At the top stair Creeps are converging and fanning out in all directions. The apparent randomness of their dispersal allows me a moment to loiter. I lean over the glass and chrome balustrade to oversee the floor below, using my filtered vision to sweep the area.
I think it’s the silence that gets to me the most. We humans are not generally known as a quiet race. A place like this should by yammering at our senses with inane muzak that tries to drown howls from spoiled brats demanding lollies; teenagers loud, obscenity filled conversations on mobile phones; the chatter of bored housewives determined to find the latest unneeded item at a bargain price.
The Creeps have none of our needs or vices. Not a cough or sneeze, nor a covert whisper between them. Not a single word is spoken. Inside this nest even the human prisoners are completely cowed by the thick, suppressive atmosphere.
My eyes are unnaturally drawn to yet another oddity in this highly irregular place. Some distance away a line of guardians stand motionless in the constant movement of Hosts. Stranger still are the Other-realm bubbles, like mine, that encase them. I am worried and curious enough to engage Cricket to frog-march me across the massive food-court, kidding myself that we blend in with other Meat being moved about. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up in a cold sweat as we cross the open space while I exude false innocence under the eyes of a thousand enemies.
A huge jumble of aluminium chairs and tables have been piled in the centre of the court. I stop our progress here and take stock of my perilous situation. Three avenues of escape diverge from the court; each disappears into a shaded fogginess. All avenues are lined with broken-fronted speciality shops, and end in unfriendly darkness at the entrances of well-known chain stores. Every one emanates danger.
But the direction I’m interested in, on the other side of this mountain of metal, leads to David Jones. And this store holds something special enough to warrant the placement of extra-vigilant guards.
A single Creep strolls past us, showing no concern for the tourist crouching here. She carries something that glistens redly, dripping blood. I move stealthily around the barrier to watch her approach the special Hosts. Cricket, my handcuffed shadow, remains in full view, stamping along beside me, oblivious to my secretive intention.
I silently curse him and wish that this murk would bugger off so I can see more clearly. The Other-sight instantly obliges me with a disorientating, and abruptly delivered telescopic function. Cricket’s steady hand prevents me from tumbling backwards as my eyes bulge.
My wits recover and I am instantly smitten by this latest optional extra gift. Zooming in and out, with but a thought, I can sharpen my vision at any point along an unnaturally long range.
The far-sight effectively barges the mind-fog aside, allowing me to focus on the Gatherer Creep and her armful of offal. I then shift the view to reveal the shield-encased Hosts.
These Hosts are of a different creed. They radiate a dark power, and make a formidable fence. They appear to have one dedicated purpose; define a border that even other Creep may not cross. This is proved when the deliverer of meat places her bloody parcels on the ground and then leaves. They are unmoved by the offering.
An uneasy thought crosses my mind. That lump of flesh is how I was supposed to end up. And chances are, I still may.
Before I can obsess over this possibility I’m drawn to one particular guard’s mind-fog protective screen. My eye’s new zoom lens reveals his features, reminiscent of a sumo-wrestler; one who chops wood with his face. The clear air inside his shield reveals a fixed cable is embedded in his head. I track the tubular arm back to find a common manifold that connects to the other guards. The thing attached to the thickening bunch of cables is out of sight, somewhere inside the shuttered store.
Speculating about whatever monitors these tethered guards is my unhappy duty. At a guess I imagine these Creeps are trip wires to an early warning alarm. I’m more than happy to steer clear of whatever creature they are connected to.
The similarity of our shields is irritating. I believed that I owned a unique protection against Parasite powers. This belief is now nullified, and I question where my protectors’ loyalty lies. What if the Parasites threw this bubble around me for their own purposes?
Woken by my doubt, Mr Paranoia breaks his silence. He’d probably felt my predicament was so dire it would be a waste of time tormenting me. As usual there’s no comfort to be drawn from his return and his conspiratorial whispers crack my already flagging confidence.
‘How do you know there isn’t a Parasite tube stuck in your brain too? They’re playing with you. Why would they let you walk around their nest at will? You’re a dog on a leach, me laddie.’
The top of my head develops an itch at this most horrible of possibilities, and sad to say, I abandon my ship at high speed. I run to Cricket’s cavernous mind, rudely taking over the Parasite’s controls. It accepts my rough treatment with patience and a readiness to obey.
I back the commandeered Host away from my body, as if it is about to explode. The shield that is tasked to protect us both stretches into two bubbles joined by a slim waist. Thusly separated I examine the head of the dopey-looking carcass which is muscle-locked in place before me. There’s no cable attached to the top of my head.
Paranoia makes me check further anyway. I advance on my oblivious shell and poke around the outside on my head using the Host hand. It’s a peculiar feeling to be sneaking up on ones-self, and I can almost feel the Host hand that pats my hair.
Though expected, it is unsettling when my Other-view changes reality to reveal the Other-world socket. It is a bottle-cap sized depression in my head. The aggressive Parasites who’d burst into this incredible doorway to perform their painful cranial sabotage, have left it a little stretched and misshapen. I look closely into the floating circle of endless depth and swirling, smoky blackness, and wonder at the dimension-less space in there.
Cricket’s presence joins my enraptured gaze, interrupting my thrall. I hurriedly pull the Hosts’ eyes away and catch a half-formed emotion from the Parasite. It has a burning desire to delve into that pristine brain space.
Disgusted, I switch the Other-sight off. My relief at not being plugged in like a toaster is instantly soured by a revelation of dandruff and a very small bald patch, just beginning to show. That sucks, I’m not even forty.
The blessed relief from pain when I’m out of my body prompts an experimental question. If I am attacked while out and about, would I receive any type of warning? Would a swift kick to the groin be discernible in my ethereal state? In response to my musings Cricket takes it upon itself to act, kicking between my legs firmly. His impetuous move and unreserved delivery propels my vacant body into the pile of chairs and tables. A noisy avalanche of aluminium furniture crashes down, knocking both of us over.
‘Oh, very nicely done, you fucking moronic insect.’
So much for remaining incognito. That’ll teach me to forget my Parasite is reactive, literal and has no concept of temperance.
The unintended experiment concludes that hurts are transmitted. I feel the ghost of testicular agony press against on my astral body. Curtly, I ask Cricket to get the Host we share upright. Once we rise from the mess I demand that it pull me from the tumbled pile. Cricket drags me out by one ankle to a further accompaniment of clattering chairs, some of which skitter across the tiles.
We receive sidelong glances from every Host nearby which encourages me to dive for my banged up body. The urgency to get us away from this disturbance has just increased tenfold. Holding my bruised balls I untangle myself from the furniture; a task that is complicated by Cricket’s overly helpful attempts to assist. I slap him away.
Bloody Hell! I have many new bruises! Parts of me are bleeding too. Cricket is lucky I still need him or, or... I’ve drawn a pacifist’s blank when I try to imagine the damage I’d like to inflict on the Parasite. I really need to rest. Without violent hatred goading me, I am highly vulnerable.
I stand, hunched over a little, rubbing my bruises and warily scan for signs of a massed attack. One solitary Creep breaks through the shifting crowds. Have they so little respect for me that this is all they send to finish me? The Host passes us by, indifferent to the threatening Karate stance I adopt, and heads to David Jones with another parcel of meat. After delivery he returns to the Target store across the way. I am disturbed to see the line of Creeps and their live Meat they drag through one of the shop entrances. I am even more disturbed by the Hosts bloodied faces and chewing jaws as they exit.
A butchery? My head fills with terrible imagery and I am not compelled to investigate. Whatever unpleasantness goes on in there can remain a mystery.