeletons for many years. It only takes a few thoughts to bring us back to life. Others have been here before you. They died as well. There's no escape, Alex.'

He felt his mind invaded again. Like tiny insects scrabbling around inside his head. He didn't have the strength to resist them. He slid to the floor and wept.

XII

The Rescue Ship arrived two weeks later.

His distress message had beamed out all that time but the Company had ran into trouble in the Baltok System and no-one could be spared until now. The two-man crew had landed a short distance away on the same plain. They'd searched briefly for Alex but couldn't find him.

"He must be around here somewhere," the Engineer said to the Captain when he returned from inspecting the Drive section. "He's been working on replacing the Uranium Converter. Another few days and he would've been finished."

The Captain was sitting in the Observation Bay, staring out the observation windows as the setting sun bathed the plain in a dark reddish haze. "So where the hell is he then?"

The Engineer wiped his hands on a rag and shrugged. "Don't know. Could be anywhere I suppose."

The Captain yawned and stretched. "Well it's too late to continue looking for him tonight. Let's get some sleep. We'll work out a search plan in the morning….after we've had time to think about it."