Des and Bluebill looked in disbelief at the huge nest of biscuit wrappings and half-empty cartons of convenience meals. The stench was so stiff it felt as though it was trying to push them back out of the ventilation shaft.
Bluebill poked the disgusting heap with her tongs. Several small lizards hissed angrily and scuttled away.
‘Can’t be reptiles that made it. The vermin needed hands to carry this stuff.’
The colour left Des’s scales. ‘You mean, BB - we’ve got an infestation of MAMMALS?’
‘None of those critters are large enough to push those trolleys up here from the shopping precinct.’
‘Well, it wasn’t a lizard. And look,’ Bluebill poked something decaying beneath a chewed packet of macaroni cheese. ‘Lizards didn’t make those teeth marks. That rat was well chewed by something much larger.’
Des fought back the urge to throw up. ‘No lizard would dare take on a rat that size anyway.’
‘S’right. We’re talking monkeys here - bloody large monkeys.’
‘Large enough to block the main ventilation shaft with shopping trolleys?’
‘With the deposit they demand for those things, it sure as hell wasn’t customers. The infestation must have been here for weeks and only comes out at night.’
‘Well BB, the only way to be certain is to find their spore.’
Bluebill peered down each shaft that led away from the main ventilation junction. Between them and the small grids of light in the far distance was eerie darkness. She thoughtfully scratched her small ear fin. The monkeys they knew were vicious little critters at the best of times. Des and her were vegetarian and had much slower reflexes. They wouldn’t have stood a chance if something was laying in wait with tetanus-infected claws and a jumbo bag of frozen parsnips.
There was a faint shuffling from the vent leading down to the supermarket.
Des unclipped his rod and played out the noose on the end of it as far as it would go. Anything could be waiting in the shadows ahead. Depending on what they encountered, it was a long drop through the escape trapdoor and onto the lids of the freezers below.
Bluebill turned on her helmet’s lamp and its beam converged with Des’s.
There was scuffling ahead. It could have been a whole nest. Then came rustling from behind them… and in all of the adjoining ventilation shafts.
Des and Bluebill had crawled into an ambush.
Bluebill kicked the bolts securing the trapdoor and it clattered open, allowing piles of detritus to fall onto the freezers below as her camera rapidly flashed away at the large, looming shapes in the darkness of each shaft. As they were briefly illuminated they could tell that these fearsome primates were flesh-eaters and hungry.
Des and Bluebill turned to each other in panic and were momentarily dazzled by their own torches.
That was all the time the vermin needed.
As they pounced, Bluebill seized Des and hauled him through the trapdoor after her.
They landed on top of the freezers and were unconscious for over a day.
The investigation team examined the snaps she had taken.
It wasn’t pretty.
‘Just what are these creatures, for pity’s sake?’
Being a peaceful sort of species, there wasn’t much call for soldiers, so the adjutant had to count her fingers to make sure she had the right number before risking a salute.
‘No idea, Marm. Intelligence reckons the result of some experiment.’
Her superior scowled. ‘Experiment? What scientist on this planet has the facilities to create primates like these?’
‘None, Marm. Looks as though they might have escaped from Home World.’
‘In a spaceship? They couldn’t even open most of the packets they stole from that supermarket.’
‘Well, not many of us can either, Marm.’
‘These creatures must have been planted here.’
‘It does seem the most likely explanation.’
‘I always knew that those carnivores would think up something to destabilize this planet one day.’
‘They’ve not succeeded yet. Why should these simians make it any easier?’
‘Don’t know, but I’ve got an unpleasant feeling about them. What did you say that scientist reckons they are?’
‘Some hominid made up from monkey DNA. He read about the experiments the Dozaurs were doing several years back, and didn’t think they would get anywhere.’
‘Sort of experiment into what monkeys might have evolved into if dinosaurs hadn’t made it first. Called them something like “oomans”, or was it, “hoomans”?
Higher beings had been eavesdropping on the conversation about “hoomans”.
Angry ripples lingered in the rarefied atmosphere for quite some while.
The Supreme Guardian ceased to be nebulous long enough to explode with sufficient rage to make a dent in the quantum reality her kind inhabited.
‘I’m sure we can put things to rights-’ Reniola tried to bluster, but no longer had a plausible enough body to do it in.
‘Every time you attempted to put things right, you made matters worse!’
There was only one way out - blame someone else.
‘It’s all Diana’s fault. If she hadn’t insisted we save Moosevan as well as her planet, none of this would have happened.’
‘She is a mere mortal!’
‘But Moosevan is a cosmic being; she could exist for aeons,’ Dax interceded.
‘Couldn’t either of you work out anything preferable to dragging a moon from Earth’s prehistory, making a solar necklace of the system’s terrestrial bodies, and turning the humans into dinosaurs?’
‘With a bit of luck, Diana may not remember she used to be a human being,’ added Dax hopefully.
‘Of course she will. The population is living in a delusion. Humans do not have the mental capacity to comprehend that everything is just a quantum possibility. As soon as she persuades others what has happened to them and that they inhabit a moon from their prehistory, all your meddling with her solar system will unravel. And you know what that means.’
Reniola puffed out her molecules to hazard a guess. ‘They’ll turn back into humans and declare war on their home planet, Earth?’
‘One of many plausible, unpleasant possibilities for which you will be responsible.’
Dax had a foreboding about what was expected of her and Reniola. ‘You need us to go back there and sort things out?’
‘You are the only ones who can comprehend how this confusion was created.’ The Supreme Guardian was overestimating their grasp of any reality, quantum or otherwise.
‘Are you sure there is no one else?’
‘The only other alternative would be to delete the problem.’
Dax and Reniola knew what that meant. The Cosmic Corrector was the universal bleach used to wipe away the tangles in the reality of less evolved mortals. A plasma machine lacking empathy, the only independent action allowed it was to select a suitable mortal to instruct it. That way, no one else needed to take the blame for the consequences.
In her own addled thoughts, Reniola had become fond of Diana and her friends. ‘You wouldn’t really... Would you?’
‘If that is what it takes to restore normality.’
‘Someone would have to instruct it?’ Dax offered carefully.
‘I know. So it won’t be either of you two. Now go. Transmit your useless atoms back to the dimension where mortals still know what it is to get a headache.’
Diana and Yuri took it in turns to peer through his ten inch reflector at the distant building site.
‘Niet! Niet!’ He yanked the telescope down. ‘You are too near sun.’
‘Sorry, I just saw this large container being driven in. Wonder what’s in it?’
‘They perhaps make aquarium for flying fish.’
‘I bet even Daphne Trotter doesn’t know what they’re up to, and she was the one to sell them the family cabbage patch.’
‘She is only landowner on this planet unscrupulous enough to sell land to planet of carnivores.’
‘I’m glad it’s over two miles away, even if it is only supposed to be a theme park.’
Yuri absent-mindedly combed his grizzled explosion of hair with his fingers. ‘But no one tell us what theme.’
Diana stopped gazing though the eyepiece. ‘You know, just lately I’ve been getting this uneasy feeling.’
For Yuri it was a permanent state of mind, when sober or otherwise. ‘I have uneasy feeling for long, long time.’
‘You should lay off the cycad juice, it rots the brain.’
If Yuri had a brick for every time he had been told that, he would have been able to build a fifty-foot high wall round his cottage. Yet his tongue didn’t feel as though it belonged to his mouth, and why did he have so much hair? Although he felt as though he was entitled to it, most of his species had only managed to grow fine fur to protect the top of the head.
And the planets…? All the stars seemed to be in the right place, but there was something wrong with the planets girdling the sun in the same orbit as the Earth. All the books written by sober astronomers said that was what they were supposed to do, yet it didn’t make gravitational or mathematical sense. Deep down, Yuri knew it was absurd that so many terrestrial worlds were in one orbit and the solar system’s gas giants had no large moons. There was either something wrong, or Nature had been in the throes of PMT when she got round to their cosmic corner.
‘You’re thinking again,’ Diana told him. ‘You know that there’s something wrong as well, don’t you?’
Yuri was quiet for some time. ‘I feel like cup of mint tea.’
Diana took one last look at the mysterious building site and noticed what was being unloaded from the lorries. ‘They must be building a supermarket. I’ve never seen so many shopping trolleys.’
A large, portly dodo peered down through the branches of the tree. A much slender grey bird beside her preened its startlingly white tail feathers.
‘Will you just look at that!’ squawked the feathered pouffe. ‘We’ll have to find out what’s in those containers.’
Dax stopped preening. ‘Probably only wildlife of some sort.’
‘Why would the Dozaurs invest so much in a place like this to rear flocks of meat lizards on a planet of vegetarians? And what are they building a huge supermarket in the middle of those cabbage fields for?’
‘New concept in “farm fresh” perhaps?’
The birds gazed at each other, beak to beak. Just what were those carnivorous Dozaurs up to? Some vegetarian enterprise they wouldn’t have risked on their own planet because of too many teeth in the lobby groups? Knowing them, it had to be pretty ghastly. And why did they need three square kilometres of prime cabbage growing pasture? Apart from the conglomeration of concrete buildings at its centre, there had been little effort at landscaping. Perhaps whatever was going to be kept there liked cabbages, cauliflower and kale.
The two incongruous birds took off and flapped leisurely
towards the tall, forbidding gates, where they perched on a huge neon sign
declaring that it was the entrance to
‘Something is very wrong here,’ announced Reniola as though that were a novelty to her.
‘Of course there is.’
‘‘‘Contain things”, they told us. What was that supposed to mean? How can we “contain things” without interfering?’
‘Just remember that this is our last chance,’ Dax warned Reniola.
The dodo fluffed out her feathers indignantly. ‘They wouldn’t really disperse us, would they?’
‘It’s happened to less deserving entities.’
‘I don’t think I could start all over again from the bottom. All those mucky, mortal incarnations... I didn’t remember how tedious they were until encountering Moosevan - It’s all her fault, you know!’
‘No it wasn’t. The ones responsible for causing the problem aeons ago were just like us. Hopefully they are in the process of clambering back up the greasy pole of mortal incarnations.’
‘Serves them right. I just don’t see why we should have to join them.’
‘If we do, at least you’ll be able to take your pick of creator gods to blame. That’s how most mortals deal with it. So let’s make sure we don’t blow it this time.’
Reniola knew that it was an accusation and fluffed out her feathers even more until her large beak almost disappeared. ‘Well, in that case, I’ll just leave you to it.’
‘I wish...’ muttered Dax.
Reniola’s beak clattered shut. Even she was beginning to understand the humdrum ways of a complicated universe. Perhaps this time she might get things right.
Diana stood gazing in the mirror.
No longer bothered about appearance, she was sure the doppelganger looking back didn’t belong to her. Whenever she saw Julia, her daughter, she hardly remembered rearing the teenager. It was as if the fairies had stolen the changeling and left her with a child she didn’t recognise.
‘Good grief’, the middle-aged single mother thought to herself. ‘I’ll be hearing voices next.’
She went into the kitchen to slice carrots. Diana had no idea what to do with them, but carrots were familiar. So were parsnips, potatoes, swede and broccoli. Cycad nuts weren’t. She tossed the ones she had left into the bin, telling herself that they rot the brain.
Was that the real reason?
Diana held a carrot in mid peel and gazed out of the window. Birds - most of them - were familiar, so was Edna, who lived a few doors down in the terrace of cottages, especially when she used to swear at some cat or other.
Cat? What were cats? Diana knew what cats were, even though they never existed.
Now Edna was swearing at one of those lizards that occasionally hunted the small rodents in the meadow between the terrace and Yuri’s cottage.
Diana dropped the peeler and carrot into the sink.
‘Time of life’, she told herself, ‘I’ve always been told it was my time of life. If that was the case, why was a dinosaur going through the menopause? Yes, she remembered the menopause. Any female surviving that wasn’t likely to forget it.
Then, as the Supreme Guardian had anticipated, the thunderclap of recall convulsed her mind.
Her world was about to be rocked on its axis and the solar system arranged yet again.
Diana wasn’t sure how her planet-inhabiting friend, Moosevan, had divided into many smaller Moosevans. Conversation with the resulting planet dwellers wouldn’t be the same: so many minds talking at once would bring on a migraine.
But she had to do something. It was obvious that the human species had been transported to the large moon brought back from prehistory by Reniola some months before. If it had been left where it was it would have deflected that asteroid into the Earth and exterminated the dinosaurs. In this new reality, human beings had not evolved. Most creatures were now descended from dinosaurs while mammals were still scrabbling about to inhabit the few niches left. At least Dax and Reniola had the foresight to ensure that the descendants of true carnivorous dinosaurs remained on Earth while her vegetarian kind was transported to the prehistoric moon.
Diana internally raged at the indignity. Even the writers of the soaps her adolescent daughter perpetually watched on TV could have conjured up something more plausible than that.
As Yuri sauntered into the back garden, several mugs, a washing up bowl and large bunch of carrots hurtled out of the window. As Diana hadn’t bothered to open it first, he dodged aside to avoid the hail of shattered crockery and glass.
The astronomer continued on all fours and peered into the kitchen, doormat level. ‘This argumentative carrot?’
Diana stood, grasping the kitchen sink as though she wanted to wrench it from its plumbing and hurl that as well. ‘How about Dax! You do remember her, don’t you?’
Yuri experienced a glimmer of recollection and decided to stay on the floor as a precaution.
He shook his head, trying to dislodge the thought. ‘Some new detergent?’
It did not immediately ring a bell. Then something in the recesses of his addled mind tinkled and he recalled why Diana needed to throw things.
He came in and perched on a stool, silently recalling what had happened to him, the human race, Earth and the Solar System in general. ‘We have been ...’
‘Conned! We’ve been conned again!’ Diana released the sink unit and sank onto the stool facing him.
‘This is not good. I need gin.’
‘This is catastrophic. You’ve only got cycad juice and I need you sober.’
‘I need me dead drunk for next six months.’
That helped steel his resolve. ‘He is buffoon and would not know whether he was dinosaur, duck or drag artist.’
‘He might have guessed what has happened as well.’
‘He has not imagination to guess. He is stuck-up English teacher with pension to think about.’
Diana sighed. ‘We have to tell someone, Yuri.’
‘And who believe us? We get slot on LOONY STORIES OF THE WEEK perhaps, and one inch in local tabloid underneath ads for rubber underwear.’
‘There are plenty of familiar things people might remember.’
‘What do you remember?’
‘You never had cat?’
‘As in Reniola, and Edna screaming at her.’
Yuri paused. ‘So, we get people to believe us. Then what we do?’
Diana hadn’t reached that step yet. She could already feel it crumbling and sensed that Yuri was retreating into his own private bubble of defeatism, but she was made of sterner stuff.