As he strode down the corridor leading to the executive offices, Lance paid no attention to the deep crimson carpeting under his spotless shoes or the gilt lamps that every few metres punctuated the dusty rose walls above the rich walnut wainscoting. Silently picking through his intentions for his upcoming meeting, he smoothed down his jacket and straightened his cuffs, making sure that exactly a half an inch of starched white extended beyond the charcoal gray sleeve. He then felt at the royal blue Windsor knot at his throat and verified its perfect symmetry. Thus, he presented himself as the perfect corporate picture as he stepped into the managing director’s suite.
The woman at the reception desk, her intricate updo and smart navy pantsuit immaculate, looked up from her work and smiled at him. “Go on in, Lance. He’s ready for you.” Lance nodded his thanks and crossed to the heavy mahogany door that stood slightly ajar to the right of her desk. Tapping lightly to announce his presence, he shouldered the door open and stepped through, gently pushing it shut behind him with one hand.
The spacious corner office on the top floor of the building could easily have housed twelve of the cubicle workers who were cramped together on the lower levels, but it was barely enough for the owner, founder, and director of the company, Mr. H. C. Clements. In direct contrast to the white and steel, high-tech feel of the other floors, the walls here were finished in carved mahogany and the navy carpet was rich and plush. The man himself was seated on the far side of the room with his back to the glass windows that extended from floor to ceiling, in a throne-like leather chair behind a huge desk of the same dark wood as the walls. A bar stocked with crystal decanters of the finest Scotch whiskeys stood against the wall to Lance’s right and a grouping of sofas and armchairs around a low coffee table enjoyed the sunlight from the glass on his left. The scene looked like it was taken directly from one of those Hollywood films about billionaires and power brokers except that changes in technology meant that instead of the director working with pen on paper, he was nearly hidden by three computer monitors as he managed his security company.
Looking up from his work, Mr. Clements smiled a friendly welcome. “Ah, yes, Lance. Please, have a seat.” He pressed a button his desk to activate panels that slid the computer monitors to the side, out of his way, then, rising to his feet, gestured at the one of the chairs in front of his desk.
As the manager of the human resources department, Lance had many opportunities to meet with Mr. Clements and he’d learned not to underestimate him. Though he might appear to be a bit of a buffoon, dressing his portly self in what could only be called tails and an embroidered waistcoat with black-and-white wingtip shoes, he hid a keen intelligence behind his red cheeks and wispy white hair. Over the course of twenty-five years, this man had transformed his two-man locksmith business into one of the largest and most respected electronic security firms in England; it would be a grave mistake to attribute that to luck. However, Lance wasn’t afraid of him. He was sure that if it came to it, the right mix of respect, deference, and brashness would win him through. Flashing a winning smile, he strode forward with confidence and took the proffered seat. “Thank you, Mr. Clements.”
Mr. Clements sat back down with his guest. “Though I always encourage you to come up here and mix with the executive staff, Lance, you never visit unless there’s a problem.”
It didn’t surprise Lance that the man had recognised that pattern in his behaviour, and he knew he needed to take advantage of Mr. Clements’ favour whilst he could. However, this wasn’t the time to think of that. Though the director’s tone was gracious, the slight crease in his brow indicated that he wanted to get down to business and sort whatever it was that Lance was bringing to him. “Yes, sir. That’s correct,” Lance said with a respectful nod.
“A company-wide problem? Dissatisfaction, complaints about working conditions?” Mr. Clements guessed.
“Oh, no, sir, not at all,” Lance hastened to assure him. “Well, nothing more than the usual.”
“Good. Employees being too perfectly happy is almost as big a warning sign as mass complaints. Complacency breeds stagnation. There should always be something better to strive for.” Leaning back in his chair, Mr. Clements let silence fall between them for a few seconds, sizing up Lance as he did so. “So, what’s bothering you, then?”
“It’s my department, sir. They’re starting to notice things.” Lance allowed a moment for Mr. Clements to acknowledge this and, when he didn’t, he tried to ease into the discussion. “I’m sure you know what I’m talking about.”
“State your business, Lance. Don’t hide behind euphemisms and equivocation.”
Lance swallowed and paused to compose both his thoughts and his presentation. He stated with calm and deliberation, “The last three months, sir. Ten people from research and development resigning suddenly for various reasons. That’s almost one person a week.”
Mr. Clements dismissed the news with a chubby wave. “That’s nothing out of the ordinary. Attrition occurs in fits and spurts. Before that, we hadn’t had a single person leave the company in over six months, including temps.”
Lance shook his head. “Trends are only noticeable when they’re bad. What’s more is that five of them have already been replaced. That’s almost as surprising, that R&D is pushing new hires through.”
“We’re agile and efficient, adapting quickly to changes in fortune. Always have been.”
“That excuse isn’t enough to explain what’s going on!” That was more forceful and impatient than he’d intended, but perhaps it was time to lose a little bit of temper. “People are starting to ask questions, sir. It’s been noticed that Michael Lamont’s reason for quitting was to take a job in Cardiff and then he immediately moved to Blackpool. I managed to get into the system and change his new address, but I can’t modify people’s memories. They are starting to notice that these things don’t make sense.”
Mr. Clements’ eyes narrowed. “And what it is that you want from me?”
“I can’t battle this on my own.” Leaning forward, Lance propped his hands on the edge of the desk and lowered his voice like someone was listening in. “Hiding the true nature of this company has always been difficult, and now it’s next to impossible. With all due respect, sir, you can pretend all you want that we’re just glorified locksmiths and most of your employees will believe you because they only see their own department, but HR can see the personnel trends, and this one you’ve got going is suspicious as hell.”
“Mr. Bennett.” Mr. Clements paused, letting the reprimand hang in the air. “The owners of this company bought my little outfit because they require security and they know that we’re the best at it. That includes your department. I brought you on here because you’re clever and resourceful. You understand the importance of discretion and you will do what needs to be done.”
“I do,” Lance interrupted on impulse, tired of the man’s evasion, “and I’m loyal to the company and the owners. But in my position, I also have to protect the employees. They don’t know what the owners do. They don’t even know they exist. All they can see a disturbing trend that makes no sense. It won’t be long before they start leaving and I won’t be able to stop them. That’s good for neither them nor the owners.”
“I’m sure you’ll find a way to quell the rumour mill.” The man’s pointed stare broadcast that he had no intention of getting involved.
“At least give me something I can work with, sir!” Lance spat, barely keeping his volume under control. “Lamont’s not the only one. When Sheila Peters ‘left’, the official report was that she’d suffered a disabling work injury - and she’d officially been on holiday at the time! We’re lucky I caught the paperwork on that before Julie could process it. The owners can play their spy games all they want, but they’re getting sloppy and I won’t be able to keep this under wraps for long.”
Leaning back in his chair, Mr. Clements tapped his finger on the leather arm of the chair as he thought. Presently, he sighed and leaned forward, crossing his arms in front of him on the polished surface of the desk. “All right. I’ll have a chat with them, but I can’t promise anything. Over the years, they’ve gotten… difficult. Over-confident, I’d say. They’re convinced of their righteousness and think that nothing they do can go wrong. But that’s neither here nor there. As for you…” Mr. Clements stood up, his bulk looming over Lance staring up at him from his seat. “You are still responsible for protecting the secrets of the operation. Your job is to allay suspicion and misdirect inquiries. That’s what you signed on for, and if you’re having second thoughts about your role…”
“No, sir, I’m not.” Lance was quick to reassure him.
“Good to hear, Bennett. And you’re not questioning the owners’ methods or results, are you?” Mr. Clements’ eyes narrowed slightly, echoing the reprimand in his tone.
“No, sir. I know it’s a dangerous business and casualties are to be expected.”
Mr. Clements nodded his approval. “Then get clever. The owners won’t hesitate to let you take the fall if things get out of hand, so don’t let it come to that. You’re doing a fine job so far. I think if you can weather this one, that directorship you’ve been angling for might just happen. The HR department’s getting large enough to need a permanent director.”
Despite his misgivings about this whole situation, Lance couldn’t stop the gleam in his eye at the mention of promotion into the role he desired. It was going to be a tough journey to get there, but if Mr. Clements was true to his word, Lance would achieve this pinnacle of his career a good ten years before he’d planned.
There was a gleam in Mr. Clements’ eye, but it was predatory. “I see that pleases you.”
“Yes, it does, sir.”
“Then I hope it motivates you as well. I’m glad we had this little talk.”
Mr. Clements stuck his hand out across the desk and Lance knew the meeting was over. He popped to his feet and shook the managing director’s hand with a firm grip. “Thank you, sir,” he said with a smile composed of a calculated amount of confidence and pride; he deliberately avoided any hint of sycophancy. With a nod, he turned and left, shutting the director’s door firmly. Flashing a smile at the administrative assistant, he strode out into the corridor, back the way he had come.
Lance fought the urge to collapse against the wall as the lift doors closed; all of the lift carriages were built of glass so that the managers could survey the cubicle farm from them, so all of the common workers would see his weakness as he descended from the executive suites. Instead, he stood tall and strong at the back of the carriage, his expression calm and unreadable whilst his mind reeled with frustration. Yes, Mr. Clements had said that he would tell the owners that they needed to be more careful, but he’d also made it clear that the success of the operation depended on Lance’s ability to cloak it with smoke and mirrors. Lance had his work cut out for him.
And for what? As the - Lance’s internal thoughts stuttered; some of the business jargon Clements used stuck in his throat - as the attrition rose over the last three months, Lance had started to wonder about what the owners were doing. He knew that they were an espionage outfit known as Torchwood, with expertise in foreign affairs, and they’d quietly acquired HC Clements to directly own its assets in security and direct its development. But these events didn’t make sense. The company specialised in electronic security - alarms and key cards and such - nothing that should put their research engineers in danger. Torchwood could play all the spy games it wanted, but that shouldn’t endanger the engineers here in the building. This wasn’t the first time that Lance had wondered about the owners, but he’d always been willing to turn a blind eye to them. Only now did it seem important, when protecting them was going to make or break his career.
As he exited the lift, he put on a friendly face and smiled at the woman waiting to slip past him into the carriage, and she returned his silent greeting. Linda? he thought, digging deep into his memory. No. Laura… Lauren. That’s it. Lauren in accounting. He tried to remember everyone who worked here, though he wasn’t always successful. That was part of the job, to look out for them as well as for the company. “Human” is the important half of “Human Resources”, he mused as he headed toward his office.
He made his mind up just as he reached the communal printing station situated at the intersection of two hallways, and instead of turning right toward the HR department, he turned left toward operations. Being a manager gave him more freedom in the building than he knew what to do with, and this time, he was going to exercise that.
“Josh, old man!” he called as he entered the main help desk office.
The curly-haired man sitting at the computer behind the counter glanced up at Lance and nodded but returned to his work, typing away. “Hoy, Lance. Let me just finish this.”
“Oh, don’t let me interrupt you.” Lance wandered the office as he waited, gazing at the utilitarian setup: locked cabinets behind the counter, a lack of ornamentation on the white walls, and a doorway that allowed him a glimpse of equipment arranged neatly on rows of shelves. Everything larger and more complex than simple office supplies or related to the security of the building was distributed from here.
“Mmm,” murmured Josh presently. “This is going to take some time to process.” Thrusting his chair back, he hopped up. “Going to the match on Saturday?”
“Nah.” Lance sidled up to the counter and leaned against it, the picture of camaraderie. “I couldn’t stand to pay to see us lose again. I’d rather watch it on the telly, so the money will be properly spent on beer.”
“Bring your beer money over to my place, then, and we can drown our football sorrows together.”
“Sounds like a plan.” With the small talk over, Lance glanced toward the door as he lowered his voice. “Hey, Josh, I need a favour.”
Josh leaned in, propping himself on thick arms folded against the counter. “Yeah? What is it?”
Knowing the import of his request, Lance took a beat to gather his courage before speaking. “I need a sub-basement key.”
Josh wasn’t fazed. “Can’t do that,” he denied simply. “Only the executive staff can get a key. Besides, it’s just steam tunnels down there.”
“Oh, and just how do you know that?” Lance asked with a knowing smirk.
Josh straightened his shoulders and regarded him with an air of efficiency. “I’m building ops. I had to verify that the lift key worked.”
“Ah, I see.” Lance mimicked him. “Well, I’m HR and I have to verify that working conditions meet standards.”
“Can’t, mate.” Josh sat back down in his chair and pretended to straighten the papers next to his keyboard. “Boss’s orders. No one gets into the sub-basement.”
“Ever wonder why?” Lance whispered.
Josh didn’t fall for his tactic and kept talking in a normal volume. “Can’t say that I have. If I knew why, it’d mean that I’d have to take care of the place, and I don’t need more work.”
Lance set his jaw. This wasn’t working and he needed to change his angle, but he hadn’t wanted to do it this way. He gave the man one last chance. “Come on, Josh. It’s me.”
“Nope,” came the immediate reply.
Sorry, mate. “You liked me a lot better when you got three weeks paid for going on holiday to Rome after you’d already used all your leave.”
The big man glared up at him. “Now that’s not fair.”
With narrowed eyes, Lance pushed his point. “Last time I looked at your file, it looked like you don’t have any more time off saved up. You were overdrawn until Christmas of next year.”
“That’s illegal mate.” Josh stared off at a stack of packages that he hadn’t processed yet, avoiding Lance’s gaze in any way he could.
“So is getting paid for time off that you didn’t have.” He leaned further over the counter and murmured, “Come on, Josh. No one needs to know. Just overnight. Who uses that key anyway?”
“No one.” With a sneer, Josh rose from his seat and disappeared into the back room. A minute later, he returned with a key on a chain. “Here. Get rid of it,” he snapped, flipping it over the counter.
“Wh-what?” stuttered Lance as he fumbled the catch and caught it against his buttons of his suit.
“I mean it. I’m not supposed to have that.” Josh’s voice fell so low, Lance strained to hear him. “I found it in Mike Lamont’s things. I knew what it was when I saw it and that he shouldn’t have had it, so I palmed it and hid it away. Someone’s eventually going to paw through the stuff in the lockboxes back there and I don’t want it here when they do.”
“Got it.” Lance flashed his friend a big smile. “Thanks, mate!”
“Yeah, just get out of here.” Josh glanced at the door to check one last time that no one was lurking outside. “I don’t want to know what’s going on. I like my job simple.”
Lance nodded and slipped out, reminding himself to work on seeding more favours among the important people in the company - not the managers, but ones who held the true power, like Josh, who could get you anything and get you in anywhere. You never knew when you might need call one of those favours in.
Retreating back to his office, he lost himself in paperwork and spreadsheets for the rest of the afternoon. When the rest of his team gathered their things to head home at five o’clock, he bid them a cheery farewell, citing the need to finish the work on a difficult personnel case when asked why he was staying late. He wasn’t entirely lying to them: he needed to do more clean-up on Sheila Peters’ file and laying a false paper trail was a lot easier to do when no one was watching. The summer sun had long set and the city was dark when he finally closed her employee file.
The problem with skulking around a security firm like HC Clements was that there were cameras everywhere, both obvious ones mounted near the ceiling in every room and hallway and hidden ones that could only be seen if you knew they were there; though he took care not to show it, Mr. Clements never had trusted his employees. However, given his position and his status of “in the know”, Lance had the authority to switch them off as he needed to, and he logged into the security network and turned off the cameras in the main lift. Drawing a deep breath, he put on a confident face and stepped out of his office, then sauntered down the corridor to the lift and entered the carriage when it arrived. With a nervous glance around, he verified that no one was physically present to see him through the glass walls, then, inserting the key into the sub-basement lock, pressed the button into which it was set.
Josh’s comment had prepared him for emerging from the lift into a wide concrete tunnel illuminated by dim greenish lamps set far apart on the walls. Checking to the left, he found that the tunnel ended after some twenty metres with a few doors along the way that opened into small storage rooms, but to the right, it curved beyond Lance’s sight. The air was heavy and humid, and he felt rather than heard the thrum of machinery, though he couldn’t tell if it was coming from the machines in the basement above him or from somewhere down the tunnel. There was no place to go except to follow the path or return upstairs, so he stuffed his hands in pocket and began to walk, hiking past a half-dozen Segways parked against the wall. I’m not going to humiliate myself on one of those things.
After fifteen minutes of following the straight, featureless tunnel, Lance regretted passing up the free powered ride and began to wonder if he should simply turn back. Every step, however, added to his conviction that whatever was down here was just another twenty metres away, and he kept plodding down the ghostly green path. For a while, he occupied himself with trying to figure out under which part of London he was currently travelling, but his senses of direction and distance were not his strong points and he soon admitted to himself he had no idea where he might be.
Another fifteen minutes along, he finally encountered something new: a heavy steel door set into the wall of the tunnel with a large wheel set in the center of it. The centre of the flat panel was printed with large stylised ”T” composed of hexagons above the name “Torchwood” with a warning that whatever was behind the door was for “Authorised Personnel Only”. Well, I’m not authorised, but as long as I’m in this deep... With a slight shrug, he grabbed the wheel with both hands and turned it many times until the door unlatched and he could pull it open.
Stepping over the high threshold, Lance found himself in a brick shaft with a metal ladder mounted on one wall stretching up above him. Lamps studded the walls, but the top of the shaft was further than he could see easily. Conjecturing that it led up to an entrance above street level, he wondered what building was above him as he retreated into the corridor.
Not much further after the shaft, the tunnel ended with a plain metal door. Grasping the matte silver knob, Lance jiggled it to discover that it was not locked, and pulling the door open an inch, he peered through the crack into a brightly-lit room dominated by tall cylindrical glass tanks brimming with clear liquid through which bubbles danced upward. Connected to each tank were technological apparatuses that Lance, as a non-scientist, could not identify. With a clear view of the entire room, he scanned it for a full minute to verify that there was no one attending the equipment, then slipped into the room to get a better look.
Reading the labels on the tanks’ controls didn’t help him at all. He could identify which pipes fed the tanks and which ones drained the liquid, but there was nothing explaining what the substance was or what it was for. Next to each tank were vials of the liquid capped with a metal contraption. Taking one, he held it up to the light and shook it, but it looked like water to him. Can’t be, he thought. Because why would anyone go through all this trouble to hide water tanks?
Metallic clicks startled him out of his confusion and he whirled around to face a line of men in smooth gold masks with black tear-shaped eyes encircling him, their guns leveled at his heart. Stumbling back against the tank behind him, he threw his hands up, barely managing to hold onto the vial in his hand. “Don’t shoot! Don’t shoot! I just got lost down here, that’s all.”
“Oh, they won’t shoot,” an imperious voice screeched. Not daring to make any sudden movements, Lance looked around as best as he could but couldn’t figure out where it was coming from. “After all, you’re no good to me dead.”
“That’s right, that’s right,” Lance breathed, hoping he could mollify the person to whom these armed men answered. “I’m better alive. Really, I am.”
“Oh, yes,” the voice agreed. “I do so prefer my dinner that way.”
Lance cringed. That wasn’t what he meant at all. “Oh, no. I’m sure I wouldn’t taste any good. Too fatty for one thing.”
“Oh, I’ve had quite a range of human dinners, from the stringiest little man to the fattest giant, and they’ve all been very tasty. You underestimate how delicious you are.” Interpreting the voice’s strange kah-kah-kah-kah sound as laughter, Lance trembled at the implication of the joke. “However, I’ve plenty of food. You’re to become my key. Bring him to me!”
At the command, the masked men stepped forward and grabbed Lance. Yelping in pain at their strong grip, he tried to fight them but they dragged him without difficulty by his arms along with them toward the large open space away from the tanks. He could hear whirring and clanking as they moved and he realised they weren’t human. “Let me go! Let me go!” he cried, though he knew it was futile.
“This one has fight.” The voice sounded a mite impressed. “Perhaps this one will last.”
“What do you mean, ‘last’?” he shouted as he stared around, looking for the source of the voice, but there was no one beyond the circle of robots. “Who the hell are you?”
“Your empress.” Lance’s skin prickled with energy as blue light coalesced in front of him, and he buried his face in his sleeve to shield his eyes. A moment later he sprang back, cowering against the legs of his captors as an enormous spider with a vaguely humanoid head and torso materialised, bathed in the light. With a legspan of least three metres, the monster was encased in a carapace of glistening crimson and its arms ended not in hands but in scythe-like claws. Arrayed atop its ridged brow, eight obsidian eyes glittered and blinked.
Picking her way closer to peer down at her captive, the spider snarled her disappointment in what she saw. “Ah, this one is no hardier than the rest. Far softer, I should guess. You humans are a weak species, revelling in your comforts and your indolence. You are fat and slow, and will provide easy, plentiful meals for my children.”
“Meals? You- you- you’re going to eat us?” squeaked Lance.
“Yes. What better purpose for such useless beings. Oh, you may have dominated this planet, but you are sheep to the Racnoss. Your weapons cannot hurt us and a single one of my children could tear through an army of humans with little effort.” She tapped him on the chest with her claw and the corner of his lapel flopped to the floor, sheared off cleanly.
“We’re not your livestock!” Lance tried to yell defiantly, but it came out as a feeble protest.
“Oh, but you are. This world was ours long before it was yours, and I have come to reclaim it. You breed so well and so quickly, you will feed my children for generations, and when we have consumed the last of you, we will descend upon the next planet for sustenance. Thus we have travelled and conquered countless worlds. You cannot stop the Racnoss.”
Lance could only manage a hoarse whisper. “You’re alien!”
“I am hardly an alien when this is my planet, built upon the seed of my ship. Kah-kah-kah-kah!” she laughed at her own joke, showing more sharp teeth than Lance had ever wanted to see in his life.
“We’ll stop you!” Lance cried, hoping that his voice was bolder than he felt. “We won’t just sit back and die!”
“Oh, but you will,” the Empress cackled again. “You think, with your cities and machine and weapons, that ruling this world means that you are strong and important. From what I have heard of the prayers of my meals, you think that you were created to be the sole inhabitants of this universe, to lord over it all. Let me tell, you are not. You are a handful of individuals stranded on a tiny rock, far out in the arm of an insignificant galaxy, fit only to be meat. The truly great and powerful have been striding among the stars for billions of years now, and one comes here now to end your pitiful existence. And you, my little man,” and she reached out to caress his cheek, the claw so sharp that he only felt the warm blood ooze from the gash she left, “you shall be the key.”
Lance stared at her aghast, but it wasn’t the huge alien spider or his own impending death that scared him. Only eight hours earlier, he’d been thrilled by the promise of attaining his career goal, of becoming director of his department, of wielding so much power in his company and his life, but now the truth was clear: humans were nothing and his dreams were futile. Try as hard as he might, everything he knew, everything he might achieve would be ripped to shreds by the claws of the creature in front of him, and the planet, the human race, would be forgotten. No! He screamed silently. I am important! I am not cattle! But he could not convince himself of that whilst his death, and the end of the human race, stared him in the face. What did it matter that he kept the employees at HC Clements secure and happy in their jobs when it would all be wiped out so easily. What was the point?
But something bothered him; something didn’t make sense. If this thing was so powerful, why was it here, hidden in a lab, behind locked doors far underground? That was the real question, and Lance grasped at the possibility of a way out, of a way forward.
“Hold on,” he cried. Cowering on the ground wasn’t how he preferred to negotiate but it would have to do. He tried to force himself into a stronger pose, but his terrified limbs weren’t quite listening to him yet. “You haven’t taken the planet. You’re still hiding down here, not up there eating people. And it’s all because you keep taking us and we keep dying.” The creature reared back in surprise, and her eyes focused on him, twitching and blinking. That’s it. Whatever it is you’re trying to do, you haven’t figured out how to do it.”
“You are a very clever man.” The Empress lowered herself down until her abdomen was on the floor and her head was at Lance’s level. She crossed her arms and accused him with a sly smile, “And you think you can help me, don’t you?”
That was the opening he was looking for. Relaxing a bit, he propped his elbows on his knees, hoping he looked more like he was lounging than cowering. “I might. Because whatever it is you’re doing isn’t working. Tell me what it is, and maybe I can suggest a better way.”
“In exchange for what?” The Empress was not stupid. She knew there was a catch.
Lance smiled, all teeth. “Taking me out there. Showing me the universe. Giving me something more than this useless planet.”
“Oh, you have ambition!” the Empress breathed. “I like you. What is your name?”
“Lance. Lance Bennett.”
“Very well, Lance.” She savoured the name, hissing the sibilant end through pointed teeth. “I shall tell you, and you shall tell me your better way. If it is good, I will reward you with a world over which you shall rule. If it is not, then we will proceed as if we had not had this little talk.” Swinging back up, she executed a complex gesture involving both claws and four of her eight legs. “I have performed my symbol of contract. You shall perform yours.”
“Er, right.” Getting to his feet, Lance bowed low. He was far too nervous to think of any embellishments. “My symbol of contract.”
Backing up, the Empress turned and picked her way back across the lab to settle against the far wall. “You humans are children, playing with your world like so many toys, but sometimes children dig shiny stones out of the dirt. With your stolen technologies, you drilled to the center of the planet and uncovered the secret heart which cried out to awaken. I have come to bring my children out into the light again.”
Crossing his arms, Lance settled back with an air of straight business. “Then what do you need me for?”
“My children will not awaken until the heart is powered again, with huon particles catalysed in a living agent. Again, your clever humans, this Torchwood, were only too happy to get their soft fleshy hands on alien technology without worrying what it might do. They turned a carefully planted vial of huon particles into this,” and she waved her claw at the bubbling tanks behind Lance, “ready for infusion into a living host to make the key that unlocks the secret heart. But you are too frail. It takes six months to build up the huon particles, but you barely survive two weeks.”
“You’ve been capturing humans and force-feeding them huon particles?” At her nod, Lance continued, “And what else? They can’t live on these huon particles.”
The Empress executed a strange wriggle of her torso that Lance interpreted as a shrug. “They have been provided for. There is plenty of meat to be had down here, and water from the river above.”
“Meat? What kind of meat do you get down here?” Looking around, he frowned as he thought. “About the only thing that could be down here is…” His eyes grew wide. “You’ve been feeding them rats?”
The Empress wriggled again. “The tiny rodents are barely a mouthful, but the humans seem to eat very little.”
“That’s because you’ve held them prisoner, all tied up, I’m sure, and rats aren’t suitable food!” he stormed. “Have you at least been cooking them?”
She cocked her head in confusion. “What is this ‘cooking’?”
Pinching his nose, Lance shook his head. “And they’ve been drinking from the Thames. No wonder they don’t survive.”
“Then you will bring the next subject the food they need. That shall be your purpose.” The Empress seemed rather pleased with her decision.
Rolling his eyes, Lance rejected that suggestion. “No, that’s too difficult, bringing food to work. People will get suspicious. But there’s an easier way.”
Irritated by his objection, the Empress crossed her claws again. “What is this easier way?”
He held up the vial of liquid he’d been clutching all this time. “You just need to make sure he drinks these particles every day, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she hissed.
“One hundred millilitres at least.”
“And then what?”
“At the end of the infusion, the host must activate the particles.”
“Excitement. Emotion. Physical exertion. Any of those shall activate the huon particles.”
Lance stepped forward, brandishing the vial. “Then that’s the way to do it. Don’t imprison them. Six months is too long. I’ll find someone and let them live their normal life, let them keep themselves alive, whilst I give them the particles in, say, a cup of coffee every day. Then at the end, excite them, make them run a marathon, that sort of thing.” Crossing his arms, he regarded her with sly eyes. This was the perfect plan and he knew he had her right where he wanted her. “You see? They do all the work, and you get your key.”
The Empress’ smile was all teeth. “You can create my key like this?” she hissed.
“Of course I can cut your key.” Lance smiled. “I work for a locksmith.”
. _ . _ . _ . _ .
Leaning against the railing with both elbows locked, Lance stood on the balcony overlooking the secretarial pool, where the largely female staff typed, manipulated spreadsheets, and hid away their solitaire games. All these people, all these tiny, insignificant people, slaving eight hours a day, five days a week, for nothing. Even without the Racnoss waiting to spring on them from below, what were they worth? In a hundred years’ time, not a single person anywhere in the universe would directly remember any of these women - what she looked like, the things she liked to do, how she laughed. All of their hard work, all of the things they would accomplish and take pride in, would be obsolete and forgotten. Not me. I will be remembered.
He maintained a casual air as he surveyed the office space below him, but he knew who he was looking for. He’d combed the personnel files and selected her after careful consideration: a never-married in her early forties, past the prime of her life and desperate as her biological clock neared midnight, always working as a temp and therefore used to rejection and ready to grab with both hands at any promise of constancy. Aha. There. A flash of flowing coppery hair caught his eye, and he paused to assess her plain, rack-bought outfit and cheap costume jewelry before descending the stairs and crossing to the common area in the center of the cubicle farm.
She doesn’t stand a chance, he thought as he grabbed a mug and poured himself a cup. Don’t overdo it. Friendly and sincere, or you’ll scare her away. Catching her eye, he raised the pot, waggling his eyebrows to ask the question. She nodded an eager acceptance and turned away - to hide her embarrassment, he suspected. As he fished a vial from his pocket and emptied it into a mug, then drowned the clear liquid in hot coffee, he smiled to himself.
Hopping up the half-stairs to her level, he placed the mug in her waiting hands. “Here you go, darling. Donna, isn’t it?”
Scrunching her shoulders, she took a happy sip before answering, “Yeah. Donna Noble.”
“Pretty name.” He almost missed the slight flush of her cheeks at that compliment. Time to lay off. Not too thick. “You always seem to be working too hard. You need to take a coffee break now and again.”
Glancing around, she leaned towards him and intimated, “Don’t think they’d like that. Here, it’s all business and keep your head down. Too posh by far.”
He whispered back, “Aren’t they, though? Well, they can’t tell me I can’t have my coffee break, or with who, so I hope you’ll join me tomorrow.”
“I’d love to.” Her blue eyes sparkled.
“Good.” He flashed her a bright smile and, noting the flustered curve of her shoulders, nodded inwardly with satisfaction as he sauntered back to his office. This is almost too easy.