The Fall of Weltsbury County Council.

Part One - Secret Origins.

'My father is the king's man, and when he rides into the press of fight, he is not thinking ever of saving his own poor body; he recks little enough if he leave it on the field. Why then should you, who are soldier of the spirit, be ever moping around in your cell or in cave, with minds full of your own concerns, while the world, which you should be mending, neither sees nor hears you? Were ye all as thoughtless of your own souls as the soldier is to his body, ye would be of more avail to the souls of others. Toil, and swinken, and labour, and plough the land -"

- Arthur Conan Doyle, 'The White Company'.

Anxious but never afraid, Gray was led through the opulent compound to the very heart of Heaven's Gate. He walked entirely calmly, in a manner he hoped the flanking cult members would find disconcerting. Their gaping, infinitesimally-conceited eyes could be felt; just the expression they aimed for and practised in the mirror, presumably. Except you could still be post-human and totally stupid, totally weak, totally lost. Only after several turns past recently painted walls and the most tranquil-looking yucca plants in the world, did he start to feel truly rankled by his chaperones. This very gentle and earnest rejection of everything the mortal realm had to offer -it was telling that they still surrounded themselves with such luxury. If they'd come from backgrounds of British, working class poverty (that fine old standard of religious intellectualism by necessity) -would they have developed a cult that was half so glacial? Gray had no problem taking the moral high ground. So high he was practically breathing clouds.

True, his brother Nathan had revealed in letters how demi-messiah 'Do' had been so quick to help the Hills, a black couple on the verge of being killed by hoodlums -but at the expense of having to leave their small children back in secular society? Everything about the cult was obviously wrong, but then -so is the transcendental nature of any true, uncompromising religion. It always is a mighty clash between two very obvious, mutually-exclusive things. That was the only difficulty. Passing by narrow patio doors with long-wise windows, Gray looked with disgust at the beautiful garden. Rich and deep colours in the hedgerows, brochure-perfect, vied for attention in a way that was pretentious even in the world of bleach-hearted millionaires. Another patio window further along the cleverly-architected walkway presented a rainbow prism on the plush carpet -pretty. Edging around wondrous-looking lounges, this smallest section of walkway had been wallpapered, using sheets that were entirely featureless and ambient. It splayed out awkwardly to a series of adolescent-size bedrooms. One of his escorts laid a gentle little hand on his shoulder to guide him along.

"My man", said Gray, sternly and commandingly, "it's very important you remove your hand".

One of these smaller rooms had a smiling pair of men working on a Macintosh computer. Gray's heart moved oddly, and he wondered if one of them was his brother. Plus, how could anything displayed on a mere computer screen ever make you smile so broadly? Then came a small rush of relief when he remembered how Nathan had professed his hatred of computers, and lamented being unable to help the cult with their main source of revenue, designing 'internet sites' for the 'World Wide Web'. It was all of it ridiculous and hateful: that they'd managed to thrive in such a weird, colourless little niche. The day I sit down and laugh behind a computer, thought Gray, I may as well join a ridiculous cult myself. But of course, this was simply his nervousness, bringing forth a bitter stream of consciousness, striving to find high-meaning and fine nuance in just about everything he saw. He frowned, felt despair -still, he was absolutely resolute not to shrink in the eyes of his escorts.

Eventually -he was flanked to a stop in a bedroom that was small and not quite rectangular. The type of bedroom you immediately remember your dreams in when you wake in the morning. A skinny man roughly ten years his junior stared intensely at Gray from the pose of a reserve footballer awaiting the word of his gruff manager. Moving briskly, he checked the face against the small photo from his wallet. It was indeed Nathan, but far leaner, and completely shaved of the breathtaking white hair that was the family trademark of the Grays. The escort cult members drifted away into the background, but were still close enough to respond if there was a commotion. No matter. Let it come.

"Nathan. listen carefully", he started, in a voice that was unreservedly grave. He'd always been the stern older brother, yet it was only now the instinct went into overdrive. Partly it had been their parent's fault. They'd been mediocre-to-bad disciplinarians, and in fact the only clear order he ever remembered getting from his father was, 'You have to look after your brother'. Very well. A fine and noble flourish of something very obvious.

"Here is the nub of the matter. When I leave this place, you're coming with me, one way or another. In the left side of my jacket is a tranquilliser gun, and in the right there's enough darts to immobilise whosoever tries to stop us".

Nathan clasped his shaved head and smiled a little. "Where on earth did you get that?"

"You know that I was in the army. Subsequently, I've risen to a very respectable post in the secret service. I come here armed with the tranquilliser gun, and the following intelligence. Our allies in the CIA have taken quite an interest in religious cults, since Waco and Jonestown, and your man is classified as a severe threat to public safety. No doubt he's spoken to you very little about who he is and where he's come from?"

Nathan was defiant. He spoke with a kind of clipped, humanity-plus which Gray didn't like at all. "Are you really a member of the secret service?"

Said the older brother gravely, "I am. Though I'm here in no official capacity. I'm here for you".

"Well that's fascinating. The secret service let you join, even with your disability?"

With some leniency, Gray said, "Through adversity comes strength. It gives you a unique perspective".

"It's very impractical, though", said Nathan.

Prosopagnosia syndrome. A neurological fusing, centring around the lower fusiform of the brain, with the sufferer unable to distinguish between human faces while the rest of their faculties operate as normal. The Colonel liked to tell himself that he'd adapted to it a long time ago, finding ingenious Holmes-like methods of distinguishing the people he came across. Certainly Nathan had no cause to be so incredulous. Apart from the prosopagnosia, their childhood had gone smoothly. His professional life had gone smoothly, too.

"I don't mean to belittle you", said the younger. "I honestly don't. But don't you see? You're about to lecture me about some supposed dark aspect to Do's personality. But even if it was true, that he had some terrible flaw in his psychology - it's still only a flaw of his human personality. At Heaven's Gate, we're about transcending these things, just as you've transcended your illness. This is a new phase of human evolution we're entering, and there's nowhere to hide".

Gray frowned, and waded in further. "We know that several members of this cult have been physically castrated. Now, perhaps that's valid in some grand, cosmic scheme, perhaps it isn't. But don't you find it odd that Mr Applewhite is a latent homosexual, and he hates himself for it, and he just happens to be pressuring his followers into removing the very thing he's most ashamed of?"

Amazingly, Nathan was cool. "Life is odd. Charles, you're not listening to me. Whether you think Do is doing this for his own jaded reasons or not, you're still only talking about the means. We're talking about the ends. I repeat: Where we're going, there's nowhere to hide, there's nothing to hide behind".

At this point, as Nathan's tone hit an impossibly deep seabed of thoughtfulness, Gray wanted to bring up Applewhite's belief in space aliens and flying saucers -and mock it all, as such things must always be mocked. Instead he sharpened his eyes, sharpened his stare, remained utterly calm.

"Let's talk about the 'ends', then. Look at the psychological profile of any suicide-espousing cult leader, anywhere in the world. They will always identify some non-human future event, proclaim it's tied with the end of the world and the ascension of humanity. In Applewhite's case - Halley's Comet. When are you going to see? There's nothing remarkable about this man. He's a psychopath and that's all".

The effect of the ambient wallpaper was to catch brilliant sunlight and make it look old, sluggish. Nathan smiled, spoke of ideas that were bold, spiritually exciting, noble even. But he never seemed to be anything other than stuck in a mire. Gray tried not to let the pity shine through in his eyes. Furthermore, yes - there was a sense of being at the end of the world. Part of this was seeing the happy, silent cult members milling around in the background. Smiling at computer screens.

"I think you're only here because there's part of you that feels guilty that I was the one to look after dad while he was dying, while you were away playing such a strenuous game of spies, or whatever", all the time smiling at the skill with which he decoded extreme human melodrama.

Gray remained stoney. "Perhaps this is true. Perhaps it isn't".

"It is true", Nathan produced a beatific smile, like an apotheosis of every wise man who'd ever lived. "But it's important that you know I forgive you. That you accept just how special you are. After all, this is all happening because of you, really. Do you know what it's like to have an older brother who doesn't recognise you from moment to moment?"

"You had a distinct advantage when we played hide-and-seek", said Gray. He hated making jokes, but sometimes there was no way around them.

Said Nathan, "Life itself is hide-and-seek. The human condition is hide-and-seek. And it's not as if we didn't love each other. You do love me, don't you?"

"Yes", said Gray distastefully.

"So you see, this love of ours -it came from somewhere else. It came from eternity".

This was going nowhere. Gray chewed his lip briskly and stared irritatedly at Nathan's hands on the table top. "Look at your finger nails. They're filthy". Well-and-truly curve-balled, his brother glanced at his hands, giving Gray the chance to lunge and inject an oversized syringe of X-10 narcosynthesiser. Urgently, but keeping his voice covert, "It's alright. It's just to make you more agreeable, so we can leave here promptly".

Nathan's eyes itched with panic; the sunlight behind him seemed to become more vivid.

"Take a moment to be calm, and let it into your system, or there's a danger you'll faint".

His mouth opened just a crack, still wavering enough that a scream could be issued at any moment.

"Nathan", said Gray in a super-low voice which all-but nullified his crisp English accent. "I know you can hear me. Everything's going to be alright. There's not a thing in the world to worry about, now that I'm here with you. In a moment, we're going to get up and walk to my car. Is that alright?"

The younger man hugged himself and blinked. "Yes".

Gray swivelled slowly in his chair and laid his forearm across the back; European insouciance a true nemesis for all these hateful LA types. A cult member was passing by, and looked up, allowing for a single, pseudo-innocent frisson. Gray looked back towards Nathan in his own good time, still very quickly. The bright sunlight between them, heavily deflected by the creme surround -half-strength and always a scene-stealer.

Sotto, though at the same time quite naturally, he told of how it was going to be: "If any of your friends ask where you're going, you'll say that you're escorting me from the premises. Now- I think we're ready to go. Stay four paces behind me. Count them out in a beat if you have to".

The older man stood up gingerly, and was pleased to see how his companion followed suit in the same motion, almost like a puppet. As he led the way, Gray felt he should smile and frown both at once, and he did so, despite the fact he was the world's worst actor. The walkway between the luxurious rooms seemed much bigger now. In fact, there was no other way to picture them but as whole continents, complete with lurking dictatorship armies which could rise up at any moment. Cult members with an aura of cosmic peace to disguise their jittery souls, looking at those horrible matte computer screens -it was worse, and more fake, than any bland TV commercial. Buy now. Pay nothing until the heavenly comet burns in the sky. He cast his head down and narrow-eyed his brother traipsing meekly behind. He certainly hoped that there was enough in his drug-ticking mind to keep him occupied. Whenever you embroil a civilian into tradecraft, it's best they have their head filled with red-herrings. Perhaps, even, this is how God feels about humans.

They intersected with a man in a conservatory anteroom, ditheringly cleaning shoes. "And so you do appreciate what we're doing here?", he asked this very forward question of Gray then carried on working.

"I respect your point of view". Fake magnanimity go.

Not sure where to look, Gray lolled his head across the geek's shoulder, who came to believe he was admiring his embroidered patch. "Do you like it?"

"I left the army several years ago", said Gray lightly. "I'm afraid I find patches slightly passe now".

"We had them made especially. 'The Away Team'. We've been away, and now we're going home".

Gray cringed. Shortly afterwards, Nathan spoke up, and he jerked his head, sure his brother would give them away to this blandest of satans.

"There should be more colours. There should be a spectrum".

The cult member knotted his stupid brow. "Are you alright, Brother Nathanody?"

"I'm just escorting Brother Charles from the premises. Brother Charles, I mean -he's my brother".

Flicking his eyes, allowing them to be carried away on the same motion, Gray paced slowly forward. He counted four and sensed that Nathan was following. It was tremulous. He would have liked to have rushed slightly, but that would be too risky. There was much movement from the honeycomb-formations of lounging cult members. Pathetically-human darting glances, though not necessarily suspicious. There was a broad garden window on the other side of the house, seen through open doors and the floorspace of several lounges. A solitary cult member observed Gray and Nathan with interest while he took tiny sips from a glass of water. The man looked more like a young soldier than a cult member. And all of it adding up to the fear that soon they'd start to converge. Gray fingered his chest, just a few inches from the tranquilliser gun, getting closer and closer as they entered the shadowy area of the front door.

"Are you going to say goodbye to him now?", asked a malevolent-looking man.

Nathan was confused, and so Gray answered for him. "I'm afraid it's you he's going to say goodbye to".

Seconds ticked on; an ugly part of Gray started to rejoice in the man's adversarial stance. All the ugliest impulses that man should fight man - but at least it showed that they were alive, in a temporal state, able to think.

"You don't have the balls to stop me. One suspects literally". He pounded the man's stomach, then while he was winded, jabbed a tranquilliser dart into his neck and eased him to the ground. The three-quarters ajar front door beckoned something fierce. Perhaps there was even a cold breeze to pull them through into the daylight universe. Certainly that's the way it felt. And the brothers were away, Gray with strides that felt unmanly, or buckling under stress. The flipside, Nathan's limbs were loose and ill-directed. It was one of the things which attracted the attention of the cult members further back in the house. He skimmed the edge of the grass groomed military standard, making headlong thrusts along the all-bran gravel path -in his near-side vision a crowd of hurt-looking sci-fi monks cropping up in mandlebrot clusters. Not that he cared. He only cared at all when one of them physically blocked his path. In a near-heatwave, in the groomed suburbs of San Diego, nothing can hide its true nature for long. Every nuance is laid bare against the fine concrete and the wholesome grass. And so the face of this cult-member showed its fundamental nature: that of cosmic bureaucracy. God-bless-adrenaline wrapping sinews around Gray's arm to steady the aim, he fired the tranquilliser dart and it stuck with a thack in the most vulnerable section of the man's neck. Meanwhile one of the rear-guards shouted, "Stop, bring him back, please! We've called the police!"

Gray would rather have avoided the American police, which seemed in his estimation to be far closer to TJ Hooker than English police were to the Sweeney. Action-orientated, but then, they were very close now to the threshold of life and death, and fate must use every resource it can. The geeks had the good sense to shrink back around their luxurious compound as the brothers reached their car. Keeping the gun level, as a handy little symbol more than anything else, Gray eased his tension-aching limbs into the drivers seat. Nathan flopped like a ragdoll into the passenger side. A second-rate hire-car throttle and hand-brake meant that there was lots of wrestling to do. Gray got on with it. He didn't mind. It spelt freedom. The backwheels spun and they powered along the winding lane. At the trunk-road junction, there was a strange flurry of traffic. Deep red dust accumulated from the nearby Loma dunes shone brightly on most of the bumpers. Watching, thinking of nothing, he now felt he could handle this getaway quite easily, even if it got hairy. The Ford Taurus edged forward with reassuring growls. Nathan sat quietly, breathing heavily.

Something made Gray tilt his head, soon to pick up the very purposeful sound of converging squad cars. Even now there was a wall between him and panic, however; gauging the broad turnpikes they had to get through - Americans love big cars, they dote on them, and the busy roads presented closed ranks which the hunted Englishmen could surely hide among. They broke free from the junction within a minute or two, then drove around a small, circular road which spat out onto an inter-city rat-run. By now, the sound of police sirens was very much louder. The decision was taken to dive onto the hard shoulder by some impressively thick trees -this he did almost smoothly. No one sounded their horns; exorcism-Latin hush was resumed. Skittering past: one or two smooth-faced American ladies, self-conscious eyes, quite relaxed. Let's all be relaxed.

"We're going to go for a walk", said Gray with his trademark assuredness.

"Where to?", asked Nathan brightly.

"The woods, Nathan". He wasn't sure why he added 'Nathan' -probably self-assurance, vile self-assurance, that the beleaguered stranger who sat in front of him was in fact his brother.

They struck out into the relatively dim tree-cover. Across the rising bank of mud, flakes of light scattered out into a full-blown, yellow vista. A hard-to-cross trenched area between the woods and the grassland, where the earth seemed to have been scooped away, was taken at speed –as always the sirens were pressing. Dimly, his plan had been to cross this wild area, re-emerge into a quieter area of the city suburbs, then calmly take a cab to the airport. The persistence of the cops behind them started to change this plan. It was annoying, and quite perilous, the extent of the slanted fields before them. Only one possibility remained; a high bank of thick old acacia trees must be their next hiding place. Gray had no hope that the ridge led back into the city. There was just no litter at all; this suggested no one used the place as a rat-run, that it led well and truly nowhere.

Nathan stumbled forward and looked back the way they'd come, just as hounded as his brother. It was the way the silence mixed with the flurry of sounds back towards the road - conspicuous; the police were on their way, and pincering. Meanwhile, elsewhere, beneath the same dark blue ozone and on the same world-dominant yellow grass -people were living their lives. Content, surviving, a few of them even happy. Fate is always happy. Gray's lungs were aching now, as a few yards into the shallow wood, his gaze fell down on a thick sales brochure of some kind. It had flopped down quite easily on the packed mud. And near the mouth of the cave, there was a whole slab of them. He saw that they were colour charts from the paint section of a hardware superstore. How had they come to be there? Well, someone had stolen them, just for larks. Nathan stared at the colours. They proceeded inwards with death-defying steps. The caves were pitch black almost immediately, though strangely got lighter every now and again as the round walls made one-twenty degree turns and caught the distant light. Gray noted how Nathan's breathing became calmer, philosophical even, suggesting that the dark might be his natural arena.

An ungodly urge to press on ushered them between the tightest of rocks. Or perhaps it was just fear. Hard breathing, on Gray's part, sounded very much like laughter, amplified weirdly through panic-stricken, nerve-shredded ears. Eventually, they both seemed to stop in abeyance to some gentle whim to surrender. It was strange. It was the strangest thing. Never before had the prosopagnosia caused him to feel scared. Even as a child, he'd always had some kind of weird faith that the people around him were exactly who they said they were. But what if this man was not his brother? What if some enemy agent had stolen into his room while he slept, and replaced the photo from his wallet?

Or the worst fear of all; what if Heaven's Gate had a legitimate point of view after all, and his condition was sent from the Gods, all to illustrate how nothing in the mortal realm is truly significant? Welcome, you grasping prisoners. Gray forced himself to remain silent. He narrowed his hawk-like eyes in fierce tension, as another man might compulsively chew his lip or finger his face.

They seemed to wait a stretch of time that was entirely unsympathetic to humans. The darkness was chilly on his brow, though he only felt it now and again. Sometimes he cracked his mouth while staring out into the dark. Even when the police entered the cave, it didn't seem like a complete defeat, a total downfall. There was still an indeterminate space of time to think; the broad expanse of pitch black assured that much.

"Charles", Nathan whispered, very purposefully, the implication being that he'd fully regained his mind.

Gray tried to ignore him, the better to anticipate the arrival of the police. Nathan, however, was desperate to be heard. "I've written a letter that explains all of this", and he handed his brother a plain white envelope. More religious rhetoric, thought Gray. He took the letter and squeezed it into his trouser pocket.

"It explains why all this is happening", said Nathan, his voice hushed but panicked also. "But you've got to promise me something. Promise you won't open it until you're at a point in your life when you've lost all hope. I can't explain now, but if you open it before, your life will be in danger".

"We may have to fight our way out of here", said Gray angrily. "We don't have time for more of your nonsense".

"Promise me", demanded Nathan.

And then the tension was exacerbated, to an unbelievable degree, by torch beams. 'Torch beams, the End of the World' -what made him think that? It was some kind of famous quotation; he'd heard it somewhere before. And the torch beams of the SDPD, if that's who they were, were strange. Unbelievably weak centres, to the point of non-existence, were highlighted by bold rings of powerful light. Precisely circular, too -make of that what you will. The two men watched them creep across the cave wall, and it seemed unbelievable that the hunters weren't purposefully mocking them. Or -after a time, piercing eyes now fused in concentration- teaching them, some ungodly philosophical warning. They had no choice but to listen. It was impossible to slip in to a blissful psychological blackout; the accompanying voices were careful to stress that. Because, looming, "WE KNOW THAT YOU CAN HEAR US".

Red sky in the morning, and Constable Paul Metcalfe measured each suicidal step towards the wine-glass-shaped multi-story. He visualised it, now as ever, as the accumulation of hay on the camel's back, and this was the final straw, proverbial. Death was near now. As a kind of satire on 'life flashing before your eyes', he thought of that very first bundle of guilt which had been heaped upon his spine. 1985; Uncle Gerry's parrot. "Close the door", he'd yelled, as nine-year-old Paul had breezed into the bungalow. But too late. That brilliant scarlet bird had powered past him and disappeared into the blazing blue sky. Heart-broken Uncle Gerry, for several hours unable to spare the child's guilt -and really, why should he?- cursing him in pure anguish. Poor old man, and in hell we know that for a fact, as we are all poor old men ourselves.

What's the time? It's the nineties. Triumphing over teenage inadequacy in the weirdest way, but to what end? He fell in love with Mia Viveash, and reconciled himself to the fact that it would be delicately unrequited, as if they were both characters on a Graham Greene wailing trip. But what kind of god allows unrequited love at its most profoundest to become suddenly requited? And then for the original un-requitee to betray his heart's desire by having an affair? Her name was Beatrice Sarabade, painfully beautiful, iconoclastic, loving. And his only true crime, really, was to withhold the fact that he was already married to Mia. Love is invincible, unless we purposefully make it fallible - a lesson learned far too late.

At the foot of the multi-story: a terribly airy network of plasticky admission banisters. PC Metcalfe could see the ubiquitous gang of nothing-hearted teenagers hanging beside the slatted door of some generator rooms. He took time-out to loaf over and impart the fear of god, not that they would listen. It was a damp day, nonetheless with daylight enough to match the recent heatwave in terms of illuminating the city's colourful nooks and crannies. Stupid, dead, hip-hop-parasite faces so out-of-focus compared to the distant footbridges and lamp-strewn avenues. They would not listen. He hoped they would not listen, and moreover disbelieve that he was 5-O. The slightest backchat and he would physically cut loose, the way he'd always wanted to.

"Do you guys feel like moving along? I think it would be better if you headed back into town, rather that blocking up the path here".

"Alright, mete", pig-eyes jutted his chin. "We'll meove along, just as sewn as you get some balls and meke us, aye?"

"Yeah", Metcalfe smiled, good natured. He pulled back slightly to swing his fist into the little gargoyle's mouth, though at the last second used the same motion to retrieve his warrant card.

"I'm an off-duty copper, right? I'm just heading up into the tower. I'll be about ten minutes. If you're still here when I get back down, then we'll have a situation. Now why not away and spend your c- mother's welfare?"

"Whatever", said a bone-through-the-hair female.

"I'll show you whatever".

And from that point on, making it his business to jump from the fifteenth story in exactly ten minutes, bone-thudding unexpectedly into their midst. What an enjoyable thought: Sergeant Anderson having to write down their posturing patois concerning his suicide. Sergeant Anderson who believed that the modern teenagers, deep down, were redeemable.

For all its wildly post-modern wine-glass exterior, the stairwell of the car park was much like its grubby ancestors for feeling dank. There was anti-shatter wiring built into the glass, which reminded him of school -though admittedly the broad windows did discourage urination. He accepted them. Unfortunately no matter how many floors he climbed, the view of the city was mediocre. Horizon-hungry alley walls which extended far above street level became part of semi-quaint business centres, all of it miraculously unstained by city grime. Near the overpass and the glass frontage of the National Fire Insurance building, there were a few banks of hawthorne foliage, though the leaves were such a dark shade they did nothing to make the centre look less metropolitan. Presently Metcalfe cast his eyes directly downwards, as if his gaze accounted for a third trudging footstep.

His mind now filled with all the guilt from his professional life, as he knew it must. Firstly, concerning Russell Mars. Only two weeks into being a probationary beat constable, he attended the fall-out from the burning down of the Nysodics factory by a local madman. Except no true madman gives you such food for thought. Metcalfe had been in the same primary school class as Mars, and he was forever haunted by the following episode: the class in a semi-circle and Mrs Baskerville asking each child in turn what they wanted to be when they grew up. And because they were only five or six years old, they'd been allowed to say whatever they wanted. It was an exercise in imagination more than anything else. Astronaut, Lion Tamer, Fireman, Stuntman, Explorer. Metcalfe, spontaneously and quite idly, decided that he wanted to be a policeman. In fact, all of the children had proposed such wildly exciting, unrealistic callings. All except Russell Mars, who'd shrugged slightly and said that he wanted to work at the Nysodics Alarm Clock Factory like his dad. Whereas 'Miss' had got at least five minutes worth of material from all the other suggestions, there was nothing more than a fey smile for the 6 year old bluecollar. Yet how many times had Metcalfe thought about this incident over the years. For a child to desire a career so modest was striking, especially since that modesty juxtaposed like hell with Metcalfe growing up to become, not just a policeman as he'd said, but that sexy, Tom-Clancy-esque variety: the strike-team sniper.

In 2002, on a greedy whim, Sir Jonas Sodbury decided to close his world-famous Alarm Clock factory and move production to Taiwan. Russell Mars, now 25, was consumed with rage and burnt the Nysodics HQ to the ground (it was intended to stay open as a 'Research and Development' hub, which both Metcalfe and Mars read in real terms as 'graduate spod hive'). The deed done, in a nearby wood, Mars walked around, idly picking up stones to weight down his ruc-sac, then hung himself. And more than anything, Metcalfe felt a compulsion to volunteer to tell his next-of-kin, the elderly father who'd spent so many years at the self-same factory. It's never easy to tell relatives that their children are dead; this is what the training officer told them. But to have humanity enough to be a beat officer in the first place was to have humanity enough to see the task through; we're stronger than we think -apparently. Unfortunately, Metcalfe's stomach was clenched with ennui. He stared into Roy Mars' soft old eyes and desperately wondered how to let the empathy flow. It was real, and it was incredibly deep, but it also had to do with his own terrible mistake. Astronaut, Explorer, Policeman. In all likelihood, if Reggie Hill hadn't chosen 'Astronaut', he would have said that instead. They were all of them retreating. Meanwhile. What of the boy with a life-irritated mouth and brick-coloured eyes, who'd chosen the real world? Can we step inside? I'm afraid it's bad news.

Only one slim chance remained: to become the most hard-working and dedicated constable the world had ever known. To have devotion to duty wound within him like the tightest of springs. In 2007, he'd watched the news reports about Fiona Pilkington, and just like every other police officer in the country felt a powerful, crippling shame. The pathway lay clear then; jettison all fear of offending the rights of marauding yobs, assume something of the tactics of an Old West posse sitting sentinel around a farmer's wagon under attack. The most salient point: we know that they will come. The problem of hateful, feral teenagers is one of the few social problems it's impossible to exaggerate. In the grey, slip-roads which led into shopping centres, at the high battlements around the city parks, Metcalfe had faced off against thousands of them.

Now and again they forced the confrontation to be protracted, so that one of their number could film him with a phone -and truly, he didn't have the slightest problem becoming a hero of Youtube as the 'angry policeman'. Where does it say that policemen are forbidden from being angry? Surely that's an asset? All we have to do is persecute them. 'But there are degrees of being antisocial', was the case for inaction the liberal holy ghost bases our entire world upon. Fine, believe that. Believe, also, that there are many different kinds of fly which flock into your eye in a tropical desert, and all the ones which don't give you malaria, you should love. No, the path back to a sane society was there, though it required quite some trailblazing. There was just one problem. Metcalfe hated the hoodies too much. He knew that sooner or later he would kill one of them in cold blood.

Perhaps his Section Chief and Chief Constable knew this, too, which was why they so eagerly approved his high-falutin' transfer to the Armed Response Unit. Better to inject Tom Clancy via The Sweeney into your veins, rather than take sole responsibility for destroying Vicky Pollard / A Clockwork Orange and being ostracised for it. Yeah?

A little cold air caressed his hand as he pushed open the heavy single door onto the base of the wine glass. It was too narrow to act as a proper car park; there were just a few motorcycles and tiny maintenance vehicles, all of which seemed to be parked lazily, before he saw that they were only obeying the pattern of the graphite markings. Daylight was still prevalent in places, there were few shadows, or at least none that were particularly focused by the blurry flood lights. Bunker-like, evocative of hospitals maybe, the crisp sepiotone light spurred him on. Thoughts of death, the sensation of quite how near it was; awesome. He felt it in the soft parts of his neck, like a frenzied lover's kiss. He crossed quickly to the next well-painted blast door, without thinking much -

- and then inevitably thinking about Adam. It's something bizarre when a resolutely lonely man acquires a best friend, in difference to everything. He'd known from the start, however, that they would be best friends; from the moment they'd meandered into the Strike Team training centre that funny autumn morning. He'd found that the man's sense of humour was deep, with a variety of different shades that could only be matched by Gibert Gottfried, or perhaps the internet itself.

Adam was a strange looking man: blonde, freckled and with frenzied eyes. Luckily that outlandish exterior masked a deep devotion to his family and the job. 'Uncle Paul', was how he'd introduced Metcalfe to his six-year-old son Ed. It was also highly reassuring, the way his friend always walked so quickly into the field of conflict. He reflected how, if Adam was with him now, he'd be rising up the tight concrete stairwells like some joyful baking-soda toy. Ready to shoot a man, and then slice and dice the emotional fallout with affirming comedy you'd need a degree in psychology to analyse.

Looking down, feeling happy. The broadness of the ground so many stories below beckoned to Metcalfe, something to do with the way it should be picking up the sun's rays like a focused spotlight, but wasn't. Still, it was best to go higher, and review the memories, provoke the guilt, choke in the sorrow. Numbness pervaded, and for a while he was there again, rushing into 61 Guilford Crescent. Discrete suburban drug cache number 101. Adam was ahead of him as usual, as if he sensed his friend was childishly afraid of actually using his gun, and wanted to protect him from the onus. They eased forward past grey upholstery, past a framed picture of Bob Marley that made him hate Bob Marley. Unforgettable, the way the walls were such a vibrant creme, totally in difference to the way the property was owned by your shameless parasites. 'Clear!'. From room to room he'd rushed, flinging open doors with his centre-of-gravity boots, telling himself he was in 'the zone'. Studying the floorplans and fretting about disorientation proved pointless; most of the doors were wide open anyway. It had been a very cold day and, of course, lacking the sense they were born with, it didn't occur to the slags to seal in the warmth. 'Clear!'. Presently his voice sounded very forceful. Surprisingly patient.

The place had a quantum determinacy of zero, until finally a room of brown shadows revealed druggy General Custer making his last stand. Note the little beige light on the rough ceiling, giving the room just the tiniest bit of human warmth.

"You need to just let me go, mate", he'd said firmly, pointing his little pistol beyond the muzzle of Metcalfe's Heckler MP5, dead centre into his eyes.

"'Mate'?", he felt a temptation to deliver cool dialogue, and perhaps this was the beginning of the end.

The skummy man smiled crazily, Beginning of the End Part Two. "Step back or I'll blow your -ing head off".

"I'd be tempted to step back, if it wasn't like being threatened by Elton John's gayer brother".

Vic McKay-style dialogue spoken by a British policeman, especially when overheard by his commander via the helmet-cam, should be deeply unacceptable. Except he knew that they would accept it, as long it got results. Metcalfe felt the binary ether pulling his cowboy words and cowboy vision from thin air; he frowned, then proceeded all the same. Though the skuzzy man weakened and seemed to become subservient, there was an equal risk that he'd feverishly pull the trigger at any second as a skuzzy reflex. The little gun shook pathetically. Surprise - everything in Britain is pathetic nowadays. Conversely, Metcalfe bore in mind the mighty thuds his gun had produced on the firing range and decided it would be the perfect sound to unnerve the man, make him surrender in a heartbeat. He smoothly aimed five inches from Skuzzy's cheek and squeezed. At approximately the same time, or perhaps even exactly, he became aware that Adam was beside him in the doorway, believing it to be a wholly requited shoot-out. Which it was - suddenly. The man screamed passionately and his finger made a distinct movement on the trigger. Metcalfe fired -in unison with Adam. Silent exhalations abounded even as the man hit the ground.

Metcalfe remembered, quite starkly, the way this exhalation then turned to a panicked gasp. The first shot, which had been intended to merely disorientate the man, had landed on a slatted white panel in the corner of the room. Dimly -he supposed dimly- he'd been subconsciously aware that this white oblong shape was the door to a walk-in closet. He supposed, on an even more infinitesimal subconscious level, he'd known the odds that someone might be hiding within. The same odds that the Devil really exists, and revels in gnawing pathos. The woman fell forward onto the cheap carpet, her shredded throat making some kind of sound before she died.

Metcalfe expected to be fired. Perhaps he even looked forward to it. The Firearms Area Commander, like every kind of undisciplined authority figure the world had ever known (but mainly his secondary school headmaster Mr Sutherland), enjoyed telling them off. Firing in a room which hadn't been unambiguously declared clear of non-combatants -cardinal sin. He'd felt the counter-argument rise into his mouth as easily as breath: define 'non-combatant'. This was the skuzzy wife of the skuzzy drug-dealer, taking his skuzzy money to pay for endless skuzzy children -as if it wasn't all a hymn to evil. Metcalfe was so consumed in this irony that he almost didn't hear what Adam was saying to the Commander.

'I fired first, sir. It was my bullet which killed the woman. You know it should be me which takes the lion's share of the blame, if not all'.

Metcalfe remembered how he'd gone foot-to-foot; he'd needed a wee anyway. 'Sir, that's not true. Officer Svenson is trying to protect me. It was me who fired first. I was trying to scare the man into standing down'.

The stupid Northern face of Mr Sutherland. 'Either way, you've made a terrible mistake. Red Team, you're a bloody shambles. Worry less about who gets the biggest dressing down and more about how either of you can live with yourselves. An unarmed woman has died, and you're acting like this is an old boy's network!'

In the muted hallways beyond and outside in the street, they fell into orbit around each other, heavily involved in that funny, strained argument. Metcalfe practically ordered his friend to explain why he was trying to take the blame. All that came was a smile, sometimes sheepish, more often fearful, like that of a younger brother trying to be serious. And at one point he succeeded. It was behind a business estate, in the tight right angles between electricity compounds, smoke-huts, bike sheds and hardiperrenial flower banks.

"Why are you doing this?", for the hundredth time.

Adam sighed. "Because you deserve this job more than me. You're more determined".

Metcalfe pointed out, "You need this job more than me. Think of Ed".

"I'll be fine. You know I work next door to that hardware superstore. I'll just fall in with them".

"Hardware? You don't strike me as the brown coat type".

"Actually", shrugged Adam, "the company colour is a kind of dashing blue".

Metcalfe stared hard into the brittle thorn trees, as if the answer to all this emotional wailing lay with crazy-eyed blackbirds. "I won't let you do this".

Adam chewed his lip. "OK. Fancy a pint?"

The tribunal was a month later, at the regional HQ in Unity City. The two men travelled up together by train, though they barely said a word to each other. Adam bought the latest copy of Total Film from a traditional-style vendor, saying, 'I'm a sucker for digest-sized magazines. If only they did Empire this size, it would be the ultimate magazine'.

Metcalfe said nothing to this, just stared malevolently for a while. In the carriage, he watched his friend carefully. He merely flicked through the pages, never resting too long on a single article, nervous but trying hard not to show it.

And the tribunal itself was a matter of a creme conference room lit brightly by the sun, three high-ranking officers and some specialists clasping their hands, hitching their cheeks, stupidly pulling the thighs of their trousers as they sat down. A verdict put in blunt terms, which could be respected, even if it was false: the footage from your helmet-cams has been analysed and Officer Svenson fired first. At this, Metcalfe laughed bitterly, thinking, 'Are you sure?' I've farted in a lift with a schizophrenic, and God, and they both apologise profusely.

Adam was immediately sacked, robbed of his pension and completely denied any kind of future in the police force. For his part in trying to conspire in an Old Boy's Network, Metcalfe was demoted back to Beat Constable. No sooner had the hell-faced, hell-shouldered Police Chief said this, than he simply shrugged. Beat Constables are the people who will sustain the country, in lieu of any kind of utilitarian society. It would all have been fine, if only he wasn't crippled with guilt. On the train back, Adam frequently pulled a knowing, subtle expression to try and indicate that things weren't so terrible. Except the truth bore through in a certain tightness around his cheeks. God-uniform daylight, unfiltered through the small embankment trees which flanked the railway line, did nothing to make the situation seem gentler, more sympathetic. Certainly -the man's copy of Total Film having been lost- there was no hiding now.

In time, a funny kind of pull in Metcalfe's chest got the upper hand, and he rushed out of the carriage cubicle to stand in the grubby link. At leisure, though also impelled like an archangel, Adam followed him.

"Stressed?", he asked.

Metcalfe stared down at the weathered, worn-looking flexes which linked the carriages. After that, the truth came of its own accord.

"Between that old woman sucking her f-ing mints and the boy with his giant headphones. What's the point of having giant headphones if they're not insulated between you and the world?"

"I thought about delivering a dressing down", Adam gave a wise shrug.

Metcalfe? Had thought about repeatedly slamming the boy's head against the metal rail, as if it was a solid piece of lead which God had charged him to wallop out of shape.

The foliage and the aged, rounded masonry sped past the window at super-speed. With his shoulders feeling deathly cold, there was the illusion that he'd suddenly been exposed to the outside wind. It was like the end of the world, and he felt physically sick. So explain.

"I'm a clinical psychopath, and I attract bad luck and bitterness like they're going out of fashion".

Adam blinked. "I'll tell you what-", and kissed Metcalfe on the lips for an indeterminate time. It was tender, a dozen times better than anything he'd felt with Beatrice, a hundred times better than Mia. At no point did he pull away, and wondered why not.

It was delirious, romantic, and even as they parted ways at the station, he felt a new kind of invigoration. Unfortunately, for those in the grip of suicide-run depression, invigoration is just an extra little devil on the shoulder. Believe in this, and de facto believe in everything.

He stood a good twelve inches from the inward-slanting rail, but near enough that he could see the wondrously blue sidewalk so far below. The kids were still there, and ironic: even now they were annoying him, because he wanted to fall into their midst while not actually landing on top of any of them. The fear that his last conscious sense might be the smell of bubblegum or a c- schoolboy's Liza Minelli perm was unbearable. He looked straight ahead at the broad sky, and his eyes were seared, despite the fact it was terrifically overcast. Seagulls which represented joy and cosiness wheeled awkwardly above the indoor skating rink. He leaned on a brown Honda Kingdom and basked.

"Excuse me, is that your car you're leaning on? I'm sure it is, but I have to ask".

The voice was of classic, effortless aristocracy, yet all the same Metcalfe suspected some weird old security guard. Without turning around, he made a curt reply. "Are you saying I look like the sort of man arrogant enough to lean on someone else's car?"

"I'm not saying that for a moment", said the voice sternly.

"In that case, if I don't seem to you the sort of man arrogant enough to lean on someone else's car, how is it we have a problem? What's the point in having a security guard who can't trust his own eyes? In fact, what's the point in having security guards at all, considering that you are, one and all, neurotic little space-cadets slowly being drowned in guilt at having the most insubstantial job on God's Earth?"

A burst of laughter came, from two voices, which caused Metcalfe to turn on his heels. Certainly, the two men were not security guards. Who or what they were, he had no idea. They made only small, relaxed movements, even as his eyes moved feverishly to gauge their body-language; calm. The younger one, an easy-going black man, wore business trousers and a waistcoat to compliment his crisp green shirt. The older man, with his distinguished face, wore a long white trenchcoat in keeping with his pure white hair.

Said the older man with a wry smile, "I told you he's one of us".

"I bow to your judgement, sir", said his companion.

Metcalfe fumbled in his pocket for his warrant card and prepared the explanation, 'See this? I'm undercover. Now f- off'. Even as he eased a finger into the wallet, the better to give an extravagant flip, the old man surprised him again.

"Constable Paul Metcalfe. Formerly of the Tactical Strike Team of the Metropolitan Police. I'm pleased to meet you. I am Colonel White. This is Lieutenant Green".

Because, for a while, there was nothing else to do but eye them malevolently, Metcalfe took in the sight of the green shirt and white trenchcoat. "Those wouldn't be assumed names would they?"

"I don't like sarcasm", said the Colonel testily.

"Sorry", Metcalfe shrugged, made an open-hearted expression. In more or less the same motion, he glanced around the looming concrete above them in the hope that they were being captured on CCTV. He saw nothing, felt vaguely nervous, continued to smile nonetheless. "You're -organised crime. Or some variety of terrorists, here to abduct me? The Real IRA?"

"I like terrorists even less than I like sarcasm", stated Colonel White. "We mean you no harm".

"Perhaps you should be on your way then", he said mildly. It was strange; the conversation was giving him a greater impetus to live on, for a few minutes more at least. Yet as a recompense, he was getting absorbed into the ambient echo of the car park, hypnotised by the long pauses between their words.

The Colonel seemed to play on this. He was an austere man, and that was all.

Said Metcalfe, "You're playing a dangerous game, Mr Mulder. There's cameras all over this place. It's a bad location to abduct someone".

Lieutenant Green raised his eyebrows. "I should say there are cameras all over this place. Most of them are ours". He walked to the nearest concrete strut, to the small, wall-mounted sign that said 'K-4'. He pulled free one of the screws, trailing a small cord or antenna, which he rolled between his fingers -the implication being that this was a futuristic spy-camera.

Said the Colonel, "We've watched each and every time you've come up here to muse about throwing yourself off".

Quick as a flash, "Some people will do anything for the 'You've Been Framed' money".

Green smiled, then grew instantly stoney-faced when he saw how grim his boss continued to look. White stared daggers from beneath his broad, snowy eyebrows. "Take this seriously. We're here to save your life".

"I don't want to be saved", said Metcalfe passionately. "I've dealt with enough suicides in my time to know that ordinary people can never put themselves in the mindset of the suicidal, or vice-versa. It is what it is".

Green carefully backed up. "We meant no disrespect. And perhaps we are pestering you. But this life is all about being pestered, so you may as well put up with it a while longer. This decision you've taken - do you want death, or do you just want life to stop?"

Metcalfe shrugged. He eased his head around to stare into the valley of thin, sixties-built buildings. It reminded him somehow of looking onto an ocean floor, though there was dense, damp air in the place of water. "Life and I are mutually exclusive. Everywhere I go it feels like I'm choking on hopelessness. I'm stupid, and I'm lazy, and I'm unlucky -", he laughed like a crazy person, "but still none of that would matter if the world was just the tiniest bit sane or self-aware".

White shook his head gravely, otherwise standing as bolt-still as the mighty struts behind him. His eyes were absolutely grey. "I can't let you commit suicide, if only for the fact that it would be a waste of resources; this feeling you have is the exact mindset of our organisation. A world of truly open, guile-free leaders - our aim is to see this come about".

Metcalfe continued to take in the springtime atmosphere, so at one with the city. "What's the name of this intriguing organisation? The Mafia? Pussy Riot?"

"Spectrum", said White.

"And you're right wing?"

"If we were right wing", White narrowed his eyes and spoke slowly, "I wouldn't be able to look you in the eyes and say that we had self-awareness".

Metcalfe nodded in acceptance. "That still leaves you with the rather sizeable darkness I have inside me".

"Stop being melodramatic", said the Colonel furiously. "I've seen your record. You're nothing but a good soldier, and you'll continue to be a good soldier in Spectrum".

"If I may, sir", said Green. He gave small, very gentle gestures in the air. "I always thought that if ever I was driven to suicide, I'd think back to that David Bowie song 'Fill Your Heart'. 'All the things that happened in the past, happened only in your mind. Forget your mind and you'll be free'".

Again, Metcalfe had to concede. "There may be something in that".

"Fall in with us", said Colonel White, a picture of the old-fashioned, caprice-free military, "if you don't like what we do, or our methods, you're free to leave at any time".

Asked Metcalfe, "Are you white slave traders?"

"No", said White.

Lieutenant Green laughed and Metcalfe gave him a sharp look. "Don't laugh. White slave traders exist. We made sixty arrests last year in the Midlands alone. Young, Eastern Bloc men kept herded up in trailers, plus our own homeless, living in filth because they didn't have the will to fight back".

"We've all seen too much to be optimistic about the human race", said White. "But there is hope".

A certain beauty shone through in the cloudless sky and the resilience of the rounded, brown-stone skyscrapers. Metcalfe allowed himself to be carried away, never mind the longing, wholly automatic glances he shot towards the distant ground. We live in an age of stupid rhetoric. Do we become resistant to it, or do we actually live by it? Colonel White stood by with his easy shoulders and reassuringly disgusted expression. Seagulls wheeled, life went on - out towards the Islamic sector of the city, and the Tesco superwhore, and the Toys R' Us which Metcalfe and Adam had failed to find without Sat-Nav assistance, and Ed, here's your Y-Wing fighter, Happy Christmas from Uncle Paul.

"I have dependants", said Metcalfe, his sense of shame eclipsed. "I'd need some kind of living wage".

Colonel White's face remained still, which is to say a scowl, razor-sharp, "You're talking about your lover Adam Svenson, and his young son Ed".

"Yes", said Metcalfe. He heard the way his tone was as all-embracing, carried well by the steely daylight. "If you're truly interested in dissuading me from suicide, 'Colonel White', you'll have to eliminate the reasons I crave it. And the biggest reason is that I've failed them. I'm a curse on them".

"You've failed no one". A modulation of the scowl, just perceptible to the naked eye. "You're one of the most selfless men I've ever encountered. But with regards to providing for your surrogate family, there is only one rule about Spectrum. If you know of its existence, you must work for it. Owing to reasons I don't want to go into at the moment, we have an unlimited amount of financial support. Enough to keep Adam and young Ed in clover for the rest of their lives. The question is, are you able to keep your work-a-day life a secret from them?"

Metcalfe thought about this very carefully. The relationship with Adam was all about truth. The thought of keeping such a major part of his life a secret was a crazy anathema. "What would my work-a-day life consist of?"

"Destroying evil".

"'Destroying evil'. Now who's being melodramatic?", Metcalfe gritted his teeth slightly. "So you people are organised vigilantes?"

Colonel White considered this definition carefully, "No. We're spies. Spies for sanity in an insane world".

Metcalfe stared at his feet. "Well! Intriguing".

"What we do is intriguing, which is why I ask, could you conceivably keep your life a secret from Mr Svenson?"

"No, probably not", Metcalfe admitted.

"Then you must both become members of Spectrum", said the Colonel -sternly, like the commander in some po-faced World War Two film. Just accept it.

Naturally, Lieutenant Green also heard how overly-earnest his boss seemed, and was quick to redress the balance. "Generally speaking, we're non-violent, in physical terms. Spectrum uses its member's latent skills to further the agenda. Would either of you be in physical danger? Negligible. Would you be in legal danger? This is less negligible, but still worth the risk".

"Besides which, Mr Metcalfe, these questions of your remuneration and position within Spectrum aren't as pressing as you might think", said White. "To begin with, we'd have you merely as a sleeper agent, keeping your position as a constable in the Met".

Metcalfe didn't bother to verbalise his lack of conviction, rather he frowned, a light and cringing affair which buoyed across his mouth. The Colonel started forward. His white coat set him apart from the city skyline, just a little; it retained some of the fuzzy atmosphere created by the girders. "That's our proposition in a nutshell, Mr Metcalfe, but walk with us, for a while". He led the way as they entered the beguilingly small doorway which led upstairs, and the suicidal ascent now seeming like something from a thousand years ago. They walked quickly, that was something to do with it. The dull light from the thick, wire-reinforced glass was somehow less dogged now. The high walls outside were still oppressive, but a different kind. Practical rather than metaphysical.

They didn't slow down, either, as they emerged from the shell-shaped base. Your man the Colonel's shoulders were mighty with anticipation, and never a trace of tension, as he walked alongside the apparently purposeless wall back towards the fold-up gates.

Back towards the gang of teenagers.

He stood confidently before them, his head and shoulders angled in an adversarial stance, though only by a matter of millimetres. "I think, a short time ago, this policeman told you to move along, didn't he?"

"It's a free country", said the fat-throated one.

"That's a grey area", replied White.

Said the slit-faced girl, "As grey as your old dick?", bringing forth superficial laughter from all.

"I think if a policeman asks you to something, it's best that you simply do it".

Throughout all this, Lieutenant Green toyed with a lunchbox-sized carton of apple juice, but didn't actually drink any. His eyes flicked between his boss and the hoodies, with some kind of dull fascination. Metcalfe was anticipating a bitter, slime-hearted row. Instead, the Colonel turned a little way from the gang to address his new recruit, in faith.

"For now, I'd like you to think of something that's Scarlet-coloured, something you'd be permitted to wear with your uniform, or at least would go unnoticed by your superiors".

Metcalfe Roger Moored his eyebrows. "Why?"

"A means of identification, at a glance, between fellow Spectrum agents".

"Can't they simply recognise me by my face? Am I that generic?"

"That doesn't enter into it", said White. "Each Spectrum agent is assigned a colour".

Of course, it amazed him that they were speaking so casually, especially of sensitive spycraft, right inside the heart of a Vicky Pollard gang. Watching away with their small, shark-weasel eyes.

Fascinated by just about everything now, he glanced away from the nightmares, stared at his new colleagues. His eyes phased out, tired and overwhelmed, finally to rest on White's narrow shoulders. "This is something real, isn't it?"

"As real as it gets, Captain Scarlet", Green confirmed.

Before they parted ways, promising to be in touch sooner or later, the Lieutenant casually threw his juice carton into the skeletal hedgerow opposite the gang. This surprised Metcalfe no end, the suave carelessness. He'd always thought that enforcing the littering laws, for a twenty-first century police constable, was the least of their duties. Still, he hated to see it flouted, even by an ally. Around the corner, he confronted Green, fully expecting to drive a chink into the man's easy-going armour. "Will you be paying your littering fine now or later?"

They were standing beside a slightly unloved-looking Mercedes, Colonel White by the passenger door, clearly very ready to leave. He displayed a fiercely confident look, he might even have been gritting his teeth, except that his was the type of jaw-line that didn't really show it. Lieutenant Green smiled. He spread out his arms as behind him there was a sudden flurry of traffic swinging free from the city centre.

"Have you heard of those sonic noise emitters that some inner city shops have above them? The ones which produce an irritating hum only audible to under-twenty-year-olds, this to stop them congregating?"

"I'd have them across the whole country if it was up to me, spaced twenty feet apart", said Metcalfe. "Are you saying that teeny-tiny drinks carton had a machine which emits this high-pitched sound?"

White spoke in a forceful, unsympathetic voice, to emphasise his strong position. "You're a policeman, yes?"

"Yes".

"You asked those people to move along, and they're still there, yes?"

"Yes", shrugged Metcalfe. "Sometimes it's..."

"The device which Lieutenant Green threw down next to them does contain a sonic emitter, but tailored to produce a very specific kind of frequency. Again, it only effects the under-twenties, and can't be heard consciously. Subconsciously, unless they move on within ten minutes, they will each suffer massive brain haemorrhages and die. As they have lived. A carcinogenic drain on everything that's noble and sane".

Metcalfe shook, felt as though he was being propped up by something lodged fast beneath his ribs. "You're joking". Even as he glanced back towards the gang, however, he saw that one of the males had started to bleed from his ear. The others laughed and made throaty whoops.

The Colonel and Lieutenant Green both slid easily into the Mercedes. Parting words: "We'll be in contact, Captain Scarlet. S.I.G. To begin with, listen out for that code, it means 'be alert' -S.I.G".

Come back in an hour, said the third cancer nurse, and he'd dutifully obeyed. His Dad was now sitting upright and, although the strained-looking muscles were now in repose, and his eyes were fully alert, something about it was worse than ever. 'Well?', he asked, curt and dapper as of old, just before his eyes rolled upwards to put questions to the brightly-lit ceiling. Conrad asked him how he felt; the concentration involved in keeping an un-melodramatic tone was deep. Still, he felt some of the scaly, clammy heat ebb away from his eyes.

"I don't know what they gave me, but it worked. Can you believe I had a dream? As soon as I passed out I had one of those dreams -", he paused for a nice, long time, " -one of those dreams that seems to go on for ages, even though it was just a minute or two".

"It's because you were exhausted", suggested Conrad. He didn't ask what the dream was, in case it was bad, or maudlin. The first time his Dad had been in such pain, as soon as he was unconscious, he'd dreamed of his dead relatives greeting him in heaven. But this was something new. He explained. "You were with me, and we were on Mars. We were astronauts, the first people from Earth on Mars".

"That's a strange dream, for you", said Conrad simply. "I didn't think you liked space stories".

"It was - we came upon this city, and the creatures attacked us. They weren't happy that we were there. We didn't belong there".

"What did they look like?", he asked flatly.

"It was funny, it had a feeling like... on our side, we were like Fireball XL5 or something like that, simple, but the creatures... it was like they were just - a feeling. Like determination, or deep concentration".

All the time they spoke, quite casually, Conrad used the corner of his eye to observe the three doctors hurriedly changing the drips. It gave the impression that the patient was far from stable, that perhaps this was just the eye of the storm. Enter that terrible gnawing, collapsing feeling deep in his guts. There was the feeling that they were cold war secret agents and time was against them; intelligence far too complex to be imparted in such a short period. "What is Fireball XL5?", he asked.

Since the old man was now breathing with unprecedented ease, the extra oxygen also gave his mind a kick, if only he wasn't so haunted. He lifted his ponderous eyes to the 70 watt bulb, so bright the shade may as well have been absent, so bright the whole, painful world might as well have been a glaring void. "I love you", he told Conrad earnestly, "I -that is what I was meaning to say".

Conrad laid a purposeful grip between his shoulder and neck; the skin felt just the same as it did in his childhood memories. Warm, and all cartilage. Mediterranean. "I love you too", he said magmanimously. He stared at the man's tattoo and felt reassured, just a little bit. One of the nurses scowled and adjusted the drip. He noted the way he rubbed his apron. Then, in little under a minute, his Dad breathed deeply, closed his eyes and was dead.

Autopilot was initiated smoothly, and there was the impression that Conrad acquitted himself well. All through the rigorous death-pronouncement and the tide of super-smooth commiserations, he was baiting hysteria and winning. In time, two of the nurses stood off to one side and did absolutely nothing -it was a well-earned form of un-professionalism. Conrad, in and out of shock, daydreamed about somehow stepping outside of reality himself, in order to be similarly blank.

The two older nurses left, shaking his hand in an innovative measure of forced solidarity. He liked it. Bold. The youngest nurse phoned the undertaker and told him what was what; it seemed strange to Conrad that they didn't know each other, or at least were not on first-name terms. Perhaps death is rarer than we think.

Then – with the orphan feeling awkward like a lottery millionaire, they stood in the thin hallway with its eternal smell of work-site mud. Awkward because, "What you people do is incredible. I often think that, the moment you retire, the government should make you millionaires".

"Thank-you", the man gave a cowboyish smile.

"Wait there", commanded Conrad. He went away and retrieved a giant bottle of Glen Orchy from his stash beneath the bedroom window, there beside the Playboy Special Editions and the childhood photo albums. The nurse's eyes lit up quite a bit when he returned.

"I usually only drink the hard stuff on special occasions. I'll keep it for when my wife passes her driving test, if that's OK".

"Is she a nurse too?"

"She's taking a London University degree in agriculture".

"Interesting". Mental shrug meets vague sneering.

He opened the door and they stiffened against the tipping-point evening air. Suddenly noticeable at the same time was the harsh aura of the concrete compared to the sky.

"Taking account of the traffic, I don't think the undertaker will be too long. But are you sure you're going to be all right?"

Time passed in straining gulps. His new best friend vanished into the city, and a sense of perspective was only apparent when Conrad found himself glaring in the mirror. It was frightening. It was still well within the day-side of twilight, yet his skin looked as if it was being illuminated purely by moonlight. And his eyes - what had happened to his eyes? He'd heard about crying making your eyes go red, but black?

Desire filtered from being absolutely sober and retaining the beauty of loneliness, carrying him through the house, up the sinister stairs which now more than ever made a peacefulness of oppression. Kafka-esque stupid and ungrateful; it always had been. On the landing, the 'dead dad' hysteria was quickly devouring the whole universe, and you had to respect its sheer power. Perhaps if he went out onto the roof, the 'dead dad' hysteria would be forced into a fight with the twilight heavens, and this would be the end, the black-out, the final vortex.

As usual, it was like the roof-top scene from Bladerunner, doubling-up and easing out of the spare room window to the long stretches of baked tar. Clutching at moss and cacky boards, having his eyes drawn -not to the cityscape, but to the curved, velvet heavens above. All this talk of Mars and you couldn't even see the little geek with your naked eye. Back in the world of civilisation and society, dark blue clouds had settled above the broad roof tops of the district buildings, noteworthy because the fierce shade didn't look like it was part of a twilight transition at all. It looked like the world was being swallowed by melodrama, prior to going completely numb. Apt. About half a mile away, the prostitutes had started to saunter at various points along Liverpool Road. One or two were shaking loose their limbs, by the library, a few more near the middle by the row of apartments that had such oversized heater pipes. Conrad thought how unusual it was to see them all together, and so early in the evening.

Where's Wally, looking hard for DeSuze, finding her fairly quickly between the sheer wall of Waitrose (spit) car park and the grassy knoll of the little business estate. Impressive work, because she had her hair in a sleek new design, and wore a blue dress that was pleasingly eighties. He wondered if he could placate the ravenous Gods of Bereavement and re-enter the world of man by having sex. More to the point, could he even get down there in time before she moved off towards the ringroad and the bar district?

The final point to consider - he opened his wallet and checked the availability of Viagra. There was only one pill left, plus two Viagra-placebos. He placed them in his horribly numb palm, closed his eyes and rotated them until he had no idea which was which. Gulping one down, he carefully replaced the remaining two pills and swung back inside the house. His wallet had more than enough cash for 'full'. All that was left to do was left to do was hang on his heels in the kitchen and write a brief note for Mr Undertaker, should he arrive any time soon.

'Undertakers - will be absent for one hour +, owing to further family crisis. In my absence, your time permitting, reach inside the letter box and retrieve the key, let yourself in and make yourself comfortable. Apologies, C Turner'.

This on A-5 note paper reinforced with black electrical tape, and affixed to the front door. He brandished his key and rested it inside the letter box between the fur lips, all very Geocaching.

It was a tightrope. It was standing in the middle of a bank heist and trying not to make a false move. Sometimes, however, it was as simple as grasping a nettle in your fist to avoid the sting. He stared at his dad's great coat hanging on the hallway peg and, amazingly, did not burst into tears. Amazement, meet boldness. He put on the mighty coat and remembered something else about bereavement. His mum had died at roughly the same time of year, and the grief had done something to allay his feelings of coldness, to a point. But it was always necessary to make some small gesture of self-protection. Put on a coat like a good boy. Presently it felt like placing clothing on a puppet.

He walked up to the pavement quickly, then. The thought of pausing in the living-room-come-bed-room to glance at his father, as he should do, made him feel horrific.

As he moved with his small footsteps through the streets, the darkness-proper came on suddenly. It was the type of half-suburban, half-inner-city environ where a punter of toms could get killed. But not him. Loading bay store signs, all the smart fashion logos, were illuminated almost as strikingly as Christmas displays. He felt underwhelmed, and impatient. Middle-aged women with hesitant expressions that made them look old queued in their cars in the neat little arenas behind cobbled shopping centres. He rushed past them, taking it all in with a feverish, hysterical mind. Over the shallow, arterial rivers festooned with ballrushes, that somehow always reminded him of being far from home.

He noticed more or less straight away that the toms were dispersed to the point of being completely vanished. Rounding a corner by the dead night club, the dead taxi rank, the dead flats showroom, it was a gentle disappointment. Conrad was a man who always walked in a purposeful manner. He only paused once he was inside the doppler confines of a gloss-green bus shelter. Through the kids-scarred safety glass, he scanned the recesses of Red Light Land.

The neat little car park between the Honda showroom rear and four-story flats was apparently open all night. A few runabout cars were bedded down for the night, but there was no further movement, and no sort of barrier had come down. Outside a little electricity hut -ironically a pick-up point- a lone tom was standing bolt still like a languid academy film star. From the very start he thought she was painfully beautiful.

His footsteps were small, still they transported him quickly. Almost at the same moment he arrived at her side, he was frantically assessing the sensation of power and purpose in his groin. Or otherwise. It could go either way, so it seemed. Unfortunately, at the same moment he resolved to speak, he felt faint. This was not entirely unheard of with Viagra, placebo-Viagra, or indeed bereavement. He remembered the death of his mother. He'd had to spend so much time sitting down with his head in his hands when he most wanted to be up and about.

They stood together, laconic knight-in-armour and fair-maiden before an mighty bank of creme brickwork.

"You're a sight for sore eyes". He felt this was a clever thing to say, as it was both jovial, sweet, and would be a funny excuse for his grief-spazzed eye sockets.

"Flattery will get you nowhere", said the woman, smiling genuinely without a doubt. Flattery, but cash?

Conrad nodded. He took in the fact that she was truly a woman, and not a girl. At least forty-five, with some kind of powerful emotion en toe.

She stared at her feet. "You'll have to get one of the other girls, I'm already booked".

Said Conrad, "Ships in the night. It's strange, though. Where are all the other ladies? This road is usually crawling with them. I mean... 'crawling' sounds disrespectful, but..."

"Disrespectful", said the woman ironically.

"How should you know, right?", Conrad reproached himself. "As if working girls are co-ordinated in a formation like World War Two battleships".

"Anyway, goodbye". If she was smiling then, it died. Grim determination prevailed.

Around this time, a blocky-looking van with a pounding stereo passed by, taking her attention for just a little bit, taking Conrad's not at all.

"Answer me one last question", he said. "If you're waiting to be picked up by someone, rather than standing there showing off your body, wouldn't it be OK to wear a coat? You must be freezing".

The woman blinked, frowned, otherwise looked breathtakingly handsome.

Conrad flapped the tails of his father's great coat. He continued, "Will you take my coat?"

"You're gallant", she smiled and spoke briskly. "But I don't need a coat, I'm used to the cold".

Now, Conrad stared long and hard into her eyes and, frustratingly, couldn't tell if there was even the hint of a smile. Flowing, just like the blood in his quantum indeterminate erection, it could go either way.

"I didn't mean to imply you're some little Jodie Foster type who needs looking after".

She stared into his eyes, steely. "I don't think you're Travis Bickle, either".

"But either way, you're going to refuse my coat?"

She glumly nodded her head.

It was then that something up around his starved and skinny ribs convulsed. He thought about his dad. It wasn't, he felt sure, the sudden realisation that he really was dead. It was the realisation that reality itself was collapsing. His eyes felt they were about to go utterly inhuman, and then explode. He tried to remove himself from the tom's vicinity so that she wouldn't see.

Unfortunately, up around the inlet of the car park, he fainted. It was the worst kind, as well. The kind that haunts you long afterwards with the knowledge that the very essence of your mind is, now and forever, something cheap, fluttery. He barely sensed it when his limbs made that awkward crash to the pavement.

Consciousness as of an afternoon nap came into his head. Then, bit-by-bit, he came to sense that the person or persons who were helping his doubled-up form weren't paramedics. Whoever it was, they were remaining curiously silent. His bow-legged feet, operating at barely under ten percent consciousness, ambulated across the streets like a schoolroom protractor swinging outwards to mark weypoints on a map.

Numb Hell A to Numb Hell B.

"Have you taken some drugs?", a female voice wondered.

'Viagra', he replied, perhaps merely inside, in his feeble thoughts, or perhaps outside, through his still-feebler throat.

Said the female voice, "Do you want an ambulance?"

This matter of life and death seemed ridiculously old-fashioned now. He opened his eyes to capacity and saw that his helper was the beautiful tom. What's more, it looked like she was completely alone. So then; his next selection of emotions would no doubt involve grief, arousal and acute embarrassment. Fine. They were soon at rest in a dim bedroom not much bigger than a bus carriage.

"I'm sorry for being a shambles", he said resolutely.

"O.K", said the woman.

He faltered. He took run-ups through the almighty silence. "Just give me a second and I'll get out of here".

"O.K", said the woman.

"I'm going to get up and go, any minute now", the words were formulated slowly and stupidly in his mind. Still, if his mouth expressed them half so eloquently, it would count as a victory. "Then we can both get on with our lives".

"O.K". Perhaps she was smiling. He hoped so.

"What's your name? I'm Conrad".

"Destiny".

He frowned, harshly, in spite of himself. "Tell me your real name, not your whore name".

"'Destiny' is my real name. My whore name is 'Angel'".

He berated himself.

They sat in silence, for a while. Conrad thought -not exactly of his father, but of the image he'd had on his upper bicep. The tattoo was of an angel. The absence of his father was one thing; in all likelihood, it was a psychic apocalypse too big to ever properly conceive of. But the thought of that tattoo, which was also completely idiosyncratic, having vanished from the face of the earth...

His gut convulsed and felt cold. He held back the tears with the side-effect of having the big mental eyes of a psychopath. To his surprise, however, all this horror -came to an end. If there was one thing which could defeat bereavement, guilt-free, it was surely having a quiet moment of solidarity with a beautiful woman. He found himself staring into the eyes of Destiny Angel and smiling, not even like a lunatic. She smiled back.

He strained to get up and go. Unfortunately, his consciousness, as before, was all over the shop and refusing to steady. Everything was so delicate, and the delicacy coincided with the arrival of a third figure in the tiny brown bedroom. Pouncing forward from the door, it was relatively small, carrying with it a much larger aura of unease. Conrad watched and listened. The man was obviously Destiny's pimp. He looked like the French actor Vincent Cassel, though with a bloodless, grey-fleshed curve to his evil eyes.

An argument fired up instantly about Destiny's stupidity at helping this effing tramp. She protested that she thought he was going to have a heart attack. Ah, the pimp was overwhelmed by her stupidity. It came at him from every angle. They were in the middle of a city full of feeble old men; she should see this type of rubbish and ignore it. Even if he had the money for a hand-job, it didn't matter. She was booked to go with Oliver MacDougal, a flaming council executive. A regular score like that, for that amount of effing money, should -not- be messed with. The pimp ranted and raged, in genuine consternation, if only that could make you hate him less.

Away from the door, a bulky arrangement of racking overlapped narrow, black curtains. The bright orange box of a powerdrill sat flush with the musty blue wall. Conrad stared at this. He stared at the pimp, as slowly he felt his shoulders become pleasingly tense. To defend a beautiful prostitute against her vile overlord -somehow it was too obvious. A cliche, as if he was a cowboy about to have a hand-to-hip gunfight on a dusty road outside a saloon. Either that, or evil is such a rare nexus we've just got to allow the melodrama.

"Why don't you leave her alone?", he asked.

"Don't tell me what to do, you pale freak", said the pimp.

Conrad tried to make himself small, tried to make his biceps recede to an unthreatening repose. Your scummy man wasn't particularly well-built. It was easy to sense, however, he had a certain springyness around his elbows, there beneath the scummy cream denim.

"You misunderstand. I wanted to understand, that's all. What's the point of being a swaggering bone-faced gypsy like you?"

The pimp was outraged, and moved to loom over Conrad. He pretended to shrink back. "Please don't hit me! I'm faint, that's all!" In fake delirium, he rested his fingers on top of the nearby VHS player. Blinking his black eyes into determination, he closed his fingers into a grip and whacked Mr Scum full around the head with the flat side.

Asking, "Will you join me, Destiny?".

"God almighty!"

The pimp shook himself and advanced; Conrad used the seconds to remark, "This isn't Travis Bickle trying to rescue Jodie Foster. This is something else".

They edged backwards towards the door, reference mis-aligned characters in some old computer game. Scummy Man gasped with intense satisfaction as he pulled a gun and fired on Conrad. The ghostly sensation suggested that he'd been hit in the side, but there was no time to consciously think about it as adrenalised reflexes forced him to pull up the VHS player and use it as a shield. Destiny was similarly crouched, though she moved quicker, opening the door and fleeing into the street. They moved their bodies silkily around the garden wall, then free.

"Get in my car, I'll get you out of here", said Destiny. Into a Nissan that smelt like a whole world of petrol. She started the engine with no particular expression of panic, and only gave a tiny, handsome cringe as Scummy Man shot-out a large section of the back window. What a woman.

A jarring skid carried them off along the curving road, a sprightly series of revs that seemed completely at odds with the screams of the engine. The preparation to be shot in the head at any minute was lessened, second by crazy second, even as his heartbeat blasted. He noted the way the traction of the wheels pulled; telegraph poles and coy little walls swinging past at buzzing speed.

If this was a Hollywood film, even a subtle one, now would be the time when it would occur to him to examine his side, and find a fearsome, expanding blood stain. No such. He looked gratefully at Destiny. Her arms were straight-out on the wheel and absolutely in control. Her eyes: as action-orientated as James Bond. Tragedy was lurking and fluttering in Conrad's head, of course; what had led this magnificent woman to be a prostitute? She almost certainly was not a drug-addict. Probably it was debt. Classy though she seemed, perhaps her whole life had been scarred by an existence in the ghetto -and now she'd try to draw him in as well.

In the fraction of a second it took him to ponder all this, he also gave a mental shrug. He had nothing she could steal from him. His savings were all but exhausted by his Dad's cancer treatment. The house belonged to his sister. Emotionally, also, he was so open it would be like trying to delete the internet. Nothing could hurt him now.

Destiny's eyes flicked adventurously into the rear-view. "Is he coming after us? He drives a black Jaguar hatchback".

Sure enough, the car emerged from an avenue of three-story apartments. The wheels made crazy, subtle jerks then swiped outwards in their direction. Scummy Man drove just quickly enough to keep up, and the flow of traffic was such that they wouldn't be extricated any time soon.

"Is he the sort of man to follow us? Try to wait until our petrol runs out or run us off the road?"

"I get the idea he is that type of man", said Destiny.

"Perhaps we should head towards a police station", said Conrad, without much emotion.

Said Destiny, "That won't be necessary. We've got about fifty miles worth of petrol, and that's enough to get us home and dry".

"'Home and dry'?"

She looked at him appreciatively. "Thankyou for the offer of the coat. Thankyou for trying to help me. I should say right now, though - I'm not exactly a full-time prostitute".

"And obviously", said Conrad, "I'm not really a full-time customer of prostitutes".

She remained in stoney silence as she considered this. In a thousand years, a wry smile might have come. But Conrad's nerves weren't quite up to the tension of waiting, so he asked, "You did it because you suddenly needed the money?"

"No", said Destiny brightly.

"I'm guessing, then, that you're an undercover police-lady?"

"Undercover? Yes. Police-lady? No".

"M.I.5, not nine-to-five?"

"M.I.5, when they're not busy auto-asphyxiating themselves inside suitcases?", she said evilly. "No".

Said Conrad, "You mustn't feel bad about getting me mixed up in all this".

At that moment she was looking in the rear-view at the psychopath in pursuit. Soon, however, she was massaging the steering wheel and darting a hesitant stare into his eyes. "You're taking it in your stride. You seem very stoical in spite of..."

He looked at her questioningly.

"You seemed very sad back there, for some reason. If I didn't know better I'd say you'd fainted out of sadness. Are you going to be alright?"

He looked away. Chinese takeaway. Estate agents that looked like temps agencies. Temps agencies that looked like estate agents. A curving road beset by dark pavements and very tall street lights took them the first few steps outwards into the countryside. Lo, he saw the flare of Mr C-t's headlights.

How to explain the sadness? Just saying that his dad had died an hour previously didn't seem like a good enough reason. Everyone loses their parents eventually. He tried for insouciance. "Well, Destiny, now that we're going out together..."

She smiled.

After five minutes or so, there was a huge wave of decisiveness. "Do you want some excitement?"

Conrad gave a considered, "Yes. Why not?"

"In that case, I've got two jobs for you", she nodded her head girlishly. "Firstly, get the Mars bar from the back seat, break a bit off and feed it into my mouth. I haven't eaten since breakfast".

He did so, and within millimetres of her beautiful mouth, his hand felt horribly light and full of desire.

"Job two?", he enquired.

"Take the radio out of the glove compartment. Press the red button. When you hear the tone and the static dies, say clearly, 'Cloud Base from Destiny Angel. S.I.G'"

Part Two - Now We Have a Rapport.

'Democracy passes into despotism'

-Plato.

The slow moving riot van in front was a curse for his impatient, breeze-block of a mind. They'd arranged the formation based on a vague fear that some Cloud Base occupants would pelt the eviction force with debris; three squad cars and the entire district's quotient of Vito prisoner transports. It was a stupid situation. Scarlet's mind was blocked up with dispassion. The fact that he hated gypsy evictions at the best of times played a large part in it, but lord, it was never as bitter as this. Like most persona-non-gratis gypsy tribes, which was what the Spectrum HQ had disguised itself as, they actually owned the land they were occupying. The Council's grievances; the lack of any planning application and a vague accusation that some of the old airfield buildings were unsafe (they were fine) -was pure bureaucracy mixed with that hateful kow-towing to bourgeois intolerance. Saxons, don't look me in the eye.

He stared at the modest, hedgerow-straddling elm trees that clung to the brown horizon. He took it all in, and tried to make his hatred dissipate among the branches. It was all so queasy, though. His scarlet driving gloves felt like they were awash with static, despite the heavy grasp he used on the steering wheel. Lucky: Colonel White had been like-minded when it came to not giving the Council an inch of acquiescence, even if it was a bad move tactically. Spectrum's wealth could stretch to paying the most extravagant planning costs, hundreds of times over, paying building surveyors -they could easily placate the Council and win themselves time to think. But the only real option was set in stone: Spectrum was at war with Weltsbury County Council, and sometimes it's just the right thing to provoke your mortal enemy.

In his temples, there was a hell of a subtle headache, though he couldn't tell where the headache ended and where his hatred of the man sitting opposite began. Ben Lionelson looked for all the world like Nick Griffin from the BNP, though he was obviously the exact opposite in political terms. His eyes stared madly with an old womany arrogance. Without a doubt, Scarlet was going to enjoy his humiliation.

"We haven't discussed a stab-proof vest for you", said Scarlet, as if the matter had just occurred to him.

"Do you think I'll need one?", asked Lionelson.

"We'll do our best to protect you", said Scarlet mildly. "Like Roman centurions closing ranks around a toga-flapping senator. Spartacus looks on. The thing about our vests is that they're one-size-fits-all around the middle, but the space to squeeze the head through can be quite narrow".

"I'll maybe try one on", Lionelson nodded.

"It's the case that us coppers are getting leaner and leaner", said Scarlet breezily. "What's it like in the Council? Who's fatter, you or your fat wife?"

Lionelson swung his head. His cheeks compacted with dismay. "What?"

Casually fingering the steering wheel back to true. Staring blankly at the Vito in front. In time he glanced at the man and said apologetically, "I said, 'It'll flatter' - the vest. There's straps on the side, to make it less wide".

Your man's cheeks sagged; it was clearly too much effort to try and remember exactly what the constable had just said, whether it really had been what it sounded like, whether it was some kind of bizarre emotional tick. Obviously he was haunted by it, though.

Turning sharply onto a long, straight road, on a slightly-slightly ear-popping gradient, they spearheaded through the grey tree-line to emerge before the Westcusp White Horse. Prancing, very much a Picasso stalwart, he skipped from the vicinity of Cloud Base in a way that always made Scarlet smile. The convoy drove past his sprightly form at an irreverent click, and turned left. It was amazing, and he often thought; perhaps it was the reason the airfield had failed - because it was so out of the way. Certainly these days, the uninitiated would assume that it was nothing more than a rat-run for farmers, heading out to their solemn fields, there to commune with the ghost of John Constable, but not much else. Standing at the highest point of the tufty hedgerow was a man in a brilliant blue hoody and a V for Vendetta mask, which he'd painted in almost exactly the same shade. Adam. Dependable Captain Blue. His job was to radio through to the inner sanctum that the rozzer convoy was well-and-truly incoming. Secondarily to turn his head hypnotically in the direction of Lionelson and scare the life out of him. Scarlet felt faintly guilty because, when the time came, he could tell Adam was staring more at him, lovingly, than the bureaucratic monster who sat in the passenger seat.

The airfield was much like the Top Gear racetrack, only large sections were overgrown, festooned with sliced-and-diced plane fuselages, so that a clear run in a reasonably-priced car would be far too higgledy. On that day, however, though there hadn't been too much rain recently, the network of beguilingly-flush runways caught the daylight like rivers. They headed back to the hangars, always paying credence to the auld control tower, where no doubt Colonel White was standing sentinel, looking grim.

And confident -a belligerent mortal king before the gods.

Spectrum agents milled around before the buildings, each disguised as a fashion-disaster hippy or selfless gypsy. Not that it worked. They looked far too resilient. Scarlet picked out Captain Ochre, missing his trademark Lambretta jacket and instead wearing a crazy-shouldered trench coat. The man looked menacing -but only because he made you feel so guilty, always, for reasons unknown.

"Well", Scarlet said in a mesmerising tone, as he wrenched the handbrake. "My men will form a chain and, as soon as you've read the notice with the loudspeaker, we'll begin to advance. Are you ready?"

"No time like the present", the man promised, either to himself or his pen-pushing god.

Constables Hill and Marion stood beside the flag-van, doing nothing, floating on air to all intents. Scarlet picked out a stab-proof from the rock-hard mountain just inside the doors. He helped Lionelson squeeze his head through the rough neckspace, saying, "There you are", in a knowing tone that would remind the man of that devastatingly disrespectful thing he may or may not, but probably had said earlier. The frown as his oversized, male-model hair sprang back said it all.

Other stow-lockers built into the ceiling space of the van offered tasers, Greek-style shields, CS guns, but Scarlet felt perfectly happy just to be reaching for the loud speaker, the weapon which would so spectacularly backfire on the little man Lionelson.

Police officers, drifting into the antiquated rank-formation of a medieval army, and in doing so looking stupidly theatrical, spread out before Scarlet and the Council man. Hatefully calm, the man flicked his eyes to the tree trunks at the edge of the air field, which seemed so diminutive. Perhaps he felt safe because the arena was so quiet. As if humans aren't forever onlookers in the shrouded Weltsbury landscape. The army of cops advanced, with Lionelson holding steady on the cusp of the wave. "Please vacate the buildings. Use of force has been legally granted", he throated through the loud hailer. Within fifty yards of the old hangars and strip-shaped buildings, the sensation of angry, laboured breathing was in full force, from all angles; Spectrum agents stared just as venomously as real gypsies would have, and it made no odds whatsoever.

From a very lackadaisical formation of mesh fences at the edge of the compound, a silver people-carrier moved boldly towards the showdown. The wheels stopped dead, precisely between the cops and their resistance. A camera man disembarked and started to film. The local news reporter Peter Flynn looked on, looking far more tense than he did on TV.

Lionelson eased down the loudspeaker. "The press. How did they get here?"

"My men are fully aware of keeping operational secrets", said Scarlet, with a clear conscience. With a slightly cloudier conscience, plus satisfaction in his soul, he added, "It has nothing to do with me".

Meanwhile, the Spectrum gypsies stared gleefully at Lionelson.

"We had an agreement!", said Captain Ochre.

"We -had -an agreement !", said Captain Bronze.

"We had an agreement!", the other agents chipped in, allowing their words to overlap until they became a chant. Someone added, "Bureaucratic t—t".

Some of the policemen took heavy steps forward to try and disperse the rabble. This was a very fluid movement, due to their well-gripped boots and the tactile nature of the former runway. Where the true drama lay, however, was in Lionelson's eyes. Scarlet brooded: it must have been easy for him to prepare to engage with some angry gypsies. Thinking they'd merely shout and swear as the situation demanded. But for a gypsy to hit him with the word 'bureaucrat' was like a homeless writing the words 'Art Critic' on his forehead, then meeting Tracey Emin in the street and calling her talentless. People can make empirical judgements on nigh-subjective matters. It's flip rare, but it does happen.

The awkward dance of resistance was in full swing now, shivers of the spine delivered by the sight of deathly-serious civilians trying to block well-meaning policemen. Something in the desperate and determined faces, juxtaposed with sports jumpers and tye-died T-shirts, made for an unnerving scene. Beyond them, thirty miles of hedgerows, with the brambles in love with the tree-trunks, the tree-trunks in love with the tufty grass -partitioned off from all this strained, human silliness. The Council man's eyes swung around like inanimate objects.

He raised the loudspeaker to his mouth. Scarlet pressed the button on the transmitter in his pocket, and the tiny receiver concealed in the mouthpiece produced booming words that were not Lionelson's own, but spoken in his voice, somehow.

"I have taken your bribes-"

He lowered the loudspeaker to stare at it ponderously. Scarlet instantly deactivated the transmitter. When he placed it back to his lips, Scarlet ferociously clicked 'on' again.

"-and I'll keep them, but I will not be persuaded", came the words, completely different and completely overpowering what Lionelson was actually trying to say.

Pleasingly, the West Point TV camera was glued to him. It was from just the right angle that Lionelson's mouth was obscured behind the loudspeaker muzzle -hats off to God. In Peter Flynn's fingers was an orgasmically short-handing pencil. Lionelson saw this, and panicked. He arced around to face Scarlet.

"You're setting me up", he said gravely.

This pleased Scarlet immensely, though he was careful not to show it. In touch with his petty side, he'd been hoping the man would realise that he was being set-up, rather than losing his mind. More than that, the whole plan hinged on it.

"'Setting you up'", he reflected in a monotone. "I'm a beat policeman, just following orders. I'm sure you feel the same. I'm sure you just want to get home to your - wife", and with the pause, he was careful to imply the word 'fat'.

Lionelson looked angry and impatient more than anything. "What on earth is going on here?"

Scarlet frowned, narrowed his eyes, asked in a ponderous voice, "What's that in your pocket?"

The Council man examined his front-side trouser pocket, and found a gun.

Pretending to be in fear, Scarlet scrambled for his radio, "PC192 to all units. Code Alpha-Charlie-One. Possible live firearms".

Hearing this, a lot of the officers broke off from the advance on Cloud Base and moved to surround Lionelson. Those that didn't had their shoulders or elbows knocked by their fellows, and soon all thirty of them had formed an inescapable ring around the errant Council exec. They held their truncheons high, above a bobbing wall of shields threatening to rush forward like the petals of a fly trap. The TV crew daren't approach, though the sensation of their camera zooming to an extreme close-up was almost palpable in the air. Scarlet, now holding the transmitter between his radio and vest, pressed the button which fused the voice-imitator in Lionelson's loudspeaker, rendering it nothing more than a regular amplifying circuit.

In the same way he'd become psychologically deathless thanks to the expunging of all guilt, he'd also become fearless, to a large degree. Still, Scarlet was quietly grateful when it was Constable Tempest who formally arrested poor Ben Lionelson. The selection of a crime, and the reading of his rights, swung from the Tempest's mouth like a record in a jukebox. He recited it with so much less condescension than afflicted Scarlet. Making threats with a firearm. The charges relating to Fraud in a Public Office would come later, once Scarlet had excavated the Maltesers tin full of money which he'd so surreptitiously buried in the man's garden, just three months previously.

The gun was evidence-bagged. Poor Ben Lionelson was removed to the back of the nearest Vito, frog-marched like a character in a nineties rock video. Irony at play; all present bar the Spectrum agents had assumed that the prisoner transports would be full of Cloud Base protesters by now. That the eviction was now cancelled, and the sole captive was a be-suited Council exec -this was irony as a new kind of gravity. Irony as a new kind of daylight to upgrade the laws of physics. Still it wasn't enough. Scarlet was nervous as the majority of Bill departed, save Hill, Marion and Tempest. They helped him disperse the camera crew, citing a police investigation. They helped him calm the Spectrum gypsies, who were putting on an engrossing show of astonishment and zeal.

Lengthy interviews followed. Dead-end discourses on the 'I'm Sparticus' history of 'gypsies' trying to bribe this high executive, this dishonourable monster. Finally all the police officers departed, and it hardly looked suspicious that Scarlet, as the flag-officer, remained on for a little while. He started towards the old control tower, the annexed office of Colonel White. A little tactlessly, a little overbearing, the old man was up there even now, staring down like the Duke of Wellington. Looking East, there was nothing but the wildest farm land, mostly flat with only a few recesses of scraggy cow-dells in the twenty miles between Westcusp and Chippenston. To the West, there was a few privately owned trout farms, some flooded quarries, a wood where slag aristocrats very infrequently hunted pheasants. All of it was quiet, perfectly muted, the quietness you want to hear from God. To the South: the White Horse, skipping off towards Devinsey. That, and the funny little b-road, so hushed and carrying an apologetic volley of cars -old bangers from Chippenston, housewife cylons to Pallborough.

Irony Part Two, and Three, and a hundred - no one at Weltsbury County Council was actually corrupt. Not many were even inept, as most cynical laymen would assume. But they were all of them the grasping hands of bourgeois madness. The humans, and the ones that weren't human at all, The Sworn Enemies of Earth.

He looked a little way across from the control tower, to appreciate the way the Pallborough hills, though barely seventy feet high, held as much psychic impression as a set of Welsh mountains. He thought: there's a feeling in the air, like Wagner, and amazing that anyone can connect Wagner, and War, and not think of Hitler. Always building, through layers of eerie self-insight, to connect with those thunderous booms that signalled a full-stop to all the Gods' madness.

The air-pressure was reasonably light, and Scarlet tilted his head to hear a shrill car horn, very taut and businesslike. He knew at once that it was incoming, fast. He stared towards the track, where it emerged from palatial sycamores, all bouncing suspension and dazzling speed. A neat little Nissan. Destiny Angel.

It was -some kind of emergency. Captain Ochre moved painfully beside him to explain. As always, his bizarre way of speaking was distracting. Scarlet lapped up the details regardless. Destiny had sent out an emergency signal for Cloud Base to standby. At their end, surveillance footage from the city outskirts revealed there was an unknown male in the car with her, late to middle age. Meanwhile, the character in pursuit was Dean Cocklebury, her pimp.

"She's clearly -", Scarlet shook his head in wonder, as the little car skidded across bright green grass, smoothly, screeching all the same. She drove a short distance away from the compound, and for a time the Jaguar was out-foxed. He changed gear, reversed hastily; all of mankind able to sense the cursing. Destiny raced forward, and the car skidded to halt amid the agents.

She got out and stood tall.

"Cocklebury - he doesn't know anything. But I had to save this guy from a beating. Innocent bystander".

Her shoulders rose magnificently. It wasn't quite enough to remind Scarlet of how he'd once been able to love women, though. The Nissan's other passenger moved quickly from the car and glared swarthily. The Jag skidded to a halt, reluctant to let go of the momentum of hate, impatient to restart -the pimp emerged. Scarlet moved to confront him.

Even as the barrel of a business-calibre gun was raised to his head.

"And they say pimps don't commit suicide", said Scarlet, with a kind of melancholy.

Cocklebury looked angry, and phased. In terms of mettle, and character, he was ubiquitous. The desperation, however, indicated that he would soon let his ugly alpha-slag-male adrenaline take over and fire the gun. No longer the human police constable, Scarlet looked scant degrees to the left, at the perpetual yellow grass of the trout farm, the heavy-set scrub. Within a foot of the c-t, his conscious heartrate hit at an all-time low, and what Buddhists might mistake for zen - we know as exhaustion.

"O death, where is thy sting?"

Looking coolly forward again, there was Cocklebury, staring a him with that omniscient slag hatred.

"Oh grave where is thy vict -", smiling, he pushed out his fist, knocked the gun across the tarmac, "-ory?"

All of a sudden, Cocklebury looked horrified, if only Scarlet wasn't much more interested in letting his eyes phase out across the brown-brown-red treetops. The man must bolt. He decided to bolt backwards to the Jag. Lazily, Scarlet's heart prepared to beat quickly again. Before he could make chase, however - the swarthy man, Destiny's friend, was upon him. He fisted Cocklebury full in the stomach. Confidence in a layman-punch-up, no fear for the exposed abdomen or balls; something you simply had to respect. The swarthy man was about the man's mouth until it looked like a Spitting Image puppet, and then like a plague buboe. Even his blood looked greasy. Scarlet tried to stop it, but only with a gusto once the Colonel had radioed in his ear. "'I think it would be wrong to kill him'".

Even then! There was not much action to be had. The newcomer broke off the attack, and stood tensely before the blood-spattered pimp. It was a funny kind of tension -ponderous, but with the capacity to slip into violence again at any moment. Scarlet's hand on the man's strangely powerful arm did nothing to allay the sense that he was a coiled spring of madness. Only when Destiny touched him as well did he start to stand down.

"It's over, Conrad", she promised him.

"'Over'?", he asked, tone of voice a phosphorous stick dropped into a pitch black precipice.

But still she promised. "This is my family".

What an explanation, and a curve-ball if ever Scarlet had heard one. It was disturbing. Even as he busied himself with the manhandling of the broken bag-of-slag, the locking of the cuffs, he felt unease. To refer to Spectrum as a family, to even pretend, was eerie. It was a marriage of convenience, and that was all it should ever be. He pulled the man Cocklebury onwards to the interrogation hut.

Conrad Turner was escorted between the small buildings which stood shrugging before grassed-over hangars. Such mighty hemispheres: after the breakdown of civilisation, after the Soylent Green apocalypse, they'd probably take on the same lonely, mythical quality as the burial mounds on the West Weltsbury plains. The place was subdued in the extreme. The tarmac at his heels sometimes felt dogged, sometimes sprightly. It was a matter of fascination that he was being led briskly to the control tower. Also, that the milling gypsies regarded him so casually. Not even any contrived open-heartedness.

"I want you to meet my uncle", Destiny sucked her cheeks slightly. The first sign of prevalent nerves he'd seen from her. "Listen -he's dimly aware of what I do for a living, and he worries about me. Would you pretend to be a friend of mine? Who saved me?"

They passed a man in an ochre leather jacket, who looked far too thoughtful, like a bad actor. By a shed, and a funny little wall made of spent tires, they made a sharp turn and were almost on top of the tower. Conrad cast his eyes at the ground. He wanted to say, for instance, 'Your whoring days are over'. Except he'd been around prostitutes long enough to know their bread-and-butter psychology. Prostitution was a terrible thing, yet it was often the only sense of self-empowerment the woman might have. Added to Destiny's claim to be some kind of double-agent -and he didn't know what to think. In his daydreams, he pictured a French resistance fighter with a tiny gun in her underwear. But who were the Nazis?

All he knew as he stared at her, that poised mouth, was that he'd help her assassinate any kind of complacent general, enemy agent, any kind of hazy political threat. Even if it all led to hell, at least it would be a new kind of hell. He opened the door for her in a display of chivalry that should be sickening. Even as he held the heavy metal handle, however, his mobile rang and spoiled everything. He recognised the number and cursed.

"I have to take this", he said mildly.

"I'll be inside", said Destiny, and within the doorway they stared at each other.

There was no particular urgency to answer the phone.

"Hello", blankly.

"You selfish piece of s-", reflected the caller, the breathless epitome of all anger.

"Speaking".

"You are a - real, f-ing-". Netta was so overwhelmed with hatred she sounded like a computer operating with its very last iota of processing power. "I've put up with so much from you over the years, and now I have to find out about the death of our dad from the undertaker!"

Feeling frighteningly inhuman, Conrad stared straight ahead at the edge of the airfield. Why was there no mesh fence? Could it be the row of cedar trees and holly bushes was security enough?

"I'm sorry. I had to get out of there".

The exasperated breaths became a tide of fury. "The undertakers called me because they didn't want to go in, despite your little note. And, yeah, just as I'm driving over there, I see you driving in the opposite direction with a WHORE".

"I'm sorry", Conrad repeated, tonelessly. How to explain about Death -the way it was an ever-decreasing bubble of sorrow, and you had to do whatever you could to stay sane? Little sister Netta -he'd done what he could to protect her from that one, vicious truth, and this was how she repaid him.

Screaming, though emphatically more angry than hysterical, "SORRY?! WHEN YOU'VE FINISHED GETTING YOUR CROTCH STINKY, YOU CAN GET YOUR WHORE FRIEND TO DRIVE YOU BACK OVER HERE AND SEE IF YOU'RE HALF AS SORRY AS ME, YOU PATHETIC B-".

"I'm not with the prostitute anymore", he said calmly. "I'll be home when I can".

"THIS IS MY HOUSE. THIS IS -MY- HOUSE, CONRAD. YOU COME BACK HERE AND I'LL SMASH EVERY ONE OF YOUR WHISKY BOTTLES RIGHT OVER YOUR F- HEAD".

He slowly lowered the phone to check the connection was broken. He stared at the morning sky, hardly feeling sorry for himself. Crying was now a thing of the past, as was grief and shame. Strange, though -he sensed the dried blood on his curiously unscathed knuckles and brooded on the pride which had arisen from something which should be utterly shameful. Beating a defenceless man half to death. Yet I'm still the bigger man. Take your ethereal, liberal theories of morality and just -paint them black. Strange, also, how far you can toss a mobile phone across an abandoned airfield.

Scarlet finished his shift at the police station, then took the A249 in the rough direction of home. At the oversized slip-road which spiralled down onto the M4, he drove a quarter of an hour out of his way to the new supermarket at Lashton Delaney. There to look at the magazines and DVDs, though he knew from the start he wouldn't buy anything. On the way back up the motorway, there was a call from Adam.

"Don't come home in a good mood", was the warning.

Scarlet stared tensely at the cacky windshield. "What's wrong?"

"I'll explain when you get here, but... I don't know. Seven shades of Pete Tong".

For a while he wondered if he was in the dog-house over '...where is thy vic-tory?' Perhaps Adam had finally had enough of that flagrant disregard for his own life. Not everyone is indestructible, he brooded. But sometimes it troubled him, on a grovelling psychological level, that Adam always let him act so dangerously. If he really did 'die', could Captain Blue live without him so easily? Was that why he forever allowed him to behave as recklessly as a cornered jihadist?

No way. I wear my warring heart on my sleeve, carry my mission as a brilliant scarlet flag. If you love anything about me, you love that.

Adam was in the lounge, on the sofa with his legs crossed and arms Christ-like. The news channel was on, but he'd angled his body away from the screen. Some kind of exhaustion was in play.

"I went to pick up Ed from school. I don't know why. I just thought it would be nice. So I waited in that little street out the front of the school, and I waited -all of the kids came out, but no Ed. I went inside-"

He smiled bitterly.

"Just by coincidence, there was Ed, sitting in the reception area with some f- history teacher. Says the man, 'Mr Svenson? We've been trying to call you'. I check my phone, see the charge is completely gone, and feel like a complete mongroloid. Several weeks ago, Ed and this other kid were messing around in class. History. 'The Sixties'. Apparently, their behaviour was so 'disruptive' they got sent out into the corridor".

Scarlet flexed his hands and was angry, already, even though he didn't know the full disgrace yet. Simultaneously, a small part of him was sneering. Not the French Revolution, not the Russian Revolution -nothing that actually meant anything, no- 'The Sixties'.

Adam spoke on, quietly. "Ed and this other boy, for laughs, got a plastic litre bottle, cut the top off, went into the toilet and s- and urinated into it. They went back outside the history room and wedged the bottle behind a radiator. Over the next couple of days, the whole block started to reek".

Scarlet felt a strange uncertain feeling in his guts. "And... Ed confessed to this?"

Adam looked into his eyes for a long time, then started to laugh. Eventually he was almost doubled-over.

"You'll like this", he said, but couldn't stop laughing.

"Tell me, Adam", said Scarlet gravely.

"The headmaster took swabs from every child in the school, then sent the s- to get DNA tested in a lab".

"Jesus", said Scarlet, but did not laugh, did not even smile. "Where is he now?"

Adam sighed. "Up in his room. How do you want to play it, good cop, bad cop?"

"No good cop", said Scarlet, already storming across the cramped kitchen. "And the bad cop maims you".

He was very near to the foot of the stairs, feeling resolved, when Adam said urgently, "The headmaster. He's on the watch list, he could be a..."

"I don't care if he is", promised Scarlet.

Around sunset, the window midway up the stairs let in brilliant light on the far wall and the landing. Still a bit sickly, pretty, evocative of two-point-four-children bourgeoisie homemaking. Scarlet burst into the boy's room. Before he even looked at him, however, he'd already paced several lengths. As far as he could tell, Ed had been cooched-down preparing to watch the evening game. Unity trying to ascend from League One to the Premiership, though their ambience was too strained to ever allow the term 'giant killer', and manager LeCanteo looking uncharacteristically tense. Scarlet barely glanced at the screen. He certainly didn't see Donnie Chico in the line-up, who he'd gone to school with and always felt a kinship towards.

He stopped pacing. He thought carefully, in silence, and then opened the window and flung the TV onto the concrete below.

"God!", said Ed. "You're right to be angry with me, but there's no need to -go crazy".

Pacing resumed, silence resumed, Scarlet deciding to wear his heart on his sleeve.

"I'm not angry with you. Do you believe that?"

"I'm sorry, a thousand times. OK?"

Scarlet tried not to appear as an interrogative policeman. Perhaps he succeeded.

"I didn't ask if you were sorry or not. I asked if you believed I'm not angry with you".

"It's O.K to be angry with me!"

Red-faced; not a flattering look for a teenage boy.

Hands on your hips for the telling of scripture, then. "I believe in original sin. I believe people are born selfish. But it's OK, alright? It's only like a scab the size of a pin head. But if you start scratching, and scratching, you will end up looking like Freddy f-ing Kruger".

"I don't know who that is", said Ed quietly.

"I remember what it's like to be a kid. You just want to fit in. Fit in to what? You never find that out because you're s- stupid. But it's O.K to be stupid. Just watch, though, how quickly 'stupid' turns into laziness, turns into c- scumminess".

"O.K".

Ed was genuinely scared by his tone, but he continued; he had no choice. From his wallet, he produced a roll of notes amounting to at least three hundred pounds -Spectrum petty. He threw it onto the bed.

"Tomorrow, you'll give this to your headmaster. Tell him it's all the pocket money you've saved up since forever, to go towards his lab testing of the faeces. Tell him that Adam and I will write him a cheque for the difference".

"O,K, I've just got to-"

"From now on, at school, you've got two choices. You either don't talk to any of the other kids, or we'll keep you at home and you can do all your learning from the internet".

While Ed did not laugh, his face went doughy out of wonderment. Some kind of wonderment. "What about getting my GCSEs and A-levels?"

Scarlet said blankly, "It's a fallacy that you need qualifications. No employer ever asks to see certificates. All they look for is confidence and humility. And it's impossible to learn confidence and humility from being in a room, with thirty other mouthy c-s, subservient to a shrew- or vicar-faced little bourgeois teacher".

"O.K", said Ed, uncertain now and with a very adult edge to his voice. "How will I learn, like, sociability skills around other people, if I don't mix with kids my own age?"

At once, "Kids aren't 'people', Ed. Kids are gaudy little gobshynes, one and all. Have you ever known any one under the age of sixteen to think before they speak? The only way you learn about reality is by getting a job".

Throughout all this, Scarlet felt the slivery psychic vibe that his step-son was preparing to say something bold and unpleasant.

Indeed. "You've got all these rules in your head, about what people need to do to fit in. Don't you think you're being a total hypocrite for being gay, with my Dad? If any of the other kids found out, I'd get the s- ripped out of me so bad I'd want to die".

"I don't have strong feelings about gays one way or the other", said Scarlet mildly. "I don't consider myself a gay man. What I'd say to you is this. A gay would have to paint themselves pink from head to to toe, wear a John Inman mask, flap their wrist 24-7, and carry around a ghetto blaster of the Village People before being as big a stereotype as teenagers are just for f-ing existing, O.K?"

Ed kept his face steady, and spoke boldly. "So you're saying you hate me for being a teenager?"

Scarlet spread his arms stupidly. "I love you. I'll love you no matter what. but I'd prefer it if you didn't grow up to be a c-, a bit of a c-, have a single shadow of c-ishness fall on you. Now, If you've got any problems with what I've just said, cry me a river and we'll go along it in a row boat".

With that, he departed the room, moved faux-daintily to the kitchen where he made himself a micro-meal. Adam regarded him with those brilliant dimples set in his trademark sardonic grin. Sometimes it was a sardonic grin of disapproval, sometimes incredulity, sometimes confidence. Presently it just looked pained.

"The first time you ever made an arrest, on hobby-patrol, were your hands shaking?"

Scarlet shrugged. A micro burger, sans the relish -it was usually delicious. "I decided not to make any arrests while I was a hobby. The first time I made an arrest as a constable, though? No. Neither were the other man's". He omitted that his very first arrest had been a white-collar shoplifter in a city centre newso, and in all likelihood, the only reason his hands weren't shaking was because they'd been steadied-out by hate. "Were yours shaking?"

"Nah", Adam mauled at his double-stubble. "But I don't know why. Harriet was pregnant with Ed. The guy pulled a knife on me. Everything should have seemed -sudden, and scary".

"We always have to be hardmen. It's the only language they understand".

"Why", Adam's sardonic smile of pain became a sardonic smile standard, "didn't you just throw his X-box out of the window?"

"Because I want to finish getting killed on Left 4 Dead 2".

Adam laughed. "Would it kill you to just chill out and do some exploring in Skyrim?"

Scarlet was unable to eat the burger. He said, in a steady voice, "I think we should tell him".

"Tell him what?"

"Everything".

It was decided to make the boy a hot chocolate for supper. Scarlet, perhaps out of an infinitesimal trace of guilt, wanted to do the honours; Adam forbade him, because he said he had a pathological aversion to using the decadent amount of cream necessary for a truly great cocoa. Fine. The two of them crept up the dim stairwell, swinging gait to repel the sense of doom. It had been the opening shades of twilight for at least an hour, apparently. Night seemed reluctant to come, except in a big crash. In fact, the landing seemed brighter than ever. Somehow.

Adam knocked on the door, but said nothing.

Ed's voice sounded despairing, "What?"

"Open up, this is the police", said Scarlet.

"Well, one police, one busybody", qualified Adam.

There was a low-key dramatic pause as Ed swept the big door open. And among the brown-curtained recesses, your boy still seemed pained. "Do you want me to repeat back to you the lecture. so that you know I heard it right?"

"Cheeky", said Adam, handing him the chocolate. "I don't mind cheeky".

Scarlet allowed his expression to form, quite selflessly, as he listened to father and son, awash in soul-bearing. Perhaps the weather was too warm to properly enjoy hot chocolate -still it was evocative of happier times.

"What Paul told you was true. We aren't angry with you. If you'd kicked a teacher in the balls and burnt the school to the ground, we still wouldn't be angry with you. We'd be angry at the world".

Ed hovered in front of his bed, the muscles in his brow wrestling something fierce. Scalding-and-lukewarm chocolate in hand, he hardly knew what to do. This made Scarlet love him all the more. He allowed his field of vision to glaze over among the dark pastel posters for bands he was only dimly aware of. Lost Prophets, Staind. Anonymous nu-metal; as such, hard to hate.

Ed, in a low voice, said, "You're reacting in a weird way, like I was stupid, so you have to act like a pair of vicars or something; I'd sooner you just get angry, and I say I'm sorry".

Adam and Scarlet looked at each other. Captain Blue, good cop, or rather the cop of all human solidarity, sat stiffly on the bed. Captain Scarlet, bad cop for unknowable reasons, leaned casually on the painted window sill.

"I really do remember what it was like to be a teenager", he said, eyes focused on nothing. "That sounds like a cliche. But it's leading somewhere. I remember, the thing I wanted most was just -something exciting, and involving, some kind of big secret I could fling my stupid teenage soul inside. Something that ran parallel with the drudgery and oppression of life as a 'young adult'. Hardly anyone ever finds this, which is why they take faux-important jobs like being an accountant".

"Or a council worker", said Adam.

"Or a research analyst", said Scarlet.

"Or a council worker", repeated Adam, almost making him smile.

"But your dad and I -we are in possession of this exciting and involving thing. This truth which runs parallel with our stupid bloody lives. The trouble is, it's a hell of a secret, to do with the whole country, and once you learn it, you may wish you'd lived in bliss".

Hype on hype, and Ed's eyes flicked around making fine delineations. He tried to work out what this weird truth might be; 'wished you'd lived in bliss' –evidently, it wasn't any kind of evangelist religion.

"You know when we all wind down together, and watch a film on Saturday night", suggested Scarlet, in an almost guilty tone. "Did it ever seem odd to you that, more often than not, we'll be watching films like Invasion of the Body Snatchers?"

"Or Invasion of the Body Snatchers 1956?", said Adam.

"Or John Carpenter's The Thing?"

"Or The Thing 1949?", said Adam.

"Or 'They Live'?"

"Or The Thing 2011?", said Adam.

Still not drawing any conclusions, and seeming all the more dramatic for it, Ed said, "I assumed they were just random horror films".

Scarlet felt the waves of high drama lap at his brow, statuesque. "These films are all -very close to the truth about this world we live in".

Poor Ed stared down at the ragged carpet. Ragged, who knew why, and despite the fact it was only three years old. He then quickly looked at Scarlet, and only lack of social skills prevented him from giving a sarcastic laugh.

"There are aliens, disguised as people, all over the place?"

Adam tried to be reassuring. "We assume aliens. all we know is that they're not human, and they absolutely want to control our lives".

The boy was not drinking his chocolate. This made Scarlet feel terrible. He wondered if he launched into the story of how he'd seen his first Mysteron, then Ed would relax and take a swig as a reflex.

"Here's the whole story. Shortly after your dad was fired and I was demoted, my new boss sent me on a special mission".

"This would be that Colonel White, yeah?"

Scarlet's face creased, just a little. "How do you know his name?"

"I've overheard you talking about him, a couple of times", the boy's voice was breathless. "I know my dad still works for him, too, as well, except not as a policeman any more".

At this, Adam pulled an impressed face. Scarlet -merely scowled, resuming the dark anecdote.

"The fact that I had a high security clearance, though I was no longer a Strike Officer, meant I was eligible for State Protection and Diplomatic Security jobs. Colonel White suggested that I volunteer for the pool officers who'd be attending the Progressive Socialism Conference. He knew, somehow, that as soon as I got entered into the rota, I'd end up in Tony Blair's security entourage".

Asked Ed, "Tony Blair who used to be prime minister?"

"This was quite a while after he'd quit as an MP, but he's well-known now as a kind of continent-hopping, diplomatic genius".

"Ironic. I still think he's a c-", confessed Adam.

Breathing deeply, Scarlet made his mouth go nimble; he tried his best to continue. Telling the story was like trying to tell something while drunk, except more so. Trying to convey hair-whitening emotion while drunk.

"Anyway, I was one of his tail outriders. You know you get motorcycle cops to surround the cars of politicians? Just for the day, that was me. I was paying attention to my job. If anything, I was too intense. And the second I was caught up in this intensity, it was on me; a 50 tonne ar-tic surged towards us, from the opposite lane. It came at an angle. In all the mad little seconds, I didn't even get a chance to look into the cab. But you could sense what must have been in the driver's mind: roaring craziness. Forget protocol, I had to stop. The sheer force of the impact, the amazement of it, stopped me dead. The ar-tic missed B. Liar's sedan by miles, but it turned the car behind into a bundle of shreds. Whoever that guy was, didn't stand a chance.

"Anyway, still caught up in all this madness, I dismounted. Just stood there like a f-ing puppet. The ar-tic was surprisingly undamaged, tho the cab and the trailer were at slight angles to each other. From the start, ever so slightly wrong-looking. The driver got out of the cab. I was in shock. He was in shock, too. So -to start with, I just saw 'a man'. A regular man; the small footsteps of a regular man in shock. The body-language in his shoulders, tho - it was weird. And as for his eyes...

"His eyes weren't in shock at all. Oh, they were full of all this dark, intense drama, but that didn't explain a thing. He stopped before me. His skin seemed to glow. Or at any rate there was some kind of 'special effect' involved. I saw-"

It was the strangest thing. The excitement of telling this part of the story felt exactly like the excitement of waking up, trying to tell a dream to a girlfriend. Certainly it was striking to you, in the warm, high-dramatic confines of your own mind. But to the outside world, the girlfriend, it could so easily sound overzealous, hackneyed, stupid.

"The light emanated from this suddenly -inhuman-looking- man, effervesced around his feet. It de-coalesced into two white rings of light, which broke free to escape across the road. And as soon as the circles of light broke contact with the ar-tic driver's body -he fell down dead".

Scarlet was well-and-truly back in time, in the moment. To his surprise, it was Ed's voice which bought him back to the present day struggle. "Wasn't any of this caught on CCTV?"

"No", said Scarlet in a hunted voice.

"But I thought most cops have a little video camera built into their uniforms, their bikes and stuff?"

Scarlet said, "They don't show up on any recording equipment. Not even animals can see them. Even the human eye can only see them from certain angles, and when their brainwaves are spiking at a certain inclination".

"Aliens", said Ed. He sounded exhausted and flustered, just from having to listen to the story, let alone trying to reconcile it.

It was Adam whose voice was reasonably strong. "We don't know whether they're aliens, demons, ghosts or what. All we know is that they're insidious, and they want to drive us over the edge".

"Do they have a name?", asked Ed.

"They call themselves The Mysterons", said Scarlet.

The boy absorbed this. Perhaps, like most initiates, he was struck by how pulpy and over-excited the name sounded. As with most initiates, however, it only took a moment or two for him to realise that pulpy and over-excited could still be nightmarish.

"The thing is", Scarlet said slowly, "you might think they want to invade us, or use trumped-up wars to make us destroy ourselves, as if that wouldn't be preferable".

Now smiling purely out of fear, "What do they want?"

"My job, flanking Mr Tony Blair, was really just by-the-by. I was put there by Colonel White to see with my own eyes the real target. The world was meant to believe, as always, there was some baying terrorist trying to take revenge on Blair. The actual objective of the Mysterons was to take out the man in the car behind.

"His name was Colin Seommens, and he was a statistics academic, anonymous to the layman but grudgingly respected by a few brainbox MPs and civil servants. He was due to speak at the same conference as B. Liar, The Annual Committee for Social and Economic Integration. If you'd have looked down the list of speakers, you'd have seen he only had a thirty minute slot, as opposed to Blair's hour. This so crazily ironic, since Seommens was dense with information and solid facts, leaving Blair to float around on a hot breeze of rhetoric.

"It was Colonel White's hacker who downloaded the man's speech, and it was a hell of a thing. Not a single word of faux-rallying, just statistics, calculations, to get your attention and then choke you. Seommens showed that we could no longer apply past population trends versus economic expansion. By 2020, the service industry and state-employment will be the only source of revenue the country has left, and even that will be contracting towards zero. Meaning that an island of salesmen just gets more and more insular and redundant, until each family becomes a tribe. Unemployed yuppie tribes versus all the feral tribes that are already here, the tribes we allow to breed through welfare and benefits.

"Yeah –that's me, paraphrasing. Seommens was more -sober. He'd drawn up delicately-cross-referenced charts to show that, any tax-payer with an industrial, pro-active job was now carrying an average of five hundred retro-active white-collars on his back, not to mention welfare claimants. And he was careful to draw the parallel: the average Afghan man-in-the-street only carries a dozen Taliban warlords. Yet who's coming to liberate England? Which posturing 'heroes' are coming to deliver us from evil?"

Scarlet knew he was slipping into a tide of softly-spoken diatribe, and was glad to see that Ed was only half-listening and half-watching the Youtube video of Blair's post-attack speech on his phone. He described Seommens as a distinguished and devoted MP, which in real terms meant that he must have just coasted party politics. Otherwise, the speech was pure rhetoric, but worse than that -the kind of rhetoric you could just imagine, using barely a fifth or a sixth of your creative brainpower. Paving the way? For Milliband.

Said Scarlet, "I'm sure, in school, you've read about the Nazis and the Jews, every kind of apartheid, ethnic cleansing. But the Mysterons are unlike any threat the human race has met. Imagine if the Nazis had been so confident about the destructive nature of the Jewish old boy's network that, instead of trying to exterminate them as a race, they'd tacitly encouraged them. Imagine if the Nazis had elevated Jews to every position of power in Germany, then just waited for their own inherent laziness and decadence to tear them apart. This is what the Mysterons are doing with us".

My name is Sue. How-do-you-do. Eyes gaping, just for a moment, Ed replaced his phone on the bedside and stared at the open floor. When he stared at his father, and Scarlet, it was something to behold.

"So these things hate us just for being human?"

"No", Captain Blue tapped his knee and used a loudness in his voice. "They don't distinguish between races, only the content of the character, as your man Luther King used to say".

It was striking -Adam now used a very bold voice to answer his son's questions. It was like Charlton Heston in the first twenty minutes of Planet of the Apes. Fatalism brings you self-confidence. But even then, fate can throw a curve-ball to knock you unconscious, sending you to the madhouse, and then the desert, and then finally a blood-stained hand reaching for the doomsday bomb. And what questions Ed had. Sensible questions. How long have the Mysterons been here? How many are there? Is the government aware of Spectrum? Does Mam know about any of this? Aren't there any good Mysterons? Can they control you even if you've got a strong mind? How do we fight them?

To his chagrin, Scarlet realised he couldn't answer as many of these questions as he'd like.

Conrad stared sadly at Destiny's beautiful shoulders as she led him through the base of the control tower. To begin with, there'd been a conception in his mind of just a few secret service types embedded within a far larger number of gypsies. Now he wondered if there were any gypsies at all. The two or three rooms that fitted neatly into the stem of the building had been entirely cleared by the previous owners, and nothing except bare furniture now filled the space. No gypsy tat; not even any ordinary-person tat. A few people sat around, angled as if they were having conversations while remaining mostly silent, and glancing at the more-than-modest TV. Unity Rangers a goal up, though that didn't make it any less of a fever dream for the fans. The characters looking on all seemed to be wearing articles of clothing with an interesting flourish of colour. One man had a magenta T-shirt under an Ermenegildo Zegna jacket, and the spirit of eighties regression just letting it go. Another man wore a tight puce baseball cap, while his friend wore dark purple braces attached to his purple-khaki trousers.

At the kernel of the tower was a steel ladder to the upper floor, alongside a small gate for reach forklifts. Destiny said, "The ladder makes it feel like a tree house".

Said Conrad, "You're a girl. Are you sure you're allowed to go up?"

She led the way through a small anteroom made hexagonal by banks of old-fashioned computers, disused for decades. Beyond was a mighty conference table. A man in an ochre biker jacket and another in a dour green shirt stood up and took their leave as Destiny and Conrad entered. Leaving only a man of bright white hair, crisp white shirt, piercing gaze. All the James Bonds rolled into one.

"Conrad Turner, my new BFF -this is Colonel White".

Conrad felt the cool evening air around his arm as he prepared to shake hands. That wasn't going to happen, though. The man rose, his stern gaze giving magnetic pulses, en toe a sense of acceptance, after a fashion. It was probable that, as a very distinguished fifty year-old, White had no understanding of schoolgirl text abbreviations, especially not 'BFF'. With his greeting to Conrad, he spoke as a textbook statement.

"You helped deliver Destiny from that very vulgar man, who was foolish enough to pursue her. Mr Turner, you have my thanks. Sit down".

Conrad witnessed in the corner of his eye Destiny moving away, back down the ladder. He now felt disinterested in the man Colonel White.

"I was just about to have an evening coffee. Will you join me?"

The Colonel moved his bolt-like body to a set of shelves, flat-pack skinniness offset by clean white surfaces. He measured out spoonfuls of coffee with clockwork precision. His eyes and the set of his mouth continued to look stern.

"I tend to buy Altair Rich Signature, where possible. In supermarkets where it's not favoured, I simply buy the richest and most expensive, which is usually Hawthorne's Special Blend. It works out well, because both brands are processed in Britain".

Conrad wondered about what was to come. While his dad would have been able to have a connoisseur-level conversation about coffee, it was far beyond his ken. He said simply, "Strong, black coffee is a good ally".

The stern manner of Colonel White held. "I sometimes think of being an old man, slow and decrepit, and how reassuring it is that I'll still be able to drink a cup of coffee and get a kick".

On a small table set against one of the window-walls, the illuminated kettle thundered away and passed through the colours of the rainbow at delirious speed. Against the countryside dusk beyond, it looked to be nutshell of all human excitement. Coffees made, the two men sat several places apart across the Arthurian table. Conrad stared, just for a second or two, at the disconnected air-driver which sat between them. He hadn't seen one since he was a child: there'd been a transformer factory in the next street along from his house, and in the summer they left the mighty bay doors open, allowing passers-by a good look at the assembly line. Long sequences of air-drivers, buzzing away like vicious wasps; he'd always wanted a go.

"You're a friend of Destiny's? We should be grateful you just happened to be there to help her".

"I'd do anything for Destiny. But beyond that, I did it on a whim. Perhaps I just like trouble?"

Said the Colonel, "You're underestimating your value. I'd like to thank you".

He slid a bulging envelope towards Conrad, who had to reach a little to take it. Still with his arm outstretched, however, the brown paper was slithered open to reveal an inch-thick bundle of twenty-pound notes.

Conrad withdrew his hand, leaving the envelope to shrug its despondency between them. Slowly, he began to pepper the Colonel with stern little looks of his own. "Do you know what Destiny has to do for her job?"

"Yes", spoken with barely a fraction of regret.

Conrad looked at the large, blank space of the table top, simply letting his anger ebb.

"I don't think you do. If you did, you'd know she deserves this money far more than me".

"You're a noble man", said Colonel White, with genuine awe.

Except Conrad was in hell. "I am one of the worst men you could think of".

Evidently, this was a turning point. White seemed spurred; he leaned back as his hawk-like gaze turned introspective. At times, he looked out at the pitch-black airfield, all the great nebulas of darkness.

"In this organisation, each and every one of us has a personal reason for carrying out our mission. No one works for money. Destiny, like all of the other Angels, considers herself a soldier. And I assure you, her mission is of the utmost importance".

"'Other' angels?", Conrad probed.

The Colonel rested a forearm on the table surface. "Are you falling in love with Destiny?"

Conrad gave a smile of dark, twisted rage. "I'm not in love with anyone. I'm not struggling to get on the property ladder. I'm not fund-raising for Help the Heroes. I'm not fat, I don't wear shorts and I don't watch the X-factor".

Meanwhile, the man White was forthright and nothing else. "The truth behind Destiny's particular mission is to help uncover the very ingrained corruption at Weltsbury County Council. She started her undercover call-girl work on Bathory Road, directly outside the main offices. We'd received intelligence that a high ranking Council executive, who we believe to be compromised, was susceptible to beautiful prostitutes. And sure enough, she's fallen into his orbit. Through Destiny we have the means to observe him and gather information about his corruption. But Oliver MacDougal is only the start. We believe that several of the Council department heads are working to similarly dark agendas. Even those who aren't directly in the thrall of this duplicity are influenced by them, misdirected, encouraged to grow feckless and lazy".

Slate-faced, Conrad placed both hands around his coffee, otherwise remaining absolutely still. "Colonel, you said she has her own reasons for doing this. But no one ever hated a county council so much that they were willing to work as a prostitute".

"Mr Turner, I promise you; we have all been fighting this war a very long time, and Destiny does indeed have her own good reasons for wanting to see the Council brought low. But this is something she will have to choose to tell you herself. I won't betray her confidence".

Conrad regarded the man, knowing his angry, exhausted eyes must look like they were forged in blackest hell. The most obvious explanation, he decided, was that Destiny had once been raped by some vile Council official, and now she was using sex as a kind of ironic weapon, or poetic justice. Considering this, his face became increasingly stony and immovable. Inside, the wailing was unbearable.

"I like that coffee", he said abruptly, "that comes in the black tin; it costs a tenner, which is strange, because the tin looks so cheaply-made".

The Colonel's eyes twinkled. He was appreciative of the sport. "That sounds like Beatty's. An American company, I believe".

Conrad took a long sip, all the while staring at the imperious Spectrum chief. Neither of them shrank back in the least. "Due to the secretive nature of our work, I hope you'll appreciate the need to monitor all electronic communication which goes on in around this base. All the same, I am very sorry about your father".

Conrad wondered, "Are you?"

Against the luxuriously cleaned windows, every scrap of colour and brightness was reflected magnificently in the black. The Colonel raised his steel mug slightly but did not drink.

"I was away, when my father died", he said.

"But I'm sure", Conrad moved his mouth doggedly, "your sister didn't then ring you up to call you a selfish, pathetic b-".

"Actually, the death of my father did cause quite a bit of despondency between my brother and I", said the Colonel.

Nosey and bored both at once, "And did you ever make up?"

"That's hard to say", Colonel slipped the coffee into his jaw, and was thoughtful. "What did your father do for a living, Mr Turner?"

Conrad shrugged. "He started off selling coal in a little van. Then, when coal went out of favour, he delivered coal and firewood, to petrol stations, through an agency. As he got older, he was an odd-job man in an alarm clock factory. What did your dad do?"

"In the war, he flew a Lancaster over Hamburg and Dresden, though I know very little about that. Throughout the fifties, sixties and seventies, he was head groundskeeper at the Cydonia Estate near Cirenwald".

"Working among trees, beneath the great open sky. Very satisfying", was Conrad's vague non-sequitur; and so the sinister game resumed.

"What do you do for a living, Mr Turner, if I may ask?"

Conrad elected to ignore this; no doubt this shadowy secret society of White's had already started to sieve through his history. Why give him extra info? Why do anything except get to the heart of the matter?

"I like Destiny. I think I'd see her out of this ugly business".

"Of course", said White. "One day, I can assure you, she will be".

Conrad looked billigerent. "But I'd see her out of it now".

Far from being intimidated, the Colonel stood up and moved to one of the far walls. He was a lean man, late fifties notwithstanding. Conrad excitedly tracked his course alongside the panoramic windows -excited by the thought that he might be about to be shot in the head. Instead, White came to a stop by a metal screen. He opened it to reveal a vast chart plotting the hierarchy of Weltsbury County Council, much the sort of thing seen in crime procedural dramas when the authorities are trying to understand the inner-workings of the mafia. At the very top was a photograph of Dr Reith Korinson, though directly alongside was the local MP, adulterer and unrepentant fox-hunter James Blanco. Set aside from the main concourse there was also a line of local councillors, with coloured threads-of-influence leading out to the main diagram. He guessed, the more coloured threads from each face, the worse a busy-body they were.

"This is what we have to resolve. You see the magnitude? Each worker for Weltsbury County Council has to be screened, until we find the exact level of corruption and culpability for each employee".

Sitting like a Karnak Temple guard, sitting like a haunted child getting his balls back, Conrad could only look on. It was a hell of an imposing sight. Moving towards the hellish spider's web, he was faintly reassured to see that, while it spread outwards to encompass the various offshoots of the Elderly Home Care dept., it stopped just short of implicating the three nurses who'd cared for his dad. Presumably they'd been agency workers. Then, looking back to the top, retracing his gaze through the intricate maze, he regarded the fat, fake-simpering eyes of Reith Korinson and his corporate ilk. He noted: beside a lot of the department-head photos was a white sphere dawbed in correction fluid. Over all, the level of intricacy in the chart, the weird symbols and cross-referencing, was mind-boggling.

Thinking. "What do the circles represent?"

Said Colonel White, "These are the council workers we're particularly suspicious about".

Frowning deeply now; at least a dozen of the photos also had gold 'angel' markers, little foil figures which had originally come from a confetti tin. He thought he could probably guess what they represented. He glared hatefully at the stupid male faces they accompanied.

Due to the large number of 'Spectrum' operatives, explained White, there were very few vacant quarters left on the base. Still, there was one premium spot that was all his, if he wanted it. Once again, it was Destiny who led his way through the huts and the old barracks.

A moonless night, a terrible canopy of clouds which blended with the lower atmosphere, and nightfall had radically changed the landscape. Before, psychically, the lay of Cloud Base was influenced by the sharp curve of the three-hundred-yards-distant Herchill Ridge. Now it seemed overly flat and very enclosed. As for Destiny, she was the most alluring woman he'd ever met, but desperately under attack for it in recompense.

Trying to be solemn rather than casual, and finding small talk springing into your mouth regardless. That's the look, that's the look. "I can't remember the last time I wore a suit jacket", confided Conrad, about the black business coat which the Colonel had gifted him to protect from the night chill. "I look like an actor in one of those Shakespeare plays they re-set in the modern world".

Beguilingly, Destiny chose to walk slower and slower, the better to chat. "I'd keep it, if I were you. It suits you anyway, but -between you and me, Colonel White has all his men wear a certain colour. It's so he can identify them. He has prosopagnosia, which is a neurological thing that stops him recognising faces".

Conrad lowered his temples into a squinting scowl, pitch-darkness notwithstanding. "And yet, I saw other women back there who were wearing just -casual clothes. They didn't seem colour-coded. White-and-black. Bog-standard brown. How does he tell them apart? Or are the women not as important to his spycraft as the men?"

"The other Angels?", asked Destiny. "He tells us apart by our tits".

Conrad gritted his teeth.

"That was a joke", she explained. She indicated her collar, "We have to wear this certain 'S' brooch, up by our collars. I'm white. Rhapsody is yellow. Harmony is green. Symphony, red".

"Destiny, white", intoned Conrad, as if to memorise it, as if it was the only one that mattered. In the corner of his eye, he watched the tiny reflex movement of her mouth. "How come the 'Angels' all have names that end in 'y'? Are you still not telling me your real name?"

She was affronted by this, he was pleased to see.

"I was the first 'Angel' to join. Colonel White gave the others similarly 'evocative' names to honour me".

"He's quite a character, Colonel White", said Conrad, not bothering to hide his contempt.

Destiny laughed and shook her head. "Wait until you meet Captain Ochre".

"Mental?"

Destiny considered this, walking slower as they neared their destination. "It's like he's just -the textbook example of really deep, high-density, point-of-no-return craziness. You're lucky if you can even understand what he's saying. But he's actually not crazy, or even confused".

Conrad lilted his eyes between Destiny's beautiful shoulders and the black horizon. "How", he wondered, "can someone be a textbook example of craziness, but not be?"

"He's an occultist", she shrugged, and revealed no more.

They arrived at the Fire Control Tower. The Colonel had briefly explained how they'd originally used it for storing equipment, that presently it overflowed with anything and everything. All the same, he promised that on the top level there was a comfortable enough living space, with electricity looped in on demand. Certainly it was a place which had been overrun by joker or hippy civilians: on the tiny balcony halfway up, a stuffed zebra looked on in consternation. Destiny undid the padlock and led the way into a dense stairwell. Conrad supposed it had to be so tight in order for the firefighters to learn how to manhandle their equipment in the most oppressive settings. He didn't have a problem with it. He didn't have a problem with any of it, really. She told him that if he thought there was a smell of urine, it actually wasn't urine, but half a dozen rubber bay-door flaps which had been rolled up and stowed in the bottom-most alcove. Sure enough, Conrad sniffed the rubber and his fears were allayed.

They started up the stairs, past collapsible tables and flimsy boxes containing striplights, spent striplights, outdated striplights. There was a narrow, meshed window which ran vertically through the zig-zagging stairs, always letting in a surprising amount of moonlight. He steered clear of an oversized presentation screen, which wasn't easy; some of the steps were murderously narrow. Finally, mission accomplished, squeezing past a giant, cylindrical speaker, they made their way into the top room. It was cluttered, but with two cots taking centre stage and given plenty of clearance around the edges. The two little windows were very high, yet somehow the place managed to feel homely. There was no way you could see the horizon -but still you could feel it, picture it in your mind with little or no effort.

He unrolled the sleeping bag. On the cot not three feet away, Destiny followed suit with a rough old duvet. Conrad scowled even while his heart leapt.

"I'll sleep on this one", he said.

"Hustled. That's the one that's haunted".

He stood back and stared as she snaked her hair into a pony-tail, and stripped to her smalls.

"Are you to be my jailer?"

"Maybe I am".

"I won't desert, not until we've talked some more in the morning. And that's my word".

"Are you a man of your word?"

"Go, Destiny. I'm sure you have a more comfortable bed than this, somewhere".

She scrutinised him, even as she slipped beneath the duvet. He sighed and, removing everything except his Marvel Heroes boxers, climbed into his own cot, facing her unrepentantly.

"I like it here. In heatwaves, it's cool, because of the amount of stone and open space, I suppose. Last summer, I came up here and wrote a novel".

"What was the novel about?"

"Come on, there's nothing more shallow than people who talk about their novels".

"I disagree, but very well".

"Conrad, I'm sorry about your dad. You should have told me".

"Why does everyone adopt that funny tone about my dad? He'd been on the way out for a long time, and then he died. I feel about the saddest I've ever been, but there's no point being -reverential about it. People die. We have to keep it bottled up inside, because that's the way of the world".

"I'm sorry either way".

"It's me that should apologise to you, for a far worse crime than baiting bereavement".

"What crime?"

"You know what crime. When I first looked at you, I could see-"

"Tell me, 'Captain Black'".

"I could see that - you were one of us. And yet if I'd had my wicked way, you'd have just been some -"

"Prostitute? You're talking about the nature of all sexual desire. Why should you apologise for that? Anyway, you were knee-deep in stress and grief".

"So we have a clean slate?"

"We were both thinking, anyway. No one ever has good sex while they're thinking".

"Since it's poking-around season; your mum and dad, are they still alive?"

"They're not. My dad died in 1990, at no-age. My mum, in 1999, at no-age".

"Brothers or sisters?"

"My brother Brad lives in the midlands, he's fifteen years older than me, and an exec for Skyform, the model plane company".

"'Brad'. You don't get that so much as a first name nowadays".

"You didn't then, either. It's the nearest anglicized name we could get to his Slovak name, 'Zradca'. My mum was Slovakian. She got to choose Brad's name. My dad, who was English, got to choose mine".

"'Zradca' I like, it sounds distinguished. But 'Destiny' I like even better".

"Do you mind this? If we talk until we fall asleep?"

"Go ahead. As for me, that old joker White plied me with coffee".

"I love my sleep. You go to sleep, and you dream, and wake up feeling enriched, even though it's utterly against the odds and you never know how it works".

"Do you really find it relaxing up here?"

"Yes, except sometimes I feel like Repunzel".

"Repunzel. I remember the story. As dark as you like".

"And I've been known to wear my hair in a ponytail".

"Let's discuss your father, what did he do for a living?"

"Well. He ran his own plant hire company, for years and years. He rented, maintained and transported all these big diggers and JCBs, all by himself. Then, when that business fell through, he went to work for Brad. At that time, Brad was just a rep. He'd spend a lot of the time making-up and painting these beautiful little plane kits, and then Dad would drive him across the country to whatever shop or tradeshow he had an appointment with. We got quite a big bonus if they agreed to get supplied by us. Plus, Skyform had all their factories in this country, so it was good news for everyone".

"As a boy, I remember having Skyform kits, one or two. I remember I had a big box full of the paints. Actual 'Skyform' paints".

"Yeah. It was a big operation. Some time around the early nineties, Brad got sick with eosinophils menigitus. While he was laid up and too delirious to do anything, I made up some of the kits so Dad and I could continue repping. I made this twenty inch Lockheed Interceptor. I'd never concentrated so hard on anything in my life. It was beautiful and, because it was a test plane, I got to paint it this brilliant white colour".

"Was the man in the shop impressed? Did you get Skyform a contract?"

"We did".

"And Brad recovered?"

"Yeah, he did".

"Destiny -why? Why are you mixed up in this sorry business with the council?"

"Please don't ask me to explain. I've got my reasons, and they're good reasons".

"I'm not disputing that. But when it's all done, you might not have anything left".

"I'll be free, in my mind".

"You deserve better than this stupid spy game".

"We all do".

"O.K, O.K-"

"O.K?"

"At least tell me what your novel is about".

"You mean as a compromise?"

"As a compromise".

"- I think you'd have to call it science-fiction, though I don't think of it that way. It takes place in the present day. All of a sudden, a colossal image appears in the sky above Unity City. It's translucent, but you can still make it out; it's hundreds of feet tall. A man. Who's just hung himself. The rope trails away into the heavens. The vision of this anonymous man -just hanging there, with his slack jaw on his chest. Eyes: screwed shut but at peace. The government suspects it's a hologram, maybe cast by Al Queda as propaganda, though no one can figure out the trajectory of the light. Thousands of people pore across the landscape, but no one can find any projectors. An elite Air Force pilot-"

"What's his name?"

"Nathan Russell. He's ordered to take this big old mesoscale plane, crewed by scientists, up inside the hanging man, so they can take magnetic readings and the like. The plane has to take a slow reconnoitre through the arms and chest -but no sooner does Russell take them in, than the jumbo suffers a massive power loss and plummets down into the Unity Channel. Russell and a few of the scientists bail, and miraculously survive.

"He goes through this tortuous debriefing in a secret government base, before being released. He's shaken, terribly beleaguered, and just like everyone else, he thinks he could be losing his mind. No one is any the wiser about what the hologram -or ghost, or vision -could be. But his problems are only just starting. He arrives home to find that his twenty-year-old daughter has run away to join a religious cult, which uses the hanging man as a devotional figurehead. A few days in-"

"What's the daughter's name?"

"Beatrice. It's Beatrice. Eventually he gets this brief, hypnotic phone call from her, which he just manages to trace thanks to a stolen Air Force wire. Wales. He races across the really devastated landscape, devastated by all the car-crashes from where people have stared up at the hanging man, all the mass-suicide-ravaged suburbs where people have taken the hint-

"And he arrives at the cult's HQ, to find them all gone. Gone away, who knows where? The only person there is an ex cult member who's having her doubts. She tries to help Russell find clues. Along the way they fall in love. They drive, they're driving -"

It had finally happened. Destiny's eyes blinked, her mouth pulsed and went numb; the pillow took the whole of her weight. Only her breathing retained any of the previous excitement, and Conrad studied it carefully for signs that she might wake again. She did not. He crept out of the sleeping bag and raised the duvet to fit more securely around her shoulders. Then he retired to his own cot. His heart was overwhelmed. It swelled, it broke a little, it held steady. Thinking. The weirdness and the horror are fine; it's the sheer idiosyncrasy of the sadness that gets you. What's more, the sadness was huge, un-quantifiable, and if their minds were groping over barely a tenth of the whole thing, he'd be surprised. Bailing a flooded ship, using a thimble. A thimble-full here, a cathartic novel about a giant ghost. A thimble-full there, little memories of your dead dad. Who even knew what using a bucket might accomplish?

The summer riots of 2014 happened a little differently than usual, and surprised everyone. For one thing, they arrived earlier. They didn't coincide with the school holidays at all. The weather was terrible, also, causing all the hoodies in sight to be cast as zombies washed ashore from a shipwreck, fresh and energised for the slaughter. Perhaps the biggest difference, from Scarlet's point of view, was the absence of guile. The first three seasons of rioters exercised in shock-and-awe; they used it to their advantage. The rioters of 2014 didn't think at all; they were an unrelenting force, addicted to consumer goods as zombies want flesh.

From the back-street dropping-off point, the police officers limbered up through top-heavy Victorian avenues. Banks of jagged architecture turned blue and grey by the damp, there to hide the little trail of kevlar-black knights. Often, from one of the super-thin apartments symbiotically surrounding the pubs and offices, ordinary city-dwellers loitered in alcoves looking scared. Scared but not stupid; Scarlet felt like handing them armour, shields, batons, and deputising them en masse. All it takes to stop evil prevailing is for a few good men to be scared-but-not-stupid. In the meantime, though. A moustached officer on horseback looked so much larger than the bus-stop billboards he jogged beside. Looking worriedly around the corner. It was an odd area of the city in that the arterial roads got smaller just before they banged against the main shopping ring. Scarlet's eyes hit upon the first section of pedestrian-only paving stones and immediately saw a slag's spidery legs skipping forward to aggravate the window-smashers. Non-riot-suited constables hurried back into the silent streets beyond. Speaking hurriedly into squawk-boxes, some sergeants were also shielding themselves to such a degree it looked like they were cowering. Society waits while the affected-patois yelling wafts upwards among the white girders, the grubby anti-pigeon nets, always slightly wrong. Remember when we only had pigeons to hate? A brave hippy woman stood in the street beside the model shop and filmed the rioters moving among the shops, swelling, skipping, happily jogging along, always rejoicing in the fact that they were scum incarnate. The hippy woman, and behind her, hanging from an office window, a huge TV camera that looked like a bazooka. A camera by itself, though. Peter O'Hanraha-hanrahan talking us to orgasm in Afghanistan, and the chairman of the Truth About Hillsborough campaign: 'It was the worst human rights abuse of the twentieth century'. Yes, definitely worse than Austwitz. Grow up. Meanwhile, the hippy woman and the rest, knowing that, psychically, it's a sure sign of the End of the World when everyone is looking in the same direction in a city the size of Unity.

Some of the officers anticipated the order to form a line. Others saw fit to toy with their visors and try to pull angry faces. Captain Scarlet: striding forward and swinging his baton in a motion which, while lazy, was no less adversarial, and you know it in your guts. Look at that guy over there clutching his shield and thinking about his wife. Scarlet thought only of the murder of PC Blakelock in 1986, and that was enough. He shut off the helmet intercom and turned on his own MP3, quickly, before he could hear Sergeant Anderson's usual lament, 'He's gone off on his own again'. The Chemical Brothers: Surrender. It was the same soundtrack he'd used for the 2013 riots; it worked well. He'd been toying with the idea of trying out the Daft Punk Tron album, but this would now have to wait for the 2015 riots. Assuming he survived. Because.

Fat-fisty on the horizon at ten yards; noted. Ugly-skeleton yob, skank girlfriend, concrete-mouthed yokel about to jab a frontage with a wheely-bin axel. Skank girlfriend distracted, by coincidence, allowing Scarlet to damage her spine, swing her into and neutralise the ugly skeleton for five. Five given; shattering concrete-mouth's knee with the side of his boot, returning to finish ugly skeleton. Even uglier when broken. Now comes fat-fisty, his fat eyes co-ordinating his giant fists like helium balloons. It was as simple as going sideways, though -Scarlet making himself small and jabbing. He would have felt dishonourable using his baton, here. The problem: it was strapped to his wrist. He artfully made a fist around the handle and drove it sideways into the monk-style mouth. The sea at night. Here, as rioters. Fat-fisty's neighbours, on neighbourhood watch, converged on Scarlet from a couple of different angles. A proper, old-fashioned piece of scum pounded him in the side, where he was largely unprotected. Another one kneed him in the same vicinity, this time on the kevlar, still it astonished him how much it hurt. Whispering instinct, Spider-sense, the sensation of their pawing scum fists told him he had no clearance to swing back at them. He made fluid motions towards all the ants that were playing in the shattered glass. With a child-like spontaneity, a broken bottle was thrown and caught him in the neck. This was appreciated: he took a deep dab of blood and smeared it on the operations camera that was sewn into his chest-piece. Then, the shield; he took a stride, jolted it sideways and followed the motion of a skinny brother who was tip-toeing to the left. It caught under the jaw, and there was the sensation of rending muscle. Always there'd been the question of whether he might prefer the circular shields that Greek rozzers used for their riots. Maybe, but there was something to be said for the sort of thin, wide edge which could be scuffed into your enemy's face. Going low and turning twenty degrees brought him into contact with the King Joffrey / Vicky Pollard experiment, the head of a dozen scum children. They flailed their arms like nonchalant apes, expecting him to use his shield as a weapon again. Lightning, twice. Different lightning. He didn't use the shield and he didn't make the flourishing movement they expected. Instead, a single jarring step to connect the tip of his baton with Joffrey's teeth, and then the shield, into his mate's abdomen. It was pretty overconfident to expect to swing the baton a second time and have it connect with one of the further children. Indeed, he tried it and it came to nothing, the cluster merely yelling in fear and spitting on him. A child -how did he know it was another child?- pounded his spine with what felt like a two-by-four skirting board. Spinal wounds are vicious, but slow to effect you, meaning you can afford to ignore them in the heat of the moment. Ignored, in favour of the hood-cave-headed skeleton who was hovering, planning to punch him around the throat, the jaw, deep into unconsciousness. The blow was like a whirlwind, but he largely managed to deflect it, giving way to the gambit of an overconfident Batman punch which felled his attacker. A hoodie ghost hung back and shouted abuse. Scarlet thought of the kid who'd pounded him in the spine. Turning slightly, the boy was already away on his heels. Fresh hell; at least a dozen hoodie chimps danced around barely ten feet away, planning some kind of virulent torture. Well. The shouting was fierce. Scarlet's adrenalized breathing was soothing. He edged out like a fencer, missing a middle-aged c- by miles and knowing that his extended arm was horribly vulnerable to whoever might be rushing in on the left. A blur. He made his shield into a kind of low-shed-roof to whack the monster on his forehead. And it whacked. His heartbeat skipped; he allowed himself a second to check the other side. A sea of hoodies was converging. The original cluster on the left, also, used the opportunity of close-range and spilt attention to rush him. Fists to the abdomen, the sides-of-fists to whack and jostle his helmet. Then -a weird kind of consensus to focus all their attention on his shoulders, drive him to his knees, whatever. It was a strange sensation to have at least a dozen people trying to tear him apart. But stranger was the strength he found to drive them off. Clearance, a boot to Lee Nelson's Well Good Balls. Angrily hitting the keys of an old keyboard, and their mouths getting splintered, bruised, mockingly kissed as the springiness runs down. Meanwhile: as a ten year old boy, he's so engrossed making a collage out of old mags that he takes the thing to bed with him, continues cutting out right to the point where he falls asleep. A little after midnight, he rolls over and gets an inch of nail scissor embedded in his spine. How to tell mum? Perhaps it was just someone hitting him on the same spot as before. That was optimistic: it felt as though all his vertebrae were actually falling out. As he thrust forward to sandwich an awkward-looking student, stepped out to beat a minor window-smasher. His friend had a spray paint can hanging loosely in his grasp. It was a simple matter to knock his jaw skyward, punch the joint of his arm, wield the spray and take it to his eyes. Scarlet paint irony. A Northern woman shrieked continuously. Why are so many of them always Northern, always Cockney? From the same direction, skull-vein skuzzmen made motions of violently treading water, trying to punch him whenever they got the chance. Rule of thumb said to return the effort. Most of them received just one violent impact and then ran away. Always there was a tide of springy legs, however. Some jumping like Mohammad Ali, some simply sidling like an over-excited goalkeeper. A boy with a smooth, malformed face swung his fists in the most vicious way, ultimately useless as Scarlet's shield and baton worked their magic around his upper torso. Vincent Cassell One, Vincent Cassell Two, Three -they all ran away, slipping over in panic in a way that was reassuring. In fact -he looked around as best he could to see that this first arena was almost clear. His fellows had formed a line around the mouth of the square, and it was good enough. Near the space-age awning of a clothes shop, a tall, fat constable was having a panic attack. Scarlet removed his shield and placed it next to the man's own, with the understanding he should keep it from getting nicked by Ali G, panic attack or no. He advanced; his spine screeched in pain and threatened to seize up. The wound to his neck was no less dramatic. Limbering up helped, just a bit. In the dirt of a boxed, ornamental flower bed, he saw something illuminated; an I-pad Zenith. He slipped it into his carry-pouch as war booty, planning to give it to Ed as a surprise. Near a curve in the shopping ring, the muted light of upper-story ghost towns picked out a terrible scene, with a scattering of highly energised slag children making a final big push to break into Marshall's. Scarlet had always liked Marshall's. He knew Adam disliked them very much, subscribing to David Icke's view that, if you have a multinational company that owns more than two high street chains, it creates a false economy -but Scarlet didn't care about that. All he knew was that, in Marshall's, he liked the way everything was hung out on old-fashioned pegs. And a shop is a shop. Revenue is revenue. Would all sane people prefer a communist idyll? Yes, but that's never going to happen. Poor Marshall's. His baleful eyes scanned across the fluorescent '80 Percent Off!' posters which filled most of the windows. Scum rat children were bodily gouging at the rupture in the glass, so warped it looked like frost. He became enraged. Moving into the fray, he was an unthinking machine. Hauling the monsters away that were still on the outside; the one on the threshold, whacking about the shoulders, even as he fell and went for Scarlet's crotch with the sole of his foot. Sour face a picture as Scarlet walked directly over him, placing his whole weight at the top of his emaciated ribs. At any rate, the handsome shop dummies were impressed. The pyjama-hoodied boy who was actually in the window display stooped down in subservience. "Hold on, mate, I just work here". Scarlet almost smiled, but then frowned and kicked him up the arse as he sprang from the smashed window. Intuition borne from the displacement of action sequences in horror films told him that the silent, midnight-coloured shopfloor was obviously concealing monsters. By now, he was also fully aware that his helmet was more of a hindrance than a help. He took it off, hid it under a kick-plate and prepared to move out among the silent racks. Too late did he look back along the window walkway. An incredibly wild-looking girl sprinted towards him, whipped him clear with her hands and stamped on his ankle. Excruciating pain, plus the terrible clenched feeling, made it impossible to believe it wasn't broken. Pearl Harbour was away, and he let her go. Empty-handed if that's any consolation. A dozen more black feral shapes bounded back towards the window from the centre of the shop. Scarlet could hardly give chase, but launched himself, caught a boy who looked like a witch and bashed his head repeatedly on the ground until he was unconscious. He thought about killing him in cold blood, but eventually this idea got lazy, lazy, lazy as he pulled his torso up and around to sit brooding. Outside, the yelling of a big-mouth skanks seemed very near compared to the other sounds: things being thrown, huffing-and-puffing limbs, adults rushing forward. Perhaps his fellows were achieving something? But the riots were eternal. The horror. It was just a magnified expression of what most under-thirties in the country were motivated by. Laziness and greed. Stumbling on with the motion of a slo-mo hare, this idea became bolder, and blacker, and deeper, until he just couldn't face it any more. He crawled into the darkness, away from the blue and street-speck-yellow slants which represented the outside world. The roughness of Marshall's cheap carpet felt good on his de-gloved hands. He felt he could have crawled forever, and indeed it was a big old jungle -of streaky electrical blisters and swank display cabinets. At the back of the shop, by a mysterious little twist of incremental partitions, he found a door which led to a tiny corridor. One option was a broad, squeaking-echo stairway. The other was a fire door leading to some mind-bending unknown country of alleyways. He chose the fire door. In doing so, the alarm was triggered, though he couldn't care less. The world beyond was a grit-textured alleyway presided by small pedestrian slopes, then bigger slopes to service the big bay doors. It seemed a good option to try and squeeze through the railing, not least because it would mean less twisting for his spine and less pressure on his (surely shattered) ankle. He made it, reference the cramped motions of climbing into a scalding bath. Thinking nothing of the five-six inch discrepancy between the smaller and the bigger slope; it would be painful and jarring, but this was all part of the victory. Down the slope and onto the concrete. It had never occurred to him that there might be different gradations of concrete; this was obviously the hardest you could get, dense like quarry rock. It felt like making a new friend. He wondered if it was shock that felled him. From concrete to asphalt, then reposing beside a clamped bollard. Like a panda. Good; think of it that way. Pandas, with their massive shoulders, can never look forlorn. On your feet, anyway. Find out the dazzling extent of the damage; for one thing, he hated coppers who, after riots, went meekly to the paramedics like ordinary members of the public. It was like actually catching an old man reading a copy of 'Saga'. Pulling back up to his full height, his bravery was rewarded, at least in terms of not finding himself crippled. Tingling heat filled every crevice of every vertebrae in his spine, while the neck wound made his head spin violently. No danger of fainting, dramatic all the same.

The fact that his legs took him forward, broken ankle or no and without much conscious hullabaloo -this was also an indication that his beating had not been as severe as first thought. Down the broad alley to an interlocking series of offices that seemed like a little bridge. All of it was curiously free of litter. Joe Slag Public must not often come this way. All Scarlet found, before he headed back out into the dim city lanes was -weirdly- one half of a red and black checkers board. He'd never played the game himself; there was the impression it was insanely boring.

Sound-wise, the riots still existed, but with the screaming and shouting muted, overpowered by the smashing of bottles, the screeching of throwable-size objects being dragged around. There was a silence which extended outwards, and leant itself tenderly to the swank-bayside bar district. And all Scarlet wanted to do, consciously, was walk beneath the street lights, look briefly at the high-quality pub signs. The boats. The fine, gloss railings connecting stiffly with bulky cobbles. Signs of civilisation that couldn't be worn away.

He gaped, and shook. Alongside the thick-thin-thick river which skirted the edge of Unity, his squawk-box came to life with an irate sergeant. Scarlet smiled a little; pulled it clear from his vest, threw it over the side into the mud flaps. His ankle stopped hurting, while the limping remained as a kind of jittery over-caution. No one was around for as far as the eye could see. Perhaps there was illumination in a few of the tower blocks. If there was, it was subtle and guarded, and this was an urban God he could happily kneel before. Old bangers made powerful revs, still nothing that would alarm a trained city-dweller.

He was returning to life, he fancied. Small yellow windows of wine bars and pubs seemed inviting almost, a home to powerful music that was much too loud, but sane, at least. Inevitably, roughness invaded the concrete levels near St. Andrew's in the form of a pub that was playing the most s-ty dance music, and assailed by shouting slags. Or maybe -as Scarlet drew near, it wasn't 'assailed' after all. The number of slags was quantifiable. He saw two male teenage c-ts drunkenly shouting the odds at each other. A teenage girl lay flat on the floor, dangerously drunk and almost unconscious. She'd obviously started the evening accompanying the male slags; in all likelihood, it was her they were fighting over. Observing all this from a picnic table set in the shadowless level beside the pub door, an elderly slag woman, a Northern-faced man and a man who looked exactly like Cotton Hill, size and all. To top it all off, an off-duty barman came to hang in the doorway now and then, laughing heartily at the ridiculous commotion.

Scarlet stood over the girl and gritted his teeth. As well as being dangerously drunk, she wore the sluttiest kind of dress, which must be freezing, even encased in the rib-length woollen coat. It was the kind of ensemble that was promoted by Jesse Jay, and the Pussy Cat Dolls, and Rihanna. The kind that didn't actually suit anyone, least of all Jesse Jay, the Pussy Cat Dolls or Rihanna. The kind that automatically makes you look like the pastiche of a dizzy whore from a Punisher comic in 1989. Jesse Jay, the Pussy Dolls. Rihanna. Her eyes flickered over him, small and squinty, reminding him of his mother's, after she'd had her stroke. God knew if she even recognised him as a police man. A riot suit, sans shield and helmet, just looked like some incredibly boring crash test dummy. It can't have helped that, without the helmet, his brilliant scarlet orthopaedics vest showed at his extremities like a sixties cosmonaut's undershirt. God knew. He seized her shoulder, took a hand and pulled her to her feet. It was fairly easy to haul her onto the vacant picnic table, fold her numb little body so she was leaning forward ever-so-slightly. Why not; the memories of when Ed had his first beer that enjoyable Christmas night. Scarlet had to help him to bed. His weak body, balsa wood light.

"Stay in that position. If you need to be sick, don't fight it. Everything's going to be OK".

The girl tried to say, "Don't touch me, you f-ing paedo".

Scarlet smiled sadly. "I'm not a paedo, I'm a police-o".

Despite the throaty shouts of her scrambling friends, which distracted him something fierce, which distracted the gods, he walked to the doorway of the pub and confronted the evil barman.

"Go and get her a cup of cold coffee. One part coffee, two parts water, a handful of sugar".

"We don't have any coffee. We don't sell it, mate", smiled the barman.

Scarlet produced his warrant card, imitated the way cops on TV nonchalantly showed joe public their stars, only here holding it at arms length and rubbing it directly in the man's eyeball.

"Go into one of the back rooms. Get a glass, fill it one part coffee, two parts water, a handful of sugar. Do it now, do it quickly".

"Christ!", said the man, but apparently did as he was told. The table of auld slags looked on and made hushed, awed comments, arching their backs like the family Le Bruja in conference. Incredulous, also.

The multi-layers of concrete in the city beyond had the texture of moonscape. Below them, the thorn-addled bank which led down to the river was dark and beautiful. Scarlet rolled his head. He walked back to the drunken girl, examined her, then walked over to the warring oiks. The way their arrogant eyes hit him felt like being spat on. On the top of the picnic table which they'd abandoned, a cheap little mobile continued to shill out musak from hell.

"Now you've got the f-ing filth to back you up", said Yob A to his yang enemy. To Scarlet he said, "Cops thinking they can come around and sort everything out. Why don't you f- off?"

Scarlet pushed Yob A backwards slightly, taking the centre of his hollow chest with a single palm. With his free hand, he looped Yob B's hand into one of the cuffs, attaching the other end to Yob A. For the first time, the pair seemed motivated to stop pushing each other.

"What are we meant to do like this?", said Yob B. "What's this going to solve, ya f-ing idiot?"

"Kill each other", suggested Scarlet earnestly.

Yob B went from him, swinging his free arm in a vicious little jab. Scarlet dodged, then, considering his revenge quite slowly, pulled the kid's arm straight and swung his fist in, partially dislocating a shoulder. Meanwhile, Yob A didn't even have the personality, the trace schadenfreude, to take satisfaction from his enemy's misfortune.

At this time, the old Northern man spoke up from the craggy contingent. "You've no right to treat them like that".

"I'm sorry, sir?", asked Scarlet mildly.

"I said it's wrong to do that to 'em. They came out here to let off steam, the way all kids do at that age, the way you and I did at that age, and that's how you treat 'em?"

This was amazing. The sense of awe produced by the Northern man's insane opinion caused Scarlet to shrink back, then power forward, smiling crazily. "I think you should open your eyes, sir".

"They are open", said Mr Insane Vox-Pops, "and I'll tell you what's more, we are no different to them".

Yes, that Northern voice was deep and forceful. It also carried an infinitesimal trace of desperation, showing up in his abrupt little breaths, something Scarlet knew he could wage war on.

"Go on, sir. I'm listening".

"At their age, I worked bloody hard in my apprenticeship. In the evenings, I'd go, with my mates, to the youth club, and we'd play some snooker and act silly. Now. The only reason this is 'appening is because there are no apprenticeships and no youth clubs, because people like you show youngsters no respect". He chewed his face, like a Northern stereotype.

Scarlet moved free from the manacled yobs, walked over to Vox-Pops, looming above him like the Devil -something he clearly wasn't expecting. They never think they'll encounter sane people.

"This is a small, stagnant island. Apprenticeships were the last hurrah of colonial grandstanding, Victorian philanthropists standing over smooth-faced twenty-year-olds in starched collars, getting their tackle out and saying, 'go on, lad, touch it, and one day you'll have a cummerbund as fine as mine'. Alright?".

He picked up a glass of alcopop and started to walk back towards the yobs. "But yeah. I agree with you about the youth clubs. Here's their table full of cups of orange squash-"

He poured the drink over Yob A, who gasped and shouted.

"-here's their pinball machine-"

He punched Yob B in the stomach.

"-here's their jukebox with all the latest records by Howard Jones and Bananarama-"

He picked up the musak-spewing phone and forced it into Yob A's mouth.

"-and you know what? As a treat, once a year, they get to go on an orienteering trip to the Brecon Beacons-"

He bodily picked the yobs up and tumbled them over the railing, turning coolly away as they ricocheted down the thorny embankment and into the river.

By now, the evil barman was hovering in the door with the powerful glass of coffee. Scarlet took it with a 'thankyou, chief' and squatted down beside the girl. Perhaps she was slightly more conscious now, or even much more. The movement of her eyes within the tear-stained, puffed-up mascara suggested as much.

"Do you think you're going to be sick soon?"

"No!", sobbed the girl indignantly. She looked at him in fear.

"I'm sorry about your friends, but they were c-s, weren't they? I mean, you had the shortcut to social status right there, and there was about three or four things you imagined you liked about them, but that didn't alter the fact that they were walking sacks of faux-alpha-male pus".

"No", said the girl quietly, just wanting to be left alone now.

"What's your name, then?"

"Jenny Saxby, for f-'s sake".

"'Jenny Saxby'", Scarlet reflected. "I can always tell a fake name, but that's real, isn't it?"

"Yes", Jenny sniffed.

Never dropping his empathetic tone for a second, "What were your little friend's names?"

"Danny Trout and Alfie McBride".

Scarlet pretended to think for a while. He looked away from her, seeing the moon-rock-grey buildings on the other side of the river. "No. That wasn't their real names. Their real names were Generic Teenage Yob A and Generic Teenage Yob B. Isn't that right?"

"I don't know what you want me to say". Too easy to slip into despair, she stared at the ground.

"Tell me their real names. Generic Teenage Yob A and Generic Teenage Yob B".

She sniffed. "Genetic Teenager A and Genetic Teenager B".

God bless her for trying, and near enough.

"Do you need to be sick?"

"Not yet", she breathed.

"I bet you feel sleepy, though, don't you?", he wondered.

"Yeah".

"Thirsty?"

Her ill-focused eyes laughed at him. "I just spent all night in a pub, you idiot".

"I mean thirsty for a real drink", Scarlet frowned. "Liquor dehydrates you, that's why you've got a headache and you feel cacky from head to foot".

He handed her the glass of cold coffee, and she drank, pulling a disgusted face, using her free hand to claw the air, getting it all down nonetheless.

"OK, let's just wait a minute or two. What's your favourite film, Jenny?"

"What-has-that... got to do with you? I mean, you tell me that my friends -"

Scarlet scoured his mind for films he'd seen which might also be enjoyed by teenage girls. "Me? I like The Fast and The Furious. You should see me cruising around looking for car chases".

Jenny shrugged. "Vin Diesel is pretty awesome. He's a good actor. But I still haven't seen the latest one".

"Neither have I. My boy Ed has, and he reckons it's the best. Which is weird, because they usually get s-er as time goes on".

"'Attack the Block'. It's just like the estates round here. You watch that and afterwards everywhere you look there's, like, monsters. You'd be f-ed if there were monsters here".

To which Scarlet, unsympathetic to hoodies until the end of time, felt like saying, 'No, did you see 'Eden Lake'?' -but kept his mouth shut. After a while, he bounced around on his squatted heels. "Jenny, are you ready to shake a leg?"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Are you ready to try and get home?"

Strangely, without guile, she stared up at the deep, black sky, then at him. "Are you going to tell my parents? You're not allowed to because I'm eighteen".

"I won't tell them if you don't want me to", he promised, without knowing why.

"I haven't done anything wrong, because I'm eighteen".

"Miss Saxby, I could easily arrest you for being drunk in a public place. More than that, I could start lecturing you now and not be finished until I've grown Catweasle sideburns and you've had your beautiful hair go middle-aged lank. No one likes being lectured. You hate hearing it, we hate saying it".

"Have you got a car parked around here?", she asked gently.

"No. We'll walk. Do you live far?"

"I can't walk, I feel like I'm fainting. Can't you just, like, give me the money for a taxi, and then the police can get it back on expenses?"

"Not really. Where do you live?", he asked her.

"Old Neville Street".

"Where the hell's that?", he asked, picturing some hushed, shadowy terrace within a hushed, shadowy terrace.

"It's one of the really little roads that leads off Black Tiger Park".

Which wasn't so bad. Black Tiger Park he knew, and it wasn't far. Under a mile.

"Stand up, I want to try something". Jenny obeyed. He held one forearm to the back of her knee and the other to her shoulder. She understood what he meant to do, almost before he'd braced himself, and went childishly limp. On the whole, he found he could carry her weight easily, almost thoughtlessly. Important: just don't swing her like two-by-four. There was a definite urge to do that. Luckily, the need to carry Jenny in a reverent fashion distracted him from looking at the Northern man as they left. Accidentally, as they passed by, he looked at Cotton Hill, and wondered if he was a she. It hardly mattered.

It was necessary to make series of sharp rights, as the small car park gave way to step-like inlet lanes, in turn leading up to the solemn carriageway of the business district. Why were there no street lights? Perhaps the city planners assumed that the lights of the big, sixties-built skyscrapers would be kept on all night. Alas. There were massively bright and meditative bus shelters, but it wasn't the same. In a street that was all cut up by avenues and sleeplessly flashing crossings, Scarlet stared headlong past the semi-pretentious cafes and Victorian flats, all of which looked liked they'd been abandoned -probably by the Victorians themselves. Somewhere was the long road which would take them to Black Tiger Park. He hoped they'd find it soon, and saw no reason why they shouldn't; it was wide, and ran at an angle, like a jousting lance impaling the heart of the city.

Turning and turning again. Scarlet noted the small, very spare movements her head made. They were walking past an area rich in dirty, trench-like crevices, inaccessible to all your humans.

"Are you with me?", he asked her. "At this time of night, keep your eyes peeled and you might see a fox".

"What's all this blood around your neck?"

It was funny; sometimes her voice was dainty, other times it felt like trying to understand sentences where the letters were randomly in lower case, randomly in capitals.

"Man versus mob. Forget about it. I'm indestructible, me".

"You must love being a cop. Did you always want to be one?"

He moved boldly; his heart felt mighty. "Dunno. I'm not important, though. What do you do?"

"I'm training", said Jenny sleepily. "I'm at Unity City College, training to be a figure skater".

Entering a nook in the ivy-strewn main road, Scarlet walked in the traffic lane to avoid even the outside chance of bumping her head on the wall.

"You know there aren't any ice rinks in Unity City? I can only think of one in the whole of the South West".

"But it's all... skills", she said vaguely.

Why deny the rapport? The increasingly light-grey atmos was doing its best to make her a smooth, ill-focused mass in his peripheral. Any judgements were gentle. Tiredness. The firm-yet-poised clamp of her mouth reminded him of a certain dog from his home town, being walked by a kindly-looking old man. The dog was a Parson Russell, aged, with deeply human eyes. And it wore a thin little muzzle. Why? Why would a tiny dog, aged seventeen going on ninety, have to wear a muzzle? Even as a kid, he hadn't really wanted to know the reason, because he knew it would be depressing. Unforgettable, though: the shape of that dog's mouth. Despondent, without ever being consciously so.

Which was not to say he was about to write a tender-tender-humourous-tender account of his meeting with Jenny, and write 'Ken Loach' across his forehead, and pretend the human race was worth a f damn. It was no more significant than when you saw one of those ancient paintings by Van Eyck or Thomas Gainsborough or Verrocchio. All the chubby women beholden of nothing, really. You stare at it, hard, but that doesn't mean it's in even the top billion paintings of all time. The oils applied so carefully to capture the texture of the cherub's skin that it might as well have been done in Poundland watercolour, and meanwhile Kevin and Perry are urinating on you.

"I want you to stop this ice skating s-", said Scarlet. "Get a job, any job. The first non-skilled manual job you see".

"What?", Jenny almost laughed. She shivered, and it was absorbed. "That's not what everybody says. Everybody says that if you're a teenager, study as hard as you can".

"Jenny, hard work exists. It's physical things being moved around. Useful things being created according to demand. Any kind of 'training', any 'further education' is no different to - a homeless person going up to the head of NASA and saying, 'I want to go to Mars, just because, and you're going to send me'".

Jenny swung her head quite energetically to look at the gutter. Her fingers tensed and relaxed around the sandwich opening of his stab-proof. "You're kind of bitter about that, I reckon".

"Bitter doesn't enter into it", said Scarlet. "What enters into it is the NASA chief being sane enough to say, 'First of all, Mr Homeless, you need to have been a navy test pilot for ten years, then you need a better reason than 'just because' and then... oh yes, I almost forgot... this being the age where British people are allowed to do whatever they want, you need to have worked out an elaborate system of prayers that allow goods to materialise on our supermarket shelves from thin air. A prayer that forces all the other countries in the world to suddenly nominate Britain as the one country where everyone gets to be an academic, an administrator, a product-designing c-. A prayer that forces humility to vanish as a concept".

Scarlet expected her to say, 'I don't understand any of that'. Instead, she was so deep in reverie, she was all-but unconscious. Still, perhaps. Janey Lee Grace flapping her mouth about playing kids music while they're still in the womb.

Walking a narrow road with countryside-style walls, he beheld the slanty trees which stood to the east beside the cathedral. Such a light shade of beige it was like they were illuminated by an ever-present daylight. It was necessary to turn away, though, towards the sprawling housing estate. He gripped Jenny tightly; it felt like he was carrying an old leather beanbag. Smell: a mixture of spirits, vomit and something which could either be perfume or fruit pastels.

Not far from where she claimed her house was, they passed an old-fashioned newso that, ironically, had the texture of cacky auld magazines. Scarlet peered into the main window and frowned.

"Is this your local shop?", he asked her.

Sometimes she flicked her eyes -why deny it?- like the Satanic child smiling at Jim Caviezel in 'The Passion of Christ'.

"Yeah. This is where we come to-".

He went to the curb and carefully placed her into a sitting position.

"Jenny, do you have an I-pad Zenith?"

"No", she wrinkled her eyes, tired.

He removed the lozenge from his evidence pouch and gave it to her. "In that case, this is for you. Don't go mental. I don't know if any of the hologram stuff works".

"You're a nice guy, after all", was her suggestion.

Shudder. He had her stand up, and took her the few shuffling yards to the newso window. He pointed to the little creme flyer and her neck moved gingerly to follow.

FRUIT-PICKERS NEEDED. HERONFIELD ORCHARDS, J17 M42. £8.75 P H. LIMITED PLACES.

"Take it".

"You, but I -it says-"

He waited with an eerie patience while she formulated her excuses. "It says, 'limited places'. I bet they're all gone".

Scarlet stared at her, felt every millimetre of the grubby darkness on his face. "If they're all gone, you hang up and then call back a few hours later, ask to speak to the production manager. Pretend to be a haulage operator arranging a book-in. When he's on the line, tell him that you know. You know, by the law of averages, that there's a member of his workforce who's stupid and lazy and you'll be their replacement. Tell him you'll take the bare bones minimum as your wage, and you'll do anything, and he won't regret it. And you know what, Jenny? Perhaps you still won't get that job. But if you repeat that with every vacancy advert you see, you'll get in, sooner than you think. People will be proud of you. The country will be proud of you. But more importantly, you'll be proud of yourself. Do you hear what I'm saying?"

With a kind of humorous flourish, she said, "Maybe I will!"

He clenched his teeth and moved to menace her. "'Maybe' nothing. You will f-ing try, Jenny".

After forcing her to write the phone number on her hand, she walked the rest of the way under her own steam. It was quite a pretty little cul-de-sac, occasionally with garden gates that looked like they were made from antique bed rails.

"What if I want to join the police, like you?", thinking she was being clever.

"Minimum wage production work is more important than being a cop. It's more important than anything".

"You really believe that?", she said knowingly.

Scarlet seized her shoulders. Russell Mars foremost in his mind. "You'll get a job in a factory. Perhaps you'll feel undervalued. But you won't be. This country needs you, Jenny. I promise you that. And, my god, the minute you get off work at night, you'll feel a hundred feet tall".

He watched the hoity movement of her skinny legs as she moved off towards her house, an old granite-fleck brick affair. It could be a lot more drunkeness than he estimated, or a lot less. Besides that, the devastatingly incongruous matter of even talking to them. Civilisation, the idea of talking to someone as if they're not a real person, and as if they're missing a conscious mind altogether -you find that abhorrent. Then you actually talk to them. It's as if their personalities and their reasoning are no more than the pyjama hoodies they wear, or in this case, the slutty dress. Overpoweringly, he felt he should have stressed how he hated having to tell her how to run her life, and he knew she hated hearing him. But it was all too late now. His damaged leg started to hurt again. The jagged wound on his neck gave unprecedented bursts of cramp, deep inside the muscles.

What agony that the idea of justified altruism should even occur to you, that it really all boils down to the NHS; the way his dad had worked for fifty years in a sewer, and then taken such sophisticated surgery for erythropoiesis of the spleen. The thought of all those noble and selfless doctors then having to go away and be consumed by people -ugly sacks of flesh, really- who no more paid tax or did anything selfless than leeches in a sinkhole.

You had to believe that somehow, some day, the human race would understand give-and-take.

He started away from the house, and blinked savagely, a kind of chess game with the terrible black spots which fluttered in his brain-hole. Going on, perhaps even walking back to the riots and emerging from the self-same smashed shop frontage -this was an option, but he declined. Weakness. Take it out for a meal, give it a treat. On the lightning-shaped road back into the centre, dark as you like, he slumped down beneath a mighty streetlight.

The streetlight flickered. He found that he was slumped inside a brilliant white ring. Which promptly moved away, back in the direction of Jenny Saxby's house. Of course.

Part Three - Weltsbury County Council - 'Where Everybody is Important'.

'Fair? Minister, the Civil Service isn't there to be 'fair', it's there to make sure the sun rises each the morning'

- Sir Humphrey, 'Yes Minister'.

Conrad heard the screechy, ancient alarm clock and ignored it, choosing instead to doze-on for what seemed like hours. He sensed Destiny climb away from their pushed-together bunks, felt the need to open his eyes. Still, to actually leave the warmth? Take that slowly.

She stood a few feet away beneath the high, slot-like window, alive with blue light. Naked but with the starched sheet anchored around her, looking for all the world like Britannia herself. Smiling eyes, narrowing upon him.

Quoth Bjork, and quite an impression even if she didn't sing, "Sta-aand up. You've got to man-age".

He stared at her, almost resolved. "I can't face it. Let's take the day off".

She ignored this, stretching, making her bones click and the sheet fall away. Immediately he encountered the piece-of-lead-with-wings, but didn't react, except for waking up a bit more and tensing his body, craning his neck. That perfect abdomen, and the red freckles around her Terminator shoulders. It was all ridiculously sexy.

He noticed the way the tiny window gave access to the boldest, sharpest daylight, but only around the bed. She raised her hand into the projection of light and played around as a shadow.

"Did you ever see that eighties BBC production of Jesus of Nazereth? The one with Robert Powell as old blue eyes?"

"I know it exists, anyway", said Conrad.

"I was just a toddler, but I remember watching it with my mum and dad", she swallowed, and smiled, and twisted her shadow hand, "there's a section where Jesus comes upon this sandy little hovel containing a possessed man. He just stops in the doorway, in the sunlight, and moves his shadow over this quaking, intense-looking guy. And the exorcism is as simples as that".

The shadow of her hand moved smoothly across Conrad's jaw. He assumed a mild expression as he stared into her eyes, then at her breasts. "Am I right in thinking, though, that the possessed man didn't have a huge erection at the time?"

She laughed and slipped back into bed. They kissed a little, and then her hand moved to see what all the fuss was about. Conrad became troubled. "No", he said.

Within the fire-control tower, getting dressed, having coffee before leaving for 'work', always felt like fighting your way free of the biggest garden shed in the world. A day or so after first arriving on Cloud Base, on his jack-jones, he'd examined every inch of the cramped stairwell and the main room. He'd been looking for something to read, or a DVD to watch on the antiquated Bush portable. But you don't make demands of derelict buildings. Something inclined him to make a thorough search all the same, some delirious, finicky trait. Maybe find bounty he could present to Cash Converters in Unity City and trade for whisky money.

The slanted cavern at the bottom of the stairwell, while housing the rolled-up bay flaps, also had three lockers slotted crazily on their sides. The latches were unlocked, so all he had to do was twist. At no point feeling like a schoolboy. In fact, it had been a long time since the lockers had been used for anyone's personal use -like everything in the tower, they'd been utilised for storing anything and everything. A reasonable amount of daylight allowed Conrad to search Locker One, finding -

The short upper planks from a broken-down pallet, a coathanger from Peacocks, a bag of industrial road-marking pastels which time had made too rubbery to use, empty cardboard inkjet packaging with foam blocks and driver CD but the printer itself long gone, a rusty Quality Street tin, a roll of brown paper all warped-up by damp, a St. George's flag from some ancient World Cup or Euro campaign, a large blanket which someone had rested something on while spray-painting, the empty jacket of a Hitachi video cassette, some well-chopped kindling, a transformer which looked to have had the copper wire chewed by a fox, some frayed farmer-string, an empty McDonalds box.

Locker Two had a coathanger also, this one broken. It had one of the road-marking pastels, but a single stick alone. A brittle plastic wallet for domestic or office filing. A 1.5 volt battery, rusted. The mesh front from an old-fashioned speaker. A plasticky cup, the exact composition of which was hard to say. The spindle for a bamboo tripod. A disintegrating plastic bag of flush mounts, possibly to affix fire extinguishers. The hasp from an industrial gate. Some foam insulation rods. The housing and blades from a warehouse air-con. A ruler from Longleat. A bundle of those shallow plastic trays which come free with rat poison. A circuit insulator with HANGAR 1 written on the side in put-upon block caps. A very old torch. Two playing cards, a ten of diamonds and a nine of hearts, the first featuring a picture of Pope John Paul II smiling down at something, the second: Pope John Paul II with his hands clasped together, as if very much enjoying a hymn.

Locker Three was the fullest of the three. It contained: a working yo-yo (this was probably the best thing). A Greek language Irvine Welsh novel (2nd). A deadlock that had been wrenched free from plywood, no sign of the key. An exhausted 'Wilkinsons' highlighter. A rolled up piece of carpet, L-shaped. The lid from a box of Bulk Hardware woodscrews, now containing used roofing bolts, probably too wrangled to use. A child's face-painting kit, with eighty percent of the pastels missing. A cork. The alcohol cleaning ribbon for a thermal printer -torn at the top and so probably useless now. The ornamental stand for a set of samurai swords of three descending sizes. The wooden bulb from a stair banister. An empty coke can. A reel of perished carpet tape. The power cord for a European kettle. Nine inches of threadbare, black elastic. A pink ball-point pen with a grey and pink shell -run-out. Three oversized curtain rings. The square of plastic keys from a calculator which had been prized open. A small tupperware-style lid. The empty reel from some sellotape. A single transparent sleeve torn from a photo album. The dividers from a box of Matchmakers. A handful of silicon granules. A single air-freshner pebble. A dandelion seed. A haulage strap. A huge, novelty paperclip which had been opened out to become useless. A child's tube of woodglue, which did actually have a smidgen left inside. The torn cuff-strap from a boiler suit. An unidentified igloo-shaped piece of fibreglass. An empty box of cooks matches. A TV aerial connector. A brown asteroid of plastiscine too brittle and dehydrated to ever use again.

And then, up the first two flights of stairs to the tight landing, the stuffed zebra. Destiny called him 'The Doctor'. Beside him was a large plastic chest originally meant for garden waste. It was full of things, but by now Conrad was too disillusioned to go through them.

Just walking past all the stuff in the morning made him feel bored.

"Did you ever do that thing, when you were a kid, of looking at the far horizon, and imagining you're looking down into a vast precipice?"

Moving free from the Talos-plinth base of the tower, she kept up with the non-sequiturs, the sweet little anecdotes -presumably because she knew they soothed him, kept him distracted from the day ahead.

"You mean imagining if the landscape was vertical rather than horizontal?", Conrad felt his voice grow low and ponderous as he genuinely tried to picture it. "Well I grew up in a city, and so it was rare to see any kind of distant horizon".

They crossed the rain-invigorated grass to where Destiny had parked her little Nissan. No time to stop and daydream. Just enough time for a sparky smile as she opened the driver's door.

"Do you like this, the countryside?"

"Yes", admitted Conrad, quite forlorn. "It's open, and free".

The start-up of the engine triggered the stereo, in turn reading off the USB stick, the last place they'd got to in Edition 77 of Howard Hughes' excellent 'The Unexplained' podcast. A dainty little yank layman who'd devised a unified theory of the paranormal. Destiny loved the paranormal. So, Conrad supposed, did he, but only because it provided an alternative to everyday reality. Destiny, with those inexplicable levels of hope, sought to expand normal reality, where his inclination was to turn his back on the whole thing. In any case, the podcast ended far too abruptly -it was only fifty minutes. Hardly anything.

They travelled a slightly spiked route, taking the Swindhampton West exit and doubling back from Choxforth into the scratchy furrow of fisherman rivers, scrapyards, reasonably-well-used nature reserves. He stared out of the window feeling like a child going to do something he profoundly hated, which would profoundly change him, and counting down the remaining minutes in a kind of shock.

Worst of all; he could not tell Destiny exactly how much he hated it. To do so would devalue all the things she did for the cause, which were...

Don't think about it.

He could not tell Destiny, but she knew him well enough by now to be able to read his eyes and the mountainous tension in his shoulders. "You really hate working in a bureaucracy, don't you? It goes against your nature".

"Perhaps", Conrad flicked his eyes over the wide road ahead, "disguising my hatred will give me the technique of some Shakespearean master". They both smiled at this, under the surface, all deathless vigour in the face of bleakness. It occurred to him that they were soldiers in the first necessary, genuinely gruelling war for sixty-eight years.

"I know it's one of the most horrible places for anyone honourable to have to work. But one day soon you'll see. You'll see it -a kind of Heaven-and-Earth-Horatio moment- and get an inkling of what Spectrum is at war with".

"Corrupt council executives", Conrad repeated just what Colonel White had told him.

Said Destiny in a sage voice, "It's more than that".

"Tell me".

"You have to see it with your own eyes".

Conrad's default quizzical frown came into its own. He remembered Destiny saying something about the Spectrum agent Ochre being an occultist. "Are they Satanists? Is this a Dennis Wheatley thing?"

"No", said Destiny brightly. "Not really. But - ballpark".

For the hundredth time, he managed to side-step asking her what Weltsbury Council had done to her personally, to stir up such a crusade. He managed to side-step asking her; if it's just a matter of taking revenge, why not simply give the men in question a beating, or else allow the conventional law-enforcement take over? For the hundredth time, he felt his eyes go soft, juxtaposing gladatorial mouth against numbed forehead.

Galvo wire and cremewood fences more at home in the Lake District ran alongside a pockmarked field, the gangs of cows lurking like Puerto-Rican street thugs. "What do you suppose White wants to achieve by embedding me in the 'Operations Resolution Department' like this? He explained to me about 'one set of honest eyes being as good as any other', but almost all my white-collar qualifications and references were forged and falsified". He stiffly turned his head, allowed his marble-like brow to display just how desperate the questions were. "Wouldn't it be better to have someone in there who could scan through their records looking for financial clues? Or a computer hacker who could sift through their databases?"

She gripped the steering wheel at eleven and one, a pose that was strained, joyful, jittery. "All I'd say to you, man of mine, is that part of what we're looking for is a tonal thing. If your job in the 'Operations Resolution Department' fills you with unhappiness, then you're probably in the right place".

Swivelling his head back as if it had only a very basic puppet joint. "I just think, even if they are the monsters that I'm imagining, the..."

"...nihilist monsters? godless monsters?", she suggested.

"Even if they are as bad as that", he almost smiled. "are you sure that when we finally bring them down, it will be as satisfying as you need it to be?"

She smiled lovingly, very tenderly, at the slate-grey traffic systems twisting far ahead. "I don't know. I couldn't guess. But it's all I've got".

"You've got me", he declared.

"'Captain Black', my hero", she said.

The traffic became congested on the semi-Roman roads which converged in the heart of Unity City, though always falling short of being as bad as people complained. Conrad had never known a place like it in terms of flat roundabouts which people simply charged across. Pubs like splendid, futuristic castles looked on. The Council offices were more or less in the centre, in the park, presenting a shape that was half a skyscraper and half a monstrous brow emerging from the valley side. And don't forget the stilts; what appeared to be thin little splints to support this massive, twenty story building. Whirring around between them, looking for a parking space, Conrad often wondered if a series of bombs, maybe even mining plastic alone, would be enough to bring the whole place a-tumbling down. The architect himself one-hundredth a conspirator if only because of his fragile, swish-swish design.

Had a D-reg Nissan Micra ever been so full of rancour? Conrad stared between the pillars at the riverbanks. He even hated the riverbanks. Destiny, for her part, purposefully stopped the car in the middle of the thoroughfare, hoping that a Council employee would come up behind and be struck by her 'arrogance'. Pot, kettle, black. Really. Black, pouring out of your fat asses, to swallow the whole of Britain.

Conrad laid his hand on the door handle, preparing to leave. There was nothing else to do.

"I'll see you later", said Destiny, her voice filled with hope, and bravery, even as she stared dead ahead.

"Are you going straight to the hospital?"

It was the last friday of the month, her traditional slot for donating blood at Unity City Primary Primary Health Care Primary Trust Primary Health Academy Drop-In Centre (appointments necessary). Time and Trojan-altruism beckoned. She massaged the steering wheel, tensed her mouth.

"Are you proud of me?"

"Always I am", he vowed.

She looked a little in his direction, made a small motion to pull him in, at which point they connected in a kiss, war between jaws, a searing sensation in his lungs and the space above his eyes. The hairs on his arm stood up, to the degree where he wondered if they'd ever go down again. It would be enough to carry him through the morning. He walked to the stupid-looking stairwell, so much like a fireplace, and prepared to become Mr Ugly Confidence in the floors above. His true self would be hidden -back there, in Destiny's kiss. Within the superstructure of the building, the decadent space between carpets and ceilings meant that he was already vertigo-bumping before he was even on the second floor. Secular society subconsciously trying to recreate the air of a cathedral, maybe. Ikea to work on Babel.

"Morning", said a woman in a distinctive felt suit.

"Morning", said Conrad. It felt like he'd just performed Hamlet. He longed to have said, 'Hiya', in a low tone. Maybe it would have been acceptable, too, but he wasn't motivated enough to try.

In the open-plan nook, props: a water cooler and an overly-colourful pot plant, there was much too-ing and fro-ing by interior decorators. A man in beige overalls hunched his shoulders as he chortled up the stairs. The man holding the door open -Conrad was profoundly surprised to see Captain Green. The starched blue overalls only had a few trademarks, but there was no mistaking the expression of his sprightly brow. Green recognised Black, too. They locked eyes for a moment, no particular spark, and then walked on. Personally, Conrad felt the same kind of spurious excitement which he guessed two U-boats must feel on sighting each other in the mid-Atlantic.

Rounding the corner to his own department, he briefly looked back to see Green supervising two further undercover agents -Puce and Magenta- as they manhandled a huge conference table from the retrofitted room. Well.

He entered his own little office, always pristine after the nightbound visit of Turkish cleaning ladies, took a seat at the goddamn desk. On the opposite side, colleague Tiffany Bradshaw toyed with her computer. Despite the reasonable amount of sunlight granted by the expansive panes of glass, her skin reflected the sickly glow of her screen something vivid. Was she even working yet? Tiffany was a queen of flexi-time, her two toddlers and the natural inclination to dizzyness made sure of that. Was she working, or checking her personal emails?

"Well, Tiffany. Good morning", he said, jovial on the outside, inside: kernel of dispassion the size of a pea, still detectable to anyone with a mind.

"Good morning, Conrad. Did you have a good night?"

"Didn't really sleep. That's why I came in here today". Straight over her head.

"Honestly, I started off with a duvet, tried and tried to get to sleep, tried it with just the sheet, then it just felt awkward. So I just soldiered on, turning-"

And so it went on. So many people who'd never learnt the dynamics of having a conversation. He could understand how it was they existed, but why did they always thrive?

Temps had sorted the survey results into manageable wads within a mighty, scratched-up mail trolley. It was the initial results of the optional questionnaire which had been posted to every third house in the district, as well as being left in bundles in all civic buildings for people to fill out as the fancy took them. Numb commitment rode around his face, half a mask, half an affliction, as he tore open the expensive envelopes, feeding each page into the auto-sorting computer. If only it didn't take the thing such a tortuous amount of time to scan each page and collate the answers. Speeding things up, just a little -when the computers got too bogged down, Conrad and Tiffany would tally some of the answers themselves.

And it amazed him that the computers could be moving slower than his mind, considering that they weren't affected by the hatred, the crippling lack of faith. Truly, the questionnaire was flawed, almost as much as the citizens who'd put pen to paper. Hateful: the shift of tone between questions that asked about seemingly practical matters, 'which of the following areas should the 2014 Council Budget be shifted towards...', and arbitrary social conundrums such as, 'on a scale of one to ten, how accepted do you feel in your local community?' Oh, ten. Ten, because I'm a unicorn, and when the kids beat me with a stick, rainbows project out of my eyes and the people in the old people's home love to watch. Meets the stupidity of the public, the way not a man jack realised that the whole questionnaire was a bourgeois ploy. The country billions of pounds in debt; the local authorities knowing full well that everything bar life-support must be cut and yet -this would mean a third of the council falling on their swords. 'And how can we get rid of free, after-school ballet classes when all these people specifically said they wanted them?'

At ten o'clock, he went to get them drinks, and would have surreptitiously spat in her coffee, except she drank blackcurrant juice like a hippy child. And besides, if you don't do no work, you don't need no coffee.

The battleship carpet around his desk was naturally thin. He had the impression you could walk on it for half a century and it wouldn't get threadbare. Staring down and feeling disgust verging on ghostly abdominal pain. Looking back at the comments of some anonymous, androgynous (female), ageless (middle age) citizen (housewife); 'How can we expect our children to work as hard as they can when they're put in these overcrowded classes?'

Say something about the overcrowded classrooms, that's it. Say something about them, because they're easier to think about than old people's homes, smelling of piss and manned by bunker-hearted Latvians, Turks, Poles, Greeks. Nice enough, but -some people are afraid of space aliens.

It was hard not to feel personally invaded. Increasingly Conrad stared from the window at the river and sensed that it was his mind that was under attack, bourgeois antibodies converging on all the cells that contained even trace amounts of goodness, practicality, responsibility. He swept up a survey here and a survey there, desperately scanning for any answers that were selfless or noble. Never going to happen. Almost exclusively, people ticked 'construction of affordable housing' as the most important area the council should focus on, this causing blinding, fiery messages to flash in his mind. BECAUSE TO HAVE TO RENT WOULD VIOLATE YOUR HUMAN RIGHTS AND MAKE YOU FEEL YOU'RE NOT A WALL STREET YUPPIE AFTER ALL. At best, he could just manage to feel indifferent to the pleas to have greater recycling facilities and a ring-fencing of public libraries. Recycling was something that was important to both hippies, the bourgeois and sane people, therefore it was quite capable of looking after itself. As for libraries -Conrad had loved his local library when he was a kid. He remembered the bright, mysterious quality of the wide spaces between well-stocked shelves, borrowing door-stop biographies of Clint Eastwood and Johnny Cash, sitting in the luxurious chairs while he scanned the local papers that funny week in '96 when he was out of work. But libraries aren't indispensable. Sacrifice them. Burn the books, if you have to; after all, they're only equal to what's inside other people's minds, perhaps all the little China men who do our manufacturing for us.

Tiffany announced she was taking her break and would be back around two. He wished her a good lunch, concentrating on all the right emotions as he recited some hateful Charles Dickens novel. For his part, he felt sure he could never get used to 'flexi-time'. People are untrustworthy. The rare, few trustworthy ones have nothing to hide and no cause to feel indignant when treated as arch-skivers. Beyond that, he knew that the agonising bureaucracy of his desk would be waiting for him no matter how long he sauntered around town among the housewives.

What he did was to carry himself to the floor above and indulge in some of his allotted spy-work. Pausing at the edge of the floor, eyeing-up the Freedom of Information desk, he saw that it was wholly unattended. He took a bundle of the punter's letters, plus the source material of the council officers, and quickly photocopied it, filling the thick wallet he carried with him. Should the c-s return, he would behave nonchalantly and leave Dodge immediately. Not that they would return. Flexi-time. Non-flexi-democracy -occupying a central spot on the two-man desk was a thick pile of Freedom of Information Request forms, because the concerned citizens couldn't just have their questions answered off the hoof; lawyers and policy-scurriers must play every last card. Sometimes there was a form with the Local Government Ombudsman logo set in the top right, and no one saw it as patently ridiculous or tragic that an intermediary should ever be needed between taxpayers and their public servants. Perhaps whatever the thwarted parishioners wanted was insane? If so, the existence of the Local Government Ombudsmen could be justified as group specially trained in the delicate treatment of insane people.

Except, no. The complaining people were sane, and reasonable. Every last one of them. Question: was the Council obligated to send Environmental Health officers with decibel meters to their own leisure centre, which had been so hastily built in the middle of a housing estate? No, the ratio of public disagreement exceeds funding resources, and the fact that all planning guidelines were assessed at the time. A headteacher obligated to keep the public land at the edge of his school playing field free from litter? Take phrases like 'all reasonable measures' and 'resources to monitor', put them in a jiffy bag, throw it in the punter's face. Because each time Conrad saw ordinary people coming into contact with the Council, he breathed in that one, simple truth: all they wanted was legislature against lazy evil and faux-benevolence. As if such a thing could ever be accounted for by that blind bitch and her scales. Legislature against lazy evil and faux-benevolence could never be expressed as external edicts - simply because they'd already been championed, given an incarnate form, as early as God making the first monkey walk with a sense of purpose. Those people. That man. Some kind of hatred. Weltsbury County Council leader Reith Korinson, glimpsed by Captain Black along the long, blue-carpeted corridors: less than a monkey, laughing away, the word 'DIABETES' written on his fat forehead.

After lunch, such as it was, the sorting of survey results was put on hiatus while the Traffic Department borrowed personnel from all the other offices to help with the 'reclassification' of all Unity City's long-stay car parks. Somehow, Conrad never learnt exactly how, the deadline for starting the changes was upon them, and the general public still hadn't been informed of the work.

It was a hike in the flat, all-day parking charge. Large sections of the car parks were about to be barriered-off while the lines were repainted, so creating far more spaces. Conrad was despatched with Bob Wootton to place notices on the fences and put fliers on all the cars that were currently using the car parks. Bob Wootton, a man who looked working class, with his straggly handlebar 'tache, his Eric Morcambe glasses and his primary-colour jumper worn over a shirt -but wasn't. On first meeting him, Conrad saw how he was printing hundreds of the fliers on a regular inkjet printer. Not photocopying them, which would practically be free, or even using one of the laser printers, which would be cost-effective, but running them off on a domestic printer that ate ink cartridges like a schoolboy thoughtlessly gulps down After Eights. En route, the man smiled and laughed a little, otherwise grasping his mouth together in the most anti-psychological brooding the world had ever known. The most likely thing would be if he was slightly awkward around new people, which would have been cool -but it wasn't that at all. He was a brisk man, and that was all.

An almost shocking blanket of sunlight had come from nowhere to cover the weathered-stone buildings. Enter daydreams about struggling through a tiny city. As they arrived at the sixty-space car park opposite the railway gates, Conrad noted how there were already workmen enthroned in their matte-silver Vito, studying a blueprint of the changes. How had all this snuck up on the administration? Lazy management; that was the obvious assumption, though something made him give them the benefit of the doubt. Perhaps this was just the way things went? Keeping civilisation smoothly-oiled and competitive: a high-pressure game, perhaps. In any case, as he folded the fliers and slipped them under the windscreens of Polos and Mercs alike, there was only a partial feeling of being a guilty parent messing with a child's expectations.

Bob Wootton was in the far corner of the car park, explaining things to a traffic warden in the animated pose of an oppressive gossip. Conrad winced as the sunlight moved between the cars. A man in a blue mack approached.

"Excuse me, you work for the Council?", he spoke as if chewing gum.

"I work for the Council". Glacial.

"It says here that, when they've built the new toilets, they'll be a twenty pence charge?"

"This is the plan".

In all the fuss about refitting the car park, Conrad had forgotten that the toilet block was also being rebuilt.

The hyperactive-minded man moved his hands in quite understated gestures. "Don't you think it's a little bit disgraceful that we should be charged for something that's already been paid for through our taxes?"

Conrad kept his eyes steady. "That's a valid point of view. But our research shows that if people are made to pay to use a public toilet, they're less likely to abuse it with litter, vandalism and sexual opportunism".

Said the man, "I don't believe you. What research? Give me a direct quote. Who did the research?"

"'If people are made to pay to use a public toilet, they're less likely to abuse it with litter, vandalism and sexual opportunism' -direct quote. Who wrote it? George Michael".

"You think this is a joke, do you?", -when the man was outraged he seemed very feminine. "Perhaps you don't know, but there's a recession on. We can't afford to be squeezed and squeezed by a Council like a bloody highway robber".

"His name really is George Michael", said Conrad, deadpan. "Beyond that, I can only suggest you write a letter of complaint to the local planning department. Of course, if you feel that strongly, you must feel free to go the Council offices, find the car of the Chief Executive Dr Reith Korinson -he drives a Citroen DS5- break the sunroof open and urinate onto the driver's seat, all the while shouting for revolution".

"I'm going to have to ask your name", said the man, as if this was a decisive tactic on a par with Hiroshima.

"My name is Claus von Stauffenberg". Straight over his head, and he seemed to believe him. "I'm sorry if I've upset you, it's been a hard night's day".

Just slightly, the man was placated, but still in need of a pantomime. "And what's your supervisor's name?"

"Harry Guring", said Conrad, and again, believed.

Back to the annexation. English weather moving in wild, polarised bursts. Never as bad as this though; he winced as sunlight demolished the ghostly clouds with an intent to bleach everything. The primary colours of the cars were similarly sharp, contrast-wise. Everything was jagged and unforgiving. Once or twice, as he was headed off by tick-tock-eyed commuters returning to their cars, he was forced to explain to their faces about the parking changes. Some seemed friendly and absorbed the matter in a business-like way. Others seemed slightly afraid of him, the subtle sadness in his eyes, and so took in the information briskly. Through it all, he haunted the car park, struggling to find an expression, sensing a very dynamic sort of emotion in the scratchy sunshine. In the background, predominantly, there were memories of the late seventies, the happy weekends with his dad.

A man in a starched suit and a generic black waterproof, the kind worn by everyone, and which suits no one, approached in swift strides. He wore little spectacles, though you hardly noticed them because his brown eyes were so hungry. For antagonism.

"Excuse me", he said brightly, "it says here that the Council is planning to almost double the charges for all-day parking, starting in just forty-eight hours time".

With a headache now, Conrad tilted his head in submission. It should, technically, have been a good thing that he said 'Council' instead of 'you', acknowledging Conrad as a mere henchman. Unfortunately it was quite obvious that this extra little bit of sensibility was based on a strong, mercurial argument, a strong mercurial hatred.

Also, note the man's stupid, yuppie hair.

"This is the plan", Conrad stated.

"It's bloody outrageous!", Mr Yuppie swung his arms a little.

Conrad waited a second or two for him to continue. Sure enough, the man pretended to formulate an argument, even through the immaculate hatred was already pumping into his razor-advert mouth with all the ease of religious zeal. "So, I would have gone away for my weekend, come back in again on Monday morning, with the same money as the past ten years, and been completely stuffed, missing my train. You do realise how much of a shambles this is? I mean, it's bloody ridiculous - how is it we get so little notice?"

The diatribe had worked out well for Conrad; it had given him time to formulate a counter argument. "Let me answer, sir. For one thing, we're introducing the facility to pay your fee by mobile, to cover anything up to a week's worth of parking".

"Do you expect me to be impressed by that? You people make up the rules as you go along, and there's a word for it: bloody stupidity and laziness. You rake in our taxes and expect to be able to get away with anything".

"I don't know what you expect me to say", said Conrad, suddenly profoundly tired. "Except 'sorry'".

He felt his usually smooth brow grow ever more warped, creased even. On the tip of his tongue was some kind of philosophical statement; their civilisation being very advanced now, who could tell which way it would go? But that would have been nonsense. They were still only forty years removed from the seventies, when there'd been mass industry, and people had known of the existence of other people. Things couldn't have gotten so bad in just forty years.

Said the man venomously, "I hope you get cancer, and when you're lying on your deathbed, you remember how much of a pointless bureaucrat you were".

"He's already dead", said Conrad, before realising he'd gone into a mindless reverie and been thinking about his dad.

"Are you going to charge me now, give me a little surcharge, just for standing here and explaining it to me?"

Returning to time and space, he simultaneously stared at nothing, felt that his brain was collapsing. Certainly, there'd never been a sense of grubbiness like it. Odd, also, that he was so deeply in love with Destiny, but his new life demanded a soul-eroding nightmare such as he had with Weltsbury County Council. Extreme emotions. They thrash together at the End of the World.

Sometimes? The vibe of being Travis Bickle to Destiny's little Iris faded to nothing. Sometimes it was replaced by something only marginally more wholesome, Oliver Reed and Amanda Donohoe in 'Castaway', and any man can live with being Oliver Reed if push comes to shove. Sometimes, however -the vibe was just immaculate, spiritual, and had no parallels at all.

He looked at the geek man, making sure that he was at no point angry, that it was all quite casual. "Go away".

"Go away?"

"Go away", confirmed Captain Black, "or you'll be wearing the cartilage of your nose as a two-dimensional blur".

And from then on, he felt dizzy with sadness, but resolved -to look upon the ranks of cars as spiking waves in an ugly chrome sea, and there they were drifting, drowning. Waiting for Bob Wootton to conclude his scurrying lectures in much the same way as a narrowly-pre-pubescent kid waits for his parent to stop gossiping. The irate man had long since disappeared into his car, doing something funny and subtle with his jaw. He was not replaced by another. Freedom from angry geeks, beneath the crawly, itchy sun, brought a revelation to Conrad. He was a simple man. If the irate Joe Publics had looked at him and seen anything remotely resembling a council ponce fighting for his bureaucratic life, they'd have pursued him far more intently. He could only conclude that what they saw when they looked at him was -a simple man.

I am a simple man. You may think that my hatred, or all the mired sub-daydreams bouncing around in my head, somehow makes me 'sophisticated' or a special case. I'm not sophisticated, I just know what I like, and I no longer like this society, so-called.

Returning to HQ, Bob Wootton drove with trace amounts of jittery over-sensitivity. Perhaps this exacerbated matters when a zooming Ford Escort at the bottom of Old Hill almost got them killed. They spent the rest of drive talking about it. Conrad tried to conjure some drama in his voice. What he actually brooded on was that, if he'd been killed, he'd have been quite happy, because Destiny would have been on his mind all through the fade-out, and they'd both finally be free of Weltsbury County Council. God damned.

Lieutenant Green poked his head sheepishly from the window of the removals lorry and backed it into the loading bay of the main hangar. Colonel White and Captain Ochre observed the whole thing, standing bolt upright, perhaps as officers in a Napoleonic army waiting patiently for the final, decisive action.

They rarely used the forklift, and although they'd left it charging the requisite twelve hours, the battery wheezed and shorted as it went about its work. The stately height of the bay doors let in an astonishing vision of twilight. Six thirty, and it didn't usually get dim until quarter-past seven. Shroud the sky. Because they were carrying out an eerie piece of espionage, there beneath the grey eyes of God.

"Be careful, Captain Magenta", Colonel White commanded the forklift jockey. He'd intended it to sound less like a gruff order, then at the last minute lost control.

Sometimes the twilight sky was completely insane. It wasn't divided, and there were tall clouds just like daylight, but dark, mangled. The swivel motions of the forklift wheels looked like they were being produced on kitchen tiles. Everyone woke up a little more when the hazard klaxon stopped, started again, the precious cargo being carried away to the far recesses.

"Thankyou, Captain", said the Colonel, though he couldn't lift his eyes from the all-important object beneath the tarp. Ahab stares at a fresh whale chart. Or worse; Colonel Kurtz stares upon another human face. Eventually, fist to his chin, he delivered a slight nod to the magenta-shirted subordinate. "We'll need some new bungee cords, and some blank DVDs for the data. I want you to take care of that. I suggest the trading park at Orbital. Also, something to eat".

Magenta was unnerved. "What would you like, sir?" It didn't occur to him that he was simply being sent 'out of the way'. Loyalty; and such men deserved far better motivation.

Now they stood around the tarp-rippled mass at regular distances; an almost-unacknowledged drive causing each man to seize as much as possible and sweep it away. It was surprising -so easy to forget how solid and luxurious their trojan conference table was. Fifteen-by-ten, and in most places solid oak, three inches thick. The type of thing megalomanical yuppies lived for, which is why it fitted so easily in the Inter-departmental Conference Room of Weltsbury County Council. The Colonel himself sensed the sickly power trip which pervaded everything. I am not King Arthur. You are not my knights.

As a flipside, there had never been a more stoic political alliance than the one which existed between himself and Captain Ochre. On first forming Spectrum, the money he'd appropriated from M.I.5 had barely covered operational costs for a year. If he hadn't come into the orbit of 'Ochre', with all the man's untold wealth, the war would have been lost in Year One. And so in comparison -Gordon Brown and Tony Blair as teenage sweethearts discussing the Labour leadership over the phone, 'no you hang up first!' The Colonel wondered when, if ever, Captain Ochre would feel the need to claim power. Perhaps today? It was an almost idle speculation; all the severe philosophical differences which they had -as gentle as anything, and when the end came, it would be as gentle or as strained as anything.

"Do you have your toolbox, Lieutenant? We should start now".

Green withdrew an oversized Philips-head, slid underneath the giant desk and started to undo the giant speedwax bolts. From across the varnished top-side, Ochre and White stared at each other.

Ninety percent trustworthy? One hundred? The question was more whether the man could be known at all. His eyes were always full of acceptance. But what, in that pathos-savvy mind of his, was 'human acceptance' being filed under? Sometimes the Colonel fancied that Ochre's unabashed way of locking eyes was a direct commentary on his own inability to recognise faces. That it was OK, either because we're in gnostic heaven or nihilist hell; his smile could go either way.

After half an hour of gentle straining, the different sections of the table had been pulled apart to reveal the secret machine. The size of a double bed and dense with hard-drives, coolant filters, sensor nodes, it was a sight to behold. Colonel White felt a distinct tension. Even now, the tiny blue lights danced furiously along the sensor plates. As a machine to detect clandestine alien invaders, it certainly looked the part.

"You know", said the Lieutenant, "it always surprises me that we don't need to cover our manhoods with lead, the way you do when you have an MMR scan in hospital".

"Ajag skriver ju mina egna texter. Smoyer, mna. Y'oure a screday cta".

And as usual, the first time Ochre spoke after a protracted silence, you couldn't understand him at all. It was, so they said, something to do with his experiments in the occult; as if the information coming to and from him were encoded through several layers of reality. Concentration, always, was required.

"Ingen panik. It alywas seirsprus me that, atfer all tihs time, no one has bothered to laren the rudiments of the machine. For instncae, I could take the reading now, and tlel you whatever I wnated. It's not that I would ever lie, but yuo're aussnimg taht I'll alyaws be here wtih you". And he smiled at some private piece of irony, maybe the aping of the Last Supper.

"Captain -", White measured his words carefully. "As a miltary leader, there is no shame in identifying a member of your team who's indispensable. Besides, you made it clear when you designed the machine that it was fiendishly complicated; the radiological scanner array of a machine to test imperfections in stainless steel, integrated into a machine for mapping brain synapses. Either one of which would be too complicated for a layman to understand".

Said Captain Ochre, his voice completely normal for a time, "And what if I told you that I'm almost a layman myself, and that the mechanics of the 'Mysteron detector' were given to me by God? Jag rar inte for det kaninen gjort. Or waht if I'm a Mysteron myself, ethier now or in the fturue?"

Where there should have followed a cowboy stare-out, perhaps, Colonel White found himself glaring at the closed bay doors which extended far above them in a neat semi-circle. There was a funny kind of ambient echo, as if the movement of the musty air itself set off a low-pressure hiss to trouble the ceiling. Through the small, tough window: twilight peace.

"We can start from the position that we've each seen a Mysteron with our own eyes, at least once. They're real, and we all have reasons to hate them".

At his feet, the floor was wide, and horribly empty. Mighty, curved girders, which sometimes looked ugly and sometimes merely Victorian, carried his gaze into the perpetually thin atmos. That smell of cracked gloss paint and barnacle dirt -easy to believe it would be there forever. He thought steadily. When he spoke, the commanding tone was present and correct.

"I don't believe in God, gentlemen, but I believe more than anything that men should live lives of respect and thoughtfulness, as though he's watching us. A standard that's better and more open than 'human', while still acknowledging everything it means to be human. And so the Mysterons? Let them watch us. We have nothing to hide, and all we want is a sane society".

Ochre, smiling like a high-powered doctor going about his work, retrieved a laptop and connected it to the mighty Mysteron Detector. Just for a second or two, Colonel White glanced over his shoulder to see progress bars filling up slowly, painfully, in blocks that were fractions of a thousand. He hated computers, and always would.

The men waited with a certain tense springiness in their limbs. At times there was a worry that Lieutenant Green would go away and make them all coffees, which would then be horribly under-appreciated because they were so preoccupied by the machine's revelations.

Ochre, again, was business-like; "It's done". Lieutenant Green and Colonel White had been pacing, and staring at the floor. They now cleared their throats, gathered round.

A large part of the screen was given over to an overhead diagram of the conference table.

"This is June, 2013, just after we first inlaestld the table. The micor-fbire caemras identify each Council mmeber sitting around the egde. Dr Korinson, yo'lul notice, awlays sits at the top. The chairman Clive Tunston and the Chief Projects Manager Oliver MacDougal to his lfet and right. And if we shift to the spectrographic aanlysis of their brainwaves -"

Driving up the cursor of a slide bar, the hollow diagrams of the Council officer's brains were painted in bright colours, a few blue, most red.

"Dr Korinson, as we know: Mysteron. Tunston: Mysteron. MacDougal: Mysteron. Lynne Bartlet, Head of Schools and Higher Education: Mysteron. Tony Applebaum, Cleansing and Amenities-"

Ochre raised his eyebrow, " -he's OK. Ray Denley, Social Integration Committee: Mysteron. Anne Creed, Budget Review Officer: Mysteron. Leanne Persimmon, Housing: Mysteron. Ryan Spacks, Sports and Leisure: O.K. Stephanie Thompson, Roads and Transport: Mysteron".

The Colonel stood bolt upright, feeling strangely vindicated, shivering nonetheless.

"Eight out of the ten main department heads -all compromised".

"They've got it sewn-up", said Lieutenant Green.

Ochre looked up at his fellows and gave a sympathetic look. He clicked on the main finger pad and the screen blinked, took a few seconds to load, before bringing up a fresh diagram of the council table.

"Det har betyder krig? Miovng on to the next big mtieeng they had in September of Thirteen. All siltl the same, except-"

He was surprised, and the feeling lingered evilly. Breaths were held as the Colonel worked to focus on what had changed. There were now four department heads whose brain-matter was coloured blue for 'normal'. Anne Creed and Ray Denley, at that time, had been freed from Mysteron control.

"Could the detector be wrong?"

Captain Ochre was breezey. "I don't tnhik so. There are a dzeon subroutines to enurse smooth prcoessnig, back-up subroutines in case of mlfaunction. The machine is working".

"Why would they ever release anyone?", asked Green. "I mean, one of the chief Mysteron tricks is to try and exhaust and exceed as much of the department budgets as possible. But if anything, in 2013, Creed and Denley underspent".

Colonel White was very uneasy. An uneasy man reaching new depths, never showing it, always struggling on. "Perhaps they were part of some plan-within-a-plan which the Mysterons were forced to abandon".

Captain Ochre moved in a beat, and progressed the graphic to the next major meeting at Christmas time. His face didn't exactly show surprise, simply the catching of a prominent curveball. Hollow cheeks pulled in around reasonably well-kept teeth; eyes turning steely. Now even more of the attendees had turned from red to blue. Stephanie Thompson, Oliver MacDougal and Leanne Persimmon had all turned human again.

Perhaps understandably, the Colonel felt a powerful desire to move the analysis directly to the most recent meeting. That would be bad form, though no one could deny the weird trajectory the thing was taking. At each progression, fewer Mysterons remained, then a minority, then barely two or three -Korinson's core of SS henchmen- and then, as of last week: Korinson alone.

Colonel White hated having nothing to say. It just wasn't him. He hated having to think off the hoof, as if he was a bad leader who'd failed to make contingencies. To the others he said, by way unashamedly treading an ocean of intrigue, "Analysis?"

"We're clearly entering a new phase", said Ochre, his only flourish a slight, sardonic raise of the eyebrow.

"I could sort of understand them abandoning Anne Creed", the Lieutenant rubbed his face. Green, at least, was a man incapable of political back-biting. "Our intelligence from Rhapsody is that Anne Creed's husband was diagnosed with terminal liver cancer last year. Perhaps the Mysterons are incapable of imitating certain kinds of emotional tension? Trying to use Anne Creed as a puppet could have made them realise how difficult it is control such a large, tightly-knit group".

"That's good thinking, Lieutenant", Colonel White declared. In truth, doubts prevailed: reports from Captain Black had it that Weltsbury County Council was anything but tightly-knit, and no one would have noticed a discrepancy in anyone's inner life, not in a thousand years.

"Two further possibilities", announced Captain Ochre coolly. "One, that the Mysterons finally got the lay of the land and realised that they could achieve the same level of corruption using just Korinson. Two, that it's a very simple matter for each Mysteron department head to corrupt the thinking of their human underlings. That all they do is quickly build up a momentum of arrogance in junior workers, then leave".

Not usually the sort of man to lean back in his chair, the Colonel was keen to show a certain insouciance. "But as Lieutenant Green pointed out, Anne Creed and Ray Denley actually underspent from their share of the budget".

"There are other forms of arrogance besides abusing public money". It was a terrifying manoeuvre: Ochre gave White a trace look of condescension, so that, while still being ugly, it at least gave the masterful impression he wore his heart on his sleeve. Observe the wide world crashing in on poor, lonely Spectrum. "There's laziness, bureaucracy, greed. And as to their not being able to imitate complex emotional strain -of course they can. The Mysterons are sophisticated creatures. If anything, they have a more sensitive nature than humans. You know that better than anyone".

The Colonel moved his head curtly. "I don't follow, Captain".

"At the Heaven's Gate cult. You told us how, at first, they attempted to destroy us through religion. It takes some subtle pathos to invent a religious cult that espouses mass suicide".

"And your point is what?", asked the Colonel. Reasonably calm, only because he was able to steer the matter clear from any mention of Nathan.

"Perhaps", Green gave a bleak sort of shrug, "they've moved on to national government? They could be playing leap-frog, using council members to enter the sphere of MPs, and take control of cabinet members".

Ochre breathed deeply, patient with himself, even more so with the others. His head wobbled as he looked at them. Night in earnest was his ideal backdrop, the portholes of the roller bay as jet-black lenses. "No. They have a strange code of honour concerning the use of authority figures. They're all about unspoken bourgeois conceit on a local level; nothing else".

Before them, the uncovered tarpaulin presented intricate mountain ranges of shadowless turquoise and blue. It was strange to see such an industrial covering indoors, unfolded, crumpled in the middle of the floor. Colonel White stared hard. 'Honour concerning the use of authority figures'. It was an area of Mysteron psychology he couldn't deny. Always there were visions of those poor San Diego policemen who'd hunted down him and Nathan in the cave. There'd been such a terrible conflagration, and when the men's minds returned, they'd howled at what they'd done.

Often he reflected: think of all the damage which the creatures could have done if they'd remained policemen indefinitely. Imagine if they'd entered the Chief of Police. But they didn't.

Said Ochre, "They're like hypnotists. They can't force Joe Public to do anything he's fundamentally opposed to. It's even arguable that we could abandon trying to unmask and drive-off the Mysterons and focus on something else. Instead of shutting-up the hypnotist, try to wake up the guy in the trance".

A second of silence came, which was uncomfortable enough. At least Ochre was not the sort of man to be deliberately dramatic. They were saved in the end by Lieutenant Green, smiling: "'Wake the guy in the trance'. It sounds a lot like the sort of rhetoric you get from David Icke in those three hour Youtube videos". He paused, for a long time, to show that he was thinking, not blithely dismissing Ochre's idea out of hand. "And I don't think they'd believe us about the Mysterons any more than they believe Ickey about the Lizard People".

All three men sat still on their brittle chairs. Ochre seemed calm, for a while. The Colonel reflected how there was a certain kind of strip lighting, against clinical white walls, which always emphasised the fact that it was the dead of night -bleak, inhuman night- more than any country lane or isolated city outskirts. Of the same opinion, maybe, Ochre looked towards the portholes -but was exasperated. He was so exasperated he lost control of the focus in his mind, started to speak once more in that strange, a-temporal language.

"Att en psychicattak kommer att intraffa i Weltsbury. Att intraffa i Unieevrs Coneucrrnt. The Exoplrratoy Ccrhaaters, mardrommen bra, en verklighetsforankring -"

"Captain-", Colonel White tried to decode the strange noises, the strange language. His temple sloped, remaining just smooth enough to accommodate a third eye.

Captain Ochre looked squarely at his commander, and made a promise: "The Mysterons and the Human Race are inextricably linked".

Donnie Chico, who Scarlet had been to secondary school with, had been on the bench the whole match long. It seemed unlikely he would come on at this late stage, but no matter. The game was exciting enough without any nostalgia.

The red, living hedgerows of men talked hurriedly or chanted in delirium. The goal-line robot, plasti-coated in black and with his face-unit formed into the vaudeville features of the sternest ref imaginable, made his entrance to overpowering anxiety. He stood still beside the net, a ceremonial stance, perhaps. In his terabite brain, the footage from multiple cameras was unified, collating the angles, plotting the trajectory. The usual primordial urge to strike up, 'Who's the b- in the black?' came quickly into Scarlet's throat. Except the song probably wouldn't sound right when directed against a robo. In any case, it only took a few seconds. The LED board was held high and the jewel-like letters had only good news: GOAL.

With the remaining two or three minutes of play, the pitch was like a fast-moving sea with too few actual waves. Leroy Wavin, for the most part with no support whatsoever, moved apace up the field past dust-mote Unity players. The red shirts gradually moved to intercept, at the channel, then finally shutting him down at six yards. The weird psychology of these exciting promotion matches never failed to fascinate Scarlet. When a goal came to finally put the ascending team ahead, usually with just five or ten minutes left, the players celebrated into a frenzy. They skidded, jived, hugged, unthinkingly joyful like people arriving in Heaven at the end of time. Yet always they managed to concentrate when the fight started up again. Conclusion: it's like waking from a dream.

The Unity Rangers fans had been anticipating the end to such an extent that their victory-roar was all-but simultaneous with the final whistle. Arms were flung in the air. LeCanteo: John Cleese crossed with Grover, jumping around the pitch. The Darby manager, conversely, was business-like in defeat, and went around shaking hands. Youngsters and floppy-haired teenagers went pitch-side to shout their affirmation. Funny, they seemed so determined that the Unity players must hear the clamour for victory; every last shout for fear the spirit would be lost. On a lesser day, Scarlet knew, he'd be preoccupied by the way no one ever shouted affirmation for cops. It didn't matter. He looked up through the weathered rafters at the glowing blue sky, smelt the vaguely acidic chemical which the groundskeepers used on the pitch. He reflected that he was happy.

Adam said to his son, "You know a dirty, shameful, dangerous thing? Betting. We should put money on it next time. Use your pocket money".

Ed sneered out a smile. "If I said yeah, you'd be freaked out".

"Not at all -", Adam shrugged, and they continued the matter all the way down the gulley.

Strolling free from the looming walls, taken aback, as always, by the awkward and heartwarming terraced houses that slanted around the car park; Scarlet's happiness continued. On days out, low blood sugar had been guarded against by his mother as a Latino Catholic guards against Satan; he supposed from his aching limbs he had it now. To the others he said, "I'm as hungry as I've ever been in my life. Mental is what I'm going. What do you say?"

It wasn't exactly true. He felt he could contentedly hang around the stadium for hours. The long, raw-brick flats, at points, turned into compounds of three-story apartments. No windows. No balconies. Still quite a relaxing place to live, he guessed. Glimpses though the old-fashioned walkways, metal piping to form anti-bike chicanes, revealed neat paving stone turrets, box gardens, washing lines. Because beat constables have a sense for housing estates: scum would not congregate here because it was just too obvious, with a clinically private vibe. Either that or the adjacent stadium was so full of life that it scared them.

A Mo Mowlam woman and her put-upon husband craned their bodies up from the burger van's cluster of plastic chairs. "Yonder!" The Svenson party snatched up their places excitedly. Adam, looking nothing-but purposeful in the style of Colonel White, unfolded a twenty pound note and gave it to the boy. "Two cokes, two burgers and whatever you're having. I'll have cheese, relish, but no onions. Your man, I seem to remember is a shrug-worthy 'just onions'?"

"That is correct", said Scarlet.

They watched Ed queue at the shack. He seemed in awe of the burger woman; several times, she had to repeat a question about the order. At the table, he doled out the oyster-trays and, as he'd somehow been concentrating the whole time, each one went to the correct man. With a kind of inward shug, he moved to carry away the stuff left by the previous diners, before Adam stopped him. He said in a studious voice, 'Waste not want not' and held the half-eaten burger to his mouth, threatening to swallow. Scarlet and Ed both laughed disgustedly. 'Waste not want not', he whispered weirdly, like a mental patient, and took a bite. Scarlet gagged, making Ed laugh harder.

But not so hard that he forgot himself.

The night was young; a vista opened up before them. Much discussion went into the idea of visiting the flicks for The Dark Knight Strikes, though Adam had reservations. "After all the good work with Year One and The Joker War. Anne Hathaway, man. She hangs over that film like a millstone. Women like that, thinking they can play Catwoman-"

"It's people like that", laughed Scarlet, "who are tearing this society apart".

"Part of what got me into this mess", said Adam, and footsied him under the table.

"I can settle for a Call of Duty marathon", Ed winced.

"Now, recreational war -"

The Miami Vice theme took everyone by surprise and Adam held the mobile glumly before his face, much like an ape. The expression hardly changed when he read the caller name, "Reg Hill?"

"Reg from the station?"

Adam said, "I assume so. Though why a beat copper wants to chat with a former Strike Team ponce like me is anyone's guess".

"He's a sergeant now", said Scarlet.

It was Ed's eyes that were most unsettled. "They're probably after me".

The two men stared at each other before Adam was finally spurred to answer the call. As he did so, waddling around the car park in search of some mythical perfect signal, Scarlet addressed the boy. "Why do you think the police, other than me, are going to give you a hard time? You've been keeping your nose clean haven't you?"

"Yeah", Ed gave an incredibly gentle shrug. "That's just the way it's going, though".

"Your man Hill probably just wants to check something from one of your Dad's old cases".

Ed stared at him, and he felt inferior. He bobbed his head round towards the nylon-shaded roof of the stadium, the way it was partially disconnected from the stern walls through struts the width of a thumb. Grey-glowing clouds were descending quickly now. There was no way it would rain, though something in the subconscious made the car park users move far more purposefully to their vehicles. Adam, as a cowboy, was calm as he finally sat down again, replaced his phone, resumed eating his burger.

"That was a funny call". To Ed, he asked, quite idly, "Are there many kids in your class with a bright blonde crewcut? Boys, I mean".

A dull answer came from the boy, "How should I know?"

" 'How should I know' ", Captain Blue did an impression of Steve Buscemi, "'What am I, a walking register?' The question remains. Blonde crewcut, male, 16 years old -talk to me".

More openly, with more fear as well, "It sounds like Simon Krychek".

Adam gave a look of dull acceptance, to the world. He twisted his thumb on the cacky table top. "The guys from Old Town were called out to some kids who were committing a crime in a wood. When they got there, only two were left. One of them legged it. One of them was brought in. He said he got there just as the others were clearing off, and was trying to put things right. Anyways, apparently he's in quite a state, and he's refusing to give the boys in blue his name -but he has name-dropped you, Ed. He said he knows your Dad used to be a cop, and that you can vouch that he's a good kid".

Ed absorbed this with very nimble eyes, a nimble mouth. The backdrop of the car park was becoming increasingly empty. Still there was life, around the coloured metal lugs which separated the parking zones, the rounded walkways. People coming to train, perhaps.

"What was the crime?"

Adam clasped his hands in front of his face. "I don't want to tell you unless I have to, because it's quite an unpleasant thing".

Scarlet raised his eyebrow but elected to stay quiet; he too wanted to ask what the kids were doing, but had no desire to unleash any horror. It was worse for him, he guessed, because he could imagine from past experience.

"Tell me about this Steve Krychek", said Adam in a sprightly tone. "Good kid, or little c-?"

"Simon Krychek. I said his name was Simon. Are you testing me, or what?"

His father shrugged. "No, I just wasn't listening hard enough. I'm only human".

The boy's shoulders were clearly tense, though they still looked narrow. Awkward was the word. Scarlet tried to remember at what age his own shoulders had started filling out, and seemed to imagine it wasn't until he started doing weights. As for the boy's eyes - they were reassuringly downcast.

He turned his neck to look into Ed's eyes, but was careful not align his whole body like a stupid, looming authority figure. "It's alright, fella. You can speak plainly with us. If you're wrestling with being loyal to him, or being kind to him despite the fact he's an c-, that's fine. It always is a wrestling match".

"It's not that", said Ed glumly. "But yeah. He's a good kid. His dad's an architect. I don't think he'd ever get caught up in any crime".

"'Simon Krychek'", reflected Captain Blue. "I'll call honcho and get him to pull the old Great Escape Train Platform trick. That's assuming he's not savvy. It's also assuming he's up for any kind of conversation; Hill reckons he's sobbing so hard he's practically hyperventilating".

All this was spoken in the spirit of gossip, though the deeper undercurrent was there and swarm between the Spectrum agents and the boy like something evil. Once they all acknowledged it, Adam went to town in his playful voice.

"You want to go and see the guy? Sounds like he's in need of a familiar face. And if he's just an acquaintance at the minute, it might be a way of becoming full-on friends. And God knows in this world you need as many friends as you can get, right, Constable Metcalfe?"

Scarlet gave a hasty, "Yeah".

"We could go over there", said the boy, worriedly.

"But first", Adam took a mouthful of burger, "we march in there and you can look at him through the two-way glass, so he can't see you -just to confirm that he is in fact the mythical Simon Krychek".

They walked, in no particular hurry, to the car, before Ed announced he was going for a wee. Scarlet cast his eyes at the distant blue sky, with birds the size of specks thinking about making their last flights before night. "What were the boys caught doing?"

Adam sighed. "They'd somehow managed to capture a heron, and they were torturing it".

"Is it dead?"

"Hell if I know. Hill said it was taken away by the RSPCA. From what his officers said, they'd filed away at its beak. Burnt up some of its feathers with lighters".

Scarlet breathed deeply. The sadness felt like a kind of hunger. "And if this kid Krychek did just happen to breeze past there, and he was trying to help the thing -imagine that for a nightmare".

"That's what I'm thinking", his eyes flicked up to see Ed emerging from the tall, white toilet. "Schtum".

En route to Old Town, Scarlet switched to 'PM' on Radio 4, because, while they needed a distraction, music would have been overbearing. The Polo, with a digi-ether radio as standard, never failed to seem like a thing of the future. The notion that they could be watching The Dark Knight, however, lingered every now and again, especially as they passed the two little cinemas which haunted the protracted commuter belt.

Alas it was a character building day. Local events were prettily chalked-up on tall black boards, by the community centre and the church, not a minutes walk from where two goatee-wearing slags were seriously considering robbing The British Heart Foundation Electricals store. Modern walls which curved around to follow the exact contours of the road as it broke free into a series of giant roundabouts. Glimpses came of an oversized Church of England, which was well-used and becalming, or perhaps just looked that way because of the warm colours.

After that, he dimly recognised the dipping road which led to the Old Town Precinct House. Once, when Unity Station was being decorated, they'd had to share the station here. Very early in the morning, slaving over his paper work, he'd become obsessed with staring at a tiny convenience store half a mile in the distance, and wondering if it was open or closed. Signs of civilisation in the oddest little places; always savour them.

They parked in the motor pool, beside police cars the colour of tooth enamel. Scarlet flashed his card and said, 'It's OK', to a cop who looked like an MP. In turn, the Svenson party was pointed through the salesman's to the cell hub. A ginger-haired guy behind an old fashioned desk paged Sergeant Hill.

Less than three minutes. "Thankyou for coming", he stared in fascination at Ed.

Adam, gesturing at his son, said, "This is the new Area Commander".

"Not really", said the boy awkwardly.

"He's got more sense than that, sir", suggested Scarlet.

Sergeant Hill nodded sagely. Showing the palms of his hands, he was brisk, the way a good copper should be. He was a 'good man', though Scarlet had long since given up daydreaming about recruiting other good men into Spectrum.

Jaded? Fearful? It all was; Ed glanced around the studio-lighted juncture as if he expected the floor to fall away, or ceiling to be lifted up. Bit by subtle bit, Scarlet began to feel nervous for him to a nightmarish degree.

"What we need", the Sergeant was careful to direct himself to all of them, "is a set of cool heads. I don't know the truth of what went on, but the boy is in a terrible state".

Scarlet stared at the back of Ed's head. It was a fact that lots of urchins were in 'a terrible state' when they were arrested. Children are a warring mass of weird sensitivity and hateful in-sensitivity; either one can be subverted into criminal guile. And so, if he was to stand a chance of prevailing in the social war of the twenty-first century, this was a baptism of fire which Ed must pass through.

Somehow the tiny lengths of corridor looked more clinical than any hospital on Earth. Towards the Cell Observation room, and even in through the windowless door, there was an abundance of anti-crime posters. It was like they'd been put there by a TV set designer who needed shorthand for 'Police Station'. Sir, what is this thing called 'crime'? Not now, Mr Data.

Something in the way in which Ed moved his limbs against the doors being opened for him told Scarlet that his breathing was deeply stressed. His flicking eyes were set to recognise a very specific set of things which had only previously been glimpsed in nightmares, so it seemed. Then finally he was overwhelmed to the point of no return, once they stood before the two-way glass; it was a broad window, with shockingly ambient walls, shockingly white lights -and yet the tearful, dramatic creature on the other side owned it. Psychically he owned everything, probably, within a space of ten miles. Even with the life they led, it had been a long time since anyone had seen a boy who was so ravaged by emotion. If it was a woman, hysterical at a sudden bereavement, they'd have plied her with drugs. If it was a teething baby, the parent would have held him in their arms and become the most caring, selfless creature, while simultaneously blanking out the harsh wailing through psychological pragmatism.

To begin with, Ed stared hard with a powerful, focused stare. Then his eyes started to flick once more, at the boy's fine, blonde crewcut which had been cracked into weird shapes. At his ruffled top. At his prone, quivering shoulders. His eyes tracing along the floor looking for some kind of psychological exit.

"Simon Krychek?", asked Adam.

"Yes", promised Ed.

Adam laid a reassuring hand on his boy's shoulder, then went to the inter-departmental phone on the wall. He called Hill and told him to contact the boy's headmaster, who'd in turn give up his dad's contact details.

Ed, meanwhile, was swallowing hard, and shifting his eyes from side to side.

"He did it", he said plaintively.

Adam was surprised. "I thought you said he was a good kid?"

Scarlet -clamped his jaw shut, stared keenly. The trainers, and the bright blue hoodie. He'd never been convinced that there was anyone who innocently put on a hoodie. They're too associated with child-scum. Even if the person in question was working class, and were ignorant of how 'Hoodie' equals evil-minded, hanging-around oblivion -ignorance is complacency is horror.

He turned the gilt, galvanised key and went into the questioning room, there to loom above the cramped boy. His red eyes were searing and dramatic, though from Scarlet's point of view -feeble.

"Your old man is on the way", he said, with a kind of smile. "Everything's going to be fine".

He watched the boy's reaction closely, figuring that, if he was in fact guilty, something about him would now change. A parent coming and no charges brought; the tears and the hysteria would have served their purpose and therefore they'd start to subside. On the other hand, if he was innocent, the tears would continue, the gasping, only now as an expression of relief.

Very briefly, Scarlet glanced into the mirror-glass and hoped that Adam and Ed were staring back, appreciative that he was trying to get to the bottom of things. It was an ordeal, and a whirlwind must be reaped.

As a finely-tuned engine of judgement, his heart jerked impatiently. Simon Krychek had a pleasing enough face for a young boy, and it didn't help that any hint of guilt or innocence was hidden away as he apparently relived the unpleasantness again and again. 'Apparently' because something put Scarlet in mind of Oscar-winning acting; Charlize Theron and the like, or maybe Brad Pitt in 'Babel'. Struggling with emotions, even subtle ones, hardly matters at all once you've learnt how to express shock and oblivion.

"Who are you?", Krychek asked him in a kind of squeal.

Scarlet ignored the question. "I understand how you feel. Magnificent creatures, aren't they? Biggest wingspan of any British bird. I used to live on a terrace when I was a kid, and all the back gardens had ponds. Those guys would swoop down and try and get through the nets. I used to secretly think, 'Good luck to you'. After all, on Sunday in church, you could always pray for any fish that got killed".

He watched the boy carefully for definite flickers of guilt, or full-on un-repentance spurred by anger or impatience. The boy, in turn, started to pay proper attention to Scarlet.

"So you think I was hurting that bird, like the others?"

The stare-out had taken them both by surprise, yet it seemed natural, as paperclips drawn to a powerful magnet. "I don't know one way or the other", said Scarlet. "If you're a good kid, then you can look into my eyes and feel solidarity at the anger I've got. If you're a bad kid, ditto, but you'll feel ashamed. Either way, here's my eyes, and you can't do anything without giving yourself away".

Blurry Grand Canyon stare-out: protracted.

"I tried to help it!"

How old is the Grand Canyon?

"It wouldn't have been so bad, would it, Simon, if they were trying to pluck and eat it. At least then, unpleasant as it was for the bird, there'd be some kind of practical upshot. How's your dad by the way? He's an architect, isn't he? Much work going around for an architect nowadays? Maybe you could get him to make a donation to the RSPB".

They continued to stare at each other, perilously, for a few seconds. He could hear the boy sniffing and sense the horrible dry vacuum in his head. There was the sound of a commotion in the room beyond -Scarlet felt his eyes being pulled away.

Activating the small, funny lock, he passed through and found that Ed had fallen away into the corner of the room. He was crying horribly now, almost a reflection of Krychek.

"He's a Mysteron!"

Adam held his boy's shoulders and tried to understand. He even smiled a little. "No, Ed! The Mysterons aren't going to take control of kids! Honestly, they don't care about them. They're all about politics".

As if he'd been crying for hours, his eyes were an inky red. He spoke breezily. "Don't you understand, for f-'s sake? They wanted to use him to take control of me, and use me to destroy you. They know everything about Spectrum, and there's nothing we can do to stop them. In the end, they'll destroy everything".

"Do you have a recurring dream?", Destiny asked Conrad.

They'd already got into the habit of deconstructing each other's dreams, as delirious lovers often do. Now was the first time they'd spoken of recurring dreams, though. Conrad only partially understood the concept, and pretended to be completely ignorant all in order to hear her explain in that light, documentary-standard voice.

And in the end, when she pressed him, he told her. "When I was a small boy, I must have watched some Nazi spy film -'Went The Day Well?' or that thing with Michael Caine and Dono Sutherland. Every month or so, I'd dream that I'd been a Nazi spy living among the people of a beautiful English village. Only now I'd finally betrayed them, and was making my escape to a landing strip on the coast. Only it wasn't going well. I could hear a rabble of villagers hurrying after me. I came in view of the landing strip, and the plane - and I was machine-gunned in the back. Obviously, that's when I'd always wake up".

"That's such a weird dream for a kid", said Destiny.

"Tell me about it. Since when did the Home Guard carry machine guns? And your recurring dream?"

She struggled with the buttons of her crisp, white shirt, managing to look glum and thoughtful by turns. He'd never known a girl to sit so ceremoniously first thing in the morning. "Just as out-there as yours, I suspect. I'm always a pilot, in a weird, European jet fighter".

"Is that so 'out-there'?", wondered Conrad. "Your older brother worked for the biggest model plane company in the country. You must have been around them since forever".

But Destiny gave a mystical look. Playful. "No! My dream started long before Zradca ever joined up with Skyform. And it's a very strange thing: I can picture it in my mind, feel it, and describe in perfect detail where each control is in the cockpit, what they do. I can even tell you where the ejector lever is, though I've never used it".

Reflected Conrad, "Do you suppose the controls correspond to a real jet?"

"You know, I've played around on simulators on the internet. There's a certain amount of truth in it".

She'd completed her morning exercises, Conrad having watched her without once feeling like a pervert. Now there was nothing to do but set out, he to the office and Destiny to the RSPCA. On the way, they stopped at a burger van in a layby in the shape of Africa, just shy of the Tan Hill rat-run. It was a sunny morning, which made no difference to the fact that his mind was a Stalingrad stalemate between delirious love, desperate plans for the future and utter hatred of Weltsbury County Council.

They devoured their burgers with utter physical hedonism. The hedgerow beside the Nissan's front passenger seat could just-about be looked over. The fields: beautifully green, though it was hard to get your eyes orientated to the gentle slopes.

"Where do you suppose we'll be in five years time?", he asked in a resilient voice.

She smiled, anticipating the sweetness that was about to come from her mouth, "I really couldn't care less, as long as we're together".

Conrad smiled too. "I was thinking about all the 'Spectrum' money that must get put into the networks, all our funny, elaborate operations. It suggests maybe we'll have a sizeable bonus, when our work is done. Perhaps we could go on holiday somewhere, once it's all over".

"I've always fancied Canada", said Destiny, wistfully, like a character in a tourism advert.

For the start of the day, he didn't exactly daydream about Canada, but was there, in his mind. 'Mornings' were exchanged with other Council employees, though if they'd had eyes to see, they would have understood that his smile came from somewhere else. A fierce, hypnotic battle being fought between sun rays and dense fir branches stretching all the way to the ground. At his feet, soil which, rain or shine, had the consistency of luscious coffee granules. Destiny walking round like a native.

Alas Canada fell away in little under five minutes, as Conrad was forced to share an office with Leslie Burnivale of the Environmental Health team, a woman with the personality of a canoeist-killing weir -undetectable until it's too late, then altogether ambient when it finally pulls you under. Following a review by the Community Planning Association, twenty-five percent of the litter bins in Unity City were to be reincarnated as dog-dirt drops. Leslie Burnivale selected the bins on a map, rather arbitrarily. She then designed linoleum decals to cover the existing 'litter-man' emblems and emailed them to the printers in the lower block. Before Conrad left to pick the decals up and ferry them on to the Waste Management Facilitators, he felt he should say something. Burnivale was a blank, imposing woman, which is why he spoke with an utter absence of fear.

"Did you know dog-dirt is actually biodegradable? That means it goes away naturally, by itself, in the rain".

Her eyes pulsed, "I dare say you don't think about whether it's biodegradable or not when you stand in it".

Conrad said, "What do you think of when you stand in it? Hatred of the dog, with his unconditional smile and waggy tail? The obligation of Weltsbury County Council to control the natural world? And if so, is there such a thing as free will, or things-in-a-human-scale or sanity?"

The woman, large body-mass index, puffed out her cheeks in exasperation. "Are you joking? Because if you are, I've got work to do".

Conrad picked up his black-suede jacket from the back of the chair and moved to leave. "No, I'm not, and no, you haven't".

And if he believed it would get any better than that, he was wrong. Having picked up the new bin-decals from the industrial printers, he delivered them to the Waste Management Facilitation Unit. In his mind he'd pictured bin lorries parked in ranks, perhaps friendly-looking, clunky-limbed bluecollars -but that was somewhere else; the Domestic Refuse Collection Unit. This department consisted of a disconsolate boy shovelling dog-dirt bags into a furnace, and a fairly fat man with a creased-up face standing outset. For the first few seconds alone, Conrad wondered why the boy looked quite so disconsolate. Then his nose opened up and he detected the all-pervading smell. It was the rankest thing he'd ever come across. That alone? No; the boy couldn't have been stupid. Some of the ridiculous politics would surely be haunting him, the fact that he was a latter-day Sisyphus being hounded by bureaucratic gods.

As it was so close to his lunch break, and he was too depressed to spend any time in his own mind, he went to a nearby metro store with the idea of picking up two 1.5 litre bottles of Space Medicine whisky for the man and the boy. It was a small, well-stocked shop, designed as an in-and-out affair, except there was only one manned checkout. A fat woman in an exaggerated business suit fidgeted as the good-natured lad pulled the items free from her basket. When the time came to pay, she jerkily fished about in her handbag for her wallet, because why get ready beforehand, for Gods sake? She slowly angled the credit card in her hand, getting ready to slide it in to the Chip n' Dale. She slowly moved the joint in her elbow in preparation to enter the PIN as painstakingly as possible, the machine liable to turn into a test by Stephen Hawking at any moment, apparently. It occurred to Conrad that, as he'd been standing there watching the c- go about her slow-motion, mechanical-bourgeois business, he'd seen her do at least a dozen hatefully lazy things. Which his subconscious had forced him to ignore. It was possible she was almost finished, thirty seconds shy, plus the time she'd spent testing the handles of her bag before she lifted it away from the counter. Still too long. He put the two bottles of whisky into her shopping bag and breezed forward.

"Right, I'm off", he said simply.

The woman stared at him questioningly. Weirdly, he didn't hate her at that moment, but enough momentum had been built up that he was carried forward on a giddy, Satanic tide.

"Excuse me?"

"The country belongs to yuppie housewives. Don't feel guilty".

She gasped, and it was a kind of victory. All the same he felt crushed. His insides felt cacky, his neck: horribly exposed, though the sensation faded as he ran the half-mile outwards to the next little shop. It was a newso converted from a flat, located beside the scrubland of the Hardenjew Estate. The young Asian man was hardly surprised by his panting and red face, and God loves a world that goes 'tick-tock'. Outside in the sunshine, walking slightly taller now, greeted by a boy and his ugly boxer dog. No dogs like Petra, not in the twenty-first century. Perhaps we'll just develop a different aesthetic.

Back at the Waste Management Facilitation Unit, the lad and the old man had vanished from their stations beside the Turd Incinerator. He guessed it was their lunch break. For a sizeable amount of time, he considered keeping the bottles of Whisky for himself -one to keep under his desk, the other to take home to Destiny. What stopped him in the end was an odd, sprightly conception of Karma, of cosmic responsibility.

A window was open. Sunshine which would have been hazy anyway, hitting the turdy atmosphere, assumed a two-dimensional look. The dominant conveyor cut through it to a black rubber work table. This was where Matey and Matey jnr had flung their hi-viz jackets. Conrad took the initiative and placed each bottle of whisky beneath the fabric, giving the appearance of two very skinny, fluorescent wraiths.

In retrospect, only one thing haunted him; if he'd kept one of the whiskies, started to get drunk then and there in order to get through the afternoon -the whole sequence of events might somehow have been deflected by numbness.

There'd been a kind of alliance between Conrad and Mason Alfie, a high-ranking planning officer. At first it had simply been Conrad's job to fill the place of a mouse-man who'd left for some other kind of yuppiedom. Elected duties: proof-reading Alfie's reports, annotating legal documents, drafting inter-departmental responses, channelling the various proposals of fat-eyed land developers. It was dull, bureaucratic work, putting far too much procedural into cultivating a small corner of England, a 700 yard plot at the top of a valley-ringed suburb. It was numb, tick-tocky work and Conrad could easily become hypnotised by the procedural jazz. Unfortunately, Mason Alfie took this to be enthusiasm. He confided in Conrad, opened up to him. Invariably, Conrad had wanted to stab him in the eye.

At his desk, deleting old e-mails and thinking about the weekend, he took a phone call from Leanne Persimmon. She revealed that Alfie had taken the week off because his daughter had chicken pox.

"What's his daughter's name?", he asked, knowing full well it was 'Masie'.

As Persimmon breathed the answer, there was there it was; that eternal reverence of housewife unity. And in the background -some kind of corruption.

Said Conrad, "'Masie'. I'll just make a note of that in the front of my Bible".

He winced as the sound corrupting the line became a sickening whine, a barrage of elfin giggles. "It sounds like you're having an interesting time yourself".

Persimmon laughed -where he would have far preferred she'd wised-up to the fact that he loathed her. "I'm working from home today".

"And what's your young offspring called?"

"Charlie", she breathed triumphantly.

"Bible", said Conrad faintly.

"Listen I'm not sure how up-to-speed Mason kept you on the Reefhill application stage, but it's all finished now. We just need someone to deliver the results to the Carsgill people. In terms of how it might affect their works, One Family have submitted their groundsplan and -just let the Carsgill management know that any disruption will be kept to a minimum".

Conrad was speechless; all he could do was angle his head and wait for some kind of clear explanation. It would surely come in a second or two, but that was too long.

"You mean the One Family application has been approved instead of Carsgill?"

From the start there'd only been two main contenders for the Reefhill site. Carsgill, a nation-wide plastics manufacturer, already had a factory on the adjacent land; they wanted to expand, make a new lorry depot and warehouse. One Family, the maker of luxury homes, merely wanted to fill the plot with Gone With the Wind homesteads. Mason Alfie was the Council adjudicator. Noble. Money hardly entered into it. He assessed each application according to their acquiescence to local planning edicts and the benefits which would be brought to the community.

Through it all, Conrad had believed that the winning application would be the Carsgill factory. He knew that British people didn't really like industry, but surely there came a threshold where it just couldn't be denied as the most important social component? Especially in a recession. Especially when balanced against a dozen houses only of use to a handful of people, causing up to a year of disruption while they're built. But -surely.

"You probably have them already in some form or another, but the bullet points I'll send over to you by fax. No, actually I'll send them by email and you can print them out on WCC headers". He could detect the flapping around of her shoulders, like the scatty little yuppie she was, and would be, until the end of time, in hell.

Initially, he liked the sound of 'bullet points' because it suggested the reasoning would be arranged in neat little lines which could be easily defended. Unfortunately, each seconds-worth of text given up by his printer revealed that the excuses for denying Carsgill were mind-bogglingly shameful. On the taxi ride over there, he passionately hoped that whatever kind of factory boss greeted him, they'd see him purely as a messenger, not to be shot or even glowered at. This was no way to live, true. Latterly he hoped that, from nowhere, on the spur of the moment, he'd be able to defend his hideous employers, somehow.

Swinging along the short little bypass which stank of stinging nettles and leathery chestnuts, the deeper form of sadness came sliding in. A state of indeterminacy, inclined towards sorrow. What if life with Destiny wasn't real, and this selfish, thoughtless form of humanity was the only truth? Shame and impotency at every turn.

The factory was a brightly-coloured mass of steel. The business reception presented a pleasant, white-edged conservatory in front of grey outcrops. In all likelihood the place got more expansive as it backed up into the woods. Conrad couldn't face going in straight-off, and so drifted alongside the groomed tufts of grass set against dimpled paving slabs. At some concrete fire escape steps, a man in jeans and a shirt had just finished being sick. His rugby-shirted friend comforted him just shy of the Ends of the Earth.

"You going home?", asked Rugby Shirt.

The sickly man rubbed his white skin. "No, I should get back in there".

"You look less sweaty now".

The sickly man ran a hand over his brow, examined the sweat, then waved it in his friend's face with a 'wwaahh!'. They both laughed.

Conrad manhandled the big glass doors and the semi-pretty black-haired receptionist smiled at him. He offered to sign the visitors book; she wrinkled her nose and said it wasn't necessary. Even as he settled back into the rough-cushioned chair, a grave-looking man emerged from a small, port-holed door and slipped towards him. The handshake was much like a drug deal, at least in terms of the pressure exerted and the sense of shame. Through the little door was the bricky, unpainted corner of a warehouse complete with a seldom-used noticeboard and lights which were never bright, still expected to expand into every dry crevice. Conrad felt curiously excited. He'd often worked in factories like this when he was a younger man. Once or twice he'd come close to having an FLM position thrust on him before the various recessions shut each place down. There was, aligned with the far wall, a cross between a production line and an exchange carousel. Creme-grey metal struts was the design motif, on closer inspection with every surface dominated by keyhole-shaped indents so that it could be endlessly realigned like meccano. He saw a boy with a sour-but-approachable smile. He saw a man who looked like his dad.

Three quarters along the way was a thick metal stair case, oddly stylish-looking. The manager led him up with anxious, staring eyes. And, in fact, the offices, otherwise homely, were infected by the man's anxiety over this spectral Council man. He had a thin face; edgy, capable -perhaps ex-military from some time back in the eighties, when the army was less hateful.

He suspected bad news. Conrad confirmed it, all the while sensing his own stoney expression.

"Is there any kind of appeal?", asked the Manager.

Conrad sighed, and said no. One third bureaucratic, two thirds childish insouciance.

"Even though", the other man fanned through the two-page Council report, "every one of these reasons is nonsense?"

Blinking sadly, his stoney smile vanishing away as stupidly as it had come, Conrad said, "That's probably why there's no right of appeal". He said this, hoping that the honest approach, all working class solidarity, would at least help the man understand that he was just the messenger. Just another victim.

It worked - not at all.

The Manager stood perfectly still and flapped the report down on the corner of a desk, so close to the edge it almost slipped onto the threadbare carpet. Impressions were conjured of a World War One patriarch reading a death-in-the-family telegram. Though he was obviously a man who scowled at the best of times, it was clear this grimness -he was trapped in amber, preserved in anxiety. The black moustache, having kept its lustre even in his fifties, simply looked defeated now. High, hollow cheekbones, big eyes...

It was all too much, and Conrad allowed his gaze to be lifted around the grey edges of the room. The lighting was just powerful enough to write by; ideal for the ticking of boxes and shipping-address fields which most of the clipboards demanded. Seven-figure carrier references. 'Your reference, our reference'. Just put everything. Put a dash or put a stroke, write in as frantic a hand as you like, as long as it's legible. On the wall there was hourly output figures for each area of the factory, plus blocky stock-check sheets coloured like medals on a four-star general's chest. Was it possible he could smell the ink?

The high observation windows offered a very craned glimpse of the factory floor. He saw arms moving robotically, and God makes robots to live forever. Old men in classic brown coats -where do they even get them from? It was a world of fine, human endeavour. Old men, wives, intriguingly bitter ex-wideboys, all working together. The nobility of teamwork in manual British industry; it occurred to him that it could never be valued too highly.

The next time he looked up at the Manager it was to see his thin shoulders going sideways to leave the room. Conrad had imagined that, as soon as he was alone, he'd slump down out of shame. God knew how, he was managing to find strength. Fresh problems were faced, however -such as, what was going on? Had the man, bringing his old-school military precision, marched off to find a more senior manager to take charge? Perhaps to contact the company lawyer? That would make sense, except -bluecollar humans inviting a war of claw-minded monsters. It wasn't going to happen. Conrad was left alone in the greeny-yellowy light to wonder.

In time, he carefully expanded his comfort zone to the tight metal stairs. No one looked at him as he stepped out onto the concrete avenue, so smooth it was like some strange kind of marble. A late-middle-aged woman with a teddy-boy haircut was operating what looked like a test-tube centrifuge. He longed to know exactly what the machine did, just before he was absorbed in an even more fascinating matter. The people. What had been gnawing at him all along was the fact that he recognised -everyone. Conrad Turner, who'd always loathed the idea pigeon-holing people's personalities, recognised the various archetypes as surely as he breathed. The big, burly men who were almost supernaturally quiet. The big, burly men who liked motorsports, or monster trucks, or RC boats. The pub stalwarts who lived for skittles or darts. The skinny men who seemed impossibly eloquent, and had scholarly conversations with you about religion or the unexplained, though in the privacy of their own minds were lost in something even more profound. The forever-teenage girls who came from large families, and were gentle like gallant knights. The old women who were slags, or grouches, but you loved them. The twenty-something lads who liked ice-hockey or American football. The boy who was writing a novel which was either far too bad to be published or far too good. The lesbian. The man who'd been in prison. The man whose wife left him, and whose daughter had moved to America, while he stayed in England because he found his nine-to-five strangely comforting. The spectacled or non-spectacled thirty-five-year-old, who looked like Robin Gibb, and had a deep understanding of Communism or the Nazis which he kept under his hat until asked. The wide-faced, tight-faced man who just wanted to work.

Talk about Spectrum? Here was your spectrum. The mighty exchange of life, in each and every one of them. And he knew, as he walked around the bustling production machines: in ten years time each and every one of them would be extinct. Most would devolve to become welfare-feral or methadone-minded protoyuppies, doomed. A few would commit suicide. A few would emigrate to Germany or the East, and thrive.

He walked towards the far edge of the warehouse where there was a funny kind of window. He breezed past a forklift, and then past the towering gromit-dispenser attended by the man who looked like his dad. Don't think about it. Towards the despatch link, it became Clipboard World. He met the man with the wide, worldly face, who had an elaborate hobby such as ornamental kite-flying or dragon-boat racing. His companion: a Man United fan, though one of the rare few you couldn't hate as he could recite the forty years worth of history in as much detail as you cared for. And why not? At the end of each shift, you could do whatever you wanted, anything in the world, because you were tired and you knew you'd appreciate it. None of that guilty or desperate excess of Id, which the yuppies always had to channel into having ever more children.

There was the manager, at last, working on some kind of pre-jig tolerance machine. Phased on one hand, concentrating on the other.

"Well? What now?", asked Conrad awkwardly.

"That's it", he said in a commanding tone.

"I'll go", said Conrad.

"I thought you'd want to walk around the place, see what you want to sell off, since you people are so in control of everything".

"I'm not in control of anything", said Conrad, with Destiny foremost in his mind. "This can't be the end of the world for you?"

The Manager skipped a beat, chewing his mouth bitterly. "Companies need to expand in order to survive. That's what real companies do, as opposed to you people, who only know how to consume".

"I know, and I'm sorry".

" 'I' this and 'I' that", the Manager operated the machinery as if pulling a pint. "I used to think that the reason you people hate us is because you know there's no way to live without manual work. And the thought of us training you, maybe making you look stupid, is shameful and neurotic".

"You're preaching to the converted", promised Conrad, as if he would listen.

Continued the Manager, "But on our side, we don't resent heart-surgeons or cancer specialists when they explain how they're going to make us better, do we? The only difference is, they work with this carefully-learned use of anatomy and scalpels and drugs. We work with a carefully-learned use of graft and patience and selflessness. What's so embarrassing about that? But you'll never learn, will you, and that's why Britain's going to hell".

Wincing, clenching his jaw -Conrad didn't think he'd ever scowled so hard before. He wanted to say that he'd personally grant Carsgill the extension, and what's more provide them with every school-leaver in the county to work as temps. Regardless of this; if he couldn't bring about the world-reversing change himself, he could at least avenge the ideology behind it. On a subconscious level, as soon as he started to stalk free from the factory, his mind was filled with a cool breeze of determination. Something absolutely new. This would be the fall of Weltsbury County Council. He would confront the Council Leader Reith Korinson. He would point out how illogical his mighty empire was. If necessary he would point it out using his fists.

Of the survival of Captain Black, the undercover Spectrum agent: it was immaterial. He would simply be seen as a good, simple man who'd seen too much of the hideous, fart-minded bureaucracy. Destiny, because she loved him, would understand the catharsis. It was all-consuming.

The taxi-ride back was a magically-real affair. Nostrils automatically took in extra volumes of crisp summer air to feed his vengeance-pumping brain. On first climbing aboard, the driver was enjoying a Classic FM stalwart of sub-Vaughan-Williams violin musak. Somewhere along the farm-haunted b-road which led to the Tan Hill Downs, it changed to a wholly bombastic orchestral piece. In time Conrad managed to identify it as a section from Holst: The Planets.

Paying up via the Council Petty Cash Credit Card, he gave the cabbie a fifty pound tip, because, though he hated taxi-drivers, it seemed an excellent way of scuttling his career at Weltsbury County Council, or at least starting. He walked confidently through the various skive-abandoned departments. The small cubicles, to his angry eyes, represented decadence as surely as chaise langues in a stately home. Institutions mean nothing, they never have: grow up. Meanwhile, the objective itself started to feel eerie. It was, he sensed, a version of Groundhog Day where, instead of just being constantly returned to a town of people who annoyed him, Bill Murray was in the domain of some metaphysical enemy. Satan, having repeatedly raped the Earth. The nightmarish tension was far from coincidental. As he entered the high, peculiar nook which housed Korinson's offices and outer-offices, he wondered why the saggy-mouthed receptionist didn't try to stop him. It wasn't as if she was scared of him, just weirdly blank.

There was also something else to make his heels to grow heavy. A subtle feeling. The psychic equivalent of the terror felt when a Hercules or Chinook flies so incredibly low over your house. The deflected rumble which you can't quite pin-down, which could easily be a Lockerbie-style death-glide. And -he almost wasn't speeding along any more- where on Earth was everybody? The Mary Celeste must have been bad, but it had never been part of a nineteenth nervous breakdown.

Conrad simply told himself that Korinson's upper floor was a palace held secure by a masonic belief in gall and arrogance. The walls between the outer arenas and the inner sanctum were curved and felt-textured. All of it drew him onwards, to the central door, a thing of fine lacquer over medium price wood-linoleum; charming.

There is no trick to announcing yourself as someone's sworn enemy. He thought of nothing whatseover as he pounded open the door.

And then slowly seemed to think of everything at once. Heaven and Earth.

Korinson was sitting tall, and as motionless as a mannequin. All remained silent as he looked down on a blank desktop, nothing at all prompting him to swerve his head at the angry intruder. A supernatural trance, then. Except his unseeing eyes were only a small element. Conrad's vision became magnetised to the luminous rings of light which played around the desk, up over the fat Council Leader's abdomen. Instinct, any kind of wild first guess, would be that they were a projection of some kind. This seemed incorrect. If they were a projection, there was no obvious source of master-light to produce them. The only other explanation scared the wits out of him: that they were some kind of cosmic phenomenon -maybe disembodied aliens- or ghosts. Certainly, it was hard to imagine such perfect spheres being produced naturally and, as they moved, with such a sense of hypnotic power.

Seconds passed and he remembered himself. In the fight or flight mechanism, the 'flight' option screamed loud enough to wake the dead. Now back-tracking and swinging the door shut, there was the slightest possibility the rings had not 'noticed' him and been given pause for thought. The outer-arena was a world of ambient noise, which previously he'd taken for silence. Moving past the secretary, staring at her computer screen a little too archly, he didn't know what to think. No thinking required, except to keep his chattery panic allied with the chattery instructions of his fleeing mechanism. Down through the beige-illuminated stairwell and then shuffling at speed towards the safety of the hillside town exit.

He hailed a taxi from the crowded 'Little Paris' road. He was braced by the brown, reassuring darkness of the back seat, and all that remained before the panic could turn into weird meditation was to think of a place he could tell the driver, just shy of Cloud Base. Job done, the mixture of fear, meditation and the struggle to understand became an art form. Outside it was bright and beautiful. The dusk which lapped at Conrad was altogether mysterious.

Magenta was on look-out duties in the high perch of the flattened wood, very much a character from 'The Beach'.

"Whoa", he said on glimpsing Conrad. "What time do you call this, Black?"

Conrad breathed, and then spoke. "2014".

"I thought Destiny usually gives you a lift home?"

"I came home early because I feel sick".

This was true in a way. Since seeing the spirits which swirled around Korinson, everything looked dramatically different, from the sky to the trees to the faded asphalt. Really, it was the same kind of jarring over-cognisance which came at the onset of debilitating flu.

"What's your code-phrase, fella?"

" 'Who's there? Knock knock' ", said Conrad.

Magenta gave a fine sort of nod, as if it had been far from granted that Black would give the correct answer.

"Don't you want to ask me mine?"

"Where's Colonel White?", asked Conrad, expecting him to say the Control Tower. Control. Ivory. Control. Ivory.

"He's over at the submerged plane", the Spectrum stalwart frowned.

In addition to the living quarters, the hangars, motorpool, repair bay, the air base once had an extensive exercise yard, which included a two hundred yard swimming pool. The dirt and the disrepair indicated that it had remained unused since the RAF had pulled out, and then all through the civilian ownership. It was never more unloved though, than when, just prior to Spectrum's take-over, fun-loving kids had hauled one of the last remaining planes into the water. It was only a small, single-engine Beechcraft; it didn't even take up a the whole of the pool, but it was completely submerged. What made the whole thing quaint, perhaps, was that the above-fuselage wings were completely flush with the sides of the pool, creating a kind of natural bridge. Spectrum genius had gone with placing a pic-nic table at the centre. Destiny had explained that, in high summer, the smell of water-scum made it impossible to sit there. However, with the amount of rain recently, the water had been naturally cleansed, to a degree. Your man White must be having a pleasant pic-nic.

Conrad approached him with every kind of weird zeal pumping in his heart. The man was sitting stiffly over a laptop, the water around him rippling slightly. He wanted to swear at him; only the blast of wind to his face had a sobering effect.

Standing at the edge of the wing, the white-haired man looked up at him. He stared, gauntly, for quite some time. In an ugly burst of understanding, Conrad remembered Destiny's telling him that the Colonel had a brain condition which prevented him from recognising faces. Pathetic, really.

" 'Captain Black' ", said Conrad scornfully.

"Where is your black jacket?", demanded White.

Conrad ignored this. "Tell me you know about the rings", he said darkly.

It was one of the only times he'd ever seen Colonel White look shocked.

"You saw them? Did they touch you, Captain Black?"

It occurred to him that perhaps this was why Spectrum placed such importance is secret codes and passwords. The rings, demons, whatever they were - could obviously take control of you. It's what they'd done or were in the process of doing to Korinson.

Conrad was furious, though he also smiled a little.

"You send people into that place, knowing full well they could be taken over by ghosts!"

"Calm down, Captain Black. I'll explain to you, as I explained before. We're at war, engaged in all the risk and subterfuge of any great war. It could well be the last war this country sees".

Bearing down on the man, Conrad very much wanted to hit him out of his chair, into the dank water, down between the aeroplane struts. "And why didn't you just tell me, for God's sake? Did you not think-"

He didn't like the way the laptop was so prominent in White's attention. He picked it up, held it ready as if to smash the Colonel with the hinge end.

And was surprised when a sniper's bullet caused it to explode in his hand.

"That's why you need to calm down", said White, crisply.

The roar in his head kept him standing upright; it was so all-pervading, it was probably the exact same thing keeping White clamped in his chair. Think mighty, and dangerous, and pathetic, and doomed. There was no way he could express what he really wanted to say, however. I am a simple man, but never small.

"What are they?"

Colonel White breathed deeply. He sat back in his chair and seemed to forget at once what had just happened with Conrad's rage, the bullet, the loss of his laptop. Eyes cast a little off to the side, puzzling. Conrad stood motionless on the sturdy fibreglass of the wing and prepared himself.

"They call themselves the Mysterons. The earliest they appeared, as far as anyone can tell, according to secret Soviet files, was in the Kargopollag gulag in the frozen North of Russia. 1953. The Stalinist purges were at the height of their power. One lived in a world of- absolute political and ideological tension. You could be removed from your day-to-day life, taken to a gulag, at the drop of a pin and based on nothing more substantial than lending an American book, or having a distant relative who had capitalist leanings.

"Stalin felt he had the weight of civilisation upon his shoulders. It was like fighting an infection. And it wasn't just keeping the masses in order. Increasingly he set his gaze on Communist Party members and his own generals.

"In 1953, Generals Nikolai Millivatersin, Karl Yudin, Leonid Andrei found themselves in the bleak, ice-bound gulag of Kargopollag. Previously, they'd all been well-known as ardent party members, loyal beyond words to Stalin. But they'd all somehow fallen victim to his over-scrupulous purges.

"After an escape attempt -General Yudin's journal telling that it was only their previous standing which prevented them from being shot- the three of them were placed in a punishment cell with a man who was to become their fourth conspirator. Antif Elixovich.

"This man was what we would call a black magician. Evidently, he was able to convince the others that there was power, an opportunity of resistance, to be had in magical rituals. In these bleakest of conditions, they started to experiment with the occult -"

Said Conrad, in an ambiguous tone which leant to darkness, "And 'The Mysterons' were born".

He was impatient to wrap the whole thing up, but the Colonel still had more history to wow him with. He did so, sounding resolved, to the degree of Ben Hur speeding around the arena in his chariot.

"They worked with all the characteristics of black magic you would imagine. An inversion of holiness, a disregard for human life, above all a rejoicing in intellectual power. With these monstrous creatures of destruction at their beck and call, the generals gave in to their feelings of betrayal and the longing for revenge. They decided to let the Mysterons destroy the Communist Empire, purely out of spite. As a matter of record, by the time the four of them departed the camp, all of the guards had dropped dead from sudden and inexplicable heart failure. The other prisoners had scattered. It seems reasonable to assume that some of them, if not all, were under Mysteron control. In fact-"

"Colonel", Conrad moved to loom above him, sniper sight or no. "Let me tell you, I don't care about any of this".

The white-haired man seemed genuinely surprised. His narrowed eyes and gaunt mouth taking over completely. "You did ask what they were. What were you expecting?"

"You're telling me things -as if the Philadelphia Experiment was real, as if the Devil's Hoofprints were made by a real creature, who's still coming after us. What it amounts to is that Spectrum is a secret organisation set up to hunt evil ghosts, which is always going to be ridiculous".

The chair had a slight swivel joint; Colonel White utilised it for a subtle, dramatic gesture. As ever, the surface of the submerged plane felt absolutely solid.

"The Mysterons have a political agenda, which is anything but ridiculous".

"Which is?"

"The promotion of boom-or-bust bourgeois greed to the point of destroying civilisation".

Pointed out Conrad, "We're fighting a losing battle".

But the Colonel barely reacted. He settled into his solemnity, the thick, white jacket catching every iota of sunshine and dust. Though it gave a clear impression otherwise, his brow actually had no knots whatsoever. It was almost smooth, helped along by the silence of the nearby trees, the thick lower sections catching not a bit of sunshine. He sat still and pursed his lips.

"You know, they'd have you acting like this. You're disarrayed. Over-emotional like a mental patient".

Conrad stared on, an attempt to prove he was anything but. "The whole thing is disarrayed. Why would some demons, conjured up to destroy Stalin's Communism sixty years ago, then carry on their work in present day Britain?"

Pay-off stare: go. White's eyes pierced him as never before. "Because try as we might, we can never completely remove basic, Communist ideals from society. Thatcher. New Labour. They strained it, diluted it until it was one part per billion. But it's always there, as a raw strain of common sense. Perhaps a genetic memory from pre-history, in the heart of anyone who takes a manual, put-upon job, rejoices because it at least offers a practical means of survival".

In summary, then: "Captain Black. I hope this won't effect the fine work which you do for us. However, if it does, I would warn you about keeping our secret".

"You expect me to go back and resume my job at the Council, even though they probably know that I know?"

There was little or no breeze, then. Conrad held his small, veiny arms in utter tension.

White winced at the bright cloudscape. "It makes no odds. 'We know that they know that we know'. It goes around in ever-decreasing circles, and it doesn't matter the slightest. We're fighting a war of ideas. Probably the only thing the Mysterons don't know about us, and can never know, is that we have the power of righteousness and sanity as our secret weapon".

Ignoring this fine-minded statement, Conrad gestured over his shoulder, "Why not just put sniper bullets through the heads of all the c-s who are possessed?"

"The Mysteron in question would simply leave the corpse to enthral a new subject, probably the very person who'd done the shooting". The implication being that this intelligence had been hard won through some particularly vicious episode between Spectrum and the enemy. "In fighting them, we must take the guise of bureaucrats, engage in bureaucratic sabotage. Try to illuminate them in the eyes of the general public as nightmarishly arrogant and parochial. It's not pleasant, but it's the only way".

The water around the nose-cone; this was particularly hypnotic. The heavy-duty bearing and the glimpse of engine-guts beneath the resilient fibreglass bonnet looked inky. Conrad stared, thoughtful but also irksome. About to storm off, he laid his cards on the table: "Don't tell me how a person should fight this thing. I'm only here because of Destiny".

The sloping landscape leading out from Withy Bed and the Cliffansty common never failed to be beautiful, each corner a modern art trapping of armour-plated grass or mud strips ploughed by a giant. The economy of inter-town travel as devised by the Roman and Saxon farmers was something to behold. The B-roads could only ever be B-roads, and always they ran parallel to hundred acre fields as though anything smaller just wasn't worth while. New grass sprouted, no more than one strand per six inches of soil, though it still managed to shine a vivid and invincible green. Old grass looked brittle, mighty, incorruptible. Speeding out towards the plains, there was an almost bizarre looping of roads, dizzying really, all the way up to little villages such as Westfield or Broad Hintonley, which acted as frontier-posts to the white horse and standing stone territory. Hastily drop into a Londis, Spar or Co-Op corner shop to buy a chocolate bar. If this was f-ing Cornwall or Devon, the prices in such small villages would be sky-high.

From somewhere there was a gunshot. Then the moment of tension passed.

Captain Ochre reflected, as he often did, how strange it was that the RAF should have built an airfield, even a small one, in the nook of a valley. Incoming planes would have to do too much triangulating, surely, between the ooze-shaped hillsides and the impenetrable woodland? However, such is life. He looked down on the minor metropolis of Cloud Base. Aerodromes seemed so much shallower when seen from an elevation, and, indeed, the observation and fire-control towers had a horribly domestic look. Down towards the ruddy peripheral, there was a gulley that looked like it might be part of a canal; he crossed it at a click, staring straight ahead with no expression whatsoever. Still less when he picked out the buzzing of Exposition Wraiths. Usually they were ambient, even harder to detect than Rods. He guessed, the louder the buzzing, the more convoluted the exposition-stream. He adjusted the electro-magnetic spectrum of his eyes and followed the eddies. 'Sneaking in' was hardly ever a danger because the huts always felt so busy. No litter wafted at the sheer sides, not even any dirt-streaks; the place had opted out of the pros-and-cons of civilisation. To be replaced by minimalist, present-apocalyptic countryside stirrings. Asphalt and luscious green grass, the Red Sea of undying thorn hedgerows, the colour absolutely resistant to being captured in oil-paintings or fancy photos. Deep. Probably too deep even for robins. Yet kind enough to wash away and give a wide birth to Cloud Base.

A first sign of life came with Captain Puce testing an RC 'silent' spy helicopter and Harmony looking on bleakly. The hugging of the female torso by skinny hands; why do we associate that pose uniquely with prostitutes? The helicopter was not particularly silent; the spy-website had lied. Obviously it was a lie.

The Exposition Wraiths made an overwhelmed swirl as they converged on the Fire Control tower. They played at being Van Gogh's sky as Ochre reconditioned his optic nerves, took his leave of the bizarre creatures. Inside the tower, it was like a tomb. He started to ascend the tight steps, took the first turn -and came face to face with Captain Black, sitting Kurtz-like on the landing.

"Yes?", he said gravely.

Ochre tried to affect nonchalance. "Sa vad sager ni? Allt kommer alt bli bra?"

Black rubbed his face. "I don't understand you".

"Jag yrar". Ochre waited patiently. "Jsut cnncteotrae".

"'Just concentrate'?", Black guessed.

"Yes. Just concnterate and yo'ull undrestand me".

The man breathed in a controlled manner and narrowed his eyes; still there was nothing that could stop him looking so disaffected. He'd clearly had a tough day. Not quite the toughest, though.

"I'm cocnerned we haven't had a chance to talk, all these mntohs since you first arrived".

Captain Black said, "Destiny told me about you. The black magician. Fighting fire with fire".

"I lkie that". Ochre proffered his hand. "It's good to meet you, Black".

The other grasped and looked slightly more good-natured now. As they were shaking, he gave a happy sort of frown. "Don't give me that nonsense. Conrad Turner".

Ochre nodded and saw no objection to telling the man his real name. "Felix King. Did I hear gunfire just now?"

"I had a showdown with Old Man White. Managed to get the blood from the stone, though. I know all about 'The Mysterons' now".

Ochre promised, "No one knows all about the Mysterons. Lsaet of all the Mysterons tmheselves. It strikes me you're taking it badly?"

Conrad stared up at him and said nothing for a while. His gaze followed perfectly the echoey slant of the stairwell. "Yes. Look -", he struggled to formulate his dispassion in as lucid a way as possible. "I don't give a f- about demons, or the way that society is disintegrating. I always thought -"

His eyes filled with tears. Though, until the end of time, the heavy musculature of his face belonged to a man who never wept, was thoroughly incapable of weeping. Weep? His jaw will clench and he'll hit you, and you'll know you deserved it. What a psychic hurricane, though. Interestingly, it was twice as powerful than the Exposition Wraiths had indicated. Reality was contorting rapidly.

Ochre sat on the step in front and grasped his thick shoulder. From somewhere he could smell stinging nettles. "Tell me, I'll help you".

"There's nothing to help!", Conrad gave a bitter smile. "Because I've always known, since I was about ten or eleven. I've always seen. Britain is dying. And that's fine. I don't need to have any f-ing kids. And I'd lodge in a little house in the country, and survive, just on the savings of all the minimum wage jobs I've had, while all the yuppies around me starve or are raped to death by your feral, f-ing hoodies. That's all fine! But this stupid war which Destiny has roped me into -it's going to kill us both".

"That's possible". Oche settled back against the flayed wall-cladding. Industrial, but none the better for it. "I'm going to mention the elephant in the room. There's no way around it".

Conrad's mind was tick-tockking. He listened dully.

Ochre asked, "Do you believe in God?"

The man snorted. "I don't believe it matters whether we believe in Him or not. And don't tell me to accept 'all the bad things that happen', just accept them, just accept them and have faith. I always have. And let me tell you: it amounts to arriving in Heaven with a lobotomy, and one eye staring at the wall, the other at the ceiling".

Having released his shoulder some time ago, Ochre now kept his hands down at his sides. Thirty seconds of silence led him to retrieve the 20cl. bottle of Space Medicine from the confines of his leather jacket.

"Are you a whisky drinker?", he proffered the bottle.

On taking it and slooshing more-than-a-mouthful, Conrad produced a mixture of frowning and grudging good cheer. "Very funny. It that apple juice?"

Ochre blinked. "Drink again".

The man did so -and tasted full single malt.

After that, the stairwell became warm, and hopeful.

"We've never known God, not really. In this universe, and many of the ones that surround it, we're incapable of any connection with Him".

Said Conrad, "And we're not talking about a man with a white beard?"

"No. There's no point trying to form a conception based on any human religion. The nearest would be those quack, Bohr-skimming new-age things which cite interdimensional quantum-holography. Except they're all rendered b-s by trying to incorporate Eastern nose-spite".

Ochre smiled as his new friend made the motion of un-clogging his ear. "You've gone again".

"Think of it this way. We've always had a clue in the myths concerning Lucifer being cast from Heaven. Every single aspect of that myth is a clue. He was once the brightest and most powerful of God's underlings-"

Conrad held up an impressively steady hand to interrupt. "I don't care about religion. I hate religious stories. They're meaningless to me".

It was a simple matter for Ochre to take this on the chin, however; he merely looked at Conrad squarely. So little light was emitted through the distant, open door. Still it stuck magnificently to the rough stonework. "Mel and Kim dancing on Top of the Pops in 1987. Body-popping, not the sort of body-popping you would have imagined, but... I do understand", he promised.

"Mel and Kim? What are you talking about?", asked Conrad.

"Believe me", Ochre toyed with the whisky bottle, stared at it hard, "I'm not going to fill your mind with compelling but ultimately useless religious fables. If I was, I'd tell you that the Mysterons derive from a coupling of the Egyptian Gods Ma'at and Osiris, charged with bringing freedom to slaves through death".

"Are they?", asked Conrad, laconic as never before.

"Lucifer was sent to a place, a kind of negative zone, completely outside of God's influence. Few of us stop to wonder how this can even be possible. And then -Lucifer's undiminished goal? Adoration. A god-like being who wants adoration from the less sophisticated beings below him. Is this particularly wrong? If it was, would God not simply be the pot criticising the kettle for being black?"

Black. Getting into the swing of things. "I think 'Lucifer' is clearly just a representative of the human condition. The way we're always too big for our boots".

"Actually", Ochre was solemn, "no. He isn't. Not on this occasion. Here we have a being who was ridiculously powerful, still somehow partitioned from God's presence. And it suited him just fine, because he felt he could be the exact opposite of God, be the black contrarian -and still flourish. The humans, he believed, would respond far better to the way he'd coax them into cosmic evolution. Lucifer felt sure he could be a far better leader of mankind, albeit more unsympathetic".

Quietly, "I'm lost. I don't see how this relates to us, or the Mysterons".

Captain Ochre breathed deeply for the pay-off. "This is Lucifer's universe. It's the reason why our lives are so conspicuously unfair. It's the reason why sane, practical people get hounded by greedy, shallow dolts. Lucifer is simply being cruel to be kind; bourgeois society forces anyone with a strong personality towards death, and the next phase of existence, that bit quicker. The cosmic flaw, of course, is that a lot of us get driven irrevocably insane by the bourgeois long before we die".

The bottle had been exchanged a good few more times by now; Conrad had forgotten whether he'd just taken a swig or was just about to. It was almost pleasant. Except for the conversation itself.

"Look, I appreciate you're trying to make things clear for me, but can we just -not? I'm not a religious man. I believe in nothing".

At this, Ochre was fierce. "You have to believe. It's the only way we can conceive of them".

"OK! And so, what are you saying? That the Mysterons are Lucifer's secret police?"

Ochre moved his eyes in an exhausted motion. "No. I'm saying the Mysterons are the impressions of God's fingertips in an otherwise hopeless universe. And all He's trying to do is put good people out of their misery, as quickly as possible, before they go insane".

"So, as a species, we deserve all this? Is that what you're saying?", Conrad's tone: so flat it was barely even a question. The harsh incredulity: a breeze.

And insane subject matter or no, Captain Ochre knew how to converse gently.

"'Deserve' is the wrong word. Nothing says it better than the Shinto creation myth. Man dies and gets ricocheted down into the underworld. It's pitch black, a vacuum of eternal, a-temporal nothingness. Except. He comes upon a princess who died many years ago, and, though it's absolutely black, he remembers how beautiful she was. 'I'll escort you up, out of here', she tells him. 'On one condition. You don't look back'. Now, guess what he does?

"Climbing up, hand by trembling hand, Man looks back down and sees that the beautiful princess has been thoroughly disfigured, shredded, monsterised, and is more a bundle of maggots and roaches than she is a person. He goes nuts and claws his way through the earth, ever faster and more desperately. If it wasn't for seeing the princess, would he ever have had the right motivation for getting clear? That's not for me to infer.

"In any case, he makes it back to the surface, back into the daylight. Only he's changed now. Everything seems to be energised with a sense of hopelessness. And so the legend goes that, through his tears, his left eye rises into the sky and becomes the sun, his right eye becomes the moon, through his nostrils comes the wind. But from his fingertips? Some believe that from his fingertips came the Mysterons. Always there to remind us. Our world is just another layer of Hell".

Part Four - The Mysteron City.

'Stena, why did you not choose God? Because God ignores his faithful followers; he repays the good with hardship and the bad with comfort...

'Stena, why did you not choose Satan? Because Satan ignores his faithful followers; he repays the bad with comfort and the good with hardship...

'Stena, why then, did you choose Death? Because Death makes no distinctions between young and old, rich or poor, good or bad. He welcomes us all into his heart'.

- Los Bros Hernandez, 'Amor Y Cohetes'.

Adam went off with Harriet, around the Arboretum Visitor's Centre, which looked much more like a giant electricity substation than a tourist thing. The subject to be immersed in: her drug addiction, and how she was getting over it, a picture of railroad sobriety moving headlong into the future. Why did it even need to be talked about? Ed went off on his own to listen to his Archos while staring at the Indian-style cows. They all had narrow faces, inky eyes, such a mellow gait. Drink in the enlightened atmosphere. Welcome to clear-skies New India, Weltsbury.

"Did you have much to do with the riots?", asked Sam, Harriet's new husband.

Scarlet didn't mind him, really. He was a finance manager; his face assumed default-bourgeois expressions as a seaside cliff gets hit by breakers.

"Meh, not really. I clubbed half a dozen of them. It was all very par-for-the-course".

"'Par-for-the-course'?"

In places the Arboretum was dense like a forest, like The Forest of Dean or Rendalsham. At other spots, as the jagged pebble path moved in crazy arcs, it was an oversized ornamental garden. Networks of alder trees had an odd strip of space between each skinny trunk, turquoise or aquamarine patches where there should only have been shadows or grey. The bitter policeman thinking, it's so artificial, to me. To the deer it probably seems fine. Scampering.

Since when had wild shrubs turned such a bluey shade of green? The path turned gradually to a long strip and a bitty clearing which seemed to be in the process of agricultural reconstruction. Scarlet looked on peacefully at the twirly reeds, the plastic soil bags that were embedded around fresh saplings; from a distance, it had the look of smoke, frozen in time. The white-blue vegetation at the edge of the granite path, against the chocolate-tinted confines of three-tier woodland, velvety moss, sandpaper bark. This section was all about classic British nature, yet there was hardly any traditional forest colour. Beautiful, quiet, foreign-looking - he couldn't tell if it was relaxing or otherwise.

"Do you still have to be a certain height to get into the police?", asked Sam.

There was a long-wise avenue of pine trees, dark, with what looked to be the contents of a disintegrated wooden cathedral scattered between the trunks. A hint of daylight, never quite daylight itself, enveloped a fortress of craggy bark rinds.

"No, I'm only a little bloke myself".

It occurred to him that, in one way or another, Spectrum, The Mysterons and the fate of the country was always at the back of his mind. Coffee made no difference. Getting a good nights sleep, going to an Arboretum with your boyfriend's ex-wife, all the domestic smooth-running. The matter just became more ghostly, a Kafka-esque maze of possibilities, constantly there in the background. Plus, never forget the concern over Ed.

They were looping round on a path which may-or-may-not have led back to the car park. Enya's Baudicea shrilled in his shirt pocket.

"Is the boy with you?", asked Adam. Good old Motorola – he sounded just around the corner.

"He was at the edge of that field, just behind the visitor centre".

" 'Oh dear'", said Adam in his best John Lydon voice. "Well, I've tried calling him. That phone of his must be on the fritz again".

"I'll tell you this –there's s-ty, and then there's I-phone", Scarlettilted his head back in sheer exasperation. He knew full well that the busted phone was not really what was surging the tension through his body. "We'll scout around and see if we can find him".

Looking over at Sam, he saw that the new husband looked wary. Unsure of his place in the scheme of things. Scarlet felt vaguely sorry for him and decided to be inclusive.

"That boy of ours, eh? Let's try up this way", gesturing at a continuation of the path they were walking along anyway.

Clasping his sides, Sam tip-toed and looked brightly to the horizon. "Nice just to be out of the office, for me. And I'm guessing you don't mind being out of uniform".

"Yeah!", said Scarlet, a little too enthusiastically.

As he lolled his eyes in buoyant branches, so breathtakingly green, he reflected that perhaps English people saw the peacefulness of the countryside and assumed their lives would be equally peaceful. No matter how lazy or greedy they got. It was a stupid psychic connection to make. Presently he passed dreamy protuberances of glowing sycamore leaves and imagined he was looking through the eyes of a man who was starving to death. After a while, it was less of an imaginative exercise and more a glimpse into the dystopean future. And even those of us who've fought against it will be swept along in the shame.

"He's got a head on his shoulders, you know", said Scarlet, quite spontaneously.

"Yeah", said the other optimistically. "From what I can see of him. You forget how many good kids there are out there, and it can't be easy".

Scarlet felt his shoulders tense. "Well, not really. Ninety-nine percent of them are little c-suckers. However, you can be rough, you can make mistakes, and you can still have it in you to be -", he struggled, "the sort of man Bruce Springsteen might write a song about".

Beneath comforting, perpetually autumnal branches, the path moved in a mad circle. There was a case to simply walk straight past, but Scarlet was drawn in. As ever, the jagged gravel made monstrous crunches, only now it was becoming subdued thanks to an enclosed canopy of whitebeam leaves. They crossed onto the soft grass, into a clearing that resembled an apple orchard. Crab apples. Spidery cherry trees juxtaposed a dark recess. Scarlet felt confident this was somewhere Ed might have been drawn. A society-wrenched boy in a slow-burning sci-fi film.

They walked on into the brown, scattered dip. Strip-like beech leaves, most of them intensely velvety, quickly became the norm as the overhead cluster grew thicker and the ground descended.

Ed was sitting on the leaves with his back against a downed oak log. He held his phone in tense hands, and seemed rapt in a video. Scarlet and Sam approached him awkwardly from behind.

"Oi oi", said Sam, and the boy was too distracted to hear him.

Gradually, Scarlet saw that his hands were shaking. His mouth was gaping in horror.

"Ed".

His stepson came to and flung the phone several yards into the twigs and the brambles.

"What's the matter?", Scarlet summoned a studious voice.

"I don't want to talk about it".

He quickly got up and shifted forward, head down, skinny shoulders leading the way. For some reason he seemed incapable of making eye contact.

"Why did you fling the phone?", Scarlet asked in a tone that was not quite built on guile.

Ed was as tense as ever, perhaps even exceeding the Simon Krychek episode. Only now adrenaline was giving him the energy to hide it. Perhaps- like dealing with a drug addict.

"It's broken".

"We'll get you a new one".

"I don't want a new one", breezed Ed.

Scarlet stood with his arms utterly limp. Sam, meanwhile, was carefully assessing the situation with his likeable-bourgeois eyes, waiting to see how the wise, bitter policeman might handle things before wading in himself. Ambient noise on the sketchy, overhead branches reached a hypnotic level. As the leaves tipped up and down, he couldn't wait much longer.

Sam; "Listen, if you think you hate mobiles more than me, you don't".

Following suit with a tender sort of voice, Scarlet said, "A boy who doesn't covet mobiles. You're evolving now".

"Let's just get out of here. Let's just go".

Ed was strangely urgent, and the two men obeyed.

At the Visitor Centre, Adam and Harriet were sitting at an old-style pic-nic bench, toying with old-style polystyrene cups. As the search party rendezvoused, Scarlet could just about decode the conversation. Adam talking about how he was just no good at painting walls; Harriet laughing and saying that it was weird how he never got angry when it went wrong.

Wolton Cove Cinema, an art-mainstream hybrid, was showing the Chris Morris / Sasha Baron Cohen team-up, and the Svenson party fell in with all the other families to drink it down. Ironically it was about alien dopplegangers. Scarlet sat on the far side of the ranks, very near the uninsulated fire door. There was a glimpse of light from the outside; he spent most of his time analysing the exact shade, listening out for any hint of rain or a drizzle-bringing wind. There was nothing; this made him excited. When they got home, the Svensons watched television for a while; Ed retired to his room to see to course work. Adam: the internet.

A beleaguered twilight gave way to a house that was completely black, in the swamp of shadows, the impression of uneven floorboards dogged his every move. Scarlet put on his black jumper and black trousers. As an afterthought, hardly even superstitious, he slipped on his scarlet baseball cap. Backing the car out would likely wake Adam and Ed, so he steeled himself and started to jog along the swollen country lanes which led out to the arboretum. A few cars passed by here and there, good old aristocrats one and all, and he was unafraid. Just after the turning for West Lea Rouge, he saw a beautiful fawn rush forth from the mangled copse. Because it's OK to move about at night time. He felt solidarity.

One hour twenty took him to the ball park, six miles all told and a far better time than he'd estimated. As to gaining entrance, his warrant card was all ready in his trouser pocket -though if possible, all contact with Joe Security Guard, Joe Public, must be avoided on the grounds that it really had nothing to do with those f-ing dolts. He assumed the car park would be strewn with motion-activated flood lights and surveillance cameras, and so he chose a twisty sort of entrance between a group of thick old elm trees. After that, getting orientated was hard, but he managed it. Arching, concentric paths passed into arching, concentric paths. He tried to home in on the blocky timber clearing that he remembered. Only very occasionally was there a hint of movement or life in the not-quite-darkness between branches. A Queen Victoria pheasant exploded outwards at one point. He hardly jumped. This must be how poachers feel, and let me tell you about a quaint sort of criminal.

Everything looked fractionally different, even in the well-defined moonlight. Soon, however, it didn't matter a bit; the charge of Captain Scarlet was in full swing and he found his way at least partially via the gut. Into the section that looked like an overly-modest fruit orchard. Into the hell of dank leaves and level-down-to-level woodland. Only now did he remove the forearm-size flashlight from his hip and begin to scan the twig-scattered ground. Actually ringing the number of Ed's phone? Brought nothing.

He searched for some time, becoming wholly lost in it, almost reckless. When any kind of mindfulness came, it was to wonder what time it was. A funny psychological tick made him resist the urge to look at his watch. He knew he was tired. Indestructible, as ever, but ridiculously tired. Perhaps even taking onto his shoulders, ceremonially, the tiredness anyone in Britain would feel, if they'd ever done a real day's work.

Also. It surely said something about modern man's over-excitement with mobile phones, that he'd frequently see a four-by-five inch slab of bark and feel sure he'd found what he was looking for. Ed's phone had a silver back and a matte-grey front. Technically speaking, it should be easy to pick-out, but he took it for granted it had been consumed somehow.

He found it, narrow-side up in a swathe of waxy leaves. The power was deactivated. When he hit the 'on' key, it worked for a few seconds, then died. He attached the Poundland emergency charger.

Your connection was unexpectedly broken. Would you like to restore previous browsing session or go to your home page?

Scarlet made an agonised face and went for the former. It felt much the same as interrogating a prim-mouthed stranger, either in a police cell or the Spectrum brig. The same sort of guilty-proud-guilty fascist vibe.

Youtube materialised. 'Your search for 'ghostly ring of light' has no exact matches. We suggest-'

He glared hard at the title of the video, even as the action started to unfold. 'Futuristic city materialises on Scottish Moor, surrounded by ghostly rings -aliens?' A pretty thing, being filmed on her best friend's phone camera, climbed over a huge metal gate and trumped forward onto open moorland. She laughed at nothing, and swung her arms excitedly as Youtube characters are wont. There was a slight dip, slowly aligning with a vanishing point on the horizon, perhaps two miles distant. Scarlet prepared himself for a stupid, screaming jump-out. He half hoped for it.

The girl waved her arms to get her friend's attention, as she repeatedly let the frame loll upwards into the blue cloudy sky. It was blustery. The frame moved downwards to the horizon again. There it stayed as a wave of translucent ripples distorted the atmosphere, the grey clouds, the sparse trees which fronted any moorland beyond the vanishing point.

And with a subtle majesty that couldn't fail to surprise, an alien city did indeed materialise. The very shape of the skyline was alien. Frequently there were buildings that looked like the Seattle Restaurant, accentuated to resemble energy-surging toad stools. Circular, Frankenstein-lab energy transformers, transfer blocks, Metropolis walkways and metrolines washed into giddy reality. Something from The Matrix, or The Abyss, or Tron, if they'd been directed with the shock-value of David Lynch. The overall effect: the ghost of a small child was playing city-industrialist in a pool of tar. The tiny luminous specks could not, Scarlet realised at once, be accounted for as windows; more likely they were the equivalent of rivets or powerlines in a society that had found something a hundred times more easy and abundant than electricity.

In terms of scale, one could only guess, though there was something enjoyable in letting the gaze fall across the sides of such powerful black buildings. An impossible dialogue was entered into, hypnotic, even, as orbiting beads of energy, corona-bursts with a mind of their own all vied for attention.

Then the Mysterons emerged. A team slid across the outer edge of the city and every now and again became visible as the landscape tipped in favour of the video lens. Scarlet felt profoundly uneasy about the fate of the girls, what would happen to them when the Mysterons got within spitting distance. His panic was only partially removed as, all bets off, a blinding flash of light consumed everything while the creatures were still apparently far in the distance. What the flash was remained unknown, to a large degree. All that changed afterwards was that the pretty girl now gazed directly into the camera with an expression that was inscrutable, ambient, unabashed. Eyes -very hard to read, except for that terrible flicker of cold, alien zeal.

Her friend dropped the phone. The video ended. Views: 22,156. Comments: 'Bulls-' -1701Snake, 'What movie is this from?' -Andybushman. 'The guy who made this should work in Hollywood' -xjames118.

As for Scarlet, he found himself in a defensive cluster, clasping his mouth, practically mauling his teeth with heavy, shaking fingers. It had come. A city to watch over them as society ended.

" 'The Eagle has landed' ", said Destiny. She was winding down from her exercises, her mind narrowly starting to think of other things. "That's the film with the Nazi spies in the village, only they weren't exactly spies, they were undercover paratroopers".

Conrad stared at her beautiful thighs, always so incredibly soft considering the amount she worked them.

"Eh? You've been trying to remember that this whole time?"

She smiled, and stretched like some kind of ballerina. "You mean to say everyone doesn't spend their time day-dreaming about old films?"

But your man remained tight-lipped. His day-dreams, really, revolved around love and sorrow, nothing more. The raw constituents.

Destiny explained, "The last scene was of Caine putting a bullet in Churchill, just as he was shot himself. Only, it wasn't actually Churchill, it was a look-a-like".

"And so", he tested her a little, "technically, it was a happy ending for everyone".

"Except the Churchill look-a-like".

"Churchill look-a-likes are ten-a-penny. They're w-ers".

He held her smiling face for a while, before deciding the exchange was all a little too sweet, to be rectified by a ship-collision kiss.

Out on the airfield, heading towards the car, there was a cool atmos halfway between low-pressure and bona-fide gusts of wind. The trees didn't really move, giving the impression that they were as one with their relatives on the distant horizon. Ridges and bobbles in the brown haze; a single entity. Conrad blinked at the Wuthering Heights beauty. He also messed with his tie, feeling like a monstrous Yogi Bear.

The ting-ting-ting of the seat belt alert played a pedantic game of tension as they pulled away. He wondered why it hadn't sounded that first day, when they'd zoomed out across the countryside like hunted animals. His mind felt horrible, dull pain. Soon he realised; he must give voice to his tension.

"Listen. When you stayed with me that first night, in fact, your whole reason for bringing me in-", he couldn't remember the last time he'd had to search for words like this, mouth dry, body feeling hollow. "Were you - proceeding under the assumption that I was a Mysteron? Was it -protocol?"

The browny, sun-afflicted foliage at the roadside sped along at a constant speed. Destiny stared dead ahead in deep thought. She looked at him apologetically. "Yes. It was protocol. But personally, I knew you were one of us. I felt it straight from the start".

Taking this on the chin, Conrad relaxed, just slightly.

Destiny moved her head girlishly, and he saw her take a deep breath. This was rare indeed -due to her exercise-toughened lungs, he guessed, she always seemed to speak through a constant, easy breath.

He wondered what it would be like to really make love to her. A hell of a thing.

"Let me ask you a question, Mr Captain Black", she said. "Since we're in Difficult Question Land. Did you come with me, and are you still with me, because you feel sorry for me, maybe just a little bit?"

Clawing out progress. "Why should I feel sorry for you?"

"I had to be a prostitute", she said flatly. Then, when she saw how it upset him, she added, "And it's not even as bad as that. The feeling of having sex with a council yuppie is like -having sex with a hologram. Quite apart from that, political freedom-fighting is always vaguely sad. Think of Che Guevara's band of brothers squabbling and going to pieces in the jungle. Or Bobby Sands. Or anything".

And so Conrad confessed. "I don't feel sorry for you. Or us. I just feel the injustice. It's choking".

"We'll get through it", said Destiny. The optimism was a curveball and he almost laughed. "I have a good feeling. Like we're indestructible. Call it feminine intuition".

They were at the dusty, red-brick outpost that merged with the main A-road; he calculated whether there'd be time for a last big push in their revelatory conversation.

"Tell me why you're here, like this, fighting the Mysterons. I know you don't want to tell me. But I can take it. I can ease the load".

She glanced at him. After five minutes of hunting around craftily, she parked up in a small lay-by with a low hedgerow looking out on no view whatsoever.

"Do we have time? You'll probably be late".

Conrad tipped his head. "Don't forget where I work; flexi-time".

"Are you sure you want to hear? It's unpleasant". She was almost casual, as if it was just a regular sort of lay-by conversation. Indeed, there was a distinct smell of flattened grass, car vapour.

"It doesn't matter if it's unpleasant or not", promised Conrad. "I can see how it affects you and I want to help. Do I need to know, for my own sake? Probably not. Will I mention it again after today? Not unless you want me to. But talking can be an exorcism, and no one can deny we're in the den of the demons".

"That's a dramatic way of putting it", she smiled sadly, "but I'm not arguing".

He smiled, too, gravely, and waited. Across the field, there was a house. Too blocky to be of interest aesthetically, and the ambience one of little-England-rural dread.

"I've told you that before my dad got employed by my brother as a Skyform rep, he had his own little business of plant-hire. Mini-JCBs, cable-scanners, whackers and the like. From as early as I can remember, he worked hard. It was rare that we did much together at the weekends -but there were certain Saturday afternoons when we'd go for a hike across the fields and see what there was to see in the forest at Yepley. Which nowadays hosts a famous music festival, I believe.

"And this particular Saturday, when it all went south, I can't have been more than six or seven. I don't remember if we were going or coming back. Possibly coming back. But we turned this big, dappled loop in the road and came across a giant deer that had been run over. He was just there.

"There was no way he was going to get better. Everything was mangled and completely awash with blood. He had- just enough energy to open his mouth and emit that horn-like wail they've got. Personally, I've got a really clear picture of his eyes in my mind, but I think I'm probably just imagining them. Because my Dad had his wits about him: he ordered me to run on ahead and not look back. Even as I went, he was up in the bank looking for a fallen tree-trunk to use for the bludgeoning.

"I don't know if he found one or not. When I looked around -how could I not?- he was frozen to the spot, glaring at these powerful rings of light moving across the fields in our direction. Well, you know what they look like. That's the thing; my father didn't run. No one ever just runs away. We're all quaint and fearless when it comes to that.

"The Mysteron rings coalesced precisely around the dying deer. And it just vanished! It just -blinked away into thin air. And there wasn't even any blood left on the road. The noise of the creature breathing and bellowing -it just stopped, without any kind of reverb or echo.

"I ran back to my dad's side and stood there, shaking from fear and disbelief. After that- the rings halted two or three feet in front of us, in a kind of jutting motion. There they stayed, almost as if they didn't know what to think.

"So after that. They took off, over the verge. Speed about twenty MPH. My dad just stared at them, all gaunt, for a few seconds. Then he came to and chased them. There was no way over the verge, but the edge of a field had a kind of thick canal between the hedgerows, so we raced through it. Thinking back, I wonder what was in his head. He wasn't the sort of man to be interested in space aliens; I often think maybe he just wanted to announce them to the world, get a fair share of the money.

"About fifty feet away, there they were, moving across the bedding grass. My dad, obeying these little thrusts of boldness, excitement, from second to second -he carefully beat a path. A sprightly, oil-stained man in a boiler suit and a little girl in shorts, chasing after aliens.

"They moved, ever so gently decreasing and increasing speed, along the far-side edge of this two-hundred acre field. And then out over a bend in the road, over some short stone walls, to arrive in a layby where a holidaying family were having lunch beside their motorhome.

"I can remember, it took no time at all to catch my breath. But that just gave me extra air to gasp with as I got horrified. The mother and father sat directly beside the motorhome side-hatch. The boy, perhaps thirteen or fourteen -though to a seven-year-old girl, he seemed like an adult- was sitting apart on a deck chair. He had a big, unsympathetic face with a sandy crew cut. One of the Mysteron rings just- edged, slightly- onto this legs and waist, and straight away he was under. He looked around with these cold, inhuman eyes. He got up, picked up the camping kettle.

"A frightening, booming voice came, though not exactly from out of the boy's mouth.

" 'This is the voice of the Mysterons'.

"It made the boy swing the flat of the kettle into my dad's face, and he fell back on his haunches. There wasn't much blood, actually, but I could tell he'd been hurt. The Mysteron said, 'You will forget what you saw. You will not discuss it with anyone, or we will punish you and make your lives unbearable'.

"Of course, quite naturally, the woman was screaming wildly. This didn't seem to perturb the Mysterons much. For me, I can't remember what I was thinking or doing. Just- taking it all in, as kids do. Eventually one of the rings of light reappeared, breaking with the boy's body so that he went backwards in a faint. In the end, they moved off across the fields, and we just let them".

Destiny moved her eyes to the empty space between the dash and her knees. Conrad could hardly decide if she was bravely facing up to a trauma she'd three-quarters come to terms with, or if she was wholly transcendental via the sadness. He very slowly clasped her hand, deployed a casual look.

When had it happened, though, that she'd stopped merely being the most perfect girl he'd ever known, and turned into something he now couldn't live without? Debbie Harry eyes and a Claire Grogan mouth had slowly formed into a face that could map the future.

"I've made that sound horrible and frightening", she continued with a shrug. "But it's nothing to what happened next. And what happened next was more insidious, the way you'd normally think of the Mysterons.

"My dad had his plant hire yard in a tiny, dusty yard at the edge of Great Startham, which in turn was a tiny, dusty village. He lured in a lot of custom with a four foot hoarding at the top of the hill which overlooked the main road. You might wonder how a sign alone could make so much difference, but this was the eighties, when there was no hyperlink road between West Weltsbury and Unity, and this was the rat-run for everyone. All sorts of small builders, quarry men, haulage firms. Back then, tribes of honourable-cowboy builders were on every street corner. Sooner or later they all came to my dad for their machines.

"But of course, the Council had a problem with the sign, even though it lay in our garden. At first they said that it was unsafe, and likely to fall down onto the road. This really wasn't going to happen. But to humour them, to get them off his back, he placed extra struts on both sides of the sign, so it looked like a tent with no canvas.

"Next there came the Planning Application and Advertising Revenue people, who demanded a slice. My dad decided he didn't want to pay them out of principle, and a bitter kind of dispute went on for quite a while.

"And then- there were more problems still. Every cliche of pedantic, bureaucratic interference all cropped up around my Dad's yard. Health and safety concerns which assumed that the men who worked there were 'blind, bloody old women' -which is how he described it. He was constantly angry and afraid. He got an ulcer and coughed up blood. That was a terrible thing for a little girl to have to watch. And the way I got used to it! I used to actually feel a little better when I saw blood in his palm, because at least that meant the coughing was finished.

"Before my dad packed it all in and surrendered, a man with a sour, boat-shaped face came to the yard. He was the last official to bother us. Just after he blankly delivered the latest A4 envelope of licensing violations, he stood back looking -prim, electrified. I was the only one to see it, but a ring of light pulsed out from his body. I-"

Destiny was choked with horror now. Her eyes flicked around, overwhelmed, absolutely determined to think it through, however. Incredulous gasp by incredulous gasp.

"We hadn't mentioned that day with the deer, not to anyone. We were keeping their mad little secret just like they wanted us to. So why the persecution? We were just random, good people. Why hound us? I locked eyes with the Mysteronised Council man. He stared back down at me in such a way that said - 'I know. It's weirdly unfair, isn't it?'

"So anyway, as I got older, all through my teenage years I thought, 'You've got no hold over me. The moment my dad dies -I am going to come after you, and f- you up, any way I can'. And I'm convinced some day we will find a way to hurt them".

To speak mindless consolations would be wrong. Trying for a practical analysis was the only real option. Conrad clasped her hand, sliding a finger or two into her palm from the underside.

"King -Captain Ochre- seems to think they're demons, trying to be gods", he pointed out. "And if so, they must be working to some philosophical code".

Destiny looked to have been numbed by her memories. "All they care about is taking good people and driving them mad, by exploiting every bit of arrogance they can find. Maybe there's a reason for that, but my hate has definitely got to come first".

"If we found out", Conrad trod very carefully, "what their reasoning is, maybe the hatred would lessen, just a bit. It's like the Americans after 9/11. If a set of people can think at all, they can be negotiated with, or tricked into defeat. As for not negotiating with terrorists- tell me the one other evil thing in our lives that we don't try to negotiate with".

"Thinking outside the box, Captain Black", she said introspectively. "Take me with you".

Conrad sat back in his seat, slightly calmer now, and clawed away at his monkey suit. "The bright side is that we've killed a bit of time here. I never feel more powerful than when I'm skiving".

Except that skiving can only ever take you a certain distance. They neared the Council HQ, grooved-in along boring small-chain shops and blank Victorian walls, the feeling of officious dread hitting him full in the guts. Turning in alongside the Methodist church and seaside-esque flats, the pot plants like subtle prehistoric undergrowth, there was clearly no turning back from here on in. The give-way and road tolerance signs directly outside the fortress were dirty. Even outside their own building, the Council was quite happy to let unthinking decay rule the roost. They passed through the looping stone pillars which acted as kind of heavy, psychic bulwark for floundering employees and the security slag, female, ex-army, a vision of anti-personality. However, perhaps it was wrong to think of the curved concrete and metal signs as dirty. An enclosed, soot-ridden murk enveloped everything across that deep fortress trench. Psychic. Yvette Fielding. I'm tapping twice for you.

Down they looped into the underground car park, straight into a queue. Conrad gulped and felt his cheeks go tight as he tried to disguise his hatred. It was the previous year's statistics which had shown Weltsbury County Council to be the region's largest employer -and why had there been no outcry? Yes, you have a very distinguished employer, but he's a poltergeist. The moment two thousand pounds materialises in your bank account every month, an equal amount de-materialises from inside someone's private bank vault, and no one ever thinks about where the money comes from.

This place, it was the Kingdom of the Poltergeist. He watches you play like peanut-butter-stained children, all the while making ever more innovative prayers to Satan.

"You love it here, really", said Destiny, and he had to laugh.

"It will all be over one day", he stated.

Destiny was dead-pan. "Well you can say that about anything, can't you? One day we'll all be dead and it'll be as though we never existed. I love you, bye!"

As he walked across to the defiantly un-lit stairwell, his mobile trilled. Since it was obviously not Destiny -he was watching her shift gradually away into the real world- he was content to ignore it for a few seconds.

Soon he spoke his name, quite shamefully, into the mouthpiece.

"Allt kommer alt bli bra. Admaa is a Colyn", replied the caller.

The strange man Captain Ochre. Felix King: strange man.

"O.K", he sighed. "Keep speaking. I'm concentrating-"

"Ser man pa. I'm jsut tnyirg to give you my cdeophrsae".

Conrad found himself going shoulder-heavy at the mouth of the stairwell. Vibe: a sinking ship.

"As if anyone else could ever sound like you".

"I just wanted you to konw: here it cmoes. Today is the day when everything changes, and I stand as your ally".

Distant doors echoed from the top of the stairwell, still not as severe an echo as it should have been. Captain Ochre hung up, leaving Conrad to smooth out his shirt, clench his jaw, wonder what the hell was going on. He walked slowly along the purple carpet landing, almost bumping into the pseudo-pretty Dutch lady, who was stooping to pick up a carton of milk which had been left outside her office. She greeted him warmly. He responded, as if everything was fine.

On one hand, truly, he was glad Ochre had called with his mad, melodramatic tiding. It stopped his mind being totally dominated by Destiny's sad story. Except, everything was still a mire.

What did anyone know of Captain Ochre, really? Destiny spoke of his magick being so strong he'd amassed billions through winning a series of foreign lotteries. Fine. But what of the wild religious ideas he constantly spewed forth?

Laying in bed one night, Destiny retrieved her laptop to show him Ochre's stories at . There were based on yesteryear films and TV shows, all of them swamped in bitter political rhetoric. What on earth was the man trying to achieve? To somehow make everyone in Britain feel guilty? Conrad sensed the stories were badly-written, though having just read the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo, it seemed they were the greatest work of literature the world had ever known, pulp or otherwise. Interestingly, the title of his latest work seemed to have a direct bearing on Spectrum, and the Mysterons; 'The Fall of Weltsbury County Council' -though when he tried to open it, it was just page after page of strange hieroglyphs.

Out of his mind. Today Conrad was to work in the Environmental Health Department. Though, with typical irony, this involved no actual, physical contact with the outside world. The task was to use Google Earth to run along B-roads, highlighting areas of road-side foliage which another officer would then physically inspect. The sweep after that: maps would be highlighted, areas to be negotiated between their own hedge-trimming units, professional saw-doctors and local farmers.

Of course, it was all of it bureaucratic schizophrenia. Google Earth was far from being up-to-date and so couldn't account for the unprecedented growth which had been wrought by the monsoon-style storms followed by searing sunlight. Still less could they predict the way the trees and hedgerows had been re-arranged through gale-force winds and farmers' repositioning. Besides which, half of the Council employees had treated themselves to houses which lay in and around such foliage-heavy country idylls. Just get them to assess the hedgerows as they drive to work. Surely just get them to live with their eyes open, for God's sake.

For Conrad's part, staring at the screen was gently depressing. The scenes were beautiful, and the sense of movement magical, but it still didn't do it justice. There was no depth. The real world? Looking up at the ceiling-grill lights was like being trapped in some less-than-minimalist nightmare. Light-blue auras on eggshell foam were scratchy and raw. At least minimalism required the use of some kind of imagination. This place, this life, assumed a kind of sacred honour in the mere concept of open-plan offices. We don't need them. Maybe if this was NASA. Across the surfaces of three or four tough, linoleum tables, there was a single computer playing its Windows logo screensaver. Use that one, thought Conrad, to administrate the County, and the rest of us can die.

He walked to the floor-to-ceiling window and stared down on the silvery, inky town. A floor-to-ceiling window in a ground-to-horizon building: don't question it. Towards the base and the edges of the Council citadel, the architecture had a fine sixties vibe. Except this was a trick. It was an illusion conjured for the benefit of the scurrying and swaggering monsters passing beneath, to subliminally propose that Britain was still quaint, responsible, bountiful. Through a minefield of fat housewives, loping students, student types, convict-jawed men who, while it was dishonourable for Conrad to assume they were going to collect their welfare, obviously were. An old business man in a shirt-but-no jacket. He represents the section of society that thinks about things, by listening to In Our Time on Radio Four. And what does Melvyn Bragg have to say about looking after a bowl of maggots? Looking for highwayman-snatched jewels on a river bed, Conrad saw the one or two people hurrying on to their part-time jobs in the service industry. So then, thinking a little bit, but not too much. Fluster yourself just slightly on behalf of 'the service industry', and let's have an oxymoron party. Bring Military Intelligence and Paid Charity Work, and we can play musical chairs in hell.

He stood and stared from the window for such a long, numb-eyed period, the pose and the length of time usually only associated with a lobotomy or a deep bereavement. Nobody questioned him. Just along from the main town bridge, there to serve the breathtakingly dull chainstores, was a footbridge of equal size to cover a mud-colour swell. Even though it was a choice spot, swans and ducks stayed clear from the banks, because here was the domain of the loud children, the slag loud children, the innocent loud children, the loud innocent slag nightmare children. Not that the one or two adults who shuffled that way cared about the noise, or the fact that they were passing by something that was tantamount to the lithe evil of a possession victim. They didn't care because they had bags of shopping to get back to the bunker car park. And besides, there it was, hanging overhead; the Council Building, a living symbol of the status quo being maintained. Lazy? Conceited? Conrad felt the long, slanted empty space behind him. It was mid-afternoon and few people remained at their desks. Perhaps it was excusable, somehow? He closed his eyes and imagined the collective unconscious, broken. A psychic sea of stupidity, washing to and fro across public utilities, across civilisation itself. Sometimes the sea stays out. Sometimes it drowns people. As long as you and your kids are in the 2012 ark bobbing around on the surface, that's fine.

People walked quickly and desperately, more out of a need to thwart that hissing, subconscious boredom than to be somewhere in a hurry. They stuck to the impractical, looping path rather than cutting across the grass. All at once, between the far bridge and the Council moat, he glimpsed a whored-up Rhapsody Angel smiling at a stupid, cheese-faced executive. The smile was all-but genuine. Still, it seemed Conrad alone could see the terrible, guilty crease at the edge of her mouth.

Killing pressure built up behind his eyes. It was all so perfect now; if he'd been able to confront Korinson when he'd first wanted to, he'd merely have been a man quitting his job in front of an unpleasant boss, in other words, just another cog to be replaced. Only now could he represent the whole of sane humanity. A rough idea came of goading the Mysteron, having it leave Korinson's body and enter his, then jumping out of the window Exorcist-style. He believed that his mind was strong enough that no outside influence could fully control it.

And if the Mysteron merely observed him, and used earthly means to get rid of him? He didn't believe it would, not before he'd said his piece. No totalitarian force ever spent so much time persecuting a foreign nation that they didn't become secretly fascinated by what their victims thought of them. And by god, he would sate that fascination.

He mounted the heavy staircase, always so reminiscent of museum-grade marble, and made his way to the top floor lounge-offices. The whole area had a precarious feeling. The World Trade centre at 8.45 and 55 seconds, if the planes had just been giant ghosts sent from hell. He made turn-by-turn, led by his hunched shoulders, onto the needlessly futuristic white landings. In successively more 'important' departments, he glimpsed men in shirts and tanktops, some with crewcuts, lounging around computer desks. If they weren't mindless IT men, they were certainly no more than pseudo-upper-management time-wasters. If he'd had a gun he would have shot them.

Destiny's problem was that she was an intelligent and thoughtful person. Those are the qualities they most like to grind down. Conrad thought of the way he'd taken an IQ test at a university research centre, when he was twenty-five, as a way of earning extra cash. 47. It was fine, though. You learn to feel your way along. You learn to read the ink of newspaper print with your fingertips.

He strode into the pretentiously arrayed outer offices, past the oversized secretary's desk. She glanced up at him, the pointed mouth and conscientious eyes hitting him like insect bites. With the small of his fist he pounded down the door handle; with his right hand, he swept the door wide.

To be confronted with the sight of Korinson in conference with a very plucky little C of E vicar.

Who'd come there to discuss.

The transformation.

Of a 1200 year-old abbey.

Into a skateboard park.

Conrad registered them, the tone of their breathy little conversation, and then moved in. It was a good choice to loom over the man. His fat eyes looked disarmingly human, so to disarm you at exactly the moment when you most need your weapons. Anger. A mace.

Questioning looks flashed like a nuclear conflagration. Conrad explained. "That's Homer Simpson, sir. One of the slobs from Sector 7-G".

The priest laughed, wrongly sensing a private joke. Korinson merely smiled.

"Yes, Mr Simpson", he said good-naturedly, the skilful imitation of a patient man, all to save embarrassment "Just give me twenty minutes or so to finish up with Father Yerwer".

Holding his fat eyes. A smile was deployed, even as he went deeper. "That's Homer Simpson, sir. One of the human slobs from Sector 7-G".

Korinson's smile wavered and it was clear he was on the edge of showing his true, alien nature. He looked forward a little, knuckled the oversized desk-mat.

Chattering. "Actually, you're right. I should deal with this now. Father Yerwer, I'm ever so sorry, could I pass you over to my colleague Oliver MacDougal?"

Once the priest had departed, a stare-out ensued. Even at the height of the understated eye-work, he still had no idea what the game was. Without a doubt, it passed beyond intimacy; it nodded to intimacy and then vanished into a tight cul-de-sac of Satanic self-satisfaction, pride, frivolity. Conrad – gave as good as he got.

"Men have a strange way of acknowledging us", said the council leader, "once they finally learn of our existence".

Suggested Conrad, "Maybe I'm not a man. Maybe I'm just another kind of monster, like you".

Except the creature wasn't fooled. "You're a man. I can sense the desperation in you. It's a terrible desperation".

"The only thing I'm desperate for is for you weird things to get out of our lives".

The creature regarded him. Its mouth looked dour. "We will never leave you. It is our place to see mankind in disarray".

Now it was a case of running on instinct. It was all he could do. He leant back on the side of the table, moved his head quite slowly.

"Go on, I don't mind being a confessor to nutjob demons. Tell me all about why you hate us, and why we're not worthy, why you have to drive us to despair".

"We neither love nor hate you. And it's a testament to your worthiness that we're here".

Conrad rolled his eyes dispassionately. He felt the clamp of his jaw, had no idea if it was a confident smile or a frown. He said, "None of this, of course, can be real. No alien, or god, or demon could pull off being an officious council ponce, just to persecute a handful of people".

"It makes sense", countered the Mysteron-man.

"No", insisted Captain Black.

"We could so easily destroy you outright. We could initiate a war that would reduce this world to ash". It gave up the information neither gladly or grudgingly, but businesslike, like British Rail answering a Freedom of Information request. "But the id frequency of your minds being as it is, you people would only be re-mortalised elsewhere, and with just as feeble an idea about how to proceed".

"You're talking about reincarnation", wondered Conrad, but the creature wouldn't elaborate in the slightest.

"In the past, when we first moved among you, our doctrine was one of war and religious persecution. These approaches failed. The religious persecutions simply led to a holy acceptance of suffering, which serves no one. The wars failed to serve us because your latterday governments would send the very least of you to fight. They forced the idea of 'war' to become interchangeable with 'glory'. We must find the shortest route to suffering: war is not the answer".

"B-s", said Conrad. Second by second, it surprised him that he was being given illumination, stupidly, the Thing Formerly Known As Korinson as complacent as a Bond villain gleefully explaining the big plan. Only gradually, through an ugly shaking in chest, did Conrad realise his soul was being set up as a pawn. Or at least, that was surely the plan.

He stared hard at the shell of the fat man. "Obviously, if what you're saying is true, it would make far more sense for you creatures to possess politicians, turn them right wing, gradually bring about a new holocaust of working class people". He laughed, to illustrate the strangeness of their plan.

While all along, the Mysteron was calm.

"All this has been tried. The impression that our targets are being subjugated by a society which all others regard as 'fair', 'progressive' -this is the strongest, easiest way of breaking them, spiritually, intellectually. Isolate and destroy".

"But-". Listen, listen, listen. He hated it. He had to force his sagging mouth to speak. "Why do you single out so few people to break? All the most humble, all the hardest-working?"

"It is these qualities which make them ready".

"It's not fair. You must sense that. You talk about singling out the best of us to drive to despair. Doesn't it follow that, if we really are 'the best' we might just be able to -understand. Understand why there's no place for us in this world?

"What does it matter if someone intellectually accepts how bad this world is and cuts his wrists straight away, or if someone intellectually accepts how bad this world is and dies aged ninety of natural causes? Why not just give us a few horrible illustrations and then let us live on a little while? It's not fair, this relentlessness. It's like torturing an animal".

The Mysteron, as ever, needed no time at all to think, "Your whole consciousness is based on adapting. Finding hope. No matter how bad your lives become. And slowly, subconsciously, you always begin to associate this plane of reality with hope, in such a way that you will be drawn back here after death, through the Pavlov Quantum Hologram. Spiritual evolution can only come about through irrevocable sorrow".

"What is the 'Pavlov Quantum Hologram'?"

The creature ignored this. Conrad pressed on.

"We're more sophisticated than you think. We're quite able to feel sorrow and happiness both at once, so much so that, once we die, wild horses couldn't drag us back here".

"Your argument, Earth-man, is quaint".

And yes, Conrad felt a funny kind of hope. 'Your' argument suggested this was a point of view the Mysterons rarely heard, if ever.

While the going was good -"I don't understand. You say you don't particularly love or hate us. What are you doing it for, then? What's in it for you?"

"There is something we hate", said the Mysteron.

"Tell me".

"The sun".

Conrad tried not to laugh. "Why the sun?"

"We come from a place where no solar system is a slave to its core, a thermodynamic fluke. Such a situation is embarrassing. We come from a place where the air is warm -by virtue of its existence".

"You're talking about Heaven", wondered Conrad.

"Yes", said the Mysteron.

"But", he tried to speak compellingly, "I still don't believe you. It's such a waste of resources. All this effort just to hound a handful of people into sorrow. There must be a better way".

The fat man looked at him with unreadable eyes.

"What about, just-" Conrad struggled. The weight of his hope was almost too much to bear. "You're trying to lead us to Heaven, through hell. Why not just make a heaven here, now, on Earth? It would be so easy".

"How, Earth-man?"

"This society is based on the false assumption that academic, managerial, desk-bound work is more valuable than non-skilled manual labour. That all our money and resources should be given to those who're at the top; you give them such vast salaries, apparently in recompense for all the training they've done, all their drive and enthusiasm. But no one sees –if they've got a drive and enthusiasm for it, then it's not really work. As for the training –necessity itself will see to that all by itself. We need to have a redistribution of wealth based on a willingness to do unpleasant, monotonous jobs. Those who are at the top of the ladder, the academics and the managers –they're the ones who should get the minimum wage, because God knows they're ten a penny. Those who grit their teeth and roll their sleeves up –should get the world".

The fat shell of a man stared at him, almost as if it understood.

Conrad shook his head in disgust. "Anyway. Look -you can't enjoy having to move among us in that stupid little body. Come out, and show me what you really look like".

No small astonishment clenched around his shoulders as, for some reason, the creature obliged. First of all, Korinson's body fell limp and unconscious, apparently. Then the ring of white light passed into solidity, slid free from his torso and up into thin air. It glowed, though not spectacularly, as it moved overhead at a modest pace. It was one of the most beautiful sights Conrad had ever seen. Not at all as scary as the first time.

Drawing near, he tried to keep his voice under control.

"Do you Mysterons have individual names? I'm Conrad. What should I call you?"

In a far lighter voice, now; "Chocky".

Last of the Summer Wine on X-box Universe. It had only been released for a week or two, and was already being hailed as a kind of post-modern zeitgeist innovator. First person. Open world. The Yorkshire countryside. Cart-racing old men. A kind of heaven for the exhausted modern world?

Even as Peggy pulled it out of the donations sack, and asked Destiny how much she thought it was worth, there was a terrible temptation to claim it as her own and take it back to Cloud Base for Captain Blue, who she understood to be a committed gamer. She resisted the urge. It was wrong to play games with serendipity. She replied that it should probably be a pound, as were all the other X-box games -she knew that Peggy, or any of the other volunteers, could hardly tell an X-box Universe game from X-box 360 or X-box Original. It would be a nice surprise for anyone even remotely savvy who came in the shop. Sometimes, she reflected, things just go right; you get a nice surprise.

Besides, the 'Eagle has Landed', a cardboard-sleeved promotional copy from the Sunday Telegraph, she slipped into her shirt without saying a word.

The end of the afternoon was taken up by ironing the freshly laundered donations, all the surprisingly fashionable shirts and blouses. She stood beside the glowing brown curtains and carried out her duty to society, quite happily. Daydreams came and bedded down, thoughts of the Mysterons being smited at every turn, the promise of going on holiday with Conrad, seeing the sunrise on some distant valley.

Peggy returned from the front of the shop, "Would you like another cup of tea?"

Destiny was fully aware she'd only just taken the last mouthful of her previous cup. Still she said, "Yes, please". Peggy made an awesome, creamy tea. I'll drink milk, I'll drink it right down. I won't get cancer. I won't have a heart-attack. Maybe I'll get dementia?

'Somebody Up There Likes Me' by David Bowie filled the air with a bone-stirring level of bass. She realised it was her phone and examined the screen with interest. Zradca? Her older brother rarely phoned her on a weekday; he was usually too busy as Skyform's Chief Exec.

"Hello?", she asked, as if he was a stranger.

"Destiny-", at once his voice was light, quizzical. "I'm having the strangest day. I just wanted to speak to you".

She listened carefully. Unlike herself, he'd spent an impressionable amount of time in Slovakia as a child and, while the accent had long gone, you could still tell, somehow, by the textbook annunciation of the words. A certain slowness, even when he was excited.

She waited, coolly, while he unburdened himself.

"It's - first of all, it's amazing - Skyform has the contract to produce the models for the new James Bond film".

"That's great news!", said Destiny. It really was.

Zradca paused. He seemed to be analysing the tone of her voice. "I got a call from the MGM logistical people, about an hour ago. It was a bolt out of the blue. He just -announced it to me!"

"Where do you think you'll make them? The Birmingham factory? It would be nice if the Stroud factory got a look in".

"I don't know", said her brother, suddenly very stern. "Destiny, I called you -because I think I might be dreaming".

Destiny laughed. She glanced down, letting her eyes crawl over the thick, aqua-marine shirt atop the ironing board. She looked at the glowing curtains, for a moment or two. "It's good news. But sometimes, rarely, we do get lucky. Which isn't to say Skyform isn't the best model company in the world -"

"No", said Zradca sharply. "I think I might really be dreaming, right now, and I can't wake up. It feels like I've been dreaming for hours".

And from that point on, she knew that the Mysterons were involved.

"Tell me what's going on", she assumed a nice, inviting tone. "We'll talk our way through it in a very conscious way".

"I got the phone call from the MGM logistics manager around lunch time, I think. I can't be sure. To celebrate, I went out to the supermarket to buy all the managers a whisky, and all the workers some beer and Babycham. But then- on the way out of the supermarket, a voice in my head-"

Destiny shuddered.

"-told me to stop at the booth and buy a scratch card. The voice told me to get the cashier to finger down to the fifth scratch card in the pile. I did as I was told, he did as he was told- and apparently I got three million pounds for my trouble".

Now there was a sense he was clasping his mouth. Destiny was certainly clasping her's. Given a few seconds, she found a way to be brave and speak on.

"You know, I get the Howard Hughes podcast, and-"

"I doesn't end there", said Zradca darkly. "I'm still dreaming. As I was driving along Gloucebury Road, the voice came again. It told me to stop at the newso at the corner of Brunel Terrace. 'Buy a further scratch card, this time, ask for the twentieth card down in the pile. The shopkeep was reluctant. I detected his accent. Polish. 'Doda Prosze', I said. I won - a further three million.

"And then, back in the car- ", his voice was becoming drier and drier with the haunted flashback, "it said to me, 'We will leave you alone now. But before we go, we have a message for you, and your sister".

Destiny hugged herself, and waited.

"The message was, 'We, the Mysterions, are sorry for the hounding of your father'".

And so Destiny reeled. Of all the mind-games she imagined they might one day play with her, she had never dreamed of this. Why not, though? They exploit your weaknesses, your desire for an end.

"They're called 'Mysterons, not Mysterions". This sounded less like revelation and more the punchline of an oblique joke. She hated herself absolutely. "Zradca, you know when I was a girl, you always thought there must be a special reason why I was so interested in the paranormal? It's because of them. Dad and I encountered them, one day, when we were out for a walk. They're like ghosts. I-"

She smiled a little as she heard herself. "I'm not doing much to persuade you you're not dreaming, am I?"

Zradca was dry-mouthed, still, but she could hear his kind nature shining through. "It's OK".

"Listen-", her voice deep, very close to sobbing.

A bolt from the blue, Peggy entered the shanty back room and set down the fresh cup of tea beside Destiny. As a result, a kind of neat serendipity, she found the strength to gulp hard and carry on.

"Just remember, you're not dreaming. That's for sure. The best thing you can do is go home to Susan and just be with her. Tell her to watch you for any signs that you're not yourself. I'll come over and explain everything, when I can. Everything's going to be fine. It's all very weird, but everything's O.K. A little sister is incapable of lying to an older brother in these things. O.K?"

"O.K", breathed Zradca. Optimistically, she decided.

Peggy asked if she was alright.

"Well", she spoke quietly, "what that was about was my brother Brad. He's been involved in a car wreck".

Walking quickly out of the town centre, her mind was a jumble. Still there was a kind of psychological analysis to oversee the panic, and she welcomed it. Concerning love. It was amazing; that the Mysterons were a terrible, cosmic force, capable of destroying all hope of a future for Britain, and yet all she could think of was Conrad. That if they killed him or ruined his mind, it would all be over for her.

He wasn't answering his mobile, or his desk phone at the Council Office. Calling Colonel White, at this point, was loath: he would assume Conrad had been taken over, and the flipstorm would begin. There'd never been panic like it; a furious wave of horrible possibilities to swamp her mind. She passed by the failing chain stores, with their stylish, primary colour sale hoardings, all of it making her feel hysterical. She reached the car park, swung inside the Nissan. Leaving the city centre, this close to rush hour, might well be a wrestling match; she prepared herself.

Then, at the mouth of the car park, Captain Ochre appeared. He was with a woman, and Destiny's mind refused to accept who her eyes so clearly saw. The fear of dreaming; it was obviously a theme of the day.

Ochre and the woman broke off, she walking away to the town centre, he heading towards Destiny.

Opening the door and hanging out, she stared at his face, the better to analyse.

"Was that Nicole Kidman?"

Ochre tipped his head in a highly sheepish manner. "No. Destiny, I know what's happening. I know your man Conrad is- making waves".

"What are you talking about?", she said desperately.

"This is the chapter where everything changes", he said messianically.

She glared at him, angry and suspicious. Regular people passed by the car, sluggish legs on cheap, durable concrete. Destiny ignored them, all the while steeling herself to swing back into the car and drive off.

"Give me your code-phrase", she demanded.

"N-, please", said Ochre. "It's obviously me".

"Give me your code-phrase", succinctly, threateningly, "or I'm going".

"'Adama is a Cylon'", the man blinked in exasperation. "Come with me, Destiny. I'll take you straight to him, I promise. Leave the car".

Destiny massaged the edge of the car door in acute tension. She said disgustedly, "I'll need to get another ticket".

"No. You won't. There's no one left to fine you. In a few days time, Weltsbury County Council will no longer exist".

They quickly made their way into the more suburban quarter of Unity. Larks fluttered around making laser-beam-style chirps despite the scarcity of perching spots between the slab-like buildings. Destiny had always judged the size of a city depending on how often you hear a police siren in the distance. Only now did the sound make her shoulders tense, too, because of the psychological suggestion of guilt. Her complicity in -'the chapter where everything changes'. She imagined being reunited with Conrad, and nothing else mattering at all.

They passed down the handy, secretive steps which gave pedestrians a dominance over the tortuous one-way system. Towards the end, the steps spread out like something from a Fred Astare routine. She took the opportunity to edge sideways next to Ochre, spreading her arms like a goalie.

"How do you know where he is?", she asked sourly.

"I'm an occultist", said Ochre. He had no particular tone; at least he was speaking English, though.

"Who was that woman you were taking to?"

Speaking with authority, "To set your mind at ease, she has nothing to do with this Mysteron affair, or Spectrum. I do have other plates spinning in the air besides this, you know".

Destiny had no choice but to let the matter go.

They hurried themselves along the chunky, low apartment blocks, taking a turn up snaking carriageway in a move which felt much like guesswork. It was fairly barren, but with a stream of tatty secondhand cars, which she guessed stayed constant even at the dead of night. There were some warehouse shops sitting modestly in tiny car parks full of metal bulwarks, crash barriers and admission gates. Then –tall houses and cacky trees made a kind of great wall before the esoteric landscape edged down towards the old canal. Captain Ochre deliberately hung back. Destiny's heart quivered, then proceeded to feel uneasy, as she saw Conrad standing under a small bridge.

They embraced. His eyes were calm, while a slight tension over the side of his face and double-stubble suggested a horrible victory. Sad, climatic emotion going nearly all the way.

"I love you very much", said Conrad.

"I love you, too", said Destiny, plaintively. "What's going on?"

"Do you love me", he wondered darkly, "so that I could say anything, and you would trust me?"

Said Destiny, "Yes".

"We have to make peace with the Mysterons".

A point was made of continuing to hold his shoulder. "They've just made my brother rich. They've given him millions of pounds".

"Yes. They can make everybody rich, and there's not even much of a catch". He smiled bitterly, or perhaps simply in the manner of a man who's seen too much.

"Let's go and sit on that cacky bench", he started to lead her to the little wood platform which lay in a peculiarly open stretch of the tow path. Beyond, all of a sudden, was bona-fide countryside. Light green fields and farmland to get lost in.

"I had a full-on meltdown", he shrugged. "I wanted to tell Reith Korinson what a complete c- he was, in the eyes of anyone with eyes. Not for the first time. The difference was, this time I saw it through. And the Mysteron came out, and it spoke to me".

The bench was too hastily constructed to be a gold-plaque memorial for some local busybody; still Destiny liked it better than those stupid, ubiquitous things. It was more solid.

"What did it say?"

Conrad smiled faintly. "It's more about what I said to him. I gave him an earful".

" 'Him'?", asked Destiny.

"Just a way of conceiving it", he promised.

With hardly any birds, either around the tow-path or the far-side woodland, there was a kind of placidity. Conveyor belt heavy, the water carried tiny leaves and duck weed splodges as dead souls to heaven.

"In a very clumsy way, I told him I wasn't scared of them".

Destiny flicked her eyes warily. "Through it all, they've never been particularly scary. Just b-s".

"They're not scary at all", confirmed Conrad, in a numb voice. "I told them what they were doing, their mission on Earth, is unfair. That if they had any kind of true awareness, they'd see it. But I don't think, at that stage, they were buying it".

Destiny laid her hot fingertips on the packed grey wood. Her mind whirred. 'At that stage...'; it suggested that he'd somehow succeeded in putting across a sane point of view to the most other-worldly creatures in the existence.

"They believe they're being cruel to be kind. The heavenly end justifies the horrific means. I tried telling them that the human personality can only absorb so much horror, that the horror will be carried into heaven through us. Perhaps this is what you want?

"He promised me it wasn't.

"I started to feel faintly tickled then. I suddenly thought of how much I hate those atheists who say, 'If God exists, why does He let so many bad things happen?', as if that's not already three-quarters of the argument. Although -maybe they have a point after all. The Mysteron asked why there was amusement in my mind.

"'Why don't you come inside and find out?', I said.

"'You seek to be possessed?', he asked.

"And I just shrugged and said, 'I don't think you can. I'm too strong minded'".

Destiny held her breath and waited for the continuation. Conrad was facing away from the water, thudding his gaze down on the gravel, which was sparsely distributed to the point of being useless. When he looked up, he scanned her face and looked thoroughly overawed.

"And all of a sudden, I was back there, at the Westminster Spring factory, where I'd worked a couple of years ago. The Westminster factory in Thornblaise -I'd worked there for fifteen years, gone from lorry-unloader to line manager. And I thought I was a good line manager. Determined, realistic about human nature, loyal to my workers. Then about eight years ago, the company downsized and the Thornblaise factory was amalgamated with the Birmingham factory. Overnight, I went from being a manager back to being a stillage-jockey, hanging around in the aisle because there was too little work, getting trained to suck eggs by cack-faced old Turkish men.

"And I thought, 'this is a new low'. There was one sensible solution. Become an alcoholic. I found a newso on the way to work that sold little 20 cl. bottles of Costanzo Absinthe, 70 percent. Quite reasonably, I believed the minty texture would be hard to detect on my breath. And, really, it worked. It worked well. The alcohol took my mind to another place, not exactly cancelling out the dishonour of the Birmingham factory, but synching it with the rushing, the drunken understanding of -oblivion.

"I almost tasted it again, as I stood there beside the Mysteron.

"All good things come to an end. My metabolism adapted to the Absinthe. It no longer connected with my mind, just made me dizzy and sleepy. Whisky was no better. A little sandy-haired woman with a scrunched-up face, who was a some kind of finance manager from the office blocks, came round with a bucket, a collection for some c- who'd just had a baby. I always remember that acutely, the sense of embarrassment and shame, but even then it doesn't account for the way I was back there. In the past and with the same thoughts in my head. The righteous, religious hatred for mankind, as if from the end of time, yet still personal to me.

"People having kids isn't the ugly biological urge I'd always assumed -maybe. Maybe there's some kind of psychology to it. You have kids because you know that, in this life, they're the only people guaranteed to be loyal to you, human thoughtlessness being what it is.

"'Yes', said the Mysteron.

"And still I was back there", Conrad whispered.

Destiny was leaning in sharply, the curve set at her waist, almost-but-not-quite a strain. An urge to clasp his hands came frequently, and she resisted it for fear of seeming like an old woman. Generally, she felt brave, full of promise, if only she could manage to convey it.

"They play mind games. They play them, and they don't expect us to win, because they think we aren't strong enough".

"No", breathed Conrad, quite innocently. "This was no mind game. Not this time. The Mysteron was back there with me, in the past. It was looking through my memories, to judge me.

"A particularly unhappy time, coming off a 12-hour night shift. It was a hell of a dull, hypnotic wait. The desperate need for sleep and the assurance of twelve luxurious hours to get it -if it wasn't for the terrible anger and guilt shouting away in my mind. I prayed to God, for the first time in decades, that I might be able to get just an hour or two. I remember, I had what felt like a revolutionary understanding of prayer, that it was surely quite simple; all I had to do was try. Well I did. I knelt down, clasped hands on the bed, the Mysteron beside me, and petitioned the Lord that I might get just an hour or two -or just the sensation- of sleep.

"And? The same old scrambling escape of a Nazi spy from an English village. Except now I had with me my dad, and my mum, heavily pregnant with my sister Netta -something I barely even remember in reality. And soon we were rushing, not to the air-strip dust-off, but to a large hospital. The young doctor, in his knee-length white coat, stood before and said, 'Two of you have got cancer'.

"I awoke, feeling crazed -but also feeling very incredulous. I'd asked God just to help me sleep, and what I got was a wild, melodramatic nightmare. As if I was a character in Blue Jam. And really, that night was a bloody good prelude to the next few months at the factory. The country was skimming between recession and depression. It astonished me that I was able to keep my job from day to day; I turned it over and over in my mind and everything in Britain was set against the bluecollar; not that I could afford myself the luxury of planning for my redundancy, taking it for granted. I had to keep this job, to support my mum and dad, and to still be able to look at myself in the mirror, look myself in the eye.

"Only now the Mysteron was looking as well.

"The months that followed had me thinking about suicide, I desired it, weirdly -"

Destiny sneezed. Conrad looked at her sharply.

"Are you alright? Are you cold?"

He started to remove his jacket and she stopped him. "I just like to sneeze in these situations. Finish telling me".

But he was lost. "Where was I?"

"The desire of suicide", she said, and clasped his hand; the fear of seeming like an old woman be damned. In fact, she felt vital, and young, and alive.

"I started to daydream about it", he said off-handedly. "Except -there was no conscious effort. I found myself thinking, if not constantly, then at least once every quarter of an hour, of hanging myself, or gouging deep and long-wise along my forearm. Eventually these desires came as naturally as breathing. I suppose this is the most dangerous form of suicidal tendency -where there's no longer any conscious effort involved, just the pull of it. Like a man dying of thirst moving to gulp down a glass of water.

"That the Mysteron was moving around in my memories, just as aware of the phantasmagorical, liberating slicing and choking as I was; it was awesome. And the narrowing of its dark, waspish mind: at first I thought it was enjoying my suffering. Then I realised. It was wincing. It felt -not exactly sympathy, but something very like it".

Promised Destiny, "They don't feel sympathy, or if they do, they just beat us down all the harder. That's the whole point of them".

He stared at her with his soft, black eyes. "Suffering. Philosophical suffering, where you come to feel that you're the last sane and logical person on Earth. It's like a language to them, and through learning that language, you can earn their respect".

Destiny felt numb. She shook her head, ever-so-slightly, even then not out of disbelief. But if it was all too much to accept, there was no greater critic than Conrad himself. He stared into the low, brown water, the better to verbalise what he'd learnt. A branch with all green leaves, somehow balanced like hands to heaven, drifted slowly by. At each point, there was hardly any transparency to the water. It really wasn't necessary for the beauty.

"I can't quite put it into words", Conrad agonised. "I should be able to".

"Try thinking of nothing for a second".

He moved his head slowly in her favour, and they kissed for a long time.

"If you see something perfect, hold it in your mind, feel you understand it -you're understanding death. Sorrow, or love? We humans have lost the knack of love. We don't hold out for it. We contrive it, and set it against a backdrop of arrogance and laziness, or try to bundle it in with capitalism or neurotic atheism. In other words, we're as shallow as hell. Sorrow is all that can get through to us, and even then only to a select few. I said to the Mysteron, 'You couldn't possess me if you tried. I'm too strong minded'. And it replied, 'perhaps you are'.

"And I could feel it thinking about things, quid pro quo. Philosophising. It felt like a missing soliloquy from Hamlet or Macbeth. The high-tide mark which they operated their war-of-philosophy by; through me it was just -fading. If there's even one of us that acute sorrow can't kill, doesn't it follow that this entire spiritual purge is flawed?

"It felt like Hamlet or Macbeth standing in the middle of the stage, struggling to understand. But -whispering, and extended for hours upon hours. I worried about losing time, or getting lost in it, but evidently there was a whole Narnia thing going on. Magic, maybe.

"When I came to, I had a nose bleed. I also had instructions about how to start the next part of the human-Mysteron relationship".

He made a point of staring unflinchingly into Destiny's beautiful eyes, to prove that it wasn't so shocking a development. He propped a feeble smile across his broad lips, to impart utter honesty, truth, fearlessness.

"Anyone who wants to be free will be free", he said, in a how-do-you-like-that voice.

When she asked how this was possible, and he told her, she proceeded to hug her shoulders.

She stared at the white, heavenly sky and blinked in satisfaction.

"Before we start, though, he gave me a message to deliver".

"I already got it", Destiny stared upwards as if somehow trying to glimpse her own wondrously smoothed-out fringe. "The one that got inside my brother and made him buy the winning scratch cards. It said it was sorry for the way they'd hounded my dad. And I guess, for creatures who usually use despair like a barbarian club -when they say sorry, you've just got to believe them. He called them 'Mysterions', though. Must have misheard the voice in his head".

"This is a different message, an apology for someone else", Conrad almost smiled, "and I hope he believes it, too".

She stared into his eyes for a moment, then down into the slow-surging water. "I guess we're like Nelson Mandella about to be let out of prison".

He leaned in close across the funny, smooth bench and placed his fingers beside her hip.

"You're a vast improvement on Whinnie".

The bulbous shroud designed to keep the control tower windows free from rain suddenly seemed useless against the spitting-spots which fell diagonally. It was early evening; Colonel White felt it would be a defeat to glance up at the clock and see the exact time. Daylight was making just-tangible advances towards dusk, with the promise of another hour of super-vague shifts in tone. Eventually, trying to give pragmatic, paint-chart names to colours is perfectly useless. The primaries make sensible turns into things like Intense Aqua, Soft Steel, Gentle Olive, then abstract crazily. In the end, against your better judgement, you have to start with the similes. Captain Dusk. Captain Ice Shadow. Captain Dying Sea Horizon.

Puce was behind a hut, practising with his crossbow. He redoubled his concentration to hit target, even as the spitting rain forced his head low. The surrounding buildings were getting soaked and changing colour, just slightly. This English revolution.

The Colonel stared grimly at the print-out from the Mysteron detector, the radiological image of Korinson's possessed brain. Gradually he came to realise that he had what, in other men, might be called depression. Even though the machine played such a large part in the hunting of their enemies, he still didn't quite believe in it. Woe betide that disbelief should be something to latch on to, either. It was, perhaps, Ahab's naked lunch moment telling that the whale was just a very sophisticated fish, or L Ron Hubbard sensing that he was wasting his life in an infinite number of ways. The brain is nothing. The playing of the neuro-synapses; he'd read a book once which suggested that it was just a motif of electrical radiation having some kind of post-Big-Bang hissy-fit. On the other hand, if the mind was eternal, and a thing of God, might that not be worse? It would suggest that his prosopagnosia was a philosophical weakness. It would suggest that, even as soon as he was old enough to look at and see things, he'd rejected all other human beings out of hand. Forcing his brother to 'find God'. Himself forming an organisation which took distrust of mortal beings to a whole new level.

Might the prosopagnosia, the whole business of it, be an illusion cast by the Mysterons? For the first time, he realised that, even as a tiny child, he would have been a choice target to possess. His father had held a high rank in the R.A.F, playing a decisive role in both the Battle of Britain and then later, in the final bombing raids of the war. Plus it was true that the Francis Matthews Academy, the very first boarding school he'd been sent to age 11, had been well-known for grooming world-famous military chiefs and captains of industry. It was a suspicion that just -felt right. In our heads, we are all alone with something which is wholly unsympathetic to others, something barely even human when you come to examine it.

He stared at the very enclosed-looking sky. Even as he calmed down, his eyes narrowed harshly.

Perhaps he would get Cloud Base a dog; that would help morale, not least his own. Though was it fair to bring even a dog into this terrible world?

The hell with thinking like this, he told himself, and practically laughed at the catharsis. Since Captain Puce was still up-and-about, he would call him up to springboard some ideas. It would be as well to contact Green as well, and take advantage of his masterful experience of things legal.

Korinson: find some way to frame him, or bring him low. That he was apparently the last Mysteron at Weltsbury County Council? This didn't matter. They would draw him -it- out, into plain sight. The battle would rage far more openly, as it should. Having a masterful network of spies, quislings, paramilitary shadows tensed for action; it was ridiculous if all they ever did was repair the bureaucratic insanity wrought by a county council. Korinson: run him out of town like the demonic monster he was. Even if Spectrum was more exposed than ever before. Let there be an endgame: let it exist as a concept.

He took out his mobile and called Green, for a moment almost apologising for interrupting the man's evening. Next he dialled Puce's number, and was eerily impatient when the tone went around more than four times. Rising slightly from his seat, he glanced over the cusp of the foot-level window to see if the man was still outside practising with his crossbow.

In fact, he'd dropped it. In fact, he'd walked close to the edge of the tower and was staring directly upwards into Colonel White's eyes.

So often he'd wondered how he would feel to be acknowledged by the same fierce, intelligent gaze he'd seen that day at the cave. To be stared at by a Mysteron was a strange experience. It was philosophically dense. To be judged, perhaps fairly. To be challenged, perhaps fairly. To be made to feel eerie just because you're human; unfair.

He'd seen Mysteron-possessed men before, mostly on TV. The sight and sound of Ed Milliband, for one, no longer held any horror for him. It was only when they dropped the pretence, staring unapologetically into your defenceless soul, that things became nightmarish.

He blinked, reached into the drawer of his desk and fished around for his swanky new Smith and Wesson. All the time, somersaults flipped in his ribcage, the hope that Lieutenant Green would reach him before the possessed Captain Puce. So build a posse for the OK Corral.

His fingers made contact with the butt even as he narrowly looked out across his darkening office floor. A man with shady eyes and pronounced double-stubble had made an entrance. Whoever it was breathed deeply and levelled a gun at the Colonel's head.

"Stay where you are", commanded White, still for the moment keeping his own gun concealed. Presently, he stared hard at the intruder, searching for any clue at all.

"Did I forget to wear my colour this morning? Again?", said the man, more than a little sarcastic.

"Keep me at a disadvantage, while you still can", advised the Colonel.

Said the stranger, "No need for the shirtiness. I didn't come here to fight, or to hurt you. Which is a shame, really, because I hate you".

"My man", White sharply sucked the air into his taut face, "if you wish to avoid hurting me, that's laudable. To start with, give me your weapon".

"This is just a tranquilliser, and I'll only use it as a last resort", promised the other.

Colonel White nodded sternly.

"This is not a tranquilliser", he produced his Smith and Wesson, aimed it squarely at the man's head. "And I warn you to stand down, or I'll be forced to use it".

The stranger was amused, in a bleak kind of way. "Grow up", he smiled.

"Captain Black", said White, careful to phrase it as a statement rather than a question.

The guns held calmly in the air, even as the men talked, only ever making smooth and wholly conscious adjustments to their aim.

"So that dizzy brain of yours can recognise people after all. Or can it only recognise people as units, to be manipulated and exploited?"

"So this is about Destiny", said Colonel White sharply.

He liked to think that he knew what he was doing, that there was a strategy akin to sending the goalkeeper in clear the other direction at penalties. Mine Captain Black for his emotions; if he got sufficiently angry, it would force him to be thoughtful in turn. Any words or ideas that were offhand, however, would clearly lead to the Colonel losing.

"I don't blame you for going along with what Destiny had to do", Black shrugged. "If I did, we'd never have met. All the same, it is ridiculous".

"If it's so ridiculous, Captain Black, then it's hardly worth being shot over", the Colonel put forward.

Wearily, "One of your very own tranquilliser guns, versus a .45. That says it all about you".

"How so?", White pierced his eyes. "There are fates worse than death. One is to be a Mysteron lackey".

At this point, Black looked pained, and thoughtful. He swivelled the joint of his wrist so that the levelled gun moved, as if on a wave.

He said, "I always remember, at my primary school, a little woman came in to talk to us about the danger of drugs, especially PCP and Ketamin, which she used to be addicted to. She was just this fifty or sixty-ish, unattractive little woman. A northerner, if I remember rightly. At one point, she got so worked up in her hatred of drug dealers that she accidentally called them 'c-s'. As twelve or thirteen year olds, most of the class thought the swearing was brilliant. She didn't know whether to apologise or not. She did, but right at the end of her little lecture, because it was playing on her mind. I was embarrassed though. Because I knew about heroin, and anyone who claimed to be an authority on the horrors of drugs after living sixty years and only having Ketamin to contend with -well, to me she was a joke".

"What is your point, Captain Black?", asked the Colonel in his sharpest voice.

The other man seemed to appreciate this being phrased as a command.

"From the moment I first met you, and fell in with Spectrum, I've had exactly the feeling as I had towards that little joke of a woman".

"Are you saying that what we do is pointless?"

White felt the fury and the incredulity power up through his face, so much so that he found it quite amazing that his aim was not effected.

Said Captain Black, "Not pointless, exactly. Self-satisfied. The Mysterons are only exacerbating what's already there. Britain would be in just as much of a mess without them".

"How do you know?", bleeted the older man.

"Go into any city centre. Any supermarket. Try finding more than two or three people who physically produce more than they consume. There's your answer".

"This is", said the Colonel with an air of revealing something gentle yet monstrous, "a terrible way of looking at it. The Mysterons consciously know the evil they're visiting on society. The general public may be complicit, but they're unaware of the exact damage they're doing".

"Don't give me that", Captain Black jeered.

"Are you honestly telling me you think that humans are worse than Mysterons?"

Really, the Colonel asked this as a way of dispassionately checking the facts, rather than teasing-out his own rage. He neither hunched forward or leant back. In the surprisingly lightweight trigger-arch of the .45, his finger felt numb. Ever-ready nonetheless.

Cool Cowboy Number One, Captain Black had no problem looking away and still keeping his aim. Moving his eyes queasy in circles around Colonel White's chair: it was a major part of the discourse.

"If it's any consolation, I'm nearer to your conception of the Mysterons than Captain Ochre's. He believes they're spiritual creatures. Gods. I'm not convinced of that. I listened to your little story about the Russian gulag and took it all in. They're political, that's all. Read in religion if you want, it makes no difference. I believe that, once upon a time, the same time the population became too large to sensibly manage any more, the collective unconscious realised that we were all about to be swallowed up in a feckless, capitalist nightmare. It realised that we could no longer be trusted with our own fate, and so a piece of it broke off. A small piece of autonomous consciousness snowballing to dramatic proportions. It loves us, but it doesn't care about our lives on Earth, because by their nature, they're now corrupt".

The Colonel scrutinised him; felt the anger poking unapologetically from his eyes.

"I'm glad you've unburdened yourself from your theory" -this to remind him that Spectrum, along with so many other institutions, could not be seen to enter a philosophical dialogue with terrorists. Alas, Captain Black seemed to understand this, and exploit it. His inky eyes moved steadily over the grey table top. Mad little principles can flow in dozens of unforeseen directions.

White briefly felt awed and skittish, about the way in which all the most important conversations of his life must be conducted at gun-point. It was the only way; it almost seemed logical.

"Your finger, on that trigger, looks awfully weak. I think I could shoot you now, and even as the tranq-venom filled your veins, your own shots would go -absolutely wide"

Purposefully, the Colonel eased up on the squinting of his eyes. He didn't want to look as though he was concentrating. Mad little principles can flow in dozens of unforeseen directions. Remove the dizziness of human neurosis, and at last you can start to expect the unexpected.

Captain Black gave a simpering look. He flipped the barrel of the gun away from the Colonel's head, with the easy motion of turning a door handle. Wading in an ocean of fearlessness, he placed the tranquilliser gun flat on the table top.

"Now put your hands up", instructed Colonel White, as if he would.

"I've got a message from them, to give to you".

"I already have the only message I need, that you've been corrupted".

"You're going to have to trust me", said the other. The idea was that, truly, he was speaking more out of sympathy than intimidation.

The Colonel dismissed it.

"Put your hands up. Turn around and move to the door".

Captain Black did not blink. "I'll do as you say, you have my word on that. But first, I have to deliver my message".

Strange; distrust abounded at every corner, still it was perfectly manageable. The remaining gun was kept steady; it even engaged in a millimetre or two of tracking. Trust? Even if it wasn't a ploy to buy time until more Mysteron agents arrived, things would still end badly. So let's be about it, any way we can.

"To be aware of the Mysterons is to be aware of the inevitability of death".

"Tell me something I don't know, Captain". The Colonel was now quite content to channel all his feelings into the barrel of the gun.

"The purpose of their existence is to prepare us for death, and entropy, in all the ways we can imagine, and all the ways we can't. Yet even bearing this in mind, they understand that they're not perfect and –they make mistakes! And in that spirit, they are sorry for what they did to your brother".

Looking on sickly, in fact half pulling the trigger, Colonel White felt his entire being shudder with hatred.

"You're a bloody fool", was the assessment of the psychopath now living within his skin. Certainly it was the first time he'd sworn in thirty years.

Captain Black started to speak. He cut him off.

"My brother was a member of a suicide cult. He was already preparing to die. He already understood about inevitability and entropy. I went to America, to try and get him out. I knew it was useless, but I had to try. And the Mysterons allowed us to get just far enough, to a cave, in some hills, where they promptly had some possessed police men kill him before my eyes. In the most horrible way. Why?"

And you had to hand it to him. Captain Black responded bravely. He spoke quietly; "Your brother had made a conscious choice. He was noble, and sane. As to why the Mysterons did what they did. They wanted you".

"Why?", the totality of White's soul shifted from anger to frustration. "What am I? A pathetic joke of a man. A spy who is incapable of recognising faces!"

"Here", said Captain Black coolly, "we come to the aspects of death and entropy we can never understand; the more noble you are, the less you belong in this c- of a world. Personally, I loathe you with a passion, but even I can see –-you're good man in an impossible situation".

Now it was like being a puppet, having your strings cut, though Colonel White fought against it all he could. He braced himself on the table. Peripheral vision was everything now. The hexagonal walls, some of them soft plaster, other sections made from composite metal, never seemed more annexed. All of it so incredibly ambient against the fading light.

Quietly, piercing gaze projected at an angle, he tried one last assault against Captain Black, "You can't work for them and hope to stay sane".

Said the other, reasonably, "Alright. But doesn't it follow that they can't be around one of us and not start to change?"

Colonel White was fascinated. The way he moved in front of the gun. Not so much fearless, but as if it didn't exist.

"I don't believe in mind-control. Never have. It works on dullards, but the idea of having someone or something in my head, telling me what to do? It's flatly impossible. Have the Mysterons been in my head? Certainly, but it's no different to just talking. Your mind is the strongest and most sophisticated thing –and the most real thing- there is, and if you think otherwise, why not just go and give a blow-job to the Dali Lama?"

"I don't understand your argument", said the Colonel. "Much less your coarseness".

Captain Black stared at him intensely. "You need to understand, because that's the way things are going. This country is about to change".

"Oh really".

Gesturing excitedly before the loaded gun, the ink-eyed man seemed full of sparks, fire, zeal unknown.

"At the minute, the Mysterons are localised –into this petty bureaucrat, that petty bureaucrat. But they needn't be. That's whole the point. They could just as easily be non-localised, do you understand? They thought, just as you do, Colonel White, that human consciousness –any kind of human consciousness—is sovereign, and the most honourable thing to do is possess as few people as possible in order carry out their mission. But listen –this energy, this force we call 'the Mysterons'—could just as easily be spread between all of us. And do know how much of our minds they'd need to control, to restore Britain, get full employment, get an economy and an industry that works?

"They'd need less than one percent. Less than one percent of our minds! Just the tiniest little nudge, like a watch battery moving the moon lander in 1969.

"And the amazing thing is, those of us with strong minds won't even need that, because we can already see the need for a communist utopia".

The Colonel, for his part, wished intensely that he could put the gun down and clasp his face. 'Like a watch battery moving the moon lander' -how would one even arrive at such a romanticised allegory without a Mysteron placing it in one's head?

"And you", he said bitterly, "intend to help this come about?"

"They just need one human ambassador. One man of who has been to the dark side, and yet still wants to see the human race have a future".

"You're insane", commented White, "and you're going to doom all of us".

The other shrugged, "We'll see".

"No, we won't. Turn around. Start walking".

The Colonel marched behind his prisoner and angled the gun in his back. Very gently, he wondered if there'd ever been a force, anywhere in creation, as delicately poised as the one which kept his finger on the trigger. What a holistic moment. The sort of thing we all live for. He commanded the former Spectrum agent to slowly descend the ladder to the base of the tower, then walk forward ten paces. If he tried to run, God help him, he'd be dead in a heartbeat.

The Colonel then skilfully descended himself, and felt giddily triumphant when he found himself once again pointing the gun directly at Captain Black's skull. He walked forward across the beginnings of the airfield tarmac. And soon heard two sets of footsteps gliding in towards him. Of course. Manoeuvred into a cross-fire, like JFK.

To his right, Captain Ochre. "Drop the gun, please, Colonel".

To his left, Destiny. He regarded her narrowly, sadly.

"And you, Destiny?"

She explained, apparently as best she could. "The war ends, Colonel. It just -ends".

Jayden Kriklade, 19, previous convictions for petty theft and gang violence, identified as part of a street robbery gang. Apprehended at 7.55 AM by PC Metcalfe after a brief chase. Arrested? Driven to a dockside lock-up previously belonging to a drug-smuggling gang. Handcuffed to a welded hitch. Stripped naked. Given two I-tablets and set to work.

Ronald Gullavington, 41, previous convictions for domestic violence, petty theft and handling stolen goods. Apprehended in connection with the knife-point robbery of a corner shop at 9.40 AM by PC Metcalfe. Arrested? Driven to a terraced house on the outskirts of Unity, the scene of a triple shooting two weeks previously, and only just cleared by evidence and forensics. Stripped naked. Chained to a under-carpet grill. Given two I-tablets and set to work.

Nicola Stantoncross, 25, previous convictions for being drunk and disorderly and breeches of the peace. Apprehended by PC Metcalfe after a twenty-strong happy-slapping gang swarmed across Unity City Centre, 10.40 AM. Arrested? Driven to the penthouse of a company executive currently awaiting sentence for manslaughter. Stripped naked. Chained to the rail of a cast metal, walk-in closet. Given two I-tablets and set to work.

For the main part of the day, Scarlet went about his usual beat and processed all the usual crimes. Swarms of feral children breezed past him, a plague to one-and-all, and the usual irony abounded. Strength in numbers, like some nihilistic army of hate, though they didn't realise. They were just following a natural instinct to be loud and destructive. He grabbed ahold of what he could; dispersed them as forcefully as his defeated mind allowed him. It wasn't so bad; usually there was the fear of seeing Ed among them. Well. He may be at home, half-catatonic through fear of the Mysterons -but at least he wasn't a part of this hell.

Making the giant circuit through to Old Town, life became easier. A long avenue of blocky, two-story shops, previously the domain of classic British chainstores, was now being refitted almost from scratch. He could smell the heavy ceiling pipes being welded into place. On a recent nightshift, he'd been astonished to see the same scaffold-workers going about their business at the dead of night, through a sea of floodlights. Memories of the night his mother had died. He'd stood at the cancer ward window and looked out on the construction of the new hospital. Men, a hundred feet up, working in the dead of night within a bare, brown superstructure, breathtakingly dense. It was, ironically, the last time he'd felt even remotely proud of being British. Thank Labour? The plan to build the thing had sparked up just as Gordon Brown's reign was coming to an end. But it was the Eton boys and their pet hippies who'd seen it through. In his sleep-starved, about-to-be-bereaved state, he'd enjoyed day-dreaming (night-dreaming?) that the vast new hospital would be just slightly bigger than it needed to be to treat everyone for the next two hundred years.

In the little town centre, grudgingly-pedestrianised but still with a mighty deficit of shops, he took an outside bench and got stuck into a Steak-o-Land burger. As soft and tasty as a McDonalds but twice the size. A little lad in a pram laughed his head off, just at the mere sight of Scarlet. He laughed back, and removed the badge from his jacket and placed it on the boy's. The mother thanked him profusely, and he made his escape for fear she would make overtures.

The rest of his shift, as he followed his beat back to the skanky heart of Unity, was par-for-the-course. Trickles of nightmare children became a tide, became a swarm. He dispersed them reasonably well, though increasingly he felt like an old man, like all old men.

Clock-watching, in the latter stages? Ironically, he only felt trepidation during the last five minutes, waiting for Constable Hill to arrive in the squad. He vacated the car to go on the beat, and Scarlet gratefully climbed into the driver's seat.

"Anything I need to know?", asked Hill.

Scarlet scowled. He was about to say, laconically, 'C-s abound', and then thought better of it. The memory of the little lad laughing in the pushchair.

He figured that he'd try Gullavington first, because he offered the best chance of a result. He was a grubby, habitual criminal, whose neurosis were often channelled into his fists, but at the same time he was loosely working class, and might just understand the concept of having a job that needed to be done.

Scarlet entered the terraced house, thankfully unobserved by any neighbours, and made a bee-line for the back room and Gullavington's makeshift cell. The naked man had assumed a foetal position among his chains, and to his credit was actually working away on the I-tablets. He stared up at the approach of Scarlet with a mix of animal fear and highly intellectual confusion, grubby all the while.

"Results", said the policeman.

"I'm- "

His heart sank immediately as he saw how the prisoner was trying so desperately to formulate excuses.

"My fingers move too slowly. I only used these things about two times before in my whole life".

"How much ground did you cover?"

"I-". He blinked away probably-affected tears. "Don't blame me. I went all around two of the moors you told me to, but I couldn't swing the camera around to get a proper look. I don't think I saw any of the tree formations you were talking about, but-"

He blinked stupidly. Scarlet decided that his tearfulness was deep and genuine.

"It's O.K, Ron. It's a very strange thing I'm looking for. I know you did your best".

There was silence. From out of nowhere, Gullavington grew furious. He jittered his jowly limbs and neurotic venom spiked in his eyes, even if he still didn't quite have the personality to clench his teeth.

"Well if you know I did my best, that's fine!", and he promptly pounded the I-tablets on the floor.

All Scarlet could do was hold steady on his haunches, then fall forwards onto him, pulling back his dirty hair and landing a fist in his naked stomach. He stood up and removed the man's clothes from his hold-all, throwing them like an octopus onto his naked form.

"Get dressed and get out of here".

"That's it?", whimpered the skuzzy man. He grew bold, "Who do you think you are, Jack Bauer? What you're doing isn't right. I'm going to report you to the Chief Constable".

Truly, Scarlet sensed, it was time to loom above him. Like the black-armour-plated devil he knew himself to be, in his soul.

"No. If I were you, I wouldn't. Consider. I'm part of a top secret government branch, searching for a hidden alien city. It's so secret, no one except doomed, habitually-lying criminals like you can be used to look for it. No matter where you go now, you'll never be more than an hour away from one of our silencers. If you want my advice? Get a haircut and get a job".

Except, struggling with his trousers, Gullavington still had deep reserves of skuzzy criminal melodrama. "Or maybe you'd prefer it if I just went to a wood, and hung myself, eh?"

Scarlet loomed above him, and loomed forward, down, until his mouth was millimetres from his ear.

"I dream of being allowed to hang myself".

Next, he decided to try Nikki at the penthouse. She was surely the next best bet. While she was a deeply unpleasant slag, she was also young, and no doubt had a natural ability to use a touch-screen, swinging around the anonymous moorland lanes via Google Earth -as if by the power of thought alone. On opening the door to the swanky bedroom, her gaze had only trace amounts of surliness. In fact, before long she was pragmatic. Just as soon as she inferred that he wasn't going to hurt her. A lot of rough girls, in a way, are among the cleverest people in society.

"There I found it, OK? It took me about four f-ing hours, but I did it. Do I get to be trained as a proper secret agent now?"

Scarlet stared at the two I-tablets in sheer wonder. She had indeed found the exact sprawling moorland which had been featured in the 'Futuristic City materialises...' video. The home of the invisible Mysteron City. Breathing deeply and with electrified limbs, he gingerly made a note of the latitude and longitude.

"Oh, Nikki. Essexy nightmare though you are, I'd gladly give you the world now, if I could. You may have just saved the human race".

"So what, Constable, you gonna bomb the place now?"

"I don't know yet", Scarlet shrugged. He fished around beneath his stab-proof until he found several bundles of Spectrum petty cash.

"If I give you this, you're just going to spend it on liquor for you and your friends, aren't you?"

"Yeah, it's a free country, innit?"

"Yes. It is still a free country. Thanks to you, Nicola", he gave her the cash; at least a grand.

He then withdrew her clothes from the hold-all and passed them over, a lot more reverential than he'd been with Gullavington.

"So what, do I get taken to Spy HQ now, and trained to be a soldier or su'in?"

"No", said Scarlet. "You go home with the satisfaction of a job well done".

"So what's all this been about then?", she asked, with a dizzy, hyperactive emotion he could hardly identify.

Starting to feel low again, he said, "It's been about exactly what I said. Finding an invisible alien city".

"B-s", she said.

She held her skirt absent-mindedly and looked at him slyly.

"You know what I thought, when you brought me here and stripped me off?"

"Get dressed, Nikki", he said blankly. "You're a good person. If you want to be the very best? Become a nurse".

She got dressed, but dragging the whole thing out in order to spite him. Arrested development infecting the whole country, terrible poison seeping in through every pore.

He drove over to the lock-up and Jayden Kriklade, for the most part dizzy at his good fortune. Not for a second had he expected the computerised search for the Mysteron City to be concluded in a single day, and through such a small pool of villains. Now there was just a single loose thread to be twirled. It would almost be lazy. Set a few doors along from the tiny military museum, and the mighty mosaic courtyard, a dank alleyway ran parallel on a hasty descent to the waters edge. The lock-up seemed to be the left-over part of building work which had concluded over a decade ago. The heavy, squat sides, with their feet-thick ribs, certainly looked anonymous. Unloved, unappreciated paving slabs led the way. Horizontal and diagonal bricks, architectural flourishes; all of it drank in the dank brown light.

Suddenly, Live and Let Die. He lifted the intensely vibrating mobile to discover it was 'Lieutenant Green'. For now, however, he ignored it.

To signal his arrival, Scarlet banged on the door like Ted Maul on a quest, though he didn't know why. The yale key in his fingers felt very reassuring. He heaved the door open, slipped forward towards an evil place. From the corner, he saw no light from either of the I-tablets; this was the first time his heartrate gave a slight shudder of fear. Closing, he saw the handcuffs hanging limply from the wall-mounted hitch. The punter end -covered in gore.

There was an astonishing lack of sensation as the loop of chain was pulled tight around his neck. He struggled slightly, then fell into the thrall of excruciating agony and the weird sensation of his neck being structurally rearranged. In the movies, the guy who gets strangled from behind staggers backwards to wallop his opponent on a wall. Scarlet tried this and merely stumbled on to his shins. Possibly, this was his first and last gambit; black halos were already starting to trouble the edge of his vision. It was to Kriklade's advantage that he was firmly grounded on his knees.

It was starting to turn peaceful. He was beginning to float away on a jarring tide of black streaks, and contented, rather than happy. His clawed-up hands were drawn across his chest, half as a reflex, half as a effete desire to at least touch the thing that was killing him. As a happy coincidence, his hand splayed out onto his radio. He unlooped it. He shifted the weight in his back as much as possible, then jabbed the antenna hard to where he hoped Kriklade's eye would be. And his eye would be. He yelped. There was some clearance in the chain, and Scarlet scrambled like a rabbit, soon finding the momentum to haul the little monster fully across his back.

Face-to-face. Almost as an afterthought, Scarlet drove the sole of his boot into Kriklade's jaw. He regained his breath at leisure. Then, staring into the teenager's face, which faintly resembled Bernard Breslaw, but the Bernard Breslaw from a Carry on Film set in Heironiumus Bosch hell, it was all down hill. The kid was giving up, even when he had nothing to lose.

Live and Let Die piped up once again, not quite at the most apposite moment. Once again, he ignored it. This time, however, the length of the ringtone was more insistent than ever.

"I'll tell you what, Jayden", he said, and delivered the coupe-de-grace with his still-numb fist.

Outside, it felt good to finally answer the phone, not least because just a few second before, he'd been sure he was dead. He winced up at the daylight on cacky bricks.

"Scarlet?"

"Yo".

"Cloud Base. It's been over-run. I managed to get to safety and I'm waiting to go back in. I heard gunfire".

Scarlet could only smile at this high drama upon high drama.

"Are you alone?"

"Yes, but I managed to haul the bag of guns to safety. At least they don't have any of ours".

"Wait for me", commanded the policeman.

"It's the others. I saw them. Captain Ochre. Black. Destiny".

In a heartbeat, he accepted this. Captain Ochre, the weirdo, had always been a Mysteron sympathiser. From Colonel White's perspective, it was probably only his vast fortune and knowledge of the occult which counterbalanced that, and even then only just. Black? Was exactly the type of broken, bereaved man which the Mysterons preyed on. And as for Destiny -she was either in love or Mysteronised. Which was worse, he had no idea. Either way, she'd end up pregnant, bourgeoisie, a slave to all but the most cow-eyed emotions.

Skidding off along the very staid jugular road which led to the Weltsbury basin, he switched on the lights and siren. It was a quick decision. Though he ran the risk of being seen by other cops and having to make excuses over the squawk-box, there was really no other choice. He realised as never before that Spectrum was everything to him. A concerted effort to rid the country of stupid arrogance -it was like a insurance effort, something that would one day see Ed and all the children like him living in a fully-employed utopia. A new industrial revolution, perhaps not even fully communist. Ideas like communism and capitalism wholly forgotten, and the only thing that matters: people who do practical, menial jobs are honoured above all others, bar only the NHS.

These very obvious, cloud-like daydreams. Touching the perforated skin around his neck, he found copious amounts of fresh blood. No doubt this had a hell of a lot to do with it. Ultra-common-sense revelations. Ultra-sanity. If only he didn't simultaneously feel like the pie-in-the-sky Artillery Man from Jeff Wayne's War of the Worlds. Richard Burton rolling his eyes as the most grandiose plans for mankind were drawn up -from a sewer.

All the bison and buffalo edged out of his way at the Ewotley Bassnet roundabout. This drama concluded, he sped happily along the low-hedged sling road towards the West Weltsbury basin. Today, though the default landmark of the White Horse was just-about obscured, certain features of Cloud Base were visible, even from twenty miles away. Scarlet felt like a god-empowered ant, or part of a door-stop historical book, strangely spurious. Sebag-Montefiore finishing the last paragraph of 'Stalin: Court of the Red Tsar' and then moving on to the history of some soulless, capitalist ants.

The sound of the siren, quite quickly, started to focus his mind. In his wing-mirror, the red and blue flashes were ambient. It would have been fine, except somewhere in the sequence was a brilliant white crinkle which gave things an utterly eerie feel. He sped down the lonely lanes, moved parallel with the darting railway line, the failing timber yard, the smallest stretch of canal in Britain, now utterly bereft of barges.

Taking the usual turn onto Cloud Base would be tactically amiss. He parked up on the broad verge on the other side of the small crest and ran across the emerald fields. At about half way, he halted by a raggedy old gatepost. Numb fingers played at his belt; he realised he'd used all three of his handcuffs on Nikki, Gullavington and Kriklade. No matter; it was unlikely that prisoners would be taken. He flipped open his baton and moved in.

Mae'r daith ryngweithiol hon yn eich tywys chi a'r Captain Scarlet ar antur anhygoel drwy amser a'r gofod.

Now fairly far in along the edge of the airfield, he could just about see the copse at the end of the lane, where the Colonel usually had a guard posted. There was no guard today. As he got a closer look at the buildings, he saw there was no signs of life at all. Entrance to the airfield could be gained from the high metal fence in the old exercise yard, though it was exposed. Scarlet started to creep along with expert care. He passed the assault course. He tip-toed past the submerged plane.

A faint slooshing noise came from behind him. He suspected nothing more than the wind, but turned around all the same.

Captain Green heaved himself from beneath the sunken plane. No sooner had be braced himself on the edge of the swimming pool and swung his legs up, than he brought the barrel of a pump-action shotgun to bear on Scarlet's head.

"Give me your code-phrase".

Scarlet raised his eyebrows, even if he didn't quite feel scared. His friend was covered in brown algae and dirty black water; it was a sight to behold.

He made a point of turning away again, just slightly. He'd always hated this malarky of code-phrases. Even now, in the exact contingency they were designed for, it felt -ignoble.

"'All the things that happened in the past, happened only in your mind. Forget your mind and you'll be free'".

Green chewed his lip regretfully. A terrible uncertainty ruled, after which he redoubled his aim. "That's not good enough, Paul. We both know why we have code-phrases; they're little psychic panic rooms that no amount of torture or mind-probing can uncover. Now, Paul. Give it to me now".

"'The finger is on the trigger'", said Scarlet.

"Overhead in a jetpack", confirmed Green. At once, he let the shotgun fall to his side.

Scarlet asked, "Are you OK?"

Seymour Griffiths spread his dripping arms, ran some fingers through his squelchy hair. "Not really. I saw it all kicking off and hid down there, but-"

He back-tracked to the submerged plane and seized a piece of climbing rope that was tethered to one of the wing-struts. He heaved, and up came a heavy plastic sack.

"As I said, I had the presence of mind to take our guns with me. I had no idea -I thought there might be a whole army of Mysteronised souls coming to take control".

There was a neat silence as Scarlet clipped away his baton and poked his hands into the huge bag of guns. At first he was drawn to one the shotguns, a slightly older and more plasticky-looking model than Green's. Then he remembered how he'd always wanted a chance to go ambidextrous with two .45s. In the strike team, using two handguns at once was generally frowned upon, even if your superiors believed you had the ability. However. Deadly is deadly.

He checked the clips and they started their advance on the silent buildings.

Standing to one side of the small windows and peering in conjured nothing more than a narrow-wise view of the Mary Celeste. This was the main rec room. They moved on to the barracks.

"What's all the blood around your collar?", whispered Green.

Scarlet sneered. "I do have a day-job, you know".

They realised they had to stoop slightly to remain unseen. The nearest two barracks were set in an 'L' formation.

"Listen", said Scarlet. "Who's 'Jack Bauer'?"

Green laughed at this mightily unexpected question.

"That's Keifer Sutherland's character in '24'. Why do you ask?"

"Today, a criminal accused me of being him. Is he a baddie, is he?"

Said Green, "I've only ever seen one or two episodes. I don't think he's a goodie or a baddie. He's like a fairy tale for yanks who are paranoid about terrorists".

"Keifer Sutherland. Is that Donald Sutherland's son?"

"I think so".

Both of the barracks were clear. From there, the airfield sides spread out into a pleasing little courtyard of thick wooden halls and green-painted equipment sheds. Knee-height walls of old rubber tires apparently served some kind of purpose. By now, Scarlet was getting bored, and so he walked tall over the most exposed section of ground.

The first hall had a tight arrangement of outer-partitions. He edged around them and found nothing. The hall to the right was more or less an exact duplicate. He gazelle-hopped up the steps, slid around the partitions, this time with his sixth-sense warning he was about to see something terrible.

"Scarlet!"

And at first, the tension seemed unfounded. Captains Puce, Magenta, Bronze, several of the Angels had been chained around a central pillar. Edging around, past Symphony, Harmony -there was Colonel White. And there was the horror. The man had been defeated. His body was sagging, his forearm laid bleakly over his brow. Eyes? Utterly hopeless.

"Give your code-phrase!", hissed Magenta.

Scarlet puffed his mouth. "I can either give you my code-phrase, or I can unchain you. You're the ones that let this happen".

"They took control of us, all at once", said Magenta, bleakly.

The lock was a Best Hardware Tri-Circle, which traditionally had been resistant to his universal pick. Indeed, he scraped it into the keyhole and the bearings didn't move at all. The only thing for it was to take his pliers and try and brace it open. Two minutes later.

Green moved to support the Colonel, who shook him off sullenly.

"'The finger is on the trigger'", quoted Scarlet. He spoke sheepishly.

Green followed suit, "'Overhead in a jetpack'".

They waited for the Colonel to follow suit with his own code-phrase. The man seemed utterly bereft. Still there was a kind of intellectualism in his steel eyes. He looked squarely at Scarlet. Sometimes hope, just acknowledging the idea of hope, can be ugly.

"'White as snow'".

Scarlet took in the sight of the disarrayed Spectrum agents. To their credit, the Angels all looked brave and unruffled. Harmony was wearing an 'Air' T-shirt, which at first he took to be Air, the French ambient band. Successive glances suggested Nike Air. He asked if anyone was hurt. They said no, though hardly grateful for it. Something terrible was happening. Colonel White moved stiffly to the doorway.

The plexi-fibre flooring echoed rather than creaked. Through the broad windows, the night sky seemed odd. It was like night sky from a cinema screen.

Certainly, you could sense the Colonel thinking. Not furiously, exactly, but deeply.

"It's over, I think. I would suggest that you all go home and be with your families".

"What's over?", said Scarlet incredulously.

"Metcalfe, Paul", the Colonel whispered. Then, to all of them, "We all know how the Mysterons liked toying with us. We must accept that Spectrum was only ever a –ploy. One can't fight against what can't be fought".

Scarlet stepped up. "They're like Hydra, that's all. And we've cut off a hell of a lot of heads. What did they want? Why did they come here?"

It was then that White spoke in an uncharacteristic undertone, "To boast. To play messiah".

"But Colonel", Captain Green was plaintive, "they must know we'll never give up".

"It doesn't matter whether we give up or not, except our lives might be easier. Britain will die either way. We cannot change their plan".

Scarlet snapped, "What plan?"

"Captain Black", Colonel White spoke the name distastefully, "believes he can be an ambassador of sorts. He believes he has the authority to bring about a kind of –symbiosis between the human race and the Mysterons, to our benefit. They plan to take over -everyone".

At this, Captain Magenta, Harmony and Symphony started to make semi-irrelevant points, ask semi-irrelevant questions. Scarlet, for his part, crossed to a window and stared out at the airfield. Darkness was imposed across the buildings in fuzzy globules of dark blue. Eyeing-up the other meeting hall, he noted the way the oversized air conditioning unit had been slotted into the entire back wall, like a crashing tank. And so - Kelly's Heroes. Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Donald Sutherland. Kiefer Sutherland. No, not a baddie.

"It would have made sense to kill you. There's a reason they didn't".

"It could be-" Colonel White heard himself being drawn back into the rat-race and cringed slightly. He continued nonetheless, "—our former agents believe in a certain ideology which is stronger than life and death. It's a classic story of brainwashing".

Scarlet said darkly, "Well at least that's some kind of weakness".

"The fact is, they're gone. And there's nothing we can do until we all lose our minds".

Colonel White's defeatism made everyone look up, and understand that life as they knew it really was stiffly coming to an end.

Except. Scarlet scratched his neck. He quietly walked around for a bit. He took out a stick of gum and started to masticate. What he said made everyone look up again, and understand that if there's one thing you can trust, it's a British policeman.

"No. I know exactly where they're going, and I'm going to stop them".

The White Horse disappeared under a crescent of chestnut trees. Usually skipping, this evening seeming to dip his head despondently. And this was the last clear psychic impression before the enormity of what they were doing truly hit home, caused them to drive on in a kind numb oblivion. They took the motorway, which was weirdly quiet and full of dazzling coloured lights.

Eventually, from his throne of the back seat, Captain Ochre said, "Well, Destiny, Conrad. How do you feel?"

The two were silent. Conrad glanced soulfully at Destiny, knowing that whatever he felt must be ten times worse for her. After all, he had nothing invested in Cloud Base or the people there. To her it was a kind of home. Plus there was the monster in the room; the way that she had fallen in with her life-long enemies, climbed inside their souls, started a new crusade based only on the idea of hope and change.

"What does it matter how we feel? We're doing it", said Conrad.

"Captain Black", the occultist on the back seat half-smiled; there was an impression he might be steepling his fingers like a proper, old-style politician on an episode of Question Time. "Do you mind if I still call you that?"

"Go ahead", shrugged Conrad.

"Don't press me for details, but actually? This is all about you. I know you can't see it, but nothing else matters except the three of you".

At the wheel, Destiny reacted with a twitchy panic. Conrad felt it too. The implication that she might be pregnant. Mutual gratification had been their go-to, but there'd also been fumbling attempts at traditional. Having a child would be strange. The idea of having a child destined to be some Mysteron messiah was -too horrible to entertain.

The alternative, that Ochre was fully a Mysteron, and was merely dissociating himself as one of the three people in the car; Conrad guessed this might be possible as well.

After a silence, overwhelmed by the hissing of the tyres, he said, "'The three of you'. What's that meant to mean?"

He heard the man lean back as he measured his words. "I was just referring to Scarlet. We'll see him again before all this is finished".

Conrad felt relieved, just a little bit.

"Scarlet will never betray the humans".

Ochre replied in a haunted voice, "We'll see about that chestnut".

"No", asserted Conrad.

"No? I was right about you, wasn't I? Scarlet is your brother. Figuratively speaking. Like you, the Mysterons are incapable of controlling him".

The night offered up grey, mushrooming trees, all of which seemed to have a love-hate relationship with the motorway siding. The fields themselves were barren and receded to a murky nothing after barely a foot or two.

As a tiny child, Conrad had believed that, once you reached a certain advanced age, you started to get memories of the war. It didn't matter if you'd actually lived through it or not. This made no sense, of course, not least because, on his grandad's mantle, there was a photograph of a much younger Terry Turner in full desert gear, standing next to a tank. What did he imagine the photo was of? A dream?

Things never happen the way we imagine. Conrad thought; all those optimistic people who believed that an advanced alien race would one day arrive, and lead us to enlightenment and every kind of a bountiful civilisation. They could never have imagined it would happen like this. It was Stalin having the Ukrainian wheat farmers fall in with the Five Year Plan using just a thimble of psychic suggestion. It was the French Revolution, brought about simply by having aristos look at a picture of the guillotine.

Well-groomed fields, lean motorway bridges, pretentious trading estates where all the companies were desk-bound and completely non-manual; all of it sped past in the blue darkness, at an angle. Plus, with quite a frequency; hand-painted protest hoardings by farmers lamenting their destruction. The characteristics of the West were being moderated as they entered the Midlands.

Conrad's uneasiness over Scarlet and what he might do came and went.

The ideas people have about how Britain might be saved. Whether we go slightly more right-wing, or ever-more liberal. It's fast approaching a state of affairs where we'll be forced to face the pragmatic truth, and surely that truth can only ever be imposed on us by something nobler than the human race? Self-insight, nothing else. Simples, really. There are too many people at the top, too many people aspiring to be at the top, and no one willing to live anywhere but the top. Yet being at the top is easy. And even if it's not easy, it's fulfilling. Therefore: no deskbound administrator, no manager, no academics should ever be paid more than menial workers. Supply and demand for a savvy world. 'But we're paying for skills', whine the favoured politicians of the day. What greater skill is there than steeling yourself for necessary drudgery? Knowing how to design a colourful spreadsheet? Grow up. Have the Mysterons force you to look in the mirror.

All these thoughts and more Conrad had as the surrounding cars slowed up, indicators flashing like coloured bullet-holes. In the profound night atmosphere, the noise of their wheels sounded a dozen times clearer but also quieter. Destiny spontaneously took them up a sliproad into a service station. The triggers beneath their wheels made intensely lucid clicks. The yellow floodlights, meanwhile, seemed like a gift from the gods.

Destiny numbly got out and paced to the front of the car. She leaned over and spread her hands on the bonnet in a Mark Renton pose, except she wasn't laughing.

"Feeling sick?", asked Conrad. Once again, the eerie concern that she might be pregnant.

"No".

He stood by helplessly. She noticed the dour vibe immediately and took his hand in reassurance, even as she turned to address Captain Ochre.

"It's something I remember. No Spectrum agent used to have to take their cars to a garage, right? We always used to get Captain Magenta to look them over, or else get them taken over to his brother's garage. Well -"

She chewed her lip, deeply uncertain. "I remember hearing a conversation between Colonel White and Captain Magenta, about tracking devices in cars. It was just a fraction of a conversation, but they were talking about -the range of each bug, and about how there was a certain low-frequency antenna on top of Cloud Base tower. Could it be my car is bugged?"

"Yes", said Captain Ochre, quite succinctly.

Asked Conrad, "How can you be so sure?"

"Because it's exactly what I'd do. Besides, remember. Scarlet is a rozzer. He'll put out an APB on us in a heartbeat. Spectrum are old hands at conjuring trumped-up accusations. I was going to suggest abandoning the car anyway. Now is as good a time as any".

"And so", Conrad pouted, "with one man and his dog on the lookout for us, how are we to make our way to Scotland?"

Ochre sighed, hard. "Well. I was going to suggest we charter a private helicopter, but now I come to think about it, that would be risky, too".

"Why? You think Spectrum might bring us down with a rocket launcher?"

Ochre stared at Conrad steadily, and for a protracted period of time.

The Service Station. A row of fruit machines which Conrad ran his fingers beneath, finding twenty pence. Destiny hitting the reject slots and getting a pound. Both coins with a brilliant, quantitative-easing newness. A micro-branch of M & S, a chain which usually Conrad loathed, but was pleased to buy three winter coats from. An astonishingly clean and well-lit cafe where they ate modestly and drank tea. The old trucker opposite relating to his mate the story of how, sitting in his front room on a Saturday afternoon, he'd been astonished to see half a dozen twelve year-old boys enter his small, terraced back garden and start kicking a ball against the wall. A gleaming siding the size of a small chain store, which was all just the men's toilets. A ginger-haired twenty-something man skilfully mopping the cubicle floors.

"Hello?", asked Conrad.

"Yes?"

English, with a voice that was somehow neither rough, working-class or poncey.

"I think this fell out of your pocket", and he handed him one of Ochre's many bundles of twenty pound notes.

The boy was astonished, though he had the presence of mind to say, "No. You should take this to the security guard's office. Do you want me to show you where it is?"

"It definitely fell out of your pocket", said Conrad, and stared into his eyes. "A revolution is coming, and guys like you, at last, will be seen".

Manufacturers of the original, post-war Porta-Cabins (or 'Mobiles'), specifically Turners of Unity, were keen to make each unit as adaptable and homogenous as possible. Whether the rooms were contracted to the Army, schools, prisons, farms or the industrial sector, or even hospitals!, the standard layout of each mobile was designed to be quickly tailored to a unique environment. Therefore, the end wall of each twenty by forty room had a connection to allow further cabins to linked. The undersides had slide-door hatches, partly as anchor-points for the flatbed transport, partly as accommodation for any under-floor heating units, should they ever be needed.

But for those who discovered the cavities while mischievously exploring the underside of the mobiles, the boon in terms of having a secret hiding place was vast.

Examples. In 1979, at the impoverished Catholic divinity school in County Leinster, Ireland, a young nun called Rosetta Allen was told to rid herself of her ancient rosary; over the years, several of the beads had become detached and lost, leaving a number that was wholly insufficient according to the Mother Superior. The problem was, the rosary had been hand-made by her mother, with a sentimental value that was colossal. Might the Bishop not see fit to simply bless the original rosary, but with a few new beads added? The Mother Superior said no, it's not the Bishop's business to delineate individual beads, and we shouldn't expect him to.

Sister Rosetta crept out of bed in the dead of night, made her body flat and slid in beneath the mobile. The space was tight, and her eyes were constantly forced to focus and re-focus. Bats were present. But nonetheless a home was made for the unauthorised prayer beads in one of the hidden compartments. Over the next decade she would return almost a dozen times, bolstering her regular prayers with Hail Marys spoken via her original childhood rosary. The non-violent release of Nelson Mandela. A speedy resolution of the Falklands conflict. The safe arrival of the Zodiac camera probe into the orbit of Planet Mars, which was the life's work of her brother Nathaniel.

And what of Steve Cherhill, a prisoner at Slay Gardens Medium Security Block? Cherhill had always thought of himself as a great artist in waiting, which unfortunately a dalliance with heroin and various other Class A drugs had put pay to. He was now in a firm quandary; Slay Gardens had an excellent oil painting class, where prisoners could paint whatsoever they liked and then sell their work to the public during open days. Cherhill didn't believe that even ordinary citizens, let alone prisoners, had the talent or the innovation to produce decent oil paintings. And yet he fell in with the class; it was too tempting not to. Sure enough, the prisoner at the easel opposite was praised to the high heavens, even though all he did was cut pictures out of magazines and then paint over the top. It was lazy and it was pretentious, and yet his paintings sold for thousands, and won several awards. Cherhill knew that, by way of maintaining what little functional sanity he had left, he had to abandon the oil painting class. But how could he, when his art was all he had? He took the decision to smuggle out tubes of paint, brushes, tubs of thinners, and secrete them in one of the slots beneath the mobile in the main yard. The next few weeks saw him retrieve one tube at a time and begin a masterful portrait of his ex-girlfriend Kismet, working purely by memory and in varying powers of moonlight. His canvas? The reverse side of his wall-mounted shaving mirror. He lived on, happy and thoroughly absorbed in his work. The daytime workshop he took in lieu of the art class was production line work: making the thousands of tiny coolant grommets which would sit in the take-off pad of the Raptor space rocket, which would in turn launch the Zodiac camera probe on its long journey to Planet Mars.

And what of PC Paul Metcalfe? Metcalfe, the lead henchman of a secret anti-freedom organisation, had long been about bringing his sinister boss all the illegal firearms which he seized during his day-to-day police life. But these guns were never enough. The organisation needed something more powerful and up-to-date than the scrappy Eastern Bloc rubbish that were taken in street raids.

As a one-time Elite Response officer, Metcalfe was forced to take one shift in ten as a gun maintenance man at the Weltsbury Firearms HQ in Devinsey. He was a fully qualified gun technician, and really, this was a curse. It was vexing that he had such close access to the state-of-the-art, computerised sniper rifles, but was incapable of sneaking any of them out for his shadowy 'Spectrum' masters. Each weapon had to be individually scanned to a rotating 'quarantine' location, by way of a hand-held barcode reader, even for the brief hour or so it was cleaned and tested.

Except one day, the barcode reader broke. Metcalfe was forced to enter each quarantine code by hand on the tiny keyboard.

Soon it was the last check of the day. As usual, he daydreamed as he worked. The 'and finally' news of the day was that the United Kingdom Space Agency had declassified a photo originally beamed back by the Zodiac camera probe from Planet Mars in 1984. It had been kept under wraps at the time because of a certain formation of dust and rocks which distinctly resembled a hammer and sickle. In those heady, Cold War days of warring ideologies, the government had decided that the USSR should have as little publicity as possible, even jokey, incidental publicity.

Scarlet brooded on this, shook his head in wonder. Removing a particularly beautiful Hakkotsu M40AE Banshee from the lock-up, he absent mindedly entered the location 'PLANET MARS 1787687' instead of 'PRIMARY MOVE 1787687'. No sooner did he realise his scatty-minded mistake than he realised something else: the total balance of the guns in the lock-up had gone down by one, but with nothing whatsoever in the 'from and to' column. When he accessed the Total Cache History report, there was no record of a transaction for that half-hour, even a wrong scan. He physically counted the guns in the lock up. They tallied with the balance. Finally, feeling nothing but amazement, he entered the rifle's own serial number into the main database. On hitting ENTER, 'No records exist'. He double checked. He physically counted the guns again. Perhaps as a quick thinking detective, or perhaps just paranoid, he brought up the Inventory History screen for the neoprene trigger grommets –as each grommet had been fitted, the serial number of the respective rifle was cited. He read the sequential serial numbers for the rifles either side, but his was missing. To confirm it, he accessed the original purchase ledgers and found nothing whatsoever. The rife he held in his hands, very simply, no longer existed.

A gift from 'Red' Planet Mars, indeed.

There was still the matter of the full body scanner in reception. Of this, Scarlet felt curiously unafraid, because, after all, 'in for a penny'. He eyed the heavy double-glazed windows in the corner of the lock-up, each one no bigger than the smallest frosted toilet pane he could imagine. This hardly mattered—they were still big enough to allow passage of an adult arm and two-and-a-half feet of sniper rifle. The question was, was there anyone in the car park who'd be looking up at precisely that moment? He pictured the scene in his mind, populated it with small but wholly incidental details. A blackbird, a Quavers bag, a Mike Garbut lorry just out of eyeshot. Perhaps a single, anonymous desk worker crossing the narrow ring of parking spaces by the ring of cedar trees, though with the inclination to look up no more significant than the inclination to stare into a heatwave sun. He wrapped the rifle in his jacket and dropped it through the window with little or no hesitation. Next, he threw out a case of ammo clips, and hurriedly doctored the report about how many rounds he'd expended on the firing range while testing the other guns.

In the reception area, all the sergeants and the secretaries stared at him as if they knew, though of course they didn't. He breezed around the back of the car park, looked around while scratching his face. Monkeying up the stone trellis to the ledge was surprisingly easy, though only, he knew, because of the amount of adrenaline in his veins. He carried the rifle carefully to his car boot, thinking, 'Adam, don't get me a Christmas present this year'.

Not that it was the type of Christmas present he'd play with. At Cloud Base, he took the bundle, slid underneath the mobile and concealed it with a glad heart. As safe as a hammer and sickle rock formation hidden by the red sands. Hidden until such a time-

Four years later. The End of Human Civilisation, certainly the end of human consciousness.

Seymour Griffiths leaned out of the window and, staring sharply down, frowned as the Hakkotsu sniper rifle was flung clear, poltergeist-style. He reflected how, even as an urban guerrilla-type and lover of all things technical, he still hated oversized guns quite distinctly. Monsters like this sleek, granite-coloured rifle were just symbols of their whole lives being a prison. Also, the false sense of empowerment which a gun can give you; you're already on the rocks.

But perhaps Scarlet knew what he was doing. And no one could deny the king-size accomplishments he'd brought for Spectrum over the years.

"Do we leave straight away?", he called down.

Scarlet slid himself free and half-violently clawed the muck away from his shoulders.

"I'm doing this alone", he said in a clipped tone.

"Surely a spare set of eyes?"

But Scarlet was already busy casting his gaze over the slim, monstrous rifle. A world of his own. "If you think this changes anything, you're wrong. Even when I defeat this pig-brained alliance between Black and the Mysterons, they'll still be at our throats. Colonel White is burnt out. You have to get clear. Send out the Angels, Magenta, Puce, Bronze, even auld Dr Gold. Put them in every major city. What we do now is, we recruit. We find anyone, anywhere, with a morality and a sense of conscience and make as many Spectrum cells as possible. Promote the war. Burn down as many non-industrial, academic secondary education places as possible. We visit the owners of any large manufacturing company who steadfastly refuses to have factories in Britain and we 'persuade' them, by any means necessary. We get to the government. All child benefits, all housing benefits –people only get what they work for, and by work, I mean-"

He touched his temple with his fingertips, withdrew some of the perspiration and showed it to his friend. "Graft".

Stepping out of the porta-cabin and moving alongside Scarlet, Green was careful to keep his eyes low. He realised that the last few moments before a suicide mission were not ideal for political debate.

"Paul, even if the general public believes us, you're talking about a nation-wide Mysteron witch hunt. We've always agreed from the very start that won't work. If we tell Joe Public about the Mysterons, they'll think they're a veiled metaphor for immigrants, or bankers, or Muslims-"

"As opposed", said Scarlet, "to the far more ugly truth that they're inside everyone. Each and every one of us, anytime we put ourselves or our family above the country or the concept of hard work".

Presently he detached the rifle butt and hid it in a hollowed-out keyboard. The main barrel he slid inside a zip-up tennis racket bag, the same concealment method he'd used for the Bee Campbell hit in 2012. He spoke breezily as he walked to the squad car, dispassionately removing his police uniform and replacing it with a red, pin-stripe Ben Sherman. "You have to draw a line. Civilisation is not a bowl of housewife maggots, and it's not a Clockwork Orange".

Green noted with alarm how Scarlet was locking the police car and moving to one of the Cloud Base runabouts, a white-satin Civic.

"If I don't come back, torch it".

He blanched. "What do Captain Blue and your boy make of this? Have you even told them what you're doing?"

Said Scarlet flatly, "What I'm doing is taking responsibility. It's ugly, but someone's got to do it". He climbed aboard, started the engine, and checked the fuel light as though it was a 'clear to fly' signal from NASA. It was, by now, that certain dead of night where the crawling, heavy clouds resembled patio breezeblocks. At the edge of the airfield, the colony of rabbits were so relaxed, they could allow their expressions to become default self-absorbed. Surly eyes. Ears that all-too-often looked brilliantly surprised. Scarlet wound down the window as he coasted past Green. "If you want, you can tell them that I love them, so much that I feel I can do anything".

Meanwhile, 'We persuade them', thought Green. Like the unimaginative cliché of a prohibition gangster, schizophreniaed-up with the morality of Eliot Ness, J Edgar Hoover, and lord what a ball of confusion.

The sound of the engine vanished into the night. Colonel White supposed, in a very tired and echoey part of his mind, that that was that. They were rushing off to halt and destroy Black, Ochre and poor Destiny. This new feeling, very much a part of sinking, and sinking, and then touching the bottom, was truly a sentimental anguish. He stared at the starless heavens just visible between velvety tectonic clouds. They were dark blue - purple even. Just now, everything was cool and pleasingly slow. The thought of tomorrow, however, was hell. What Spectrum agents remained would either pity themselves, pity him or let their hatred of the Mysterons carry them on, drunken sailors rejoicing as each swell raised them a little higher to the stars. The Colonel himself, of course, was awash with grief and irony. He'd always known that he didn't quite hate the Mysterons to full capacity. It was inexplicable. Even after what they subjected him to, there was a clear trace of leniency towards them. They were, after all, only working on the inherent weaknesses that lay in the human character.

But if so, who or what could possibly take the blame for what was happening?

He slumped on his desk, and drew a forearm across his eyes. Just a thoughtless, melodramatic gesture. The business with the prosopagnosia, of course –it was just a way of emphasising that he had no one to blame for this godless, suffocating world except himself. He'd been stillborn, and though he was now scrambling around as an old man, that didn't make him any less a thing of blank, abortive death.

He held Nathan's letter carefully in his shaking hands.

Memories powered in to him of all those hyperactive times when he'd transferred the sacred letter from the pages of one book to another, safe-keeping a high art form. For many years the unopened envelope had retained the creases from where he'd originally shoved it into his trousers pocket in the cave. Some time around the turn of the millennium, it had turned largely smooth, almost shop-fresh. Beyond that, there was an acute fascination about what type of book Nathan might enjoy being hidden inside. At one time, the Tibetan Book of the Dead. For many years, as it was now, their father's old RAF exercise manual.

The envelope was surprisingly difficult to open. He'd assumed that after all this time, the glue would have decayed.

Charles,

I call them the Hell Rings. Of course, I pray that you never know what I'm talking about. They seem to be made of light -I call them 'Hell' just because that's what it feels like when they touch you. And over the years, if you could see how many times they've nipped and sliced me, relentlessly, well past the point of madness. It's the only reason I joined Heaven's Gate, to try and escape them.

Starting at the beginning. You must remember far more clearly than me, the days when Father was winding down as the commander of RAF Stanton Green. It made an impression on me, too. I must have visited the base about a dozen times; and I watched all the blue-shirted men sweeping around corners, all the light boards with the approach vectors being plotted, the hangers being prepared with such-and-such gantry or such-and-such fuselage bed, as though each landing plane was a visit from Douglas Bader. I'd never known such busyness. Who could blame me for wanting to be an air-traffic controller when I came of age? I say, 'who' because there are always two ogres queuing up on the horizon, myself and the Hell Rings.

How do you remember me from those days? A kid in a green baseball cap, in flares, hovering around with awe in his eyes. You helped me build every kind of Skyform kit, from Red Barons to Blackbirds. Very skilful with the scalpel, yet you always seemed preoccupied. For myself, I was just a little kid with one thing on my mind: planes, planes, planes. Father counselled me against joining the RAF, perhaps wisely. He thought he'd been lucky and had only gained his prominent rank thanks to the happenstance of WWII. I don't think this is true, but I followed his words and instead took up a succession of telemetry and electrophysics degree courses, with a mind to becoming a first-class air-traffic controller. Qualifications gained, I applied for Unity Airport, Birmingham, Heathrow, every provincial little airfield shack. The shacks were old boy's networks. The big airports all had interview waiting lists. And so I waited, and the Hell Rings lurked, ready to close in on me.

I try to remember the last time I was happy. The obvious answer would be the day Stanton Green played host to the launching of the Mars probe. We were all there together, just staring at the launch pad, and the summer sky, you in a suit shirt, me in a green poker visor that I'd found somewhere. It occurs to me I really didn't care about Mars; I only cared about our end, on Earth. We were eating Opal Fruits.

I don't remember the exact time, in my heart, when I realised I'd never actually get to work in an airfield control tower, in any capacity other than floor-sweeper. It probably came around the same time that I fell absolutely out of love with planes. Sold all my old Skyform models to a collector, and they went for a price that was good but not brilliant. It occurs to me that if I'd only carried on building those planes into adult life, as a way of fulfilling my dreams, my whole fate would have been saved.

You often hear people complain, 'I went to such and such job interview, and the only reason I didn't get it is because they thought I was overqualified'. This isn't true, I don't think. And even if it was, why mention your high qualifications if you're applying for something semi-, or as I was forced to, non-skilled? No one has the sense to realise. You can lie and bluff about qualifications, but no one can fake a ground-level reference from a 9-to-5 employer, showing little or no sickness, no inane family absences. Anyway, I was buried. Which is not to say I was unemployed. I took temping jobs, but they always came to a quick end, and I always felt embarrassed for the company itself, which was so fearful of breaking employment laws that they had to pay through the nose just to get have a guy that does the sweeping.

Are you like me, Charles, and you associate the very idea of hard work and employment with the vision of Father getting up at 5am each morning, exercising, polishing his boots and then pulling himself away along the motorway like a tide in the ocean? By the time I returned home after my various travails, he'd already retired from the RAF. Except, retired? What does that mean? He'd been working at the Cydonia Estate at Cirenwald since day one. He moved among those grubby-skinned gardening contractors, all those anaemic fencing contractors, and Lord Thompson must have just known. He must have just realised, here's someone who can be an old-style Head Groundskeeper and he's mine. And Father, as you know, fitted the role to a tee. The estate even thrived. Which is how we come to Rusti.

It's a funny thing to have someone you truly, profoundly hate, and yet you know all along that it's wrong to do so. I hate him in the same way, maybe, a small child would hate a sparrow-hawk that flashes down out of the sky and carries off his pet rat. Except no, that analogy doesn't work, does it? The sparrow-hawk has some kind of discernible personality. It's narrowly possible Rusti had a personality, hidden behind layers of quietness and being ill-at-ease speaking English. Father once told me that the reason his interpersonal manner left so much to be desired was because, during a conversation, he'd think of the perfect response in Turkish, and then translate it into English, but all the while with ever-more apposite words popping into his head, so becoming trapped in a terrible translation feedback loop. And it would be funny, if there was anything there to begin with.

Juggling my jobs, the state's ingratitude to me, going to see Father as he died; you would expect this time to bleak, and it was. But there was also something else going on. I'm not much of a psychologist so I couldn't tell you exactly what.

It's funny, don't you think, how we feel responsible for other people's pain, and the cruelty of the country. You know it's illogical, and yet in your heart, you don't doubt it for a second. And you want to die, and you want to hurt. It's like God being desperate to apologise, but only being able to hurt Himself. Mostly my walk to the Cheese Sandwich Factory each morning involved right-angled, terraced footpaths. But there was a stretch of busy bypass, and I fantasised about holding my arm out so that it would be shattered by an articulated lorry. Cancer or no, Father was determined to keep working at the estate until the last possible moment. I bet it was starting to hurt, and give him vicious little glimpses of mortality, and no heaven. And all the while, that personality-free dweezil would be there beside him. As if he had anything in common with anyone, least of all Father.

Father pretended to be proud of his clear cell sarcoma, the rarity of it. He half-joked that, if the doctors found it interesting, they'd be more likely to take good care of him. Rusti didn't understand this at all. As for me, the NHS just seems like an incredible, paradisal dream, too noble to be true, and that's why we'll be the death of it.

In the toilet cubicle, my first port of call at the start of each shift, there was a round industrial light level with the lavatory seat. The protective, frosted case could be easily unclipped, revealing a perfectly spherical light filament. It glowed like heaven, and when you touched it, it burned the skin immediately. So I rolled up my sleeve and held my forearm firmly in place. My reflexes to pull away fought as hard as life and death, but my will remained strong. It was just a matter of sweat, scrunched-up eyes, a mouth that wailed numbly, all to deliver life-affirming punishment. Quite a scar resulted. If I ever had a blind girlfriend, she'd be intrigued.

I thought about what I was doing. Already starting to externalise the pain and the guilt. What if I could externalise it completely, like Jesus exorcising the demon into a herd of swine? I imagined all this jittery, neurotic sorrow, necessary as it was, just -leaving me. Dreams of negating the need to even think about it, off-loading the obligation onto something completely outside myself. And so the Hell Rings were born. Let them come at me, I thought, like a Ouija-spawned Zo-Zo. Let them even hound me to death, if they want. At least I won't be doing it to myself.

Do you know, it seemed to work, too. In that I could carry on functioning at all. The pain was still in me, but diminished. While at work, there was a kind of canyon where all the sorrow had been, now full of blessed cool air, as I packed these two-dozen sandwiches an hour. The Cheese Sandwitch Factory: all you imagine and more. And only ever two-dozen produced per hour. There wasn't even any pressure. There was time to think. At lunch time, walking around that green, weirdly panoramic housing estate, into the little wood -I sensed them approaching. The lashes as those white, glowing rings connected with my body. The Romans having-at Jesus on the way up the hill, before he even got to the business-end. A little torture in exchange for being able to carry on functioning in the world. Fair deal? And of course, we know all about faith, or even just the nobility of having a high tolerance of pain, but this was elaborate beyond any kind of understanding. lt had reached a point where every weird, vicious characteristic of the Roman Empire had been brought about by God, just so Jesus would know he wasn't being forsaken.

Father died. At the Cheese Sandwitch Factory, I was promoted to Maintenance Manager, which seems ridiculous. It was a solid job, and I started to enjoy it. I started to look forward to it. But about twice a day, whenever I was alone, the Hell Rings were upon me. They appeared in the crevices of the production line, in the heavy breeze-blocks opposite the fire door. It seemed as if they just narrowly avoided being in eye-shot of the other workers. I was unconcerned by this, because, obviously, as real as they were to me, no one else would be able to see them.

And then Edward, a quiet man with a handle bar moustache, went insane. I remember him standing at the far end of the line and staring at me, as he extended his arm into the waste disposal maw. He didn't scream, even as his arm became a mass of gore. A Hell Ring re-localised itself from the tips of his boots, and he passed out.

We all stood around aimlessly as the paramedics tended to him. It was past lunch time and it was pretty obvious we'd have the rest of the day off. My thoughts were racing, making weird connections, panicking like free jazz. My bus pulled out of the station. There was another one in front, a double decker. A couple of minutes passed. I was pulled out of my delirium when we rounded a corner to see the bus in front had made a funny little turn, so that it was nudging the wall of the town bridge. It made another point-turn, so it was facing the marsh land below as much as the road in front. It backed up, revved, pushed forward, destroying the metal struts and plunging over the side.

Hell Rings extricated themselves from the wreckage and moved away into the housing estate.

So you see, Charles. I created a mortal enemy for all mankind. Me. I tried to correct my mistake. I researched the connection point between psychology, the paranormal, religion and entropy. Read The Golden Bough cover to cover. Nothing quite satisfied. I was led across the Atlantic. And as you see me now, fallen in with Do, it was only to try and do as they wished. Placate them by worshipping death and sorrow.

It's all so strange, I know. But there's one thing, I think, that isn't strange. I have faith in you. The prosopagnosia; it's no coincidence. It never was. You were given this gift of never being able to see our faces so that you can move among us as a champion. You don't single us out by our individual faces, and so you're never in the thrall of that stupid, interpersonal guilt. One day soon, I'll be dead, taken by the Wake of the Comet or by the Hell Rings. And yet, through you I will live on, in the face of any stranger who lives a remotely loyal or selfless life. Any stranger you feel even a remote kinship with: that's me.

I'm sorry to have given you all this terrible information. Use it how you want, but know that I love you. Should the Hell Rings ever bother you, they won't stand a chance. It's a terrible thing to say, but I half hope they do come after you, because you are impervious. You are indestructible.

Goodbye, brother. I love you.

Nathan.

Colonel White folded the letter and replaced it in the envelope. He took only minute to reflect on what it said.

Laboriously removing the mobile from his thick waistcoat, he dialled Green. His voice was dark and gritty; he didn't mean it to be.

"Lieutenant. Spectrum is to find new targets. The easiest way, I imagine, is to Google 'Council' and 'insane bureaucracy'. But this time, we also need to give the immigration services a once-over, too. Plus, I think, any ministers who've visibly moved against the NHS".

"Sir?"

The Colonel realised that Green was incredulous: he'd honestly thought that Spectrum was finished.

"I'm fine, Lieutenant, I assure you. Everyone is allowed to be overwhelmed sometimes. We are, after all, trying to save an entire country".

Except Green was still wary. He could hear it down the line.

He said, trying to be dapper, "It's alright, Seymour. Sometimes, one tends to think of this thing as a civil war, which of course, it isn't. It's all personal; the temptation of lazy capitalism, the lure of bourgeois greed. But the goodness and the humility are too practical. They fit into the human heart like a star-shaped peg in a star-shaped hole. The few good people already out there just need to know that they're not alone".

The first thing Scarlet did was, he turned off his mobile to avoid getting the call from Adam. Life, occasionally, is black and white; Ed must be safe-guarded from the Mysterons, and to a lesser degree, the rest of the population must be protected, too. No amount of love would change that. Still he felt it, up around his shoulders, as though someone was clasping him with searing, radioactive hands. To see Adam just one last time would have made everything better.

He entered the latitude and longitude into the Goodmans sat-nav, and trusted the 'quickest possible route' option to do what it said on the tin. Sitting back and speeding along the Matchbox City gradients, the bizarrely narrow fields made stranger still by the murk, was tense in the extreme. He switched on the radio, but 6 Music was playing f-ing Van Morrison and Jazz FM was far too jaunty. Classic FM, as it did so often late at night, was playing pitch-black neo-classical. John Cage or Peter Maxwell Davies, possessed by Aphex Twin. Scarlet would have enjoyed listening to it, but it was all too requisite, as it had been tailor-made for a late-night Mysteron chase. He felt hideously post-modern and knowing.

Up around the recessed, mostly-untended grasslands on the outskirts of Carlisle, he realised he was deathly tired. There was something giddy in the way the grey weeds on the side of the motorway swirled while the slightly taller trees remained motionless. Industrial estate blocks were entirely dark; to glance through their high windows suggested they'd never been inhabited in the first place. Also, how tall were they? A single story? Two? Four? The rounded edges or corrugated sides suggested vastness. The lack of shadows suggested a parochial scale. Into one of these industrial sidings, Scarlet steered the Civic, desperately searching for a quiet corner to pull up and doze. He found one better, an small, unlit car park by a riverbank and a tiny wood.

Four hours. It would take him neatly to sunrise. To his chagrin, he found the sat-nav had no alarm clock feature. Neither did the car stereo, at least that he could find. Turning on his mobile would bring calls from Adam. He looked around desperately. The tiny clock built into the dash, astonishingly, did have an alarm clock mode. He set it for 5 AM.

A dream came. Bizarrely, a hybrid of Stalingrad under siege and modern day Britain. People flounced around, led by their hunched shoulders, determined to feel busy even as they starved. It was Britain. It was Stalingrad. Yet where were the Nazis? The inhabitants, like ghosts frozen in the past, were kept in place purely by a psychic menace. Scarlet, for one, could not bear it. He imagined going to ground somewhere, perhaps dying, as if that mattered. And slowly time moved on. The city recovered, the buildings regenerated. On a New York style scaffold, there was Ed, but older, perhaps in his late twenties. Sunlight ebbed in the sky, albeit in a muted kind of way. His boy hammered rivets. He went about his work, before looping down through the British Steel beams to meet his girlfriend, a twinkle-nosed red-head. They kissed passionately; Ed removed his hard hat and high viz. All too quickly, Scarlet started to feel that he should be content by the way things had turned out. He glanced up again through the stone and metal skeleton to see -the Mysteron City.

An electronic chirruping brought him back to the pitch-black car. Mysteron propaganda. They were trying to get to him, probably the same way they got to Captain Black and Destiny. The night was viciously cold; still he was dogged by sweat. He reached towards the dashboard clock to deactivate the alarm.

To find that it was only 3.20AM, and the chirruping was coming from somewhere else entirely. Beneath the steering column, he found a Motorola held in place by electrical tape. He carefully peeled it free. There was no particular hurry. Unknown Caller.

"Hello", he said, carrying over the wariness from the dream.

"Sa vad sager ni. Wtih the ofefr of a wrlod of oivle brnaches".

Ochre.

"And you want -what?", asked Scarlet, quite carelessly.

"I want to know how you feel. One day soon, we'll be allies, and all this nonsense will be over".

Scarlet shrugged his mouth. "I'll say it's going to be over. I'm going to find you and put a bullet in your head".

Ochre said, pragmatically, "I know this".

Scarlet, "I know you know this".

He stepped free from the car, threw the phone as far as he could into the undergrowth. Lingering on, however; that terrible suspicion that the Mysterons were close by, right over his shoulder. Except, no. That wasn't true. If they were anywhere, they'd be inside his head.

He walked the twenty yards down, over the packed mud, to the river bank. He knelt down and submerged his head. The seconds passed by with a luxurious rapidity. His lungs complained, then an unbearable pain took up the whole of his torso. Tingling limbs, black, unconscious streaks clawing at his vision, the distinct impression that he couldn't now free-up his head even if he wanted -all of it guided him onwards, well past the point where natural reflexes should have drawn him back.

But back he went, in the end. Drying his head as best he could, just with his sleeve, he replaced his scarlet baseball cap, slid back into the Civic, drove away.

In time, he spoke to himself. What he said; "I know you know - You will try, Jenny - I'm going to shoot you in the head". And the rest.

Something suggested the early stages of dawn. He felt Destiny slide out of the futon and the wholly unzipped sleeping bag, breezing away to do her exercises. For his part, all conscious thoughts spiralled back into a dark corner, like a gyroscope, before they were seized by awe, pulled back at lightning speed. It was indeed the morning; it was difficult to judge the exact shade of murk at the crack of the tent. Though in the end there was no denying it. He emerged, feeling like a giant. Captain Ochre's tent, a single-man affair, stood a little way away and starkly isolated. Conrad glanced at it and felt curiously free from pity, that apparently his chief comrade was so alone. The man was weird, but he was also strong.

They'd set up their tents behind a broad cluster of trees, several yards inside a dipping, anonymous field on the outskirts of Perth. Conrad had often thought that the British motorway threw up beautiful countryside just as Picasso blitzed paintings, or Philip K Dick prolificked short stories. We hardly ever get to stop and explore. It was an intensely pretty valley, never quite overgrown and with an entirely clean look. Soon it built up to a ridge, over which he could sense an even steeper valley, even mistier and more mysterious. Sentinel was a small, old-fashioned hay barn built mostly of wood.

The Moon was just visible in an awkward little hiding spot in the corner of the sky. Perhaps it was afraid of all the blackbirds in the dawn chorus. Conrad assumed a fey kind of smile. Sometimes he found it hard to believe men had walked in that distant, ethereal land. He felt that it was probably impossible, because the thing was just a symbol, nothing more.

And, of course, why only a single moon, and a single sun?

They hate us because we come to religion through desperation or a desire for zealous political change, as if these aren't perfectly natural thresholds. How would Richard Dawkins or Christopher Hitchens behave once they had one-hundredth of a neo-communist alien inside them? Presumably, they would take-up with the very first religion they came across, just in order to drive out their bourgeois inclinations. Either that, or they would finally agree to take the bet which hundreds of theists and agnostics had offered them over the years: if you honestly disbelieve in the afterlife, then you won't mind agreeing to be our slaves in Heaven, should we be right and you be wrong?

And the acceptance of this bet would be less about poetic justice, or the rubbing-in of their lack of spirituality, but - 'slave'; the guilty terror that they might have some natural application beyond being university-centric gobshynes.

Conrad stared dreamily at the top of the ridge, which was now completely free of murk, just a little de-saturated beneath the strange purple sky. Finally there was a future. Finally there was a bright future. He felt a little bad that his dad had never lived to see the turning of the tide, but it could never have happened that way. For anyone born coming out of World War II, in a working class environment, the social problems of 2014 were too embarrassing to be acknowledged.

Destiny jogged on the spot, her jeans gone and tight briefs serving the role of exercise shorts. She didn't see him until he silently took her hand, led her up the hill to the hay barn and lifted her on to a low beam. Through the broad window there was a clear outlook onto the valley beyond. They could also just about see some laughing old men finishing the construction of their microlights.

Destiny slid off her briefs. Conrad had just about got used to the viagra being a thing of the past. But now he realised that a condom wasn't really necessary, either, and was profoundly happy. Finally there was a future. They were free, and anything could happen. He laid his palm on the flat of her stomach, and blinked, and smiled. In time, as she grew rosy-cheeked, she looked impossibly beautiful.

In the peripheral of his vision, the fleet of microlights glided jerkily into the valley. Such limitless space. He imagined new cities being constructed. Full employment coming as naturally as breathing. No more gangs of children. No more struggling and jockeying for high-powered jobs. Because the most high-powered job of all is just -daydreaming in the golden atomic blast of sunrise, a smell of morning atmosphere, getting your racing heartbeat to sound a war cry in the midst of your impossibly beautiful girlfriend.

By Ten O'Clock, they had broken the back of the borders and arrived in Strathcarron, Northern Scotland. It was far from easy; the service station they departed from had an abundance of surveillance cameras and he could imagine a jumper-wearing little Motorway Patrol geek charting their progress with robotic calm. This unease seemed to pay dividends when they arrived at the National Express depot to find some motorway police chatting very earnestly with their backs to Joe Public; something going down. This was between the heavy, lead-coloured struts of the entrance ramp. As the driver queued, Destiny half-swallowed some Lucozade and a paracetamol and told him to open the doors. She said she'd felt sick for the past half-hour, and had only just managed to hold on. The driver protested, with a happy, bright-eyed version of 'more than my job's worth'. Then, a cue from God the director, an ultra-unstable liquid jetted from her cheeks. He relented, and the trio slipped free, around a wall, skitting the edge of a trading estate and away across some fields.

Destiny told how the Colonel had confided in her. Scarlet had helped fabricate evidence against all Spectrum agents in some of the most serious unsolved crimes of the past twenty years; this as a kind of contingency against betrayal. She hadn't asked what crime she'd be implicated in, simply because, at the time, she couldn't imagine becoming a defector. She'd asked the Colonel what his crime might be, however, and he'd shrugged. He'd stated that there was no need to trump-up a crime where he was concerned: going AWOL from M.I.5 is already a king-size problem with the authorities.

But of course, she didn't reveal this last part to Felix. There was no point moving against the old man. It was now so much like the Russia - America stand-off in the cold war. You become ten percent more like us, we'll become three percent more like you, and all's fair in the new utopia.

They saw a strip of buildings set in among the small houses; metal-bordered car parks and brightly-coloured loading yards. It was a high street, here in the middle of nowhere, set among vast arenas of moorland. They entered, looking for supplies.

Truly, it was an old-style high street, with only half a dozen non-chain shops nestled between ancient-stone houses. An old man in a vintage suit marched past them, smiling broadly at some recent happenstance. He was clearly insane, yet his smiling seemed special and sophisticated. They stepped into a newso that was heavily adorned with rose hanging baskets. Destiny bought a can of Coke (she usually drank Pepsi, Coke was for special occasions). Conrad bought a can of Red Bull, which provoked weird incredulity from Felix King.

"Do you really like that?", he gasped.

Conrad shrugged. "Yes".

"Are you sure?"

Pulling a distasteful expression, Conrad said. "Yes. I do know my own mind".

"I hate it", explained Felix.

"I'm not you", said Conrad.

They carried on up the high street. It was the sort of place where, if a television crew were filming a war-time drama, only a few changes would need to be made. They passed a butchers shop with fresh steaks in the window. They passed a traditional sweet shop. It was as they sighted the tiny little toy and model shop, however, that they knew they'd have to stop and poke around.

Destiny swelled with pride. She also seemed to blush and have her shoulders droop in numb emotional awe. The shop had a dense selection of kits, all the boxes piled horizontally on bulging wooden shelves. The ratio of Skyform models versus other brands was around 60-40. And among the others, there was equal space devoted to Evrell and all those imported oriental kits which are like so much candy to hardcore kit builders (as with everything, Johnny Chinaman takes his models far more seriously than us, though he always seems to have less parts per kit and cheaper transfers).

The shopkeep greeted them, but they went behind the one and only aisle to browse in pseudo-privacy. Destiny stood and stared with twinkling eyes. Conrad took his place behind her and rested his forearms over her hips.

"This 1/350 Westland Sea King? The box artwork has been the same ever since the model was first brought out in the early eighties, only they always change the bit around the edge to keep it looking new. The artist was called Ronald Embleton. My brother used to meet him often when he was junior executive, until he died in 1988. He was an incredibly nice man, apparently".

"He knew how to paint", said Conrad, in awe of a dramatic image of the dart-like plane sweeping through the clouds. The colours, out of context, would have seemed far too lurid, but here they were boundlessly deep, exciting.

"Do you reckon your bro will carry on as Skyform honcho, even with all the crazy-money he won?"

Destiny said, absent-mindedly, "I don't know for sure. I don't see why not".

"Skyform. The first unstoppable British company of the new age. You almost feel sorry for-", he looked at the name on one of the foreign kits, "-Yeajiax- Yij-zash – Yi-yi-jimmyhatso", trying to pronounce it and failing, no matter how many run-ups he took. Destiny laughing disproportionately.

"Look at this", she pointed up to one of the monster 1/55 kits on the upper most shelf. A F-4 Phantom Interceptor. "Have you ever seen anything so sleek? I'd definitely have one of these."

"You mean in a model, or real life?"

"A model", she said conclusively, and then thought about it. "And real life".

They talked like this for some time. Before they left, they decided it was only fair to actually buy something, using Captain Ochre crazy-money. And a sleek jet fighter or WWII workhorse wouldn't really help the owner because they naturally sold well anyway. Destiny picked out the Skyform kit which she thought might be the worst seller. The 1984 launch rocket and Zodiac Mars probe, depicted on the Embleton cover as a quaint, fire-tendrilled needle moving headlong from green British countryside.

"That's an interesting choice", said the shopkeep. "My boy often looks at that. You'll have to let me know how you get on".

Conrad saw Destiny blink and smile sheepishly. Once again, the implication that they might be parents. Some innocent, history-dreaming son; a good boy, thoughtful, untouched by modern neuroses.

Of course, they immediately donated the model to the charity shop next door. Cancer.

Towards the end of the village, near to the arched bridge, Captain Ochre was sitting on a wooden bench set oppressively close to the speeding traffic. He had the 1:500k Ordinance Survey map spread wide.

"So we're near to the Mysteron City?", asked Destiny.

"I don't know. I think so", murmured Ochre. "Let's find out".

He took out an antiquated torch and undid the lower rim. The silo for the 1.5 volt heavy-duty batteries was instead full of salt. He played it out onto the surface of the bench, expertly, into an exact pentigram. The three of them placed their hands in the centre.

Conrad, for one, was fascinated. From his hazy memories of horror films, a ring of salt was what you stayed in to protect yourself from supernatural creatures, not when you were seeking an audience with them.

And then he realised he must take the lead. He spoke open-heartedly into thin air.

"Chocky. We're almost there, aren't we? We need to have the final set of directions".

At first, they heard nothing. Then there was a very faint, high-pitched crinkling sound, half way between tinnitus and a strings-heavy Miles Davis piece. It emanated, seemingly, from inside thin air, or even a place several times removed from the place inside thin air.

"Touch our fingertips together", said Conrad, "like a planchette".

They did so. Their collective finger was moved to a spot on the map that was coloured plain white with light brown chevrons -raw, uncompromising moorland.

"He says we'll recognise the exact spot where the city is, even though it's invisible, by a semi-circle of yellowy drumblast trees"

"It's relatively close", noted Ochre, staring thoughtfully at the map. "Without any towns or main roads, either. At least we won't have to worry much about old bill. Still, I don't think we'll make it there on foot, especially by nightfall. We may as well risk getting a taxi-"

"No", said Conrad. "Chocky says he's got a solution about how we can get there directly. We'll find it in the valley at the far edge of town".

Ochre quickly closed the map, still making the irritating, just-so folds that all Ordinance Surveys use. He brushed away the pentigram and grappled his ruc-sac.

They rushed on through the small village. The outskirts had a low angle of brown-stoned miner's flats receding into a crater-like hillside, all aligned with a huge, rectangular Methodist church that looked simply magnificent. One or two thin, lime-green fir trees marked a spot which could be the cusp of a valley. They made for it across the luscious grass of some damp common ground.

They saw the horse-riders all at once. There were three of them, too. Two women and a man. They dismounted and approached the former Spectrum agents. They knelt down in front them like ye-olde squires before a procession of noblemen.

Conrad said, "Very clever. We're to take their horses. There's just one problem. I've never ridden in my life". He looked at the other two, expecting them to have the same complaint. They did not.

Shrugged Destiny, "I haven't ridden since I was a girl".

Ochre asked Conrad, "Do you want a Mind Meld?"

"I'm sorry, a-?"

"I can give you a Mind Meld, put the information about how to ride directly into your head".

Conrad sneered. "I know what a Mind Meld is. From Star Trek. No. You're a nut-job".

"What of these mushes?", said Destiny, standing before the clearly Mysteronised riders.

Said Captain Ochre, "Don't feel too sorry for them. Chocky says they're unrepentant fox hunters, and if they were a quarter as rich as they are, they'd still be decadent monsters. They'll remain possessed for the duration".

Destiny approached the creme-and-hazel abyssian on the far right. She touched his velvety smooth head. Day-dreaming blinks, a mouth which ruminated, all so pleasingly indifferent to the humans. "I wonder if there's Mysterons anywhere inside them?"

Ochre shook his head briskly. "No. The Mysterons have weird scruples about not possessing creatures that aren't intellectually conscious".

"They possessed enough council officials", said Conrad, and in his mind, high-fived God.

"Come on, Conrad", Destiny moved beside of the gentle-looking mustang, which was in the middle. "I'll help you up. There's nothing to it. The most difficult thing will be thinking of a name for him. I'm going to call mine 'Captain Hazel'".

Conrad placed a foot in the stirrup and queasily touched the other on the ground, preparing himself as best he could. "I don't know. He can have my old name. I won't be needing it any more. 'Captain Black'"

"I'm going to call mine Rosanna Arquette", said Captain Ochre.

Ominously, all three lanes of traffic started to slow down. Gear-changes and care-free accelerations started to be a thing of the past. Scarlet had dimly been aware from the overhead LED boards that the Scottish Grand Prix in Dingwall might be a problem. He didn't analyse the problem beyond a brief sod's law calculation, however, that things would be alright. Evidently he was wrong.

It was a sick feeling. He'd never been in a real traffic jam before, even though he regularly used the motorway between Unity and Chippenston. He'd reasoned that the odds now, in this desperate struggle for supremacy over the Mysterons, must be cooked in his favour. But it was just another misplaced faith, no different to the realisation he'd had over God and man: there's really no unity at all.

Delicately, still persuasively, there came visions of the traffic jam having been caused by the Mysterons. A sly car crash caused by several moments of distraction. And the innocent people who died? What's 'innocent'? 'Innocent' because they're free, with a potential to be selfless? 'Innocent' because they'd never been introduced to the horror just beneath the surface? Yes. Scarlet chose to believe all of the above.

He debated whether to drive on to the hard shoulder and simply make a dash for it. Not for the first time, he regretted changing out of his uniform and not taking the squad car. But then, if he had, he'd have been forced to stop and attend to the Massacre of the Innocents.

And how to explain that he had bigger fish to fry, the saving of all innocents?

"Green", he heard his ultra-gravelly tone as it disturbed his old friend. The battery of his mobile was dying, and what's more he had to fight through a screen full of messages from Adam.

"Have you found them yet?", asked Captain Green.

"No. I'm about a hundred and ten miles shy. In a jam. Listen. I don't have much time", he said, thinking, hurry before a fresh message from the dependants comes through. "Do you have my position? Where is the nearest SPV?"

There was a sound like distant gales as Seymour Griffiths rushed away to find his laptop.

"Raptor have a compound four miles from your current position. I'm emailing the postcode directly to your sat-nav. Listen Scarlet, I'm getting no end of calls from your partner. He says you don't have to do this alone".

Scarlet shook his head. "They're with me already. Him and the boy. They're the whole reason I'm doing this. But yes. I do have to do it alone".

With ease, the sat-nav was clipped free of its cigar-lighter charger and placed in his pocket. He sounded the horn and the driver in front gave him the handful of feet necessary to pull over on to the hard shoulder. He sat and blinked, savagely. The other drivers, no doubt, were eyeing him. He got out, leant on the bonnet and mimed trying to be sick. He walked coolly backwards and forwards alongside the Civic.

A middle-aged woman with a motherly face wound down her window. "Are you alright?", she called.

"Yes", gulped Scarlet. "I just didn't want to lose control when I was driving. What's your name?"

The asking-of-the-name; once a beat copper, always a beat copper.

"Sylvia".

"I'm Paul. I'm going to be fine. I think I'll take a walk up the way and get some air, though. Hopefully we'll all be out of this soon".

"Hopefully, yes", smiled Sylvia.

There were no hard and fast ideas about how to make it look like the car had broken down, and so he surreptitiously fell on his haunches and bled the petrol onto the asphalt. He then collected the Death Tennis Racket from the back seat and slid it over his shoulder, took the first nervous steps of his four-mile hike. The temptation to run was overpowering. Necessary not only to fall upon the traitors as quickly as possible but to keep the howling philosophy in his mind subdued. The moon, high over his head, was well-defined, incredibly grey, distant, loving. He felt his expression collapse, frequently, into flipside childish incomprehension. Run he must; he climbed up over the embankment and followed a direct path wherever he could. Scrambling thrusts through lackadaisical hedgerows. Trouser legs: plastered. Sometimes the embankment and the foliage levelled out and he got a significant glimpse of the motorway, and vice-versa. No matter how much the rifle looked like a tennis racket, he feared his stealthy body language would give him away.

Like something from a dream, the four miles were expended surprisingly quickly, still with a sense of a massive distance having been covered. He jumped the sturdy wooden fence and moved back towards the stationary traffic, hardly even realising he was still running. A student-type shouted from a window, "Run, Forest, Run!"

To which Scarlet drew breath and shouted, "Get a job, c-, get a job!"

He'd stopped being proud of this comeback, long ago, this being the fifth or sixth time he'd been forced to use it. He failed, even, to draw satisfaction from the thought of the student-type now looking small in front of everyone within earshot. The man in front wore oily bug-eye shades, in spite of the increasingly overcast sky. It made Scarlet think of Dog the Bounty Hunter, and in turn feel ashamed.

Could Dog the Bounty Hunter, Christian and optimist, complete this most terrible of manhunts? Scarlet had no idea. Half the fugitives he caught were drug addicts, who he duly tried to help. And the Mysterons; they were like the ultimate drug. The ultimate, insidious release from co-operative society and personal responsibility. He liked to think he could, though it would probably destroy him psychologically in the process.

A time when the war started to reach saturation point. Mysterons or Spectrum agents pursued or being pursued across vast areas of countryside. It had all been foreseen by Colonel White, more or less from day one. Ochre had pledged his untold billions to use as the Colonel saw fit. The Mysteron detector, a government-shaming network of spy equipment, safe houses, Cloud Base itself -these things came quickly, though along the way, they realised that perhaps the most important thing was finding a means of chasing down uncovered Mysterons, surprise attacks with a weighty cover story.

To this end, Colonel White bought the controlling share of 'Raptor' a failing motorway and dual carriageway recovery service which would otherwise have gone bust. They had thirty depots across the country and, thanks to Spectrum now, a sizeable fleet o recovery vehicles licensed to use flashing lights and speed along the hard shoulder as though it was Silverstone.

Scarlet slid in through the yard. He groped at his face, removing the sweat and hoping the redness would go with it.

The twinkle-eyed receptionist looked at him cheerily.

"Hello. Can I speak to the manager, please? Tell them it's Tony from Spectrum".

She obeyed, and so far so good. Scarlet stared wild-eyed at the small window, the heavily annotated maps, the black computer screens which plotted the flow of cars like air traffic control. All of it beneath a strikingly low ceiling the colour of summer sun.

The receptionist calmly completed her phone call.

"Mr Jackson will just be a minute", she smiled at him.

"That's fine", Scarlet exhaled. "What's his first name, please?"

She wrinkled her mouth apologetically. "I'm sorry, that's Tom Jackson, the centre manager".

On receipt of this information, Scarlet strode down the corridor towards the inner offices. He called back to the receptionist, with something approaching genuine compunction, "I'm sorry, I don't have time to wait".

It was a hell of a thing. He'd stopped running several minutes ago, and felt that his heartrate had returned to normal. Now his breathing sounded like a crashing ocean, mired by a feeling of hyperventilation. He tried a door of the right. A little man was glaring dourly at a laptop; shoulders hunched in tension or relaxation, it was impossible to tell.

"Tom Jackson?"

"No", said the dour man.

"What is your name?"

"Chris Chofley".

Scarlet closed the door, tried the next. All the time he kept his limbs tensed in readiness for a defensive pose, right hand clutching a truncheon that wasn't there. Behind Door Number Two; a man with a tupperware-shaped jawline, grey eyes peeking optimistically from behind your mum's reading glasses.

"Tom Jackson?"

"Yes, you must be-"

Scarlet ignored the man's proffered hand. "I need to take an SPV".

The man nodded, just a little gravely. He mauled the spare material at the front of his black trousers, which wasn't much.

"Right. I understand. Tony Barwick, our fleet manager, told us this day might come. Apparently, since your organisation practically owns Raptor, we can hardly deny you. The-"

Scarlet glared, and cut him off. "Mr Jackson, I don't have the time to spare. You should have a vehicle reserved for me, full of diesel and ready to go. Please take me to it, right now".

Tom Jackson breathed deeply -while never quite as deeply as Scarlet.

"I need to confirm your identity, by asking you for a code-phrase. It's in the rules as they were described to me".

The code-phrase; he'd forgotten this was part of the SPV hand-over.

"Captain Scarlet. Spectrum. 'The finger is on the trigger'".

Now Tom Jackson could only spider his fingertips across the beige table top, staring falteringly down as if at the impasse of an unhappy love affair. It confirmed the terrible truth which had been at the back of Scarlet's mind all along: there was a special SPV code-phrase, beyond their day-to-day Spectrum ones, which at some point he'd forgotten.

"That's not right".

He scoured his memory, and tried again. It was horrible; it was like some kind of subconscious word-association game.

"'Spectrum is Green'".

"No".

"'Spectrum is Red'".

"No".

Taking the sharpest of breaths. Growing desperate. "'White as Snow'".

"No".

Scarlet stared hard at his accidental enemy. He took out his mobile with the intention of calling Cloud Base, but of course, by now, the battery was completely dead. He stared at the man's land-line phone, the idea of calling Adam flashing into his mind from nowhere. But this idea could return to nowhere, too; the humiliation would be too much.

Tom Jackson took in the anguish on Scarlet's face. "I've often wondered if you would come. I know -Tony Barwick told me Spectrum is one of the most secretive branches of the government there is. But then, I was thinking, a few years ago while I was watching some American spy film -any one could come to us, claiming to be a Spectrum agent. Terrorists. That's why I can't give you your truck without the code-phrase".

Scarlet snarled. He said, adversarially, "And what if Spectrum was a terrorist group to start with, you f-ing dolt? You still rolled over and allowed us to own you".

"I'm sorry", Jackson said lightly, a man in church.

"And you", spat Scarlet, "what's your code-phrase? Or do you think I don't know what's inside you?"

The manager was lost, and Scarlet, to a similar degree, was incapable of thinking straight. He knew it, too. With a shaking hand, he reached over the desk and held the framed photo of the man's family.

"Kids. Plural, eh? What's their names?"

Very quietly and carefully, Jackson responded. "The eldest, on the left-hand side there, is David. The youngest, he's -"

"What did it feel like, the day they were born?"

Quite open-hearted, Jackson said, "It was the happiest day of my life".

"And how did you plan on repaying the world, for giving you these wonderful boys?"

To his credit, it seemed as if the small manager might answer, but only after an intensely thoughtful few seconds. Time which Scarlet could not allow.

"You know why people hate Charles Darwin? Deep down? It's not because he thought he was better than God, it's because his little theory was so painfully obvious and boring. We knew it already, subconsciously, but it was too little to talk about. That's like me, and the reason I hate Stanley Milgram. Ever heard of him?"

"No", said the other, in surely the limpest voice in the world.

"Dr Stanley Milgram. He was a psychologist. Like the black-woollen-jumper-wearing grandson of Sigmund Freud. He was a Jew, and he just about scraped through the war. But because of that, he was obsessed with good and evil. He set up an experiment in America, using random members of the public. Two people. One the Asker of Questions, the other, the Answerer. The Asker could give increasingly dangerous electric shocks to the Answerer, but only on the say-so of a third party. The Experimenter. And the results were a landslide. Frequently? The Asker would turn calf-eyed to the Experimenter and ask, are you sure this is OK? But -landslide all the same. There are evil people in the world, but the majority of us are just arrogant, easily-led, tacit-psychopath supermarket bags blowing around in the sky. Big revelation! No one cares about other people! No one even has the brain-power to care and because of that the human race is f-ed! Look at us! We worship some s-y idea of a fair and noble 'society' -we're actually just worshipping neurotic, lazy hell!"

Tom Jackson shrank backwards in abject fear. Scarlet held steady, but only because his eyes were blank, somewhere else entirely. He quickly realised he was experiencing his Hour of the Wolf, usually coming in around Two AM, but now in broad daylight. A sure sign of the End of the World. He thought of Russell Mars. He thought of Fiona Pilkington, and the shame was too much to bear by half.

"The fact is", he Colonel Kurtzed to Tom Jackson, "you should be able to look at me, and listen to me, and just know that what I'm doing has to be done. I am a good man, and I'm here to save everyone. You can see that, can't you?"

"Yes", said the other, committed.

Scarlet advanced on him. He looked into the pot of pens beside the photo frame and noted a vicious-looking letter-opener. He looked down at the man's fingers, how thin and fragile they looked in comparison with the rest of his body.

"I need the keys to that SPV, and I'm not kidding around any more".

"Alright", Jackson spoke lightly, as if he knew what was coming.

Scarlet stared at him and held out hope for a neat resolution.

"Tom, do you ever have that worry that you might dream you're fighting a hoodie, or a monster, or some kind of c-, and then you'll suddenly wake up and find you've given your wife or son a beating?"

"Not really", said Jackson.

"Neither do I", breathed Scarlet. "I just don't think it will ever happen that way".

Fir trees, somehow free of the blueprint to grow into cones, took on a freeform firework shape across the increasingly low horizon. Colourful dells, which in the West Country would have been overgrown Victorian quarry walls, were here just knots between the fine, turquoise flats. Conrad had never been to Scotland before, though he'd always been acutely aware of weather forecasts telling of a dramatically different climate. It wasn't a lie. A yellow haze filled their immediate vicinity, while on the horizon, the sky was dark and sombre. There was, somewhere, going to be a drenching swathe of drizzle.

Mostly it was open land, and their horses couldn't have been a better choice of transport. Occasionally there was a field edge, a lane, and they were forced to hunt for a gate, but still this was peaceful enough work. Captain Ochre rode some way off from the lovers, a doting distance. They skimmed the edge of a five-acre basin, alive with the smell of chlorophyll and impression of subtle horse-muscles, subtle horse heartbeats.

"I always wanted to be a cowgirl", said Destiny.

"Are you joking? I thought you wanted to be a fighter pilot?"

"A cowgirl fighter pilot".

"We can't be cowboys. We don't have the hats or the six-shooters".

"Perhaps", she tilted her head, "the Mysterons will supply us with these things".

Conrad laughed. In general, he felt like laughing.

"I've got to admit, when Dances With Wolves came out, I bought the soundtrack and listened to it over, and over, and over again. When the tape got chewed up in the machine, I teased it out and cut away the scrunched-up bits. This happened a couple of times, but the John Barry score was all-killer-no-filler, so it really didn't matter whether it jumped from heavenly green meadows to Laura Linney's death scene".

Destiny moved her reigns, more in an absent-minded parody of horse riding. "I think you'll find it was Mary McDonnell in Dances With Wolves".

"Are you sure?"

"Fairly sure", she moved her shoulders diagonally, smiling girlishly. "She was in Independence Day, too, as the President's wife".

Conrad stared a little way past Captain Hazel the Horse, Destiny's beautiful shoulders, taking in the scratchy corner of the moorland.

"Why did I think it was Laura Linney?"

"They're similar kinds of actresses, I think. Plus, McDonnell dies in the end. Laura Linney dies at the end of Battlestar Galactica".

Conrad stared at the far horizon, which was a kind of illuminated brown beneath heavy grey, and winced. "I swear. You exercise to the toning of an Amazon Goddess, you give blood, you volunteer at a charity shop and you watch westerns. What have I done to deserve such a perfect girl?"

Destiny turned her head from him, sharply. He sensed she was chewing her lip. They rode on in this pose for several seconds, before she managed to conquer those heavy, clustered breaths outright. "You've suffered".

"It's over now", he stated.

She faced front, tears in her eyes. Conrad couldn't help himself and said, "You know you often hear husbands and wives say to each other, 'If I die, I want you to get married again'? In the case of you and me, I f-ing forbid it".

Destiny laughed heartily. "That goes for you, too".

"Done and done", barely skipping a beat.

"Why", she took a deep breath now, "didn't you just buy it on CD? The Dances With Wolves soundtrack, I mean".

Conrad shrugged. "I did, in the end. But these were the days when CDs were just starting to square-up to tapes. The first CD player I ever bought was a piece of s-. Made in Portugal. Not even Japan. When you-"

He stopped dead. Even with the very first shimmer, there could be only -awe. Less than half a mile distant, the line of drumblast trees seemed to warp, grow inky in contrast. To the ambient hush of the countryside, there it was. The Mysteron City materialised.

Shaved blonde hair. Bright red school uniforms, accentuated by the matte, eighties-style photo which was carried around in a small wallet. That was his colleague Roger Marion's kids, but for the life of him, Scarlet couldn't remember their names. He had a feeling they were modern names like 'Jordan' or 'Tyrone', but he wouldn't hold that against them. They smiled, just the way Ed did as a tiny child, without any kind of prompting. Jutting his chin and beaming like the Sex Pistols.

For thou art with me.

The siren of the SPV was different to any police squad car; tiny little blips and warbles, just powerful enough to warn civilian motorists that consciousness was on the way. There was plenty to distract him besides this: the front passenger seat had been slotted in backwards, so that it directly faced the rear window. Scarlet could only assume this weirdness was to remind the Raptor employees that it was not, under any circumstances, to be taken out of the yard.

A few junctions along, the traffic jam started to dissipate. As ever, he felt the scouring eyes flicker on him as he flashed by, no longer full of irritation tho. A period of grim anxiety was entered, a new kind of hyperventilation. Air entered his nose and mouth easily enough, though before it could assimilate into his lungs, it felt like -square pegs for a round hole.

The sat-nav announced, for the second time, that after such-and-such distance, he would have reached his destination. In the back of his mind, he understood that something was very wrong with this promise. Finally, on a very broad bend by some towering trees, the robot lady announced: 'You have reached your destination'.

Clearly he hadn't. When he slowed down and examined the latitude and longitude, he saw they were still dramatically different to the figures Nikky had found for him. On switching screens to the map, he saw that, as the crow flies, the site of the Mysteron City has still around three miles distant: 'your destination' was merely the closest any road or lane could bring him. Now, he took barely a second to stare at the screen. A sea of lacklustre green, earmarked by someone who clearly had no regard for the countryside.

Up a gritted farm access funnel, by some tall trees that looked like they'd been burnt, was a velvety procession of fields which he could narrowly drive across, just to get that little bit closer. He undid the Yale lock with his master key (thankfully no Best Hardware fortress here) and drove through at a fifty mile an hour pace. He drove like this for some time, th suspension drinking up the challenge. And he grew closer, in a roundabout way, to the bitterly reclusive marker in the centre of the screen.

Ten, or twenty minutes in, the lay of the land turned to a hopscotch of weathered slabs and house-sized hedgerows. Scarlet heard the underside of the rig being savaged into pieces, or at least severely damaged. Still, it was not even this which finally made him abandon the SPV, but the lack of any clear way forward for anything but the most agile of creatures. Out of nowhere, the landscape dipped down at a senselessly steep angle, or rose up like the prow of a Bulge tank wedged firm. The cold, damp climate meant that, on any surface even remotely exposed, there was a terrible snare of bracken. It was tough to run through. It was an inconvenience to mankind. But Scarlet thought only of being in the middle of a summer riot, and knew that fighting this bleak, cold wilderness was nothing in comparison.

All the time, his eyes automatically scanned the horizon for a scene that looked even remotely like the 'Futuristic city materialises on Scottish Moor' Youtube video. There was nothing. It was all too enclosed. How funny it was that his mind was partitioned-up in to different little areas of responsibility. Coping with the foliage, the fact that it was often easier to run than walk. Looking for distant enemies. Keeping the sniper rifle safe and sound across his back. None of it took more than a smattering of conscious will. There was never any big challenge. Why do we think there is? The tiniest flicker of responsibility to keep the population of c-s under control. Maintain Russell Mars' utilitarian society. Keep Fiona Pilkington alive. Give Ed a future.

And the Mysterons would now take away even this tiny flicker.

Lord. Every time he thought of Ed, it felt like a threshold prayer. He let it come and go between his crazy gasps. It surprised him quite a bit when the prayer, finally, was answered. Rocky streaks skirted down onto a very broad swirl of heather, and beyond that -a beautiful, black alien city.

He saw Captains Ochre, Black and Destiny. They'd been riding horses and had only just dismounted. Now, they made their way towards the thing at a pace that seemed stupidly slow. He ran quickly for high ground, even moving a little further away from the target because there was better cover. A rocky, man-size outcrop was utilised. He assembled the Hakkotsu at frenzied speed. On looking through the scope for the first time, the closeness of his victory made him giddy. Well-noted, however -he saw they were talking to each other. This suggested that they weren't Myseronised, that they still had their own minds. It was surprising, but made no real difference.

Tiny figures, the size of fifty-pence pieces. For a man who hated other people, wasn't this poetic justice? A bitter idea: he dismissed it. Nothing is sterile any more.

His inclination, out of hatred, was to kill Captain Black first. Black was weak. For the Mysterons, exploiting the weak-minded is as easy as drawing breath. To kill Captain Ochre had more of an element of cold-blooded honour. As a founding member of Spectrum, he was just a good man who'd gone hideously wrong. Anticipating the killing of Destiny -made him hitch his breath as if to quell a violent hiccup. She was the most innocent. She was deluded. In love. It occurred to him that he should kill her first as a kindness, to put her out of her misery.

A storm of decisions buzzed viciously before his eyes.

It started to drizzle.

It started to drizzle, stirring up a smell of mud, grass and lavender. Forget Planet Earth, though. Even from such an extreme distance, the Mysteron City was majestic. There were coloured lights, like charging icons for a phone, but by the million-load. They slotted, flipped, integrated; a living mosaic. Certain towers must have risen at least a hundred feet in the air, high enough to adopt the pretty grey dusk of a watercolour. Nightscape Hollywood reimagined as an outpost of lava lamps, all of it sleek beyond words.

The slow anticipation in Destiny's movement was beautiful; Conrad stared and stared and stared.

She said, "If they'd witnessed this just a few hundred years ago, most people would have thought they were seeing the home of the gods".

"There are worst things to have in your mind, I suppose. There's a fallacy that following a false or stupid religion precludes you from ever meeting any real God".

She wrenched her gaze from the remarkable city. It came to rest gently on Conrad.

"And what of you, handsome and wise husband? Have all the things we've seen and experienced nudged you one way or another? Do you believe in God now?"

Conrad felt his five o'clock shadow snarl up into a brave sort of frown.

"If the Mysteron's plan works, and society starts to gel? We'll at least be in a position to think about Him and -wonder. As it stood, though -with the world as one big ball of shame- what purpose did it ever serve? This is what I told Chocky. You tolerated all the harshness which was meant to bring you closer to Heaven, and all that happened was that you'd drown in the shame of your own weakness and impotence".

"That's no answer", she gave him one of the subtlest, sweetest smiles he'd ever seen. It contained, he figured, all the promise their increasingly small world could offer.

"Who am I to wonder about God?", Conrad spread his arms and smiled. "What's your opinion, wife?"

Destiny thought for a moment. "I think -"

Ever since seeing the Deer Hunter as a fifteen year old, and subsequently speaking to a factory colleague who'd seen things in the Falklands, it was a constant fear of Conrad's that if someone you loved was shot in the head, but in the flat of the cranium, they wouldn't die straight away. Pain and nightmarish shock would follow. Added to this, the way they'd tried to save JFK at Parkland Hospital, and it was one of the worst things he could imagine.

But with some sort of providence, Destiny died immediately.

Her ankles caved, like timber, even as the zip-force of the bullet was resounding. He heard his own limp and jabbering voice. It was always about protest, rather than disbelief. Even as successive bullets stung the air, he was down beside her, choking out words into wholly inanimate eyes and ears that were really just props.

His hands danced stupidly in mid-air; a particularly hateful mime-artist. In time, they shook forward and felt for a pulse.

Staring at nothing, staring at several dizzying scenes at once, Conrad saw Captain Ochre being hit in the shoulder blade, and somewhere very high up in the neck. Whirlwinds of demons flew around his aching head, idly wondering when The Man Himself would be hit. Surely it would feel liberating? Orgasmic even?

No. He remembered this morning. Don't even call it 'the little death'.

Looking around in the opposite direction from the Mysteron City, he saw a small outcrop in the three-hundred-yard-distant rise. He saw the black-suited assassin, about his work even now, with a fearsome, bulbous-tipped rifle. In all likelihood, Conrad would have missed him, if it wasn't for the scarlet baseball cap.

From nearby on the ground, a small voice struck up in rasps to heaven. Captain Ochre, presumably, was dying.

"Get to the city-"

As if he would.

Captain Hazel had fled. Rosanna Arquette had fled. Captain Black was dancing his hooves with wild, panicked eyes.

But he was loyal.

Conrad mounted him in a second and was galloping towards the Man With The Gun. He anticipated the fight; thundering hooves made it real from moment to moment. Soon he wondered if he'd been shot in the head after all, before realising it was just the clammy tension in his spasm-clenched jaw. Bearing down, it was hard to tell if Captain Scarlet was managing to stay calm, or if his desperation was leading him to make increasingly careful shots. Either way, the buzzing of bullets around Conrad's torso; impossibly loud.

He dismounted. For a long time, the tip of the rifle was aimed perfectly at his chest. Evidently, the bullets were expended, or else the thing was broken. Scarlet sprang his body upwards, and backwards, and there was just enough clearance to move. Alas no clearance to avoid the knuckles-like-a-bullwhip.

Scarlet had never taken a punch like it. The second was worse. This one was like an anvil, and in the aftermath, his muzzle felt like it was in a hundred pieces, each piece floating free, isolated under a pins-and-needles microscope. The counter-push: a stupid, fey connection between Scarlet's ankle and Black's side. It barely phased him, though it was enough for the other to pull himself up into an ugly, mano-a-mano clawing posture.

There'd never been a fight like it. The grappling was squalid and desperate. What separated it from the thousands of drunken, city-centre punch-ups he'd witnessed over the years; sheer, all-conquering hatred. For seconds at a time, Scarlet forgot what kind of man he was in this blunt new world. When he remembered, his fighting stance was at once transformed into savagery incarnate. He whipped his fists around, moved in to strangle Black. Berserker Modus Operandi: manoeuvre the imploding man down, to the side, so that the already strained signals from his brain won't be able to fight back.

My god, though. That he was still thinking. Still looking so upset. He was thinking about Destiny.

Again, poetic justice: Scarlet so often fantasised about hanging and strangulation. Now here he was, delivering to another what he himself was so desperate for.

A little wriggle and Black came an impressive inch or two forward, all thanks to some miraculous traction in his splayed, twisted ankles. Once it started, it didn't stop, either, until he was holding his own. He used the natural weight in his shoulders to blast a pincer into Scarlet's strangle-hold. Drizzle edged towards rain; still they didn't slip on the tiny fresh leaves, every tiny sinew-strain part of a violent balancing act, an inverted tug-of-war peppered with headbutts, stamps, attempted topples.

Scarlet fought so hard to at least bring his opponent to the ground. In doing so, he felt dizzy, felt as though the nearby wild flowers were waiting to swallow him. In a whirlwind flash, an opportunity came for a wild, arching punch. Black, with the luck of the devil, was ready for it too, and made a lazy kind of block -which nonetheless worked. The counter-punch skimmed Scarlet's skull, and maybe damaged him, maybe didn't. Blows to the gut were out; with a duck and an upper-cut, he started to wonder how he could possibly hope to win. He wasn't fighting a man. He was fighting a man's end-of-the-world rage. In Black's eyes: a hate that was as pointed as a bullet.

Scarlet started to sense a very real danger that he might lose. It came, and then held steady, but never got any better as those monstrous shoulders flexed and heaved punches about his face. The efficiency of his own connecting punches could no longer be judged: he'd long ago lost any sensation in his fists. In his whole body, in fact. Black landed an arching punch, like a slap, across the side of Scarlet's cheek. Insult to injury. And then, quite simply -darkness. It came; the idea of unconsciousness, sweeping about the centre of his mind, dragging the whole world with it. He fell backwards and didn't feel an impact.

Under one of the man-size bushes perhaps? Or in the giant clover patches by the dip? Conrad searched and searched, and eventually found a rock big enough to cave in Scarlet's brains. There were little or no thoughts as he knelt over the unconscious man, raising this most primitive of weapons. Satisfaction? Yes, but only marginal, only slightly more significant than the will to carry on breathing.

"Stand down, Conrad!"

Ochre, bleeding copiously but not dying, was flanked by a dozen Mysterons. Conrad glanced towards them and laughed like a maniac.

"As if I will!"

He massaged the rock, relished it as he had Destiny's breasts. He felt the trigger-muscles of his arm become tense, at exactly the same moment the most unpleasant smile of his life became firmly established on his jaw.

It vanished as quickly as it came. He turned to stare at the Mysterons.

"Can they bring her back to life?"

Clutching his neck, wincing through the pain wrought by his shredded shoulder, Ochre edged forward to stand beside Conrad. He stared intently at Scarlet.

He blinked. "The Mysterons? Forget about the Mysterons. It isn't about them any more. It never really was".

Conrad could only sink back on his folded legs and go blank. Ochre looked between him and Scarlet.

"Look at the damage you did to each other. Look how hard you both fought, your whole lives".

"What about it?", asked Conrad, though really he cared -not at all.

"I thought, 'Give me a man like this, and I can save the world. Give me two, just to be safe'".

Conrad examined the surface of the rock.

"What about it?"

"Scarlet is one of us", promised Ochre, in a saintly tone. "We have to have faith that he'll come around, in the end".

Conrad sniffed. He stood up, wiped his face, flexed his shoulders. "Do you have a gun?"

Ochre asked why. Conrad was about to say, 'you know why' -when something halted him.

The rain. He noticed there was something very strange about it. Very wrong. He held out an aching hand to gauge the exact wrongness.

It was falling horizontally. The drops sliced into the side of his palm, seeming to emanate from the far horizon rather than the heavens. Eerily, there was also something going on with the daylight. A low brightness was emanating from a certain Mysteron. Was it Chocky? He had no idea.

The ring of light centralised itself before him, growing until it was man-size, and then gently getting bigger all the time.

This Mysteron was not hollow. The inside of the light-ring held what could only be called a window onto another world. His mind boggled. He gasped. A beautiful agricultural field and buoyant blue sky, as real as anything he'd ever seen, gaped and grew to a scale that was 1:1, precisely it seemed. This magical scene. This fourth wall -panned right.

Destiny stood before him, alive, unblooded, but mute. She spoke urgently and in wonder, but he couldn't hear no matter how hard he tried.

"What is that place?"

Dimly he hoped that it might be Heaven. Then he saw the sun behind Destiny's head and remembered what Chocky had said. There is no sun in Heaven; the air is warm and bright by virtue of its existence.

But if not Heaven, then where?

Ochre was no help. He merely said, "The real world".

Conrad clenched his jaw, though he continued to stare at his beloved.

"'The real world'. As opposed to what?"

Ochre looked vexed and lowered the one good hand from his hideously bloody neck.

"I can't really explain that to you".

Conrad stared at him malevolently. "Try".

"Imagine you were writing a novel, and at the end of the novel, the characters came to life. Now imagine it was more than a novel. Imagine you were trying to make a new Che Guevarra, to liberate an entire country".

The horizontal rain soaked steadily into their hair and clothes, before it made the exchange, passing through the glowing wall into the Other World. Conrad blinked, exhausted. He'd understood every word but not the concept itself. Why did he even try? Everything he could ever want was standing before him.

He blinked his eyes, now more inky than ever. The idea of stepping through. Away from all the shame and horror. Was it even possible? He stared at the mucky grass that produced such a neat border for the world he'd been born in.

They rose dramatically, and without a fraction of hesitation, the hairs on the back of his arms. They rose at the mere approach of her shadow. When it actually touched -viva the new little death. Passing up over his torso, onto his bloody jaw. They beckoned him through. And he went.

"Che Guevarra", laughed Scarlet. He flicked his eyes evilly onto Captain Ochre. "Everyone has the T-shirt. Like Spongebob Squarepants. Worn by c- office workers with five-point-four kids, wearing shorts and sandals at the weekend, as if they've a right to draw breath. Think of yourself as Che Guevarra and you may as well write 'clown' on your forehead".

Ochre pawed his neck. "I don't think you mean that".

The Mysteron Fourth Wall receded to nothing. The other aliens surrounded Ochre and waited. He dismissed them; "Thankyou, gentlemen. You can go back to Mars now".

Soon, this apparent leader knelt on his haunches and spoke soothingly to the bashed-up Spectrum agent.

"Can I help you get out of here?"

Scarlet chewed his mouth and spat blood.

Oche got up and started to walk away. What he said, "You can't hope to survive here much longer. There's a place for you on the Other Side. Don't become an alcoholic; as long as you can still think and feel, there's hope".

"Away", said Scarlet.

Lying back, just for a short while, or maybe forever, felt wonderful. The diagonal rain kissed the grime away from his rough skin, and the effect on his swollen eyes was like balm. He lifted his forearm and it felt like it would snap. Despite this, a fair exchange indeed; his Timex revealed five-ten, and already it was getting murky. Scotland. A fascinating place to die.

In and out of consciousness, the idea of trying to stand up and move away was a beautiful joke: no matter how many times he entertained it, it always brought a belly laugh. At some point, however, he tried. He stumbled directly over the open ground where the Mysteron City had stood, through the line of drumblast trees. Going back to the SPV, given all that had happened to acquire it, was out of the question. He withdrew the sat-nav from his pocket with the intention of finding the nearest point of civilisation. Another belly-laugh came. 'Civilisation'. And yet another after that: the little machine was broken.

He scrambled forwards for miles and miles. Trail of blood? Dying out –perhaps. The velvety moss and prim tufts of grass had the vibe of footballs about to be kicked into his face. It seemed inevitable that he'd pass out, and he was quite prepared.

Occasionally time passed quickly, though. It was during one of these periods that he came to a broad, looping road and decided to follow it. Once or twice, a car passed by and he could feel the driver's eyes upon him. Shrug. Collect up enough shrugs and they feel like the pins-and-needles you always get after a mortal beating.

He came to a little bus shelter and studied the timetable as best he could. To his astonishment, there was a bus on the way. Going where, he had no idea, though the last name on the chart was in bold; this suggested a prominent town or city.

He leant against the entrance and waited. To keep himself awake, he dug the corkscrew of his penknife into the fleshy underside of his thumb.

Much time passed. A large but grubby but clean but grubby bus appeared to a pneumatic fanfare, muted on the twilight asphalt.

"To the last stop, please". He handed the driver a sliver of Spectrum-petty notes.

The man leant forward in his chair. He stared at Scarlet in a completely guileless exchange.

"I'm not happy about that, mate. You need to go to a hospital, I think. Has someone beaten you up?"

"Today, or ever? Yes and yes. Take me to the last stop. Just do it".

The driver said bitterly, "It's your funeral, mate".

The bus was around half full; Scarlet walked to the middle with the intention of falling asleep as soon as he sat down. This was not destined to happen. A student on the backseat had headphones which were less like the studio or walkman variety and more like two hi-fi speakers, designed to transmit noise to a thirty or forty foot radius. The other passengers pretended to be unconcerned. Scarlet, for his part, had wild and fulfilling fantasies about marching to the front of the bus, collecting the fire extinguisher and using it to bludgeon the boy's head into a wholly unrecognisable mound of gristle. The only disturbing element of the fantasy was that, at one point, he was aided by Captain Black.

Up a ridiculously tight, leafy cul-de-sac they went. Scarlet, tortured by the a-tonal musak, laid his head against the glass and searched for any indication that they might be getting close to the town. Insult to injury -slap!-, the bus pulled into an anonymous little parking space and turned of its engine.

And there they waited, in Hell, apparently for eternity.

Eon followed eon, but all along he fancied he could detect some kind of ticking. Some kind of psychic ticking. He realised it was the mind of the woman sitting opposite him, who looked ever-so-slightly like Beatrice. Impatient with eternity, she got up and flew to confront the driver.

"Excuse me. Can I ask, why have we stopped?"

"Don't worry, love. Give it another ten minutes and we'll be on our way". Jovial.

Not she. "I didn't ask when we're going to be on our way, I asked why we've stopped. Are we waiting for a connecting bus? If so, maybe you could call the other driver and find out if he's going to make it at all?"

Unimpressed by this theory, the driver moved his stupid eyes in an energetic fashion, groped at his bowler hat, which he wore as if it didn't make him look like the King of T-ts.

"It's got nothing to do with connecting busses. We've got to stop here to make the time up. If you've got a problem with that, you need to take it up with the county council".

At the mention of a county council, Scarlet would have smiled, if only his face wasn't dead.

Continued the woman, "What gets me about that is, we're in the middle of nowhere, and there are no more villages between here and Kilviemore. Why are you so concerned about following the timetable? Have you ever picked up anyone at all between here and Kilviemore?"

The fight came to nothing. Like life itself. They all sank back in their seats to embrace the madness of the torture. Scarlet's fantasies of collapsing the little demon's body became more and more epic.

He idly wondered why he didn't move to make the fantasies a reality.

Was it because the student was close to being Ed's age? This made no difference.

My son is not a c- like the rest of you, he thought. He just isn't, never will be. He has a future. He is the sort of boy who will grow up to become a forky or a loader on the docks. He'll be the sort of man Bruce Springsteen might write a song about.

Except the hatred was something very powerful all the same. The pull to maim the boy felt as natural as breathing, as morally sound as killing a desert snake before it snaps at you with madness-inducing venom. He could just do it, and be sated. All through the hissy, blood-spattered fallout, when the other passengers were restraining him in the most indignant way imaginable. Satisfaction, all through the how-the-other-half-live ride in a police car. Satisfaction, in the grey, plasti-coated cell. Except it would fade away, in the end, once he realised he'd ruined the lives of Adam and Ed, their belief in a just world.

He thought, all this horror we have to tolerate. It's nothing. It's what fathers do.

Scarlet got up and moved to the front of the bus, dead face alive with emotion, somehow.

"I think I'll get off early", he said to Mr Bowler T-t.

"Look, I can't pick-and-choose when and where I stop-"

"It's OK", Scarlet lolled his head. "I should have known better than to get on in the first place".

Epilogue One.

"It's going to be a glorious day", said Johnny.

Judith said, "It's marvellous, isn't it?"

Bellies full of bed and breakfast marmalade, fortified with kendal mint cake, they made their way onto the heather-dappled moors. The atmosphere was a deep blue, just a few modulations of shade between the bursting horizon and the breathless, high atmosphere. Funny little birds sang songs while foraging in the gnarled bracken bushes. Judith and Johnny walked through it at a loafing pace, dizzy with contentment. Though there was a little sweat wrought by their ruck-sacs, and the effort of carrying their easels, it was all perfectly off-set by the coolness of their hiking shorts and cotton sleeves.

The mighty expanse of fleece-like moss and reedy grass, and everything between, looked pleasingly flat to Johnny's eyes. Getting lost in the sight of it, he occasionally saw bumblebees of the most vivid and reflective shade of orange. They buzzed around like machines of industry; intense, happy. Wildlife-wise, there was always plenty of surprises. At one point, they even saw what appeared to be three wild horses on the far horizon. Judith, quite the expert on things equestrian, had no idea they could be found this far north.

"Isn't it strange -Great Britain is such a small island, and yet Scotland seems like a world of its own. You could almost say a 'secret kingdom'".

"There's certainly something magical about it", agreed Judith.

"You know, it would be nice if your sister's interest in the great outdoors developed a bit, so that she could enjoy it before her arthritis gets too bad to go for proper walks".

"It's a tiny bit silly", said Judith. "Angela and Morris live barely an hour away from the Norfolk Broads, and I'm sure Lizzie would happily give them a lift over there at the weekends".

Perhaps inefficiently, or perhaps simply care-free, they skirted a corner of the patchwork, a spectacular plain of brittle yucca-wood brambles. At the top of the rise, there was an even more impressive view of the great, isolated moorland. Dark green grass with intriguing outcrops of bruised heather, the occasional silver reed, stretching away a good two acres -whereupon a line of drumblast trees arose like a pastoral watermark.

"Do you know, I think we may have found the perfect vantage point for our study?"

"I think so too, Johnny".

They set up their easels with calm consideration, Johnny feeling satisfied like an astronaut planting his flag on the surface of Planet Mars.

It was a source of fascination, as ever, that Judith chose watercolour, while he went for far heavier acrylics, barely if ever diluted. He admired her impressionistic flair, her desire to work so quickly, and he told her as much. The wildlife seemed similarly attracted to her subtle, ribbon-streaked colours: a ladybird landed on her canvas.

"Ladybird, ladybird, fly away home", said Johnny, as she blew the little insect into the shallow brambles.

"It's lovely to see them on a summers day", she beamed.

"Well", breathed Johnny, "I hope our little friend didn't leave too much damage to the paint".

"There is a slight little scuffle mark, up in the sky, but I think I'll leave it there so we'll always have the memory".

Johnny -sketched the outline of the moorland, and then immediately started work on the brilliant wash of aqua and flag blue that constituted the giant summer sky. It made it so much easier when the time came to introduce the mysterious dapples of light in the foreground fields. This done, with such joyful slowness, he linked in the rivulets of stone and moss, careful to add an almost random spectrum of primary colours to the tiny flowers. Perspective, that stony titan, said that one should only just be able to see them at all, though Johnny fully trusted in the sharpness of his brushstrokes. He started to adorn the plain, pale green foreground with impressionistic zig-zags, later to become more sophisticated with long fingers of brittle tuftwood poking through. He chose a certain whitey-beige, like deer antlers, before changing his mind and heading a few hues out in to oaky-pastel.

The idea that Judith's watercolour might be nearing completion, and that he was keeping her waiting, was a source of nervousness. But he glanced over at her canvas and saw that this wasn't quite the case. She saw him peering at the last moment, of course, and wrinkled her mouth into a smile. It was a lovely smile, far nearer to the kind bestowed from one twenty-year-old to another, rather than a fifty-three year-old to a sixty year-old.

He painted the broken trees which were in the mid-ground. Some of the branches seemed almost luminous in their low-hung light-grabbing. He painted the ancient trunks which looked like flat slabs wedged firm into moss; very dark brown. Almost as an afterthought, to begin with, he filled in the strange shadows which fell between the far-off drumblast trees.

Something about them was fascinating. He spoke of this fascination to Judith, then as it spilled from his mouth, the report was not so much to her, but to some mute, omniscient corner of his own subconscious. Misty-eyed, he stared ever harder at the horizon.

"Isn't it strange, the early afternoon haze playing between distant trees. A very deep, absorbent shade. Almost -black".

"Johnny-", she warned him.

"Black-"

"Johnny!"

"Black! The eternal tendrils of oblivion falling across our eyes!" He took out the seldom-used tube of pure black and made amends, spreading it with his fingers across the heart of his canvas. Next, he emptied the tube onto his spasmodic hand and massaged the greasy smear across his face.

"Black! Black! Black! The fathomless void which creeps in from every corner of the horizon, to consume us, the anaesthetic from which no man can wake!"

He lashed out and brought the easel to the ground. He hopped around on his haunches, like a tiny, pathetic creature, poised arms like the wings of a flightless bird.

"Where are we sleeping tonight, Mother? Father's grave?"

"Johnny!", commanded Judith.

Except Johnny was really gone this time. The hyperactive man before her was down on his side. He crawled through the mud, one arm stretched out before him like a feeler. It dug in, pulled out a supple handful of dirt, tiny worms within, which he promptly gobbled. "Always thankful to the dark gods as they spit poison into our maggot-infested guts. And onwards! Always crawling onwards, to the City of Death!"

Epilogue Two.

For long moments they clung to each other with their eyes closed. For an equal amount of time, in the same pose, Conrad stared swarthily over her shoulder at the unknown country. Outwardly it was beautiful. Rolling hills, never quite steep enough to be valleys, were segmented by well-groomed hedgerows. It was a land that was wholly un-windswept, or maybe just impervious to gales, offering up buoyant, asymmetrical chestnut trees to hang low over the borders. On the very far horizon, a ridgeway. Almost white horse territory. Wherever they were, it was very much like home.

The field they'd arrived in was easily three acres. With no sign of a track, they simply made their way to the edge. He looked closely at the side of her head, and it was wholly undamaged. For the bruises and ruptured patches from his own battle, he felt sure they were minimal.

Walking quite slowly, they stared up at the blue sky. Strips of white-and-grey, life-affirming vapour were moving at a tender pace. Then Conrad saw something that made him smile his head off.

"You'll be happy here", he told Destiny, and pointed upwards.

A fierce-looking jet fighter skimmed the clouds, and the heavens.

They walked the border, following the bent-paper-clip-shaped contour of the neighbouring field. In general, the hedges were well-groomed, while the grass grew in tufts, a treat for any grazing cows. Constantly, they looked between the heavy, dark green trees, trying to glimpse a road, a house, anything.

In fact, their next sign of civilisation, or at least a human presence, was a piece of litter. It was a long popsicle wrapper, English-language with a 2012 best before date. The novelty character printed on the side was Spongebob Squarepants.

They almost didn't even notice, but -

"He's yellow", said Destiny. "Since when was Spongebob yellow?"

"You think we may be in a parallel universe?", asked Conrad, impressed.

She massaged her shoulders. "Weirder things have happened".

"Perhaps", Conrad shrugged his lips, "the popsicle factory is simply incapable of printing red?"

They walked across a flat, hilltop field in a precise diagonal. At the edge was a rusty gate and the sight of a city, twenty to twenty-five miles distant.

Destiny squinted, and when she made her assessment, she sounded surprisingly down-to-earth. She tried to point out some details, but the tip of her finger covered the more or less the whole thing.

"I recognise a lot of that skyline. The old hospital, behind which is Old Town. The Insurance building. Just the shape of it -the groove of trees where the dual carriageway flies past to Farringtown. That's Unity. But where's the rest of it? Where's the telecom tower and the helecopter factory?"

Conrad tensed his shoulders. He half smiled. "Your parallel universe theory is gaining credence".

Except Destiny was more than a little worried.

"What if this just another Mysteron outpost? They could renege on the plan. They could be doing just as much damage here as they did in our world".

"No", Conrad narrowed his eyes. "There are no Mysterons here. If there was, I'd sense them. For better or worse, it's just us humans now. We'll simply have to hope that the powers-that-be are saner than ours were. Personally? I get the feeling this might be a better world, that the Mysterons brought us here as a reward, or part of some noble Truth and Reconciliation program".

And after that, Destiny seemed reassured. They walked through successive fields, really just following a psychic vibe towards roads, people, shops, electricity stations, garages, water towers. They looped arms. On climbing over a thick steel gate onto a well-asphalted b-road, they looped arms once again and doubled back slightly, no longer moving as the crow flies. They passed sheer, heavily-modified bungalows, nice-looking not least because they were small and unable to be filled with too much junk. They passed a road sign, but failed to recognise any of the place names. If it really was Unity City sitting on the horizon, it almost certainly went by another name.

Towards a mandelbrot of cul-de-sacs and closes, the branches above their heads seemed old and weathered: leaves that should have been waxy or translucent had cacky yellow edges. Still they were pleasing enough to peer through. Aristo houses were present. Large gardens. Duck ponds; ostentatious, yes, but probably not the guilty variety.

Pausing on a long stretch of road, clambering up onto the frothy grass bank, a haunted Destiny stared hard into the extreme distance.

She could have sworn she saw a white horse embossed on one of the ridges, just for a second - but the distance was simply too great for her eyes to conquer.

A pretty junction came; they found a community noticeboard. Vaguely, vaguely entrepreneurial kids advertising to take your dog for a walk. Musical concerts, conceptually boring. An A-4 sheet introducing the 'local' policemen, both of whom looked more like fey community support officers rather than -

Him.

There was an A-4 sheet to advertise recycling, an A-4 sheet to announce the advice surgeries of a local MP -one of the few rural Tories who'd refused to take the hint to stop dressing like a lord of the manor. There was the minutes of a parish meeting, which they tried to read, before falling into a coma. A sheet full of dire warnings over the development of a greenfields site into a supermarket and business park, because no one does more to help the economy than three field mice and some butterflies.

Finally, a glossy little poster explaining -some new local government scheme that utilises mobile phones.

And there it was. Their eyes zoomed in on the familiar wavy logo. The name slightly changed. The motto phrased a little differently. But was it still ironic?

'Wiltshire County Council. Where Everybody Matters'.

Mid-Credits Teaser

In all likelihood, they only allowed her in because they thought she was Nicole Kidman. Nicole Kidman, helping some film-set stuntman whose neck had been severely injured. It helped the shock-and-awe that she'd removed her shirt to dam the blood, all the men looking north, all the women waspish.

The extrovert barman was open-mouthed, and asked if he should call an ambulance.

"Two pints of orange-juice and a bag of jazz-nuts", said B.

"Am I going to live?", Felix asked her.

She laughed, then continued to smile even as she spoke of the terrible adventure.

"What about Captain Black and Destiny?"

"They got through", he said.

"And Scarlet?"

"He's staying until the bitter end".

B. was vaguely disturbed. "We need men like him. Conrad and Destiny are good soldiers, but we need someone to be a figurehead. Someone who's been redeemed and can redeem in turn".

Forget it for a second, though -they were drawn to a kiss, in fact, some heavy, porno-style face-eating. Several people in the bar fished for their phones, thinking: 'OK' magazine exclusive. In the heat of the passion, B. accidentally let the shirt slip, allowing blood to slide like a waterfall from Felix's neck.

"What about you?", he asked her. "Where are you going next? You know Christmas is just around the corner? Somewhere light?"

She thought about this, closed her eyes, started to sing in the style of a gravelly-voiced American belter. "It's been a long road -gettin' from there to here. It's been a long ride, but my time is fine-lee here. And I will see my dreams come alive at night. I will touch the sta-a-ars -"

Felix laughed loudly. He convulsed, as if a far worse injury than his neck had been opened up, and it was somewhere near his belly. He never laughed harder than when he was certain she'd stopped singing, only for her to abruptly wrongfoot him.

"-ahrhawah-nd they're not gonna hold me down no moohe, no they're not gonna change mah mind".

Moulin Rouge it was not. Felix recovered himself, though he continued to smile broadly. He was only marginally surprised when he raised his fingers to find all the blood gone and his wound rapidly closing.

"The healing power of laughter", noted B.

"Well now I only feel light-headed for the usual reason".

They opened the sausage-shaped bag of nuts and silently shared them. All the time, the intimacy of the stare-out was like-

Last orders. Is that still 11.15 in this part of the world? It was ten fifty-five, and they debated whether it would be bad form to buy a round for every one in the pub, this close to throwing-out time. They did anyway. Prior to leaving, the extrovert barman plucked up the courage to ask for a photo to hang on the wall. B. had all those still present gather around her, which came to a twenty-strong crowd. She made them all make the Sign of the Revolution, which they did without ever asking why. A pointy-faced man asked if she was in the area to make a film. She smiled that she was. When he asked what it was going to be called, she looked questioningly at Felix.

He said, "We haven't decided yet. But it's going to be about the end of the world".

Outside, the night atmosphere was thin, well-defined, yet without ever using much light. Clouds of darkness hung heavy around the base of the hill. A tomcat was licking his paws on a wall as if it wasn't the middle of the night. Directly, directly, directly above, the galaxy was deep, vivid, insanely beautiful.

It was then that a powerful sonic boom came from somewhere very high up in the Gregarin-blazed regions of frightening oblivion. It seemed almost accidental that they might have heard it, yet Felix said, "Here he comes".

B. was intrigued, and rightfully so. "Who?"

Felix, " 'Someone to redeem, who can redeem in turn'. A herald of things to come".

"I'm getting out of here", she said, almost-but-not-quite deadpan.

At once, Felix accepted this, though he was still compelled to say, "Live Long and Prosper".

"Don't cause too much of a terrible apocalypse".

"I will".

He took his leave of her, and raced up the very steep hill, under the thick canopies all surging together as a picture of Council-free rural charm. At around half way up, he realised he didn't want to arrive looking red-faced and exhausted, so a protracted period of sauntering was executed. Truly it was a dark, beautiful night. The steep sides of the hill beyond the crash barriers looked deep, dangerous, mysterious.

He took off into the woodland, until he found a clearing, and then after that, the highest point. Never once did he feel impatient, as the minutes ticked by. Because, just -outer-space, man. There was a sense of someone or something beating a wondrous retreat from extraterrestrial eternity.

There he was; a figure slipping down from the high atmosphere, easing low as if his body had the consistency of tin foil.

He walked forward and knelt before Felix.

"Master".

This silver man, with his silver surfboard.

Post-Credits Shocker.

Scarlet stumbled away from the pulled-up bus, across the lane to a swell in the stream that served as a kind of micro duck pond. That night, weirdly, the water was almost completely still. His thumb nail was hurting like hell now, almost as if it was a conscious attack by some invisible torturer. In time, he realised he could simply pull it off; on dropping it in the water, it caused a single ripple of light to spread out across the dark purple. A luminous circle, which he watched for some time.

Somewhere in time, Adam was laughing, finding all the sardonic humour in the world and distilling it. Ed was going to grow up to be the first truly practical man of the new age. But Scarlet knew: in this state, he could never find his way back to them.

He looked towards the bus, still waiting there with the engine turned off. The woman who looked a bit like Beatrice seemed utterly forlorn. He had to admit: things did seem progressive when they looked so powerless. But still, a kind of salvation had to be supplied. If it coincided with a catharsis, who had the right to blame you?

God? The existence or non-existence of God is something you have to work for, until you're exhausted.

He staggered purposefully back to the cab, knocked on the door.

"Can I get back on again for a second? I forgot my thing".

The driver let him on. He walked to the rear, fingering up the fire extinguisher as he went. Even as he wielded it above the student, the creature still wasn't prompted to turn his musak off. Catharsis go. The other passengers were either too tired or too scared to try and stop him.

Once the terrible business was completed, he turned around to face them.

"LONG LIVE THE SACRED COUNTY COUNCIL!"

His chosen weapon of self-destruction: the three inch Victorinox that his Dad had given him as a Police College graduation gift. It was long-since blunt, but it did the job well enough. How do you kill a circus?

The woman who looked a little bit like Beatrice was horrified and appalled.

But also strangely aroused.