Devil Machine

Order to retreat processed. Please prepare for swift tactical withdrawal.

With a mental command as casual and effortless as the flick of his tail that accompanied it, Giegue steadied himself against the sudden lurch as the spaceship switched from a lazy standby mode to maximum acceleration in a fraction of a second. Instead of hurtling across the bridge and slamming into the far wall, which was currently the floor, he gently levitated upwards, spun around until he was facing the right way up, then lowered himself back into his chair. It wasn't the most graceful emergency system in the Universe but then, emergency systems weren't, and the level of warrior who was given permission to be aboard such a class of ship would be expected to have that level of psychic power and quick reflexes.

By the time he was back in his chair, the ship had already left the solar system. His sensors, linked to his consciousness directly through a psychically reactive cybernetic interface, told him that all power had been diverted from non-essential systems to the engines and the teleport drive, meaning that the shields, cloaking device and life-support systems were the only things functioning, and the latter only minimally. He was expected to be able to keep himself alive by now.

He was also expected not to lose battles...

His dark slit eyes, somewhere halfway between a cat and a bleached skull, stared at the average-sized blue planet, now barely registering as a blip on the radar, a tiny flashing red dot on the map. Unable to display all of his emotions with a face designed for a species that had so much telepathy it didn't really need body language, a species that wasn't even supposed to have a large range of emotions, he settled for a single blink, then turned his gaze back to the ship's sensors.

He was running dangerously low on fuel. Even though he was able to tone down the acceleration so he wasn't burning fuel like a maniac, there was a chance he wouldn't have enough for the journey home. If it was a wise decision to return home at all, given that his superiors already knew he had failed the mission and were doubtless already preparing a suitable punishment for him.

He did not feel a particular urge to avoid the punishment he deserved. It wasn't just that he had failed the invasion. Even the most brilliant of Generals lost their fair share of battles, simply through an unexpected turn of events. What was more, his enemies were also strong psychics, making them equals. No, it was the reason he had lost that shamed him. He had lost because he allowed his emotions to get the better of him, emotions he shouldn't even have. Instead of fitting the planet to his own designs, he had been corrupted by the laws of the world he had invaded, had become something more like one of them and less like one of his own.

He had lost because, at the crucial moment, he hadn't even really wanted to fight.

Just as he was vaguely wondering if everything was going to go wrong at once today, his radar beeped at him, an alarm sounded and the text on his display began flashing red. New blips were appearing on the radar, a cluster of blue diamonds in what was unmistakably an attack formation.

His eyes opened wide, his ears flattened against his gaunt temples and his tail thudded against his chair. This was the worst possible time to be under attack. Unprepared, out of fuel, already recovering from one defeat, he was left completely open. He sent a long string of psychic commands to the ship computer, bringing the shields up to full strength and planning a maneouvre that would get him out of firing range so he could teleport-hop again to what he hoped would be an inhabited star system, even if it wasn't where he was supposed to be going.

He was ready to send the final command to activate the chain of orders when he noticed that the computer wasn't responding. Was it suffering lag due to the pressure on its processors or had it malfunctioned, just to add to his troubles? Growling at it, he allowed it a second to right itself.

It looks like you're trying to fight a spaceship battle. Would you like help with that?

He blinked. His computer never did that, or displayed such strange images, like an item of stationery he had seen used on Earth. There shouldn't be anything on his computer he didn't know about. His psychic bond was absolute. A virus? But he wasn't connected a network...

The instant he felt the presence, he withdrew his mind from the link, wrenching the wires out of the back of his neck. Too late.

"Hey, Picky! Let's order pizza!"

"NO!" she shook her head and folded her arms, "For the last time, I'm not going along with any more of your stupid plans! You are absolutely NOT going to get me into any more trouble! I don't even care if you pull my hair!"

"Aww, I promise I'll give you half the pizza this time!"

"I'm not that stupid. We're already grounded because of the stupid meteorite thing. You said you wouldn't leave me in the dark on my own, then you got scared and ran off as soon as we saw the stupid thing!"

"Okay, let's not bring up that old thing again, huh? It was a one-off incident. I was... er.. caught off guard. It was Ness' fault, sneaking up on me like that!"

"Oh, come on. You always lie to me and you always get us into trouble. Can't we just play a video game or something?"

"Only if I can have first go," Pokey snorted, "And we can have a snack first. Hey, has dad left his work open?"

The boy had only just noticed that the computer had been left on. His piggy eyes narrowed on the screen. A thought had just occurred to him, something much better than raiding the larder, or even ordering pizza while his stupid parents were away and he had just discovered the new hiding place for the spare bank card.

"Maybe he hasn't saved yet! Let's quit without saving!"

"Pokey, NO! You know how Dad gets about his work!" his sister reached to grab him, then recoiled, screaming, "AAARGH, IT'S THAT THING!"

"Oh yeah, I forgot you were scared of the paperclip!" Pokey answered with his mean little laugh, "That's stupid! You're crazy!"

"But its eyes go round and round!"

"'Are you sure you want to quit without saving?' Heh, YES!" he bashed the 'Enter' key with his fat finger, almost pressing two keys by accident.

Are you sure?

"Huh? Its broken..." Pokey muttered, hitting the key again. The screen was going wrong, the image breaking up, the sound from the speakers distorted.

Are you sure? Its not right... not right... Would you like help with that? Pokey Pokey Pokey Pokey Pokey Pokey Pokey...

It was Pokey's turn to cry out. Before his eyes, the face of the animated paperclip was twisting into a frozen scream, its eyes hollow sockets, its image filling up a screen that was now blood red. The whispering in his head wouldn't stop. It endlessly repeated his name, a hideous parody of the jeers and mocking calls he heard every day in the playground, a voice so cold and so very far away...

"Pokey? POKEY! What's up with you?"

Pokey blinked. He was surprised to find himself on the floor, next to his overturned chair.

"Its not THAT scary!" complained his sister.

"Has it gone?" he asked, his voice quiet and shaking.

"There's nothing wrong with the computer! Why do you keep saying its broken?" she said, "And don't you dare threaten me, or I'll tell Dad, and I'll tell everyone at school you were scared!"

"Uh... right... about those snacks..." he muttered, grabbing hold of the sofa to hoist himself up. He wasn't actually that hungry any more but snacks were always sort of comforting.

He looked back at the screen. The paperclip was gone. His sister was playing a game and failing at it. This wasn't as amusing as it should be. He couldn't think of any good taunts. It was stupid of him to look. Of course it wasn't there any more. He knew exactly where it was. It was inside his mind, as well as all the others whose minds it had already consumed, and wherever its true lair was, outside of time. In that brief instant, he had seen it all, his own fate and that of everything in the Universe. There was nowhere to run, nothing that could save him and no way of quitting.

Maybe his only hope was to accept that offer of help after all...

((Written mostly because I was looking at the Microsoft Word paperclip and thought, 'hey, you know, Giygas is sort of the same shape as a paperclip... and has a face... and is the embodiment of all evil...))