We’d heard rumours of strange reptilian creatures stalking the lands beyond our borders. We’d not paid much attention. Similarly, we’d dismissed the reports which were sent back from the Palace Guard’s intelligence team who patrolled the perimeter of our kingdom. Men, far away from home are prone to flights of fancy and over-exaggeration. However, when the creatures did appear they were quite beyond imagination.
One spring morning they came, floating down from the fluffy white clouds under little canopies of sky-blue silk. We watched from our roof tops and our high city walls as they landed, then marched upon us, fanning out around the entire circumference of the city. We’d closed the heavy outer gates, pulled up the drawbridge and manned the battlements. But it was not enough. They were too large, too strong, too determined. And there were so many of them.
Our archers fired on them, but the arrows bounced off their patterned breast plates and scaly bodies. Within the hour they had peeled back our gates and smashed down our ramparts with their huge taloned paws. Our swords and spears were no match for them either. Once they had entered the city, they unslung their weapons and fired beams of sound and light which turned men to dust.
People scattered before them. Those who were too old or too slow were scooped up in their great scaly arms and flung aside with a force that snapped necks and broke bones. One of the creatures pulled a bleating goat from its tether and bit the poor animal’s head off. Then it split the body in two and tossed each half to its comrades who marched on either side.
What was left of the Palace Guard formed a ring around the entrance to the Sanctum where our queen and her council were gathered. The creatures filled the main square; row upon row of them. They stood in their ranks, facing our guards. Silence fell, punctuated only by the groans of the injured and the laments of the bereaved.
Then one of the creatures stepped forward; the symbols on its breastplate finer and more intricate than the rest. It advanced up the steps to face the Commander of the Palace Guard. Bringing a huge, scaly paw down on the Commander’s left shoulder it leant forward, forked tongue flickering.
At that moment, there was a strange roaring noise and suddenly, out of thin air a mysterious object appeared. A huge, great storage vessel, rather like the ones we use to store oil or wine, but much larger and made of a dull, grey metal. A door in the side of the object slid open and a tall, willowy figure dressed in a flowing silver gown appeared. The creatures in the square turned towards her, low whistling sounds emanating from their nostrils. They cowed their heads. She raised a shiny black staff and pointed it at their leader. She spoke and although her words were incomprehensible to us, we knew they were full of power. The lizard leader muttered something. She said a single, potent word and it vanished in a puff of smoke. Then she turned her shiny black staff on the massed ranks of creatures. Pop, pop, pop. They all disappeared. Then without a word, she returned to the vessel and the door closed behind her. The roaring noise sounded and the vessel was gone.
The old man finished his story and stared into the distance. Someone asked him a question.
“True? You ask me if my story’s true? Evidence?” He paused. “Well, if you look carefully there are some scorch marks near the entrance to the Sanctum.” The old man held up his finger. “And, I believe, fine sky-blue silk underwear is still worn here by women of a certain age.”
I remember The Time Before. The time before The Changes, before the bees died all over the world. Suddenly. All wiped out. It was that one dreadful year when things started to break down. Lots of things happened, but it was all about the bees.
We knew they were important.
We knew they were vital.
We knew they were vital for life.
Everyone had predicted it would be a catastrophe; but it turned out there was hope. There was a work-around; people with technology, scientists, biologists, cyberneticists. They had a plan.
They brought out the drones. Not the only-good-for-one-thing males of the bee species. No, these were machines.
But we didn’t realise that these tiny robots were more than just little automated pollinators.
Did you know about the waggle dance? The one a bee did to tell other bees where to find the good stuff. No? Well it doesn’t matter. What does matter is that the new drones, the cute little bee drones, have eyes everywhere. They’re watching us. So you’d better toe the line.
They don’t do a dance, but they do tell their masters.
They watch; their masters observe.
Their masters control. Your life.
Everyone had predicted it would be a catastrophe, and it was. But not in the way people had thought. And now nothing is like it was in The Time Before.
The HQ of Deeply Underground Subversive Comics was under attack. Bullets sprayed across the hillside from a jet fighter. Moments later a nearby explosion rocked the desk where Mick was working.
“Dammit, we’re going to have to move out!” He yelled at Simone, who was steadying her laptop with one hand while furiously typing lines of complex coding with the other.
“Can you reconfigure the IP address before we go?” she yelled back.
“Sure, I’m on it.” Mick flung himself down at the adjacent desk and pulled the keyboard onto his lap. “What were you working on anyway?”
“Just some research for ‘Jasmine’s Day’.”
“Not on Google?”
“It was only innocent stuff,” replied Simone, emptying her desk drawer into a large canvas satchel.
“Huh, like last time.” Mick’s fingers danced over the keyboard. “Why can’t you just stay in the Deep Web?”
The flames outside were dying down. Suddenly the viewing screen was filled with what looked like giant flying insects. “Drones incoming!” Simone shouted as she crouched behind the main console and started to rummage about in a cupboard.
“Deploy ‘Flame Kitten’,” Mick turned to give the order to Jonesy.
“No can do boss, she’s busy in Syria.”
“Who else we got?” Mick finished typing and slung the keyboard back on the desk.
“‘Silver Sparrow’s in South Sudan and ‘Galactic Gecko’s in…”
“Dammit! What’s the point in us creating these superheroes if they’re not here for us when we need them?” Mick hammered his fist on the arm of his chair.
“Prime directive boss,” Jonesy shut down his screen with a click and tucked the tablet into his overalls.
There was another explosion and an ominous crack appeared in the ceiling. Simone looked up. “C’mon guys, we’ve got to get out! To the escape corridor!” She slung the satchel over her shoulder and pulled out her cell-phone. “There’s nothing for it,” she tapped the screen rapidly; “I’m messaging ‘Grand Trope Central’.”
“You’re doing what?!” Mick grabbed his rucksack from under the desk.
“We’re going to need something good if we’re going to get out of this.”
Mick, Simone and Jonesy reached the corridor just as the ceiling collapsed and the roof caved in. Flames shot across the room.
“Sealing hatch!” Simone announced as she hit a large red button mounted on the wall. A metal shutter slid into place closing off the corridor. “C’mon, run! It won’t hold for long.”
As they jogged along, their progress was hampered by a series of thick cords which crisscrossed the brightly lit passage. Mick grunted as he clambered through the knotted strands. “What the hell are these, anyway?”
“Twisted plotlines,” replied Simone. “Try to bend them rather than break them; they might be important.”
Simone’s cell-phone beeped, signalling an incoming message. At the same moment the corridor lights failed, plunging them into darkness. The only illumination was from the phone; the message read: ‘look ahead’. Simone looked up from her phone; a large wooden door had appeared from nowhere right in front of them, seemingly hanging in limbo. Golden light leaked around the edges of the door. A red neon sign flashed. ‘Enter,’ it commanded. Simone glanced at her two companions.
“What the f…” Mick took a step towards the door, as the excruciating sound of shearing metal echoed down the passage. They heard a drone whirring towards them.
“C’mon,” Simone tugged at the sleeve of Jonesy’s overalls, “we’ve no alternative.”
Mick touched the door which swung inwards, bathing them in the bright golden light. Blindly they rushed through; the door slammed shut behind them. Slowly their eyes adjusted. They looked around, confused. They were back in the room from where they’d just made their escape, but it was undamaged. Good as new.
The viewing screen over the main console flickered on to reveal a figure, features obscured by the bright back lighting.
“Sit down,” commanded the voice from the screen. Obediently Simone, Mick and Jonesy seated themselves at their workstations. “You have done well,” the voice continued, “but now you must move to the next level.” The walls around them began to shimmer. “Write yourselves out of this!” The screen dissolved. There was a loud pop and a flash of light.
“Whoa, what’s happening?” Mick‘s words were barely audible above the sound of rushing wind. Suddenly the noise stopped. They looked up at the viewing screen. Outside the view was as green and tranquil as before the recent attack.
Mick shrugged. “No immediate threat then?”
“Maybe not.” As Simone took out her laptop the sky darkened. On the viewing screen they saw a huge metal disc hovering over the mountain. It didn’t look friendly.
“Here we go again!” Mick said, snatching his keyboard from the desk.