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“I’m going to volunteer,” I told Cris as I prepared her a fresh glass. The broken bits could take care of themselves. There was greater fuckery abound to waste time worrying about a shattered highball glass.

“But you don’t even know what’s involved!”

“I know that. I can’t just sit here with Honey for hours, days, or weeks not knowing what’s going on either. If it’s Game Over, I’ll go out on my own terms.”

“You’re crazy.”

Maybe,” I said slowly, trying to get to my point. “I kind of also need a dog sitter?”

Cris looked at my PC as she answered. “I’ll be happy to keep an eye on her for you. As long as I can fire up that bad boy when she’s sleeping.”

“It’s all yours. The password is Honey123.”

She scowled at me. “Are you that keen to be hacked?”

“Blimey, if it’s that bad, throw a hyphen or something in there for me while you decide what to play. It’s better than 1234 or 0000.”

“Barely.”

I pointed at her water impatiently. “You wanna hurry up and finish that? I think I can hear your friends calling.”

She took the tiniest sip and sat back down on the sofa. “They can keep calling. I’ve been through a traumatic experience and need time to collect myself.” Honey hopped up and slumped across her lap. “A few days should do it.”

“If these games are going to be as dangerous as I think they are, it’ll be a damned sight less than a few days until we’re all dead.”

“Maybe, but I get the feeling you’re the type of guy who doesn’t quit.”

The arcade below almost made her point, but I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t started to resent the whole place. Petrol and a match were an option, but with my luck a police patrol would drive past just as I tossed the match in.

“I’m going to do my best. And besides, if too many volunteer I might not even get picked.”

“What do you think they might create?”

I sat down next to her and flicked on the TV. “Nothing good, that’s for sure.”

The naked newsreader had been replaced by someone with clothes. The stand-in for the stand-in was fairly good at her job, likely an up-and-comer or the host of another program. She explained the seismology of the impact and its effect on the landmass of Europe using even more graphs and charts. Wiggly lines followed a dramatic downward trajectory showed the rapid deceleration of the craft. Guests were brought on, mostly to fill time with conjecture and guesswork. A speaker from the UKSA, our tiny version of NASA was due on in thirty. I figured they were running around screaming at the arrival of a truly extra-terrestrial species. Ok, so they were dicks, but it was still quite momentous.

The scene changed to Trafalgar Square where an impromptu party had broken out. Music thumped from a nearby flat while the revellers below hugged and partied.

“That seems a bit premature,” said Cris.

“I guess the brush with death is enough to bring people together for once.”

She frowned at me again. “You weren’t happy out there, even when we’d just been spared. Why?”

“Intuition? The pieces just didn’t fit. Or I should say, they did fit, but the puzzle picture was just as bad as an exploding planet.”

“Looks like you were right.”

I stood up and started to pace around the living room. I felt I should be doing something and told Cris as much.

“What else is there to do? We’re like mushrooms, totally in the dark. If you want to burn off some nervous energy, go and slam the plates.”

“Today’s a rest day.” Crushing a few reps on the flat bench would be great, but there was bound to be a physical component to the games. Or was there? Cris’s fungi analogy was the absolute truth. I could see Cris was intently studying the news and decided to do the same. Any clues would be helpful.

“Look!”

I turned to the TV and saw the arrival of a series of large military helicopters. The ground itself was still burning fiercely, so the pilots approached the gigantic sphere and hovered instead of landing with their passengers. The news camera in the chopper zoomed out to emphasise the size difference. It was stark.

“We are being told that the American delegation from Camp Darby are now trying to communicate with the aliens. All known frequencies are being used, as well as direct vocal contact.”

The words belted out by the mounted speakers were too weak to carry as anything more than a muffled buzz.

“Let’s hope we can bribe them with something.”

“We’d be better of blaring Spice Girls at full volume until they retreat.”

My mouth fell open in shock. “How dare you say that about the most empowering female pop group in history?”

“Are you forgetting about Destiny’s Child?”

Damn! Ok, they were by far the better vocalists, and their members went on to have greater solo success than our own home-grown warblers. Still, her facts stung. “Scary Spice would kick Beyoncé’s arse.”

“Maybe if Beyoncé was asleep.”

“I can’t believe we’re already arguing.”

“It doesn’t bode well for our long-term relationship prospects, does it?”

I caved immediately. “Destiny’s Child is the superior group. Everyone knows it.”

Honey chuffed as if to say; pussy! If it meant a chance at getting to know this woman, then call me the pussiest pussy in all of pussyville.

“Holy fucking shit!”

Her outburst startled me and I caught only the aftermath of what had happened as blazing debris rained from the sky to join the trees, homes, and god only knew what else that was already an inferno below. The rising smoke was giving the orb a decidedly menacing appearance, as if it needed any further confirmation it was dangerous.

“What happened?”

Cris was sat next to me open mouthed. “They just blew up.”

“How?”

She just stared numbly at the screen, shaking her head in denial.

The shocked newsreader was no better as the footage was swiftly cut and repeated. The helicopters and the welcoming committee were there, then a pulse of energy like a shockwave cut through them like butter and then they weren’t. Even from miles away, the news crew were knocked askew from the aftereffects. Their own craft started to bleep and shriek as alarms were triggered and the pilot fought to regain control. The chaotic footage resembled the last twenty years of Hollywood shaky-cam, except this was real life and not some piss poor attempt to hide a poorly acted scene.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I apologise for the graphic nature of the footage shown. All I can surmise from the outright hostility is that they don’t want to talk.”

Cris and I looked at one another and facepalmed at the same instant.

“We’re in trouble, aren’t we?”

I could only agree.

“I think I’ll have some terrible coffee if you don’t mind. And a cigarette.”

“Sorry, I don’t smoke.”

“Nor do I, but it’d be nice to have some way of soothing my nerves.”

“Best I can do is a foot rub,” I called from the kitchen.

“I’ll take you up on that one day!”

I made the coffee.

She hated the coffee.

The grounded news chopper showed the NATO response. This time, the shaky cam was genuine, caused by the sub-zero temperatures of their landing site. Violence beget more violence, as air forces from the wider world all descended on the sphere. Footage was shown of high altitude AC-130s pounding on the craft with 105mm shells and gatling guns. F-15s and F-22s zipped around in loose formation, unloading their underwing missiles which lit up the side of the alien ship.

“It's like the Fourth of July,” gasped Cris.

All I could see was the absolute lack of even a scratch on the mottled outer layer. We didn’t miss the pulse this time as it washed out from the besieged orb, compressing the moisture in the air into a sheet of water. The energy was concentrated and directed at just the right angles to catch the fighters and also the behemoths circling above at twenty-eight thousand feet.

“Those poor people,” Cris whispered, squeezing my hand.

“Our leaders are morons.”

“What makes you say that?”

“They already nuked the thing in space and it did nothing. What do they expect some bullets and explosives to do?”

“Maybe it’s the be seen to be doing something you were talking about earlier? I doubt they could just sit there and wait to be wiped out.”

“This kind of shit is why they wanted to wipe us out in the first place.”

She had to concede that point and returned to staring at the screen.

“World heads of state are now considering a nuclear response,” explained the news anchor.

I slumped back in the chair and rubbed at the build-up of fucking-idiot tension that was giving me a headache. These people were supposedly our best and brightest. I wondered if the eradication of our species wasn’t for the betterment of the universe. It was no surprise there was a popular meme about UFOs locking their doors as they flew through our neighbourhood. I doubted they would even dare stop at red lights lest their quantum-jump-super-drive was stolen and they ended up stranded on piles of space bricks.

I was almost relieved when our invaders finally addressed the elephant in the room.

“Earthlings, we grow weary of your attempts to negotiate or fight your way out of your destiny.”

Cris raised an eyebrow at the final word and whispered, “Told you they’d have been better.”

“Any further acts of futile hostility and we will rescind our generous offer. There will be no more warnings. On a more positive note, you’re almost at fifty percent of the necessary volunteers. The actual number? That would be giving things away now, wouldn’t it. You have one hour and forty three minutes remaining.”

Honey had tuned out the voice and snored loudly from her seat. It was like an old chainsaw in dire need of a good oiling.

“Have I already volunteered by thinking about volunteering?”

Cris shrugged. “Don’t look at me, I’m not an interdimensional race hellbent on our destruction.”

Wondering what to do, I concentrated really hard on the thought of putting myself forward and… nothing happened. Was there a telepathic checklist to fill in? Did I need to sign a release form that immunised them from liability in the event of my demise? Not that there was anyone other than Honey to claim the money and I doubted she would be able to hold a pen without opposable thumbs.

“I’ve been thinking,” Cris said, slowly turning to me.

I knew exactly what was coming from her expression. “If you volunteer, I’ve got no one to look after Honey!”

“I was talking about lunch,” she lied. “I’m hungry.”

Honey snapped awake at the L word.

“I’ve got chicken breast and rice?”

“Why does that not surprise me?”

“I can add salt and pepper?”

“Watch out, Gordon Ramsey!”

“He swears slightly more than I do. I’ve also got mayo.”

“And bread, bacon, and lettuce?”

“I can add some broccoli.”

“Seriously?”

“No, I’ve got that other stuff. Two club sarnies?”

“Sarnies?” she frowned.

“Sandwich’s.”

“Foot rubs and cooking? I might marry you after all.”

“What is it Keanu said about relationships started under intense circumstances?”

“We’ll just have to base it on sex then,” she replied. “You’ll have to give up the roids though.”

“No deal!” I called through. “If I save the world, I can have my pick of the single ladies. And probably those who are married too. Actresses, princesses, queens!”

She sounded none too amused as she replied. “It’s funny how fast you can go off someone, isn’t it?”

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game!” I laughed from the kitchen as I sliced the chicken. “How about I give you first refusal? If it doesn’t work out after a few dates, you can kick me to the kerb and I’ll settle for Kate Beckinsale.”

“You’re damn right you’d be settling. I’m a catch.”

“I can’t argue with that.”

“I also want to volunteer,” she finally admitted.

I dropped the carving knife and it fell clattering, embedding itself in the front of my trainer. I could feel the cold blade between my pinky and ring toe.

“You okay in there?”

I just stared at the wooden handle that sprouted from my shoe. Was it luck or a sign I was too clumsy to chance the trials?

The clock ticked down.

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Ricky Fleet

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