The order to remain is aimed at the most susceptible one. He sees a picture of himself and stops while his buddies leave us behind.
I look over the one I have chosen as my guide. His tufted beard and overgrown hair hide a scrawny face, but those dead eyes meet mine with compelling calm.
‘Do you have a name? An identifier?’
The sound chirps in my head.
Huh? I turn the alien phonetics over with my tongue and label him as best I can.
‘OK, umm, how ‘bout I call you Cricket!’
By force of habit I check my pockets for the stash of drugs I’m never without. This whole-body beating, both mental and physical, needs a few props to hold me up. Of course the container is empty in my hour of need. Snapping the lid closed I shake it nervously, silently, like a broken maraca. Getting high would be inadvisable anyway, I tell myself without conviction. What I really do need is water and food, and a place to lie down where I won’t wake up dead.
‘Where else does Meat go, other than the Food Pit?’
‘Meat Breeding Room.’
The short answer is riddled with distaste. But then the last half of my question was too.
‘You breed Meat here? Where is this place?’
The incomprehensible way the Parasite replies means revisiting its mind where I ask again, on a different level. Inside the Host I am privy to a rich tapestry of information that my human-based antenna tends to screen out. The Parasite takes me on micro-second flying tour of the shopping centre and locates the Breeding Room for me. We float across an erotic scene of copulating bodies that quickly sickens me with its purpose. Beds cover an entire shop floor. Semi-conscious, naked women lie upon each one, being serviced at intervals by a rotation of tired men. I can tell they are well fed and watered, and best of all they are left to their impregnation, overseen only by the sedating mind-fog.
These clever insects have studied our ways. Now that wild prey is scarce, they’ve already learned to breed us like cattle. But I sense something else and look further into Cricket for clues. The Parasite has an abhorrence of hormones; oestrogen in particular. These chemicals are an irritant to them, and they shun the bodies chosen for reproduction duties. The insight gives me a solitary focus. Beds, food and a Crawlie-free zone. Perfect
‘Take the Meat to the Breeding place.’
My pet Parasite is keen to please. It grips the back of my neck strongly.
‘Gently with the Meat, Cricket. Support it by one arm; it has a very sore foot.’
The hand relocates under my sweaty armpit and we march to the bustling, quiet corridor of the shopping mall’s main promenade. My shotgun blasted toes remind me of their suffering at every step.
We nervelessly step from the gloomy corridor’s protection. Skylights now reveal much more than my brain could have coped with before my remaking. I take in the sight before me of a densely packed Creep crowd, glad my recent experiences have left my emotional buckets empty. It would take something horrific indeed to alarm me right now.
Bereft of fright, I become analytical instead, and marvel at the unknown Master’s ability to control these many hundreds of Hosts. Somehow it manages the packed crowd to keep them moving freely without a single collision or hesitation. Our most powerful computers would not be unable to replicate this complicated flow.
Unplugged from this controller, Cricket and I flaw its perfection. We barge our way against currents that shift and change direction for unknowable reasons. We let the affected Hosts correct themselves as we pass, discreet yet unapologetic as we biff and bash our way towards the human farming floor.
I stumble often on spilled wares strewn from raided shops. Drifts of soft clothing covering jumbled, hard objects beneath conspire to trip me. To avoid interrupting the crowd’s flow I direct Cricket to walk on the kicked aside garbage piles, and howl softly each time my damaged boot strikes something hard.
Reminded of my disability so often, I halt our progress at a trashed shoe shop. The inventory has become part of a communal junk pile that covers its floor. Ignoring the absurdity of my actions I choose to duck inside to look for a change of footwear.
‘Let the meat go.’
Cricket does so with great reluctance. Using pot luck I grab at loose boxes, opening each before tossing them away.
Too pink, high heels, slippers, sandals! Oh Christ no.
My foraging draws the attention of passing Creeps, and Cricket stands by unhappily, unable to explain his prey’s misbehaviour. I straighten, clutching an armful of second-rate choices, and sort through the orphan sizes as best I can. The best matches I can come up with is one fluoro-purple sneaker with a white lightening stripe, and a glossy, black lace-up. The term ‘beggars can’t be choosers’ comes to mind as I clasp the prizes to my chest.
Cricket reaches for me as I exit, obviously feeling underutilized.
I sigh and crook my elbow at him.
“Righto. Go on then; take my arm.”
I close my tired eyes briefly and discover the Other-sight is keen to take over visual duties. This way of seeing the world calms my jumpy pulse rate so I keep my eyes shut and we merge more easily with the Creep-flow. I check my shield and find it has reshaped itself to fit us both snugly, excluding the press of bodies that brush by, intuitively matching my every movement of its own accord. I am relieved at its self-sufficiency. The absence of an instruction manual may not be such a hindrance after all.
Even in the calm of my supernatural protection, I flinch each time those whip-thin Parasite tendrils strike at the Creeps around me; but our exclusive zone keeps us safe from interrogation, and we move deeper into the nest, unmolested.
We come to a stalled escalator. With considerable assistance from Cricket we bulldoze our way up it, shouldering aside several dozen smelly Hosts intent on coming down. The sanctity of my invisible cloak is stress tested most cruelly, but I plunge on, pretending I’m a stone-eyed, silent shuffler; somewhat like a jaded shopper from the past.