by T. D. Edge
"The Head wants to see you."
Kylie Tompkins' pulse didn't even hop. "I ain't finished me luncheon yet, have I?" she said. "Where's your manners, Brian?"
The kids around her laughed, though not quite so hard as to make Mr Brian Hodgson, Deputy Head, book them for more time in the after-school slammer, as he now must surely do with Kylie.
Kylie herself noted the almost religious silence hanging in the normally raucous air of the canteen. Geeks, chavs, swats and the seriously cool seemed united in their joyous apprehension of the Stroppy Cow's latest self-inflicted punishment.
As it happened, 'Podge' Hodgson just smiled, even if like a Cheshire cat with heartburn, and said, "Kylie--the Head needs your help."
Kylie put down her chicken tikka marsala torpedo, daintily wiped her lips with a copy of Heat magazine, then stood. "Why didn't you say so? I would of course be bleedin' delighted to help out the old man. Just as long as we keep things purely professional." She finished by flicking aside her Goth fringe and batting her mascara-heavy eyelashes.
Podge, always looking weak to her on account of his down with the kids spiky hairstyle and tie never quite closing his collar, stepped back and tried an exaggerated bow. But he bent so low, his shirt rucked up his back.
"Careful, Podge," she said, "being sarky just exposes your Snoopy boxers."
"Please sit down, Kylie," said the Head in a voice off-key with false warmth.
Kylie sat, nodding in the direction of the man with a shaved skull to the Head's left. "Who's the prune in the suit?" she said.
The Head turned to the man. "I'm sorry. She's quite bright, really, underneath all that pouting."
The suit looked straight at Kylie. "Ms Tompkins, my name is Hunter. I work for MI5 and you're needed for a special assignment."
Kylie looked around the office, sure of spotting a hidden camera or two.
"Yeah, 'course I am." She blew a loud raspberry then stuck out her tongue. "That's for You've Bin Bleedin' Framed."
Hunter took a small silver ball from another pocket and threw it into the air between them. "Shut up and watch," he said.
The ball stopped, hovering a few feet from Kylie, then rapidly expanded into a three dimensional image: a black disc falling from the sky, setting down gently on a lawn before a large mansion. The disc broke into two and a figure walked out of it, towards the building.
The image disappeared and the ball returned to Hunter's palm. Kylie for once decided to stay silent.
"He's been here two weeks," said Hunter. "Gave me this device to show willing. He's got a lot of technology he could share with us, but there's a problem."
Kylie, voice shaking slightly despite her best efforts to stay cool, said, "Don't tell me: he's bored with all you zeros."
Hunter smiled. "He asked us to get someone more--'resistant' was the actual word he used-- and still young enough to stand a chance."
"Why me?" said Kylie. "I mean, I might be anti-establishment but I don't do drugs and only get pissed on special occasions, like Fridays."
"Our computers analysed all the UK's school rebels," said Hunter. "The reasons were always pretty clear: neglectful parents, social deprivation, standard middle-class temporary stroppiness. But in your case, they couldn't find any reason at all."
"So what are you saying, chief?"
Brian smiled, a genuine beamer for once. "That you're a stroppy cow just because you like being one."
"I spoke to your parents this morning," said Hunter, "and they're happy for you to stay at our Sussex base for a few days."
"Let me get this straight: some bloke from outer space wants to meet me because I'm the stroppiest cow your computers could find, and I get to miss being educated by Podge and his crew for a few days?"
The three men exchanged glances. "Yes, Ms Tompkins," said the Head, "that appears to be the deal here."
Kylie folded her arms and nodded sagely. "Ace."
"That's a right heavy sigh for a lightish sort of a bloke," said Kylie.
They sat opposite each other in a waiting room at the MI5 mansion, Hodgson in a suit with his tie tightened for once.
"That's actually quite funny," he said, nodding at the slogan on her T-shirt: DEAF METAL.
"Don't change the subject, Podge."
"I sighed because today I should be teaching kids who actually want to learn something, instead of playing nursemaid to a recalcitrant
"I ain't a recalcitrant Goth; I'm highly sympathetic of the Goth cause, if you must know."
A door opened and they were asked to go inside. Kylie followed Hodgson into a large room with an oval table at its centre. Hunter and a woman with short white hair sat on one side of it.
Kylie sat, disappointed the walls were plain, not stacked with IT equipment.
"Good morning," said the woman. "My name is Amanda Rogers. I'm here to give you your orders. And if you don't follow them, we'll make sure you'll never be left alone by the authorities for the rest of your life. We'll lock up your father the next time he drops a piece of litter on the pavement, and we'll have your mother committed to a mental asylum, even if we don't call them that any more. Understood?"
"Kylie?" said Hodgson, sitting on a hard chair in the changing room, waiting for her to emerge from the bathroom. "They told me to collect you."
"What do you want, Podge?" she shouted from the other side of the closed door. "Come to make sure I know me lines?"
"I'm sorry, really," he said. "I don't agree with them. They shouldn't make you be someone you aren't."
The door opened and Hodgson stared at her.
"Damn," said Kylie, "I knew it was bad."
She watched him take in the blue dress, leather shoes, washed and cut hair, eyes clear of mascara.
"You look beautiful," he said.
"Isn't that a rather ina-bloody-propriate thing for a teacher to say to his pupil?"
"Maybe, but you're blushing."
She sat heavily on the bed and turned her scrubbed and open face to him. "But it's all so stupid. This cosmic cowboy wants Tank Girl but they've turned me into an airhead in a dress."
"Maybe, but you've still got a chance to really do something for the planet, Kylie. Just be yourself."
"I don't know, this is weird."
"Well, of course it's weird: aliens, X-Files for real."
"No, I mean wearing a proper dress and sort of liking it."
The restaurant on the riverbank ached with class. Anster had picked it, knowing about it somehow. Probably the same way he spoke perfect English. The same way he wore a black jacket and collarless white shirt as if everyone else here were actually the aliens and him the straight guy.
He told her he didn't have a spaceship as such. He'd come to Earth in a machine that closed the gaps between probabilities and then slipped through them.
The prawn salad in front of her remained untouched.
"I'm sorry," he said. "Why aren't you eating?"
"They'll let you do what you want. You could torture me or even bleedin' marry me, they don't care. Just as long as you give 'em the goods."
His hair looked like dark brown silk, his face smooth and healthy. At least he didn't insult her by disagreeing.
"You really want us lot breaking out into the universe?" she said.
"What's wrong with you lot?"
"As if you didn't know... We're full of crap, is what. No one here ever tells the truth. Adults think kids are stupid and kids think adults hate 'em 'cos they're still young and can do anything."
"It's not that different where I come from."
"So, why did you ask for a stroppy cow then?"
"Because that's something we are in short supply of. Women on my world are trained to be ladies. They're happy to run the home, bring up the family, so the men can concentrate all their energies on science and exploration."
"How the 'ell did you manage to say all that with a straight face?"
Angry, her appetite returned and she took a forkful of prawn and lettuce.
"I'm not joking," he said. "It works for us. And I'm not sure your liberation of women has been the huge success you like to tell yourself it's been."
"And what do your women say about their role?"
He smiled. "Why don't you ask them yourself?"
"He's going to take me to his planet tomorrow, Podge."
They were in the lounge of the manor house, she still in her dress.
Podge glanced nervously around the room.
"Don't worry about it," she said, "they probably had the restaurant bugged anyway, and they no doubt slipped one in me fanny during the check-up."
"That's not funny," he said.
"So why are you fighting a smirk?"
He poured her a brandy, hiding his face. She thought about ripping him for giving a pupil alcohol but felt they were way beyond that now.
"Are you going?" he said.
"What do you think? First woman in space, or in-between it or whatever his bleedin' ship does."
"Correction: first stroppy cow in space."
She gazed out of the window. "He wants to show me that the women on his world are happy wearing corsets and bringing up the kids while the men go to work."
"Okay, I think I get it now: if he can turn a stroppy, independent modern Earth cow into a well turned out young lady, he can sell us whatever his world is really up to with this mission."
"And MI-bloody-5 have gone half way to meet him by getting me to dress up like a zombie toff gel."
"Seems that way. But you do look good in it."
"You need to lay off the brandy; you're seeing things, Podge."
The next morning, she packed a suitcase and put on a smart dress, black tights, black leather shoes, a touch of mascara; no gunk in her hair, just clean and shining.
MI5 brass gathered in the lounge to wish her well. Hunter nodded slightly at her with what might have been new respect. Just before she went to join Anster in his ship outside, Amanda took her to one side.
"For some reason," she said, "he likes you. Please try to remember how important this trip is--for all of us."
"I know how important it is. I just ain't as worried about covering my own arse as you are."
"Where are all the controls?" she said. "I'm right disappointed: no flashing lights, no computer."
"Oh, there's a computer. But half of it's in my blood and the other half's in the air we're breathing."
"Blimey, George Lucas would have made squat if he'd had Star Wars full of that kind of crap."
"Sit, please, we're going to leave soon."
She sat in one of the two chairs in the centre of the ship.
While Anster stood, apparently collecting his thoughts, she studied her surroundings. The curved wall and floor seemed to be made of slowly moving silver material. The chairs were of the same flexible stuff, hers re-shaping itself to fit her back. The light in the ship appeared to leach from the air itself.
She frowned. "This thing is sort of alive, ain't it?"
He turned to face her, smiling.
"You're more perceptive than you let on."
Right then, she felt the burden. "They're all expecting me to get you to hand over your secrets. But you know that, don't you?"
He sat in the chair next to her. "We've just lifted away from the ground," he said, "but only to make them think this thing actually flies through space."
"Bloody hell: how did you get the stars in here?"
Kylie had never seen a backdrop as black or stars so bright. They spread out from the top of the ship as if the walls were peeling back, and the two of them lay like a couple of seeds at the centre, exposed to the night.
The ship disappeared and so did they. She could not see Anster anymore, and fought not to panic when she looked down to find that her own body had gone, too.
Just the black and the stars, then the sensation of moving forward at incredible speed.
"It's okay, Kylie, try to relax."
And she did relax somehow, into the one engulfing sensation of having been here, then disappearing to get there.
"Our bodies are still back there, ain't they?" she said, realising all this was just their minds travelling, or souls, or whatever.
"Yes, they'll be kept alive by the physical ship which will be undetectable while we're gone."
"This is the big secret of how my people travel through space."
"Did you just laugh? Is that because we ain't never going to get it, even if you tell us?"
"I don't know about never, but your people have been working with the wrong assumptions, scientifically, for quite a few centuries now. At least where long distance travel's concerned."
"How fast are we going, Anst?"
"Not quite as fast as we could. I'm delaying it a little so you can take in the view."
Great shining swathes of stars swirled past.
"What's the fastest?" she said.
"The speed of thought. Instant."
"You think your way around the bleedin' universe?"
"I sent a thought cell to Earth. It isn't a mind but has enough sentience to find the materials it needs. Once it arrived, it orchestrated the atomic systems of various bits of matter and built a body exactly like mine back home. Then my mind followed, and I built the ship partly as a decoy and partly to protect our bodies."
"So, I've got another body waiting for me on your home planet?"
"Yes, I sent a thought cell ahead with your details."
"You could have told me. I'd have got you to make me boobs bigger."
"Consider it done."
"No, I'm joking. Your body had to be finished before we left."
"How long before we get there?"
"At the speed I set, about two more minutes."
For a while longer, she took in the massive beauty around them. Then the stars flashed out, darkness interceded for a second or so, and suddenly she was lying on a couch in a room.
She opened her eyes, into warm, swirling mist.
"Anst?" she said.
"Here," he replied.
She turned her head to see him lying on a couch next to hers.
He raised his eyebrows at her.
"Wah--I am too!"
He reached for the robe folded neatly at the foot of his couch, and she was relieved to find one on hers too.
He stood. "I have to go back to the mind/send room and write a report on my Earth trip. There's food, drink here--make yourself at home, Kylie."
"What are you talking about? There ain't nothing here except these couches."
But he'd already left the room, the wall melting away then reforming once he'd gone.
The lights went out.
She sat in total darkness, the only sound her heart thumping hard.
"I really am hungry, you creep."
Her mind filled with the image of a cheeseburger and fries. The room pulsed with orange light and the distinct aroma of fried meat and melted cheese briefly reached her. Then the dark returned and the smells disappeared.
"He said there was food..."
She closed her eyes, thought about the burger again, this time keeping the image, sharpening it, not allowing her mind to wander off it.
Light behind her eyelids and the cooking smells again, both holding.
She opened her eyes. On the couch next to her, a cheeseburger with sesame seed bun, fries, on a plain white plate.
She took a bite and it tasted exactly like McDonald's, which is what she knew best.
"Could do with a Coke."
She closed her eyes to picture the drink, already getting the knack: the point being to really want it, not get distracted by any other thoughts.
She rattled the carton, satisfied at the clonking of ice cubes this produced.
"This beats bleedin' broadband any day, Podge."
She finished eating, then stood and examined her surroundings. But all that met her gaze were smooth green walls, floor, ceiling.
She sat on the couch again, feeling a peculiar calm envelop her mind. Here, wherever in the universe, she could think clearly for once.
Food had come out of thin air--well, not thin, exactly, more like some modern tech system. Anster said he'd sent a thought to Earth where it turned into a body. He'd told MI5 he'd give them some of his tech if he got what he wanted.
A stroppy cow, apparently. He said he wanted to prove to her that women on his world were happy just popping sprogs and polishing the banisters.
She didn't believe him. He'd just said that to get her here. But why--what was his real mission?
Shapes appeared in the air, coalescing into lines of names, reeling past at great speed. Millions of names. She focussed, slowing them, reached for images of them.
Jane Adams: dozens of them— and Jean Adams, John Adams...
She stopped some of them, pictures swelling out of the letters in their names.
Earth people. She focussed on data: 60 million--the population of Britain. Data taken from MI5's files.
Anst had sent his mind to Earth, into a copy body. But what if his people could send their minds into existing bodies, too?
Anst told MI5 he wanted someone 'resistant'. So, what had she learned from always resisting everyone who tried to get her to do what
they thought was right?
Mainly this: that no one ever came right out and said what they really wanted. In fact, they didn't know what they really wanted most of the time.
Take Podge, for instance. What he said he wanted, what he probably believed he wanted, was for the kids to like him; to think he'd helped them improve their lives.
But she could always wind him up so easy because she knew all his blushing and trying to be cool, but failing all the time, made it dead obvious he really wanted something else completely.
No, not exactly. To be like her, maybe. To say what he really felt instead of what he thought everyone else wanted to hear. But there was the thing: because of that, because he couldn't be himself, he desperately wanted her to be. Podge was counting on her. MI-bleeding-5 was counting on her. The whole damn country, if it only knew, was counting on her.
All because they couldn't just say what they really wanted.
And right then, she knew what Anster really wanted.
She ran for the wall, thinking it away from her, closed her eyes just before reaching it, then felt nothing where the wall should have been.
Opening her eyes again, she ran along a smooth, green corridor. At its end, a darker patch of green informed her demanding will that the mind/send room lay on the other side.
She took a deep breath and walked through the wall.
Anster sat at a table, words and pictures hovering in front of his eyes. He blinked and they disappeared.
"You figured it out, then?" he said.
"Your lot are going to take over my lot. You've got stronger minds than us, because we can't ever decide what we want. You could make new bodies but that'd be risky 'cos they're vulnerable while they're forming up, and you'd have to compete for space with the natives anyway."
"That's pretty much it, except for the 'us' bit. You should have said 'them'."
"What do you mean?"
"You just ate, didn't you? And you opened some of my data packets, and you got here through two solid walls."
She frowned, angry at his smile.
"Kylie," he said, "my planet is dying. Not because we've polluted it, just because it's old. We're going to need another one soon."
"Don't you mean another country?"
He nodded. "There are about fifty million of us, so, yes, Britain will do. It won't be so bad: once we take over, just watch the empire
"But they ain't your bodies to have."
He said nothing, letting her think.
"Hold on," she said. "If the plan is to take us over, why didn't you all just do it? Why all this crap about giving us technology?"
"Why do you think?"
She studied his face, his eyes. "Because you don't agree with your lot just squatting in other people's bods."
"I agree we have to save ourselves. But I also believe you should have a chance to save yourselves."
"But I thought you said your planet was dying."
"We've got a few years yet. There are other worlds to explore before we finally have to leave. Earth is the best bet so far, and it may still be so when we run out of time."
"You said you were giving us a chance--what is it?"
"I probably won't survive this act of subterfuge, Kylie. I abused my position as head of mind/send projects to go to Earth. They'll find me guilty and I guess my punishment will be to stay here when the others leave. But it's been worth it."
"Because you passed the test."
"Sod it--what bleedin' test?"
"When you go back, you'll have five years at most. That's when my people have to make their final decision about where to go. If it's Earth, probes will be sent to test the resilience, or lack of it, in your people. They won't come if there's too much collective resistance."
"How many is 'collective'?"
"Not as many as you might think. If you had, say, just twenty people in every country on Earth that were capable of really thinking for themselves, that would produce a strong enough mind mesh around the planet to resist us."
"And I'm supposed to do this?"
"It won't be easy, I know."
"So much for my wild, irresponsible years, then."
"Kylie--your mind linked to the systems here, which proves it's at least as strong as ours."
"Yeah, but who's going to listen to me?"
"Well, when you get back, you'll find I've given you a head start. The body I used will have dissolved itself but the ship will stay. It has
home of the tech you've been using here. Take them inside, show them you can work it and they can't."
"Get your government to back you, form a team, travel the world, find others."
"Just like that? God, I really wish I'd kept my mouth shut."
He grinned, then frowned. "Where did you come from, Kylie? They'll all be looking for you."
"Yeah. I'm going to talk to them in a minute. Just wanted to see you first."
The manor lounge was empty. She sat opposite him. "I ain't going back to school. And I won't be spending much time at home over the next few years."
She fixed on his eyes, hoping to see his mind stop skittering, to see what she needed.
"You look different," he said.
"I'm going to need a friend."
She continued to hold his gaze. "Are you with me, Podge?"
She watched him sensing his choice: what he'd been and knew, or a life completely unshaped.
"Always," he said.
She smiled and stood up, waited for him to stand too. She took his hand and they went outside to meet the world together.