The sun blazes over a wheat field. In a crudely carved crop circle lie two blindfolded figures, hands bound behind their backs and bodies contorted.
The girl tries to open her eyes but panics under the blindfold. “My head is throbbing and my kidneys ache,” she says.
“That sun is making my skull reverberate, Zeta. I can’t see!!!”
“Arthur, are you OK?”
“ I. I. I don't know. Let me sit up. My hands are tied. Yours?”
“Yes. It's so hot. I feel sick.” Zeta wriggles frantically until her hands are free. “First to take off these blindfolds. I can hear something coming.”
Arthur blinks to adjust his eyes to the bright light. “Up there. In the sky. Duck.”
“Machinery. Where the hell are we? Let me untie your hands…”
“Thanks. That's better. Ow, that sun is bright.”
“We have got to get out of the open. There must be a barn somewhere. Where are we Arthur?” Zeta gingerly feels the back of her head.
“You have quite a lump there,” says Arthur.
In the distance they hear the unmistakable sound of an Amtrak train, trundling at an impossibly slow pace.
“If we follow the tracks…”
“Yes, there must be tracks beyond the other side of those trees. Let's head that way.”
The pair scramble to their feet and stagger towards the railroad.
“I hope there aren't any snakes,” mutters Zeta. “Who would leave us here? Why didn't they just kill us?”
“Hey look,” shouts Arthur. “There's my backpack. Help me lift it up onto my back would you?”
Zeta absentmindedly helps to lift the heavy bag. “Maybe we were meant to die,” she says.
“Another train. Let's run and jump on the back of it. It's a long one.”
“I can't run Arthur…”
“Dang. It's gone”
Arthur sighs and hands Zeta a bottle of sun-warmed water. “What day is it? What's that creaking noise?”
She scans the horizon and then points towards the noise. “Looks like one of those nodding donkeys you see in the movies.” As they walk towards the railroad they try to piece the story together. “What if the people that left us like this are still out here? I knew we shouldn't have asked so many questions at the gas station. It's just that I recognised the car....”
“I knew we should have gone to the museum instead of on a hike,” mutters Arthur.
“I know. But... the hike was your idea.”
Arthur looks up to jog his memory. “Yes... the gas station. That's the last thing I remember. Wonder if I still have the twinkies I bought? Oh yes, here you are.”
Zeta stares at him blankly. “I'm not hungry, I still feel sick.”
“Okay. Let's head over to that nodding donkey on the other side of the train tracks.”
Zeta returns to her memories. “Whoever killed that woman knows that we are onto them.”
“What woman?” Arthur struggles to focus, irritated by the squeaking noise from the nodding donkey. “That could do with a bit of oil. Ironically.”
“The woman that we saw being run over.”
He stops in his tracks, as if having a flashback. “Oh ... that was ... horrible. She seemed very upset didn't she? Even before the car hit her I mean.”
“By the time we had climbed down there was no trace of her.”
“I just remember her face as she jumped into the road. Sunburned. Screaming.” The seriousness of the situation finally hits Arthur.
“It was almost as if she wanted that car to hit her.”
“She was looking straight ahead. The image is burned onto my brain.”
“And the car must have seen her but it felt like it accelerated into her.”
Arthur gives himself a shake. “Anyway, this is getting us nowhere. I don't see any trains coming. Let's try and find a road. Ugh, mosquitoes.”
“Stagnant water. Eurghh. I keep imagining I can hear critters, scuttling. Can you hear that too??”
“Yeah. Feels like rattlesnake country,” says Arthur. “Tuck your jeans into your socks.”
“Does that protect against rattlesnakes?!”
“No I just think you look funny like that.” Zeta shoots Arthur a withering stare.
Arthur freezes. “Hey, did you see someone over there? A shadowy image? Tall and still.”
“Yes. Like he was beckoning us. Don't look Arthur!! Run. There are more of them! At least 10 now.”
“Where are they coming from?”
“I don't know. Nowhere.”
“Must... keep... running.” Arthur is breathing heavily, the backpack cutting into his shoulders. “The dust is in my eyes Zeta. Where are you?”
“I can't see you either. Hold out your hands and stand still.”
“I'm over here,” cries Arthur. “I tripped in this hole. They must be digging a new well. I'm stuck. Can you grab my hand?”
“Are you hurt? Here, hold this stick.”
“I think I’m OK. It's just... I can't get out.”
“What's that noise? Someone or something is down there.”
“It's in here I think,” says Arthur, panic rising. “Zeta, it feels like something has a hold on my leg. Aaaaaaaaaarrrrrrgggggghhhhjjj.”
“Nooooo, Arthur. Kick it off.” She frantically swipes into the darkness with a loose plank of wood.
“You're bleeding. What was that?! Put your arm over my shoulder.”
“I don't know. It felt like talons grabbing into my ankle. Pulling me down.”
Zeta’s eyes widen. “We have got to get out of here. Even the tumbleweed is freaking me out. I can hear the road. See the shimmer?”
“Nearly there Zeta. Someone will help us there.”
“I don't trust anybody. Which way to go? Both directions look the same.”
“What the hell is that?”
“More scuttling. Something isn't right.”
“Did you see it? Just a shadow.”
“There... just went into the bushes. It looked like a cockroach, but, so big. Raccoon-sized. Maybe it's just the heat playing tricks with our mind.”
“Yeah, that must be it.”
“Let's head this way. If we see a car let's just flag it down and get the hell out of this crazy place,” said Arthur.
“I see a car on the distant horizon. Yellow. Here it comes.” Arthur and Zeta step out into the road, waving their arms frantically to flag the car down.
“Thank God,” grins Arthur. “Hey, hey, over here!”
“Arthur, it’s not slowing down! Quick, jump!” screams Zeta as she leaps into the grass verge, moments before the car screams past. “Arthur, noooooo.”
The yellow car races away in a cloud of dust.
“Arthur, where are you?” sobs Zeta. Dust everywhere. Just dust.
The dust clears but Arthur is nowhere to be seen.
“But .... that car hit him?”
The blood drains from Zeta’s face. “Must. Get. Help” Another yellow car races by and she flinches, diving into the bushes on the side of the road. “I feel as if I am being watched,” Zeta mutters to herself.
She crawls out from the bushes, stands up and spins around, heart pounding.
“No-one there. Nothing anywhere.”
Finally, a bus appears through the shimmering heat haze.
“Oh, hi, thank God. You'd never guess....”
“Just get in…” The driver doesn't look at Zeta. Not one glance.
“Bit rude,” she thinks. She makes her way up the aisle but is thrown violently into a seat as the driver accelerates.
The skies darken. Fierce air-con on the bus makes Zara's skin prickle.
“More invisible eyes watching,” she thinks as she closes her eyes.
Soon, the bus screeches to a halt and the back doors open.
Zeta jolts awake and steps out onto the street. She looks around, puzzled.
“Shops, a cafe, but no people. And more dust.”
Zeta picks a side street at random. In between some ramshackle town houses, she glimpses a yellow car parked in a half-open garage.
Gingerly she steps inside.
“The bonnet is still warm. And the front light broken.”
Tools are neatly arranged on a workbench.
“Surgical tools?” She shudders and backs against the wall, petrified.
The wall feels strangely cold and clammy. As she leans into it a section spins around and ejects Zeta into darkness.
She is growing accustomed to shocks. She stands still, barely breathing, waiting for her eyes to adjust. The ground feels smooth beneath her feet and the air smells like disinfectant.
Finally she glimpses hundreds of vials of a strange, milky substance that glows in the darkness. Zeta picks one up and peers at the code on the label.
RF, HD, SB, AR ...
As she feels her way along the shelves she suddenly becomes aware of a distant clanking. The ground rumbles under her feet.
She looks up and spies a small shaft of light coming through a chink in the wall. She lifts her head up to see through the gap. The scene in front of her takes her breath away. She is looking into a dazzlingly bright, white room. Figures in white gowns converse in whispering voices as if in a hospital.
A figure is laid out on a bed in the centre of the room, strapped to a hospital bed. The body is dressed in a hospital gown and the head is masked by a hood.
A stern-looking man with his back towards Zeta looms over the prostate body. She is chilled to the core by his apparent lack of emotion. Nothing marks him out except for a code on the back of his lab coat: NSP.
NSP takes a metal implement off the wall, flicks a switch... and the tool whirrs like a chainsaw.
Zeta can't help herself. “Arthur!” She screams.
The prone figure twitches ever so slightly as NSP moves the implement down towards its head. The arms and legs lock tight in a spasm and the back arches. And then they relax.
The body is wheeled out of the room.
NSP strides towards a screen in the corner and taps in a code. He stretches and rubs his head, as if waiting for his morning cup of tea to brew. Suddenly, the vials slide along the shelves in Zeta’s hiding place. Eventually, one drops into a gully that slides it down past Zeta.
She glimpses ‘AR' written on the label and reaches out to grab the vial but it is too late. It has passed through a slot in the wall and is heading towards NSP. He stands ready, a filled syringe in his hand.
Zeta frantically feels her way along the wall until she reaches the revolving door. She is thrown back into the garage, where she grabs a tool belt and stuffs in all of the implements she can lay her hands on. Finally, she grabs a torch and holds it between her teeth.
Zeta feels sure that figure on the trolley was Arthur. She has to get to him.
Armed, she leans against the cold wall and pushes. But this time nothing happens.
Time for plan B. Zeta pulls her sweater over the tool belt and edges back onto the street, still deserted.
Dim orange street lamps cast puddles of light on the pavement and Zeta stays in the shadows. She tries to ignore the hunger pangs and the throbbing pain in her head. A rumble underfoot stops her in her tracks.
She looks up to see a bright white light through a second floor window. A cafe below is marked “Open” but there is no sign of life.
Zeta enters the cafe and heads straight for the bathroom. She turns on the tap and shares into the mirror.
No reflection. That's strange, she thinks
She shines her torch onto the glass.
The vial room! Or another one just like it. Glass cases of shiny surgical-looking machines. A glass tub full of empty vials.
Another rumble, this one teeth-rattling.
The stern-looking man approaches the mirror. Zeta backs into a cubicle. She turns but finds only another door.
She opens the door but stops dead.
Arthur turns and looks at Zeta. His eyes are blank.
“Arthur, take my hand. Let's get out of here.”
He doesn’t respond so she grabs him and turns to leave.
But the stern looking man blocks her path. He reaches into his pocket.
“You don't know what you are messing with, child,” he growls.
Zeta's fingers feel for the scalpel in her belt.
“Oh, foolish one.” NSP blows a high pitched whistle. Arthur stands up and knocks the scalpel out of Zeta’s hand. It skitters across the floor
He and Arthur turn their backs and walk away down a corridor, slamming a door behind them.
Shaking, Zeta heads back to the cafe. She sits by the window as rain starts to drum on the bay window
“I used to love that sound,” she thinks. “Pleuvisaud.”
But now all she can see is Arthur's face in the raindrops as they dribble down the window.
As she stares into the distance, NSP slides into the seat opposite.
NSP takes a breath.
“Zeta, it’s nice to meet you.” He says, in a calm monotone voice.
“I don’t want to ‘meet you’,” snaps Zeta. “What have you done with Arthur?”
“Please, Zeta. I mean you, and Arthur, no harm. I can explain all later, but first I need your help.”
“I’m all ears,” says Zeta, sarcastically.
“Good good. I know how much you care about the environment, Zeta. I do too. Very much. Arthur, and many other people, have been helping us with a very important project. We are extremely grateful to them all. We just need a little more time then you can have Arthur back again.”
Zeta stares at NSP as if she has been listening. “The environment??? All that matters to me right now is getting Arthur back. You sound like one of my teachers at school. I can’t hear any more.”
“Yes I understand how upset you must be seeing Arthur in his current state, but you must trust me.” NSP reaches out to touch the back of Zeta’s hand but Zeta flinches, her heart pounding as the anger surges through her body. She hasn’t felt emotion for so long. It hits her all at once and she runs out of the cafe. But, where to go, she thinks, and where even am I? Out into the street she races along the road, buildings seemingly flying past her.
Zeta can barely breathe. Her fingers and toes start to go numb and her head begins to spin. She forces herself to slow down and breathe as the garage with the yellow car comes into sight. She leans against the car to consider her next move. On the passenger seat she notices a piece of paper: ‘Nuclear Survival Project: Endgame’. ‘Nuclear Survival Project’, she thinks, ‘NSP’ that was on that creepy man’s lab coat. The door is unlocked and she reaches in to get the piece of paper.
She flips the paper over to reveal a complex page of equations and plans. Useless. She screws the paper up and stuffs it into her pocket, all the while wishing she had asked the stern-looking man some questions. So annoying being hot-headed.
Just then, she feels a clammy hand on her shoulder. She spins round: the stern man! “Zeta, please listen to me. All will be well. Just give us a little more time. Let me explain a little more…”
“Whatever,” snaps Zeta in her endearing teenage way. First I need to see Arthur. If he is OK I am prepared to listen to your bullshit.”
“Arthur is busy, Zeta, he has been of great help to us. But, come in here. I know you have seen this, you set off our alarms earlier.”
He presses an invisible dent in the wall, and a section swings around, as before.
Zeta shudders in the cool air.
“You’re damn right I was in here before” she sneers “and I could see through that chink what you were doing to Arthur. It was horrible. You’re a monster. You bring Arthur back here now!” She grabs the stern man by the lapels and pushes him against the wall, tears springing to her eyes.
She gives an almighty shove and NSP staggers backwards, crashing into the shelves filled with vials. The shelves collapse and the vials slide off one by one, seemingly in slow motion. For the first time, NSP looks upset.
“Hmm. maybe I went too far,” thinks Zeta.
“No! Help me Zeta. Don’t let them fall. Please.” NSP’s hands reach out frantically to grasp the falling vials. He shoves them into his lab coat pockets. Without thinking, Zeta helps, grabbing as many of the glass bottles as she can.
NSP sinks down to the floor, now slick from the fluid oozing out of the smashed vials. “Zeta, please, very carefully, hand those vials to me. I’m so glad we managed to save some of them.” Zeta, shaking, gives him the vials as he takes off his glasses and reads the labels. “Oh, thank god. See here, Zeta, ‘AR’... Arthur Rodriguez.”
Zeta’s eyes widen. “What is that stuff? Is it Arthur’s DNA? Did he give you his permission to take that from him?”
“Essentially yes, Zeta. Or at least, it returns his DNA to its former state. ‘Permission’ I always find a rather tangled web.”
“So, what do we do now? How do we return Arthur to his ‘former’, wonderful state?”
“It seems only fair I explain everything to you, Zeta. We have discovered a new source of energy. An exciting, completely clean, source of energy. It is imperative that we keep this out of the hands of big business. I think you know what they would do with it, Zeta. We just needed some time to perfect the technology then we can hand it over to the world. For nothing.”
“That all sounds great. But what about the ‘thing’ that hurt Arthur’s leg? The yellow car? The shadowy figures? Nothing makes sense. If you’re such a great person, why are you hurting people? And who are you working with? You surely can’t be working alone?”
“This has been many years in the planning and we’re nearly there. We just didn’t have the expertise to harness this power safely. We’ve been monitoring your Whatsapp messages, Zeta, between you and Arthur. We thought that you might have the answer. The oil wells you saw earlier, they provide the source of energy. There is sludge under those fields full of radioactive lithium, and we have created genetically-modified cockroach-pig hybrids that can sniff it out and find it. Once we have the lithium the nuclear fusion process is really quite straightforward - I know you understand, Zeta. But, it creates so much energy we have to figure out how to store it all. That’s where you and Arthur came in. As you can see, this all had to be conducted in the utmost secrecy.”
“So much for encryption,” scoffs Zeta. “And your cockroach-pig hybrids need more training. You still haven’t explained what the yellow car is doing or where it comes from. And the shadowy figures.”
“Quite so. As well as reading your Whatsapp messages, we can also insert fake ones. You will remember the message from Arthur suggesting a hike out in the plains? Well, he got one from you too suggesting the same thing - we set them up. We knew you were coming. The yellow car has a means of capturing people, perfectly safely. I won’t go into details now.”
“Right, I’ve heard enough. My head is about to explode,” says Zeta. “We need to find Arthur or I will make sure that the whole world knows about your stupid plans.”
“You deserve that much, Zeta. Follow me.” NSP leads Zeta out of the vial room. Zeta follows, uncharacteristically meekly.
NSP takes a whistle from his top pocket and blows. They hear footsteps and zombie-like people begin to shuffle into the room.
“These are all of our helpers, Zeta. Arthur will be here somewhere. Take a look.”
Zeta scans the blank faces, fear growing. She has almost given up hope when she spies a familiar limp. “Arthur!!”
She runs up to him and flings her arms around him. Arthur just stands motionless, turns his head slightly to look into her eyes, then looks back to NSP. “Zeta” says NSP, “please come with us”. He blows a short three-note tune on his whistle. All the shadowy zombie-like figures turn and walk away, leaving Arthur striding purposefully to an anonymous-looking door. He pushes it open to reveal a room of computers and sits down in front of one of them. “The final piece in the jigsaw puzzle, Zeta. How to store our new source of energy safely. Arthur is so close… perhaps you could help him, Zeta.”
“Surely he could help you as his former self,” says Zeta. I don’t understand why you have to take over his brain. If you want his intelligence, let him work under his own steam. He is one of the cleverest, kindest people I have ever met.”
NSP rolls his eyes. “We only have Arthur’s compliance, Zeta. His intellect is intact. But, we always thought we might need yours too. If I administer the antidote to Arthur do you promise that you will help us find the answer?”
It’s Zeta’s turn to roll her eyes. “Fine, I promise,” she says, petulantly.
NSP sighs and strides over to a cupboard on the wall. He pulls out a syringe and fills it from the ‘AR’ vial in his hand. Gently, he takes Arthur’s arm and injects the antidote.
Arthur coughs and shakes slightly, and then looks up shaking his head. “Zeta. Is that really you?” he beams.
“Of course it’s me. Now, we’ve got work to do before we can get out of this dump. I want to go home. Apparently we have the answers to saving the planet. Who would have thought it?”
“I’m so confused, Zeta, but all I remember is this coding. Is this what you mean? Look…” Arthur points at the computer screen with row upon row of computer code.
“Oh, you’re missing some brackets there. And you need to insert ‘go’ there. Now, run the programme again and see if it works.”
Arthur looks at Zeta admiringly and presses ‘Enter’. Suddenly all the other computers in the room spring into life and an array of flashing red and green lights on the far wall start flickering. “You did it!” exclaims NSP, jumping up and down.
“Calm down,” says Zeta. “It’s not that big a deal. Come on Arthur, let’s go.” She leads him through the door that the zombie-like figures had passed through minutes earlier.
The light is dim but they appear to be in an enormous hangar.
They become conscious of hundreds of eyes watching them.
“OK then NSP. We’ve done what you wanted. Now set all of these others free.”
“My name’s not NSP, it’s Peter. Erm, remember when you lost your temper and pushed me into the shelves? Those vials contained personalised antidotes. Without them, I can’t save these people. They will live healthy lives here but they will never be independent.”
“But... you can’t just leave them like this, Peter. They must have families worried sick about them, like my Arthur.”
“Hmmm, yes, you have a point there, Zeta. This was never part of the plan, you know…”
Peter looks irritated and jingles the remaining vials in his lab-coat pocket. “Let’s talk outside.” He steers them away from the dead-eyed faces, through a steel door and out into the sunlight, then presses a small red button in his lapel.
When Zeta and Arthur turn around, Peter has gone.
They hear a screech of tyres and turn around in the direction of the sound. Staring into the sun they see a familiar yellow car hurtling towards them. “No! Stop!” They scream, frantically waving their arms, but too late, as the car accelerates into them.
The sky darkens over a wheat field. In a crudely carved crop circle lie two blindfolded figures, hands bound being their backs and bodies contorted.
As they free their hands and remove their blindfolds, Arthur and Zeta turn to look at each other quizzically.
“What the hell has happened?” asks Arthur.
“I don’t know,” grunts Zeta, trying but failing to catch hold of vague memories flitting through her brain. “All I know is, your idea to go on a hike was a stupid one.”
“But... it was your idea…”