Fluffed up blonde hair, baby blue eyes and lips red like the cherry she still has, Britney’s working that street corner as if she’s been doing it for years. Fifteen going on twenty, she has the pimps wrapped around her finger so we can stake out this spot no trouble. My best friend since infant school, she’s always been the leader. She doesn’t feel the fear that crawls in my gut. She sticks out a skinny hip and wiggles at a lone car as it cruises past, swinging her bulky shoulder bag like a flag.
The streetlight flickers, illuminating the broken down houses, the street littered with rubbish. Peeling posters decorate the brick walls, photos of missing children with lank hair and dead eyes—a black triangle symbol sprayed over them, a red five inside the shape.
Another car crawls past, slithering like a slug, the driver not liking what we’re selling. Rainbow neon disguises the colour, but not the age. Rust drips, a geriatric skin disease. Everything here is old, except us.
Britney turns her back, heading to the woman standing further round the corner. Mercedes reminds me of my doll, Pointy-Tits Barbie, I used to call her. Until I met Mer, I never believed a woman could have boobs that shape. It's all I can do to keep my gaze on her face.
“Bum a smoke, Mercedes?” Britney holds up her hand and flicks it like a trigger. Sparks fly into the sky. “I can light it myself.”
Mercedes' laugh is deep and dirty as she fishes a packet out from some pocket hidden in her cerise mini skirt. “You always get what you want from me, doll. Been here three weeks and you barely took any trade. I feel for you chicks; no-one wants your strange stuff.”
Britney shrugged, lighting up. “We’re surviving. It’s not so tough on the streets now with all Their security everywhere.” Her eyes flick to a partially hidden camera, a red eye absorbing the street below. “But what about you, Mer? Did your Billy ever come back?”
The wide smile flickers for a moment, before pasting itself again across her rouged cheeks, the only evidence of pain a glittering in the eyes. She shifts her weight to the other foot, causing her boobs to dance in my eye line. “Nah, doll, his last letter was six months ago, jus’ before They caught him. He's gone. Youse guys heard anything from your... ah... friends?”
Britney draws in a deep breath of smoke, eyes narrowing, but doesn’t reply. I wonder what size they are. 36D? Bigger?
“That leader of the Fifth Column, that Iceni, he’s smokin'. I saw you girls talking to him just yesterday in the hot zone.” Mercedes blows smoke into the air and winks at me. “Not that you ever notice boys, eh Brooklyn, honey?”
I blush and drop my eyes to inspect my pink crush nails. Unchipped and perfect, the pale colour making my tan glow. “I don't think of him like that. He's just nice to me, like my dad used to be...” I stop as Britney glares at me.
“Barely know those underground guys, Mer. Just saw him as we were passing through. Y’know.”
Mercedes cackles and points with her cigarette at the triangle graffiti behind us. “Whatever you say, doll. No skin off my nose.”
Britney turns her back and waves on the next car, the driver not the one we need. He is an attractive youth in a suit who shouts abuse at her for dismissing him. She leans back on her heels and flips him the bird. A spark jumps from the fingertip to his car and it jerks into a stall. The other women across the street, the ones selling sex, bray laughter like donkeys until the car limps away.
England never used to be this hot, this humid. My nano-regenerating-active-essential-whatever makeup stays on, but they still haven't invented hair products that stop my fine hair hanging limp off my scalp like greasy spaghetti.
Britney adjusts her flimsy halter top, making sure that as much flesh as possible is still showing. Blue lines pulse beneath her pale skin, the alien trails a clear sign of what we are, what we’re selling.
A new car glides up to the curb and stops. The battered old green Volvo moves like a predator, the passenger window creaking down to expose the darkness inside. Britney totters over, the way her eight-inch heels stick in the cracks exposing her inexperience.
She lays a pale hand onto the window ledge and leans inside. Her hot pants ride up her ass to a series of catcalls from the other women. Britney speaks for a moment, before turning and waving to me. “Get in, Brook. This is our man.”
She trails a finger along the car’s dented bodywork, a blue arc shimmering around the chassis. A sizzle, and the graffiti triangle five mark appears on the car boot. Branded for all time.
She opens the passenger door and disappears into the darkness.
I walk over to the Volvo, hesitant and unstable on my new heels, pausing at the rear door. “You got our bag?”
“Yeah, now come on, it’s time.” Britney hisses through the open window. Paint flakes fall into the gutter as the door creaks open. It hasn’t been used for some time, moaning like a monster from the movies Britney loves so much.
The stench hits me first, sweat with a side order of decay. Sliding inside, I hear the tail end of the conversation.
“…five hundred an hour, double that for the night. And since you want both of us…” Britney punctuates her speech with a pop of bubble gum.
“No, no Britney. That’s not what I wanted,” the driver answers.
“Oh, it is Mr Moore!” I blurt.
I see Britney screw up her shortsighted eyes and peer at the driver. Wizened, two sizes too small for his casual clothes, his face is covered by thick lensed glasses.
“Oh, hello. I didn’t recognise you out of your suit.” Britney leans back and slips on her seat belt. She clutches her bag tight to her chest like a lover, but Cheshire cat smiles over her shoulder at me as if she’s found the cream.
“Ha ha, suit. Yes. I only wear that at work, girls. School rules, don’t ya know.” Mr Moore fiddles with his glasses, his eyes darting around the car like a dragonfly, never stopping on us.
Touching Britney’s shoulder for reassurance, her smooth skin shines pale against my own darker colour. Warmth floods up my fingers, her static crawling up my arm to envelop me. Breathing deeper, the panic subsides and I almost smile.
“Long time no see, sir,” I say.
“Hurmph, yes, yes, my dear. Brooklyn, wasn’t it?”
“Yes, sir. I was in your chemistry class last term. It was great, all those experiments with acids and alkalis, reagents and catalysts. I didn't understand it that well, but then my dad made me quit… Dad…” I hesitate.
“Not just your dad's fault though, girls. Against school rules to have… ah… special students, eh? Disruptive.”
“He’s not been the same since he lost his job.” I pause. “Since They gave us hydrogen powered motors, no-one needs a mechanic. He feels useless.”
“But it’s good They came, eh, Brooklyn? Yes, one or two people lost jobs, but we have clean fuels, better health and so many people who have special gifts…”
“Yeah, about that. What happened to Suzie Ellis?” Britney snaps her gum again. “I heard she changed last week too then fell off the radar.”
“Ah, ha ha, Suzie Ellis, yes. What did happen to Suzie? I can show you, if you like.” Mr Moore started the car, glancing in his side mirror to avoid the other curb crawlers.
“What do you mean, sir?” I ask.
“Just to come with me for a little while. Suzie is there. It’s why I chose you; I want to show you something.” Mr Moore blinks at Britney.
She leans back into her seat, gazing out of the window at the neon lights flashing by. Her eyes are unfocused, her mouth chewing the gum while she hums under her breath. She rests an arm on the windowsill, blue crackles dancing across the surface of her skin. A few of the working girls nod to her, but she remains impassive.
I toe an old food packet that lies on the floor, a half eaten burger rotting in waxed paper. The tips of my fingers tell me that the old fabric of the car seat is greasy like Jackie from school, her face a pizza advert. In the opposite foot-well, a patent leather child’s sandal lays forlorn half under the driver's seat. This makes me shiver.
Leaving sector five, we enter the hot zone. Broken windows gawk at us like imbeciles, black triangle graffiti sprayed over the doorway to our right. I look upwards and see we’re being watched. Five silhouettes track the Volvo. They lower their weapons once they see the triangle mark on the trunk. One amongst them holds up a fist in salute. Iceni.
As the last building slides behind us, a giant metal leg stretches up into the clouds, the knee joint bending as it moves, ice age slow, into the city. Mr Moore catches my expression in the rear-view mirror and treats me to a knowing smile. I think of dodos and I close my eyes. Soon.
“So, ha ha, Britney, how’s it been, the change? Normally the school asks me to advise students before they leave. I help them choose what to do.”
“Oh yes sir, I know it does. But we’ve both got strict dads—as soon as we got diagnosed, they threw us out.” Britney strokes her arm, playing with the hairs until they are standing up on end, bending to follow her fingers. “He blames us catchin’ it from school. He’s ashamed of me.”
“Ah ha ha, catching. Like it’s a disease.” Mr Moore adjusts his glasses. “And what is it you two do have, my dear?” He blinks slowly, his eyes magnified to owl size, his bushy eyebrows completing the look. I hoot under my breath.
“Nothin’ special or we won’t be selling it on street.” Her teeth glimmer in the dark. “A little zip from me,” and a glow jumps from her fingertips to his ear. “And Brook, she pushes things. Only tiny things, like a pin or a pencil. But the customers seem to like it.” The leer on her face makes me look at the dark trees rushing past the window. Mr Moore frowns and doesn’t respond.
The green Volvo wheezes and coughs for over ten minutes before Mr Moore slows in front of an old iron gate. A faded sign warns that ‘Trespassers will be shot.’ The true security is the fine wires that crisscross behind the gate, slow red light pulsing in time with our heartbeats. Their tech, not ours.
“I’m scared,” I whisper to Britney, once again touching her shoulder to draw strength.
“It’s okay, Bee. I’m stronger now,” Britney replies, her right hand clasping my fingers. Her confidence flows from her fingers and the tension leaves my shoulders. Her skin feels good as embers crackle along my wrist.
The red light touches the car, sniffing along the glass. I lean back against the seat, warm but unable to stop shivering. A dark uniformed sentry appears beside the gate, nodding to Mr Moore. The opening creaks ajar, the Volvo glides through, a shark entering its hunting grounds.
The building complex curls around the courtyard like a sideways U: low, concrete structures with tiny windows and a multitude of entrance doors. Even though it is 2 a.m., illumination blazes from many of the rooms.
Two more dull grey legs are here, stationary and braced apart, anything above the knee lost in the dark sky. There is no visible seam in the metal, the columns rising unbroken into the night, but I know what is inside. Everyone has seen them, but not many people have been inside and come out again. I look at the blue pulsing through my veins and ponder my luck.
Mr Moore pulls up outside one of the entrance doors, switching off the engine. He slides a hand across the back of his chair, when a white light passes above the car, hovering at a steady pace. Blinding, it lights up the car like an explosion, every dirt mote and speck of grease exposed. A low hum fills my head, ringing between my ears, zinging on my fillings. As quickly as it appeared, it passes by and we are plunged into darkness once again.
Mr Moore’s glasses gleam at Britney in the dark, taking in her luminous pale skin, her brilliant blue eyes. She holds his gaze without blinking. Fearless.
“Ready, my dear?” he asks.
“Thanks for bringing us. You see, we weren’t sure you’d pick us up, after you got the blame for Suzie disappearing.” She snaps her gum again, a rapid fire of pops.
His glasses hide his eyes, pools of oil in the darkness. His lips twitch, but he doesn’t reply. With a snort, Britney drops her bag to the car floor and gets out. A tiny smile ripples across Mr Moore’s face and without a glance behind at me, he exits the vehicle.
Pressing my face to the glass, I watch the crackling on Britney’s skin, her beautiful face surrounded by hair rising like Medusa's snakes. Blue arcs from the car frame to her fingertips, her eyes looking into mine as she hovers three inches off the ground.
“Brit…” I whisper. “Not here, not yet…” I feel strange; claustrophobic. I must get out of the car but standing is harder than I could have ever imagined: my body feels weary.
I push on the door handle and it lurches open. Forcing myself out, I step towards her. Our fingers touch; blue embers jump between us, connect us. I can smell her scent, jasmine pouring off her in waves, the taste of her a sweet memory on my tongue.
“I’m stronger now.” Britney smiles, power tracing across her teeth.
Then another light passes overhead again and ignites the sky. A giant ball of lightning explodes outwards, flattening us to the ground. I stretch out a hand and push at Britney’s mind, watching the light fades from her eyes and the sparks fizzle out. Her head will hurt when she wakes up, but it was too soon.
As the flickers fade, Mr Moore brushes the dust off his knees and picks Britney up. Without looking at me, he walks towards the building, one of her hands flopped loose and trailing in the dust. I grab her bag from the car and scurry to catch up, not daring to look at the grey legs behind us.
The building was once an old school, long corridors with multiple large rooms, wooden desks pushed against the wall. Mr Moore pushes through the doors to a large hall and places Britney down on a table. Her face is pale, but she’s fine. Mr Moore leaves the room and I hear the lock ‘snick’ behind him.
There are more pictures of the same missing girls here, but these aren’t posters. The Polaroids are all mug with information scrawled beneath. All girls from our school. All girls from Mr Moore’s chemistry class.
‘Gemma Mckee. 14. 2 months.’
‘Tracey Holmes. 12. 1 month.’
And ‘Suzie Ellis. 15. 2 weeks.’
Rubbing a hand over my eyes, I look away. “They’re getting hungrier.”
Sitting on the edge of the desk near Britney, I lift her head onto my lap. Stroking her hair, I hum to myself and push the tumblers in the lock. It’s tiring, there are a lot and it’s far away from the desk, but I do it anyway, just to see his face.
Britney awakes as he returns, the rattling of the key in the open lock showing his annoyance. Wordlessly, blinking her huge blue eyes at me, she assesses our situation. I help her to sit up, stroking her cheek.
“The bag? Is it okay?”
I point to it, and she smiles her Cheshire smile again.
Mr Moore opens the door and frowns at us, waving the key and I hold up one finger and flick the tip of his nose.
“I push, remember. Only little things.”
“I’m sure he’s got something smaller to flick.” Britney’s laugh is low and seductive. She winks at him and laughs again at his discomfort.
“Girls, really, please. I just want to take a record of this…” Two flashes and he’s holding up Polaroids of our faces. I watch him write our names and ages, then end with ‘8 months.’
“Eight months, sir? That’s how long ago we left school. How long we’ve been infected.”
“Heh, heh, yes. It is, isn’t it?” And Mr Moore sprays something in my face and I close my eyes.
My back is cold, and I can’t move my arms or legs; strapped to a medical table. The world is swaying, like on a boat, and I open my eyes to see a dull grey ceiling. We’re here.
Turning my head, I ignore my constrained arms and legs to see Britney on the next table. Her bag lies in a corner, unopened. A tall, thin being stands over her, its green antenna extended and quavering. Its back has the look of an oil slick, a mixture of shiny colours all blending into a shiny chitinous shell on top of its spindly limbs. Mr Moore is whispering to it, telling it our names, how long we have been changed, how much energy is within us. Hunched over, his owl head swivels as he inspects Britney. Our ex-teacher talks of how he changed us those eight months ago, how quickly our DNA responded.
The being answers with a chirrup and a clicking, its angular frame bending horizontally over Britney, all four arms caressing her body. She’s awake and looking up at it, her eyes still unafraid. The being clicks again, its proboscis moving along her skin, seeming to scent along her inner elbow with a gourmet's kiss. Eight months, we’re stronger than the usual foodstuffs It’s brought; we’re teeming with what It needs.
Mr Moore whispers of how we’re better quality than Suzie, how he’s kept us marinating longer for added flavour. He rubs his hand together and fingers the bulge in his pocket—thirty pieces of silver.
Britney stretches her hand towards me, fingers wiggling, but I look at the being. It moves closer, touches her skin, the blue underneath rising to the surface. It bends over, protuberance descending. I heard a slurping sound and Britney winces. Now.
“Mr M. Mr M!” I waggle my head for attention.
He turns and peers at me, his short legs pattering towards the medical table.
“Yes, yes, what is it? I’ve no time for any nonsense, girl.” His glasses reflect my own face back and I look at the tears on my cheeks.
“I honestly enjoyed your chemistry classes, you know, sir. I mean, I was more interested in makeup and TV than chemistry, but those experiments... All those chemicals and things. You pour in lots of different ingredients and nothing happens—but just add one new thing, some catalyst, a little spark and boom. I remembered your lessons when the underground asked us to help. Have you seen their symbol, sir? The black triangle, with the five inside? Fifth column. I don’t get the name, but Iceni says you’re a teacher. He said you’d understand the significance.”
“What are you talking about? What underground? Those filthy ex-soldiers grubbing in the hot zone?”
“Two years, that’s all it’s taken Them. From friendly alien neighbours to hungry planet invaders,” I whisper, knowing that Britney was keeping It busy feeding.
His glazed eyes don’t move, but I see a tic in his cheek begin to throb.
“You don’t understand, girl. They’ve given us amazing medicines, eliminated most diseases in exchange for one or two girls that would only turn into stupid little sluts anyway. My cancer, under control now…” He pats his pocket, fingers curling around the contents protectively.
”Oh no, sir. I know all about them giving us medicine. I mean, what farmer doesn’t keep their livestock in good condition? It’s just a shame men like you help beasts like them. I mean, look at me, I’m not even human anymore. Not really.”
The owl blinks at me, his glasses reflecting my smile. The tic in his cheek speeds up, his bony hands clenching and unclenching. He still doesn’t understand.
"Society is all mixed up now, lots of new chemicals floating about, Them being the newest added to the mix. All it takes is someone to light the fuse and it can all change.”
I see Britney’s hand, still wiggling, still waiting for me. Her trust in me strong enough for both of us. It is drinking deeply now; I can see the blue glow in Its throat as It guzzles. Not long left.
“I’m not scared anymore, Brit. Love you.” I push at the buckles restraining my hands and they fall away. Sitting up, I see It turn Its flat, alien eyes towards me, feeling my push.
“Chemistry. That’s what Iceni taught me better than you, sir. About mixing catalysts with active reagents. About explosives and trigger switches. Well, we’re here, one ship at a time, to put the pride back into our fathers' eyes,” I tell It, knowing that while It can hear, it will never understand. Instead, I focus on Britney’s handbag, sitting unattended in the corner, and I push. A tiny push is all I can do, it’s true. But trigger switches are oh so very tiny.
Her bag makes a fwump noise as the catalyst is released. Her fingers wiggle to me again, this time as a farewell, before her body arcs with electricity, her hair rising to Gorgons' snakes. Then the electricity and the catalyst meet.