It only took three. One in New York, another in Beijing and the last, for reasons no one understood, in London. Three beings in three cities and the world at their command.
I sucked in a final drag, stamped the cigarette into the cracked pavement of Oxford Street, and left a cloud of vapour hanging in the air as I went inside. I didn’t want to go. I’m no coward, but, when all’s said and done, what does a man have but his sanity? And my sanity was on the line.
The laser sights warmed my flesh as I strode towards the counter. I put on a decent act, raising my hands with my fedora in the right and two fingers pointing skyward in my left. I didn’t fear the guards. They were mere ants serving the bloated bulk of their queen. They wouldn’t dare interfere with my mission.
A stiff-looking guard with a face of stone ran the wand over me and my hat, then nodded.
“Name?” asked the man at the counter.
“Ben Bentley.” It wasn’t my real name. I hadn’t used that in decades.
“Do you have an appointment?”
“No, I come here for the company. Now, are you going to let me in, or d’you want me to explain to Lord Varans that it was…” I leaned forward and exaggeratedly squinted at the man’s name badge, “Colin Eldridge who delayed me? Now, you know as well as I do that the lord is not a patient… being.”
The man’s face drained of any remaining colour and he made a pretence of checking the appointment list before waving me through.
It’s important, when going into the presence of the grim reaper, to take your pleasure where you could.
But now the fear returned. The barbiturates I’d inhaled took the edge off, to be sure, but they did nothing to still the primal terror, they just helped resist the temptation to run.
What would be the point? The triad ruled the world from Tampa to Timbuktu. There was nowhere to hide.
I got into the empty lift and took one last look at the human world of the foyer. As soon as the doors closed, I put a hand against my chest, as if to keep my thumping heart from bursting out, and tried to slow my breathing.
I’d taken both pride and relief from surviving my first encounter with Varans. Few, it was said, could abide the creature’s presence and I knew that many of those more qualified than me to carry out the investigation had been reduced to gibbering wrecks and cast from the upper floor to decorate the streets of old London.
The numbers climbed as I adjusted my fedora, thinking of the thousands of slaves who worked on the intervening floors, administering the destruction of their own world. But I was going to the top. The very top.
The elevator shuddered to a halt, and the doors swung open. A beautiful young woman stood there, her mouth smiling as her eyes begged for release. She bowed and gestured me into the dark interior.
“Have you taken precautions?” The voice was as deep as the dark places beneath the Earth. It came from the demon realm. The place of nightmares.
“Yes, Lord Varans, magnificent ruler of the middle third, beneficent and just…”
“That will do. You recite the words well. Now, approach and give me your report.”
How to describe him, third-part ruler of Earth? Hideous. Yes, a good shorthand for the thing I bowed to, shrouded in merciful darkness with only dim red light for illumination. He was broadly of man-shape, having two arms, two legs and a head—though he was rarely seen in his entirety—but each was massively distended. Out of his face flicked a forked tongue. He laboured as if the gravity of his home world was far weaker than here. His spacecraft sat on the roof of this building—the former headquarters of Third Mercantile—and he would occasionally commune with his fellow rulers on the mothership that remained in orbit.
And he stank. Of death and ruin and depravity.
But the greatest danger came from his mind. Like the gazelle senses the hidden lion pack, entering into his presence fires every instinct I have to run. And yet I must stay and bear his baleful gaze.
“My lord, I believe I have found her.”
The shock wave tore me from my feet and I fell tumbling, sliding along the marble floor, before sweeping up the fragments of my mind and hauling myself to my feet. The hunger in those red eyes, staring out at me from the shadows. But he didn’t crave me, merely what I had discovered.
I am a private investigator, specialising in cheating husbands and unfaithful wives. So, you might wonder how I got recruited to the great search. Turned out, I was merely the next sap in a long line of bozos. The only difference between me and them was that I found her.
“How can you be sure it is her?” the voice rumbled with a hideous eagerness.
I bowed, swaying on legs of jelly. “She meets the profile, lord. And you gave me the sign to look for.”
The Lord Varans went quiet, and he licked his gelatinous lips with his whip-like tongue. Once I gave him the information, my usefulness would end. Except as a light afternoon snack.
“You will bring her to me.”
I sucked humid, acrid air in through my open mouth. “You don’t wish to send your enforcers, lord?”
“DO NOT QUESTION ME!”
I crumpled under the force of his mind; collapsing to the floor, tears streaming down my tortured face. “I… I… am sorry.”
“Bring her to me, immediately.”
Like the tide going out (remember when we had tides?) I was released.
“How could he know?” the woman said. I had gone to her as soon as I’d escaped the monster. She sat at a blue formica table, raking through the yellow-stained butt-ends until she found one with a scrap of tobacco remaining.
I could have offered her one of mine, I suppose, but nobody shared their fags these days. The creatures kept supply just below demand and so they manipulated us.
We talked in the gloom of her dingy workshop—the chemical lab of a drug maker if ever I saw one. Though the lizards were an odd choice. Behind her, in a cage, the small reptile tank basked under the brightest light in this dim place. On the table, a kitchen knife that I had moved out of her reach.
“And why would he care?”
I shrugged. “I don’t know. He told me to find someone and he gave me this device.” I handed it over. I mean, why not? We were both going to die that day. Well, she was, for certain. I still had a vague hope I might escape.
She turned the small, rectangular block over in her hands. “What does it do?”
“No idea. But he said to use it to confirm it was you, once I located you. It only works at close range.”
She flicked it on, fingers tracing the glossy exterior, eyes probing for any clues. “It was made here; on Earth I mean. Just a standard plastic.”
“Careful. No sudden movements!” I touched the Beretta that lay on the table beside me.
She froze, and then put the device down again. “And you say it found me?”
“Yeah. Two nights ago.”
Her face stiffened. Interesting.
“At about 9pm,” I continued.
“But… but how did you find me? You said it only works at close range.”
I nodded. “Good old fashioned detective work. I wasn’t the first to try, but I was the first to succeed.”
“Modest, too.” She said, but she didn’t smile. “But why would he care about my research?”
Her name was Susan Mayadev. In the years before the monsters had come to live among us, she’d worked at CERN. Now she was a two-bit hawker of recs. And that was the biggest puzzle. Why would one of the world’s three rulers be interested in a small time concocter of drugs? Often enough, the creatures would expose some scientist or engineer who, they claimed, was developing weapons to use against the overlords, but in this case, Varans had been quite specific: his own security forces were not to be involved.
But Mayadev was a particle physicist by training and that discipline was well known for its complete lack of practical application. Besides, surely the monsters’ knowledge would far exceed hers. They’d crossed the interstellar void, after all.
“I’m sorry,” I said, stubbing out my cigarette. “I have to bring you in.”
She shook her head. “No you don’t. You could run.”
“Ha! You know there would be no place to hide if I did that.”
“And yet I hid for years, it seems. Unless he has only just become interested in me.”
The chair legs squealed as I got up and slipped the Beretta into my pocket. “It doesn’t matter. If I don’t return with you, he’ll kill my family. You know how it works.” In my mind’s eye, I saw my brother, sister-in-law and nieces. I saw them lined up in front of a brick wall and gunned down.
All resistance vanished and, with a sigh, the woman got to her feet.
I swear the place stunk even more this time. I’d guided the woman into the foyer where a nervous guard who’d clearly drawn the short straw had taken the Beretta from me and escorted us to the lift.
“What is… he like?” she’d whispered to me as we ascended.
I was too nervous to respond any further than to say “You’ll see.”
A different young woman wearing the same dead smile met us as the doors opened. Mayadev lurched back, retching as the stink filled the elevator, but I gave her a shove and the young woman disappeared.
“Don’t leave me,” Mayadev begged.
If I could have, I would have. But that would depend on the monster’s bidding.
I pushed her ahead of me until we entered his presence, a dark, brooding hulk sitting in the shadows.
“Is it you?”
The thing moved forward, his great head gibbous under the candlelight. Thick, quivering lips widened to expose the rotten fangs beneath, the tongue always in motion.
Mayadev whimpered under his scrutiny.
“Speak,” he said, though it was more question than command.
“What… what do you wish me to say.”
He groaned in something approaching ecstasy, the fat cheeks of his gray face quivering as he rocked back and forth.
“Tell me your true name,” the monster said in a voice like autumn leaves in a graveyard.
Mayadev seemed frozen to the spot.
“She is…” I began, fearing he was going to accuse me of bringing the wrong person.
“SILENCE! You will not speak!”
I fell back under his malevolence and left her there, quaking and fragile in front of the monster.
“You need not fear me, but either you have changed your name, or you will, or you stole from the true bearer of that name. Now tell me, what do you call yourself?”
She shook her head, as if unable to comprehend what he was saying. “I am Susan, master.”
“Yes. But not Mayadev. That name has not been remembered.”
“But how would you know?”
Again, he leaned forward. “I know much. Now tell me.”
“My name is Mayadev, but I was born Susan Newton.”
And then I knew her! Susan, such a common name. But Susan Newton!
“The Torus Theorem!” I couldn’t help myself.
This time, the force of his will blasted me from my feet and I collided with the wall, collapsing to the floor.
I gazed up at them. The silhouette of the tiny woman standing before the mouth of Hell itself.
“It is you!” the monster said. Its arms opened and it leaned forward as if to grasp her, its huge maw wide and craving in its red eyes.
She stepped back, avoid its groping hands, and I thought it would rend her limb from limb. But, instead, it retreated into the shadows, making a strange sound half way between suppressed excitement and utter despair. At least, in a human.
I crept further back into the darkness at the bottom of the wall and remained there unregarded.
“I will not hurt you,” the voice said. It wasn’t talking to me. If I moved, I would die. I knew this.
“I don’t understand.”
“Do you not?” there was, possibly, a hint of disappointment. “You are Susan Newton, the developer of the Torus Theorem?”
“Both the general and the special?”
“I don’t know what you mean? There is only the theorem.”
A groan emanated from the darkness. “Too soon? You do not yet have the insight? The moment of clarity that unites all of space-time?”
“I don’t understand. The theorem does this.”
I was none the wiser. I didn’t even know what a torus was. If it had been called the doughnut theorem, I’d have understood instantly. All of space-time constrained within the fourth dimensional shape of a life preserver.
The creature continued. “The general theorem describes the shape of the cosmos, the special theorem was your moment of genius. You saw how it would be possible to cross from one point in the circuit to another without traveling through the intervening space.”
I imagined a life preserver filled with water. I saw myself as a bug caught within this fluid. It would seem infinite because however long I swam for, I would never find the end.
“But how can that be?” she asked, stumbling in her confusion, perhaps overpowered by the stench of the monster. “Unless…”
And I saw a cigarette pressed against the outside of the life preserver. It burned a hole and, suddenly, the water burst through, taking the bug with it.
Of course, my amateurish insight was as nothing to the infinitely more subtle realization fermenting in her mind as she saw the equations, saw the consequences.
“But, that would mean time itself…”
“Yes,” the creature said, and this time when it moved forward, arms outstretched, it did not allow her to retreat until its scaly arms wrapped around her screaming form.
“You will complete you work. You must, because you did it before. And then we shall be together, forever. Mother.”
A door slid open behind the great throne and he dragged away Susan Newton, shrieking and crying until, as the echoes died, I was left, forgotten in the darkness.
Footsteps on the marble floor. A hand soft on my arm. I shrunk away, and then saw it was the pretty young woman with the smile who’d met us at the elevator. She put her finger to her lips and beckoned me to follow, then scampered away.
I kept as close as I could, expecting the monster to reappear at any moment. He didn’t spend long with his victims, I had been told. His hunger always overcame his desire to play.
She pushed the lift button and it seemed an eon before the doors finally opened. I got inside, expecting her to follow, but she shook her head. “My family.”
Of course. Just as my loved ones were the guarantee of my good behaviour, so these beauties sacrificed themselves for the sake of theirs.
I kissed her and let her go.
My mind whirled as the lift descended. My only hope was that the monster had forgotten me and, in his joy at discovering the woman he sought and whatever his depraved purpose was, I would be able to escape and warn my family.
But why did he seek this woman so hungrily? And why did he call her ‘mother’?
Then I knew.
It was impossible.
But I knew.
The security guards outside the lift entrance glanced at me as I walked across the polished floor. They sensed a disturbance from upstairs but did not connect it with me. They were more concerned about preserving their own skins.
I breathed in a lungful of London smog as I emerged onto the pavement outside. It was dark again and I wondered how long I had lain there unnoticed before escaping.
Once I was out of sight of the main entrance, I leaned against a wall and had a smoke. I knew what I wanted to do, but I was no theoretical physicist so I couldn’t know whether my actions might endanger the entire universe.
I did know that, if I did nothing, then in a few months or years Susan Newton would refine her equation, perhaps with help from the monster, and she would conduct an experiment. She would break time.
Reaching the workshop, I forced the door open and went inside.
The power was out, but I found the torch where she’d left it and made my way into the room where I’d spoken to her, running my fingers over the formica table and finding the kitchen knife.
On a bench behind the table was a reptile tank.
I carefully lifted the top and shone the torch inside, using the tip of the knife to move the foliage and rocks aside.
I counted the lizards.
There were three.
I used the knife.
I would wait for Susan Newton, and she would follow her children into the void.