The Skitterlings

Before he destroyed the world, Farnsworth came down to New York City. He would have preferred to have stayed at home watching teevix and eating pretzels, but the Skitterlings had other ideas.

And so here he was, sitting in a dimly-lit bar, hoping no one would recognise him. So far he’d been lucky. A waitress had told him he looked a bit like ‘that Farnsworth guy. You know – the one who saved the world’ but it hadn’t crossed her mind that anyone rich and famous would venture into a joint that still had spittoons.

At the table next to him, two guys talked about overpopulation and what could be done about it. One was a uniformed policeman whose body language said he would rather be somewhere else. The other wore a checked shirt and baseball cap. A trucker if ever there was one.

Farnsworth considered informing them that right now overpopulation was the least of humanity’s worries. But the Skitterlings told him – no. Drink your bourbon, Earthboy. Let’s have you drunk. We like it when the room starts spinning and you can barely walk and all you want to do is puke and die.

He stared at his drink. – Screw you, he thought. – I’m not doing it. Tonight, we’re going to do things my way or not at all.

The Skitterlings laughed. Or at least that’s what he supposed they were doing. It was sometimes hard to understand their moods and emotions. He felt a tingling in his frontal lobes and a rustling sensation throughout his body. If it wasn’t laughter, it was certainly some form of mockery.

Farnsworth felt thirsty. As if he hadn’t had a drink in a week. As if he were in a desert and had just swallowed a spoonful of salt. His hands shook. The Skitterlings had turned him into an alcoholic.

What was the use? He knew better than to fight the aliens. They won every time.

Farnsworth grabbed the bourbon and knocked it back in one. He slammed his glass on the table.

He felt good.

The drink took the edge from his thirst but he needed another.

He looked over to where the cop and the trucker were putting the world to rights. An open bottle of bourbon sat on the table between them and right now it seemed the most precious artefact in the world.

– Take it, said the Skitterlings. – It’s yours.

– No, damn you. I’ll get my own bottle.

– The place is busy. It’ll be ages before you get served. You need a drink and you need it now..

– I’m not getting into a fight! Find some other way to amuse yourselves.

Hey, you! Buddy!’ It was the trucker. The five bourbons he’d downed in the time it had taken Farnsworth to drink one had just kicked in. He was ready for a fight. Fists clenched, chest puffed out. Eyes drilling into Farnsworth. ‘What’s your problem?’

The cop raised both hands. ‘Steady, Pete. He’s not doing any harm.’

The faggot’s staring at me. What’s the matter with the guy?’

Just leave it, will you.’ The cop smiled apologetically at Farnsworth. ‘Sorry about this. He has a little too much to drink and he goes mental.’

The trucker snorted. ‘Who you calling mental, Jack?’

You, you moron,’ said Farnsworth, his desire for a drink overcoming his fear of a beating. ‘And after hearing the claptrap you’ve been spouting, I have to say I agree with him.’

Why you!’ The trucker was on his feet and ready to brawl. The cop, knowing what to expect, had his stunner out. Without bothering to issue a caution, he hit the fire button. A green beam leapt from the stunner to Pete’s forehead causing the synapses in his brain to misfire.

With a look of surprise, Pete fell forward, knocking over the table he’d been sitting at. Crash, clang, clatter.

Silence fell.

The cop held up his left hand. A police identity hologram sprang from the ring on his index finger. To protect, deliver and serve! it said.

Eastern Seaboard Police!’ he announced. ‘Everything’s under control. Go back to your drinking.’

It wasn’t the sort of joint where a command to drink was ever going to be disobeyed. A moment later, the buzz of conversation once again filled the room.

The cop pushed his chair back to allow a waiter to right his table. He picked up the bottle of bourbon which had survived its fall unscathed. His friend, in the meantime, was carried out back by two bouncers.

Sorry about that,’ said the cop. He sat at Farnsworth’s table. ‘Pete should have been sectioned years ago but his goddamn union won’t allow it. So the Eastern Seaboard has me tailing him twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. If he gets out of hand, I send him off to La-La Land. And that’s my job in its entirety.’

Farnsworth suppressed a shiver. The Skitterlings weren’t pleased. They’d been looking forward to a bar room brawl and now it looked like they weren’t getting one. And for that they blamed Farnsworth. Which was why he felt like he was sitting in an ice box.

And still he craved alcohol.

The cop held out his hand. ‘Officer Dave Balcerzak.’

Farnsworth automatically shook it. ‘Crispin Farnsworth. Citizen Grade B.’

Yes,’ said Dave matter-of-factly. ‘I recognised you when you came in.’

In that case you’ll appreciate me not wanting to share my table with a low-life like you,’ said Farnsworth. Immediately his perceived body temperature rose and his need for alcohol lessened. ‘Go back to whatever pig sty you came from.’

Dave chuckled. ‘You’re looking for a fight, aren’t you?’

Too damned right I am.’

It’s not going to work. Not with me.’

Oh yeah? What if I told you I saw your mother in the space port turning tricks with asteroid miners?’

I have no mother.’ Dave rotated his head 180 degrees. He lifted the flap on the back of his head to expose a network of winking lights and glowing fibre optic tubes. ‘Positronic. Model Delta VII.’

A robot!’

Dave closed his skull and shifted his head back to its normal position. ‘I prefer the term differently human, if you don’t mind. Or android.’

Sure,’ said Farnsworth, feeling defeated.

– Make friends with him, said the Skitterlings. – He could be useful.

What class are you?’ he asked.

Mallard. Which means I must obey Grade Bs and Grade As. Anyone below that is answerable to me.’

Officer Dave Balcerzak, how would you like to come back to my place?’

My orders are to keep an eye on Citizen Grade E Peter Hammond.’

As a Grade B, I’m countermanding those orders. Any objections?’

None that matter, sir.’

Good. Call us a taxi.’

Farnsworth lived two miles above New York City in a floating apartment. Because it was shaped like a torus, he’d dubbed it the Flying Doughnut. Giving it a daft name made him feel better about the obscene cost of keeping its antigrav field active.

I don’t actually know how many rooms it’s got,’ he told the flying taxi ferrying him and Officer Dave Balcerzak up to its landing bay. ‘I’ve never been in half of them.’

The taxi whistled appreciatively. ‘You sure are one lucky man,’ its positronic brain relayed through the roof speaker. ‘But you deserve it.’

Dodging between two belts of flying cars, the vehicle took a turning down a narrow canyon formed by buildings a mile high. And then it swiftly ascended, taking them above the earthbound part of the city to the sparsely populated aerial zone where only Grade As and Bs could afford to live.

They passed a floating cube with nine windows on each face. It was home to Vanessa Frolander, the newsreader who had been the first person to interview him on teevix after his triumphant return to Earth. She was also the first of many beautiful women he had bedded since then.

Up ahead, a fairy tale castle floated on a holograph of a cloud. For Farnsworth, any magic the sight might have possessed was negated by the knowledge that the castle was owned by Citizen Grade B Sun Wu, a gang leader with a near-monopoly of the drugs trade in North America. Knowing it could be incinerated if it came too close, the taxi steered the castle a wide berth,

I tell you,’ said the taxi. ‘It’s time someone brought that Wu guy down to Earth. When I think of the misery he’s caused, it makes me want to spit.’

Up ahead Farnsworth saw the welcome sight of a glowing circle. The Flying Doughnut.

Home, sweet home,’ he muttered.

As the taxi homed in on the Flying Doughnut, the Skitterlings co-opted his optic nerves. Now he was looking at darkness peppered with stars. A chunk of dirty ice drifted by.

– Where are we? he demanded.

– You’re still in a taxi flying above New York City.

– I meant –

– We know what you meant, you idiot. Again that sensation which he took to be laughter. – You’re looking through one of the positronic eyes of the Elmore James, a deep space sentinel stationed in the Kuiper Belt just beyond Uranus.

– There’s nothing here. Why are you showing me this?

– Watch. You’re going to like this.

Space shimmered. The stars in the background twinkled as if he was seeing them through a haze of hot air. And then, amidst the blackness, there appeared something even blacker. But for the fact that it blocked out the stars, he would have sworn it wasn’t there.

– What is it? he asked.

– Ever since you discovered the Visitors on Titan, your people have wondered how they got there. And here’s your answer.

The blackness turned to steely grey. Now it was possible to make out the sleek outline of an object shaped like an elongated arrowhead.

It’s been hiding in deep space since long before your race appeared, said the Skitterlings. And now it’s on its way to Earth. It’ll be here in a few hours, ready to take us to some other part of the galaxy where another civilisation awaits destruction.

– What’s wrong with live and let live?

– What’s wrong with live and let die?

The observation deck was the largest room on the Flying Doughnut. Its glass floor, walls and ceiling formed a continuous circle offering a godlike view of both city and sky.

Peaceful, isn’t it?’ Farnsworth said, taking a cocktail from the drinks dispenser.

If you say so,’ said Officer Dave who hadn’t been programmed to appreciate the finer things in life.

Farnsworth joined him at the window-side bar. They stood leaning on the bar, looking out at the night sky. In the distance, Sun Wu’s castle shimmered behind its forcefield.

Officer Dave swirled his bourbon so ice clinked against glass. Although he had no taste buds and no nervous system for the alcohol to effect, Farnsworth had insisted he have a drink.

Do you want to know why I brought you up here?’ Farnsworth asked.

Sex?’

Hell no! Why would I want to have sex with a robot?’

Some people enjoy that kind of thing.’

– Kiss him, said the Skitterlings.

What?

– We want you to kiss the robot.

– Why?

– Kiss him or we’ll make it seem like an elephant’s standing on your balls.

I have to kiss you,’ Farnsworth told Dave. ‘Do you mind?’

Dave shrugged. ‘I am yours to command.’

– On the lips! Put your tongue in his mouth.

Apparently, it has to be a French kiss.’

Very well.’

With a shudder, Farnsworth leant forward and closed his eyes. He felt Dave’s mechanical lips touch his own.

Hold it there, Earthboy… That’s good. Now open your mouth.

I can’t!

– Do it. Or else!

Farnsworth reminded himself he was kissing a machine, not a person. It didn’t make him feel any better.

He parted his lips and felt Dave’s respond in kind.

– And now the tongue. All the way in. Make sure you leave plenty of spit.

The tip of Farnsworth’s tongue touched the top of Dave’s mouth. Starting to gag, he hastily withdrew.

The Skitterlings laughed.

You bastards! Farnsworth took a mouthful of cocktail and slooshed like his life depended on it. Then he spat the drink back in his glass.

It’s all right,’ said Dave. ‘We can take this as slowly as you like.’

I’m not after sex!’ Farnsworth swapped his sullied cocktail for a fresh one. ‘I just don’t want to be alone. Not tonight of all nights.’

Surely you have friends?’

I have people who like to be seen with me, people who suck up to me and people who want to sleep with me because I’m famous. But nobody I would call a friend. Besides, right now I don’t want to be around people. I just want to talk.’

Officer Dave nodded sagely. ‘You need a confessor, don’t you? Someone who’ll shut up and listen. Someone you can unburden yourself on.’

I’d have called a priest, but I don’t believe in God. I take it you’re transmitting?’

Everything I see, hear or experience is being stored in the databanks of the main Police Central computer. I’m not permitted to turn off my transmitter unless ordered to do so by a Grade A.’

Fine by me, Dave. By the time your superiors understand what’s going on, it’ll be too late.’

You sound like you know something you should be sharing.’

We’re being invaded, Dave. It’s all over. Has been ever since we found the Visitors.’

It happened on Titan, Saturn’s largest moon.

Farnsworth was the most junior member of a team despatched from Earth to penetrate its icy surface in search of a suitable place to build an underground city. They were hoping to find a complex of caves. What they found instead was an alien base built into the side of a cliff.

According to the official story – the one every human in the solar system except Farnsworth and a few conspiracy theorists believed – the exploration party led by Captain James Holloway of the Space Ordnance Corps had no reason to believe the Visitors (as they were speedily dubbed) to be hostile. Communications were swiftly established and the Visitors invited the humans into their base.

It looked like Earth’s first contact with an alien species was going to be a peaceful one.

But the Visitors proved treacherous. They waited until the Earthmen were off their guard and then attacked, killing all but one of their thirty-two guests.

In the chaos, Farnsworth slipped away unnoticed. He grabbed a backpack filled with explosives from a dead geologist and headed to the base’s main airlock. Along the way he placed explosive charges on every door he passed.

The final ten charges were used on the airlock. Six on the outer door; four on the inner.

Farnsworth put on his helmet and took cover behind an instrument panel.

A press of a button and boom! The airlock disintegrated and the base’s inner doors were ripped apart. In a matter of seconds, the air was replaced by the nitrogen-rich atmosphere of Titan. The temperature plummeted to -179 degrees centigrade and the aliens froze to death in an instant.

When the survey team’s back-up arrived, they found a massive energy weapon with the capacity to wipe out an entire planet. There was little doubt the Visitors had been planning to use it on Earth.

Farnsworth had saved the human race from extinction. His promotion to Citizen Grade B couldn’t be processed fast enough and he returned to Earth a hero.

Do you want to know what really happened?’ Farnsworth asked Officer Dave, the android cop. ‘I’ve been living a lie these past three years. We all have.’

Everything you say is being recorded,’ Dave reminded him.

They were already dead,’ said Farnsworth. ‘They died over a million years ago.’

Who, Citizen Farnsworth? Who were dead?’

The Visitors.’

You are in error, sir. I personally have seen footage of the Visitors looking very much alive.’

The footage was faked by the Skitterlings.’

By the who?’

They’re a parasite, spreading through the galaxy, wiping out whole planets, entire civilisations. They destroyed the Visitors’ home planet and set up a colony there. Then they used some of the Visitors and their spacecraft to reach our solar system.

Over a million years ago, they landed on Titan and built a base. Then they waited for Earth to develop a civilisation capable of reaching them, because they only enjoy destroying advanced civilisations.

In the meantime, their hosts died but that was no problem for the Skitterlings. They went into total hibernation until new bodies became available.

When we found them, the Visitors were perfectly preserved. There was no sign of life. The seals on the airlocks had failed so everything was frozen solid.

Captain Holloway tried reporting back to our mother craft but something was blocking the signal. Not that we were unduly worried. We were feeling pretty pleased with ourselves. I mean, this was an historic occasion. Sure the Visitors were dead but they were bona fide aliens with an advanced civilisation. For the first time ever, mankind had solid proof we weren’t alone in the universe.

All of us could look forward to a hero’s welcome back on Earth. Talk shows. Book deals. Film rights. The whole kit and caboodle. We were going to be rich and famous!

It was Esther Conner, our biologist, who noticed the Visitors defrosting. At first no one would believe her. It was impossible. But we all had sensors in our space suits and they told us the same thing. The aliens were getting warmer. Despite the ambient temperature being about -180, they were rapidly reaching normal body temperature.

Some of us drew our guns. We were scared. Didn’t know what the hell was going on.

Then one of the Visitors suddenly sat up and someone fired at it. And that’s when things went mental.’

Farnsworth paused. For three years he’d kept humanity’s biggest, deadliest secret to himself. Being able to share it was an immense relief.

He was keen to go on but the Skitterlings told him to wait a few seconds. Give Officer Dave a chance to assimilate the story so far.

Dave looked thoughtful. Then he nodded. ‘I have received a message from Police Central. You appear to be having a nervous breakdown and they want me to stay with you while they analyse the situation.’

That’s great. I want you to stay with me as well. In fact, I’m ordering you to.’

As you wish.’

Farnsworth went on with his story. ‘The Visitors started exploding. Nothing too spectacular like a bomb or anything. More like seed pods bursting open. Bits of them erupted – usually their stomachs or the side of their heads.

And these little black things came swarming out. At first I thought they were insects, but close up I could they were tiny squares with no wings or legs or anything. Just squares.

They got into our space suits. I don’t know how. It was like they just passed through the material.

We were all shooting like crazy now, turning the visitors into smouldering hunks of meat. And in the mean time, these little black things were in our suits and we had no choice but to breathe them in.

Next thing I know, everyone is shooting everyone else. Zap, zap, zap, zap!

I shot Captain Holloway full in the face. The Skitterlings made me do it. I had no choice.

Soon I was the only one left alive. And I remember standing amongst the carnage, feeling numb. Not really understanding what was going on. I was in shock, total and utter shock.

Eventually, I became aware of a deeply unpleasant sensation. It was like there was something moving in every cell of my body, creating a rustling noise which sounded like skitter-skitter-skitter..

And it drove me crazy. I wanted to rip off my space suit and then my skin and scratch away at my exposed nerves and muscles. Anything to get those bloody things out of me!

Then, just as I was on the verge of losing my sanity, a great calmness descended. It was the Skitterlings. They had control of my central nervous system and my brain, and they made me feel good despite everything.

In fact, they made me feel more than good. They made me feel blissful and secure and at peace with myself.

Over the next few minutes the Skitterlings demonstrated their power. They gave me pain beyond all imagining and then pleasure like you wouldn’t believe. One minute I was in Hell, the next in Heaven..

And they told me if I obeyed them, I would know more Heaven than Hell. So I did as I was told.

Ten hours later, when the back-up team arrived, I’d arranged things to look like I’d saved the human race from certain destruction.’

Farnsworth paused to allow Officer Dave – and by extension Police Central – to absorb the information he was divulging. And he did so in the certain knowledge that they wouldn’t believe a word of it.

Before he’d been allowed back on Earth he’d been thoroughly decontaminated and put through days of medical tests. If there was an alien parasite inside him, it would have been detected and destroyed. Or so Dave and his employers would surely reason.

Question,’ said Dave. ‘If these Skitterlings are so tiny, how come they have intelligence?’

It’s hive intelligence. Like ants and bees. Think of each Skitterling as a psychic brain cell.’

I had a feeling you were going to say something like that.’

Pardon me for interupting, Citizen Farnsworth’ said the silky voice of the Flying Doughnut’s domestic computer. ‘But it looks like we have a visitor.’

Farnsworth spotted a figure in a white lev suit flying towards his home. The way she occasionally flapped her arms like she was a bird, told him who the visitor was.

Citizen Grade B Anastasia Devlin requests permission to come aboard.’

Permission denied.’ Farnsworth threw his empty glass into a disposal shaft and took a fresh cocktail from the drinks machine. Then he came back to the bar and slapped Officer Dave on the back. ‘So what do you say? Have I got you believing in Skitterlings yet?’

No,’ said Dave. ‘And Police Central aren’t buying it either.’

Do you know how many cells there are in the human body?’

Including gut bacteria? About 100 trillion.’

Each and every cell in my body is inhabited by a Skitterling. They outnumber the population of this planet by a million to one. Or to put it another way, there are more of them in this room than there are stars in the galaxy.’

And yet there’s no trace of them. How do you explain that?’

Farnsworth shrugged. ‘They’re alien. Far more alien than you or I could ever imagine. Looking for them with our technology is like searching for viruses with a magnifying glass.’

Anastasia Devlin was now at the perimeter of the Flying Doughnut. She did a quick circuit before stopping outside the observation deck. She hovered feet from where Farnsworth stood, no doubt cursing the near-indestructible glass that kept them apart.

She and Farnsworth locked eyes. He could see his face reflected in her visor.

Miss Devlin,’ said the computer, ‘wishes to communicate.’

Put her on.’

Anastasia’s voice sounded as clear as if she’d been standing in the room. ‘Crispin! You bad boy, you!’ She pouted. Her pixie-like face screwed up in mock vexation. ‘Why don’t you come to see me any more?’

I told you,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You’re a spoilt brat with too much money and no thought for anyone else’s needs.’

I took care of yours, didn’t I?’

Go away, Anastasia. I’ve had enough of you.’

Liar,’ she said. ‘Surely you’ve not had enough of this!’

She turned a dial on her wrist. Immediately, her lev suit disappeared. It was replaced by a skimpy white dress that showed off her petite body to perfection.

Nice hologram,’ said Dave. ‘She must be using one of the new Seyeca projectors. I’d heard they were good.’

Remind you of anyone?’ asked Anastasia.

No,’ said Farnsworth but he was lying and both he and Anastasia knew it. The highlight of their brief and intense relationship had been the night they’d pretended to be Peter Pan and Tinkerbell. They’d flown hand in hand across the sea to Jamaica where they made love in the Blue Mountains.

Anastasia twirled in mid-air. A sprinkling of fairy dust swirled around her and then faded.

Listen,’ said Farnsworth. ‘You don’t want to be wasting your time on me. Go enjoy yourself while you still can.’

But what about the magic, Crispin? You can’t deny we had something wonderful.’

Farnsworth had no inclination to be nostalgic about the past, no matter how recent or wonderful. ‘Maximum opacity,’ he instructed the computer. The glass walls frosted, cutting off the outside world.

Crispin!’ wailed Anastasia. ‘You can’t do this to me.’

Computer, cut the connection.’ Silence.

But the Skitterlings weren’t happy. – Let her in, they said.

– No, Farnsworth told them. – I’m fed up with having coitus for your entertainment.

– We’re getting bored with it ourselves.

– And you know how she natters. Do we really want her burbling in my ear while we’re watching the end of the world as we know it?

– You have a good point. She can stay out there for now.

– At least after tonight, I won’t have to put up with her any more.

– That’s where you’re wrong Earthboy. You, Anastasia and Officer Dave will survive the apocalypse. We haven’t finished with you yet.

– Not Anastasia! Anyone but her!

– We like Anastasia. She makes us laugh. Especially when she’s annoying the crap out of you.

Dave the android copper drained his glass. He swallowed the ice cubes whole. ‘Can you fix me a sour mash whiskey?’ he asked. ‘On the rocks?’

Sure. You want American or Martian?’

Martian whiskey? That must have set you back a bit.’

Not me. Thanks to the grateful citizenry of this fair Earth, I haven’t had to pay for a damned thing since I came back from Titan.’

They should have made you a Grade A for what you did.’

The whole of humanity agrees with you – except for the Grade As. They’re rather possessive of their power.’ Farnsworth fetched Dave a glass of Martian Sour Mash. It had been bottled two years after the terraforming of Mars made traditional farming practical. A bottle of the stuff cost as much as a mid-range flying car. And Farnsworth had a hundred of them.

Pardon me, Citizen Farnsworth,’ said the computer. ‘But I think you should know that six women have joined Citizen Devlin. They are hovering outside the observation room, demanding to be let in.’

This,’ said Farnsworth, ‘I have to see.’ He sat down at his bar and said, ‘Computer. Make the glass transparent.’

The computer obeyed, treating Farnsworth to the sight of seven beautiful women vying for his attention. They used their holographic projectors to present themselves in a series of different outfits and postures. In a bid to outdo each other, they made each successive outfit just that bit more daring and each pose a little more lewd. Finally, they were all lined up in front of him, apparently naked. Floating in the air. Spreading their legs. Bending forward. Opening various orifices. Dancing suggestively. Contorting their supple bodies into unnatural poses.

The ladies,’ said the computer, ‘wish to make radio contact.’

They can wish all they like. And frost the glass, will you?’ The window turned opaque. ‘Some people have no respect for themselves.’

I recognised those women,’ said Dave. ‘They’re all famous beauties.’

I’ve slept with each and every one of them,’ said Farnsworth. ‘That’s why they’re behaving like that. They’re infected with Skitterlings.

When I have sex, I transmit Skitterlings into my partner. And since I became a hero, I’ve slept with over a thousand women who between them have slept with thousands of men who in turn have slept with thousands more women.

And now there are millions of Skitterling carriers and at least one in every outpost of humanity in the solar system.

You wait. Before this night is through, there’ll be hundreds of women hovering outside my window, all carrying the seeds of humanity’s destruction, all wanting to be with me when the world comes to an end.’

Teevix, said the Skitterlings. Channel 46. The fun’s about to begin.

Computer. Teevix, if you please.’

High up on the wall, a door irised open. Farnsworth’s teevix drifted in through the opening. The transparent sphere floated around the room like a giant soap bubble before coming to rest on its podium.

Farnsworth and Officer Dave sat in matching leather chairs in front of the teevix. Without being asked, a service drone scuttled in and deposited two six packs of cold beer at their feet. Then it scuttled out again.

Teevix,’ said Farnsworth, picking up a six pack, ‘give us Channel 46.’

Channel 46,’ echoed the teevix. It disappeared and a holographic shot of a baseball stadium took its place. ‘Live from Tokyo Superdome. Tokyo Redsocks vs. Beijing Tigers.’

It was the pre-match session. A marching band was leaving the arena. As the last baton-twirling majorette disappeared down the player’s tunnel, a small hover platform glided at a stately pace to the middle of the pitch. Maria Grayling, the world’s most famous tenor, stood on the platform. She was held in place by a force field.

Ah, Maria,’ Farnsworth sighed. ‘What sweet music we made.’

The crowd applauded enthusiastically as the platform rose and hovered a hundred metres above the ground. The introduction to the International Anthem came blaring out of speakers all over the stadium.

Maria spread her arms wide as if she was about to sing. But she remained silent. The music played on. The crowd became puzzled and restless.

Eventually someone switched off the music. Paramedics raced onto their own hover platforms and started up towards her.

At which point, Maria stepped off the platform and performed a graceful swan dive. She hit the ground with a loud splat! and burst apart like a ripe melon. There was no trace of her bones or internal organs. Just a pink gloop that rapidly shrank as tiny black things emerged and gathered in a dark swarm.

Stunned silence quickly gave way to shouts and screams.

Sound off,’ said Farnsworth.

The teevix fell silent as the swarm expanded. It grew upwards and outwards, a black, intelligent cloud with malevolent purpose.

This is impossible,’ said Dave. ‘The force field should have kept her from jumping.’

The Skitterlings turned it off,’ said Dave.

And those black things? What the hell are they?’

Skitterlings.’

You said they’re microscopic.’

Not when they’re swarming. As soon as Maria stepped off the platform, they grew. Which was why her flesh turned to gloop. Anything with any nutritional value had been absorbed by the Skitterlings by the time she hit the ground.’

You’re not even upset, are you?’

No, Dave. The Skitterlings control my empathic functions. I’m about to play a crucial part in the destruction of the human race and I’m not the least bit sorry.’

Farnsworth turned his attention back to the teevix. There was panic in the stands as trillions of Skitterlings attacked. They flew into every human orifice they could find. Mouths, nostrils, anuses, vaginas, urethras, sweat glands. Even tear ducts.

Once inside a person, they multiplied at a phenomenal rate, doubling their numbers every few seconds. Some people exploded. Others melted. And from their liquidised remains trillions more Skitterlings joined the swarm to search out more orifices, more people to turn to gloop.

The picture blanked out and the teevix reappeared, saying, ‘We apologise for the loss of transmission. This is due to problems beyond our control.’

Dave got to his feet and stood over Farnsworth. ‘Police Central have ordered me to kill you.’

Farnsworth shrugged. ‘Go ahead.’

I can’t. Something is preventing me.’

Remember when I kissed you? I transferred into your mouth some of my body fluids along with several million Skitterlings. They’ve reproduced and taken over your circuits.’

This is bad, Citizen Farnsworth. Really bad.’

It is what it is. The Skitterlings are following their biological imperative – to reproduce and spread throughout the galaxy.’

But what use are they? What’s the point of them if all they do is destroy?’

Are you looking for some meaning to our imminent demise?’

Yes.’

Tough.’

The Skitterlings laughed. – You think our primary concern is survival.

– And it isn’t?

– No. Put away your anthropocentric, Darwinist preconceptions about the nature of life. We’re not human. Mortality holds no terrors for us. All we want is to destroy. Our continued existence is just a means to that end and that’s why in a few million years we’ll be the only life form left in the entire galaxy.

– And what then?

– We’ll destroy each other.

The teevix glowed a gentle red. ‘You have a call, Citizen Farnsworth. From Citizen Class A Rita Danville. Shall I put her on?’

Why not?’ said Farnsworth. ‘It will be nice to see her one last time.;

The teevix faded. A holographic image of Rita Danville took its place. There was something about her short black hair and white pyjama suit that made him think of a Pierrot.

Crispin, you old devil! Isn’t this a lovely night for Armageddon?’ She was leaning on a balcony rail. The drop behind her looked to be a good half mile. All around her, the skyscrapers of Mexico City stood proud. She swirled red liquid around a glass goblet. ‘I’m at a dreadful cocktail party, full of the most ghastly bores imaginable. All anyone can find to talk about is money, money and more money.’

I wish I could be there to keep you company,’ said Farnsworth.

You’re a dreadful liar, Crispin Farnsworth. But thanks for trying. Now, watch me liven things up.’

Her hovering phonebot followed her as she stepped back into the ballroom where the cocktail party was being held. It was full of people Farnsworth recognised from newscasts and magazine articles. Grade A citizens in tuxedos and evening gowns. Bankers, financiers, software magnates, politicians. People who could blow a million dollars on a bad commodities purchase and forget about it seconds later.

An orchestra played music but no one was dancing or even listening. They were too busy making deals and boasting of their latest acquisitions.

The phonebot took up a high position which allowed it to cover most of the room.

Rita stepped onto the stage and whispered into the conductor’s ear. He nodded and signalled to the orchestra to pipe down.

Nobody seemed to notice when the music stopped.

Rita spoke into the microphone. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, may I have a few moments of your time, please?’

The buzz of conversation died away. This was something unexpected and hopefully interesting. Rita Danville was known for her outrageous behaviour and everyone was eager to be scandalised.

Ladies and gentlemen,’ she said, ‘as most of you already know or at least suspect, I hate the lot of you.’ This produced a murmur of laughter. ‘You represent everything that is base and detestable about humanity. Frankly, I could forgive you most of your faults – your greed and your avarice, your egotism and your hypocrisy. But there is one thing I cannot find it in my heart to forgive anybody for and that’s being boring. And right now you are boring the crap out of me so much you’re all going to have to die.’

There were a few gasps and some laughter. But no one took the threat seriously.

Rita pulled her top over her head and cast it aside. Naturally enough, most eyes were on her breasts. Farnsworth’s however were on the utility belt around her midriff.

The socialite looked straight at her phonebot and blew Farnsworth a kiss. ‘Au revoir, mon cher.’ Then she looked at the assembled billionaires. ‘If you’d care to get your eyes off my tits, you may notice the belt I’m wearing. And you may wonder what on Earth it’s for. Well, I’ll tell you. It’s a bomb! And it’s set to go off in 10 seconds.’

There was nervous laughter. A few feeble jokes and some expressions of disgust.

7 seconds,’ said Rita and it dawned on people that she wasn’t kidding. Smiles dropped. Amusement turned to fear. ‘6…’

Suddenly the room was awash with hysteria and panic. Glasses were dropped. Men and women screamed. They made for the exits, pushing one another aside, fighting with their fists, elbows, fingernails, diamond rings and anything else that came to hand.

Every door was besieged by a maelstrom of tuxedos and evening gowns. Abandoning their instruments, the orchestra fled through a door at the back of the stage.

4…’ said Rita.

The floor was awash with jewellery. With diamonds and pearls and necklaces torn from their owners. People were being trampled underfoot. The effective rulers of Earth climbed on top of one another in a way that made Farnsworth think of rats swarming from a sewer.

1.’

The explosion wasn’t as large as the crowd had anticipated. It was just enough to blow Rita apart and scatter her squidgy remains around the ballroom. In the observation deck of the Flying Doughnut, the scene quivered as the phonebot rode the concussion and recovered. It slowly scanned the room in search of its mistress.

Realising they weren’t about to get blown to Kingdom Come, people started extricating themselves from the various rucks at each of the exits. Some of them laughed with relief. Some wept. A few checked they still had their wallets.

At first they didn’t notice the tiny black things congregating just above the floor, forming undulating swarms. They were too busy trying to restore their dignity or rescue their jewellery.

Suddenly, the swarms coalesced into one big cloud which rose up to the chandeliers and rotated like a tornado.

This grabbed the attention of the A Graders.

The Skitterlings broke formation. They sought out orifices.

Again, there were screams and a mad scramble for the exits but it was no use. Within seconds, there wasn’t a person in the ballroom who wasn’t infected.

One by one, they began to explode.

An amazing woman, that Rita,’ said Farnsworth. ‘About the only one of my conquests I actually cared about.’

The connection was cut.

Farnsworth cracked open a fresh can of beer and took a swig. ‘How are things around the world?’

It’s chaos,’ said Dave. ‘According to Police Central, people are exploding left right and centre. And there are riots in every major city.’

Drink up, old chum.’ Farnsworth handed Dave a beer. ‘It’s nearly time for us to join in the fun. Pick a news channel and let’s see how the world ends.’

Police Central says Channel 83 has extensive coverage of the riots in Sydney.’

Channel 83 it is then. Would you care for some pretzels?’

Hopping from channel to channel, they watched the world fall apart. Throughout the solar system, 18 billion souls melted or exploded.

Dave remained in touch with Police Central who informed him the powers that be were trying to stop the broadcasts but with no success. Just about every machine on Earth was infected with Skitterlings and they wanted the apocalypse to be televised.

From the comfort of their armchairs, Farnsworth and Dave witnessed cities being torn down and crowds of frightened people exploding. And not just people. Dogs, cats, horses, birds, machines. Anything living or electronically active was fair game to the aliens.

At shortly before 4 in the morning, the teevix announced it could no longer find any coherent broadcasts and switched to standby mode.

Farnsworth stood up and stretched. His bladder was painfully full, so he emptied it against the back of Dave’s chair. What did it matter where he pissed now?

A pair of cleaning drones scurried from their hidey holes and set about removing all traces of Farnsworth’s urine. As he sat back down, he noticed a look of bewilderment on Dave’s face.

What’s the matter, Dave?’

I don’t know.’ The android frowned and tilted his head. ‘I feel… I feel… Well, it doesn’t matter what I feel. The point is that I feel something and I shouldn’t feel anything at all.’

That’s the Skitterlings. They’ve given you emotions.’

Really?’

And I’ll tell you exactly what you feel. It’s called happiness.’

Is that what it is?’ Dave popped a pretzel into his mouth. ‘You know I first felt it – albeit at a much lower intensity – when I drank that Martian Sour mash. And it’s been growing ever since. I suppose this is a terrible thing to say, but I’ve actually enjoyed watching humanity’s perdition.’

So have I,’ said Farnsworth. ‘But that’s the Skitterlings’ doing. They control our emotions. So long as you do their bidding, they’ll make you happy. Don’t ever cross them though. Not unless you want to know what black despair feels like.’

If it’s the opposite of what I feel now, it must be a truly awful thing.’

It is, Dave. It is.’

So what do we do now?’

Now we join all the beautiful ladies waiting outside.’

Crispin Farnsworth, slayer of the human race, and Officer Dave Balcerzak put on levitation suits and stepped out of the Flying Doughnut.

As they hovered in a night sky turned vermillion by fires blazing miles below, they were joined by dozens of beautiful women. Even in their lev suits, they were female sexuality personified.

– Nubile, said the Skitterlings. – That’s the word you’re looking for.

– I’ve had sex with each and every one of them. And I am very, very grateful.

– Of course you are. Before we came along, you were practically a virgin.

– If Hitachi Magazine can be believed, I’ve slept with 99 of the 100 most desirable women in the world. I suppose it would be 100 if Zara Makepeace wasn’t in a coma.

– The Visitors’ ship has passed the moon. In a few minutes it will be in Earth orbit.

– Wow. That thing’s fast.

– It’s a thousand generations more advanced than anything your lot has managed to develop. A week from now, we’ll arrive at Sirius III where some bright spark has just invented gunpowder. We’ll orbit for a couple of centuries – give them time to develop the silicon chip – and then it’s party time once more.

New York burned. From high above, it was a sea of flame and smoke, like an angel’s view of Hell. Skyscrapers toppled. Rubble cascaded down the sides of burning buildings. Cars flew into each other. Out over the Atlantic, a circling aircraft ran out of fuel and dropped into the sea.

The Skitterlings arranged Farnsworth’s women into a series of lines facing Sun Wu’s Flying Castle. All except Anastasia who stayed back with Farnsworth and Dave.

The women blew kisses at Farnsworth. Then they moved in formation towards the Flying Castle. At first they flew quite slowly, almost drifting in the rarefied air, but accelerating at a steady rate. By the time they reached Sun Wu’s security zone they were at their top speed of 120 miles per hour.

When they ran into the forcefield, it was like insects hitting an electric bug zapper. Each girl exploded in a blue flash, releasing trillions of Skitterlings into the atmosphere.

Some of the Skitterlings flew through the forcefield and invaded the building’s electronics. They turned off the antigrav unit. The building dropped from the sky. It hit the top of a skyscraper and exploded, sending up a jet of blue and orange flame.

Anastasia grabbed Farnsworth’s hand and nestled up to him. He didn’t try to stop her. As she was the only woman left to him, it seemed a good idea to try and get along.

Soon they’d be heading to Sirius III. The first and last humans to visit another star.

Perhaps on the way, thought Farnsworth, I can figure out how to stop the Skitterlings from destroying any more civilisations.

Catching his thought, the Skitterlings laughed. – Dream on, Earthboy, they said. – Dream on.

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