Extract Chapter Six

The Shadow of Fear

The Savoy Hotel, London.            11.04a.m. Friday June 5th

The Director of Terror paused, her eyes narrowing as the sounds of sirens reached the private meeting-room from the streets below.
“Phase 1 of the Big Plan begins even as I speak!” she said with a hiss of excitement. “Any moment now, the Prime Minister will appear on television to announce that the flood is about to hit London. Everyone will believe him. Our Weather Manipulators have made it rain for the last forty days and nights, so they are well primed. London will be evacuated within the next 48 hours!”
A ripple of amusement passed around the table.
“Phase 2 will see the deployment of the Skin Crawlers throughout the city. They will take up their stations under the beds of every single Londoner: man, woman and child alike. I estimate that this will take a further 48 hours.”
More murmurs of amusement.
“Phase 3 begins next Wednesday, when the Prime Minister will announce that the waters have receded and that (thanks to the tireless efforts of the government and the armed forces) the danger has passed. The unsuspecting people will return to the capital and that night, when they are all asleep, the Skin Crawlers will be ordered to strike!  It will take only seconds. Then it will be over.”
She paused for breath, her tongue flicking at the edges of her mouth.
“In one fell swoop, ladies and gentlemen, we will gain
control over more than nine million people!  Nine million minds!
“We will then repeat the process across the world until the whole human race is caught in our web!  Fear will reign, terror will spread and we will reap the rewards!”
A burst of applause sprang up around the table.
“Masterful!” cooed Spinner. “Quite masterful.”
“You are sure zat ze Uzzers vil keep zair side of ze bargain?” asked Goldberg.
“The Others want two things, Otto,” nodded the Director. “The population under control and a plentiful supply of their desired food-source. That’s the deal. We help them and they help us. It’s a win-win situation for everyone.”
“Except for the food-source!” sniggered Spinner.
“On the contrary, Crispin,” the Director retorted. “I believe it’s better for them too. The masses can’t function when they have too much freedom. Better by far that they are led by those who can handle power.” She turned to Goldberg and smiled.
“That’s the beauty of the Big Plan, Otto. It will create an efficient, orderly society, whilst at the same time making us even wealthier than we already are!”
Goldberg picked up a glass of cognac.
“I vil drink to zat!” he said, quaffing the whole lot in one gulp.
“Excuse me, Cordelia,” said a sallow-skinned lady in a
pinstriped suit. “But do you have any footage of the Skin Crawlers at work?  We saw them only in the developmental stages and I’m interested to watch them in action.”
“Indeed we do, Miss Liu,” nodded the Director. “Take a look at this.”
She pressed the remote control and the screen flickered back to life. This time it showed a pale object, like a grey maggot, worming its way across a carpeted floor.
Over the last ten years the Director had been responsible for the development of hundreds of hybrid life-forms, genetically-engineered mutants that she referred to as her “Hidden GEMS”, but of all her hideous creations, the Skin Crawlers were the most lethal.
My masterpieces!
Made of combined synthetic and organic materials, these gruesome maggots of gristle and sinew were designed with a single aim: to inject their target with a deadly payload. Armed with a sharp proboscis that could puncture human skin, they could also enter the body through any convenient opening (the mouth or nose for instance) in order to perform their scheduled task. After that, they would pass out again, unnoticed, through the digestive system.
Yes, Skin Crawlers were, so far as the Director was concerned, creations of true genius.
Yet they themselves were merely a means to an end; efficient tools that she would use to put her Big Plan into action. It was what they would inject into their targets that would do the real damage in the coming days.
Each Skin Crawler carried a highly-advanced form of artificial intelligence called a mu-brain. Created using nanotechnology and nubotics, these microscopic computer-chips were programmed to attach themselves to the soft tissue at the back of the human brain. Once there, they took complete control of their host.
At the flick of a switch, the Director could dictate a person’s thoughts, instructing them to do whatever she liked. She could even run a programme forcing that person to commit murder, or suicide, if she wanted to.
Mu-brains, as she had proudly announced to ISIS, were the definitive Weapons of Mass-Control: the crowning glory of her years of careful preparation.
Looking up at the screen, she smiled like a proud mother.
The picture now cut to show a car pulling up outside a house. A man and a woman got out of the front and a boy and girl emerged from the back.
“This is Family 42,” said the Director, “one of many who volunteered to take part in our recent Reality Show: Family First.”
“They volunteered?” squawked a lady whose nose stuck out from her face like a parrot’s beak. “Why?”
“The temptation of celebrity status, Baroness,” answered the Director. “People will do anything to be on television these days.”
“I see!” said the parrot-like woman with a vacuous smile. She obviously had no idea what the Director was talking about.
“Of course,” continued the Director. “The programme was just an excuse for us to experiment on them without them knowing…”
“Hangonaminnit!” interrupted a huge man in a Stetson hat, who was so fat that his buttocks sagged over the edges of his chair as though they were trying to escape. “Wots this gotta do with the Skin Crawlers?”
“I’m coming to that, Marvin,” the Director replied
patiently.
“Well, getta move on!” said Kowalski, reaching out and grabbing a couple of custard creams from a plate on the table. “Ahm hungry!”
He crammed the cookies between his swollen lips and took a large gulp of coke, his jowls wobbling like blancmange. The Director winced slightly.
“This is what happened later that night,” she said, clicking the remote.
The screen changed to show the man and the woman lying asleep in bed. The man was snoring loudly, his mouth open.
“The Skin Crawlers are waiting under the bed, just as they shall be when everyone returns to the capital. Now, watch closely!”
The camera zoomed in on the side of the bed. One of the maggot-like creatures was crawling up it, inching its way like a grub searching for food. When it reached the pillow, it stopped, raised itself up at one end and made a soft clicking sound. Then it crawled up the man’s face and slid inside his open mouth.
Several of the Isisians gave an involuntary “Euugh!”
The man snored and rolled over, but he did not wake up.
“Skin Crawlers always take the easiest point of entry,” the Director remarked. “In this case it is through the false palette, via the mouth. As you know, they are also armed with a sharp proboscis with which they can inject the chosen target. Let us observe this feature in action…”
Another of the pale creatures now emerged beside the woman’s face. It too raised itself up and clicked. Then it drew back its head and jabbed down at the woman’s cheek. The screen zoomed in for a close-up. Something was crawling underneath the woman’s skin. Like a bug burrowing beneath the bark of a tree, it wormed its way across her cheekbone, before disappearing into the soft flesh under her eye.
“Ha!” exclaimed Spinner. “They’re disgusting!  I love them!”
“Ziss iss brilliant!” shouted Otto Goldberg. “Congratulations, Director!”
“Thank you, Otto,” smiled the Director. “The creation of the Skin Crawlers was, though I say so myself, something of a stroke of genius. I can think of no more efficient way of covertly administering the mu-brains…”
“I can!” growled a deep voice from the end of the table.
All heads turned to a beefy man in his late fifties who was wearing army fatigues and a deep frown. He had a remarkably square head, like a cardboard box, and pale eyes that were set too close together, one of them higher than the other, so that he looked more like a Picasso painting than a real person.
“Vaccination!” he continued in a thick Russian accent. “It would be far simpler. A quick scare-campaign about some fake disease and people would beg to be vaccinated, each dose of which could have a mu-brain inside it!”
The Director’s lips curled downwards as though she could smell something unpleasant in the room.
“We are all aware of your opinion, General Andropov,” she said coldly. “It was agreed, however, that too many people would refuse the vaccine.”
“I still say my way is better,” said the General with a bullish look.
There was an awkward pause whilst the other members of ISIS looked from the General to the Director and back again. It was a long-running feud: a battle of egos between the thin, calculating Director and the brooding ex-KGB chief. It was a battle they all knew the Director would win. Cordelia Leer had not earned the nickname Director of Terror without
reason.
“His Excellency approved my plan over yours, General, as I’m sure you recall,” she said icily. “And as our chief point of contact with The Others his decisions, as we are all well aware, are final.”
This seemed to settle the argument. The General scowled, folded his arms and sat back in his chair with a reluctant “Hmph!”
“Are there any more questions?” asked the Director.
The balding man with a twitch cleared his throat.
“Y-yes, C-C-Cordelia,” he stammered. “I was w-w-wondering…”
He hesitated nervously, but the Director nodded encouragingly. She liked MI6-Claude. He always voted for her ideas.
“Yes, Claude?  What is it you would like to know?”
“C-concerning the chosen f-f-food-source,” he continued. “I’m fascinated. Has anyone ever actually seen the f-f-feeding process?”
“I’m glad you asked, Claude!” said the Director, smiling. “I have saved the best film for last!  This is one of our test cases.”
She pressed her remote again and the screen cut to show a young boy lying in bed. The picture was green and grainy.
“As you know,” the Director continued. “The Others are invisible to the naked eye. We used infra-red cameras to film this sequence.”
She paused, her tongue flicking at her lips like a snake testing the air.
“Pay close attention, ladies and gentlemen. Thanks to His Excellency’s special sanction, you are about to witness something no one else has ever seen, The Others as they feed!”
The curtains in the onscreen bedroom swayed slightly and a tall shadow emerged. For a second it stood there, towering over the boy. Then it set its head back and let out a strange sigh, like wind in withered grass.
At this, more shadows emerged from the curtains, each one drawing itself up to its full height before making its way to the bedside until the room was filled with spectral shapes.
There was a sharp intake of breath from the members of ISIS. None of them had seen the entities that they were in league with and they watched with a mixture of horror and fascination as the shadowy figures gathered around the bed.
“At this point, I switch on the boy’s mu-brain, using a remote activator,” said the Director, pressing the pause
button. “This stimulates his fight-or-flight response, causing adrenalin to fizz through his body. As his fear intensifies, he begins to emit a chemical sweat; faint, if not undetectable to our nostrils, but irresistible to The Others, to whom it is the equivalent of a juicy steak.
“Bear in mind, ladies and gentlemen, no human subject can survive this level of chemical stimulation for more than six to twelve months. After that they die. The Big Plan therefore accomplishes our goal to reduce the population to a more manageable level, with the added bonus that there is no way such a cull can be linked to us!”
The Director was pleased to see a number of heads nod in approval.
“You will also observe,” she continued. “That the boy is incapable of movement throughout the attack. This is because mu-brains disable various motor-neurone functions in the body. Although he is fully conscious of what is happening to him, he experiences a waking paralysis. In other words, he is trapped inside his own body!”
She turned back to the screen. One of the shadows now leaned over the bed, pressing itself close to the boy’s sleeping face. At this, the rest began a sinister high-pitched whispering.
The boy woke up, his eyes wide with terror. Something invisible was pressing down on his chest, pushing the air from his lungs. He tried to open his mouth to scream, but nothing happened. He couldn’t move.
MI6 Claude winced and turned away, but the Director was enjoying herself. She began to quiver and a strange dark stain appeared beneath her eyes.
“Remember!” she hissed. “At no point does the young boy see The Others. All he can feel right now is a weight pushing down on him!”
The shadow leaning over the bed reached out a long-fingered hand and began to run it slowly across the boy’s chest.
“He can feel that, too,” interjected the Director. “Like wet claws drawn across his skin!  Note, however, that no matter how much he may think he’s struggling, the paralysis triggered by his mu-brain is complete!  He simply cannot move!”
The boy was covered in a cold sweat now, his breathing shallow and ragged. He tried to get away, to twist or turn, but it was no use. He was trapped: seized by the living nightmare that visited him night after night.
The rest of the creatures now bent over the bed, their fingers scraping at the boy’s shoulders and curling around his neck. The whispering grew louder and louder.
“Now, they are beginning to feed!” enthused the Director. “See the terror in the young boy’s eyes!  That is what sustains them!”
The next second the spectral shapes vanished, disappearing back into the folds of the curtains as quickly as they had come. Alone again, the boy slumped onto his pillow, his body shaking, tears running down his cheeks.
“Of course,” the Director said calmly. “When the boy woke up, he believed all this was just a dream; or rather, a nightmare!  Such is the control we have!”
She pressed the remote and the screen went blank.
“Well,” she said, turning back to her audience. “Does that answer your question, Claude?”
The balding man twitched and nodded; his face white with shock.
“Good!  Now, are there any further questions?”
The Director looked around the table expectantly. For once, however, there was a stunned silence.

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